By TED CARTER
Regions Plaza’s future, as well as its bottom line, became considerably brighter with a recent announcement that law firm Forman Watkins & Krutz will occupy the upper four floors of the 22-story tower in downtown Jackson.
The 29-year-old firm’s move from downtown’s City Centre into the 55,000-square-foot space should be completed by late May or early June, partner W.G. Watkins Jr. said at a morning gathering on the Plaza’s 22nd floor, the former home of the University Club.
“We have offices in four other cities but this is our home,” Watkins said of downtown Jackson, describing the firm’s three-year search for a new home as one that kept returning to the upper floors of the circa 1975 Regions Plaza.
Forman Watkins’ lease of nine floors in downtown’s City Centre expires at the end of 2016.
Ultimately, the firm just could not move out of downtown to locations near malls and big box retailers. “There’s no character there,” Watkins said in summing up the search.
The firm’s fundamental foundation is as a Jackson law firm, he said. “This is our home. This is what we are proud of.”
Regions Plaza represents a “vision of what is and can be,” he said, calling the building a microcosm of downtown Jackson. Like Jackson, the plaza has had its share of setbacks. It sustained a pair of huge tenant hits late in the last decade with the departure of the Butler Snow law firm and HORNE CPAs to Ridgeland’s Renaissance at Colony Park.
Today, Forman Watkins has “a much clearer definition of who we are,” Watkins said, an apparent reference to the recent departure of more than 30 attorneys over “philosophical differences.” Many of the lawyers went to Delaware-based toxic tort firm Maron Marvel Bradley & Anderson and are working out of space at City Centre once occupied by Forman Watkins.
“It was clear that there were fundamental differences between groups within the firm as to certain philosophical beliefs and strategic vision for the future of the firm,” Watkins said in a mid-October press statement on the break-up.
“The separation was and is amicable, but everyone agreed that their separation from our firm was in their best interest and most importantly in the best overall interest of Forman Watkins.”
The firm, which specializes in mass torts litigation, shrank to about 120 employees, including 51 lawyers.
Jackson’s Wier Boerner Allin Architecture is handling design of Forman Watkins’ new space. “This project will have a major impact on downtown,” said the design firm’s Michael Boerner at the Tuesday gathering.
“I feel the design opportunity is limitless.”
The top floor will keep its large floor-to-ceiling windows, offering views of downtown Jackson and beyond in all directions from 318 feet, Watkins said, and added the openness of the new space provides plenty of opportunity for collaboration among lawyers and staff.
Keeping Forman Watkins downtown is huge for Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, the entity that oversees downtown’s Business Improvement District. Allen noted that while Regions Plaza’s landlord, the Hertz Investment Group, worked three years to gain Forman Watkins as a tenant, his agency spent those three years “worrying about it.”
Now, with Forman Watkins committed to remaining downtown, Allen said he has “one more thing” he can check off his nightly prayer list
Conceding he sounds like a “prophet for downtown,” Allen said he thinks the Central Business District’s many empty buildings will soon be filling up. “It’s going to turn around, folks.”
Forman Watkins’ move to Regions Plaza, marks a “huge” start for that turnaround, he said.
Meanwhile, Hertz Investment Group plans to move the remaining tenants of City Centre, 200 Lamar St., into the office complex’s 10-story north tower, a move that frees up the 12-floor south tower for new uses that could include a hotel, said Jim Ingram, Hertz’ executive vice president and chief investment officer.
The two buildings share a 518-space enclosed garage.
Hertz paid Parkway Properties $6.2 million for the twin towers which together cover 266,700 square feet. Renovated in 1987, City Centre includes two lobbies with a marble finish and an atrium with black granite and mahogany panels.