Story and Photographs by Marianne Todd
When he started his project, Bill Boykin's vision was much larger than the two walls and 1940s Sears building he repurposed into a full-service restaurant and upscale loft apartments.
“The roofs had fallen in, and there wasn't anything but standing walls,” says the Greenville developer outside the newly built Downtown Grille and accompanying The Lofts at 517.
Until then, Boykin had spent his time as a mechanical contractor and was a pharmaceutical representative before that. “My passion has always been real estate and rental property,” he says. The 28-room boutique hotel, with 14 rooms serving as hotel suites and 14 serving as apartments, The Lofts and adjacent Downtown Grille were a welcome sight in Greenville, whose once sluggish economy had for years hindered downtown development. The properties sit next to another new downtown venture, the popular Mighty Miss. Brew Company. Standing outside his 517 Washington Ave. properties, Boykin remembers acquiring the first building in 2012.
“It had been a city-owned building for 20 years … it was put up for auction, and I was the lucky winner. But I was like a dog chasing a car. I had caught the tire. Then I had to figure out what to do with it next. I thought about upscale apartments and retail, kept working on that idea, then bought the building next door.” As the years ticked by, so did the purchases. In 2015, he bought the property on the west side. “We're now putting a butcher shop and old time grocery store in and hope to have it open by spring.”
In January 2016, construction started on The Lofts. By July of the following year, The Lofts opened to its first tenants moving in. Units are equipped with spacious living rooms, kitchens and baths and complemented with luxurious furniture, fixtures and linens. The appeal of The Lofts is the modern-day updates and clean, sleek lines coupled with original brick walls and hardwood flooring. The old freight elevator has been updated for use, adding a nostalgic feel to the property.
The initiative came on the heels of burgeoning downtown revitalization at the urging of then Mayor Chuck Jordan, who was also a friend of Boykin's. “He had a plan and a vision for Greenville,” Boykin says, “but nine months into office he died. He had gotten so many things started in that nine months – a $40 million federal courthouse – we're seeing his ideas come to fruition.”
Boykin said he drew the plans for The Lofts himself.
“The carpenters, the cabinet people and builders, I'd bring them the plans I drew and say, 'This is what I want' and they could see my vision,” Boykin says. “People bought into my vision early on. They rented the four corners sight unseen. I've been blessed by the good Lord. The rooms are booking and the restaurant is phenomenal.”
Outside the hotel, 5x5 foot photographs of some of Greenville's residents pay homage to the locals. The photos represent 10 documentaries on residents of Greenville and Washington County commissioned by Gov. Phil Bryant to depict the state during its bicentennial celebration.
“The Sears Building in its heyday was the anchor point. It was the building that stood tall and strong in downtown Greenville,” Boykin says. “That's what always intrigued me about the building and even wanting to pursue this project.
“I grew up here. My vision is to see revitalization of not only the downtown but our entire community. It'll never be what it once was, but that's okay. We're looking at what it can be.”
The Downtown Grille opened to huge fanfare, Boykin said. Chef Alan Sanders, Boykin's cousin, left his job at an Oxford restaurant to return to his Greenville home with his family to be part of the venture.
“The Delta brings you back,” Boykin says. “I invited him and he came for a visit and immediately shared the vision.”
Now the restaurant and hotel plays host to people visiting for Greenville's popular music festivals – like the Mighty Mississippi and the Delta Blues Fest. “People come from everywhere, a lot of foreigners, and we didn't anticipate that. People come who are on the Delta Blues Tour. We're drawing a big crowd from all over – Arkansas, Louisiana, and of course, the Mississippi Delta.”
The restaurant's offerings include pastas, seafood and steaks, and signature dishes like Potato Crusted Salmon, Stuffed Catfish and Chicken Marchand. Desserts include bourbon pecan pie, chocolate cake and a heavenly white chocolate bread pudding. The restaurant also offers a full-service bar and catering, and extended dining rooms for larger parties.
“We can only help ourselves,” Boykin says of the project. “There's not a board meeting in Chicago or New York today that men and women are saying 'Let's go down to Greenville and see if we can help them.' What it takes is those of us living here, leading this community, those of us that have elected to stay here and make this home, we are the ones that have got to make the choice that we want it to be better. You can't see the forest for the trees a lot of people say, but the forest is tall and green right here in Greenville.”