Two Northeast Jackson residents will see their vision for an entertainment destination in Fondren come to life this month with the opening of the Capri Theatre, Highball Lanes restaurant, bar and bowling alley and The Pearl tiki bar.
“We’re targeting a soft opening the week after Christmas,” said Jason Watkins, one of the developers. “We’ll be open to the public the first week of January and have a grand opening the second or third week of January.”
The $15-million project is the latest major investment in Fondren since Heritage Hospitality Group developed Homewood Suites by Hilton on North State Street on the site that for many years held Que Sera restaurant.
Estimated to draw 300,000 people annually, the entertainment destination will provide a total of 100 jobs, most of which will be part-time, at the movie theater, bowling alley and tiki bar.
Mike Peters, who developed two mixed-use projects in Fondren, Fondren Corner in 2003 and then Duling School in 2005, welcomes the new businesses to the Strip along North State Street that also includes Campbell’s Bakery, Barrelhouse and an assortment of other businesses.
“The more projects like it, the better,” Peters said. “We want to keep Fondren growing. It’s going to be fantastic for the restaurants, coffee shops and everything else around there.”
The project began with plans to renovate the Capri and evolved over the span of about a decade.
“Over the course of the years we worked on it, we evaluated several options for bringing back the theater,” said David Pharr, a member of the development team. “The main factor for expanding the footprint of the theater was we couldn’t figure out how to fit a kitchen in it. Incorporating the other buildings became the next step.
“We started studying dine-in cinemas and ran across a few that incorporated other activities, including bowling.”
The developers toured entertainment destinations across the country, including Pinewood Social, a hangout in Nashville featuring New American cuisine, cocktails and bowling in an industrial chic space; the Painted Tin in Atlanta, which offers bowling, bocce ball, Ping-Pong and Skee-Ball; and The Foundry Cinema & Bowl in Winter Park, Colo., a combination movie theater and bowling alley with a pizzeria.
“There are dozens and dozens of these kinds of businesses all over the country,” Pharr said. “Some combine movies and bowling and some have brew pubs. I’ve not run across a single other bowling alley with a historic theater. We’re breaking ground in that narrow category.”
Learning about destinations across the country that marry several forms of entertainment and coming up with a plan convinced investors to move forward, said Watkins, standing in Highball Lanes, where new bowling shoes, each pair enclosed in a plastic bag, fill cubby holes and await customers.
“There’s an obvious hesitancy to get outside the box and do major investments that are unusual here in the city of Jackson,” he said.
The developers relied on Wier Boerner Allin Architecture in Jackson and numerous craftsmen to ensure the finishes and details are spot on – and they are. AnderCorp. is the project’s general contractor.
“It took years of planning, a lot of meticulous thought and an exciting vision,” said Julie Markle, associate project architect at Wier Boerner.
The Capri’s Art Deco style has a starring role at the theater. Oriental rugs, Chesterfield sofas with tufted button detail, custom woodwork, tables made of reclaimed wood from the bowling alley flooring at the defunct Larwill Lanes in Jackson and a huge mural by Jackson artist Will Goodman command attention at Highball Lanes. A woven ceiling, colorful glass fishing floats that hang overhead and tropical print wallpaper charm at The Pearl.
Funding for the project is largely from private investors, although some incentives are in the mix, Watkins said.
With help from the city of Jackson and the Mississippi Development Authority, the project qualified for the Mississippi Tourism Incentive Program, which is designed to promote tourism and entertainment destinations throughout the state.
The program allows a portion of the sales tax paid by visitors to an eligible tourism-oriented enterprise project to be paid to the applicant for reimbursement of eligible costs incurred during the construction. Construction, engineering and design are among eligible costs.
State and federal tax credits for renovating a historic property kicked in on the renovation of the Capri and the two adjacent store fronts that once held a paint store and art gallery, Pharr said.
Watkins and Pharr acquired the Capri in 2012 and made improvements to the inside so it could serve as the site of Jackson’s first TEDx program in 2014.
“Along the way, Jason and I did the work to get the entire downtown Fondren district on the National Register of Historic Places, which allowed us to use historic tax credits to finance construction,” Pharr said.
Jackson restauranteur Jeff Good, who is known for Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint, Broadstreet Baking Company & Café and BRAVO! Italian Restaurant & Bar, considers both Pharr and Watkins visionary and admires the way they stuck with the project.
