VOL. 128 | NO. 246 | Wednesday, December 18, 2013
By Bill Dries
It’s been more than three years since city leaders declared the next chapter of the Beale Street entertainment district was about to begin.
John Elkington bids farewell at Rum Boogie Cafe. After 30 years at the helm of the Beale Street entertainment district, Elkington is stepping down at the end of the year.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
But it wasn’t until Monday, Dec. 16, that Beale Street developer John Elkington marked his coming farewell to the street at the end of this year.
“Beale Street wasn’t created by magic or miracle,” he said from the stage at Rum Boogie Café to a crowd of several dozen invited guests. “It was created by the persistence and the hard work and the dedication and the money that all of these people in this room who were involved in it put in this project. Government did not create Beale Street.”
Elkington gathered the friends, attorneys and business associates as a 21-day comment period on the federal bankruptcy court settlement that is the final piece of his exit winds down.
“It’s really smooth sailing all the way through,” Elkington said of the settlement with the city in which the city pays off a $600,000 loan Elkington took out for improvements to Handy Park.
The city will pay him through a combination of revenues it gets from the district and an unused fund of federal money from the settlement of the land ownership in what was to be the interstate corridor through Overton Park that was stopped by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1970s.
That was the last hitch in a much-delayed negotiated settlement that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. first announced in June 2010 with Elkington noticeably absent from the City Hall press conference.
“Pioneers always get bloodied,” Wharton said of Elkington’s absence then, adding that the city owed Elkington “a debt of gratitude.”
The continuing court battles in Chancery and federal bankruptcy court with the Beale Street Development Corp. meant Elkington and his company continued to manage the street’s day-to-day operation.
That will end on New Year’s Day.
“I want to thank all of the lawyers I’ve helped support all of these years,” Elkington quipped from the stage.
Wharton announced last week that the Downtown Memphis Commission will run the district for the city on an interim basis effective Jan. 1, with help from city division directors.
“Beale Street wasn’t created by magic or miracle. It was created by the persistence and hard work ... that all of these people in this room ... put into this project.”
The interim step gives the city time to decide how the district will be operated in the future. Wharton has said city government has no intention of directly running Beale Street.
Elkington is among those who believe some kind of committee similar in structure to the Downtown Memphis Commission should be the next step for long-term leadership.
Elkington has said that at this point in the district’s development, it doesn’t need the kind of singular leadership style he used over 30 years or a national management firm.
“You’ve got to live in the city almost to make it work. Or you’ve got to have people that are involved who cared as much as I cared,” he said. “I knew if I failed, every day I’d be in the newspaper. … I couldn’t fail. That’s why we stayed in as long as we stayed.”
The renovated district opened in October 1983 with what was then Elkington-Keltner as the development firm. That became Performa Entertainment, with Elkington remaining as leader of Beale Street’s redevelopment.
Elkington was selected by the Beale Street Development Corp., the nonprofit middleman between Elkington and the city of Memphis, which owns most of the buildings in the district and all of the ground on which they stand.
Elkington said the political and media environment in the city now means it would be difficult, if not impossible, to repeat the path Beale Street took.
“There’s too much going on, on the City Council. There’s too many bloggers. There’s too many anonymous bloggers,” he said. “There’s too many people that can criticize you. We had a rough start. It wasn’t like it was an easy job. … You couldn’t do what we did today, because you wouldn’t have had the opportunity. They wouldn’t let you go as far.”
He gave credit to Dick Hackett, who won election to a full term as mayor two days before the district opened.
“He made the decision we are going to ride the storm,” Elkington said. “I’m not sure politicians today would do that.”
Elkington took on development of the boarded-up buildings, some in ruins, that had been declared urban renewal property in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Overton Square’s founders were among those the city approached about running Beale Street, and they declined. But they offered advice to Elkington, including that he would have to get into the restaurant business to keep the district from failing.
The result was Rum Boogie Cafe, owned by Preston Lamm, a certified public accountant who worked for Elkington.
“If it hadn’t been for this club, Beale Street would not exist,” Elkington said. “We would have had our obituary a long, long time ago.”