This was not the plan.
For a man whose career seems to revolve around plans – both the printed, CAD generated kind and the visionary, lofty ones, Mike Peters never saw it coming.
The Jacksonian started a career in the banking business, a finance major in college.
Luck, he says, gave him a lead role in lending at Jackson Savings & Loan until one of the institution’s directors and stock holders, Wayne Parker, hired Peters to run his real estate company in 1983. They built shopping centers, office buildings and the like, opening Centre Park on County Line Road, a place that spawned restaurants like Shapley’s, The Parker House and Rosinni.
Ten years later, in 1994, Peters says he was ready to “bust out on his own.” Parker, at the sunset of a successful career, made Peters an offer he couldn’t refuse – to purchase Centre Park – and so he did. And then it was all over town, “a little deal here and there,” usually with partners.
Fondren wasn’t until later, another ten years later to be exact. Working with longtime partner, Andrew Mattiace (Peters calls him “the best in town”) on a shopping center in Clinton, the at one time Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Building was now in foreclosure, and came across their desk.
“One of the agents in the office came in, said a lender in Miami had said, ‘We surrender, make us an offer,’” Peters recounts. “We told him – jokingly – ‘Go make an offer, and” (he snaps for effect) “they took it. We thought, ‘What the hell are we going to do with the building now!?’”
That was the reaction of Peters’ wife, Anne, too. “You’ve thrown everything we’ve made out the window and made a terrible mistake,” she told him, later prognosticating the “loss of everything.”
The five story structure at 2906 North State Street, built as the Dale Building in 1956, had been virtually vacant for over two years. Peters described it as “horrible… in deplorable shape.”
So he and Mattiace took a “barn storm tour,” renting a plane and, in one day, traveled to Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta, visiting those city’s midtown areas. “We saw their renaissances going on and got ideas,” Peters said. “There wasn’t any such thing as mixed use in Jackson.”
As he began looking for tenants, he enlisted the help of Realtor® and Fondren Renaissance associate director, Mary Jo McAnally. “She knew of this little restaurant – we had never heard of them – that she wanted to see come in,” Peters says. That restaurant was Rooster’s, operating at the time in Clinton and at Paradise Lanes bowling alley in South Jackson by a young Nathan Glenn. “We walk in and notice it’s full of these blue collar guys eating all these burgers and fries. Long story short, that’s how they got here.”
Five floors – the top converted to apartments, the second – offices – and retail and Rooster’s on the first floor. Max Furniture moved from Pear Orchard Road to the space now occupied by Swell-o-Phonic and, in Peter’s words, “it started happening.”
Around the same time, Peters and Mattiace purchased a house next door to their building. The first tenant was a New Age bookstore, New Vibrations. Peters two sons, now out of school and working in the family business, brought a childhood friend, Byron Knight, to the space in 2008. “As a dad with preconceived notions, I didn’t know if Byron was a fit,” Peters remembered. “But look at it now: Sneaky Beans is a huge success. And you know there’s a cool apartment downstairs, right?”
Not comfortable with one Fondren project in his portfolio, Peters remembered one of the highlights of that barn storm tour in 2003 was seeing a former high school in Little Five Points, an Atlanta neighborhood with a feel similar to Fondren. The former educational institution had been converted into apartments and retail shops. With ideas “in his back pocket,” along came Duling School, built in 1928, that served students in the area until the mid 2000’s.
With the help of the Mississippi School Property Development Act, Peters and Mattiace stepped in. The legislation allowed school districts to share in the redevelopment revenues of former educational properties and the developers to repurpose the school.
Construction began in the spring of 2006 and the building welcomed shoppers in 2009 with an eclectic mix of boutiques. Next door, a new building, Fondren Place, welcomed The Ramey Agency from Ridgeland; Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons, who relocated from I-55 North; and later, a branch location for BankPlus.
While retail and restaurant successes are easy to measure (Saltine, Babalu, CAET, Electric Dagger Tattoo Studio, La Brioche and Chane’s myriad of projects), other effects of the “Mike Peters touch” may not be so evident. A quintet of artists came fresh out of college to this hip new Fondren Corner building when it first opened and all have since made names for themselves. Peters remembers those days: “Ginger (Williams-Cook), Twiggy (Jason Lott), Joosy (Josh Hailey), William Goodman and William Marlowe… they had their little studios all together on the second floor. I’d come in in the mornings and they’d have all crashed and be sleeping in the halls. A lot of good stuff spawned out of this building, including some marriages.” He calls it “more than a piece of a real estate, a living organism.”
When Peters’ father, Jim, recently passed away, he experienced first hand just how much “life” his endeavors have helped to cultivate. “It was humbling to have Nathan and Tim (Glenn of Rooster’s) prepare meals for our family,” he said. “(Babalu’s) Bill Latham and (Walker’s) Derek Emerson did stuff for us. We don’t have ‘normal’ tenant/landlord relationships. It’s deeper because we care and want them to be successful. That’s most rewarding for us.”
Peters Development has holdings across the metro area (Flowood, County Line Road and downtown, to name a few), but it’s evident their heart is in Fondren. “Sometimes you do deals that transform a place,” he noted. “This doesn’t just happen with some sort of fairy dust – it’s hard work and a lot of diligence. People reward us by supporting all this.”
The 60 year-old describes himself as a long-term investor, not in it for a quick flip and a payday. His is a family business, with sons Mitch and Sam his only staff. “There’s no training program,” he said. “We have our ways that may not fit everyone else.”
Tenants Nathan Glenn and Byron Knight understand Peters’ methods and credit his vision for their success. “He trusted me when I didn’t know what I was doing,” Knight explained, calling Peters a “second father figure type” in his life. Glenn added, “I give him credit – to be a hard-nosed business man, making sure the numbers work, but to able to work with you to give you freedom – that’s where the magic happens.”
Former city councilman and now Downtown Jackson Partners president Ben Allen says it bothers him when young people go to Fondren and don’t know who Mike Peters is. “Everybody goes to Fondren and thinks it’s always been this way,” he says with some agitation. “But it hasn’t. Peters started all this. He’s the father of Fondren.”
“Anyone will tell you,” Peters believes, that Fondren’s success has just been simmering under the surface. While he acknowledges Fondren Corner was a landmark catalyst, he looks to his next project – whatever comes his way – and to the projects of his fellow developers to write the area’s next chapter. “A nine story hotel across the street when most of my tenants are restaurants: what’s that going to do? It just increases my the value of my property and brings more people to the neighborhood.”