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Downtown leading way for biz investment, development

JACKSON — The year 2006 brought positive business investment and real estate development for Jackson. As the capital and state’s largest metropolitan area, Jackson is a hub for government, retail, cultural and medical activities for the state. The resurgence of downtown is leading the way.

“Wow! There are a bunch of positive things going on. It’s hard to pick just one to talk about,” says John Lawrence, president of Downtown Jackson Partners. “It’s been really exciting.”

He says the downtown office occupancy rate is high and rates high in comparison to other cities of similar size. Some 26,500 people work downtown every day. There’s a lot of buzz about new restaurants with 17 added this year, bringing the total to 40 downtown eateries.

Lawrence points to The Pinnacle at Jackson Place as one of the year’s most exciting developments. Being developed by Parkway Properties at the corner of Capitol and Lamar streets, the eight-story complex will include office space, retail shops, residences and parking.

Steve Rogers, president and CEO of Parkway Properties, is highly motivated to complete the downtown project. “A lot of professional firms need space downtown and will move without it. We will provide class A space,” he said. “We will benefit from the GO Zone and what we can do with those incentives. And, we are very committed to this city and are supportive of all the other developments going on.”

A Jackson native who’s lived all his adult life inside the city limits, Rogers says all the private projects are adding to the positive things already going on in the public sector. He serves as finance chairman for the Capital City Convention Center Commission, noting the commission’s new building has begun.

“That’s a very important project along with the new federal courthouse,” he said. “Those are two of the largest public projects.”

On the private side, Rogers says his New York Stock Exchange-listed company has the money in the bank to complete The Pinnacle. “It’s a 100% certainty on my project,” he said. “We will also put significant dollars into the parking garage to make it class A. We will try to bring retail back and encourage residential development. All will be connected with glass-enclosed corridors.”

Rogers is talking about bars, coffee shops and restaurants at The Pinnacle and feels retail will follow residential development.

Lawrence says getting people to live downtown is a main goal. “Long-term success depends on that and is driving downtown development,” he said. “The market is there. People want this type of life style. A study shows we have a pent-up demand for it.”

Lawrence, who lives downtown, says an estimated 1,400 units are needed, but all available units are occupied at this time. Residences at the Electric 308 and Plaza buildings were rented before construction started. Sterling Towers, a long-time residential building, stays full and demands high rents.

Residential and retail

“Iron Works and Dickies are former industrial buildings converted into residential space,” he said. “They’re as hip and nice as anything you see anywhere.”

Realtor Mike Peters and attorney Crymes Pittman are bringing additional residential units to the corner of Tombigbee and South State streets. Construction begins in early 2007 on the old warehouse that will have loft apartments above the ground floor law offices.

“These will be really cool places,” Peters says, “and will be available next summer. We are using existing buildings so the cost is less. A certain percentage of the population wants to live downtown, and we’ve never offered them any options.”

Peters had success with development of the Plaza Building. That’s one reason he’s working on this project and plans to do others. He put a restaurant on the bottom floor of the Plaza and hopes to do the same with this new project.

“I’m confident shopping will come as we get more people living downtown,” he said. “Right now it’s not that far away. If we get enough people, someone will open a grocery store or drug store or others. Right now the hottest place is downtown.”

Rogers says there is no short-term fix to revitalize Jackson’s downtown. “It’s not a short-term thing and we’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “It takes time, energy and money to get it done.”

A cooperative effort is a significant part. He works all over the country and sees that successful downtowns have this cooperation as a common denominator. “We’ve just met with the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, and we have good cooperation from the city,” he said. “Our community is doing great. We have our warts, but things are coming together. Jackson has been a city since 1822 and the city goes on.”

Parkway is just one of the players, and Rogers is hopeful all the proposed projects will be completed. “Everyone matters and thousands of decisions have to come together,” he said.
Carl Allen is director of the city’s planning and development and works closely with developers. “The city can keep up with infrastructure for all the new development,” he said. “We’re fine with it but we’re looking down the road, too.”

He’s pleased with the many construction jobs and the permanent ones being created, noting that makes the best kind of economic development.

“The main thing is the idea of revitalizing downtown,” he said. “The Pinnacle will lend itself to a lot of development and the King Edward Hotel is finally going with the start of asbestos abatement there. I see a trend downtown and I’m excited about it.”

Allen is also hopeful downtown nightlife will return so the area doesn’t become empty after five o’clock.

Ambitious venture

Lawrence says the Old Capitol Green Project is also big news for the year. The ambitious eight-block venture will have mixed-use and green space with curbside restaurants and retail space.

John Turner, Entergy Mississippi economic development director, is working with the project and said Full Spectrum was selected as the master developer and has begun the design and construction phase.

