By Sharman Egan/Contributing writer
Government Street downtown has long been a bit of an eyesore rather than the showcase it was 100 years ago. But that’s changed in the last couple of years. Now, if it were any hotter we’d have to keep Riverside Ice open year-round to cool things off. Let’s take a stroll, heading west from Water Street, to see what’s changed in just the last two years, and what’s on the horizon.
The first big news: Market on the Square is packing up its tents, fresh eggs and Grand Bay tomatoes and moving to Mardi Gras Park. The spring season opens April 29 for what will now be known as Market in the Park. I’m not so sure about this change. Yes, the new park needs events to draw people to it. But Cathedral Square has an ambiance that can’t be duplicated. I’ll miss the shade of its trees and the laughter of kids dancing in the spray park (and social media seems to agree with me). But you can be sure you’ll see me at the new market.
The next block of Government houses two new co-working ventures in beautifully renovated spaces. Two years ago, the only co-working space in Mobile, as far as I know, was the local coffee shop. So why do we now have two in one block? Exchange 202, which opened in October 2015, serves businesses. It has 55 member organizations including entrepreneurs, designers and artists, and other small businesses. Fuse Factory opened last November. It specializes in nonprofits with five or fewer employees. Both offer not only some of the coolest office space in Mobile but also a supportive community of like-minded people. A third space, the Container Yard, is thriving on the ground floor of the Marine Street Lofts in Midtown.
Just a few doors down, at 210 Government, Hargrove Controls + Automation is renovating the old WALA-TV building, which has sat mostly vacant for years. Inside, Hargrove will create offices for 65 employees. Outside, the building will get a more historic look with the addition of an iron lace balcony, one of the largest on the Mardi Gras parade route. When the project is complete (scheduled for this fall), Hargrove will have renovated roughly 150,000 square feet of long-vacant space in downtown creating offices buzzing with people.
Our next stop is the Admiral Hotel at 251. After an extensive renovation to the 1940s art deco building, in 2015 the tired Radisson became a Hilton Curio boutique hotel. It has two new restaurants — Corner 251 and The Launch — plus an apiary with more than 100,000 bees. (How did they count them?) The honey is used in the hotel’s signature oatmeal raisin cookies and other dishes served on premises (including the restaurants), as well as in soap for guests.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians bought the old Press-Register building at 304 Government last June. Their plans have been somewhat hush-hush, but an announcement made shortly after the purchase indicated it would be used by the University of South Alabama for business management and hospitality programs. Those plans have not been finalized, however. A renovation to the long-vacant building would be a huge improvement on Government Street. Having USA students studying, eating and shopping downtown would be even better.
Things have been pretty quiet in the 500 block of Government since the $3.5 million exterior renovation of Barton Academy was completed in July 2015. The Barton Academy Foundation is now raising funds to match a $1.25 million challenge grant awarded by the Ben May Charitable Trust last August. The funds will be used to renovate the interior. The ultimate goal is to open the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies, a public school for grades 6-12. I don’t know if I’ll see that in my lifetime but it sure is nice to see one of downtown’s grande dames returned to its former glory.
After countless setbacks, Serda Brewing Co. is finally coming to life at 600 Government. If the rendering on its Facebook page is any indication, the former tire store will be transformed from suburban tacky to urban hip. Craft beer will be brewed, bottled and served onsite. It will include a pub-style taproom, enclosed beer garden and food truck alley. Renovations are well along, with plans to open in the summer.
Another Cinderella story can be seen across the street at 607. The circa 1857 Joshua Kennedy House faced possible demolition by the city as recently as a year ago. The building, owned by the American Legion since 1947, has sat abandoned since the 1990s. The nonprofit 1857 Foundation purchased the building this month and plans to start renovations in the next several months.
The last stop on our walking tour is Greer’s Downtown Market at the corner of Broad Street. Formerly a rundown Save-a-Lot, it was converted to a Greer’s grocery in April 2015. The Greer family could have just slapped a fresh coat of paint on the outside and called it a day. Instead, they created a landmark, with murals by local artist Devlin Wilson telling the story of the 100-year-old chain, a spiffy striped awning and countless other improvements.
Taken together, these major projects along a less than one-mile stretch of Government Street demonstrate how quickly Mobile is becoming a better place to live, work and play.