Landmark changes hands

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Published: August 18,2008

The Edison Walthall Hotel is no more.

But the structure on Capitol Street, for decades a landmark in downtown Jackson, will not evaporate like its counterpart, the King Edward Hotel, did for so long before it began its rebirth.

Instead, the Edison Walthall is now the Roberts Vista Hotel after the St. Louis-based Roberts Hotels Group purchased the hotel for $4 million.

The old Edison Walthall’s previous owner had filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

Michael Roberts, CEO of the Roberts Companies, of which the Roberts Hotels Group is a subsidiary, said he will pump $10 million into the hotel for renovations and repairs, the most glaring of which are new air conditioning units so all the rooms can be used. Currently, only 78 of 208 rooms can house guests.

Roberts’ company already does business in the Jackson area; it owns the CW television station and the 97.7 FM radio station.

The Edison Walthall has long been a popular spot for downtown workers to grab lunch during the day and a drink at happy hour after work. It has hosted political campaigns and draft parties for Mississippi’s emerging professional athletes.

It was that history, combined with the forthcoming Jackson Convention Center, that attracted Roberts.

“You’re about to embark on a momentous history with your downtown, and we wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “After that (the convention center) is built there is going to be a great need for hotel space in downtown Jackson and is going to incentivize other investors to buy into hotels.”

But it’s going to take some time to get the new Roberts Vista in order.

“There are a variety of issues,” Roberts said, referring to the air conditioning troubles and low employee morale that plagued the former ownership.

There is not yet a timetable for the completion of the $10-million worth of renovations, but Roberts says, “They will begin immediately. Our staff began working yesterday (August 12).”

It is possible that the hotel will not be the Roberts Vista permanently. Roberts admitted in a news conference last week that he is considering “branding” the hotel, meaning it could become one of a franchise, like a Hyatt or a Crowne Plaza.

Whatever name appears on the outside, the interior will feature 208 guest rooms with 23 suites, banquet facilities, complimentary shuttle service to and from Jackson-Evers International Airport and will have a staff of approximately 60 workers.

Those workers who were already in place and wanted to remain did, Roberts said. Morale had suffered under former ownership, which sometimes struggled to make payroll as part of its bankruptcy filing. As part of his purchase deal, Roberts is to spend $70,000 on employee back pay. “Our employees are first and foremost to us,” Roberts said. “I told them this was their job to lose.”

Negotiations between Roberts and former owner Earl Gaylor “have been going on for quite some time,” Roberts said. But things got serious last week and the pertinent details were hammered out in less than 24 hours. “I got three phone calls in one day asking if I was interested, so I took that as a sign,” Roberts said.

Aside from his television station and radio station in Jackson, this does not represent Roberts’ first attempt to set up shop in Jackson. He was one of the bidders for the Standard Life Building, but lost out to the group led by David Watkins, who is also developing the King Edward.

Roberts made it a point to say that losing on the Standard Life deal did not discourage him from jumping on the Edison Walthall.

“Business is business, and I don’t take anything personally,” he said.

Nor does the current economic climate, which has stalled many an economic development project nationally, worry him.

“People are afraid,” Roberts said. “I’m asking them not to be afraid. You’re not a victim of a mortgage company or a bank unless you choose to be. We like this community and we intend to be good corporate citizens and support it.”

Downtown Jackson Partners president Ben Allen is happy the hotel is seemingly on a path of economic turnaround.

“It has a been a mainstay for decades in downtown Jackson,” Allen said. “We were very pleased that the person who’s buying it is going to put some real money in it. (Had the deal fallen through) it wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker as far as anything else is concerned, but it definitely would have hurt our psyche.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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