Above: The Buick Building is one of the centerpieces of the former Automotive Alley in Mobile. (Mike Kittrell/Alabama NewsCenter)
With one building’s transformation nearly complete, another on tap and negotiations ongoing for several more rehabilitation projects, the reimagining of downtown Mobile’s former Automobile Alley into a high-tech corridor is gaining traction.
“Obviously, we were excited about the potential for the redevelopment of St. Louis Street, but I don’t think I expected it to translate into such enthusiasm from other business owners so soon,” said Fred Rendfrey, economic development director for the Downtown Mobile Alliance.
Rendfrey cited plans for construction of a five-story, 155,000-square-foot federal courthouse across from the existing – and soon-to-be-renovated – John Archibald Campbell U.S. Courthouse on St. Louis Street as the catalyst for the corridor’s rebirth.The $89 million project is expected to bridge the central business district and De Tonti Square Historic District.
Rendfrey said because of the abundance of warehouse space and ample setbacks from the heavily traveled thoroughfare, he considers the half-dozen available properties prime candidates for larger mixed-use projects that could include multifamily developments and “other creative re-use projects.”
In turn, properties dotting the former Automobile Alley, so called for its once-prominent concentration of car dealerships, are beginning to receive high-profile facelifts amid an influx of technology-centered tenants.
Commercial construction firm Rogers & Willard took the lead by purchasing the historic 40,000-square-foot Buick Building in late 2014, launching a $5 million, multiphase rehabilitation and moving its 30 employees into about 6,000 square feet of renovated first-floor space this summer. Constructed in 1926, the brick behemoth sat unoccupied for nearly 13 years but was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Meanwhile, Atlanta-based software development firm Rural Sourcing will shift its operations – and 100 employees – from temporary space four blocks away to another 9,000 square feet on the Buick Building’s ground floor Nov. 1.
Jeremy Milling of Milling Commercial Realty said he is working with three potential tenants in hopes that two will divide the 18,000 square feet available on the second floor. Two of the contenders are “technology-related companies,” while the third “just very much likes the aesthetic of the building and the transformation of St. Louis Street,” he said.
Milling said once the second floor is occupied it should support between 50 and 70 “well-paying,” professional jobs.
“It’s been amazing to me to see the market’s response to a product type like (the Buick Building), the way they’ve renovated it with open space, and a mixture of old and modern design. It’s just been very popular, and there’s an obvious demand for this sort of space,” Milling said, noting he’s still seeking a bakery, coffee shop or small delicatessen for the first floor’s remaining 2,000-square-foot corner space.
The corridor’s newest resident could go a long way toward attracting that tenant, he said.
Enter Precision Engineering
Precision Engineering purchased the former Dodge Brothers Automobile Co. and Graham Truck Co. building at 400 St. Louis St. The property includes three structures and – like the Buick Building across the street one block removed – takes up an entire city block.
Immediate plans call for renovating the primary 24,000-square-foot warehouse on the 60,000-square-foot site to house corporate offices that Precision President Joe Kenny plans to relocate from Theodore.
“I really like that downtown Mobile is in the process of a very fast-paced revitalization and we want to be a part of it before it is too late,” Kenny said.
The full-service, multi-discipline engineering firm specializing in control system, instrumentation and electrical design services employs 70, but Kenny hopes to employ more than 100 within five years while creating a dynamic workspace central to his employees scattered across Mobile and Baldwin counties.
Precision’s move into the renovated St. Louis Street building, constructed in 1921, is expected in the first quarter of 2017.
“Combining Precision Engineering’s project with the others on St. Louis Street solidifies the activity as a real trend,” Rendfrey said.
NAI Mobile’s Allan Cameron, who represented Precision in the transaction while Milling represented the seller, called the project “an integral component to implementing the St. Louis Street technology initiative” and said he is confident it will “extend the boundaries of the traditional central business district.”
Mobile’s St. Louis Street was identified in 2014 as prime locale for redevelopment as a high-tech corridor akin to T-REX in St. Louis, and became the focal point of a $500,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration grant proposal.
Lynne Chronister, the University of South Alabama’s vice president for research and economic development, said although the local effort failed to garner the competitive national funding on its first try, the experience helped the group clarify the scope of the request and is being used as a building block for future efforts. USA sought the grant in partnership with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, the city of Mobile, the Downtown Mobile Alliance, Bishop State Community College, the Mobile Airport Authority and the Alabama State Port Authority.
The consortium’s ultimate goal, Chronister said, is to secure funding for a feasibility study of a high-tech incubator/research park similar to T-REX, which bills itself as a “world-class venue providing the startup entrepreneur with low-cost and flexible enterprise space, while serving the region with quality programming and inspiring community.”
“It’s not over by a long shot. We’re just getting started, and every step along the way is a lesson learned,” Chronister said.
NAI Mobile’s Cameron points to the organic growth and development along the corridor as proof the consortium nailed both the need for and interest in pursuing the initiative.
“We’re very excited about the prospect of St. Louis Street being converted into meaningful jobs and rehabilitated spaces that will attract the type of activity and energy needed to transform it into the vibrant (business district) we know it can be,” Cameron said.