By BECKY GILLETTE / Hattiesburg Business Today
Historic downtown Hattiesburg has a lot of fans of its stately turn-of-the century buildings including treasures like the restored Saenger Theater. The downtown is a center for city, county and federal government facilities, and in the past decade has seen some significant reinvestment that resulted in some popular new retail and dining options that gave a new vibe to the heart of the Hub city.
But some key businesses have come and gone, mostly for reasons that had nothing to do with the business climate.
“It has been very cyclical,” said Andrea Saffle, executive director of the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association (HHDA). “We experienced a rash of closures in 2013 and 2014. It has been a bit of a challenge because the Click Boutique and Gallery closed, which was a trendy women’s store, and then we had two great restaurants, 206 Front and Brownstones, that both closed for personal reasons not associated the market downtown. Since I came in 2014, we had the Weekender, a women’s boutique, open about a year but then closed, when the owner transferred jobs.”
There are some buildings for sale that need renovation. But particularly in the Front Street area, most of those buildings have been renovated.
“That means there are now spaces available that are move-in ready,” she said. “So we’ve really tried to show what they can be, and have tried some pop up shops in those spaces.”
In September, a Downtown Possibilities Tour was held that attracted 36 commercial real estate agents and several investors. The project was sponsored by the Downtown Economic Development Committee, the Area Development Partnership and Mississippi Power Company.
“We served them lunch, and then took them around and showed them six or eight different properties,” Saffle said. “We had a wonderful response to it. One of the keys to getting businesses downtown is to get the realtors to understand what we have downtown. We wanted to let them know what spaces are available downtown so they could help their clients find something unique.”
One business downtown that has been a trend setter has been the Lucky Rabbit on Mobile Street, a large, old hardware store with multiple vendor booths carrying reused and antique goods. Lucky Rabbit is open the first Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each month.
“They have huge a following,” Saffle said. “We see that is pulling people downtown and has helped to build on other businesses.”
There are also now many housing options downtown. There are new and historic loft apartments, traditional apartments, and many single-family residences in adjacent historic districts.
In 2012 and 2013, after being vacant for many years after Hurricane Katrina, the Hub City Lofts were renovated in the America Building at the foot of Front Street. Apartments were also created in the Carter Building at the intersection of Front Street and Main streets.
“These are two of our wonderful buildings downtown,” Saffle said. “CR Properties, owned by Rob Tatum and Daniel Justley, renovated those buildings to bring apartment living to the downtown. They created about 75 apartments in the heart of downtown. The ground floors have commercial spaces. The America Building is built out, and has two or three spaces available. One is even a live-work space with an efficiency apartment at the back. The Carter Building is build-to-suit.”
Saffle said a real flurry of interest followed the Downtown Possibilities tour.
“The interest in showing a lot of the buildings has picked up,” Saffle said. “Since that time, Brownstones has sold, we’ve had a deal in negotiation on one of the restaurant spaces on Walnut St and several of the realtors have expressed real interest in the live-work spaces.”
The apartments downtown are 98 percent occupied.
“There is a waiting list for single-bedroom apartments in the downtown,” Saffle said. “We know there is the want to be here. Right now what we are trying to focus on is attractions to draw people out of the apartments to surrounding businesses. It is hard to have nightlife when there are only a couple businesses open after 6 p.m.”
Another effort to get momentum building downtown is making vacant spaces available to artists to use on at temporary basis. Artists can make a deal with the HHDA to sublet spaces for a very small fee. The idea is to get someone in there on a short-term basis who might be able to thrive enough to make it permanent.
The HHDA also has a deal with University of Southern Mississippi (USM) School of Construction for space on Main Street down by Main Street Books.
“They have put a community design studio in that space,” Saffle said. “It is for their architecture and interior design students to have a studio space. They are teaching classes out of there, but also working on some design projects. If someone wants ideas to get started on interior design or façade updates, they can work with professors and students. It works into their curriculum. It has been really successful and exciting to partner with USM. It is a unique use for a space, and a great partnership with property owners to fill those spaces and attract other people to the area. There are bringing students downtown, and there is not just this gaping hole anymore.”
There are a couple of other similar partnership incubating artists and making the downtown vibrant at the same time. One is the artist Andrea Kostyal, who has a small gallery down from Odd Fellows.
Saffle said being one of 50 communities in Mississippi who are involved in the Main Street program has given the downtown a framework in which to really start making significant progress. Main Street promotes economic development through preservation.
“We were seeing downtown improvements with façade grant programs and getting federal programs for assistance,” she said. “We have created different initiatives and tax incentives that are the next step for attracting businesses and entrepreneurs to the downtown area.”
The HHDA is a non-profit, public-private partnership funded in part by the City of Hattiesburg and Forrest County, along with support from Promotion Partners and dues-paying members.