- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Department of Education said Tuesday that it’s moving out of its headquarters for months, following damage from a July 19 fire.

Heat from the fire in a trash bin behind the neighboring Marriott hotel in downtown Jackson broke out some windows of the Central High School building, setting off sprinklers and sucking smoke into the building. The sprinklers caused extensive water damage and concerns about mold infestation, and workers say the building reeks of smoke.

Employees have been working from homes and temporary locations, spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said, with a skeleton crew in the Central High School building. The department announced Tuesday it will rent nearly 27,000 square feet for most employees at the South Pointe Business Park in Clinton starting Aug. 17. That is where the state Revenue Department is headquartered.

Others will work locations including an annex of the nearby Woolfolk state office building, an existing department building on Greymont Avenue near downtown Jackson, and the Mississippi School for the Blind north of downtown.

Chuck McIntosh, a spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees state buildings, said no value has yet been determined for the damage, but he said insurance is expected to fully pay for the repairs, meaning lawmakers won’t be asked for a special appropriation in 2016.

McIntosh said the state expects that after planning, bids and construction, repairs will take eight or nine months. He said windows, walls, floors, furniture, fixtures and equipment were all damaged by fire, smoke and water.

The Department of Education declared an emergency, meaning it didn’t have to take bids on leasing space at South Pointe, McIntosh said. He said the building was chosen in part because employees could move in quickly with little work and because the landlord would help with moving.

The lease that MDE signed calls for paying $42,374.75 a month, McIntosh said. He said DFA reviewed the lease but did not negotiate it.

When the Revenue Department chose to enter a $41 million lease over 20 years at South Pointe in 2013, critics said it was a political favor to Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, whose district includes South Pointe. The 367,000 square-foot complex was built as Worldcom’s corporate headquarters. DFA officials said South Pointe offered a lower cost than buying a building in downtown Jackson because the state wouldn’t have to pay for upkeep.

The Hertz Investment Group, which owns a substantial portion of the commercial office space in the Jackson area, bought South Pointe in 2014 for $20.5 million. CB Richard Ellis estimated early this year that 21 percent of all commercial office space in Jackson is vacant, including 32 percent or nearly 1 million square feet in the downtown district.

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