Square Again Abuzz With Entertainment Options


After three years of culinary success Downtown, owner Jeff Johnson is looking forward to taking his popular restaurant and bar Local Gastropub to the next level.

A recent production of “Xanadu” was staged at Playhouse on the Square, which will be part of a future theater district at Overton Square.

(Photo Courtesy of Chris Neely Photography)

In mid-September, he plans to open his second Local restaurant in the former Yosemite Sam’s building at 2126 Madison Ave. in Overton Square. This location choice is almost poetic, considering a main objective of the current Overton Square redevelopment project is to leverage the area’s local appeal.

“I was raised in Midtown,” Johnson said. “When I was thinking of locations for this next restaurant, I asked myself, ‘Where do I feel an emotional connection?’ I remember going to Overton Square when I was younger and hearing stories from my parents about how it once was the place to be.”

Johnson’s sense of connectivity to Overton Square is exactly the type of sentiment that the redevelopment aims to foster in both current and future generations, says Anna Holtzclaw, promotional director for Overton Square at Loeb Properties.

With an emphasis on locally owned businesses and a determination to preserve the area’s authenticity, developer Loeb Properties intends to stay true to Overton Square’s history while broadening its artistic and recreational horizons. Add the area’s burgeoning theater district and its influences to that formula and the end result should be a cultural destination that distinguishes itself from other art districts in Memphis, Holtzclaw says.

“We pride ourselves on being good landlords,” she said. “We want to be good hosts. We’re gearing our marketing toward the locals. And we want to invite artistic expression into the community.”

Logistically, that vision is progressing. The Memphis City Council initially approved the Overton Square redevelopment project in February. On July 3, the council approved the necessary land acquisition and leases to advance the project, which will include approximately 115,000 square feet in redevelopment and new buildings. The $35 million project being developed by Loeb Properties includes a $16 million investment from the city, which primarily will go toward a 22-square-foot detention pond and a 450-space public parking garage.

The city also will spend $333,632 to purchase a half-acre at Cooper and Monroe for the relocation of the black repertory theater company Hattiloo Theatre, which will lease the land for $1 a year.

Loeb Properties estimates that, when completed, the redeveloped Overton Square could provide 331 new jobs while generating $2.4 million from new sales tax and $400,000 from new property taxes.

And once Hattiloo is in place, the area’s theater district will be unparalleled in Memphis. Subsequently, many people believe the expected synergy between the area’s theaters and restaurants could offer a significant economic boost.

“The arts can definitely be an economic engine that drives a community,” said Playhouse founder Jackie Nichols. “We are constantly doing surveys that show that between 85 and 90 percent of people who go to the theater also go out for drinks or dinner before or after the show.”

On the flip side, Nichols says more dining options also could very well yield new audience members.

“I’m sure we’ll have some people here who will be going to a restaurant and say, ‘Hey, let’s see what tickets are available – what else can we experience here?’”

And while the redevelopment project is exciting, Nichols says he and other community leaders also have their sights on bigger plans.

“One of our goals is to get a quality hotel so we can begin marketing Overton Square as a cultural destination,” he said. “People can come here, stay in a nice hotel, go to the zoo, the theater, local restaurants. We can’t do that until we get that kind of a place.”

During one of its initial presentations on the redevelopment project, Loeb Properties estimated that a future hotel project could supply an additional 125 jobs.

Nichols said talks about a shuttle system that would carry visitors from the theaters to surrounding restaurants and other events are also in the works.

Holtzclaw said she believes the theaters will play an integral role in the evolution of Overton Square, but she also believes creating a truly distinctive destination will require some out-of-the-box thinking – literally.

“The downside to formal theater is that it takes place in a building,” she said. “We need to pull aspects out of the theater and make them a more interactive daily presence in Overton Square.”

As an example, she references the recent June 15 Overton Square Block Party, which included street performers, sidewalk artists, spontaneous poets and impromptu moments of drama triggered by text-messaging passersby.

“These unexpected artistic experiences were all brought about by the integration of theater,” said Holtzclaw. “And we don’t want to always have to wait for a festival to create those moments in Overton Square. We’ve been discussing how we can create festival-like experiences on a regular basis and how we can integrate theater and art into dining experiences. We hope to blur the lines here between what is art and what is life.”