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Project inches closer to reality after meeting

Renovating King Edward Hotel `linchpin` to saving downtown Jackson

If all continues to go as planned, the vacant King Edward Hotel will breathe new life into downtown Jackson.

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. calls plans to restore the King Edward Hotel “the linchpin” in efforts to revitalize downtown Jackson.

“The King Edward Hotel project is an integral part of the redevelopment of downtown Jackson,” Johnson said. “If you take all of the activities on the immediate drawing board into consideration, the King Edward Hotel is the linchpin in those efforts.”

The city of Jackson has obtained approximately $13 million in funding to renovate the Union Station Train Depot, recently acquired by the city from Illinois Central Railroad, and located across the street from the King Edward Hotel. More than $6 million has been earmarked for work on the viaduct at Amite, Capital, Pearl and Pascagoula streets.

Work on embankments and beautification along Gallatin Street, in connection with the Metro Jackson Parkway that will run along Pearl and Pascagoula Streets, are planned. Revitalization options of the Farish Street Historic District are also being discussed, Johnson said.

“The (Mississippi Telecommuni- cations Conference and Training Center) Commission took a very important step toward realizing our goals for downtown Jackson,” Johnson said.

Last week, the commission voted to accept the proposal to locate the telecommunications conference and training center downtown. The $50.2 million project calls for converting the parking garage into the telecommunications center with conference rooms and an amphitheater and refurbishing the building to a four-star hotel.

The commission, chaired by Mississippi Economic and Community Development Director Jimmy Heidel, turned down an alternative proposal to construct a $35.7 million nine-story, 200-room hotel and conference center on I-55 at Briarwood Drive.

The day before the commission voted, the Jackson City Council unanimously voted to draft a resolution supporting placement of the telecommunications conference and training center in the vacant King Edward Hotel.

“We feel comfortable with the proposal and we are sure the same level of comfort will be realized by all commission members as negotiations take place,” Johnson said.

Leveraged financial partners in the $50.2 million renovation plan include $17.5 million from the state, $12.3 million from Fannie Mae, $6.5 million from Jackson Redevelopment Authority, and $13.3 million from a bank consortium. The Alexander Group, developers of the project, is based in Madison, Wisc., Johnson said.

Reactions from the business community have been mixed. An unidentified source referred to the King Edward Hotel as “the city`s albatross.”

Preston Patton, a commercial and investment real estate broker, whose office is located on Capitol Street, said if current plans fall through, the state of Mississippi could help revitalize the area by buying the King Edward Hotel, renovating it and using it as office space.

“The state could afford it and wouldn`t have to pay taxes on it,” Patton said. “The Mississippi Department of Transportation spent millions of dollars on a new building and parking garage on West Street when they could have bought the King Edward Hotel. It would have been much more conducive to business in downtown Jackson.”

Lou Ann Burney, director of community relations for the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said she remembers how impressive the building was when she was a child.

“I hate to see the old lady looking so shabby,” Burney said. “I`d like to see her dressed up.”

Rene Barilleaux, chief curator for the Mississippi Museum of Art, said the King Edward Hotel is “a beautiful structure that adds a real presence to the downtown skyline.”

“If we can retain and enhance an existing architectural structure, it would be very important to solidify our commitment to a real downtown core,” Barilleaux said. “It would be great to renovate an historic hotel into a four-star hotel and return the building to its original purpose, but I`d like to see any use of the facility that would keep it alive.”

Several years ago, then-owners of the King Edward Hotel accepted bids for decontamination of the building. Accumulated pigeon droppings, from two inches on lower levels to twelve inches on upper floors, caused environmental and health concerns. Cryptococcus neoformans, a fungus easily isolated in pigeon droppings, can result from exposure. Reactions vary from a mild infection to a severe life-threatening illness.

“One of the biggest drawbacks to the renovation of the King Edward Hotel has been the phenomenal cost involved in the removal of pigeon droppings,” said an unidentified source from the Hinds County Sanitation Department.

John Mooney, an attorney who is familiar with efforts to decontaminate the hotel, said he remembers the owners decided to wait before incurring a “fairly substantial expense.”

“The cost of decontaminating the hotel is comparable to the cost of removing asbestos,” Mooney said.

Dwight Wiley, head of the air division at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said asbestos in the hotel would have to be properly removed before renovations could start.

Johnson said environmental concerns of renovating the hotel have been addressed. “The developer understands he would have to contend with any environmental conditions or hazards that are presently existing on the site,” he said.

Objections raised by the commission included whether the garage could be converted into a telecommunications conference center, and a lawsuit that had been filed against the developers.

“All of these things can and will be worked out during the negotiations process,” Johnson said.

The next step is for commission members to work with developers on an agreement. Negotiations should begin after they receive an attorney general`s opinion on federal tax credit status.”Once the development agreement is consummated, the financial ends will be pooled together and the actual construction process will start,” Johnson said.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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