Meridian Star

June 12, 2011

City working on downtown hotel

Hotel would be erected on Threefoot building block

By Jennifer Jacob Brown / jbrown@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     The project that would have made the Threefoot building into a hotel went down the drain well over a year ago, but the competing project to build a downtown hotel from the ground up is back on.

    According to Jason Goree, vice president of Watkins Development, his company and the city have been working together to build a hotel and convention center on the same block as the Threefoot building. He said the goal is to break ground on the project no later than the first quarter of next year.

    Goree said local hotelier Abdul Lala, who proposed building a new hotel downtown in 2009, is a partner in the project. Lala did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

    He said the city is currently in negotiations to acquire the property for the hotel, which is currently the site of a Trustmark bank branch on 23rd Avenue. Difficulty acquiring that same property was one of several reasons that Mayor Cheri Barry gave for throwing out the city's deal with New Orleans-based historic building developer Historic Restorations, Inc. to renovate the Threefoot building.

    HRI had made an agreement to renovate the building if the city would use its own bonds as collateral for $14 million of the $50 million project. The agreement was made under previous mayor John Robert Smith. Barry rejected the agreement in December 2009, saying that, after taking office in July of that year, she found the project had too many problems to make it worth the financial risk.

    Barry then sought out the expertise of Watkins Development, a Jackson-based consulting and development firm hired by the city to help redevelop blighted areas in Meridian. The firm has already broken ground on one project with the city, a new police station in the location of the old Cowboy Maloney building on 22nd Avenue, and has drafted ideas for numerous locations in Meridian.

    Goree said Watkins Development is looking to renovate the Threefoot building into a part residential, part commercial development. He said the hotel will be designed to spur development on that block and to complement the MSU-Riley Center for the Education and the Performing Arts, which is on the neighboring block.

    "The Riley Center needs a convention center hotel. (Downtown Meridian) needs a convention center hotel," Goree said. "The mayor's been working behind the scenes on this prodigiously."

    Goree said the hotel, if constructed, will have around 100 rooms and will be part of a mid-scale or upscale hotel chain, possibly a Hotel Indigo or a Hyatt Place.

    He said the primary goal with the hotel is to provide a boost to downtown development. "We feel like that (Threefoot building) block is a catalyst for downtown development."

    Goree said Watkins Development will invest in the hotel, but that they need other investors to make the project happen and are especially looking for local investors.

    As for the renovation of the Threefoot building into a combination residential and commercial development, Goree said Watkins Development and the city are waiting to learn the results of engineering studies on the building before making any concrete plans. Specifically, he said they are waiting to learn the extent of flooding issues that have affected the building's basement.

    "At this point, we don't see anything that's going to be a real issue that we can't work around," he said.

    In December 2010, the city announced in the Meridian Star that it was working with Watkins Development to put a downtown convention hotel on the Threefoot block. They also listed two other projects — a civil rights memorial park and a public safety facility — in their announcement.

    The public safety facility project was scaled down to the police station project. The city has been working to acquire property near City Hall for the civil rights memorial park.

    Barry did not return phone calls for comment.