King Edward: Crumbling hotel restored to grandeur

Published 2:31 pm Friday, December 18, 2009

The King Edward Hotel — once a towering shell of broken windows and crumbling brick — stood as an eyesore in Mississippi’s capital city for four decades, a gritty symbol of Jackson’s slow decline.

After several failed bids by various developers to overhaul the historic landmark, a New Orleans-based company has gotten the renovation done. Thanks in large part to federal tax credits that flowed after Hurricane Katrina, the blighted building has been fully reworked with chandeliers and champagne-colored walls into a gleaming centerpiece of urban renewal.

HRI Properties, along with NFL star and former New Orleans Saints player Deuce McAllister and Jackson developer David Watkins, have transformed the King Edward into the newly named Hilton Garden Inn-Jackson Downtown.

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Gone are the drug users and others who once hid inside the long-shuttered hotel, whose beginnings trace to before the Civil War. The $90 million makeover has produced a 186-room luxury hotel and 64 high-end apartments, most already leased ahead of Thursday’s grand opening.

“It will have a really good ’Oh my God factor.’ You walk into that atrium and that’s the first thing you’re going to say,” said Ben Allen, a former city councilman and president of a city improvement district called Jackson Downtown Partners.

“It’s important because when Gov. Haley Barbour picks up a group of JACKSON investors from Japan and brings them to the capital city to discuss investing in our state, we need to have first-class accommodations,” he added.

With low-hanging chandeliers in the lobby, a domed ballroom ceiling and elegantly appointed suites, the renovated King Edward has few rivals in the city’s hotel business. The apartments that rent from $700 to $1,500 monthly have hardwood floors and penthouse views of downtown Jackson. Guests who venture to the hotel rooftop for a swim in the pool can glimpse the Amtrak station tracks nearby, but soundproof windows block the whistles of trains.

“It’s so exciting,” said Trina McNair, who remembers the hotel as a place to avoid because of those who hid inside. Now, she calls it a blessing since she’s been hired to work as a desk clerk after months of unemployment. “It was an eyesore for so long. I never dreamed I would work here.”

Built in 1861, the original hotel was destroyed during the Civil War. Its current incarnation has been around since 1923. It’s where legislators brokered deals not far from the state Capitol and parties and balls drew the state’s upper crust. The hotel banned blacks for years, and after integration swept the South, the King Edward was shuttered in 1967.

For Jackson, that marked the grim decline of the King Edward, even though it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

“I’ve heard rumors that when the first black person checked in, all the legislators checked out,” said Norman S. Amort, a vice president with HRI Lodging, a subsidiary of HRI Properties.

HRI Properties became the majority owner of the hotel in October 2007, after previous proposals from other developers faltered, including one effort to make it a casino.

For many, the renovated King Edward is more than just a flagship for hospitality and tourism; it’s a harbinger of the city’s renewal.

During the past decade, many of the city’s businesses, including what was then known as WorldCom, Inc., moved to nearby bedroom communities. The city’s population dropped from 202,000 in 1980 to the current 175,000 base, Allen said.

“It was declining, just like other big cities. There’s no question about it,” Allen said, adding federal tax credits to Mississippi and other hard-hit Gulf coast states after Katrina’s devastation were a godsend. “When Katrina hit, developers all over the country started looking at Jackson.”

Allen said the city has $3.1 billion in development under way or recently completed.

Some of that was due to the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005, or Go Zone, which offered tax-free bonds to developers to finance shopping centers, hotels and other big commercial projects. Full Spectrum New York, based in Harlem, is one such developer, with plans for a $1.1 billion residential, office, retail and entertainment development in 14 square blocks downtown.

HRI received a tax credit of 25 percent of the King Edward’s total cost, Amort said. HRI also bought the nearby Standard Life building and is renovating that for apartments.

HRI’s formula of leveraging public-private partnerships with tax credits was used to revitalize the New Orleans Warehouse District, and more recently, downtown Richmond, Va., said Eddie Boettner, co-chairman of HRI’s board of directors.

McNair, a former city employee, is hopeful the hotel will help draw more tourists to Jackson.

“At first, you really didn’t have anything to look forward to downtown. Now, the King Edward is a new sight for sore eyes,” she said. “Compared to what I have seen in the past, it is gorgeous.”