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Special Report: Bringing Back the Block in Fondren

We go inside the reimagined businesses under construction along a historic strip
Published: May. 20, 2021 at 9:33 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A small strip of businesses anchored by a one-screen movie theater has sat at the heart of Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood since the late 1930s.

The theater has been closed for years, and there have been many attempts to bring it and its surroundings back to life, but nothing has materialized.

Until now.

Robert St. John
Robert St. John(WLBT)

“I think Fondren is the coolest neighborhood in the biggest city in the state,” says Robert St. John, the famed chef and restaurateur who has been busy cooking up success and writing books in Hattiesburg for years.

But the prospect of reviving the long-stalled effort to re-imagine the strip on North State Street lured him to the capital.

The Strip in Fondren
The Strip in Fondren(WLBT)

“I’d love to be a part of that,” he thought, “so it was a pretty easy decision once I hopped in, and we’ve been having fun creating this thing ever since.”

What he has created along with developers Jason Watkins and David Pharr is a complex of multiple businesses they hope will be just what people are looking for as they emerge from pandemic hibernation.

The Capri theater, known as the Pix until 1963, sits in the center of the project. It’s now in the midst of a top-to-bottom rebuild.

Inside Capri theater
Inside Capri theater(WLBT)

“We’re doing a historical renovation on the outside so we stay true to the neighborhood and the vibe of the neighborhood, but on the inside, we’re doing a 21st-century movie theater,” St. John says. “We’ll have reclining seats, a full bar, and appetizers. You’ll be able to order from your seat. We’ll also have candy and popcorn and all the regular stuff.”

Rendering of Fondren project
Rendering of Fondren project(Wier Boerner Allin Architects)

St. John says the theater will feature new and classic films, “so the people that have all these great memories of coming to the Capri when they were a kid in the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s -- we’ll be showing some of those movies on occasion.”

The theater’s screen will be larger than the one it replaces, and it will be retractable to reveal a small stage behind it. The stage can be used to host seminars and conferences.

Next to the Capri, in the old Seabrook building, will be a restaurant with a menu reminiscent of St. John’s Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg. It will be called Highball Lanes, because it will also have a bowling alley.

“When you drive by on North State Street, it looks like, where are they going to put that?” St. John says. “But I think what is deceiving is there is a lot of land available to us here that David and Jason own that is part of this project, and so there’s plenty of land to go back to build a ten-lane bowling alley, and also to add a lot of parking.”

Once completed, Highball Lanes will be the only bowling alley within the Jackson city limits.

Next door, the developers are building what St. John describes as an immersive escape: a highly-themed tiki bar.

“It’s small -- 27 seats -- but it is in true Polynesian style, a real escape. Handcrafted cocktails and all the tiki classics will be there,” he says.

In the next phase, St. John plans to turn the former Butterfly Yoga, which was originally a gas station, into an Ed’s Burger Joint. It will be much like the one in Hattiesburg but with a rooftop bar overlooking North State and Duling streets.

Rendering of Ed's Burger Joint
Rendering of Ed's Burger Joint(Wier Boerner Allin Architects)

“It’s an entertainment complex,” St. John says. “From the Ed’s Burger Joint to the Capri movie theater to Highball Lanes with a restaurant and bar,” to the tiki bar, which will be called the Pearl.

Watkins says that combination of offerings, rather than just a modernized theater, is what’s so appealing.

“We could put a movie theater in that was ten screens, but that would be essentially all you could do here,” Watkins says. “We just didn’t think that was enough for what Fondren really needed and for what we wanted to see here.”

St. John, whose only previous development in Jackson was the popular Rodeo’s country-and-western dance bar in the 1990s, says he was drawn to the Fondren project by Watkins and Pharr’s enthusiasm. The project’s architect, Wier Boerner Allin Architects of Jackson, put them together.

“It was love at first sight,” says Watkins. “We meshed immediately.”

Developers Jason Watkins and David Pharr
Developers Jason Watkins and David Pharr(WLBT)

Watkins’ father, David Watkins, announced a more ambitious effort to revitalize the block back in 2008, to be called “Whitney Place.” Those plans were scaled back to maintain the strip’s familiar appearance.

“It’s a big expense,” St. John says of the $13 million project. “It’s a big project, but I think it’s a no-brainer. I think people want this. I think it’s needed. All the research we’ve done proves that out. And I’m excited to be a part of it.”

St. John says they anticipate hiring about 150 people initially. They hope to have the Capri, Highball Lanes and the Pearl open by this fall. Ed’s Burger Joint would follow in early 2022.

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