The Farish Street entertainment district has been on metaphorical shaky ground for nearly three decades. In 2012, its developer says it was a literal lack of foundation that stopped the project from moving ahead.
The Farish Street Group, the district's current developer, hoped to have the B.B. King's Blues Club open on the street by the end of 2012. Once architects finalized designs for the club, though, engineers discovered that not only could the current structure not support the capacity load, it doesn't even have a foundation. As a result, developers are looking at a seven-figure increase in cost to open the building.
David Watkins, president of Watkins Development and the Farish Street Group's chief investor, said that discovery tacked more than a million dollars onto the price tag of getting the club open. To support that increase, the Farish Street Group had to rework its plans for the entire first phase of the development. Developers needed to use some additional historic tax credits for the first phase, which it hoped to save for the second. To do so, Watkins said this week, the group needed to shift several clubs planned for the second phase of funding to the first.
The move will add nearly $10 million to the cost of Phase One, Watkins said.
At the City Council's Dec. 27 special meeting, two council members, LaRita Cooper-Stokes, Ward 3, and Chokwe Lumumba, Ward 2, said they were ready to kick the Farish Street Group to the curb and look for a new developer; however, the Council has no authority to remove the Farish Street Group from the project. Such an action would begin with the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, which holds the lease on the property. The developers do need financial support from the city, though, and help to market the project to other investors.
"This is very frustrating," Cooper-Stokes said after the meeting.
"We're at the end of another year, and still no action has culminated into anything positive out there on Farish Street."
Little has physically changed on Farish Street this year. Despite developers' predictions this summer that they would have at least one club open on the street by the end of 2012, F. Jones Corner and Peaches Restaurant still sit lonely on the two-block stretch that was once home to a bustling African American entertainment and cultural hub.
The Farish Street Group hoped to close on $11 million worth of historic and new market tax credits by Oct. 31. It planned to use those tax credits as collateral for a $10.2 million bond issue from the city. That would serve as the final funding for the first phase of the project, bringing at least four entertainment venues and restaurants to the street.
The Jackson City Council would have to approve the bond issue once the tax credits were in place.
The new market tax credits hit a major snag, though, when engineers
discovered the foundation problem with the building where developers planned to house the B.B. King's Blues Club. The club, which the Farish Street Group hoped to be the first to open in the entertainment district, would be a three-story music venue and restaurant. Once architects finalized the plans for the club, engineers discovered that the current structure could not handle the load capacity. On further evaluation, the engineers discovered the building had no foundation, only a 3-inch thick floor supporting it.
What was an $8 million to $10 million phase just a few months ago, is now an $18 million first phase. Watkins said the added cost spooked the decision makers at the National Historic Trust, which was going to supply the new market tax credits. The trust needed to award all its tax-credit money by Dec. 31, or lose it. With the project suddenly doubled, the trust's board members decided they wanted to have the city's bond issue on the table before administering the tax credits.
In October, Watkins went to the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, the quasi-governmental body that oversees the Farish Street development for the city, and asked to get the bond issue by the end of the year.
"The JRA's lawyer, Zach Taylor, said: 'There's no way possible we can do it. It's just not possible. It would be February at the earliest,'" Watkins said in an interview at the Jackson Free Press last Saturday.
Without the bond, the trust awarded its tax credits to projects closing by the end of the year. It will renegotiate with the Farish Street Group in March for 2013 tax credits.
With the new market tax credits off the board until the spring, Watkins said he turned to Plan B. He is now negotiating with an unnamed wealthy Mississippi businessman about investing in the project, he said. The potential investor's name is under wraps, even from his fellow Farish Street Group partners other than the group's lawyer, Robert Gibbs.
Watkins said he wasn't surprised to hear that Cooper-Stokes wanted to look for another developer. When her husband, Kenneth Stokes, held the Ward 3 seat, he requested an audit of Watkins' personal investments in the project. Watkins presented his records to the JRA board, he said, though he had no legal obligation to do so.
The idea to rebuild the Farish Street entertainment district first came to the public eye in 1983, when architect Steven Horn presented a detailed plan for the project to city leaders. With the 30th anniversary of Horn's plan now upon us, neither the city or developers have brought his ideas to fruition.
The Farish Street Group has been in charge of the development since taking control from Performa Entertainment Real Estate, developer of Memphis' Beale Street, in December 2008. Performa had done little on the street and accrued $1.5 million in debt since the Jackson Redevelopment Authority hired the company in the 1990s.