Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said at last week's Jackson Public Schools board meeting that he supports developer David Watkins' vision to relocate the entirety of JPS administration to the Metrocenter Mall, but said it was not his place to influence the decision.
"We're not here to offer any kind of endorsement, just to say we're excited about the prospect," Johnson said. "This is your decision, as I'm sure you know."
Watkins proposes leasing the second floor of the abandoned Belk Inc. department store in the mall to house JPS administrative offices, which currently reside in seven buildings in downtown Jackson between State and President streets. Watkins said he is finalizing the purchase of the mall property. Other developers of the endeavor include Socrates Garrett of Garrett Enterprises.
District Superintendent Lonnie Edwards said the district has been looking for new facilities for months."Our current buildings are, well, mature. There's no better way to put it," Edwards told the board prior to Watkins' presentation.
Edwards reminded the board that the district is expecting huge costs in upcoming years related to repairing its deteriorating current headquarters. Watkins said the $8 million in maintenance costs facing the district translates to savings if JPS moves to his property—even though the district owns its current facilities and will pay Watkins rent on the new location.
The developer says the 120,000 square feet available on the second floor is more than enough to house the district's offices, and even provides room to grow. Watkins, who is the face behind the recent renovation of the King Edward Hotel and the ongoing renovation of the Farish Street Entertainment District, among other properties, said he could offer a 20-year lease to the district, as well as an option for the district to purchase the property.
Johnson made no secret that the city has invested "about half a million dollars" to develop a strategy for the Highway 80 corridor where the mall is located. Among other projects and activities is a $1 million landscaping project for the highway. Johnson said the city is spending "about $6 million" on a new facility for the city's bus system at the corner of Highway 80 and Valley Street.
The mayor said the district's move to the area could have "a snowball effect" on the revitalization of the area.
Watkins' long-term plan extends beyond his Belk property. According to his presentation to the board, Watkins also envisions a JPS Arts Plaza in the interior mall to display student, teacher and guest artists' works on a permanent or rotational basis, as well as an arena for musical, choral and theatrical performances to promote the district.
The developers' even more extensive three- to seven-year "Metro Master Plan" includes a retrofitting of the core mall, the development of residential housing around the mall, a hotel, entertainment venues and a water feature, which could include a water slide.
The presentation stated that the massive relocation would immediately halt the erosion of the tax base in and around the mall, and "inject (the) mall with (an) increased daily head count of 600 to 1,000 potential shoppers. Another aspect of the mall's rejuvenation plan includes returning the mall's former Dillard's property to retail and adding some form of movie theater, although Watkins would not specify the size of the theater.
Former Jackson Public Schools board member Jonathan Larkin said he agreed with Watkins' proposed cost savings of the venture, considering the comparatively energy-efficient structure of the Metrocenter opposed to many of the aging buildings now containing JPS offices.
Watkins said he also has a long-term strategy for the land holding the downtown administration buildings, one of which, at 662 S. President Street, qualifies as historic.
"We have a major plan for the buildings—a significant proposal we're working on along with the city, to attract a major development there," Watkins said.
The property, situated between State and South President streets, could prove vital to Watkins' proposed RiverWalk development. RiverWalk—an ambitious project Watkins unveiled in June—involves rerouting Town Creek and building a scenic harbor in the creek bed, complete with adjoining business and residential development and an entertainment venue component.