Meridian's old police station near City Hall made headlines last year when a buyer came forward to purchase the 42-year-old building, largely unused since the opening of the new police station on 22nd Avenue in May 2013.
The prospective buyer's plan collapsed following legal action objecting to how the building was sold.
Potential new investors in the historic building, however, can peruse a book created by Mississippi State University's College of Architecture, Art & Design (CAAD) to assess the building's potential.
"For us, it was kind of a perfect case study for the students," John Poros, a CAAD professor, said. "To show, 'Hey, it's not a lost cause and it's certainly worth preserving.'"
The building, designed by Chris Risher Sr. in the 1970s, "is important for the state in terms of post-war modernism," Poros, who advocated for saving the building in 2014, said. The building was named a Mississippi Landmark by the Department of Archives and History (MDAH) in 2015.
"We were really trying to show that the building could potentially have a lot of uses," Poros said. "The book is more to provoke a discussion from the city."
Architecture and building construction science students created plans and estimates for the building to be repurposed into a Children's Museum, some restaurant/ venue space, a farmer's market and an architectural school.
While the architectural school idea "is purely hypothetical," Poros said, students used Meridian itself to inspire the proposals, using projects already underway, such as the Mississippi Children's Museum.
"It shows that it could contribute to the life of the city," Poros said. "They did a study of Meridian and thought, 'What does Meridian need?'"
"When people think of architecture in Mississippi, they typically imagine antebellum plantation houses," the book's opening paragraphs about the building said. "Despite this stereotype, Mississippi and the Deep South were engaged in the American Modern Movement... Preserving modernist buildings in Mississippi, such as Risher's police station, would preserve primary material for historians who are starting to recognize the understudied but significant impact of the Modern Movement in the American South."
The book describes Risher as a talented architect who could have made a name for himself elsewhere.
"Nonetheless, Risher's modernist work around Meridian... placed him above most of his peers in Jackson," the book said. "It is rare for a local architect to demonstrate such knowledge of modernism's design principles – and recognize their limits."
Students described how Risher designed the building to face City Hall, even aligning the doors and front counters. The large windows symbolize "transparent democracy" while the courtroom sits behind a "park-like setting."
The book describes Risher's attention to light, noting the 14 skylights and large windows throughout, including four skylights in the men's locker room.
"It's remarkable," Poros said. "It's that sensitivity to people – because people need natural light."
Generally, students described the condition of the building as good, noting some rust and moisture damage throughout. The terrazzo and ceramic flooring had the most variability and students observed some vinyl asbestos tiles in poor to fair condition. Electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems couldn't be fully analyzed for various reasons.
The prospective buyer
John Purdy, a local architect and the owner of Threefoot Brewing Company, LLC., approached the city about buying the building in 2017, with the potential sale going before the City Council in early 2018.
He proposed purchasing the building for approximately $45,000 and converting it into a Threefoot Brewery tap room, leasing the rest of the space to other businesses.
“From what I can tell from the history, there hasn’t been a whole lot of interest in that particular piece of property,” Purdy said in a March 2018 report in The Meridian Star. “I think I am the only one to come forward with a serious offer in the last three to four years.
“Architecturally, I have a ton of interest in it. I would love to restore it … I think it’s also in a good location for what I’m trying to do.”
The council approved the sale of the building in late March 2018.
Weston Lindemann, the Ward 5 representative, abstained from the vote on the sale. He said Purdy wasn't the only architect interested in the building in 2018, something Lindemann has repeated in recent weeks as he released city emails.
"You may recall when this was being discussed last year that the main talking point told to the city council was "no one has approached the city about this building in 7 or 8 years." This of course turned out to be completely false, as around a half dozen individuals or parties had expressed interest," Lindemann stated in a Facebook post this month. "Given the evidence, it's obvious that we sold the building illegally... I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The city (sic) of Meridian will not grow and attract jobs until we clean up the way we do business."
Lindemann released a series of emails between the city's attorney, Glover, Young, Hammack, Walton and Simmons, PLLC., and the city administration, Mayor Percy Bland and Chief Administrative Officer Richie McAlister.
