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Prominent issue in the Capital City not a hot topic in rest of Mississippi

Outside Jackson, is it ‘the King Dudward?’

Business leaders around the state and in neighboring states have mixed thoughts or none at all on the status — and potential — of the King Edward Hotel renovation project in downtown Jackson. A combination of private and public — state taxpayer — money would be involved in almost any renewal program for the decaying property.

The confusion, delays and hyperbole surrounding the King Edward project has done little to improve Jackson’s image in other areas of Mississippi.

Government leaders and economic and business developers who have proposed turning it into a telecommunications conference and training center have long debated its renovation. Plans and proposals have fizzled, and a much-needed parking garage for the project has not been included in any of the proposed multi-million dollar financial packages. There’s been support from the telecom industry, but Clinton-based MCI WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers has not been a proponent of the plan.

“I have always thought that the telecom training center concept was only as good as those in the business say it would be,” said Tim Coursey, executive director of the Simpson County Development Foundation. “Another idea that should be looked at, and it would depend on several factors, is what happened in Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama. What happened there is an example of what might can be accomplished here.”

Several years ago, the Alabama public employee retirement system hired a new CEO with a plan to build a new 27-story state office building and rent it to state departments for $9 per square foot, Coursey said.

“The way I understand it, the state was renting office space around town and paying on average $38 per square foot for old run-down facilities,” Coursey said. “They constructed a beautiful state of the art skyscraper. As it turns out, it was a win-win for public employees as they are making more money than ever and the state has a very efficient and cost effective brand new building. Not all offices are state offices. Others that have moved in are paying as much as 15 bucks a square foot. The plan worked so well the public employee retirement system built two more very large buildings in downtown. Maybe our public employee retirement system could do the same with the King Edward. It also revitalized downtown and looks much better. Might work.”

Gulf Coast real estate broker Cynthia S. Joachim said the King Edward dilemma poses a tough problem.

“The problem is trying to preserve heritage but progress forces us to move on,” Joachim said. “Everyone says that they want progress but it’s the change we can’t handle. As a Realtor, I deal with the old versus the new everyday. There are many people who think all old buildings should be preserved no matter what the economic sense of it is. Others think that to maximize future investment, raze the old building and start new. When I have had downtown meetings, I have enjoyed old hotels. The service has been good and it doesn’t have the sterility of the new hotels. Then again, what is the highest and best use of downtown property when location reigns supreme and there is scarce parking. It will ultimately boil down to a common denominator. Do the economics of the situation outweigh the potential future value of a telecommunications center, given the major thrust of the industry’s presence in Jackson?”

Another question to ponder is potential loss of “old treasures,” Joachim said.

“It’s happened all over the country and there is no solution,” she said. “Once they are gone, it’s forever. The Coast has dealt with it too. The Edgewater Hotel gave way to Sears. Beau Rivage is the site of the Buena Vista Hotel. The other side of the coin is James Love, who is renovating the White House Hotel at a staggering amount of money. He himself has said in interviews that if money were the only issue, he wouldn’t have renovated. His ties to the hotel run deep and those desires were paramount. Other people wouldn’t be able to understand that.”

“Bottom line, there’s no easy way out of this one,” Joachim said. Some business leaders declined to comment on the King Edward deal.

Low on the radar

While many inside the metro business community have been actively following the King Edward deal, especially owners of downtown property, other members of Mississippi’s business community don’t seem to think it’s too important.

“I’m afraid I really haven’t followed it,” said Greg Rose, a marketing professor at the University of Mississippi. “I should probably do a better job of following the news, but like many people, I seem to be too busy doing the day to day stuff.”

Meridian native Greg Barker, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Development Board in Birmingham, Ala., said he did not know enough about the project to offer any kind of opinion.

A businessman from the Golden Triangle area, who requested anonymity for this article, said it’s “easier for an outsider to say what you think ought to happen when you’re not right there in the thick of it.”

“Anyone hates to have a downtown building unoccupied because of vandalism, other crime that gravitates to the area, and the loss of taxes to the city, but it’s sometimes hard to find someone willing to invest in this project or somebody with a need for the building,” he said.

The Henry Clay Hotel, a historical landmark in West Point, was recently turned into a retirement community, he said.

“This could be done to the King Edward Hotel,” he said. “They can take hotel rooms, knock out walls, and make changes to fit the needs. Construction costs are generally lower in a renovation project than a new construction project. Tax credits for renovating a historical landmark bring the costs down, too.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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