Developing Jackson: A Decade of Progress | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Developing Jackson: A Decade of Progress

After decades of decay, the King Edward Hotel reopened to great fanfare.

After decades of decay, the King Edward Hotel reopened to great fanfare.

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— In 2002, Jackson looked in many ways like a city doomed to decay. The city lost 6.3 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000, and the numbers continued to decline. The downtown population was virtually non-existent, and business in the area wasn't looking much better.

At the top of the skyline of decline stood two monuments both to the city's former promise and its unforgotten prejudice. The King Edward Hotel, once revered as one of the finest hotels in the South, had stood empty since white patrons abandoned it soon after desegregation in 1967. What was once the meeting place for the state's elite had become a filth-filled shelter for wild animals and the homeless.

On the same block, the Standard Life building was largely going to waste. The largest reinforced concrete building in the world when built in 1929, by 2002 it housed only the Jackson Police Department, with most of the space unused.

Then, in 2002, New Orleans-based developers HRI Properties approached Jackson lawyer David Watkins with the desire to develop the former King Edward building, and asked for his advice as a lawyer and lobbyist who understood the city.

It didn't take long for Watkins to realize the building was not beyond repair. The structure was sound, despite what Watkins called "debris four-feet thick" on the ground floor of the hotel. He also saw available historic and new market tax credits that could help fund rebuilding the King Edward.

What Watkins and HRI wanted, and believed downtown Jackson needed, was a luxury hotel.

"(The plan) was not totally complete. We felt like we needed a community that would make it sustainable, so it wouldn't just be in isolation, a hotel over there all by itself," Watkins said. "It was important to have an apartment complex as part of it, so it would be more than just a hotel."

To fund reviving the King Edward, Watkins and HRI used both public and private investments. The first public funds came in 2006, in the form of a $2 million loan from the Mississippi Development Authority to do a selective demolition, test the structural integrity of the building and remove all asbestos.

MDA also loaned Watkins and his partners another $3.5 million from federal Community Development Block Grant funds for the furniture, fixtures and equipment..

The rest of the public funding came in the form of tax credits, including federal and state new market tax credits, Gulf Opportunity, or GO Zone, tax credits, which the federal government made available to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, and federal and state historic tax credits.

"For the three years prior to (2005), my job was getting legislation changed that would allow state historic tax credits, because the building would never work without the state historic tax credits," Watkins said. He and others succeeded in getting the legislation changed in 2005. "Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the building was financed through tax credits, CDBG and MDA loans."

The rest, Watkins said, was built with funds from a commercial loan from Capital One and a little more than $6 million in investments from the partners, including former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister.

Getting all the funding was no easy task. Watkins said he and his partners spent $2 million on legal fees. He said for eight or nine months, he was having weekly conference calls with 40 to 50 people, including lawyers, to discuss the financing.

Once the money was in place, contractors began cleaning the building and pumping out the water that had collected for years in the basement. Watkins said there was very little structural damage to facade or foundation of the building, which was built in nine months for $1 million in 1922 and 1923.

After $90 million in renovations to the hotel, the King Edward reopened its doors as a 186-room Hilton Garden Inn and a luxury apartment complex on Dec. 17, 2009.

"For us to be able to take this building that became the symbol of the decay of the city of Jackson, and turn it around into this beautiful structure that it is now, it showed that we can do anything. Anything we put our minds to as a community, we can do," Watkins said.

After opening the King Edward, Watkins set his focus on the Standard Life building. Less than nine months and $35 million in renovations later, Standard Life reopened with 76 apartments and 2,671 square feet of retail space.

The apartments are now filled to 97.5 percent capacity, with more applicants on the waiting list than number of apartments, showing something few thought possible 10 years ago: a lot of people want to live, and stay, in downtown Jackson.

Convention Center Booms

In 2002, Jackson was the only capital in the southeastern U.S. that didn't have a convention center. But a host of city leaders decided that was unacceptable.

In 1995, Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and local business leaders convinced state legislators to authorize more than $17 million to build the Telecommunications and Conference Center, the neighboring piece to the Convention Center.