Attorney Matt Watson, in an Aug. 18, 2017 email, detailed three ways to sell the building: advertising for competitive bids, deeming the building surplus and gaining appraisals or determining the property had a fair market value of $0.
"#3 is the most-likely to cause controversy, and #1 doesn't guarantee that John (Purdy) gets the property. I will continue to research statutes to find out if there are any other ways to convey the property to John for a lower purchase price," Watson said in the email.
In an interview this week, McAlister described the thought process behind the email, saying he'd heard of municipalities offloading vacant properties for as little as $1 and forwarded the idea to Watson.
"I've copied our attorneys on this to go ahead and begin the process. I spoke to Mayor Bland and the Council President and they are both good with moving forward. The folks at Glover Young will know the process on declaring the property surplus and getting it transferred," McAlister stated in an Aug. 16, 2017 email to Purdy. "I do believe we are going to need a $1.00 from you."
When McAlister forwarded this suggestion to Watson, Watson said "we open up the possibility of the State Auditor investigating the conveyance as an unlawful donation."
Purdy asked McAlister about the state of the building in emails released by the city, inquiring about an environmental assessment and asbestos. McAlister forwarded the request to Randall Gaither, a planner for the city.
"Far as I know, no full environmental assessment has been done. I recall that due to complaints from officers, they checked it for black mold in like 2010-2011 and didn't find any," Gaither said in August 2017. Gaither also supplied a 2014 quote for asbestos testing at $4,000.
"Thanks for the information, Richie. I think option #3 is the only real viable option for me. I am not in a position to be a high bidder and I don't have the capital to purchase for an aprraisal (sic) price, especially not knowing if the building is the best fit for my programmatic needs," Purdy wrote on Aug. 19.
Purdy said that, as a businessperson, he wanted to acquire the building for a low price simply considering the amount of investment it would take to rehabilitate the building.
"The building had a lot of potential issues but I thought it had good bones," Purdy said on Friday, looking back at the email exchange. "The city was not going to be doing anything financial for me. It was all on me, not public monies."
Purdy said the only "public benefit" he sought would be historical tax credits.
"Had Mitchel Marshall not stopped this, we would have moved forward," Purdy said. "He is the singular reason why I'm getting out of this."
Mitchel Marshall, who owns Marshall Development Company, commissioned the MSU CAAD study and pushed the city to use the results before moving forward with any sale.
"I think there's a world of options for the building – whatever can fit in this building can work," Marshall said. "I think it's best use is something that is civic in nature... I think it was designed to be (civic) in the first place. For it to have its best use long term is to be something that will reach people of all ages."
In early summer of 2018, Marshall filed a "bill of exceptions" appealing the sale of the building to Purdy's company, Lion Investments, LLC.
Marshall, through his attorney Matt A. Baldridge, said he wanted to use one of the students' ideas, not yet published, for the old police station in the summer of 2018.
"(Marshall) loves the City of Meridian and is really invested in its revitalization," Baldridge said to The Star that summer. "He saw a lot of potential for something for the community in that building."
Marshall and Baldridge also drew up a proposal to buy just the building for $60,000, whereas the $45,000 purchase from Purdy also included four vacant lots.
By December, citing the ongoing legal battle, Purdy decided to pull out of the old police station and seek another location for his brewery.
"It got to a point where I realized it could go on forever and we needed to pursue other opportunities," Purdy said in December 2018.
On Friday, Purdy said he hadn't yet chosen another location.
Marshall declined to comment on the legal action but attended the "juries," or building presentations, by students last spring and said he was impressed by their ideas and their large models of the building.
"There are a lot of talented kids there and you can tell that they're passionate about their work," Marshall said. "I think they did a great job...They cared about Meridian, about Mississippi, about why it was important."
For Marshall, considering the significance of the building and its architect, the building should be preserved.
"At the end of the day, this is a great opportunity to be something for everyone," Marshall said.
Marshall said that he thought the city would advertise the building's availability following the fallout. He said he hadn't further pursued his $60,000 purchase.
As for his own plans for the building, Marshall said, "At this time, no comment."
By June 2013, one month after the new police department opened to great fanfare, the city council announced a plan to demolish the old building to expand parking.
