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VOL. 126 | NO. 222 | Monday, November 14, 2011

Heart of Memphis

Downtown projects keep city’s core bustling

By Andy Meek

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The day before Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was the keynote speaker this summer at the Downtown Memphis Commission’s 2011 Annual Luncheon, he went for a jog in Nashville wearing his “Believe Memphis” Grizzlies T-shirt.

Construction crews are making a variety of improvements to some of Downtown Memphis’ most iconic sights, including The Pyramid, One Commerce Square and the Mississippi riverfront.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Twenty-four hours later, he stood before a podium in Memphis to address an audience of the city’s movers and shakers at The Peabody hotel about Downtown Memphis – a topic that even the governor acknowledged seemed odd for the state’s chief executive.

Yet Haslam felt compelled to assure the crowd that other cities across Tennessee “would kill” to have the same kind of corporate presence in their downtowns that Downtown Memphis has.

He said Memphis’ Downtown core has assets like FedExForum and AutoZone Park that do something other cities sometimes have a hard time with – presenting families with the kinds of entertainment options that encourage them to come out at night.

“If Tennessee is going to be a great state, Memphis has got to be a great city. It’s really that simple,” Haslam said. “If Memphis is going to do well, then Downtown Memphis has to be the strong heart.”

Part of what’s determining the future of that heartbeat is a flurry of development both large and small in this relatively tiny slice of the city. The development includes the transformation of The Pyramid arena into a Bass Pro retail store, the latest step of which includes Montgomery Martin Contractors LLC being named the lowest bidder for the demolition contract the city wants to award so that transformation can begin.

The landmark One Commerce Square tower is being remade almost from top to bottom.

Among the work that’s happening there, the demolition phase of construction has started the process of putting an Independent Bank branch in the lobby. Construction on that is expected to be finished in the first quarter.

The tower’s lobby also is getting new seating areas, TV monitors and a security desk. Not to mention, also on the way are the employees of Mesaba, a sister company of Pinnacle Airlines that’s moving its headquarters to the tower from Minnesota and joining Pinnacle itself in being based at One Commerce.

Demolition has begun on the interior of The Pyramid in preparation for Bass Pro Shops' planned megastore. The city of Memphis is completing demolition, seismic, mechanical and site work before turning the building over to Bass Pro on Aug. 1.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)


That’s a far cry from only a few years ago, when the departure of SunTrust Banks Inc. as one of the major tenants of One Commerce helped the building go to the brink of foreclosure before a group of local investors bought it and now are wooing a stream of new tenants to the property.

Elsewhere Downtown, construction is moving along at Beale Street Landing. And new restaurants and retail shops continue flocking to the South Main Historic Arts District, some of the newest being the retail store Shop Girl New York and fine dining restaurant Rizzos Diner.

That’s not to say Downtown and its supporters haven’t been disappointed by a few things recently.

At press time, the NBA lockout was still going on, leaving the follow-up to the Memphis Grizzlies’ most recent magical season still unwritten – and FedExForum still without the packed crowds of Grizzlies fans.

A few days ago, the International Folk Alliance confirmed the organization and its annual conference are moving from Memphis to Kansas City, Mo. Folk Alliance president Louis Meyers said the conference outgrew the Marriott Hotel, where the conference has been held each February for the last several years.

All that said, here’s a snapshot of Downtown today – what’s on the drawing board, what’s moving down the track and what’s recently been unveiled:

One Commerce Square

If anyone gave an award to one Downtown address for the most activity, the most attention, the most tenants and the most promise still to come all in one location, this landmark tower would easily claim that prize.

The tower has been attracting new occupants at a steady clip since it was saved from foreclosure and bought back from US Bancorp by a group of local investors. In the past year or so, it’s landed tenants like Electrolux, GASC, Pinnacle and Independent Bank.

According to Melissa Alexander of Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors Asset Services, Pinnacle’s 170,000-square-foot buildout will be finished by the middle of this month, six weeks ahead of schedule. The company has moved into nine floors, with four more to go. LEED certification is under way, and Pinnacle is currently working on a recycling program, with the remainder of the building to follow.

One Commerce’s annex has been converted into event space and has booked eight events so far, everything from holiday parties to fundraisers to weddings.

