Jackson’s aging Metrocenter awaits new vision

January 8, 2012

Real Estate

On one hand, Nina Holbrook sees the departure of Sears as “one of the biggest hits Metrocenter has ever had.”

But then she switches her perspective from U.S. Highway 80 corridor advocate to commercial real estate professional. With that comes the idea that big things could be in store for the 34-year-old mall.

“It’s a great development opportunity,” she said.

In fact, it can be “something very, very good.”

But first the mall must gain single ownership, said Holbrook, executive director of the Metrocenter Area Collation advocacy group.

“If that mall could ever get into the hands of one group that owns the whole mall…”

David Watkins, founder and president of Watkins Development, LLC, says he tried to buy the mall but could not come to terms with mall owner Cannon Commercial of Los Angeles.

“We were unable to work out a deal,” Watkins said. “I still have my master plan on my shelf.”

The plan envisioned a partially open mall with retail, restaurant and entertainment venues along with hotel and residential development spread about among the shopping complex’s 127 acres.

With a better economic climate, “I would be excited to work on something,” Watkins said. “The unfortunate thing right now is the economic climate is still so uncertain. Regardless of what happens with Sears, I think we’re a year or two away from having some substantial redevelopment” there.

Sears could be looking for a buyer for its 240,00 square-foot building once it shuts down the store. Sears has not ruled out leasing, however, according to a spokeswoman.

Shervin Mateen, CEO of Cannon Commercial, said his company is considering unconventional uses for the space that could exclude retail. “We’re looking at medical, educational and other uses,” he said in an interview last week.

Watkins agreed that any vision for the mall’s future must go beyond retail.

That’s the approach Watkins is taking with the 180,000 square feet he has remaining in the former Belk building. The company is discussing office and mixed uses with potential occupants, Watkins said.

“I think these malls like Metrocenter have such great metrics,” he added.

First, it is in a “great location” near a pair of heavily traveled interstates, Watkins said, and noted that although aging, the 400,000-plus square-foot building was “superbly constructed.”

Yandell Wideman’s SouthEast Properties owns the 80,000 square-foot Metrocenter ground floor space occupied by Burlington Coat Factory as well as an additional 80,000 square feet of second floor space with interior and exterior entrances that make it well-suited for retail.

He said his real estate investment firm is willing to partner with Watkins, the City of Jackson, current mall owner Cannon Commercial or anyone else on a revival strategy. “We think the Metrocenter is absolutely a beautiful building and just needs to be brought back to life with alternative uses,” Wideman said. “We may look into a possible joint venture with an out-of-state company that specializes in this.”

Mateen’s Cannon Commercial has not been as involved in making enhancements to the mall as SouthEast Properties would like, Wideman said. “Maybe they will get involved now” that Sears is closing.

“Maybe it’s like a wake up call.”

Metrocenter, he said, “just needs a breath of fresh air and a new vision.”

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