Coalition thinks Burlington store could be the catalyst

by Wally Northway

Published: September 24,2007

Many times, area-revitalization efforts begin with small victories that lead to larger successes. But proponents of reinvigorating the U.S. 80 retail corridor in Jackson believe they have a walk-before-you-crawl story.

They feel they scored a coup with the August opening of the Burlington Coat Factory in the Metrocenter Mall., and are now looking for more, lesser-scale successes to follow.

“Landing Burlington was really, really big. Now, we are looking for some smaller victories,” says Nina Holbrook, executive director of the Metrocenter Area Coalition. “Areas change, evolve. We can’t be what we used to be. We had to find a new niche. And we believe we have found it with the coming of Burlington.”

Anchor store

In August, Burlington Coat Factory opened in an 88,000-square-foot space in Metrocenter. For New Jersey-based Burlington, it represented the second location in Mississippi (the other is in Southaven) for the discount retailer that now has nearly 400 stores nationwide.

For those leading efforts to rebirth the U.S. 80 corridor, the store represents a much-needed anchor store not only for the state’s largest mall, Metrocenter, but the entire area that has suffered some big-box closings in recent years. It means more to them than just the approximately 100 jobs Burlington brought. They believe the new store has created both a catalyst and a niche — discount.

Holbrook says the opening of Burlington has already sparked interest from other retailers. The Burlington store occupies the bottom floor of what was the two-floor Gayfers department store. The vacant second floor encompasses 87,000 square feet, and according to Holbrook has received numerous perspective tenants.

At press time, Holbrook could divulge no names, but said the space could be leased in its entirety to one tenant or subdivided and leased to as many as five tenants. She said the owner, SouthEast Properties, LLC, was being selective, and wanted a tenant or tenants that were of the same quality as Burlington.

And with the success seen at the former Gayfers space, the owners of the former Dillard’s, another anchor that exited Metrocenter in 2004, have contacted Holbrook and SouthEast Properties seeking help in redeveloping it.

Long journey

At the grand opening, Holbrook noted license plates in the Burlington parking lot from as far away as the Coast and Louisiana. She says the store’s shelves and racks were almost empty after the first day of business.

This was especially gratifying for Holbrook, a native of Jackson who once managed Metrocenter. In June 1998, Holbrook left the mall to join the Metrocenter Area Coalition, a group focused on revitalizing the mall and the entire retail corridor. The coalition faced many challenges at its outset, but experienced a painful loss soon after forming.

In April 1999, Gayfers closed its doors in the Metrocenter. While part of the mall, the space was owned by Dillard’s, not Metrocenter. Dillard’s even owned the parking lot. So, the mall could do nothing but stand by and watch as its anchor went dark.

Holbrook, who leads the coalition and is a broker with SouthEast Properties, immediately started looking for a way to fill the vacant big space. It would prove a long journey to success.

Holbrook says she hit on the idea of discount retail and Burlington early. She approached Burlington and the company expressed interest, but Holbrook says the asking price for the space was too high and the numbers just would not work.

Approximately three years ago, Holbrook first approached Yandell Wideman, president of SouthEast Properties, about purchasing the former Gayfers space. Wideman is a retail developer who has Metro Junction, a shopping complex near Metrocenter. He liked the space, but not the price.

Holbrook says that Dillard’s eventually lowered the price of the space, known as Metro Marketplace, and it was purchased by Buddy Herrin of Meridian. Southeast Properties made Herrin an offer, which he accepted. With that, Holbrook and SouthEast Properties finally had their space.

Holbrook, who had kept up a constant dialogue with Burlington, went back to the discount retailer with a deal containing more attractive numbers. Burlington liked what it saw and signed on.

Changing perception

The coming of Burlington is especially good news for an area that needs some positive happenings. The area has seen large concerns such as Toys “R” Us and the Landers-McLarty automobile dealership close shop in recent years, in addition to the losses suffered by Metrocenter.

Some of this can be attributed to the emergence of Ridgeland, Madison and Flowood as new, bustling retail corridors, areas that have siphoned off shoppers. However, perhaps a bigger problem for the U.S. 80 area is crime, or the perception of it.

Holbrook is adamant that crime is not as big a problem as some believe. She says during her time in management at Metrocenter, there was one purse-snatching. She attributes the mall’s success in combating crime to extra security measures. Now, Holbrook says that same strategy is being implemented in the area.

Leaders in the area are also looking to better promote the positives the U.S. 80 corridor offers. These include the Saks Operations Center, which employs hundreds of workers, Central Mississippi Medical Center, the recently expanded Puckett Machinery Company facility as well as Metrocenter.

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

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