MSU in negotiations with new developer for CottonMill

Mississippi State’s old physical plant building is one of the most historic buildings in Starkville.

Mississippi State University and a Golden Triangle developer have until early January to either come to an agreement for the development of the area around the school’s old physical plant building — or go their separate ways.

Mark Castleberry, owner of Columbus-based Castle Properties, was one of three respondents to a request for proposals the school issued in early August that sought a new approach for CottonMill Marketplace, a mixed-use development anchored by a conference center and a refurbished E.E. Cooley Building.

Ridgeland developer Mark Nicholas and his Atlanta-based partner Mark Boutwell had worked on the project since 2008, inking in 2009 a contract with MSU to develop the property, which sits directly across one of the main entrances to MSU. Original plans included transforming the Cooley Building, which once housed the school’s physical plant, into office space for university personnel and surrounding it with a conference center, a hotel, a parking deck and retail and restaurant space.

That contract between MSU and Nicholas and Boutwell expired in April, according to David Shaw, vice president for research and economic development at the school. Nicholas and Shaw both said last week work toward finalizing the size and scope of the project continued after the contract’s expiration.

Nicholas and Boutwell said that in early August, they brought their out-of-state lender to a meeting with Shaw and other MSU officials in an effort to assure the school that financing to develop the conference center, the hotel and to renovate the Cooley Building was in place. The developers, they said, were under the impression that the meeting had been a success and that construction could soon start on a scaled-down version of CottonMill that included a conference center, adjacent hotel and the renovation of the Cooley Building.

“We showed them the financing was in place,” Nicholas said. “And then a week after that meeting, we got noticed that they were going to put it out for an RFP, which really took us by surprise.”

Shaw said university officials decided in July that the project needed a “fresh set of eyes on it. We needed the best ideas.” It was then, he said, that the decision was made to issue an RFP.

Nicholas and Boutwell responded to the RFP, along with Castleberry and one other developer, who Shaw did not name.

Shaw said one of the sticking points between the school and the original developers was arriving at a best use for the Cooley Building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Specifically, whether to locate the conference center either within the building or as part of an addition to it was an issue, Shaw said. Nicholas and Boutwell said the 110-year-old structure was not suitable for a fully functional conference center.

“You could have had a glorified meeting hall, but if you wanted 30-foot ceilings and a seating capacity of at least 1,000, it had to be separated,” Nicholas said. “At the end of the day, it was just too expensive to shore up that structure, and the (National) Park Service wasn’t going to let us do it anyway.”

Said Boutwell: “We explored all options toward that end. We had to reconfigure the project to make it work.”

Shaw said the negotiations with Castleberry will center on the must-haves for CottonMill — a conference center, a hotel, a parking deck to go with each and a restored Cooley Building. The Mississippi Development Authority has awarded an $8-million Community Development Block Grant to pay for the parking deck.

Castleberry did not return a message left on his cell phone last week.

Nicholas and Boutwell said they will move forward with developing the rest of the six acres they own just southwest of the CottonMill site. A Chick-fil-A and a Buffalo Wild Wings have recently opened on that parcel. Nicholas said retail development would follow.

“Our whole plan was to develop that whole block, that whole frontage into one development to create a front door to the university. Now sense the university has taken their land out of play, we’ve moved onto our contingency plan, which we could have started a long time ago.”

Nicholas said he and Boutwell had “significant” financial resources tied up in CottonMill, a lot of which could be used to develop their six acres. It is possible, Nicholas said, that the engineering work done on the Cooley Building could be sold to whoever ends up developing CottonMill, a project whose financial and bureaucratic hurdles make it “as complicated as it gets in the development world,” Boutwell said. “It’s really unfortunate it had to go down this way. It had potential to be a really spectacular development. Now it’s going to be piecemeal.”

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