Then, in 2004, the Legislature approved a referendum to allow Jackson residents to vote for an increase in hotel and restaurant taxes to fund the Convention Center. The referendum was a huge step for the capital city, which is often unable to get financial support from the state Legislature.

Two years later, the Telecommunications Center opened, and on Jan. 14, 2009, Jackson welcomed 20,000 visitors to the grand opening of the Jackson Convention Center. Combined, the complex offers 330,000 square feet of space for conventions, meetings, concerts and more.

"It allowed us to really become a player in trying to attract conventions and meetings, both on a statewide and a regional basis," Johnson said.

The Jackson Convention Complex brought in more than $21 million and 128,590 visitors in 323 event days in 2009. It contributed $583,143 in event jobs and $182,256 in sales tax revenue to the city.

In 2010, attendance jumped to 146,635 in 343 event day. Economic impact rose to more than $28.5 million, with job creation nearly doubling to $1.1 million.

But the convention center's potential is limited without more hotel rooms downtown for conventioneers. The next step, Johnson said, is building a convention center hotel, an endeavor that has proved much more difficult than city leaders originally expected.

In 2007, then-Mayor Frank Melton made it very easy for friends at Dallas, Texas-based Transcontinental Realty Investors purchased four blocks across Pascagoula Street from the Convention Center with the plans to build a mixed-used development that would include a hotel, condos, retail space and a parking garage. The company later scaled back the plans to a $90 million hotel and skywalk to the Convention Center--but showed little movement and even got behind on property taxes on the land. The fact that they own land so desperately needed for a hotel--and that presents an eyesore across from shiny convention center--has created serious problems for the city's efforts.

Negotiations between TCI and the city broke down over the next few years, finalizing with the Jackson Redevelopment Authority rejecting TCI's proposal in December 2011.

Later that month, the city council gave the city administration permission to take whatever action necessary to get the land back from TCI, which it has not yet done. Johnson said the city is still negotiating how it will get control of the land back from TCI.

"I don't think 'purchase' would be the term that we would use," Johnson said. "We're working out the details."

Midtown Making Ground

Much of the Midtown neighborhood near Millsaps has fallen into disrepair over the years with dilapidated homes dotting the area, which has been plagued with poverty.

Duvall Decker Architects, along with Midtown Partners, the Jackson Housing Authority and a growing Millsaps Avenue artist community, is working to turn the neighborhood a better direction, though. In 2008 and 2009, Duvall Decker, spearheaded a master plan for the community, which is bordered by Woodrow Wilson Avenue, Mill, Fortification and West streets.

The first phase of the project is almost complete. It includes eight low-income duplexes and a group of six individual housing units connected by a courtyard, designed after New Orleans-style units.

Roy Decker, co-founder of Duvall Decker, said the duplexes and what he called a "six-plex" provide more population than single-family homes, while providing a more community-driven design than traditional apartment complexes.

The houses have three bedrooms and fenced yards. What makes them unique in the city, and even in the state, are their sustainability. Solar panels sit on top of the homes' carports and provide energy to the buildings. The units also have energy-efficient appliances and windows positioned to make it easy for residents to follow the safety principle of "eyes on the streets."

"We are excited to bring to Jackson, and the state of Mississippi, the first solar-powered, sustainable, green, energy-efficient affordable housing development," JHA Executive Director Sheila Jackson told the JFP in May 2010, when the city broke ground on the project.

Decker said one major issue with development over the past couple of decades has been a lack of players who are looking out for the good of the community. Developers work toward making a profit, and city officials maintain city regulation. Neither, Decker said, really look out for the community.

"Who takes up the public good in development?" Decker asked. "That responsibility is being taken up by neighborhood organizations, like Midtown Partners, like Jackson Housing Authority."

Duvall Decker is now working on a master plan, similar to the one it designed for Midtown, for community organizations in west Jackson. He said he and other developers need to focus on making the best of the city we already have.

"You can't really import culture. Culture already exists. All you can do is enhance the character of culture that's already here," Decker said. "When you think about Jackson, we don't need to invent Jackson. Jackson's already here. What we need to do is enhance the arts community, access to entertainment venues, enhance access to 
education and the programs that the universities put together."

