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VOL. 127 | NO. 215 | Friday, November 2, 2012

Downtown Rising

Memphis among the U.S. city centers making comeback


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Despite a faltering economy, many of America’s downtowns are in the midst of a revival, according to a September U.S. Census study, and Memphis is no exception.

Many of the country’s downtowns are in the midst of a revival, including Memphis. That’s according to a recent U.S. Census study that shows downtown populations are growing at double-digit rates.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The study, “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change: 2000 to 2010,” shows that in many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, downtown populations grew at double-digit rates over the last decade, primarily due to the availability of new housing and services. And after previous decades of decline, the residential population in Downtown Memphis increased as well, growing by 7 percent to reach approximately 22,000 residents in 2010, according to the latest metrics compiled by the Downtown Memphis Commission.

The area is primed for more growth on the horizon, say commission officials.

“There is much happening in the South Main District – such as the ArtSpace project, the Chisca Hotel redevelopment, three apartment projects, more locally owned businesses – which is pointing to more residential and small-business growth,” said Leslie Gower, vice president of marketing and communications for the Downtown Memphis Commission. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in apartment rentals and are at about 92 percent occupancy in Downtown rental space, with a growing need for more.”

Retail sales in the area also are on the rise. From 2003 to 2007, retail sales in the 38103 ZIP code steadily increased from $208 million to $254 million, then fell to $237 million and $217 million in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Sales rebounded in 2010, climbing to $231 million. That year, businesses located in 38103 contributed nearly $76 million in state and local sales tax revenue.

According to the latest commission statistics, there are approximately 73,300 employees working Downtown.

In November 2010, Stacy McCall, president of ServiceMaster by Stratos, moved her contract janitorial company from a suburban industrial park to 7,400 square feet of ground-floor commercial space in Downtown’s historic Lowenstein Building at 66 N. Main St.

“We had a vision of becoming an integral part of the fabric of the community, and we saw that the Downtown location was perfect for that vision,” McCall said. “We wanted to engage with the community personally as well as professionally, and now as soon as we step out the door here, we do that.”

McCall said the Downtown Commission and others bent over backwards to help them get settled and overcome any challenges.

“We have to move supplies in and out of the building, so the owners installed a lift for us,” she said. “We’re not the typical law or corporate office that’s down here. So they were really thinking outside the box in terms of, ‘How can we make this atypical company meet their needs in ways we haven’t explored in the past?’”

Logistics aside, the move was not without other reservations, McCall said.

“Our first concern was, ‘How will people find us? Will applicants come Downtown?’” she said. “But our applicants have not missed a beat.”

There were also concerns among Stratos employees – out of the employee base of about 250, there are about 20 in the office on any given day, not to mention additional people dropping in to fill out or drop off applications or pick up supplies.

Kelli Eason, account executive at Obsidian Public Relations, relocated to Memphis from Baton Rouge, La., in 2011. She chose to live Downtown because of its vibrant atmosphere. 

(Photo Courtesy of Obsidian Public Relations)

“There was some hesitation at the beginning about traffic, parking and commuting,” McCall said. “But once people discovered all the choices for eating, taking a break outside or just going for a walk, they realized the new location created great opportunities that didn’t require crawling into a car to get to them.”

The walkability factor also is a main draw for Kelli Eason, 25, an account executive at Obsidian Public Relations. She relocated from Baton Rouge, La., in October 2011 and, after looking at various locations throughout the city, ultimately chose Downtown’s Barboro Flats on Gayoso Avenue as her home.

“I really wanted to live that city life,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to meet lots of people and live near work, restaurants, bars and other young professionals. And now, I don’t even know what half my friends drive because we never take our cars. We walk almost everywhere.”

Eason is a prime example of recent study results showing that Downtown is becoming a magnet for young, educated residents. According to a Census data analysis study by the group CEOs for Cities, a network of urban leaders from diverse sectors across the country, the number of college-educated residents between ages 25 and 34 who live within three miles of Downtown Memphis grew from 3,741 to 4,705 between 2000 and 2009.

It’s a hopeful indicator of the city’s potential to attract and retain young talent, but there’s still work to be done, says Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

“National and local statistics indicate that the number of young professionals and empty-nesters who want to live and work in densely populated urban areas will rise dramatically over the next 30 years,” he said. “For Memphis to compete in that arena, we have to offer that product. If we want to succeed in attracting this next generation of professionals, we have to continue to create a vibrant, livable Downtown.”

Courtney Liebenrood Ellett, Eason’s employer and principal of Obsidian Public Relations at 493 South Main, doesn’t think that task will be a problem. Her business has been located downtown since she founded it in 2006, and during that time she’s seen many changes, such as emerging condo developments and an influx of new residents. The sense of community, however, has only gotten stronger, she says.

“Downtowners are very passionate about downtown. I find so much commitment, enthusiasm and energy here. And there’s a great sense of familiarity,” she said. “Yes, evolution happens and things advance and grow and change, but we’re growing at a pace that doesn’t feel alienating – there’s still that familiarity that’s a comfort to me. I’m a businesswoman so I understand the need for progress, and I feel like we’re putting the right energy and effort into that progress. We’re headed in the right direction.”

PROPERTY SALES 51 333 19,446
MORTGAGES 68 383 22,433
BUILDING PERMITS 138 688 40,004
BANKRUPTCIES 34 238 12,486