Trade Mart must soldier on without upgrades

Published 11:56 am Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith sees Jackson’s best hope for becoming a crossroads for large-scale exhibitions, professional entertainment and music concerts resting within the confines of the 51-year-old Mississippi Coliseum.

To that end, she is lobbying legislators for around $40 million to overhaul the building. She had initially planned to seek $30 million for renovations of both the Coliseum and neighboring Trade Mart.

Now her efforts are centered entirely on the Coliseum, Hyde-Smith said, though she emphasized she will seek help for the aging Trade Mart after securing money for the Coliseum revamp.

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“We just can’t do everything at the same time,” she said, “but that definitely is part two.”

The choice is either making a go of the Coliseum as a viable venue or letting it continue to deteriorate, she said.

“There are lots of challenges in that building,” she said.

Smith, a Republican who served more than a decade in the state Senate before elected to her statewide post in 2011, must overcome any reservations Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the Senate’s fiscal gatekeeper, may have. Reeves has he would be hesitant to include the renovation money in a legislative general fund bond bill.

Reeves said he would have to be convinced the allocation covers a “priority” need.

“The Senate and House are only beginning to talk about which projects to include in a bond bill,” he said recently in an email. “We will review requests and finalize a bill by the end of the session. However, the Legislature needs to pass a reasonable, rational bond package that pays for priority needs.”

Hyde-Smith said she is willing to do the project in phases if the funding can’t be provided all at once.

“However the Legislature wants to do it; we’re just asking for the funding,” she said.

An improvement study by Jackson architectural firm Wier+Boerner proposes all new permanent seating, a new stage, sound system, lighting system, new dressing rooms, new restrooms, four new elevators and an escalator.

Audience seating would increase by 500 and additional space would be provided in the club level for another 300 folding chairs. Hyde-Smith said she expects the renovations would take 18 months but thinks the actual shutdown of the Coliseum could be limited to the 12 months between the Dixie National Rodeo events at the facility.

Her plan would be to start the work just after the next year’s rodeo in mid-February and finish most of the project in time to host the rodeo the following February.

Wier+Boerner envision a new color scheme throughout with the upgraded finishes as well as six new private suites with balconies. The private suites would be served by private corridors.

Hyde-Smith said once the multi-million dollar improvements are completed she would put naming rights to the Coliseum on the market.

“The rights will be worth a lot more on a renovated building than they are right now,” she said.

The Mississippi Trade Mart, long the workhorse venue of the State Fairgrounds, will have to wait at least several more years for a renovation. It is one of the state’s busiest exhibition venues.

Billy Orr, State Fairgrounds director, and his deputy, Jake Hutchins, are keeping the Trade Mart’s 67,000 square feet of open space booked by pitching its central location, ample parking and low costs.

“We’re right on the interstate near two interchanges,” Orr said. “We’ve got plenty of parking. It’s probably the safest place (among Jackson’s exhibition and meeting venues) because of its location. I think, though, the big reason is the cost per square foot.”

In setting his rental fees, Orr is mainly concerned about covering the cost of keeping the place running. The goal, he said, is to “make our budget every year and pay our utility fees and salaries”

On the booking side, Orr said on a scale of 1 to 10, “I’d give it a solid 8. It’s been good. We stay pretty full.”

The opening of the more than 300,000-square-foot Jackson Convention Center Complex slightly more than three years ago has made no detectable dent in Trade Mart bookings, according to Orr.

“I’ve never noticed” a drop off, he said.

While the Convention Center complex has a new, modern structure with attractive features such as carpeting, clean and spacious restrooms and escalators, it can’t accommodate the large events staged at the Trade Mart each year, chief among them the Jackson Junior League’s Mistletoe Marketplace.

“The Convention Center doesn’t have the parking nor the square footage,” said Hutchins, chief booker of events at both the Trade Mart and Coliseum.

The Mistletoe extravaganza is the Trade Mart’s largest event of the year and shows no signs of slowing its annual growth.

“It’s bringing people from everywhere,” Hutchins said. “We have to put tents outside. It’s something to see.”

Other major events for Trade Mart use each year are the Wildlife Extravaganza and Farris Brothers Hardware & Sporting Goods Show. The Trade also has hosted the Mississippi Business Journal’s annual Business & Technology Expo and will do so again on April 4.

The Trade Mart hosts gun shows regularly as well as car shows, craft shows, bridal shows, legislative events and gatherings for groups.

Event organizers such as the Junior League tell Fairgrounds officials they want the Trade Mart’s interior modernized and more restrooms, Hutchins said.

Hutchins said the renovations can’t start soon enough.

“The Trade Mart has been run and run and then run some more,” he said.

When the money is there, Hutchins has a priority list of improvements for the Trade Mart. “The Trade Mart has roof leaks. We need to get the air conditioning units off the roof,” he said.

Overall, it needs “a complete face lift, including a bigger foyer on the front,” he said.

For now, Hutchins will go on booking and waiting for the day he has a fixed-up venue to sell.

“The Trade Mart is a Grand Old Lady,” he said. “She just needs a facelift.”