Hattiesburg — The Historic Hattiesburg Business District has gone from an area of deserted buildings to a vital and active sector of the city in recent years: art galleries, eight restaurants, shops, the Saenger Theater and a continuing beehive of activity as renovations continue on such structures as the Ross and Faulkner Buildings, the old high school, the train depot, the Buschman Street boardinghouse and the Roseberry Building fill the landscape.
What the business district has lacked is a viable night life that attracts University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and William Carey College students and young adults, according to Bernice Linton, executive director of the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association (HHDA). The area has only one club with music, the Thirsty Hippo, a small New Orleans-style club.
This will change when the former Coca-Cola building, built in 1915 and long empty, opens as a restaurant, bar and entertainment venue.
The Market Street property, bought by investors Ken Dickinson, Nick Chichester and Ryan McNaab from owner John Cleere, is a two- story, brick building of some 12,200 square feet and is noted for its faded but still visible Coca-Cola logos on the front and side. Earlier, Cleere was offering the building for sale at $225,000, but the amount paid by the three new owners has not been disclosed.
“We have a real interest in the downtown area,” said Chichester. “Earlier entrepreneurs such as the Walnut Circle Grill and 206 Front have been successful down there. They’re leading the way. We’re excited about the future of that area and want to be part of it.”
Chichester said that right now they’re in the demolition and clean-up phase of construction inside the building. Hattiesburg’s All-Phase Construction, owned by Ken Cooley, is doing the construction work. A new roof and upgrading of electrical and plumbing systems are needed to bring the building up to code. The new restaurant and club will open in March.
“We want to restore the building as much like it was as the code will let us,” he said. “Both on the inside and outside we want to restore it back to the place that people in Hattiesburg remember.”
Coca-Cola has given its permission to repaint the Coke logos. Chichester said it hasn’t been decided if the side will be repainted.
“But we’ll definitely repaint the front, ‘Hattiesburg Bottling Co.,’ with the big Coke sign in the middle, so that people can see what it was like.”
Chichester said that he and his partners are still considering three or four names. The food will be informal — hamburgers, pizza — and not gourmet, “like a Chili’s, but not that extravagant.”
“There’s no place in South Mississippi where name acts can come through and play, and we want a club that can offer a variety of music, like the House of Blues in New Orleans and Hal and Mal’s in Jackson.”
Of course, college students are a big part of Hattiesburg’s economy, he said, and the partners want their new club to attract them, but they really want to attract everybody. “We want to be as diverse as possible, with every genre of music,”
Parking is an issue, Chichester said. The lots on each side of the building belong to the county and, so far, the county hasn’t given permission for the partners to use them.
“The city has been gracious and there are city parking lots in the area, which are secure and well-lit. And we’ll have security outside patrolling the parking lots. We feel that once people visit the area, they’ll see how well-lit and secure it is and feel good about visiting us again.”
Chichester said that he and his partners might be interested in further development in the area, “but, first, let’s see how well this current investment goes.”
“The opening of this entertainment venue will help to attract one of our target markets — college students,” Linton said. “Now the Thirsty Hippo is really our only entertainment venue.”
Linton said that if the area is to survive, it has to attract young adults. She believes the renovated Coke plant’s opening will help do that. People like a mix, like to move from one club to another, and ideally, the HHDA would like to get a third entertainment venue downtown.
“Shops and restaurants will benefit as well. The new club will be very up-scale and well-secured,” she said.
Along with Andrew Waites’ e-Valueville a block away, the opening will increase the historic business district’s expansion in an area that, until recently, has been dormant.
Until e-Valueville moved onto Market Street, revitalization had mostly been centered in the vicinity of Walnut Circle, Front Street and the train depot (which is being renovated, with work expected to be completed in February 2006).
“The renovation and opening of the old Coca-Cola building and the location of e-Valueville on Market Street will bring the street back together,” Linton said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.