CLARKSDALE — On any given day, local attorney Bill Luckett may be found with a hammer and fistful of nails as often as he’s in court, trying one of the 200 or so cases on the docket every year.
“That doesn’t happen as often as it did earlier in my career when I’d typically go home from work at the end of the day, change real quick and go work on buildings for a couple of hours, and then often spend all weekend working on them,” said Luckett, with a laugh. “Sometimes I’d even take a day off from the law practice to work, but now I’m too busy.”
As one of Wal-Mart’s lead attorneys specializing in construction law, Luckett is constantly on the move. Of its some 70 or so law firms located around the U.S., Wal-Mart recently honored Luckett’s law firm in Memphis for having the most winning percentage — 100% — of jury trial victories.
“I practice law to finance construction,” Luckett said, with a laugh. “But I like practicing law. It’s very demanding and deadline oriented and carries a lot of pressure. There is a limit to creativity in it, so when I can look at something I can restore or give a new look, it really gives me a charge. Having a pleased client is such a good feeling, too.”
Two of Luckett’s more recent restoration projects were also business ventures with actor Morgan Freeman of Charleston — Madidi, an upscale restaurant, and Ground Zero Blues Club, both located in downtown Clarksdale.
“I knew what Bill was capable of, and I wanted in on it,” said Freeman, who met Luckett several years ago when Freeman’s then unfinished Tallahatchie County home hit a snag with contractors. “I’ve been very pleased with what he’s done with Madidi and Ground Zero.”
Francine Luckett, Bill’s wife, said he never takes a break. “One Saturday morning, I woke up and Bill was headed to Madidi with a paint bucket and paintbrush in his hand,” she said. “He told me he was going to paint the upstairs doors. They really didn’t need it, but they did look better afterward.”
Union Planters Bank recently honored Luckett and Freeman with a reception at its Clarksdale branch for their civic contributions through restoration efforts in downtown Clarksdale.
Luckett’s interest in architecture and construction began when he was a teenager constantly building tree houses and cabins on Mill Creek with lumber and tin from old tenant houses. He once constructed a three-story Swiss Family Robinson-style tree house. He often picked up pocket money by doing odd jobs at various homes around Clarksdale.
While studying law at the University of Mississippi, Luckett painted houses for extra income.
“I bought a little house for $6,000, fixed it up with a front porch and side deck and central air and heat and lived in it for three years,” said Luckett. “I sold it for $17,000 in the early 1970s. I was hooked.”
During that time, Luckett also served as a Mississippi National Guard officer and became a detachment commander of a construction company in Charleston that built structures for guard units.
After graduating from law school, Luckett returned to Clarksdale and built a cypress board and batten house overlooking the Sunflower River Valley for his family. Between 1973 and 1992, Luckett tackled few construction projects, focusing instead on building his law practice. But when his career was firmly grounded, Luckett returned to restoration projects.
“I discovered there were six variables I had to control to be successful — principle, interest, taxes, insurance, maintenance and vacancy — and you have varying degrees of control over all of them,” he said. “As long as I could get between 1.25% to 1.50% of the value of the property as my monthly rent, I knew it would work. With that in mind, I bought a house in 1992 for $17,000, spent $25,000 in mostly cosmetic work, and when I was finished, people were lined up fighting over who would get to rent it. I knew there was a big demand.”
Luckett began snapping up properties — always with some architectural charm — at a rate of one a month for about three years until he amassed about 40 properties primarily in Clarksdale, ranging from efficiencies to three-bedrooms and from low income to affluent renters.
Then he began restoring historic buildings.
“The first was the Bank of Lyon building just outside Clarksdale,” he said. “It was built about 1904, closed as a bank in 1905 and was totally overgrown with vines. All the windows were broken out. The mortar was almost gone from most of the building. The downstairs floor was rotted out and the roof was bad. The man selling it said it was a diamond in the rough, but really it was just rough.”
With $360,000 in sweat equity, Luckett transformed it into an upscale apartment building while preserving the teller cages, walk-in vault and other period details.
Luckett has also restored the Bank of Clarksdale building built circa 1900, the Hotel Clarksdale, now called Hotel Clarksdale Apartments, and the Delta Grocery and Cotton Company building, also built circa 1900, which now houses Ground Zero. He paid $15,000 for that building.
“Bill’s already figured out a way to turn the second floor of the juke
joint into seven apartments,” said Myrna Freeman, Morgan’s wife. “It’s just a matter of when.”
Luckett said he’s probably invested about $6 million in properties in the Clarksdale area. As a result of restoration work, about 100 local jobs have been created. Now he’s getting calls from investors in North Mississippi cities to help with similar projects.
“I do it because it’s fun to do,” he said. “I like going and looking at spaces and helping people decide what’s best to do with it. I’m very much a preservationist. The Hinds County Courthouse is an example of a fabulous building that’s been saved. There’s so much beautiful tile and marble in that building.
He continued, “I hope others will follow in restoring properties, particularly downtown properties. A lot of city centers could stand to do what we’re doing with their downtown areas.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.