The thrill may be just starting, developers of the Farish Street Entertainment District say as they prepare for what they expect will be a late summer or early fall opening of a B.B. King’s Blues Club in the district.
That first lease, says Watkins Development, should be followed in rapid succession by four more lease signings. “We want to have four or five of these clubs opened by the time football season starts,” said Jason Goree, Watkins Development vice president.
Watkins’ goal is to secure the remaining five leases and open those establishments through the remainder of the year and early months of the following year. The company says a 60- to 90-day build-out period of each space will be needed before each new tenant can move in.
The B.B. King’s Blues Club will occupy the three-story home of the former Star Laundry on the east side of Farish near its intersection with Amite Street. The bandstand and audience area will occupy the first floor, a second floor mezzanine will give a view of the bandstand and the third floor will be home to the Itta Bena Club, a fine-dining restaurant.
“We will finalize the lease with them in the next week or two,” Goree said.
Representatives of B.B. King’s Blues Club did not return phone calls seeking comment
The block of Farish from Amite to Griffith Street is the heart of an effort to restore life to a two-block stretch of the street that once housed a thriving African-American business and entertainment district. Work on the second block from Griffith to Hamilton Street will begin after completion of leasing of the first block.
B.B. King’s Blues Club will anchor one end of the block while a new incarnation of Jackson’s famed Zac Harmon’s Subway Lounge, formerly of the Summers Hotel, will anchor the east end at Griffith Street, according to Goree.
Goree said the first one-block phase will be music clubs with the exception of a sports bar and a Wet Willie’s, which will be built on a spot on the east side of the street left vacant by a building fire. A courtyard with benches and an area for live entertainment will be situated next to Wet Willie’s.
“Wet Willie’s will be the only new structure,” he said.
Watkins Development has letters of intent from the first five prospective tenants, according to Goree.
The white boxing gives tenants new exteriors that replicate each building’s original exterior as well as new roofing, ceilings, plumbing, wiring and air conditioning and heating. “We’re making a lot of progress,” Goree said.
Until now, progress has not been a term associated with Farish Street revival. Watkins Development, the real estate investment company behind the restoration of the King Edward and Standard Life Building, took over three years ago after more than a decade of stalled efforts.
With a 45-year lease from the Jackson Development Authority, Watkins gutted the interiors of the structures and began preparing the shells for tenants. On the outside, it began returning the exteriors to their 1920s appearances. In most instances that meant acquiring load after load of red brick form that period. The lone supplier was in South Carolina.
In returning the old Star Laundry to its authentic exterior, Watkins Development discovered a plaster finish would be necessary. That meant taking out a brick exterior that had covered over the original finish, said Julie Skipper of Watkins Development.
In addition to a desire to have an authentic restoration, the attention to historical accuracy is a requirement for Watkins to receive historic preservation tax credits.
Those credits, renewed and enhanced by legislators this past session, are critical to the $22-million project’s viability, according to Goree. It enables Watkins “to put that much more money into the project,” he said. “It allows our dollars to go further. This is a great move for the state.”
He said the tax credits reflect well on the state’s business friendly image. “It continues to push the fact that it should be easy to do business with the State of Mississippi. It sets a precedent that the state wants it to be easier to do business with them.”
A restored street once central to commerce and entertainment for Jackson’s black community should draw heavily from the many visitors each year to a civil rights museum the state plans to open on North Street by 2017. “Anytime there are positive things going on in downtown Jackson it works well for us,” Goree said. “Anything the state can do to get warm bodies downtown to see all the things going in in downtown Jackson is going to work well for Farish Street.”
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