MERIDIAN — The 12 luxury condominiums on historic Fifth Street in the heart of Meridian’s downtown are complete now. Seven of them have already been sold. They are directly across the street from “The Old Opera House” soon to become The Riley Performing Arts Center.
And the three-year task of overseeing the construction has been a labor of love for owner Barbaree Rosenbaum Heaster. Visitors agree that the spacious condos would do credit to any Manhattan counterpart. But the $190,000- $220,000 price range would be a bargain in any NYC neighborhood.
The theater background
Besides the across-the-street performing arts center location, Heaster and the other two principals responsible for this downtown innovation have a theater background. Heaster studied theater and broadcasting at Emerson College in Boston for two years (“Jay Leno is an alumnus”), then changed track to a degree in elementary education from Memphis State.
“As much as I love theater, I decided I needed something more stable,” Heaster recalled. “My parents always raised me to believe that I should stand on my own two feet, so the theater with its legendary uncertainty wasn’t for me.”
As for the other two movers, John McClure came to Meridian from Mobile in the 1960s as the manager of a new movie theater. After a later career as a city administration employee in community development, he’s now a consultant with Kemp Associates. Then there’s Killis Almond, an architect from San Antonio, who specializes in historic building restorations with emphasis on theaters.
Condos were feasible
It all started in 1890 when the three-story Rosenbaum Building was completed by Heaster’s great-grandfather at a cost of $42,000. Meridian was on the way to becoming the biggest city in Mississippi — briefly — and downtown was thriving. The structure occupied a half block and would take advantage of the retail traffic generated by the nearby Opera House and the burgeoning railroad junction yards. Her great-grandfather’s office was upstairs. The building has been in Heaster’s family ever since.
Flash forward to the late 1980s when McClure was studying for his master’s degree in business administration from the Meridian Campus of Mississippi State University. Downtown had fallen on hard times, so McClure did a project in a business statistics course that involved the hypothesis of upper floor residences in the Rosenbaum Building.
The survey indicated the project was feasible, so he took it to Sy Rosenbaum, Barbaree’s father, who was revered for many reasons, but especially for his business acumen and knowledge of the real estate market.
‘We touched a nerve’
“Sy was as cordial as he could possibly be and complimented us on our work,” McClure remembered. “But he told us he was getting good cash flow from his first floor rentals and there was no point in taking that kind of risk.”
Rosenbaum passed away in 1994, so McClure — who had become a consultant — dusted off the study and took it to Barbaree who had returned from Florida as a part-time Meridian resident. Accompanying John was Almond, who had recently served as president of the League of Historic American Theaters. In that role, Almond had come to Meridian and done a study of the city’s historical structures.
“We touched a nerve with Barbaree,” McClure said. “Although she’s a very astute businesswoman, she was willing to understand that sometimes you take on things for reasons besides the bottom line. The fact that it had her great grandfather’s name on the building got her excited about the idea.”
Heaster remembered the meeting this way.
“Dad had acquired a lot of land for development and I personally felt very strongly that it would have been a mistake to sell out,” she remembered. “Then in my high school years, my parents had taken us to Europe which had given me a special feeling about historical buildings. I was the person who would walk down Fifth Avenue and while everyone else was looking in the windows, I’m looking at the top of the buildings because the architecture was so interesting. And here we had this wonderful building that had been in our family for over a hundred years. That’s why I listened to John and Killis.”
She also knew that despite the efforts of businessmen Billy Entrekin, Gil Carmichael, David Purvis, Larry Dudley and former mayor Alfred Rosenbaum among others, downtown revitalization had flagged. One of the reasons was a lack of downtown housing which she had seen key successful downtown renewal in other cities. Frank Imes and Chris Chain from Columbus had begun putting in rental units on Front Street, but there were no condominiums-and she wanted one for herself.
The big surprise
And so it began. O. L. Snowden & Sons was the contractor. “Rick Snowden brings a strong engineering background that has been so helpful with our structural and settling problems that are so prevalent in rehabbing an old building,” Heaster said. “I had never done anything of this magnitude, but it resembled my school teaching career — with every first grade child, there was a different solution.”
There were surprises, too. The biggest came when Bill Dorman, a downtown businessman, showed her a “secret room” that led to stairs she had never seen. The stairs took her to a large third floor room where there had been a speakeasy during the Prohibition years. Heaster is still flabbergasted over the discovery. The room has been converted into part of one of the condos.
When the bottom floor is finished, it will have 10,000 square feet of retail space. Heaster’s Rosenbaum Realty will take up one space, a ladies’ shoe store will take up another and a restaurant is almost certain to be a part of the mix.
Despite the effect of 9/11 on sales of her condos — “It created so much uncertainty that people just went away,” Heaster said — she’s optimistic. “Mayor John Robert Smith and the city administration, plus the county board of supervisors, have been so supportive. Due to other downtown developments including the Riley Performing Arts Center bringing a portion of the Mississippi State campus here, and the Weidmann’s restaurant restoration, we’ll have a flourishing downtown.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.