Meridian Star

December 15, 2013

New downtown projects beneficial to city and county

The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — Recent developments bode well for Meridian and Lauderdale County.

    On Friday, our newspaper was the first to report that Houston based RockStep Capital purchased the old Village Fair Mall, with plans to redevelop the property and add retail shopping, restaurants and hotels.

    Tentative plans call for wholly or partially tearing down the now vacant mall that originally opened more than 40 years ago to make way for the new developments.

    We like the plan.

    A 2004 study titled, "An Advisory Services Panel Report: Downtown Meridian, Mississippi" by the Washington, D.C., based Urban Land Institute, states that "Panel members believe that there may be an opportunity to attract tenants such as Target, an electronics store, or a home improvement center to the vacant Village Fair Mall property."

    "The panel has identified the mall as a crucial entryway to downtown, and recommends that the city encourage redevelopment. This will create an attractive 'gateway' to the downtown area and will encourage traffic on the north side of I-20/59 towards the city center," the study further states.

    RockStep Capital President Andy Weiner said in a Thursday telephone interview that "The intersection where the property is located serves as the entry into the city and is a prime spot for development."

    In addition to the mall, the company also purchased the old LabCorp building behind the Meridian Police Department that once housed a Winn Dixie store, with plans to find a tenant for the 28,000-square foot building.

    RockStep Capital, which has properties in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, also purchased land and buildings on North Frontage Road, located adjacent to the mall across Sowashee Creek.

    Discussions are under way with officials from several national chain retailers, restaurants and hotels to try and find new tenants from the property, Weiner said.

    And although the project is still in the planning stage and no new tenants have yet committed to locating at the site, the company is confident the property will be developed, "or we wouldn't be spending the money on it," said Tommy Stewart, head of the Property Management/Leasing division of RockStep.

    A few blocks away, at the intersection of 22nd Avenue and Front Street, another major development is in the works with plans to build a $44 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center.

    On Nov. 21, more than 300 community leaders gathered at the MSU Riley Center to launch a fundraising campaign to build the MAEC.

    Officials at the campaign kick-off announced that $12 million had already been raised towards the project.

    Slated to open in 2017, the proposed 58,500-square-foot Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center is touted as a future showcase for the arts that will serve as a catalyst for economic development.

    "I think the MAEC will be a huge tourist attraction; a huge draw for people all over the world," said Sela Ward, an Emmy and Golden Globe Award winning actress who serves as  the MAEC celebrity chairperson. "We have an uncanny amount of celebrated artists from our state."    

    Also last month, The Riley Foundation of Meridian announced it was providing an $11 million grant for a new kinesiology program in Mississippi State University's Kress Building in downtown Meridian.

    The MSU-Meridian Downtown Campus will undergo major renovations and the grant will enable the new Division of Education program, with an emphasis in clinical exercise and physiology, to admit students by spring of 2015 and possibly as early as fall of 2014.

    Graduates of the kinesiology program are expected to have numerous career options in categories such as occupational and physical therapy and their assistant programs, exercise and wellness, rehabilitation, athletics and research.

        Additionally, the funding will finance building renovations, equipment, furnishings and technology infrastructure in the facility.

    All three projects — the Value Fair Mall, the MAEC and the Kress Building — will mean jobs for area residents and additional tax revenues for Meridian and Lauderdale County. That's a win, win, win situation for us all.