The high life downtown|Old Valley, Sears buildings alive again

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 24, 2009

Business is being done again in The Valley building, the five-story downtown landmark devoid of commerce for nearly 25 years.

The top floors of the former department store, in business for more than a century at 1421 Washington St., now house 20 luxury apartments designed for corporate tenants, the first of whom checked in on July 25.

If you go

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a ribbon cutting and open house from 5 until 7 p.m. Tuesday at The Valley, 1421 Washington St.  The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the Chamber at 601-636-1012.

The future of the ground floor, meanwhile, is uncertain, with the owners saying that they hope to lease the space to an upscale restaurant or come up with alternative plans for it as early as this week.

Settled, however, are most of the questions about the building’s fate that have persisted since June 14, 1986, when Louis Leyens Jr. shuttered The Valley Dry Goods Co. and announced his intention to sell the building his family opened for business in 1909. The Valley clothed generations of Vicksburg families, with “Meet Me At The Valley” as its slogan and Santa Claus having his headquarters there every Christmas season.

Plans floated during the building’s dormancy included converting it into subsidized housing for low-income elderly residents, using it for retail space and even tearing it down.

It was not until 2007 that Louis Leyens’ son, then-Mayor Laurence Leyens, sold the building on behalf of the family corporation to the San Diego development firm of Kayvon Agahnia.

Agahnia, who paid an undisclosed price for the structure, met Leyens when both were residents of California and The Valley building is the only property Agahnia’s company has developed outside of that state.

Agahnia’s purchase ended Laurence Leyens’ financial interest in The Valley, but the former mayor said he has supervised renovations as a courtesy to Agahnia.  “I’ve basically been him here,” Leyens said.  “I’ve tried to make sure that everything was done right.  When everything is finished, I’m going to hand him the key and tell him, ‘Good luck.’”

Known as KA Enterprises, Agahnia’s firm has spent just more than $4 million on converting The Valley to luxury apartments.  According to Leyens, that expenditure represents “the largest investment in downtown Vicksburg over the last 50 years.”

The development “fills a need,” Leyens said, for long-term housing for clients such as visiting Corps of Engineers workers detailed to town for months-long stays.  Rates ranging from $70 to $80 per day are based on the government’s per-diem housing allowance, and a minimum stay of two weeks is required.

A similar project is readying for its debut nearby at 1509 Washington St., where Anchuca owner Tom Pharr has collaborated with building proprietor Riverbend Land & Development LLC to install nine condominiums on the top two floors of the art deco structure that once housed Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Pharr said that the condos are available for sale and leasing, and that the first tenant will move in next month.  Rates there, also, are set according to the government per diem. 

Like Leyens, Pharr views his project as fulfilling a demand for high-quality housing in the downtown area.  The Valley and the former Big 10 and Sears building are “incubators,” he said, anchor buildings whose development will spur further improvements up and down Washington and surrounding streets.  “Downtown is coming back to life,” he said. Upper floors of the Trustmark building are also likely for conversion and several other buildings have potential futures as residential properties.

Tough economic circumstances have contributed to the failure of some downtown revitalization plans.

In March, a group of developers scrapped plans to build upscale townhouses and retail outlets near the corner of Washington and Grove streets and returned to the city a vacant parcel of land acquired for the project under an urban-renewal program.

The Sears building itself was acquired by Riverbend from owners who bought the property under the urban-renewal program but found the plan’s requirements too costly.

Pharr said he believes that the Sears building will at least generate sufficient rental income for the owners to recoup their investments. 

Leyens, meanwhile, said The Valley’s prospects are buoyed by the federal government’s heavy presence in Vicksburg.  He cited a study from his tenure as mayor showing that visiting government employees occupy 13,400 “bed nights” per year in the city.

“If you’re a guy who’s going to be here for 90 days, your only two options before now were to stay in a hotel for that long or to rent a house or apartment that was going to require you to hook up utilities and all those sorts of things,” Leyens said.  “This is a better option.”

In renovating The Valley, developers “preserved as much of the original structure as we possibly could,” contractor Daryl Hollingsworth said.

The pine floors that guests will walk on are the same ones that supported generations of shoppers.  Overhead, ceiling beams and the structure’s original sprinkler system  — one of the first in town — have been left exposed.  Old photos of the building, as well as an original store directory, will be displayed in the lobby.

The business that became The Valley Dry Goods Co. was founded in 1881 by Simon Switzer and three others. Switzer’s brother-in-law Edgar Leyens bought one of the original partner’s interests after the latter man moved to New York City.  Descendants of that pair would guide the business for the rest of its days. 

The Valley became the largest department store between Memphis and New Orleans, with 40 departments in 1931 and 188 names on the payroll in 1954.  It was the first building in Vicksburg to have air conditioning. 

The business closed one year after the city acquired its second shopping mall, and its passing was viewed by some as the symbolic conclusion of downtown’s days as a major shopping destination.

“A way of business had expired,” Vicksburg Post managing editor Charlie Faulk wrote. “The end of The Valley seems to punctuate a sociological milestone for Vicksburg, like a member of the family leaving.”


Contact Ben Bryant at