In 1983, Jackson landscape architect Steven Horn presented Jackson city leaders with a detailed plan to revitalize Farish Street. His plan, under the city's guidance, would transform a two-block section of Farish Street into an entertainment district that would include a B.B. King Blues Club and resemble New Orleans' Bourbon Street—only classier.
Nearly 30 years later, the majority of buildings on Farish Street still sit vacant. But the long-awaited entertainment district is expected to welcome its first tenant in December: B.B. King's Blues Club.
In the 1990s, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-government agency that manages property and projects in Jackson, hired Memphis-based Performa Entertainment Real Estate Inc., the developer behind Memphis' Beale Street, to manage the Farish Street project, but due to Performa's inability to complete the renovations, the project stalled for several years.
Jackson Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jason Brookins said that although it was before his time, Performa was poised to manage the property—not develop it.
"When you look for a manager of an entertainment district, if the property isn't already ready, then a manger isn't who you need," Brookins said.
"You need a developer to take property and look at what it needs. ... Performa really wanted to do the project, but I think it was outside their expertise. They were taking this property that was dilapidated and pretty far gone, and it kind of dragged on all these years."
Watkins Partners took over the development from Performa three years ago. Watkins paid Performa $425,000 and agreed to assume the $1.5 million in debt Performa accrued while renovating the district. Since then, Watkins has spent millions of dollars renovating existing historic buildings, replacing infrastructure and securing tenants for the development.
Developer David Watkins of Watkins Partners said revitalizing Farish wasn't necessarily a project he wanted, but he felt called to step up to the plate. He volunteered his services to Performa, but ultimately decided to buy out the original developers.
"We realized it was going to take more than that, so we negotiated a buyout in Performa's interest in the lease," Watkins said.
"By December 2008, we bought them out and started construction and have been working on that ever since. I've been focused on the last two years on just getting these businesses done."
In addition to the money his firm spent taking over the project from Performa, Watkins said he has invested a total of $8 million into the project. Because the project is receiving historic tax credits, all buildings must keep their existing facades and structural integrity. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History and several other public bodies must approve each change to the buildings.
"At the end of the day, every single brick has to be restored according to some pretty exacting standards," Watkins said.
"We have had to ship some of the bricks in from South Carolina in order to match the same batch of bricks we had on one of the buildings."
Watkins had hoped the development would get $5 million in state bond allocations earlier this year, but when that didn't pan out, he put up his own money for building out the properties to ease the cost on tenants. The buildouts include amenities such as stoves, appliances, lighting fixtures, plumbing and electricity. He has also added new sewer lines to the area.
"We have another $6 million that we are going to be spending over the next year," Watkins said. "And another $6 million (after that)."
Watkins said that when complete, 15 clubs and restaurants would occupy the first block of the district. He hopes that the majority of the clubs will open through 2012. Earlier this year, B.B. King's Blues Club and accompanying Itta Bena Room, a fine-dining restaurant, signed a lease, making that venture official. Since then the district has signed leases with Al Stamps (former owner of Cool Al's), Zac Harmon's Blues Club, a sports bar and a cigar lounge.
The first block of the district will feature entertainment venues and clubs, while the second block will have more businesses that cater to the music industry such as recording and production facilities. The district will also feature an outdoor theater for concerts and events.
Renovations will also extend to existing businesses, such as Peaches Restaurant, which has been in business in the district since 1961.
Roderick Ephram, who runs Peaches with his mother and company owner Willora "Peaches" Ephram, said his mother is hoping to see the development completed within her lifetime.
"She's in her 80s, and she spent over half her life on this street," he said. "For her to see it transform back to how it was in the 1950s—it would be amazing to her to see the customers come back."
Watkins, who helped bring back the King Edward Hotel from the brink of destruction, said economic factors have worked against the district, and he acknowledges the challenge of bringing new ventures to an under-developed area.
"Our tenants are having a hard time getting financing just because the financial markets aren't very friendly toward new restaurants and new developments in unproven markets," Watkins said.
Instead of just renovating the property and leasing it out, though, Watkins said that his company will spearhead unified marketing, branding and advertising efforts.
"It has turned into a comprehensive approach," he said. "We are trying to do it right."
Watkins acknowledges that developers can be overly optimistic when it comes to setting deadlines for when new developments will come online. It the end, however, he hopes the project will change Jackson's landscape and draw more residents inside the city limits.
"We take on public projects that challenge us, and we want to be change agents for communities," Watkins said.
"That's where I am at this stage in my life: pulling resources together so that I can make sure I try and make a difference before I die."
The Past Lives On