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VOL. 129 | NO. 55 | Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wharton Pitches ‘Bookend’ Convention Complex

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. calls it the “bookend approach.”

Under a proposal by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., the Memphis Cook Convention Center would be linked with the former Peabody Place mall, which would be converted into convention and exhibition space.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

It’s a phrase his administration has used before to talk about linking The Pyramid end of the riverfront with the Beale Street end.

This week, Wharton applied the bookend approach to what amounts to a spread-out convention center that would link the existing Memphis Cook Convention Center near The Pyramid to the hotel rooms that are in greater numbers south of Madison Avenue.

The south end would be the now-shuttered Peabody Place mall, according to the plan Wharton outlined Tuesday, March 18, at the Memphis Rotary Club.

The former mall would become a conference and exhibition center, by Wharton’s idea.

“I am convinced that if we make an improvement to the Cook Convention Center, that if we find some way to bring back Peabody Place as a meeting and exhibit center, conference center – keep in mind the infrastructure is already there,” Wharton said. “There is more hotel space down on that end.”

In pitching a plan short of a new convention center, Wharton got to the core problem of financing that or any other Downtown project.

“We have to develop a revenue stream. It’s not well-known that the financing for The Pyramid has basically tied up every revenue stream Downtown,” Wharton said. “We have to find a way to enhance those revenue streams so there is enough for The Pyramid as well as doing the other things that I mentioned here.”

Wharton called for convention center renovations totaling $40 million to $60 million.

To link the convention sites, Wharton would change trolley service to make it a viable option for those trying to get between the two areas in a timely fashion. That would mean massing trolleys at either end, based on the timeline of convention events.

The Memphis City Council recently approved the creation of a convention center study commission, and Wharton plans to make his idea part of the group’s discussion.

The council had originally invited Shelby County commissioners to participate in the study group. The county commission voted down the idea of joining the discussion as well as the funding that might be sought for any project that emerges from the group.

The convention center was last renovated in 2003 with the demolition of the neighboring auditorium and the construction of the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, which is part of the convention center complex.

Shelby County government took the lead on the joint city-county project.

A 2005 ad in Facilities & Destinations magazine touting the renovations said “meeting planners and show organizers are jumping at the opportunities to secure their dates in Downtown Memphis.”

But since then, elected leaders favoring a new convention center at some point in the future have made their case by saying all the renovation did was replace the auditorium with the Cannon Center.

Five years after the renovation, then-Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton – speaking at his 2008 New Year’s prayer breakfast – called for either a new convention center or an expansion of the existing center.

He likened the project to an “arms race” with other cities.

“They pay for themselves,” Herenton added. “And we have got to think out of the box.”

Wharton said his idea is not a competition with Nashville, which recently opened a new convention center. But he said competition with other cities for convention and meeting business is a factor.

“We can hold on to our convention center,” Wharton said as he referred to advance bookings for conventions. “But if you say we are going to wait five to 10 years – we are not going to do anything until we can build a whole new convention center; by the time we get it built, they will be locked into other locations.”

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