“The sheer grit they’ve shown to move forward and find a way to make something happen is astonishing. The two of them are the dream team for getting it done.”
Good compares the work of Pharr and Watkins to that of Ted Duckworth and Breck Hines, who invested 10 years in developing The District in Northeast Jackson where Sal & Mookie’s has a location.
Both Pharr and Watkins once practiced in large firms and share an interest in real estate and economic development. Pharr received his undergraduate degree from Millsaps College and Watkins earned his at Rhodes College in Memphis and each graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law.
“I got involved with the chamber of commerce and revitalizing Jackson became a passion,” Pharr said.
Watkins’ interest in Fondren dates to about 20 years when he and his first wife, who is deceased, moved to the neighborhood after he completed law school.
“We loved everything about the neighborhood,” he said. “We got inspired by the special events. We felt like Fondren was special, but we wanted it to have more of a 24/7 vibe. It seemed so energetic on those fun days.”
The Capri, he said, was too interesting a space not to preserve it as something that could bring more life to the neighborhood.
Pharr and Watkins were hired to redevelop the former McRae’s Department Store in Meadowbrook Mart into a hub for the University of Mississippi Medical Center telehealth program and succeeded into getting various incentives for the 2015 project, but the deal fell through after the company involved was sold and the buyer did not go forward with the project.
“I still dream about what can be done there,” Watkins said.
In 2016, they turned their attention to a former department store in downtown Shreveport, Louisiana and it was redeveloped into a data center while preserving the building’s historical nature.
Robert St. John, a Hattiesburg restauranteur, movie buff and operating partner, will be responsible for the food service at the Capri, Highball Lanes and The Pearl.
“Robert will bring competence and success to the food concept,” Good said.
Barry Plunkett, a longtime Fondren resident and owner of Interiors Market in Fondren, praised Pharr and Watkins for investing more than just their money but their heart and soul.
“This has folks involved who understand that Fondren is a community and to create a community is a lot more than renovating a building and being a landlord,” he said. “Robert St. John has been in the hospitality industry for decades. David Pharr has been involved in Fondren for many years. Restoring and preserving old buildings and quaintness is part of David Watkins’ family.
“They’re truly invested in the neighborhood and know what it takes to be successful. Their project has a great vibe and will bring a lot of vitality to that end of the street.”
Plans are for the Capri to show classic movies and first-run shows, Pharr said. Movie patrons will have access to both a concession stand as well as food and drink services while they occupy reclining seats with tables between them. The Capri will use a ticketing system so moviegoers can select their seats online in advance or at the door.
Servers will be able to move between the Capri, Highball Lanes and The Pearl.
Highball Lanes will operate on a first-come, first-served basis, with lanes turning over after an hour if there are people waiting to play. Highball Lanes will serve a menu inspired by St. John’s Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg, while small plates with a Polynesian bent will be the attraction at The Pearl.
Property has been cleared, leveled and gravel has been placed behind the Capri and the other buildings and about 100 parking spaces are marked off, Watkins said. A driveway south of the location of the former Butterfly Yoga building, which is set to become Ed’s Burger Joint, will provide access to the back parking.
Details for a parking garage are being worked out, Watkins said.
An armed security guard will patrol the back and another one will patrol the front of the businesses, Watkins said.
Announced in October 2019, the project got put on hold with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chain issues also came into play with some furnishings but those were overcome, Watkins said.
“There’s certainly a labor challenge and that has impacted our hiring program like it has everyone else,” Watkins said. “We’ve been surprised by how we’ve been able to fill the key positions.”
The challenge going forward will be “people, people, people,” Good said, noting that hiring and retaining staff members is something all restaurants throughout the state face along with rising food costs.
“The positive is that they have a great brand and a great restauranteur on board,” he said.
Construction fencing is already in place around the former Butterfly Yoga building and Watkins is hopeful that construction will roll next door from the Capri beginning early next year. Ed’s Burger Joint, a concept of St. John, is expected in fall 2022.
As the contractor and others worked their way down a check list of items to complete, the project seemed like it was both starting and ending to both developers.
“It’s excitement mixed with a little bit of stress, getting the last few details worked out,” Pharr said.
“It’s exhausting but definitely satisfying to have overcome the obstacles along the way to finish something that’s been such a dream,” Watkins said.