Since the early 1970s, an outflow of businesses and residents to the suburbs has decimated downtown Jackson. Until recently, the lower taxes demanded of cow pastures and the cheap gas used to get there made moving somewhere else and starting anew easier and attractive to many people.
This trend is starting to reverse, Jackson investors and planners say, and rising gas prices are just the beginning of it. It's more a matter of evolving demographics—and evolving tastes.
"Household sizes are shrinking. Marriage and kids are coming later, and later, and a lot of people, even when they have children, don't want the suburban lifestyle," said Downtown Jackson Partner's President John Lawrence.
"They want themselves and their children engaged with a more urban environment with more diversity in options."
A Sense of Place
The city is just now starting to benefit from a wealth of government projects in the works for several years. Renovation of the Woolfolk building and construction of the William F. Winter Archives and History building are complete. The Supreme Court Building is also under construction, and the Walter Sillers Building is undergoing a $28 million renovation. The city is rejuvenating the Public Employment Retirement System Building, the Jackson Police Department and the Mill Street Viaduct, and has re-opened the doors of the Union Station Multi-Modal Transportation Center and City Hall to much acclaim.
Some followers of the smaller-government philosophy may argue that these projects cost taxpayer money and, therefore, offer no real means to pull in investment. Lawrence, however, describes such endeavors as merely the first step in creating an environment more conducive to private investment in the area.
"Two things the state is doing is consolidating employees into downtown. It's great for the government and businesses downtown, and the second thing is their commitment to moving away from disposable buildings and moving into true pieces of architecture that complement the capital. Two hundred years from now we'll still be proud of it, just like we're proud of the old capitol and the new capitol," Lawrence said, adding that, after 30-odd years of "disposable" building, people seem to now want a sense of place and permanence.
"During the '50s, '60s and '70s, there was real growth in the number of employees people were using for office work. Buildings were put up really quickly and in a style that wasn't reminiscent of our historic properties. Now people are realizing that we need a sense of place and permanence. It gives us pride in our community," Lawrence said.
A shift began with projects like the $17.5 million TelCom Center, which will open in November. Though a government project, Lawrence describes it as a government project designed to bring in taxpaying visitors. Lawrence says the TelCom Center is the first phase of the $61 million Capital City Convention Center. Jackson voters approved a restaurant and hospitality tax for the construction of the Convention Center. Developers are hoping to get started on the project by next year.
Public funding of city ventures like the TelCom Center and Union Station has slowly cleared the way for a mingling of public and private funds for renovations, as private financiers sniff the beginnings of an approaching renaissance.
The 10-story Electric Building, or Electric 308 as it's now called, originally had city activists terrified. The building looked good in many spots, but the infrastructure of the 80-year-old building, the plumbing and electrical systems, were fast approaching obsolescence. Entergy had little interest in the building; only a few employees manned it, and Entergy officials were questioning whether or not they needed to even be owning it.Then Ted Duckworth of Duckworth Realty stepped up, putting the company's own wealth and name on the line with plans to renovate the structure. Entergy found the offer of $16 million in renovations irresistible.
Today, Electric 308 is very clearly a mixed development. Residential units comprise two full floors, seven full floors are office spaces, and the ground floor is restaurant and retail space. It will open by October. The apartment space is already gone, and the office space is almost 100 percent leased. Negotiations are underway for the ground floor. Neither Lawrence nor Entergy seem willing to offer any retail names occupying the ground floor.
Residential space in the building doesn't come cheap. Prices for rental units range around $1,500 per month. Their fill rate, despite the price tag, has inspired other developers.
Suburbia Not Worth It
Mike Peters is one of the developers who brought new life to Jackson's first suburb, Fondren. Fondren Corner is a residential, retail and office complex on State Street marked by the bright neon of a Rooster's Restaurant and its ability to stay almost fully occupied since its renovation. Peters has also purchased the 33,000-square-foot English Village shopping center—the site of the old Jitney 14, now a locally owned McDade's—early last year and said he predicts a renaissance on Fortification Street. Peters' crowning glory downtown, however, could easily be the Plaza Building, on the corner of Amite and Congress Streets, which ran up renovation costs of $7 million.
"I think the whole area is going to be the happening place to be," Peters said. "Living in downtown is a nationwide trend. This is my opinion: People have found out that life in suburbia is not perfect. Sure, there are people who would rather trade off what they get in town, but there are starting to be lots of people who are thinking that suburbia is just not worth it. They would rather have culture, art, diverse populations, convenience and all the things you have in town."
