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Traffic congestion has long been a problem for Jackson

Railroad improvement a welcomed site

While heavy traffic volume is attractive to businesses looking at prospective sites to set up shop, traffic congestion can be a deal-killer. One of the issues developers in downtown Jackson have faced is gridlock caused by rail traffic on the Kansas City Southern (KCS) line that crosses State Street on the southern end of the downtown area.

Numerous trains cross State Street daily, creeping across the major artery and snarling traffic. Travelers who are aware of this avoid the area. The unwitting sit in frustration.

However, improvements to the line have been made and will continue, KCS says. And, developers are thrilled, especially those pushing the proposed plan for a major downtown arena.

C. Doniele Kane, assistant vice president, corporate communications and community affairs, KCS, said, “KCS and its partner, Norfolk Southern, have looked at improving rail capacity and fluidity through Jackson, and improvements have been made in recent years that have improved rail fluidity through Jackson…Reducing wait times for motorists at State and West streets is certainly a prime objective of these improvements…”

Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, said the southern end of downtown offers attractive sites for businesses, but some prospects have looked elsewhere due to the traffic congestion at the rail line.

He called the value of the land “incalculable.”

“It is relatively inexpensive, Town Creek runs through it, it is close to the heart of the business district and near I-55. Any time you have four or five trains a day blocking traffic for a long time, it’s a problem,” Allen said.

A quick glance while driving by the intersection of State Street and the rail line tells the story. Of the buildings on each of the four corners, two are totally vacant. A third is a former car dealership — only the auto repair shop in the back is open; the former showroom and lot are empty. A used car dealership occupies the fourth corner, but only has a handful of vehicles on the lot.

More of the same is true in the adjacent areas. Buildings along State Street south of the rail line are largely unused, and in many cases in disrepair. Ditto structures along Silas Brown Street that runs east and west along the rail line.

Just east of where the railroad crosses State Street, a now unused rail spur cuts to the north and runs along Commerce Street. Known commonly as the Warehouse District, numerous abandoned buildings on both sides of Commerce Street sport broken windows, graffiti and unkempt landscape. A few businesses are in operation here, but the majority are unattractive, many not even offering a sign to identify them.

However, many see treasure in this trash. Indeed, the area has been getting lookers — and takers. During a recent trolley car tour, Allen pointed out many properties in the area that had already been purchased, and projects there are in various stages of development. He spotlighted a former warehouse on Silas Brown Street that is being developed into 16 apartments by Hal Parker. The structure is dilapidated now, but will soon be transformed into new, quaint downtown Jackson residential space.

Many of these old buildings offer exposed interior brick, original wood floors and other features that make them prime candidates for unique New York-style flats. Developers in other Mississippi communities such as Oxford, Columbus and Vicksburg have had tremendous success with similar projects, and Allen said most of these conversions are leased before developers even start working on them.

“Jackson is way behind in downtown residential space,” Allen said. “This type of work has been going on for years in other cities. Right now, we have a serious unmet need for new residential downtown.”

Allen said the Warehouse District is also drawing interest, and he envisions the old, historic structures gaining new life, as well.

To the west of State Street, the rail line is also running directly through property for which developers have big plans. The line cuts through the middle of two major proposed developments — the 30,000-plus-seat downtown arena and the Jackson State University stadium. The adjacent proposed sites are located near the new Jackson Convention Complex.

The rail line runs between the two sites. Allen said he envisions a major augmentation — digging the soil out from under the rail line and creating a railroad bridge. This would clear the way for a parking lot that would serve both the proposed facilities.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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