Lawrence lists other major projects happening in the 66-block downtown area. The Mississippi Museum of Art began an $11-million renovation last summer. Construction on the convention center also began last summer with an estimated cost of $65 million. The huge facility will include a banquet hall, exhibit hall and registration lobby. The King Edward Hotel is projected to have 152 hotel rooms, 72 condominiums and retail space.

The Mississippi Supreme Court is building a 159,000-square-foot facility on High Street. The new $11-million headquarters for the Jackson Police Department is underway on East Pascagoula Street. Construction has begun on the Mill Street Viaduct Improvement and Market that will include an open-air market, clock tower and courtyard with benches at a cost of $4.9 million. Interior and exterior renovations were completed on the six-story building at 200 North Congress Street for $1 million.

Downtown is officially bounded by Jefferson Street on the east, Mill Street on the west, Court Street on the south and George Street on the north. “We’re charged with promoting businesses in that area, but we drift outside those boundaries,” Lawrence said, “because it all helps the whole area. Downtown is cleaner and safer than it’s ever been. We’re pretty happy with it.”

Historic neighborhoods hot

The reinvigoration of downtown goes hand in hand with the New Urbanism trend toward city living with less dependence on automobiles and a heightened sense of community. Two of Jackson’s premiere areas for those livable ideas are Belhaven and Fondren. Both are enjoying renewed popularity.

“Things are going well here,” says Virgi Lindsay, executive director of the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation. “Property values continue to increase. We’re a small town within a large city. When you buy a home here, you’re buying a life style; not just buying property.”

She says the lifestyle is quaint and charming in an authentic, historic neighborhood that includes two distinct areas, Belhaven and Belhaven Heights. The foundation is affiliated with the Main Street program, and while it puts emphasis on beautiful residences, it also promotes a business district. There are currently $75 million in business projects planned, under construction or recently completed.

The foundation serves an area bounded by High Street, Woodrow Wilson, I-55 and Congress Street. The business district includes the closest grocery and drug stores for the downtown area.

Lindsay, who’s lived in four different houses in Belhaven for 22 years, says all the homes are at least 50 years old with many dating much earlier than that. “We have architectural guidelines and even new houses must conform. We don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb,” she said. “The guidelines govern windows, doors, porches and architectural details. Each house is distinct. It is a very diverse neighborhood and the people who live here are diverse too.”

Residents walk, jog and ride bicycles along the streets and sidewalks. The neighborhood has a well developed urban forest that provides a tree canopy and established parks. It also provides easy access to Jackson’s medical district, shopping and colleges. Begun six years ago, the foundation operates the Greater Belhaven Market in the town center every Saturday from April through December. Everything for sale must be home grown or home made.

“We have a lot of young families and some people who built their homes many years ago and have remained. It’s a melting pot,” Lindsay said. “Houses don’t stay on the market long.

To the west, Fondren is a bustling, eclectic neighborhood that combines a thriving business district with a residential area. According to Mary Jo McAnally, associate director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, the boundaries are Northside Drive, Woodrow Wilson Avenue, Mill Street and Interstate 55.

“It’s a large area and an old part of Jackson,” she said. “Values have doubled for some of the homes since the Foundation started seven or eight years ago. Unfortunately, you can’t find anything under $100,000, so that hurts young people wanting to move here.”

McAnally says it’s hard to argue with the success of the area where there are no vacancies in the business area. “Business is unbelievable and the merchants are happy,” she said. “We have a real neighborhood and we’re holding up against crime and urban blight.”

One of the ways the Foundation aids the area is by applying for grants to help homeowners renovate their property. Two of those, the Phoenix Initiative sponsored by St. Dominic Health Services and the Façade Grants through the city, have been used to improve 17 homes and a park this year.

“Homeowners apply for the grants and the construction crews work for the Foundation,” she said. “We want to get the most for our money. The concentration of work is on the west side of State Street.”

Cherokee Heights Park is owned by the city, and McAnally describes it as a wonderful park that is a diamond in the rough. “We would like to put in a walking trail, water fountain, electricity and an open-air pavilion for artists.”

Fondren is known as a haven for artists, and McAnally says she receives calls from artists every day looking for studio space. That artistic flavor adds to the area’s color and diversity.

“It’s the most diverse neighborhood in Jackson with the racial and age mix,” she said. “The founding fathers set loose boundaries on purpose to make it diverse. It’s not a historic district and there are no guidelines, but people do check with us about building.”

Fondren is considered a tourism end destination with its working artists and colorful mix of small shops. The Foundation owns Jackson’s oldest home, the Cedars, which it purchased three years ago. It has a great kitchen, thanks to Riverwood Home Appliances and Viking Range, and is used for events.

“The Cedars was the last stage coach stop before Canton,” McAnally said. “We keep furnishings to a minimum and hang art there.”

In a recent report to Foundation donors, McAnally listed the following new additions in the past three years: 12 retail businesses (including a grocery store), three restaurants, two architectural firms and three professional buildings.

“We’re like a small town. We even have a post office,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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