Peters also has invested in Fondren's Duling School between North State Street and Old Canton Road. Peters announced last month that he plans to turn the historic school, built in 1927, into a 120-unit residential space—just one part of another, greater, mixed-use structure with office and retail space.
Peters plans to have two picturesque condominium building components. He said the cost of the first project, which could begin early next year, could surpass $20 million.
Nathan Glenn, owner of Rooster's and Basil's restaurants in Fondren, said he already has dibs on some space in it. "We don't know for sure about Rooster's, but Basil's certainly is going over there," Glenn said. "We'll have a bigger kitchen, and we'll be able to open evenings with hot pasta dinners."
Peters' work on the Plaza Building is nearly complete. Only the top floors of the structure remain to be renovated. Peters said the apartments will be available for occupancy Dec. 1. They, too, will cost in the $1,500 per month range, but Peters said they'll probably be filled soon after the openings are announced.
King Eddie's Makeover
Another high-end living space on the horizon would be the King Edward Hotel, long a blight in the downtown area.
Months ago Jackson attorney David Watkins announced a $35 million renovation project for the pigeon haunt. Watkins has partnered with football star Deuce McAllister and Historic Restoration Inc. of New Orleans, who then raised the money from loans, grants and other private sources.
Watkins said after meeting with city council members weeks ago that the hotel-permanent-residence mixture will include condominiums because the market has grown more favorable for condos in the last two years. The King Edward, momentarily a husk, will soon be a boutique 152-room hotel with rooms and suites, as well as 72 condominium units.
"The King Edward will be a step up from the other hotels in the downtown area," Watkins said. "We will not be catering to meetings. That's for the TelCom Center. We'll be catering to the crowd that wants to stay in a nicer place with a good setting and maybe a little unique nostalgia."
Following the parameters of historic renovation, the 300,000 square feet of the King Edward will sport the same exterior it carried in 1927, "except better," said Watkins, who adds that he is also considering working with the city on building another parking garage for the facility, possibly across the street from the neighboring Standard Life Building.
At $200 a foot, the condos are looking to cost "a couple of hundred grand," Watkins said.
Rush to Downtown
Retail and residential space is expensive for numerous reasons. Downtown real estate is more compact, the buildings have to be more durable, and the land itself is pricey. Space is getting harder to find. The WorldCom bankruptcy resulted in a few million dollars being ceded to the state to cover the telecommunication company's tax fraud, as well as the handover of WorldCom's downtown headquarters. Until this week, however, the bankruptcy and the fate of the property were up in the air. The state shuffled the 100,000-square-foot building around while debating whether to use the building itself or if it should be in private hands.
Recent events have changed matters, though. For the next 12 months, FEMA will occupy the building, and Lawrence estimates the federal agency will bring in 400 to 600 employees—all of whom will be happy to eat at downtown or nearby restaurants.
A lack of space prompted Parkway Properties, owner of City Centre, with its 266,030-square-feet of rentable space, 111 Capitol Building and One Jackson Place, to build its own parking garage—an endeavor a private enterprise rarely undertakes due to its low return on the investment.
Developers are snapping up former vacant spaces like the Magnolia Federal headquarters, at the corner of Amite and Congress streets. The State Street Group's John Ditto bought the property, and in less than a year has made renovations, found tenants for it and now owns a building he said is 100-percent leased.
A small building sitting next to AmSouth Plaza is getting similar use. You can get a plate lunch at Miller's Downtown Grill for about $7. Not too long ago, all you got there was emptiness. The building has been a barbershop, among other things, but now Mark Miller welcomes downtown with delicious meals.
"We like working down here because I get to do what I love to do, and I get to do it during traditional hours. We work in the day on weekdays, and we have our evenings and weekends to ourselves," Miller said. "Downtown is romantic and convenient, but I still like the idea of having more residents and an after-5 crowd."
Drinking and Sleeping
An after-5 crowd is exactly what Entergy vice president of customer operations Haley Fisackerly is looking to create.
Entergy's Capitol Green Project is a massive endeavor to put businesses and residences in eight blocks of space between Jefferson on the east, State Street on the West, Pearl Street on the north and South Street on the south. Developers have shown interest in the office space, apartments, above and below ground parking, cafes, shops and green area, Fisackerly said. Unlike Electric 308 and The Plaza, he added, the Commerce Street residential units are intended to target the middle class.
"It's wonderful what's happening in Madison and other places, but if we want to attract young people, they don't want to go live in suburbia. They want to live, work and play all in a short distance," Fisackerly said, adding that Entergy is even talking with the city about extending the development beyond those eight blocks, carrying it all the way down to Silas Brown Street.
