As Jodie Vance remembers it, 1991 was an important year for Downtown Memphis’ transformation.
Editor Terre Gorham, from left, publisher Jodie Vance and sales executive Joseph Abraham hold a staff meeting in the offices of the Memphis Downtowner magazine, which turns 20 years old this month. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Rumors of re-opening the trolley line on Main Street circulated, The Pyramid opened and taking up residence close to Mississippi River was still a novel idea.
These days condominiums and lofts saturate the area, there’s a restaurant on almost every block, the trolley not only includes a Riverfront Loop but also extends east to the medical district, and Downtown boasts 22,000 residents.
Vance, a longtime Downtown resident, feels like she played a part in the district’s revival.
Hoping to sway public opinion about her neighborhood of choice, Vance launched the first issue of Memphis Downtowner magazine in February 1991.
“I had lived Downtown for five years, and in the ’80s and ’90s the media was not kind,” she said. “I remember going to a meeting where city officials pulled in residents to ask their opinions about putting in the trolley. It was a great meeting. I read about it in the paper, and it was the most negative story. I couldn’t believe we attended the same meeting.
“I thought someone needs to tell the same story, but from a Downtowner’s perspective.”
The magazine debuted with 5,000 copies printed on 12 uncoated, two-color pages covering the history of the trolley line.
“We joke and call it a ‘magalette,’” Vance said. “It was sewn together like a magazine but looked like a newsletter.”
It didn’t take long for the Downtowner to jump to full-color enamel stock and for Vance to move from her home office into Brinkley Plaza.
Since then Vance has grown her staff to four full-time and one part-time employees. The Downtowner boasts a monthly distribution of 25,000 copies and an online readership of 200,000 hits a month, and has its own office space at 408 S. Front St., Suite 109.
While the publication is free, Vance manages to garner a subscription list that reaches far beyond the 38103 ZIP code.
“We cover almost every state from New York to California. People love to keep up with what’s going on in Memphis,” Vance said. “We have visitors pick up a copy while they’re here, and then subscribe to the magazine so they can plan trips around what they find in the Downtowner.”
In addition to a comprehensive listing of Downtown restaurants and events, readers find stories about everything from historic Elmwood Cemetery to influential locals who have contributed to the city’s growth to whatever else Vance and her staff find inspiring about Memphis.
“It’s a positive publication trying to do good, better the community and help people,” said editor Terre Gorham, who came on board in 1994. “Working here has been a dream come true. It’s an opportunity to be a part of an organization that parallels my values.”
The Downtowner team’s mission also includes providing an outlet for local artists, with an annual photo contest as well as an art contest for the Downtown Elementary School students in February, with winning works on display at the Art Village Gallery, 412 S. Main St.
“I want to encourage the community to get involved in artistic endeavors,” Vance said.
To honor the publication’s longevity and widespread success, staff members plan to make it a yearlong celebration.
“For our 10th anniversary, we honored the pioneers of Downtown, who helped bring Downtown to where it was at that point,” Vance said. “This year for our 20th, we want to focus on the future of Downtown and honor its future leaders.”
So far plans include a health fair in March at the Art Village Gallery, and a summer luncheon to recognize leaders of the future.
From Vance’s standpoint, an eye on the positive is integral to building that future.
“Memphians are still so negative about Memphis, and there are still a lot of problems we face and need to improve, but the more we look at the good things we have done, the more it helps us move forward and continue to improve the city,” she said.
And the Downtoner staff members have no intention of stopping anytime soon
“I say here’s to 20 more good years,” Gorham said.