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Fondren hotel developers turn dirt, hope to turn around attitudes

The Hilton Homewood Suites hotel is targeted to be open in early spring of 2019./JACK WEATHERLY/MBJ

By JACK WEATHERLY

Dirt has been literally and ceremonially turned for the Hilton Homewood Suites hotel and the developers continue to work on winning over the Fondren community in north Jackson.

About 100 people, including neighbors, and city and state officials, gathered beneath a white pavilion on a brisk sunny Tuesday morning on the two-acre State Street  site.

A community normally welcomes investment, but the Ridgeland-based Heritage Hospitality Group, has had to win its way into the hearts and minds of the Fondren downtown district after the fact.

Some in the district with its strong arts flavor fear the loss of identity with a major corporate presence.

To sweeten the pot, Heritage Hospitality awarded on Tuesday a $10,000 check to the Friends of Children’s Hospital and $2,500 to the Fondren Renaissance Foundation.

Ali Bhatti, chief financial officer and general counsel for Heritage, said the gathering was an “opportunity to give the community a chance to come together and share the project.”

Robert Whitley and pet macaw Poco./JACK WEATHERLY/MBJ

One of the houses on the two-acre site will be moved elsewhere in the neighborhood, Bhatti said, while others — including one historically dubbed “The Fondren House” — were demolished and the hill on which they sat was leveled to make way for the hotel.

Windows, doors and air-conditioning units were salvaged and donated to charities, Bhatti said.

One shop owner, Robert Whitley, owner of Whitley’s Flowers, was on hand with his 25-year-old macaw, Poco.

He said he has “mixed feelings” about the hotel. “It takes away from the atmosphere of Fondren.“ Still, he said, “I can’t stop change, so I guess I’ll embrace it.”

Some Fondren businesses – La Brioche Patisserie, Campbell’s Bakery and Rooster’s – provided  breakfast food and Sneaky Beans brought the coffee.

Competition from Homewood Suites, which will have 4,000 square feet of retail space, has upset the Fondren shop owners.

Chico Patel, president of Heritage Hospitality, said the developers are considering a restaurant among its tenants.

Two other hotels are in the works for the Fondren business district – The Fondren, a Starwood Aloft brand, and the Hampton Inn, both of which will have retail space.

Patel said that Homewood Suites should be complete by early spring of 2019. The other two hotel projects, both also on State Street, have encountered obstacles, though developers say they are moving forward even though plans were announced nearly two years ago and no dirt has been turned.

A number of years ago, the Fondren district was granted a rezoning to Town Center Mixed Use, allowing such construction. Previously, it had been an overlay district, which is usually more restrictive, according the city Planning Director Mukesh Kumar.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who took office in July, acknowledged to the crowd there had been “challenges”  in doing business with the city in previous administrations.

He said that under his administration Jackson will be “business friendly.”

“We want you to be rich, we want you to be very rich, but we also want you to give back to the community,” Lumumba said.

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