New Jackson Westin is about as swanky as a hotel can be

By WYATT EMMERICH,

Joseph Simpson makes me feel like a slacker.

A Jackson stockbroker, this 1994 Ole Miss grad from Meridian has brought a luxury hotel to downtown Jackson in his spare time.

The 10-story, 169,000-square-foot Westin Jackson is swanky. It has 203 rooms and will be managed by Wischerman Partners, which manages 3,400 super luxury hotel rooms throughout the country.

As a Westin franchisee, the hotel plugs into the Westin state-of-the-art booking system and loyalty program, ensuring a customer base right out of the gate.

Being located next to the federal building ensures a constant stream of attorneys working on cases. They make great customers and stay awhile.

The Estelle Restaurant is decked out. It can match any high-end restaurant decor anywhere.

The rooms are luxurious with endless fluffy pillows and fancy linens. The bathroom fixtures are top quality. This hotel is the real deal.

For all those who have been hoping for a downtown revitalization, this hotel is a huge step in the right direction. Talk about a shot in the arm.

 Simpson seems to have pulled off a miracle. He has assembled a dream team. And best of all for his investors, the government is paying for a big chunk of the $65 million total price tag. Simpson is a smart dude.

Simpson raised $11 million equity from a dozen or so local investors. He then leveraged that up using city, county, state and bank money.

The Jackson Redevelopment Authority has contributed $9 million in general obligation debt. That means if the whole project goes completely belly up, Jackson taxpayers will be on the hook for $9 million.

The Mississippi government contributed $20 million in bonds through Hinds County. In addition, this project qualified for the 30 percent tourism sales tax rebate subsidy that fueled the outlet malls and other retail projects before being repealed.

This is the type of tourism investment the legislative 30 percent sales tax rebate was supposed to fund until it got hijacked by mega retailers.

As I figure it, more than half the cost is coming from the government in one fashion or another.

I have qualms about the government getting into the hotel business, but I have lost that battle. Voters seem to have no problem with the government subsidizing a variety of enterprises that I consider distinctly non-governmental.

In any case, if you are going to subsidize something, a luxury downtown hotel is probably better than a manufacturing plant. The luxury hotel can bring in tourist dollars from outside, whereas a subsidized manufacturing plant simply bleeds workers from nearby unsubsidized plants.

You can argue government has a legitimate interest in preventing the decay and blight of its downtown area. Without government help, the prospects of downtown Jackson are not good.

That’s a problem. Like it or not, the national image of our state is going to be strongly influenced by tourists observing downtown Jackson. If it looks ghetto, the economic development of our entire state is going to be damaged.

 

It’s not like a downtown Jackson resurgence is an impossible dream. In fact, downtowns in many cities are thriving. Just look at Nashville, and Greenville, S.C., New Orleans, Memphis and Houston have vibrant downtowns. Mobile has made huge strides in its downtown development. We can make this happen, if everybody comes together, which is what appears to have happened with this project.

People make a difference. Give Joseph Simpson credit. He doggedly pursued a dream for eight years and got ’er done. He’s going to be a new leader in our community.

As the only white guy on his Meridian High basketball team, Simpson is used to going against the tide. His hard work, determination and effusive optimism have changed the course of downtown Jackson. You really need to go see this hotel to believe it.

This is not Simpson’s first project. He is the developer of the Iron Horse Grill, which is a great restaurant and an even better music venue. As he puts it, “musical tourism” has legs.

Speaking at the grand opening, Simpson said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black or blue, 19 or 90, if you’re from Germany or Alabama, music is that positive thing that brings us all together. I can see it at the Iron Horse. I’ve got all kinds of awesome people and they’re all having fun and they are all getting along.

“So if we want to bring people in for musical tourism, where are we going to put them? I wanted a place that you could be proud of where you could bring your family and friends. I hope we are at the beacon.

“The most important part of this is you got the state, the city and the county who all came together and joined forces and then this happened. We have the first Starwood Hotel in the state. The first Westin. You’ve got people coming from New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, and now they have a reason to stop.”

Not too long ago, I heard Ben Allen give a talk about the dozens of ongoing projects downtown. The long-awaited downtown revitalization may be finally coming.

Let’s not forget about The District at I-55 and Meadowbrook. Last week, I ate at the Cantina Laredo, a 15-minute walk from my house. It was so nice. It’s just incredible how many outstanding fine dining restaurants we have in Jackson. People who don’t live in Jackson can’t believe the richness of our restaurant scene.

There’s a lot of positive going on in Jackson right now. Like Simpson said, people are starting to come together. We need to keep this momentum going. Now if we can just fix the streets!

Joseph Simpson brings a luxury hotel to downtown Jackson in his spare time.

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Esperanza Velasquez is founder of the Mississippi Hispanic Association in Flowood.