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VOL. 129 | NO. 73 | Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Brewery Project Looks for Answers

By Bill Dries

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When the Untapped event at the Tennessee Brewery ends June 1, the fortress-like landmark on the south bluffs will still be tentatively slated for demolition in August.

The Tennessee Brewery building in the South Main Historic Arts District will be the site of Untapped, an event that starts April 24.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But organizers of the event, which mixes live entertainment, local beer and food, and the experience of gathering in a long-closed courtyard, hope some answers will have emerged about a possible life beyond August.

“The idea is, instead of giving up on a building that is as beautiful as this building, let’s see if we can find creative ways to use it in ways that it hasn’t been thought about before,” said Michael Tauer, one of the partners behind Untapped, on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on the Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

“The entire project to renovate this building is daunting – financially the amount of effort that would be required. So let’s start smaller,” Tauer said. “Instead of looking at it as one big project to redo the entire building, let’s focus on a part of it and get some folks in there and have a good time and try to build on that long term to see if that can be done.”

Tommy Pacello, a member of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, refers to it as “previtalization” or putting the site “back on the mental map of Memphians.”

The city team, funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is helping with Untapped, using lessons it has learned from similar efforts in Crosstown and the Broad Avenue Arts District under the MemSHOP and MemFIX banners.

But the brewery is a bit different because of past efforts that have tried to tackle a single use or development for the entire building and have quickly fizzled.

Pacello points to 14 feasibility studies on the property and possible reuses – most of them as residential development – since 1997.

“All of them considered this big investment and redoing the entire thing – in some cases having to go up quite a few additional stories to get there,” he said. “Those projects weren’t penciling out and making financial sense when the Downtown condo market was at $200 per foot. Now that we are closer to $130 or $150, they are not going to pencil out now. The idea of shrinking it down is about being lean. … Most of your square footage is on that ground floor, and you have this gorgeous courtyard, which could be monetized and be a revenue generator.”

While the brewery is a different kind of challenge, Tauer believes the atmosphere that made a renovation of the old Sears Crosstown building possible with multiple major tenants, and the rebirth of Overton Square can help the brewery project, as well.

“This is a town that is big enough that it has the intellectual capital, the financial capital, a lot of creative enthusiastic people that want to make a difference here,” he said. “But we’re a contained-enough community that an individual can really make a difference.”

So when Untapped is done, Tauer hopes there will be a number of ideas for future uses with a “range of potential uses that come at a range of initial capital costs.”

In order to see those possibilities, what happens in the brewery during Untapped, starting April 24, won’t fit the mold of a bar with live entertainment. There will be live entertainment, but it won’t be with a sound system.

“It’s not even remotely a concert setting. That’s not what we are intending to do,” Tauer said. “Memphis has a lot of great concert opportunities, particularly in May. It’s not really our goal to compete with any of that. We’re trying to offer something a little bit different – more of a hang-out feel, more of a place where you can come and relax.” Pacello said the strategy is necessary to let those with ideas get a look around at the bare bones of the brewery.

“If you over-program a space, you, a lot of times, miss what the real purpose is,” he added. “Here it’s about sparking a conversation, about how we approach historic preservation, how we approach redevelopment, how we dissect these really difficult projects. If we over-program, then we lose that conversation.”

For Tauer, the brewery is a different way into the city’s multichaptered debate about historic preservation.

“Those of us who are investors in this project are excited about it for all of the good we think it can do,” he said. “But we are also businesspeople, and we’re looking to make a profit off of that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s sort of the point. We don’t need to think about historical preservation as purely a charitable exercise. I don’t think that model is sustainable.”

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