The building has its own website, www.onecommercesquare.com, and is the only office building in Memphis with its own Twitter account, @OneCommercesq.

The Pyramid

October saw a lot of progress on the renovation of The Pyramid into a Bass Pro retail store, a project that’s been in the works for years and moved forward in fits and starts.

The city of Memphis last month filed an application for a $2.5 million building permit to start construction work on the revamp of the arena, which opened as such in November 1991 and closed with the opening of FedExForum as an arena and concert venue.

The permit application was for interior modifications to include removing the seating bowl for the 20,000-seat arena the structure was originally built to hold.

Also last month, the Memphis City Council approved moving the iconic Ramesses the Great statue from in front of The Pyramid to the University of Memphis campus.

In late September, the city issued a request for proposals for companies that wanted to handle demolition work at the site. According to the office of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Montgomery Martin was the low bidder for that contract, and that work has begun.

In August, the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. approved the bond financing to make the city’s redevelopment possible. Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris said the CCRFC issued about $197 million worth of bonds for the project.

Great American Steamboat Co.

Great American Steamboat Co., a new entity formed from the remnants of the old Delta Queen Steamboat Co., is signing up passengers for the maiden voyage of its refurbished riverboat The American Queen – the largest steamboat ever built.

The company, based at One Commerce Square, has sent out email blasts to subscribers of publications like The New York Times and Smithsonian magazine.

The American Queen, which is 418 feet long and 89 feet high, is one of the new riverboats that will dock at Beale Street Landing, which is still being finished. The other boat is the Queen of the Mississippi, owned by a separate company, which will stop in Memphis on its overnight river cruises.

GASC CEO Jeff Krida has said his company will be hiring hundreds of local people to accommodate the boat’s more than 400 passengers.

In a blog post on the company’s website, www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com, GASC president Christopher Kyte said the company recently finished an 11-city road trip to gin up interest among travel agents for the riverboat cruises.

South Main

New restaurants and retail shops continue sprouting up in South Main, which also is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity and research.

The Seed Hatchery business development program hosted in the EmergeMemphis building at 516 Tennessee St. is gearing up for its second season. Applications are being accepted now for the 90-day program, during which potential start-ups will be mentored and refined. At the end of that period, those companies will get the chance to pitch their ideas to a group of investors. Six startups will be chosen to go through the program, and they’ll get $15,000 each. Sponsors include Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC; Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada PLLC; The Marston Group; Rackspace; a>m ventures and archer>malmo.

Elsewhere in South Main, Shop Girl New York is one of the newest retail additions. The upscale ladies clothing and accessories boutique picked a 1,500-square-foot space at 515 S. Main St. The shop recently got a $40,000 retail forgivable loan and a $5,000 façade improvement grant from the Center City Development Corp.

An artist studio and gallery is opening at 492 S. Second St. That 9,000-square-foot building will have space for two artist studios, a gallery and space for a restaurant. Construction is expected to be finished in February. That project got a $52,000 development loan from the CCDC.

And fine-dining restaurant Rizzos Diner recently opened at 106 GE Patterson Ave.

Other Downtown activity

What once was a fenced-in, unsightly hole in the ground across Main Street from the Subway restaurant Downtown has now been filled in with dirt. Morris said that hole has been filled and compacted, and the property owner has committed to fixing the sidewalks around the lot. Morris also said, “We’ve been in discussions with the property owner – it’s not a done deal by any means – about the concept of putting an art and dog park in that location.”

The now vacant Chisca Hotel is reportedly under contract with the same local development partnership behind the One Commerce project. The hotel was built in the early 1900s and was donated to the Church of God in Christ in the 1970s for $10. COGIC left there in the late 1990s. In addition to once serving as COGIC’s headquarters, perhaps the Chisca’s biggest claim to fame is it’s where Elvis Presley’s landmark record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” first was broadcast in July 1954.

And a new business called Memphis Pedicab Co. is now offering rides Downtown. Wharton presented the company with a certificate of convenience and necessity earlier this month, which will allow the company to operate Downtown. Pedicabs are rickshaw-looking tricycles that are not motorized. See Page 12 for more.

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