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Success story a case study for economic developers

Westland Plaza renovation impacts neighborhood business

JACKSON — The redevelopment of Westland Plaza Shopping Center has pumped new blood into one

of the busiest trade centers in the state and has become a case study for cities with similar community

centers.

Located at Ellis Avenue and Robinson Road in Jackson, the first shopping center of its size built in the

state has undergone such a transformation that shopping center developers across the nation have asked

to study the redevelopment plan.

“In the 1980s, the neighborhood began to change from a suburban, primarily white neighborhood to an

urban, primarily ethnic, neighborhood,” said James E. Maurin, chairman and CEO of Stirling

Properties, based in Covington, La. “When we took over the management contract a few years ago, it

was a center of crime. Now it has become a center of commerce again.”

At first glance, Maurin said renovation efforts looked hopeless — until he met with city and community

leaders. The city was able to pony up $183,500 through the facade matching grant program, community

leaders pledged support, and “all of a sudden, we did believe this hopeless case had some hope,” he

said.

The plan

The decision to move forward with refinancing and redevelopment was based on an owner investment of

more than $2 million, the facade renovation grant, annualized NOI of $871,000 as of June 30, 2000, and

a 70% LTV (loan-to-value ratio) of $6.1 million.

David Wallenstein of Dallas, one of the plaza’s owners, said he invested in the project after Jitney

Jungle and the U.S. Postal Service renewed long-term leases, and after the city provided facade grant

funds and promised a stronger police presence.

“We could see the vision to turn what was a dying center into…a real anchor and a benefit to the

community,” he said.

When Westland Plaza opened in 1958, with 77,000 square feet of space, there was little or no

competition, and Jitney Jungle and Kroger peacefully co-existed.

Demographic changes

The changes that led to the demise of Westland Plaza are partly attributed to a change in demographics

for the metropolitan area. In 1970, the population in Hinds County was 214,973. In 1990, 254,441

people resided in the county. By 1998, the population dropped to 248,054, with an estimated decrease to

245,594 in 2000.

During the same time period, Rankin County listed 43,933 residents in 1970. In two decades, the

population jumped to 155,096. By 2000, the population was estimated at 183,842.

Only 29,737 resided in Madison County in 1970. By 1990, the number jumped to 53,794. By 2000, the

population was estimated at 83,528.

Last year, the population within a one-mile radius of Westland Plaza was estimated at 14,247, with

89.5% black and 9.7% white. The median age was 29.5, with a median household income of $21,458,

according to demographic estimates and projection from The Polk Company Micromarketing Data and

Systems.

Retail factors

In 1978, the sales volume at Westland Plaza was approximately $23.8 million. By 1998, merchants

reported annual sales of only $13.5 million. Contributing factors for poor performance were attributed

to owner control, a downward trend in real estate values, added competition and reduced owner support

of the merchant’s association. In 1979, when the Metrocenter Mall opened, the prime interest rate was

11.75%.

From 1978 to 1998, Jitney Jungle doubled its square footage from 16,000 to 32,000. The U.S. Post

Office expanded its space from 6,130 to 16,750 square feet. McRae’s, Woolworth’s, and Dollar

General closed, and Weiner’s, Marty’s Menswear and Family Dollar opened. Net cash flow decreased

60%.

During the same time period, real estate taxes increased 120%. Even though the assessed value rose a

scant 8%, from $832,400 to $900,550, actual taxes spiked from $66,113 to $145,411.

Rehabilitation concerns

Even though the age of the center, the conversion of vacancies to a plain shell, multiple vacancies and

unusable space, crime and safety and tenant retention, were among the many concerns for rehabilitation,

Stirling Properties announced its renovation plan last September.

The next month, Jitney Jungle filed for bankruptcy protection, and the future of Jitney locations was

uncertain. Two months ago, Weiner’s filed for bankruptcy protection.

“Even though we didn’t know at first, we were not impacted by the filings,” said Donna F. Taylor, vice

president of asset marketing for Stirling Properties. “That Jitney store has been sold to Winn-Dixie

and will remain open. We know the name of the store will not change. We also know that Weiner’s

likes this location and plans to keep it open.”

The restoration included new parking lot lighting, a resurfaced and restriped parking lot, signage,

upgraded facade and renovations to 30 storefronts. The reconfiguration of the center included

demolishing Shoney’s, Lee J’s and two smaller buildings to improve visibility. The Jackson Police

Department located its neighborhood enforcement team (NET) and domestic violence units between

Weiner’s and Family Dollar.

The end result

The renovation process, which created 30 temporary construction jobs, was completed this summer, and

the center now employs around 400 people.

“This is wonderful news for the people in this community as the city continues revitalization efforts

here in west Jackson,” said Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. “A safer Jackson is a more

economically vibrant Jackson.”

So far, projections are on track. Retailers have indicated an increase in sales, and more traffic is coming

into the shopping center. Stirling Properties is at the bargaining table for several leases, and a new tenant

is expected on the “hard corner” soon, Taylor said. “After 25 years in the business, I get more

satisfaction from bringing one back from the dead, which is what we did at Westland Plaza, than

building something new in an upscale community,” Maurin said.

Contact MBJ Contributing Writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@ yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967

About Lynne W. Jeter

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