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