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VOL. 121 | NO. 13 | Monday, January 9, 2006

Overton Square Rises Again with New Developments

By Andrew Ashby

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ON THE RISE: Garcia Wells restaurant is slated to open in February in TGI Friday's former home in Overton Square. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

Once the entertainment epicenter of Memphis, Overton Square is using several new developments to further its increasing upswing. The latest involves restaurateur Earl Farrell trying to inject some new energy into an old hotspot.

Farrell plans to open Garcia Wells Southwestern Grill in the vacant space that used to belong to TGI Friday's on Madison Avenue. Friday's has been vacant since 2003 when Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc. closed it.

Lonestar, Volunteer. Back in its heyday, Friday's was one of Overton Square's focal points. The restaurant opened in 1970 as the second TGI Friday's in the country. Farrell moved to Memphis in 1978 when it was still a popular hangout.

He also owned Sleep Out Louie's Downtown from 1987 to 1991, and hosts "My Favorite Restaurant," which airs locally on PBS.

Friday's no more. The 7,500-square-foot space, which seats around 200, will have a moderately-priced Southwestern menu, including steaks, seafood, burgers, Mexican food and barbecue, among other things.

Farrell said outside changes will include a new sign, a mural of the restaurant's logo on the side of the building and a Texas flag on top.

Garcia Wells is the name of a well on his father's 5,000-acre cattle ranch, which is about 90 miles south of Dallas.

"I always loved the name Garcia Wells," Farrell said. "When I was young, my daddy would always say, 'All right, son, you can go anywhere you want to, but don't go past Garcia Wells.' So that was always the edge of my world then."

In the area. Farrell looks across the street at Boscos Squared, which opened in 2000. The building used to house the popular Bombay Bicycle Club, and Farrell has seen it doing great business in its newest incarnation as a brewpub. He said it's an example of the overall Overton Square district's economic health.

"I think it's right on the cusp of really taking off," Farrell said. "We looked at property all over the place and we kept coming back here. I think this is where you have parking and people love the building, they love the history behind it. I think we're here at the right time."

Jerry Carruthers, whose offices have been at 2075 Madison Ave. since 1973, owns the building and leases space to Maggie's Pharm, a retail store that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Carruthers also owns the vacant Chicago Pizza Factory building on Madison. He remembers when the city held New Year's celebrations in Overton Square.

"I think it's right on the cusp of really taking off."
­- Earl Farrell
owner, Garcia Wells Southwestern Grill

"Back in the 70s, it was really exciting here," Carruthers said. "It started dropping off, I guess, around the early 80s with more Downtown development going in. The eastward movement became rather significant then and a lot of new restaurants opened up out there.

"Before then, there weren't that many restaurants out east for people to go to. That kind of pulled some of the business away from us."

Square deal. Jimmy Lewis, an agent with Lewis and Rasberry, has been active in Overton Square since he first opened the Squash Blossom Market in 1979. He business partner James Rasberry formed a real estate brokerage and development firm in January 2004. They took over the listing of Overton Square in August 2004.

Overton Square has changed hands several times in its history. A New York-based company owned it during its prime, but in the late '80s, the primary lender took back the property. It was then acquired by Overton Square Investors LLC of Colorado. Lewis and Rasberry made their pitch to that company.

"We argued hard that if anybody could do anything with Overton Square, we could. We might not be able to do this instantaneously, but if they had the patience, that ultimately something good could emerge. We're starting to see this happen," Lewis said.

Garcia Wells Southwestern Grill is the latest step the area has taken.

"What we have been so enthused about is bringing light where there has been dark. Earl has sort of been our knight in shining armor," Lewis said. "He's got enough imagination to see beyond the two years plus of darkness. He can see the place lit up again."

A big empty. Lewis said they also have a good prospect for their largest vacancy, a 12,700-square-foot property on the corner of Cooper and Madison that used to house The Comedy Zone and the Vortex nightclub. He declined to reveal the prospect.

Across the street, Loeb Properties renovated a strip center that houses a Kwik-Food Store and a Lenny's Sub Shop. More recently, the company expanded Bari Ristorante, a Southeastern Italian restaurant at 22 S. Cooper St.

The work took about four months and doubled the restaurant's space from 1,200 to 2,400 square feet. The expansion area includes an Italian wine bar and more fine dining space.

Jimmy Ishii, an investor in Bari Ristorante, said they might develop the upstairs of the building, possibly opening karaoke boxes, which are small private booths with karaoke equipment.

Plus, minus. Another part of Overton Square's resurgence has been because of addition through subtraction.

Overton Square Investors LLC recently demolished a building on Cooper that used to house Cancun's restaurant. The building had been vacant for about five years and Lewis described it as "beyond rehabilitation."

Overton Square Investors LLC also cleared a building in the parking lot behind it.

"They made a declaration that they intend to improve the horizon and to freshen the welcome mat here. It has made such a big difference just in the overall appearance, even though it's not even paved yet," he said.

Lewis sees several additions surrounding developments that affect Overton Square. For example, Playhouse on the Square is working toward building a state-of-the art theater at the corner of Union and Cooper. It has begun the private phase of a $15 million capital campaign. The playhouse's capital committee will be meeting Jan. 17 to plan the second phase, a public fund-raising effort.

"They really made a commitment to a huge development project that changes the whole gateway to Overton Square," Lewis said.

While new development is happening in and around Overton Square, much of the area's future relies on its history.

"The reality in Overton Square is that so many people have such an emotional attachment to the well-being of this place because it was the bull's eye of entertainment prior to Beale Street becoming what it is today," Lewis said. "As spaces went dark in Overton Square, the memory of it when it was lit up and active and vibrant remained very strong."

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