JSU Engages Neighbors

It's no secret that Jackson State University ruffled feathers of nearby neighbors when former president Ronald Mason tried to use eminent-domain proceedings to wrestle land for a development at Dalton and Lynch streets. However, after getting past the acrimony of the attempted land grab and early financing hiccups, One University Place, the largest private development in west Jackson in 30 years, opened in the fall of 2010.

Dr. Kimberly Hilliard, JSU's executive director of community engagement, said the experience of building One University Place is emblematic of the relationship between the school and surrounding neighborhoods, it shows how JSU is always looking for ways to strengthen community partnerships.

"We want to plan with you instead of for you," Hilliard said.   Some of that takes place through the Center for University Based Development, which allows residents to offer input on new development projects, she said.

Hilliard earned her doctorate in urban and regional planning from JSU in 2007, but has had a hand in community development since 2004. She cites the construction of new schools of engineering and business, Campbell College Dormitories, Walter Payton Recreation & Wellness Center and the completion of the liberal arts college as signs of tremendous growth at the 135-year-old institution.

The February 2002 Ayers settlement, which required the Legislature to provide a half-billion dollars to the state's historically black public universities, helped fuel the growth. Hilliard said the Ayers settlement helped JSU develop its urban and regional planning graduate program of which is she is a graduate.   "Jackson State University is intentional about being a catalyst for change in our community," Hilliard said.

Largest Outdoor Mall Returns

Jackson Square originally opened on Terry Road in south Jackson in 1968 and was home to more than 30 stores and restaurants.

Over the years, stores began to move out of the mostly-residential area one by one, until only two bingo halls and a church were left in the 350,000-square-foot facility.

In February, 2010, California native Jessie Wright, who's development firm First Boise Investments also owns shopping centers in Southaven and Birmingham, Ala., bought Jackson Square and starting giving the shopping mall a complete facelift. He replaced the facade on the front of the buildings with a new baby-blue look, repaved the parking lot and added 60 grass islands to the lot.

"I was out of my mind," Wright said when asked why he purchased the property. "I purchased it because it has a potential to start thriving again as it did 25 years ago."

In April 2012, Wright reopened the shopping mall as Jackson Square Promenade. Then, 18 of the 30 available spaces in the center were occupied by stores, churches, bars, a teen club, a salon and even a daycare.

Now, tenants have rented 28 of the 30 spaces. The Hinds County Sheriff's Department has even rented office space in the mall.

Metrocenter Collapse

A slow decline had begun at Metrocenter Mall, like many urban and suburban shopping malls across the country, by 2002. At the time, though, the mall still boasted three major anchor stores--Dillard's, McRae's and Sears--and plenty of smaller stores between.

In 2004, the possibility of the mall's eventual demise became apparent when Dillard's announced it was closing the mall's south anchor. Hope came a few years later, though, when in 2007 Burlington Coat Factory opened a store in the lower floor of the former Gayfers building, which had been empty since 1999.

The hope did not last long, though, as smaller national chains, including Waldenbooks, Lane Bryant and Sbarro Italian Eatery left the mall. In fall 2009, the mall took another major hit when Belk closed its anchor store in Metrocenter, as the company focused on its stores in Northpark Mall in Ridgeland and Dogwood Festival Market in Flowood.

In 2009, the city council voted to buy the former Dillard's building. In 2012, they hired an outside consultant to help them find a tenant for the building, which the city has not been able to do.

Then, in 2012, Sears closed its doors at the mall, leaving the mall with only Burlington Coat Factory to anchor it.

In an attempt to bring revitalization to the mall, the city agreed to move six city departments into the former Belk building in 2011. Developer and owner of the property Retro Metro has partially completed renovations to the building for the city. At the time of print, the city is working to hire an outside auditor to look into the $50,000 it paid to developer Retro Metro for telecommunications wiring for the building. Until the audit is complete, it is not likely any city departments will move into the mall.

Farish Falters

Hearing that Farish Street will one day be an entertainment and nightlife mecca in Mississippi has become kind of like hearing you'll soon get a hover car. Everyone loves the idea, but by the time you hear it a couple dozen times, you stop holding your breath.

