Meridian — What a difference a new mall makes. A few years ago Meridian had lost its dominance as a regional retail center and been disappointed by promises of new malls that never materialized.
“There is not another city of any size for 90 miles in any direction,” said Maureen Lofton, assistant for governmental affairs with the City of Meridian. “For many years prior to 1980, Meridian was the retail trade center and medical center of this large geographic area. Over the last 10 to 15 years we have continued to grow as a medical center. That is a huge industry here. But our dominance as a retail center started to deteriorate.”
On several occasions developers promised the city a new mall — but didn’t deliver. Community leaders became concerned that the city would never again establish dominance in the retail market.
“It took a toll on us,” Lofton admits.
Then the city was successful in convincing CBL of Chattanooga, one of the nation’s major mall developers, to invest millions building the Bonita Lakes Mall. The new mall that opened in October has had ripple effects throughout the community.
Mall makes big splash
“Without question, the construction and opening of the new, $85-million Bonita Lakes Mall was a significant factor in creating the level of confidence that drives economic growth,” said Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith.
“The new mall has created more than 1,500 jobs, significantly increased the city’s sales tax collections and spawned numerous other developments in the Bonita Lakes area of Meridian. Just as important, the mall has re-established our dominance as a retail trade center for east Mississippi and west Alabama, and renewed our belief we can succeed as a community when we share a goal and have the collective determination to overcome obstacles to reach that goal.”
Building permits in Meridian went up from $27 million in 1995 to $41 million in 1996 and $68 million in 1997. “That represents an increase of 250% in three years — rock-solid proof that investors have confidence in the direction we’re heading,” Smith said. “Growth is not limited to the area around the mall. All over town new businesses are springing up as entrepreneurs see the potential for tapping into new and existing markets and expanding the economic pie.”
Bonita Lakes Mall property manager Jeff Price said the mall is 94% occupied and exceeding sales expectations.
“We had one of the single biggest opening weeks in CBL history,” Price said. “As far as indications on sales, it appears that mall is doing considerably better than what we originally anticipated. It is still early to be able to judge overall success of the mall, but early indicators show it will definitely be successful.”
Expansions are continuing at Bonita Lakes Crossing, a strip shopping center associated with the mall that includes a Books A Million and other stores. Bonita Lakes Crossing opened with 29,000 square feet, and will be increased to 100,000 square feet by October 1998 with the addition of Old Navy, Office Max and T.J. Maxx.
Price said having a regional shopping mall and additional stores such as those at the strip center provides better shopping for area residents, and spurs additional growth by proving to national chains that the business climate is good in Meridian. He said it also gives national chains a place to locate where there is heavy traffic.
“It is also drawing people from outside areas into Meridian, and keeping the local customers from having to leave the area to purchase their goods in other cities such as Jackson and Hattiesburg,” Price said. “Keeping the money here gives local government the benefit of the tax dollars.”
Beyond Bonita Lakes
New businesses are also flourishing outside the new mall. City records show that 327 new businesses opened in 1997. Sales tax collections are up 12%, and major construction projects have infused new life into several areas of town.
The city’s three hospitals, all located downtown, have undergone major multi-million- dollar building projects. Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center, Rush Health Systems, and Riley Memorial Hospital were all being run as non-profit hospitals, but Riley Memorial was recently purchased by a private corporation, Health Management Associates Inc. That purchase will put the hospital on the tax rolls, and the hospital also created a $70-million foundation to enhance area education.
Another major downtown project is Union Station, a multi-modal transportation center that houses Amtrak, Greyhound, the Meridian Transit System and taxi services. The original Union Station was torn down. The new $7-million structure recreates the look of the old building. Union Station, which opened in December, also includes community meeting rooms popular for conferences and weddings. One wing of the tower houses offices for the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation.
About $1 million in private development on Front Street has accompanied the new Union Station. Some apartments are being developed downtown taking advantage of second-story space above store fronts. And a block from Union Station a new $9-million county jail is under construction.
Another area of town that has grown tremendously in recent years is North Hill Street. The street zigzagged for many years, and the major east-west corridor was straightened out in the late 1980s. Since then millions have been invested in new businesses in the area including banks, fast food restaurants, shopping centers and medical clinics.
Slater Barr, president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corp. (EMBDC), said there has also been healthy industrial growth in Meridian.
“Businesses here have benefitted from downsizing in other areas,” Barr said. “I think that reflects well on our work force. In two cases where plants here benefitted from downsizing elsewhere, we heard that the productivity of workers was certainly a positive element.”
Ludlow, which manufactures laminated paper products, has added 40 new employees associated with expansion. Meridian Machine Works has 40 new employees after closing a Washington state plant location, and bringing that production to the Meridian plant.
Other industrial expansions include Pioneer, Inc., which repackages and distributes automotive parts. The company is in the process of expanding its facility, and adding 50 employees. Custom Car in the Whynot community, is adding about 30 new employees. Custom Car repairs and remanufactures rail cars for the railroad industry.
Another local company that has expanded recently is Blackwater Creek Tree Stand, which produces deer hunting stands. Blackwater Creek Tree Stand outgrew its present facility, and is building a new factory at the Sonny Montgomery Industrial Park.
“Meridian is just hot right now,” Barr said. “We’re seeing across-the-board growth. We’re a regional center for retail sales as evidenced by success of Bonita Lakes Mall. We are a medical hub, as evidenced by the continued growth of the medical community. And we’re seeing the same thing happening in industry. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of new growth there.”
EMBDC is a new economic development organization, in operation for about a year. The private group has contracts with the city and county to provide economic development services to the Lauderdale County Economic Development District.
Barr said EMBDC is more than just a marketing organization; it does whatever is necessary to promote development.
“An example of that is the Pioneer, Inc., needed four acres to expand at its present facility, and the landowners weren’t willing to subdivide,” Barr said. “So the b
usiness development corporation stepped in and purchased 96 ac
res to expand the Sonny Montgomery Industrial park. We sold four acres to Pioneer Inc., which kept 160 jobs in