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David Watkins turns passion for preserving historic landmarks into a second profession

Jackson attorney hopes to bring back downtown’s grandeur

Jackson — After devoting more than 30 years to the practice of law, attorney David Watkins turned his passion for preserving historic landmarks into a second profession as a renovation specialist.

To celebrate the completion of his first major renovation project, Watkins cannot wait to host a Grand Gala in early 2007 in the grand ballroom of the finally refurbished King Edward Hotel in downtown Jackson.

Watkins’ interest in historic renovation projects, specifically in downtown Jackson, was heightened when he gathered information for a client on the King Edward Hotel. The dilapidated property opened as a $1- million, 12-story, 300-room hotel known as The Edwards House December 29, 1923, and has sat empty for 38 years.

“When I was at Adams & Reese, because of my legislative work on public policy issues, I was the governmental relations contact in the Jackson office,” explained Watkins. “We had a client that wanted to take a look at the King Edward. They called me to set up meetings with the mayor and city officials to get the lay of the land. One thing led to another, and I represented them and got excited about the project. In November 2003, they lost their bid so the client went away, but it stuck with me.”

Watkins continued to study the issues and worked with the business and economic development community and educated himself on development laws, theories and practices.

“Next thing I know, I’m a developer,” he said, with a laugh. “When the St. Louis deal looked like it wasn’t going to work, I continued working with the Jackson Redevelopment Authority and our own team. In the meantime, I’d found out that Deuce McAllister was interested in doing some downtown development work, so I called him to talk. I said, ‘You’ve got the name and the money. I’ve got experience in politics. HRI has the expertise. So let’s see if we can do something to make a difference.’”

When the three parties met in New Orleans, “there was great chemistry,” said Watkins. “I decided it may kill me or bankrupt me, but I was going to do the King Edward. I’ve spent over two years working on it now and know the building inside and out.”

New Orleans-based HRI (Historic Restoration Inc.), McAllister Enterprises of Mississippi and Watkins Partners decided to spearhead the $35-million Jackson King Edward Project, a public-private venture that Watkins believes “will serve as a cornerstone to major systemic change for the state’s capital city.”

With a primary emphasis on downtown living, the development team plans to have upscale residential units, including a mix of apartments and condominiums on floors 3-10, and luxury office space on the top two floors, with the top level featuring 17-foot ceilings and panoramic views of the city. “This mix could change slightly after we complete our market/use studies,” noted Watkins.

The developers plan to restore the first two floors to their original grandeur. The grand lobby will feature 30-foot columns and ceilings and a restored marble grand stairway to the second floor ballroom and retail stores. In the works: a new four-star restaurant, an oyster bar and a New York style deli-grocery market. “We still have some flexibility with this floor and are looking at various other options that might enhance the downtown experience,” said Watkins.

Plans for the 25,000-square-foot grand ballroom on the second floor, one of Watkins’ favorite spaces, includes restoration of the old “convention hall” for art exhibits, wedding receptions and other social and community events. A fully-equipped health club and European spa, with access to a new outdoor heated pool in a private and secure New Orleans-style ground-level courtyard, is being planned, along with a corridor of barbershops, beauty shops, manicurists and other health and beauty operations.

“While we were originally somewhat daunted at the challenge of finding some way to utilize all that space (on the second floor), the response from the retail and commercial community to the project has been overwhelming,” said Watkins. “This is a relevant and important indicator of what we see as the unmet demand for a greater array of retail operations in downtown Jackson.”

A bookstore and gourmet coffee shop will act as a hub for other retail boutiques, possibly including art galleries, upscale clothing stores for men and women, a wine shop, a fine leather goods shop, a pub and another specialty restaurant.

“We are working with the City of Jackson to provide highly convenient and secure parking garage facilities, probably in the same area as the hotel’s previous parking garage,” said Watkins.

Watkins, who moved his law practice into the renovated Union Station Railway Depot last year, also has an eye on renovating the 1929 art deco Standard Life Building, another historic landmark that caught McAllister’s attention.

“The city owns that building and we think we can get some economies of scale by doing both in the same block and redoing the parking garage,” he said. “We should wind up with 120 families at the King Edward and maybe 90 in the Standard Life building. We’re talking about a pretty dramatic change in downtown Jackson.”

Watkins and McAllister are working on other Jackson-area and national scope projects “but it wouldn’t be appropriate at this time to talk about it,” he said.

The developers had hoped to host a Grand Gala at the reopening of the King Edward Hotel in December 2006, but the construction schedule was delayed slightly when U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) helped the City of Jackson secure $800,000 in federal appropriations for environmental remediation for the historic property. The public bid process is expected to take several weeks.

“It’s very welcome because it will help close that gap,” said Watkins. “This renovation is a true community effort. Everybody’s pitching in. Other developers have told me I’m not going to make any money, and that’s true. We won’t see anything for 12 to 15 years, but we hope it’ll spawn other significant development opportunities where we, and others as well, can make serious money.”

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

About Lynne W. Jeter

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