Old Hattiesburg High School project still in limbo

HATTIESBURG — Since officials announced plans to restore the old Hattiesburg High School, the ambitious project has seemed to be cursed with setbacks — including an arson fire — that have prevented it from becoming the gem city leaders envisioned.

And now the project is in a state of limbo again — due to a weak economy.

But downtown officials are still optimistic their dreams for the structure will come to fruition, although it will probably take a lot longer than they would like.

“We still believe we have a viable project, but like so many other projects that are major investments, this one has been impacted by the economy,” said Betsy Rowell, executive director of the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association.

“There seems to be some promise on the horizon for an economic turnaround so we’re hoping — in the spring — to have conversations with people who are interested in the building.”

When the old school’s restoration was announced, officials with the University of Southern Mississippi expressed interest in making a major investment in the project by using the structure as the new home for the college’s art department.

Back in June 2010, HHDA officials said they were in negotiations with the university to broker a lease that would lock in USM’s commitment to the project. That was before the school was slammed with state and federal funding cuts.

“Southern Miss has financial challenges like every college right now,” said Holt McMullan, HHDA’s project leader for the endeavor. “I don’t know exactly what their game plan is now, (and) we’re trying to decide what to do next.”

USM’s interest in the building hasn’t waned, according to officials.

“The university is reviewing the feasibility of locating the arts programs at the old Hattiesburg High School building,” Chad Driskell, executive assistant to the president for external affairs, said.

“While the university’s budget dictates that we concentrate on our core facilities at this time, we remain committed to partnerships that will result in the restoration of this historically and architecturally significant structure.”

The last construction-related work that was performed on the structure, since it was heavily damaged by a May 29, 2007, arson fire, were rehab efforts on the front facade, which officials said helped in the securing of historic tax credits.

About $3 million already has been invested in the project — $50,000 of which was generated through the HHDA’s Internet-driven Cornerstone Campaign.

“Because it’s just sitting there waiting, we don’t think it’s fair to raise money in another campaign when we don’t know what’s going to happen with it yet,” Rowell said. “We still have people that make contributions to the project so there’s certainly not a lack of interest in it.”

Rowell said the fencing around the structure was recently repaired to help ward off any potential outside threats. There already have been several instances of vandalism, she said.

McMullan said the project’s stakeholders intend to meet next week to try to brainstorm what their next step should be.

“Hopefully some of the good things we’ve got going on downtown will help get the momentum back going again,” he said. “That’s a big building and it’s going to take a big lease payment.”

McMullan said he understands USM’s situation.

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