"We plan to tear it down and build a parking lot there for City Hall," George Thomas, representative for Ward 1 and then-council president, said in June 2013.
A call-to-action by the Mississippi Heritage Trust, which named the building one of Mississippi's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2013, pushed the council to abandon the idea.
"Built on a monumental scale and opened to widespread architectural acclaim, the Meridian Police Department was constructed with public funds by the forward-thinking political leadership of the day. Before allowing this public resource to be demolished, all avenues for its restoration and future productive use should be explored," Lolly Barnes, the executive director of the Trust, wrote on the Preservation in Mississippi blog in 2014. "Without an effort to save the best buildings from the recent past, what kind of architectural landscape will we bequeath to the next generation?"
Barnes, now Lolly Rash, has served as executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust since 2013. The Heritage Trust also played a key role in naming Meridian's high-rise Threefoot Building as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the nation in 2006, according to their website.
In September of 2015, the City Council voted to apply for a grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). The Community Heritage Preservation grant would cover part of the $1.2 million-cost for fixing the roofing and heating system.
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Bunky Partridge, the former director of Community Development, pushed the council to accept the $300,000 grant, with a $75,000 match from the city as a "first step."
"We're hoping to do the roof this year, maybe the air conditioning the next year," Partridge said.
Despite Partridge's efforts, the city nixed the deal because of the high price tag.
"That building across the street is falling down, and you want us to spend $1.2 million dollars to fix the roofing and heating system?" Thomas said in January 2016, a few months later. "For us to put any money in that building and then expect to operate that building – we have no use for the building. They tell me they want to move people out of one office and into another office. I'd rather not spend that money; use that money somewhere else."
McAlister said that in early 2016, Marshall and another local architect, Jerry Hobgood, approached the council about buying the building.
"Other architects came forward to get the city to apply, which would have meant the city would have to expend funds," McAlister said. "The council showed no interest."
Randy Hammons, the Ward 5 representative before Lindemann, wrote back to the Clerk of Council about the proposal in May 2016, "Unless they plan to fund it... I'm not interested."
In contrast, McAlister said, Purdy didn't ask the city to spend money, even grant funds, on the building.
"He was the first one to come here and say, 'We don't want the city to apply,'" McAlister said.
And while court documents name Marshall as one who commissioned the study from his alma mater, Purdy, another MSU CAAD graduate, facilitated getting the city to allow students access to the building, according to city emails.
"Mr. Mayor, (CAAD) contacted me over the weekend and informed me of their intentions to study the Old Police Station Building regardless of the owner. If I end up purchasing the property on behalf of the Threefoot Brewing Company (which I intend to do) I would not have any reservations of affording them the opportunity to study the property and the surrounding area," Purdy said in a Jan. 16, 2018 email to the mayor's office. "John Poros is the professor leading the efforts for this project and he asked me if there was any way that I could help them gain access to the building."
"They wanted the ability to study the building and present their findings," McAlister said, discussing the exchange.
Since the deal fell apart late last year, McAlister said that no interested buyers have stepped forward other than one caller who determined "it would not be conducive for the type of business they were looking to locate in downtown Meridian."
"One individual wanted to purchase and redevelop the building without city funds in downtown and that opportunity was missed," McAlister said. "(The CAAD presentations and book) are good marketing materials as far as trying to find someone to purchase it."
McAlister noted that any deal with the city would include a reverter clause that would return the property to the city within two years if developers made no "significant progress."
"If anyone is interested in the building, please come forward," McAlister said, adding that the building costs the city in insurance. "This isn't one of those things where you sell it to make money. It's a catalyst for growth in this city."
McAlister said that the city had other buildings, both historic and modern, in their possession for interested developers, including the Holbrook Benevolent Association building, a civil rights marker, at 2508 5th Street and the former Meridian Freedom Project office space at the corner of 8th Street and 25th Avenue.
McAlister said developers interested in the city's properties or vacant lots should visit Lauderdale County's GIS map and select the "state-owned properties" layer, which will highlight all government properties in the county in pink. City of Meridian properties are outlined in blue.