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VOL. 121 | NO. 249 | Thursday, December 28, 2006

MO Growth Near U of M

Flourishing MO's bistro could signal bigger, better things near university

By Andy Meek

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TURN SIGNAL: MO's Music & Art Café near the University of Memphis is one of several businesses whose prosperity appears to bode well for the surrounding neighborhood. -- Photo By Brad Johnson

Upon stepping inside MO's Music & Art Café, an easy to overlook bistro near the corner of Walker Avenue and Highland Street, it's difficult not to think of Cheers, the famous Boston bar where "everybody knows your name."

But if a person were to catch a glimpse of owner Nita Black's long-term to-do list, it would become apparent that the more appropriate comparison is to a salon - the place where intellectuals and the literary elite of Europe socialized during the Renaissance.

On the surface, MO's is little more than a modest storefront smack in the heart of a busy college neighborhood. Yet in its more than three years of existence, MO's - an abbreviation of the phrase Memphis Originals - has successfully courted a customer base that includes artists, musicians, songwriters, college students, senior citizens, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, dreamers and more.

Eyes on the prize

Once patrons step inside, they're welcomed by a visual feast that includes multi-colored strings of lights, artwork, racks of trinkets, books and CDs. The compositions of local artists adorn the walls, music wafts from speakers and the scent of freshly prepared dishes such as smoothies and oven-baked cookies wafts throughout the space.

And it probably comes as no surprise that Black, a businesswoman who sings the praises of books like "Half Luck and Half Brains" by Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, has her sights set squarely on tomorrow.

"It just seems like every week there's something new," Black said.

That's her defense of the difficulty in narrowing down the laundry list of innovations she's brought and is bringing to one of the cornerstones of the University of Memphis neighborhood.

Black added an e-commerce component to her venture about a month ago. That means MO's now is selling vintage books, memorabilia, collectibles and other items on eBay.

MO's also is beginning to distribute the works of local musicians digitally by selling downloads of individual songs and entire albums. Several listening stations have been ordered for customers who want to sample music before they buy it.

Positioning for growth

Other new concepts in the works include the "Frequent Flyer" program Black is developing, encompassing a package of benefits that includes discounts on purchases of food, music and art at the bistro. The package also includes free meeting space arrangements, consulting services and advertising opportunities.

And on an even bigger note, Black wants to quadruple the number of storefronts she has over the next few years.

"We're looking for other retail venues where we can expand," she said, pointing to possible satellite locations for MO's in the Cooper-Young, Raleigh and Colonial Acres neighborhoods. "We might have four to five different retail locations over the next three years; that's what I'm thinking, where we overlay this model as it becomes more and more successful.

"The plan is to look for retail venues where we can overlay the music and then tie the different Memphis music communities together somehow - and help people make money at it along the way."

Ride that train

For now, the university neighborhood where MO's got started still suits Black just fine, and it's not hard to see why. The great locomotive of progress continues to careen throughout the district, with politicians and developers eager to put a new imprint on the area.

For example, Trammell Crow Co. is preparing to begin construction on a six-story, $18 million luxury apartment building in the U of M neighborhood on Highland Street. Kemp Conrad, Trammell Crow's Memphis city leader, gave Memphis City Council members an update at a recent council committee meeting that included a preview of the project's economic impact on the area.

"We estimate this will generate a quarter million dollars in annual property taxes to the city of Memphis," he said. "This will mean the creation of about 100 construction jobs during the project, and we estimate breaking ground in February of 2007."

The bottom two floors of the development will include secured parking and about 2,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. The four stories above the parking deck will include 85 apartment units.

'A beautiful tapestry'

Also briefing council members at that meeting was Dan Poag, chief executive officer of Poag & McEwen, the development group that's creating a mixed-use retail center also on the Highland Strip.

Poag, who grew up in the U of M area, heads a company the Wall Street Journal credits with inventing the "lifestyle center" concept in retail - a shopping center that combines some traditional aspects of enclosed malls but is often open-air, more upscale and requires less land than a traditional enclosed mall.

"We have an opportunity here, I think, to redevelop an area that is really critical to the city of Memphis," said Robert Lipscomb, the city's chief financial officer, at that council meeting. "I mean, if you look at what's going on Downtown, then you've got the Medical Center, then you've got the arts center around Cleveland and Union, then you've got the fairgrounds, now you've got this project.

"It's really all starting to come together, and it's a beautiful tapestry."

That tapestry includes ventures such as Black's, which is continuing to grow, even as it remains a haven for her busy customers.

"I think we live in a society where everybody is in such a hurry, so a lot of times when people come in here they just want to talk, sit down and relax and get a cup of coffee," she said. "And that's rewarding."

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 91 158 16,219
MORTGAGES 98 179 18,735
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 23 2,484
BUILDING PERMITS 136 349 33,738
BANKRUPTCIES 63 115 10,429
BUSINESS LICENSES 30 47 5,350
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 29 6,302
MARRIAGE LICENSES 19 52 3,563