BY GARY PERILLOUX

Daily Journal

The Tupelo Redevelopment Agency is poised to seek proposals from developers in a competitive process to build a hotel/convention center beside the BancorpSouth Center.

The deal would be structured similarly to the Tupelo Automobile Museum, allowing public money to be contributed to a downtown attraction - and later be repaid - in an effort to benefit the city economically.

Businessman Frank Spain built the auto museum, donating his car collection and other assets to a not-for-profit foundation. The foundation then sold the facility to the city for $3.25 million in bond funds and leased the facility back. Ultimately, the foundation will own the museum after repaying the bond contribution over two decades.

"It worked pretty well for us that way," TRA Chairman Chris Rogers said of the auto museum project. "We do have a lot of positive interest in a hotel facility. I think it will be a great thing for the Fairpark District."

A request for hotel proposals - with the developer building both the hotel and convention center - should be issued by TRA within 30 days. The high-rise project could cost more than $10 million and include 150 hotel rooms.

The roughly 50-acre district is centered around East Main Street, with the BancorpSouth Center area included on the north side and Tupelo City Hall on the south side at the site of the city's former fairgrounds. A $22.67 million bond issue in early 1999 funded the Fairpark District project, with funds earmarked for City Hall, the auto museum, a hotel/convention center, and streets and utilities, among other things.

First step

The Tupelo Redevelopment Agency first needed the city council's action Tuesday night to declare the former J.C. Penney structure beside the BancorpSouth Center as surplus city property, so the property could be donated to TRA for demolition.

In early discussions, hotel developers have said they need the old Penney structure out of the way to build a convention center hotel. TRA and city council members toured the building Monday.

"Although it might look decent on the outside," Rogers said, "the inside of the building looks really, really bad."

Century Construction of Tupelo offered a successful bid of $98,000 in June to raze the former Penney building and several other vacant buildings on East Main. With council approval, Century can begin demolishing the structuring in August following an asbestos abatement project.

Other slab and building demolition work will continue through the fall, paving the way for construction of a green area called Fairpark in front of City Hall by November. A fountain, trees, walkways and other features are planned for Fairpark.

Simultaneously, TRA is awaiting construction of a Community Development Foundation business incubator at East Main and Elizabeth streets and is negotiating with prospects for an entertainment anchor near that corner.

A crosswalk over East Main would link the hotel with the entertainment complex.

"When we decided on this project, we promised the citizens we would do the complete project," Councilwoman Nettie Davis told TRA commissioners at their Tuesday meeting, saying she supports doing that. "But I'm ready to move forward and make things happen a little more."

Rogers assured her the hotel/convention center project would accelerate that progress, and he assured Councilman Dick Hill the hotel would meet architectural guidelines established for Fairpark District in consultation with the Memphis firm Looney Ricks Kiss.

TRA's bond funds include more than $4.5 million for a convention center. Rogers said the hotel developer would build the adjacent convention center, sell that property back to the city for $4.5 million, then make lease payments as the auto museum foundation has done.

TRA project manager Debbie Brangenberg said GILCO Contracting of Tuscaloosa, Ala., began work this week on a more than $1 million infrastructure project for Fairpark District's Phase 2 south of East Main Street. That area below Clark Boulevard will be ready for residential construction next spring.

Meanwhile, Rogers said already-cleared TRA property at East Main and Commerce streets near the BancorpSouth Center will made available for restaurant or retail development in the near future.

As for East Main Street itself, "We've got to look at whatever we need to do there," he said. "Whether or not we put a turn lane in, certainly I would think at some point in time it would need to be freshly paved and freshly striped."

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