As attorney David Watkins stands beneath the 12-story façade of the dilapidated King Edward Hotel, he's got a glimmer on his face. He's exchanging pleasantries with James Guinn, general foreman for Clayco, the St. Louis contractor that's doing remediation work on the hotel, and there's no getting around the fact that this guy is seriously giddy.
"There were a few breathless moments over the years where I thought I had taken leave of my senses like my friends have been telling me, but I knew we would get to this day. In my heart I knew this was going to happen, and I guess that's why I steadfastly continued working at it. And here we are," Watkins declares, jubilantly gesturing up to a canvas draping off the corroded building telling downtown travelers that the King Edward is undergoing a rebirth.
After years of watching the hotel decay, the City Council was only too happy to approve the bids on the $750,000 environmental remediation. On Aug. 22, construction began in earnest.
"Look here," Watkins laughs while directing his eyes to the chain-link fence girding the 84-year-old hotel, "construction work! Look over there: a guy in an orange shirt! He's a construction worker! It's finally happening!"
Guinn, who oversees many of Clayco's special projects, has already been pumping hundreds of gallons of water out from the hotel's massive cellar. The building actually sits atop one of Jackson's primal artesian wells. Early last century, the well was a source of water for many downtown inhabitants and ran to a series of watering troughs for horses. Today, the well is a nuisance, putting a small pond in the cellars that has run untouched for so long it probably has its own native bacteria strains. Knowing Watkins' luck, environmentalists are liable to label the microorganisms an endangered species and call a halt to the work.
It wouldn't be the first setback.
The building's owners blocked development for years as they squabbled among themselves over a price for selling the property. Later, when the city finally wrested ownership for the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, Watkins found that the ancient block of a hotel came with a host of expensive requirements. The building, he discovered, would require nothing less than interior demolition on some floors, and the price tag for rehabilitation jumped accordingly.
Watkins, who is also CEO of Watkins Development, coaxed New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister and HRI Inc., of New Orleans, to join with him on the project. McAllister and HRI recognized a nationwide pattern of small families and single professionals moving back into an urban environment with a lively nightlife, and threw their money into an effort to make the hotel a home for high-end condominiums and businesses. But to do this, the city first had to show a commitment by dropping some of its own money into the pot.
It got real complicated after that. Twice, the city dropped the ball in submitting the HUD loan application for remedial work, despite former Mayor Harvey Johnson (who had ripped out hair trying to get the project moving during his administration) swearing up and down that he'd signed the application months ahead of his departure from office. The new mayor, it seemed, wanted nothing less than to "implode" the hotel, and promised to bring in demolition teams with each new project setback.
Writing the HUD application off as a consummate loss, Watkins and sympathizers fled to legislators. The legislative session was in full swing, and it was looking like a good year, with new money coming in from Coast construction and new federal tax breaks for hurricane-ravaged areas like Jackson. Legislators, backed by Gov. Haley Barbour, virtually handed Watkins a check.
Months later, Watkins is clearly tickled. This Tuesday he got to stand with HRI CEO Pres. Kabacoff, JRA Vice Chairman Brent Alexander, Council President Ben Allen, Clayco Vice President Paul Giacoletto and even the cynical Melton, and present the inauguration of Phase 1.
"My experts are telling me it would take finding a number of major faults that would cost maybe $10 or $15 million to pose an unexpected problem. We've put $4 million in the budget for structural remediation. That along with the regular reconstruction budget should be enough to put this building back in order," Watkins said.
Watkins shakes his head, smiling. "It's finally coming together," he says.
I can't believe it's finally happening! I'm SO excited. I have no doubt that REAL construction on King Eddy will send some type of message that Jackson, especially downtown, is open for business and development. Word is the Standard Life Building may be next in line for renovation. Hope all works out to plan!
I do believe that this will be the primary catalyst for downtown Jackson. I'd like to know who owns the other buildings on West Capitol Street. Let's get them renovated too! Synergy will make downtown Jackson come alive again! I can't wait to see it happen.