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VOL. 122 | NO. 122 | Monday, July 2, 2007

Beale Street's Dreamer Looks To Other Adventures

By Andy Meek

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()
John Elkington

"The seven wonders of the world I've seen,

And many are the places I have been,

Take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first."
- "Beale Street Blues," W.C. Handy

Concert posters, jackets worn and signed by music icons such as Garth Brooks and B.B. King and an entire wall of Ernest Withers photos greet visitors inside the office of Performa Entertainment Real Estate.
The company's Beale Street storefront is decked out with scores of other trinkets, including head sculptures of the four members of the rock group K.I.S.S.

As memorable as those items are, they form a collective representation of the past. And the driving force behind Performa - the man who 25 years ago led the charge to redevelop Beale - is focused in the opposite direction these days.

After living out his dream, decades in the making, to bring Beale Street back from edge of ruin, John Elkington no longer will be a fixture in his company's souvenir-laden Downtown office. He's stepping back from the day-to-day grind of managing one of the most popular streets in the world.

Historic past to unknown future

Progress he helped kick-start continues uninterrupted around Performa's office, including at the nearly finished Lee's Landing Garage to the south. That space eventually will be home to two blues-themed restaurants and includes room for a third tenant with which Performa still is in negotiations.

Elkington envisions those new ventures - which include Ground Zero Blues Club and King Biscuit Cafe - serving as "Blues Row," an extension of Beale Street. And it's apparently one of the last projects he's conceived for the street.

His company is in the process of moving some of its office presence to East Memphis. From there, Elkington said he plans to pursue projects throughout the city and the rest of the country, including in various locales that have invited him to come and replicate his Beale Street success.

In between all that, he's also squeezing in time to write a book. It's a task that might be viewed as something of an irony; Elkington is stepping away from the street he was hired to manage in 1982 yet still finding ways to stay connected to it.

"(I recently) had it proofed," Elkington said about the story he's writing of his affiliation with Beale, expected to be published by Vanderbilt University later this year. "Two different people have read it, so we're now making their corrections. We've got about another three weeks, and it'll be sent off to the publisher for his comments."

There just comes a time in your life when you say, 'Well, you know, I've really done all I can do here.' And I can truly say that Beale Street is better off today than the day I showed up."
- John Elkington
CEO, Performa Entertainment Real Estate

He's been working on the book for the last eight months. Meanwhile, his company also has approached the University of Memphis about the possibility of turning over some of his company's rare photos and other items to a special collection in the school's library.

That's a literal example of the new corner that Performa - and its chief executive - is turning.

Elkington's son, Griffin, who's helped take the reins in leasing Beale, has negotiated deals for three new tenants in the last six months. He's in the middle of the action now and knows as well as anyone where his father's coming from.

"I'm getting e-mails every day from people, and he's got all this stuff going on in other cities," the younger Elkington said. "He's already stretched out enough, and he's got to deal with the day-to-day stuff with Beale Street.

"It's a real management-intensive deal. It's not like managing a power center on Germantown Road, where you just send them an invoice every month or you call up your landscaping guy to mow the lawn; it's a little different."

Looking beyond Memphis

The energetic developer will still be making big decisions about Beale. But the career shift provides some freedom to keep an eye out for prospects beyond Memphis, too. Earlier this month, for example, John Elkington was quoted in The Birmingham News about a project in that city for which he's trying to talk American Idol winner Ruben Studdard into opening a nightclub.

Closer to home, he's joined forces with Chicago-based development company Urban Retail Properties - a company whose track record includes developing Wolfchase Galleria - to help him complete a 67-acre mixed-use project at the corner of Forest Hill-Irene and Winchester roads.

"There just comes a time in your life when you say, 'Well, you know, I've really done all I can do here,'" Elkington said. "And I can truly say that Beale Street is better off today than the day I showed up.

"You reach a point - I'll be, you know, 60 years old pretty soon, in a year, so there are a lot of things I want to do. And I just haven't had the opportunity because I've been putting so much into this project."

Energetic dreams

Several years back, the title of one news story about Elkington was "Dream Weaver." Last year arguably was one of the most successful for the dreamer, with Beale hosting visits that included the crew of ABC's "Good Morning America" for a Justin Timberlake concert, along with a visit from NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

The latter broadcast a news segment live Nov. 2 from a balcony at Alfred's, overlooking Beale.

"He's one guy that strives incredibly hard to achieve his dreams and never quits until he gets to the goal," Preston Lamm, CEO of River City Management, said of Elkington. Lamm once worked as a consultant and certified public accountant for Elkington. Now, via his own company, he's one of the tenants on Beale.

"I have worked with John for over 30 years, and he is non-stop energy," Lamm said.

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