Trolley Line Businesses Coming to Life

By Tom Wilemon

Zella Carpenter, 5, and Cameron Booth, 10, top, watch a trolley out the window of the Smoking Caterpillar, a hookah and chess bar at 1335 Madison Ave.  The business is one of a few new ones near the last trolley stop at Madison and Cleveland Street. Photo: Lance Murphey

New businesses are bringing life back to the storefronts along the Madison Avenue trolley line, especially near the line’s easternmost stop at Cleveland Street.

The spaces are filling at the southwest corner of Madison and Cleveland. The Smoking Caterpillar and Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies have opened since November.

Other businesses also are springing up along the trolley line westward through the Memphis Medical Center into the heart of Downtown.

Potential realized?

Deborah Halstead, who owns Ebbo Spiritual Supply, welcomes her new neighbors at the last trolley stop. She said the activity reminds her of 1993, when she set up shop and the building was full of tenants.

“A friend told me then that this was going to be another Overton Square,” Halstead said. “It didn’t turn out that way, but that doesn’t mean it can’t.”

Jillane Ballard, from left, Charlene Gaffney, Meetesh Patel, Courtney Willadsen and Joseph Willadsen smoke a hookah and share a few laughs inside the “Alice In Wonderland”-themed Smoking Caterpillar, a hookah and chess bar at 1335 Madison Ave. The business is one of a few new ones near the last trolley stop at Madison Avenue and Cleveland Street. Photo: Lance Murphey

Low rent, easy access to the transportation, plenty of parking and close proximity to new entertainment venues factored into Amanda Knight’s decision to open a hookah bar there called The Smoking Caterpillar.

“In that corner there was nothing, but ever since the trolley was built, I thought we should bring something here because it’s such a great location,” Knight said.

“There are a lot of things going on ... that could be ... making those properties more attractive.”

– Jaske Goff, CCC Director of Development and Diversity Outreach

She explored Cooper-Young but decided on the 1335 Madison location. She said she’s paying about $1 a square foot for her space each month, while places she looked at in Cooper-Young rented for $14 a square foot.

“The reason why Overton Square and Cooper-Young are so dead now is because it’s way too expensive,” she said.

Dish, a tapas bar, and Blue Fish, a restaurant, which operated across the street from one another in the heart of Cooper-Young, both closed within the past week. Overton Square over the years has become a skeleton of its former self.

Madison recently began establishing itself as an entertainment district, Knight said, with new venues like Minglewood Hall and Noctornal to go along with established Midtown night spots, such as Neil’s and Murphy’s.

Wasteland no more

The stretch of Madison Avenue where the trolley runs from Main Street to the western edge of Midtown has been a small-business wasteland for years. The long construction process that limited access along Madison until the line opened six years ago hurt existing businesses. The area never caught on as a hot spot.

But that could be changing. Businesses that have opened up along this stretch in the last year include Market Café, Madison Avenue Café, the Boulevard Boutique, Tippy Toes and Garden Path Studio. Two academic institutions are preparing to open: The Visible School, a Christian-based music college, and the Influence I Foundation, a charter school.

Another new business will be opening this spring. Keith and Jill Forrester, who own Whitton Farms in Arkansas, have decided to expand their operation into Downtown Memphis with The Trolley Stop Market at 704 Madison.

“We’ve been working in Memphis for five years selling at the (Memphis) Farmers Market,” Keith Forrester said. “We’ve worked our way into a retail spot.”

The store will sell prepared foods, produce from the farm, flowers and gift items.

Jaske Goff, director of development and diversity outreach for the Center City Commission, said that although the agency offers incentives to lure small businesses Downtown, many are choosing to locate along Madison Avenue without any such bait.

“There are a lot of things going on in the Medical District that could be facilitating or making those properties more attractive for business owners,” Goff said.

More than $1 billion is being invested for a new Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center, research centers and other developments. There are also residential areas near the trolley line. A new appreciation for urbanism is spurring more young professionals to live in Downtown areas near where they work.

“That’s going to be a population that has income,” Goff said.

Knight, who opened her hookah bar Nov. 13, said she’s happy to have developed a following among college students. The bar gets its name from one of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

She’s planning a big theme party in March to coincide with the big-screen debut of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

“When the movie comes out, everybody is going to dress up as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ characters,” she said. “We’re going to have a huge party and ride the trolley.”