Entergy is also aflutter concerning the possibility of beginning talks on the development of Festival Park, a time-intensive project looking to turn the old city dump, nestled nauseatingly up against the Pearl River, into an elegant waterside park with modern amenities.
"If we get our way, this whole bluff area of ours will have a view down on the park," said Fisackerly, who envisions a recreational area with amphitheaters, open playgrounds and a site for Jubilee! Jam and other events. He said that the project seems to be getting some renewed attention in the new mayoral administration.
"Not to knock the last administration, but I don't know why they didn't move on it sooner, but because they didn't, the original costs of the project have escalated," Fisackerly said.
Former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said the plan didn't get traction because the city couldn't afford it.
"It's a Brownfield site, and we got federal money to clear it, but once we started going into the design of it and coming up with cost estimates, it became more expensive than what we had money for," said Johnson, whose administration birthed the project.
"We actually went to bid with more than $1 million to spend, but the bids were coming in at more than $2 million. It became an expensive project, however worthwhile. We just didn't have the resources."
The Department of Environmental Quality regulations demand that the old landfill be capped with many feet of dirt before any construction can begin—and that the landfill be protected from the river it borders, or risk the erosive waters of the Pearl uncovering garbage of decades past.
Here Comes Farish
The two-block Historic Farish Street District is also on the fast track. The area, once a center for black business, lost many of its more prosperous residents in the years following the death of legal segregation. In the last five years, the street has seen remarkable reconstruction efforts, with new, period-style lighting and meticulously laid brick streets and sidewalks.
Businesses faithful to the area, such as Peaches restaurant, have held fast to the neighborhood as the new street sprouted outside their front doors. The King Biscuit Café and Wet Willie's Daiquiri Bar will join them early next year.
Toni Holmon-Turner, spokeswoman for Performa Entertainment Real Estate Inc. in Memphis, said the company is looking to adhere to the look and feel that made the area between Amite and Hamilton Streets what it was during most of the last century.
"The entertainment component will reflect the history, culture, and character of the state and the area," Holmon-Turner said. "There will be 80,000 square feet of entertainment, retail and restaurant space. The recent weather has not put a damper on things."
In fact, interior demolition has already commenced in several buildings near the Amite Street entrance. Crescent City Beignets and Funny Bone comedy club, as well as Jackson's Stamps Super Burgers and Mississippi BBQ Co., are committed to Farish. Mayor Frank Melton promised during his campaign to install a high-end recording studio on the street. Rapper Kamikaze, who is overseeing the project, said he and others are still trying to find a building with the least amount of red tape involved.
Melton also announced recently that Farish Street will be making room for the offices of the historically black Jackson Advocate newspaper, which was fire-bombed in early 1998, and has since been located on Mill Street. The Advocate endorsed Melton for the mayoral post.
Performa, well known for revitalizing Memphis around Beale Street, will soon begin construction on a 150-unit apartment complex on Hamilton Street. Holmon-Turner said the apartments will feature one- and two-bedroom styles.
Lawrence said the company plans to keep the entertainment area more tame than some of the livelier spots across the South, such as the massively hedonistic Bourbon Street in New Orleans and the rowdy excess of Beale Street.
Not for the Cleaver Set
Ward 1 Councilman Ben Allen said the unparalleled success of venues like Beale Street and The French Quarter make him curious to see state liquor laws change, allowing alcohol to be transported from one building to another. Corrine Fox, acting director for city planning and development, said the Council approved resort status for the district eight months ago—meaning that venues could serve alcohol 24 hours a day. Other downtown venues, such as on Commerce Street, want resort status, too—but have not convinced the city to agree, yet.
However concerned some city residents may be over the subsequent clamor, there are few voices disputing that much money could be made there. Beale Street is a whizzing, steaming, money engine for Memphis, and Bourbon Street can make Rio look like a rainy Sunday afternoon in Edwards. By most accounts, developers do not seem to be aiming for the Ward and June Cleaver market in any case. With living space averaging $1,000 a month, investors are clearly aiming for young singles or the comfortably retired.
Fear of change has hardly discouraged business from inching toward the district. John Calhoun, CEO of IMS Engineers, said his company was driven to purchase the $384,000 Adkinson Hardware building in late 2004, and then risk the almost $2 million in renovation costs on the 18,500-square-foot building, just to connect with the history of the district.
"It was expensive because we renovated through the historic district requirements of the Farish Street area, but we want the Farish Street District to come back," Calhoun said. "It was once a thriving business district and we saw, as a minority-owned engineering firm, the need to be a part of what used to be in Jackson."
