Renovations Ongoing

In the past few years, the small town of Wiggins has been attracting out-of-state investors who see derelict properties as big opportunities. If renovation plans go as expected for two groups of developers, the city will boast a totally refurbished shopping center and three historic First Street buildings will receive a facelift and five new apartments.

“Wiggins is a hidden gem,” Jessica Nirschel said.

Originally from Oregon, Jessica moved to the Gulf Coast with her husband, Noah Nirschel, for her job as the retirement benefit coordinator for NASA.

When the couple first started managing residential properties in 2019, after they first moved to Gulfport, they invited their now-business partner, David Haswell, to join their new venture.

The group fell in love with timber towns along Highway 49, which reminded them of historic logging communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Jessica even brought her mother to tour Wiggins. They both saw her mother’s Washington hometown in the old bricks.

“I drove my mom down here and I said, ‘Mom, look at this place. Look at what this place could be,’” Jessica said, not knowing she would own four of the buildings they looked at months later.

By chance, Noah located the Wiggins properties ties for sale through Facebook during a real estate conference in New Orleans. Later that day, Noah and Jessica drove from New Orleans to get the First Street properties under contract.

The group purchased two buildings from Bobbie Sue Fenton, who mentioned she knew the owner of the building next door to the Enterprise, Judy Michaels.

There was not much to the third property, which had been damaged in Hurricane Katrina. It lacked a roof and a floor.

“We basically, bought the walls,” Jessica said.

The deals were inked in 2019. The group also purchased the Stone County Enterprise building that year.

Polishing their Wiggins “gems” have been a journey with challenges around every corner.

“It’s been a long process,” Jessica said, causing Haswell and Noah to chuckle.

After months spent poring over paperwork and blueprints, the plans were approved in March 2020.

Then the pandemic hit.

The original lender bailed, and another local bank refused to back their plans. Finally, Keesler Federal Credit Union found an interest in the project.

After some progress, the group ran into more red tape.

After the plans were approved, the developers were notified they needed to build a firewall, add a sprinkler system, and possibly pay to install water lines.

The safety upgrades added thousands to their estimated costs. The water lines are still being worked out.

It could cost an additional $8,000 to install a water line at the developer’s expense, but the city is currently looking at another route that requires an easement from adjacent property owners.

“Right now, we are just working on getting the apartments ready, so we can start generating revenue,” Jessica said.

The group is nearly finished renovating the five one-bedroom apartments, but are still without water.

Jessica thinks the firewall and sprinkler system should at least lower insurance premiums and add to the property value, but the group has already over $600,000 in the project.

In March, the Nirschels asked the Board of Aldermen for help bringing the buildings back to life. They were interested in a tax abatement plan, but the city directed them to apply for a facade grant. The grant could give the developers funds to restore storefronts, but the city would need to specify a special district before they could qualify. Until then, funds sit available and unused.

Despite the obstacles, Jessica, Noah, and Haswell have trudged on.

“We’ve got a lot of skin in the game and we want to see this work, and I feel like it can work,” she said.

The Nirschels want tenants who are invested in Wiggins’ success and will bring unique business here to thrive here.

“The ideal tenant would be someone who wants to live there and operate their business in the storefront,” Noah said.

They would like to see more restaurants and unique venues here.

“Overall, I really hope that the downtown takes off,” Noah said.

If the First Street project is successful, they want to renovate even more historic properties in Wiggins.

Haswell and the Nirschels shirk from the “developer” title. Noah and Jessica want locals to get excited about Wiggins’ potential.

“We’re not ‘developers’ by any means,” Jessica said. “I just want people to have something to do in Wiggins.”

“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Noah said in agreement.

Like fellow property manager Steven Evans, they imagine a thriving downtown district.

A Wiggins native, Evans said the city is at a crossroads where it can be saved.

“This place is a golden opportunity,” Evans said.

After the 2008 Recession hit, Evans and his father moved to Silicon Valley and started a plumbing company, which currently employs over 60.

Since moving back to Mississippi in 2016, Evans has invested around $2 million in Stone County real estate. He wants to invest even more. Through K + S Properties, Evans manages about 40 residential units in Stone County.

Evans closed on the former Campbell Lots on Magnolia Drive for $395,000 in 2020. The four-business commercial space sat vacant for years. Now it is the K+S Plaza.

He upgraded the facility to meet federal and local regulations and wants to pave a $60,000 parking lot.

Evans plans for the plaza to be ready for tenants before this summer ends.

Like the Nirschels and Haswell, he wants his tenants to be assets to the community.

“I like hard-working families. I think that’s what any community needs,” Evans said.

As a property owner, Evans says he wants to ensure his tenants bring businesses that will add value to the city.

He does not want to fill vacant buildings in the city with liquor stores and check advances just to collect a rent check.

Evans said it makes sense for local government and developers, like himself, to support the community’s growth.

He believes small towns, like Wiggins, should have big development goals and market themselves to more “outsiders.” Otherwise, historic buildings will continue to fall in, he says.

“There’s a lot of people who care, who want to see Wiggins become more. But we are at a breaking point,” Evans said. “It takes outside investment, but it also takes a city that will work with people.”

Evans’ investments are a bet on his hometown and his family’s future.

His grandparents, Barbara and Richard Evans, run a food pantry in town. His son attends Stone County Schools.

Eventually, he would like to move his wife, Kanita, and their newborn son to Wiggins.

With everyone playing their part, he believes it can happen.