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VOL. 122 | NO. 59 | Thursday, March 29, 2007

Saving Place

Peabody Place still reigns supreme as Downtown retail hotspot

By Andy Meek

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TOWERING QUESTION: One of the big projects under way at Peabody Place, which opened in 2001, is filling the space formerly occupied by Tower Records. -- Photo Courtesy Of Thompson & Berry Public Relations

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in The Daily News' five-part Retail Reinvented series about the past - and future - of the local shopping landscape.

Velma Bobo bought a MaggieMoo's Ice Cream and Treatery shop in Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center in 2005, turning it into one of the franchise's top-performing stores in the nation.

Memphis director and Hollywood wunderkind Craig Brewer debuted his latest movie, "Black Snake Moan," there at the Muvico multiplex, which saw eight of its 22 screens close last fall because of a slump in ticket sales.

The 20,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by Tower Records is being aggressively shopped to potential tenants. Elsewhere, other new stores are lining up and jumping onboard, including Blues City Pastry Shop and Coffee Bar, which will be opening by May.

All of which is to say that at Peabody Place, the giant complex that transformed about eight city blocks Downtown when it opened in 2001, the shopping renaissance it spurred is still taking forms both large and small.

The Place to be

On the large-scale end of things, Belz Enterprises - which developed the whole 300,000-square-foot retail oasis Downtown - is still trying to work out a lease arrangement for the vacant Tower Records space.

The store's closure was announced last fall, when the struggling music retailer was sold to a group that decided to liquidate the company's assets.

Overtures apparently have been made to Sephora, the high-end cosmetics store that is opening two Memphis stores - neither in Peabody Place - by the end of this year. Belz senior vice president Andy Groveman, meanwhile, threw cold water on the latest rumored tenant that's been mentioned for the space - Books-A-Million, one of the largest book retailers in the nation.

"We are working with a number of interested prospects, and we're not ready to announce a deal yet," said Groveman, who's the son-in-law of Jack Belz, the iconic development visionary who bought The Peabody Hotel in 1975 and renovated it. His company came up with the idea for Peabody Place to support the refurbished hotel, which closed earlier in the 1970s, a symbol of Downtown Memphis' steady decline.

San Francisco-based Tower Records, one of the anchors of Peabody Place, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004, then again in 2006. All of the company's U.S. stores since have been closed, and British Virgin Islands-based company Caiman Holdings Inc. bought the Tower Records trademark and Web site a few days ago for $4.2 million.

"Like with anything else, our leasing people are out in the marketplace and working with various prospects," Groveman said. "We're continuing to work to find the very best complement to our project and to our tenant mix."

In the mix

It's a tenant mix that has changed recently on several levels. The eight movie screens Muvico closed at its Peabody Place cinema remain dark, and the theater chain has been using the space for special events.

At the time the screens were closed, a Muvico spokesman left open the possibility that some or all eventually might reopen, depending on the changing nature of ticket sales.

"Fourteen to 15 screens are in operation most of the time, and then the other auditoriums can be used for events," said Muvico spokeswoman Bonnie Kaye. "They might have premieres there or various organizations can rent them."

Because of Memphis' association with the transportation and distribution industries, the Peabody Place theater is wrapped in the imagery of a train station. Three-dimensional train images are displayed throughout the theater, and a miniature train chugs along a track suspended from the ceiling on the floor above the main lobby.

Joey Lauren Adams, a well-known Hollywood actress who's starred in films such as "Chasing Amy" and "Big Daddy," screened her directorial debut, "Come Early Morning," last fall at Muvico. Brewer also has premiered his most recent films there.

A caveat

Bobo, meanwhile, has several things in the works for her ice cream treatery on the bottom floor of the mall.

She bought the shop - which she stresses should be identified as a "treatery" - back in the winter of 2005. Not a great time to sell ice cream, right?

"I'm loving it - ice cream sales seem to be going back up again," said Bobo, whose store is receiving a new design and several other additions in a franchise-wide makeover effort. Bobo is trying to get some commercials up and running to promote her store's name, and new colors and an updated menu board, for example, also are in the works.

Her success, she said, is attributable to the shopping center that was a dream of Jack Belz, decades in the making.

"I believe the mall is in a very good location, as far as Downtown," she said. "Across the nation, downtowns are getting revitalized, so it's good to be on the cutting edge of something like this."

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