Historically, December isn’t the kindest month to Downtown Memphis’ economy. That’s compared to the summer months, when Beale Street and its surrounding areas are bustling with people visiting attractions, dining at restaurants and spending money on retail items.
Memphis Tigers fans Lewis Bandelin with son John, and Bill Perkins stop in for a pregame lunch served by Michael Kuntzman at Central BBQ’s Downtown location before the game against Louisville.
(Photos: Lance Murphey)
“In the winter, it’s really, really difficult down on Beale and Downtown,” said Ty Agee, president of the Beale Street Merchants Association. “Unless you’ve got an Orpheum show or you’ve got something happening at the FedExForum.”
But this December is notably different. There are 13 basketball games this month at FedExForum, including three the week before Christmas and five between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30. Not to mention country star Carrie Underwood’s concert on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
“It’s a huge impact for all of Downtown,” Agee said. “Whether you’re a hotel, restaurant, limo driver, or somebody that works in the Forum, there’s so many different aspects of what a concert or a basketball game does to the Downtown economy.”
Silky O’Sullivan’s, which often caters to large pre- and post-game crowds for both University of Memphis Tigers and Memphis Grizzlies games, expects a far better December this year compared to last year. That’s when the NBA lockout was in full effect.
“Anytime you have any number of people within 200 yards of your entrance, you’re getting business from them,” said Silky’s controller Dennis Flanagan. “Now, does it affect it to the point where we’d go out of business without it? No. But obviously, we love having them here.”
Flanagan said Silky’s benefits from Tigers games more than Grizzlies game because they yield higher turnouts. But the Grizzlies play twice as many games as the Tigers, so it evens out.
Plus, the Grizzlies are on a tear this year. With new ownership in place and a top team in the NBA through the first month of the season, heads are turning in Memphis and elsewhere.
Hoop City Memphis, a T-shirt company started in April during the Grizzlies’ playoff run by Ian Lemmonds and Leslie Skelton, has seen a recent uptick in out-of-state orders.
Downtown restaurants are seeing increased business this month thanks to attendees at University of Memphis and Memphis Grizzlies basketball home games, including Tigers fans Joe and Susan Crawford of Arlington, Texas.
“We’re getting a ton of orders from Oxford, Tupelo, Corinth, (Miss.) and Jackson, Tenn., so it kind of wagon wheels out,” Skelton said. “But we did one shirt that was Marc>Pau and we sent that thing all over the place. We sold a ton in California, which I thought was really funny.”
What’s more, Skelton said twice a week she’s shipping the company’s “This is Memphis. We Grind Here.” shirt to unique destinations like Houston, New York and Indianapolis.
“I really believe that it has to do with people across the country and the region are really digging this Grizz team,” Skelton said. “They’re getting into what the whole grit and grind stands for, so that’s really exciting.”
Kelly Smith, owner of Life is Good Memphis at 100 Peabody Place, said she’s noticed more people are making a day out of Tigers and Grizzlies games. Last weekend’s Tigers game versus the Louisville Cardinals produced an especially large crowd of locals and tourists alike.
“We’ve had a really strong December, sales have been great,” Smith said. “Most of my business is late afternoon, early evening. Definitely people coming in from the suburbs and out of town to go to dinner and shop, and then the weekends have been strong all day.”
Smith added that the traffic that home basketball games generate overshadow other Downtown events like South Main’s Friday Art Trolley Tour nights, particularly during the winter months.
To Aldo Dean, partner in Aldo’s Pizza Pies at 100 S. Main St., it doesn’t matter if Memphis teams are playing at home or away – people will turn out to cheer them on regardless. Aldo’s has held several watch parties so far this season for the Grizzlies, and Dean said they’ve been well received.
“Whether you’re a hotel, restaurant, limo driver, or somebody that works in the Forum, there’s so many different aspects of what a concert or a basketball game does to the Downtown economy.”
President, Beale Street Merchants Association
“It’s been pretty decent, the Grizzlies being a top team, because there’s going to be more people in attendance,” Dean said. “So if that drives people Downtown, then we’re going to see some action from that.”
Chris Garland, broker with Garland Co. Real Estate, is a season ticket holder to the Tigers and the Grizzlies. He often takes clients to the games, and it’s an added bonus when they’re playing well.
“Clients like to go, especially a few weeks ago when the Grizzlies were doing really well,” Garland said. “When they were No. 1 in the NBA, everybody wanted to go with me.”
In addition to a busy December for the Forum, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is coming up on Dec. 31. And while it’s held at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, all of Downtown’s hotels are booked for that weekend, said Harold Graeter, associate executive director of the Liberty Bowl.
“That’s kind of par for the course for us to sell out Downtown and sometimes East Memphis because of the great number of out-of-town fans that are coming to the game,” Graeter said. “Traditionally, the economic impact of the Liberty Bowl is $20 to $25 million for the whole bowl week. The teams arrive on the 26th and the game is on the 31st, so it’s a good six days of when the teams are in town.”
Last year’s Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt game drew 57,000 in the stadium alone, and Graeter anticipates similar numbers this year for Tulsa and Iowa. Both schools are within a day’s drive to Memphis.
“Not only is Memphis a drivable destination, it’s a very affordable destination,” Graeter said. “The game tickets are affordable, both schools are turning out well, and we’re looking at a great influx of fans from the two out-of-town schools.”