Architect Steven Horn first brought the idea to return Farish Street, once the center of African American art and culture in Jackson, to its former glory to city leaders in 1983. Not until the Jackson Redevelopment Authority brought in Performa Entertainment Real Estate, developer of Memphis' Beale Street, in the 1990s did anyone make any real attempts to rebuild the area.

Performa looked to be out of its element with the massive reconstruction that was needed on the dilapidated buildings, though. After years of delays and Performa accomplishing very little, Watkins Development purchased the project from Performa in 2008 for $425,000 and the $1.5 million of debt Performa had accrued.

Less than four years later, Watkins Development is hoping to open at least one club, B.B. King's Blues Club, by the end of 2012--a date that been pushed back numerous times already. Watkins said he does not want to give any definite dates, as of yet.

"We're not talking years, we're talking months," Watkins said. "Every time I give a date, I realize it's a mistake, because if we miss if by a week we get yelled at. If we miss it by a year, we get yelled at."

Watkins Development is working to finalize $11 million worth of historic and new market tax credits that the company will offer as collateral for a $10.2 million bond issue from the city, the final funding needed for the first block. Watkins said he expects to close on the tax credits Oct. 31. The city council will have to approve the bond issue after Watkins has the tax credits in hand.

The issue will come in two parts. Watkins will focus the first part on opening the first four entertainment venues on the street. The other portion will go towards 
completing the rest of the block from Amite Street to Griffith Street.

Fondren's Renaissance

In 2002, two of the largest buildings in Fondren were empty. The former home of the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks at the corner of Fondren Place and State Street and the former Duling School on Duling Avenue had little to nothing going on inside aside dust collecting.

Mike Peters, of Peters Real Estate, decided to change all that. In early 2004, Peters bought the for DWFP building, with little idea of what he would do with it. To get some inspiration, Peters said he took a flash field trip to Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and New Orleans to check out their midtown neighborhoods.

After the field trip, Peters decided to turn the building into Fondren Corner, which he called the city's first truly mixed-used development, with restaurants, retail stores and residential apartments. To do so, Peters had to totally renovate the building. Now, little of what used to be the inside of the DWFP building is left.

When it came time decide what color to paint the outside of the building, Peters said he wanted input from the neighborhood. So he painted big blocks of the State-Street side of the building in different colors, numbered them and asked locals to email or mail in their choices for the building.

Today, the blue, yellow and red building houses apartments, a parking garage, an exercise facility, offices, restaurants and several retail outlets including art galleries, furniture and decorations stores, clothing stores, a nail salon and more.

While Peters was working on Fondren Corner, he noticed Duling School was also an untapped space. During his visit to Atlanta, he saw a renovated high school in the Little Five Point neighborhood that gave him the inspiration to do something similar with Duling School.

It took a few years to get the school board, which owned the building, on board, Peters said. Eventually, Peters was able to purchase the property, though. Beside the school, Peters build a new, multi-story building. Together with the former Duling School, the building became Fondren Place, a mixed-used development of office space, restaurants and retail stores.

Today, Fondren Place is home to multiple restaurants, retail stores and Duling Hall, one of the city's premier live music venues, which, with the help of promoter Arden Barnett, has hosted concerts from the likes of the Flaming Lips, Neon Indian, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Neon Trees.

Health Care Explodes

In 1995, Dr. Aaron Shirley had a vision. Jackson Mall, built in 1968 on Woodrow Wilson Boulevard as the state's first retail mall, had been abandoned to began decay in 1978. Shirley envisioned turning the mall into a hub for medical care, focused on providing services to the city's poor.

Shirley and other Medical Mall leaders partnered with JSU, Tougaloo College and University of Mississippi Medical Center and began renovations in 1996. The Jackson Medical Mall opened its first clinics in 1997.

In 2002, the Jackson Medical Mall began to boom. In 1996, the mall brought in $744,695. In 2002, it brought in $8,221,723. Today, it is home to independent medical service providers, 18 retail stores and restaurants, nine non-profit organizations, 16 business offices, 13 JSU departments and offices and 27 UMMC clinics and services.

In 2012, the Jackson Medical Mall is once again teaming with UMMC, this time to create a healthcare corridor along Woodrow Wilson Boulevard that could create a one-stop medical hub for the entire southeastern U.S.

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