The Mississippi Trade Mart, long the workhorse venue of the State Fairgrounds, will have to wait at least several more years for a renovation.
Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith had included refurbishing of the approximately 73,000-square-foot exhibition center and neighboring Mississippi Coliseum in what was to be a $30-million appropriations request to legislators this year. Hyde-Smith has since dropped the Trade Mart and revamped her request to focus exclusively on the Coliseum.
She now wants $40 million for upgrades to the more than half-century-old Coliseum. “We are taking it a step at a time,” the first-term ag commissioner said in an interview this week. “This is the first step of more to come,” she added in pledging to seek money later to upgrade the aging Trade Mart.
The Trade Mart, meanwhile, will continue on as one of the state’s busiest exhibition venues. Billy Orr, State Fairgrounds director, and his deputy, Jake Hutchins, are keeping the Trade Mart’s 67,000 square feet of open space booked by pitching its central location, ample parking and low costs.
“We’re right on the interstate near two interchanges,” Orr said. “We’ve got plenty of parking. It’s probably the safest place (among Jackson’s exhibition and meeting venues) because of its location. I think, though, the big reason is the cost per square foot.”
In setting his rental fees, Orr is mainly concerned about covering the cost of keeping the place running. The goal, he said, is to “make our budget every year and pay our utility fees and salaries”
On the booking side, Orr said on a scale of 1 to 10, “I’d give it a solid 8. It’s been good. We stay pretty full.”
The opening of the more than 300,000-square-foot Jackson Convention Center Complex on Pascagoula Street slightly more than three years ago has made no detectable dent in Trade Mart bookings, according to Orr.
“I’ve never noticed” a drop off, he said.
While the Convention Center complex has a new, modern structure with attractive features such as carpeting, clean and spacious restrooms and escalators, the Center can’t accommodate the large events staged at the Trade Mart each year, chief among them the Jackson Junior League’s Mistletoe Marketplace.
“The Convention Center doesn’t have the parking nor the square footage,” said Hutchins, Fairgrounds deputy director and chief booker of events at both the Trade Mart and Coliseum.
The Mistletoe extravaganza is the Trade Mart’s largest event of the year and shows no signs of slowing its annual growth. “It’s bringing people from everywhere,” Hutchins said. “We have to put tents outside. It’s something to see.”
Other major events for Trade Mart use each year are the State Fair, the Dixie National Rodeo, the Wildlife Extravaganza and Farris Brothers Hardware & Sporting Goods Show.
The Trade Mart hosts gun shows regularly as well as gatherings for state fire marshals, car shows, craft shows, bridal shows, legislative events, and gatherings for groups such as state fire marshals. The Trade also has hosted the Mississippi Business Journal’s annual Business & Technology Expo and will do so again on April 4.
Event organizers such as the Junior League tell Fairgrounds officials they want the Trade Mart’s interior modernized and more restrooms, Hutchins said.
Holly Lange, president of the Jackson Junior League, said her organization is happy with the Trade Mart as host for the holiday marketplace, though “our biggest concern would be the bathrooms. We typically have flooding in there.”
The Junior League would also like to see improved telecom hookups and more technological amenities, Lange said.
The organization has no plans to move the event to the Convention Center, according to Lange. She said although with some flexibility the Center could provide sufficient space, it lacks enough parking to accommodate people who come from hundreds of miles away to shop for holiday ornaments and gifts.
The Junior League has staged the Mistletoe Marketplace for 28 years, an event that begins the first Wednesday of November and runs through Saturday.
“I believe it has always been at the Trade Mart,” said Lange, a 10-year member of the Junior League.
“We love the Trade Mart,” she said. “We love the Trade Mart staff. They do a great job of managing what they do.”
Hutchins said the renovations can’t start soon enough. “The Trade Mart has been run and run and then run some more,” he said.
When the money is there, Hutchins has a priority list of improvements for the Trade Mart. “The Trade Mart has roof leaks. We need to get the air conditioning units off the roof,” he said.
Overall, it needs “a complete face lift, including a bigger foyer on the front,” he added.
Energy efficiency could easily be gained by extending a hot-and-cold-water loop from the Coliseum to the Trade Mart, Hutchins said. The “high-vac” loop begins at the William F. Winter Utility Plant and provides a 24-hour flow to ensure adequate climate control for rare and valuable items stored at the Mississippi Department of Archives.
The Coliseum has been hooked to the high-vac system. Serving the Trade Mart would involve extending the loop from the Coliseum to the exhibition center, Hutchins said. “We’re already plumbed for it. It’s just a matter of hooking on.”
He said the project will likely have to wait until the renovations are started because radiators must be put in to process the 200-degree heated water the loop can provide. The loop can also provide water chilled to 45 degrees.
“It’s pumping 24/7. We’d be a lot more energy efficient with it,” he said.
For now, Hutchins will go on booking and waiting for the day he has a fixed-up venue to sell. “The Trade Mart is a Grand Old Lady,” he said. “She just needs a facelift.”