The Valley, Aeolian may be sold|[6/8/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 8, 2006

A deal between the owners of two Vicksburg landmark buildings and a group of California developers could be reached by the end of the month, sources said.

A group headed by architect Mike Burgess has a pending purchase contract for The Valley, a former department store at Washington and South streets, and The Aeolian apartments at Clay and Cherry streets, the Oakland, Calif.-based developer said Wednesday.

Both buildings, sitting just blocks apart, have stood vacant for well over a decade.

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&#8220It’s a relief, after 23 years,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens, who owns The Valley and whose ancestors ran businesses on the site for more than a century before the popular store shut its doors in 1983.

Frank Imes, the Columbus, Miss.-based television station owner who owns The Aeolian, could not be reached for comment by phone.

The plan, if finalized, would remake the 124-year-old, five-story masonry department store building into a condominium complex, said Broker South Real Estate agent Pam Beard, who represents the property. It would also refurbish and reopen apartments inside the 82-year-old apartment building, vacant since its last tenants moved out in 1991, she said.

&#8220We don’t want to be premature, but we’re pretty excited about all of it,” said Burgess, who described his team of buyers as &#8220a small investment group” that has worked on residential developments in California. He said he plans to be in Mississippi later this month and to form a limited liability company in the state.

&#8220We’re actually growing quite fond of it after a couple visits down there,” he said, though he also noted in an e-mail this morning that &#8220these kinds of deals fall apart all the time.”

Beard said the group had signed a preliminary contract and was in the due diligence phase of investigating the property and getting financing in order.

Leyens confirmed he had a &#8220pending contract” on the building, but would not reveal any specifics of the negotiations.

&#8220It’s not a done deal,” he said.

Leyens, who lived in California as a marketing analyst for health-care companies for 14 years before returning to Vicksburg in 1997, also emphasized that he did not know Burgess or anyone in the group before he was approached about selling The Valley.

Neither building was included in the city’s recently completed, $5 million &#8220urban renewal” effort to revitalize neglected areas of historic downtown.

Leyens’ family has operated retail space at Washington and South streets since 1881. The current structure there was built in 1910 and was for decades the largest department store between New Orleans and Memphis.

Imes saved the Aeolian from the city wrecking ball when he bought the long-vacant building in 1999 and committed to restoring its facade. Constructed in 1924 and billed as Vicksburg’s first fireproof apartment dwelling, the structure had deteriorated into a home for vagrants, drug users and other crime.

Work replacing the building’s 1,046 windows, cleaning out debris from inside and scraping peeling paint began shortly after Imes bought the building, but stopped soon after.

One of the contractors who worked on the Aeolian’s facade after it was bought by Imes was Chris Chain, owner of Renovations of Mississippi in Columbus. Chain said he had been contacted about doing similar work if the deal goes through.

Vicksburg architect Skippy Tuminello also said he planned to sign on to oversee renovation plans.

&#8220This is really exciting for downtown Vicksburg,” he said.