The Commercial Appeal - - Busi­ness -

cause only Beale can bring in ever more tourists from around the world.

Pay­ing taxes

Beale Street as it is to­day and Mud Is­land park both came about from the same im­pulse.

Mem­phi­ans a gen­er­a­tion ago set out to re­build the cen­ter city.

Civic lead­ers found $63 mil­lion in pub­lic money to cre­ate the 52-acre ur­ban park, am­phithe­ater and river mu­seum on Mud Is­land, while Beale Street’s $25 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion was fi­nanced al­most en­tirely by en­trepreneurs, most of whom were re­garded as fool­ish risk tak­ers.

To­day, city-owned Mud Is­land draws about 170,000 vis­i­tors a year and runs a $1.1 mil­lion an­nual deficit, while John Elk­ing­ton es­ti­mates Beale Street busi­nesses have con­trib­uted more than $50 mil­lion in lo­cal and state taxes over the years.

Elk­ing­ton is the Mem­phis real es­tate de­vel­oper who set out in 1982 to re­build Beale. He man­aged the dis­trict un­til 2014.

Open a restau­rant any place else in the city and you likely deal with a land­lord, a banker and your ven­dors. Open on Beale and you have those as­so­ciates as well as a man­ager. Let the weeds sprout in your side­walk and the man­ager tells you to spruce up.

Elk­ing­ton did that chore un­til 2014 and held one other vi­tal role. He was the de­vel­oper.

Find­ing an icon

Beale Street did not al­ways look as it does now.

Take what is ar­guably the street’s key build­ing, Beale at Sec­ond, vis­i­ble to tourists walk­ing over from The Pe­abody and nearby ho­tels.

To­day, you see the neon glow of B.B. King’s. The bar ex­ists largely be­cause Elk­ing­ton ne­go­ti­ated over five years to at­tract a night spot tourists world­wide would rec­og­nize as iconic.

Once the famed Delta blues­man agreed to lend his name to the bar, Elk­ing­ton helped con­vince Mem­phis fi­nan­cial ex­ec­u­tive Thomas Peters to in­vest in the busi­ness. The bar opened in 1988. Peters went on to cre­ate a chain of night clubs around the B.B. King brand.

Since Elk­ing­ton stepped aside three years ago, no one has looked ahead at what Beale needs to thrive or even take steps to mar­ket it. The Mem­phis Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bureau men­tions Beale in its mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial, though the agency pro­motes all the city’s at­trac­tions with­out fo­cus­ing on the lone street.

“Beale Street has to get peo­ple to come there,” Elk­ing­ton said. “It can’t keep go­ing on for­ever just with what it has. It helps be­ing next to the FedEx­Fo­rum. But it can’t go on for­ever just the way it is.”

Build­ing a niche

What be­comes clear as you talk to mer­chants on Beale is this: Most es­tab­lish­ments aren’t run on au­to­matic pilot. Each has its own spe­cialty.

Malcolm Burt stocks Robert John­son CDs, be­cause plenty of tourists want the mu­sic of the for­mer hand on the Ab­bay & Leather­man farm at Robin­sonville, Mis­sis­sippi. Also stocked is Rev. Robert Wilkins’ mu­sic. Dis­cern­ing cus­tomers know the gui­tar player from nearby Her­nando helped in­flu­ence John­son.

In the same way, Tommy Peters en­sures the bands play­ing B.B. King’s have the right sound – not pure blues, not heavy rock and roll, not Mem­phis soul, but a blend cus­tomers can ap­pre­ci­ate. He plays sam­ples on a com­puter in his Down­town of­fice. The sound re­sem­bles that of Texas blues-rock band ZZ Top. The lyrics could have orig­i­nated at Stax.

Given the chore of run­ning a busi­ness, most mer­chants aren’t able to mar­ket Beale Street or make sure the ne­glected block around Coy­ote Ugly at­tracts new en­ter­prises.

De­spite the daily work, James Clark, owner of Eel-Etc., an ap­parel shop at 333 Beale he opened 34 years ago, re­mem­bers he took time in a let­ter to the City Coun­cil shar­ing his frus­tra­tions.

“We have to gen­er­ate more events and bring more at­ten­tion to this end of the street,” Clark said.

Find­ing a vi­sion

The fu­ture of Beale Street rests with Mayor Jim Strickland.

Three years ago, the City Coun­cil se­lected the Down­town Mem­phis Com­mis­sion as the in­terim man­ager. Plenty of controversy has fol­lowed over who should step in as the per­ma­nent man­ager.

Ter­ence Pat­ter­son, the highly re­garded head of the Down­town com­mis­sion, has sig­naled he and the agency are will­ing.

City Coun­cil at­tor­ney Al­lan Wade has said the coun­cil over­stepped its au­thor­ity be­cause only the mayor has con­tract­ing au­thor­ity, The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal’s Ryan Poe re­ported last week.

Just how Strickland will go about find­ing a man­ager is un­cer­tain.

But it is clear if the street can pull in $34 mil­lion a year, it’s hard to un­der­stand why it can’t dou­ble that amount.

Tourists world­wide seem to ap­pre­ci­ate Beale Street. Mem­phis needs to give them more rea­son to visit.

Busi­ness colum­nist Ted Evanoff of The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal can be reached at evanoff@com­mer­cialap­peal.com and (901) 529-2292.


Bas­ket­ball fan Jay Gen­try, of Lit­tle Rock, Ark., vis­its Beale Street with his son, Gavin Gen­try, 8, as they wait to check into their ho­tel ahead of the NCAA tour­na­ment’s re­gional games in Mem­phis re­cently. The pair are Ar­kan­sas fans, but got tick­ets to...

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