Performa's Hamilton Street apartment complex borders the Mississippi College School of Law, which has seen more renovation in the last three years than in the previous 20.
College Dean Jim Rosenblatt said this section of the city is the best location for the college, especially considering its curriculum. "We've had a few options to move over the last few years. Vicksburg made a very attractive offer to the college, but I think we're in the best place we could be," Rosenblatt said.
"We draw a great deal from our location in downtown Jackson. Our students have the opportunity to work in law firms and governmental organizations during the school year. Secondly, we draw from the legal community from downtown Jackson. Politicians, lawyers teach some of our specialized courses. This place really works for us."
All in all, Lawrence sees a future downtown with people crisscrossing all over the area, heading to one venue after another. "The really big projects like the King Edward and Electric 308 look sexy, but it's the little projects that really put the community together," Lawrence said.
"Eventually, when you see all the empty space occupied by something, the little restaurants, the service business and everything else, you have a real walking community where a resident can go nearly from one end of the area to the other."
Read Todd Stauffer 's original "Creative Class Rising" story in the preview issue of the Jackson Free Press, published Sept. 22, 2002.
Great story!! keeps me optimistic about jackson and looking forward to the growth. Can everyone say property value?
this has created the best thoughts i've had about jackson in maybe 2-3 years.
Good. It's easy to forget amid all the political negativity how much hard work is going on here, and has been, to create a downtown renaissance. I recall Harvey Johnson's speech when Union Station re-opened: Just climb on board.
And it would be very cynical of anyone not to give him immense credit for his vision for all of this. I hope that energy does wane in the cityóbut I have yet to see any indication that the current administration gives a toot about what happens to downtown. If they do care, they need to start communicating it. I know a lot of people are concerned that they are going to drop the ball on the downtown renaissance. I sure hope not.
Amen Donna! I'm so glad you mentioned Harvey Johnson's foresight and vision for a bustling, vibrant downtown. It's thrilling to see it all come online, despite the constant worry about Melton's next empty threat and my fears of the negative effects that this will eventually have on the business community's willingness to locate here.
One thing that I'd like to point out about Farish Street that people don't realize is that all the upgrades must comply with historic guidelines since the area is designated as an historic district. I've heard that this is a very time-consuming process and that is why more hasn't been done sooner. I'd be interested in reading a more in-depth story about the process in relation to the proposed development and how it might affect other development down the line. Also, what I would find interesting is the funding mechanism for this development of the entertainment district. If I'm not mistaken, the Mississippi Development Authority has a role. Have they been dragging their feet?
At any rate, I can't wait to see everything continue to come online...great story!
This is the first I've heard of "Entergyís Capitol Green Project". Sounds like a friggin' winner, for sure!
I didn't even realize that the Festival Park project was in limbo. Everything I remember hearing said that it was a go. I certainly hope it gets completed.
Agreed, millhouse. We need housing for all income levels downtown to make it work right.
Also, millhouse, I don't believe this project had been reported before unless I had missed it. I believe it is yet another story that Mr. Adam Lynch broke. ;-D
Well, I would definitely believe it, Ladd! I pride myself in knowing about projects going on around Jackson, and I'd definitely not heard of this one.
I've noticed a lot of improvement on the south State St. corridor lately. It seems a lot more occupied/well kempt. Having people (families, etc.) actually living there would be tremendous.
The Festival Park was reported in the Clarion way back, but not the extensive residential development. It sounds like a project like the park and the housing would be best under written by something big like Entergy. Also I hope that this horrific tragedy in New Orleans and on the Coast will not forestall the King Eddie plans. I understand that Historic Restorations Inc. has the backing to proceed, meaning money and contacts. Things need to keep going as planned. We all must pick ourselves up and dust ourselves and family off and get it in gear. Also, let's vibe and think Entergy will stay in Jackson in their leased space at World Com and make the "J" their new home. You know....why not? Hey...
Entergy's capitol green project has sort of been the worst-kept secret project around town. Although it's been on the table for a while and it seems a lot of people know about it, Entergy has never gone public with the project. I guess this article took care of that.
BTW, I think there are some funding issues with the Festival Park project right now. I hope these can be worked out because this park would be a great thing for the city.
Out of curiousity, this article makes it sound to me like the King Edward project is a done deal and that it will be completed. This Northside Sun article says that they're not even sure that it's structurally sound.
Which is it?
Hey all, check out this thread about Jackson from urbanplanet.org; cool discussion about our redevelopment projects (and this article).