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Vision includes trolley system, resort exemption

Developing Warehouse District: challenges, opportunities abound

Jackson — On Fat Tuesday, Shawn Hunt and Mary Grace Brown joined Hal & Mal’s in the burgeoning Warehouse District when they officially opened Mardi Gras, a full-service restaurant, bar and dance club, spurring interest in the potential of the less developed part of downtown.

“Commerce Street has been one of Jackson’s hidden jewels that people are finally discovering,” said John Lawrence, president of Downtown Jackson Partners. “It has grown into a true entertainment district. Hal & Mal’s has been the catalyst, committing to the area for 20 years and inspiring others to try it. Martin’s has been able to capture different, distinct niches to successfully fill every operating hour. The Red Room is also now open late and W.C. Don’s entered the market not quite a year ago.”

Terry Butler, events coordinator at W.C. Don’s, and owner of the predecessor alternative indie nightspot by the same name, called the Warehouse District “the new place to be.”

“I love the ambience of this little district, the flavor, the architecture, the way the streets are laid out back here,” he said. “Farish Street has its own style while we’re definitely more into the alternative rock ‘n’ roll style music. It’s trite to say we’re trying to be another Beale Street or French Quarter, but we definitely have the opportunity to have an entertainment district that’s unique.”

The availability of property has prompted the surge in growth, said Lawrence.

“In most parts of downtown, 90% of the property is either occupied by an existing business or owned by people who are holding out for rents higher than most budding entrepreneurs can pay,” he said. “When you calculate exterior renovation costs and interior improvements and then tack on regular operating expenses, it takes a pretty determined individual with a great plan to tackle this type of project. But on Commerce Street, many people have been able to rent or purchase buildings at a more reasonable price.”

The buzz surrounding the Warehouse District coincides with the continued development of the Farish Street Entertainment District and the planned $2-million LeFleurs Landing Festival Park in downtown Jackson, a 43-acre site on the Pearl River near Jefferson Street, prompting concern from potential developers about favoritism toward what many perceive as the city’s pet projects.

“The incentives for the Warehouse District are no more or less than usual,” said Franklyn Tate, deputy director of planning and development for the Jackson Redevelopment Authority. “Our office implements two grant programs — storefront improvement and small business development grants — and I believe the Warehouse District is eligible for tax exemptions. The City of Jackson has an ordinance that if a building is 25 years or older, has historically been used for a commercial purpose, and is converted to residential use, we’ll grant a seven-year tax exemption on the building.”

Farish Street’s designation as a resort district, allowing restaurants and nightclubs located there to serve alcohol after midnight, has caught the attention of Hal & Mal’s co-owner Malcolm White.

“Malcolm said, ‘Look, I’ve been here for 20 years, I’d like that designation,’ so we’re looking at making that area a special district along those lines so that it is attractive to partygoers who carry on well into the night,” said Tate.

Hunt said he and Brown spent four months driving around Jackson looking for a suitable location to open a restaurant when they spied the train tracks near the former Fowler Buick facility.

“We got to thinking about the trolley tracks between our place and Hal & Mal’s, and envisioned a trolley system similar to New Orleans’ with stops along the way,” said Hunt. “The bar and restaurant businesses do better with tourists when they are grouped together. We’d known Malcolm for a while and worked good together, so he was interested. Others looking at properties in that area have asked about our vision and seem to like it.”

Hunt dismissed the notion that crime might be problematic in the area.

“Since I’ve been down here, it’s been one of the safest places I’ve ever been,” he said. “We had a little party on New Year’s Eve and one of our guests accidentally left keys on a car in the parking lot. They were still sitting there the next morning.”

Lawrence said other businesses are also thriving in the Warehouse District.

“George Bell Carpets has one of the most interesting facilities you will ever see,” he said. “Entergy is, of course, a major steward of the area. There are law offices, a storage facility, gas stations and a Trustmark on the blocks of Commerce. And there is another non-food-related business making plans for a former automotive building down the street. As well, the potential for new office and apartment projects continues to grow in the area.

“However, these projects have been somewhat hampered by the recent buzz. New office and apartment construction or renovation is so costly and difficult that any little blip will change the entire proforma. The purchase price on some key lots have been driven up by high expectations and is making it tricky to pencil out some fabulous apartment and office buildings that would like to be on or near Commerce. We hope that the property owners will understand that they can only profit if the deal works financially for the developer. On the other hand, many people are so caught up in the spirit of community development that they are willing to do what it takes to get things done.”

A year or so ago, Downtown Jackson Partners drew up some simple plans as an idea of Commerce Street becoming a true downtown neighborhood with living, working and playing opportunities, from the refurbished bridge at Silas Brown to the Old Capitol Museum, said Lawrence.

“This was validated by the City of Jackson’s Strategic Downtown Plan that was recently released,” he said. “And today, we see area property owners and private investors and local lenders banding together with government to try to accomplish something great along this street that until recently was considered an access road. Infrastructure wise, there is a long way to go. Development-wise, there are still far more opportunities than businesses to fill them. We have a lot of work ahead of us. But with great long-time anchors and major new investments from people like the Browns, Commerce could become one of Mississippi’s most exciting neighborhoods.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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