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VOL. 127 | NO. 174 | Thursday, September 6, 2012

‘More the Merrier’

Existing businesses welcome new tenants to Overton Square

By Sarah Baker

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Following a shaky last few years for Overton Square, the area has finally seen tangible evidence of change in recent weeks and the area’s long-term tenants appear to be waiting in anticipation of its new neighbors.

A new life is on the way for the Overton Square entertainment district, something that has current stakeholders excited.  

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The city has broken ground on its Monroe Avenue and Florence Street parking garage as part of its partnership with Loeb Properties Inc. to revitalize the Square. Local Gastropub is nearing build-out completion at Madison Avenue and Cooper Street and is scheduled to open by October. And bordering the Square, Chiwawa Restaurant and Five Guys Burgers and Fries have kicked off construction.

There are also changes occurring that aren’t as physical. Bar Louie inked a new deal at the curved building, Memphis Pizza Café renewed its lease for 15 more years, and Boscos Squared is pursing an expansion.

All the while, the area’s bustling activity is accompanied by the welcoming attitude of existing businesses.

“I am fired up,” said Kelly English, chef-owner of Restaurant Iris, which opened at 2146 Monroe in 2008. “I think that little part of town is a special place and I’m excited to be a part of it. As a business owner, obviously, the more people, the merrier. That’s going to give me more opportunity to cook for more people, and that’s fun to me.”

Studies indicate that some 100,000 people attend Overton Square each year thanks to its three live-performance theaters, a multi-screen movie theater and surrounding retail. Loeb projects that number to increase to some 239,000 annual local and guest visitors alike as part of its redeveloped arts and entertainment district that includes the relocation of Hattiloo Theatre to Cooper.

Prepared for that uptick in traffic is Bari Ristorante e Enoteca, which is already on the minds of the local arts community, said co-owner Jason Severs.

“We’ve always gotten people that have come before theater events, whether it’s Playhouse or Circuit or going Downtown to The Orpheum,” said Severs, who opened the restaurant 10 years ago at 22 S. Cooper St. with his wife, Rebecca. “We’re busy all of the time anyway, so I guess we’ll just get busier.”

Also preparing to possibly ramp up operations is Maggie’s Pharm, which has sold farm-fresh herbs, handcrafted candles and soaps in Overton Square for 32 years. So far, the parking garage construction hasn’t affected business for the shop at 13 Florence St., which closes by 5:30 p.m., said Sue Jordan, manager of Maggie’s Pharm.

“At night, it seems to fill up pretty quickly since the parking is kind of a standstill right now since they’re doing all of the digging over there,” Jordan said. “It hadn’t really affected us yet. It may if we decide to start staying open later, which we might do that as time goes on. People might want to come out and go have dinner somewhere at one of the restaurants and before a show starts, walk around. We’d like to be there to say, ‘Come on in.’”

It was four years ago that Bayou Bar & Grill and Le Chardonnay tweaked their respective setups by moving across Madison from the Palm Court building, where both restaurants started in the 1980s. Partner Bill Baker, who owns both restaurants, said the Square’s redevelopment will boost business perception, just as his restaurants were able to do when street presence and square footage were increased.

“I am fired up. I think that little part of town is a special place and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

–Kelly English
Chef-owner, Restaurant Iris

“We’ve definitely seen (the area) change, but it’s always been there and there’s always been some core restaurants here,” Baker said. “With Loeb taking over and all of the new things coming in, we think it’s just great for everybody to have so much more interest and exposure and excitement in Overton Square. We’re just kind of waiting for it to happen now.”

Debra Cohen, owner of Dabbles Hair Co. at 19 N. Cooper St. since 1988, agrees.

“I don’t know that they’re going to come in and get a haircut and then go see a play necessarily, but just the visibility and getting people around is what it’s all about,” Cohen said.

For others, the Square’s construction crews are a nice change of scenery from the stagnant days of the past.

“We’ve been looking at this parking lot now for the last 20 years, so it’s nice to se something going in there that will bring people in,” said Barry Lincoln, co-owner of Mr. Lincoln’s Costume Shoppe at 29 Florence St. “It sure has needed it for a long time.”

Perhaps Linda Sowell of Sowell & Co. Realtors at 54 S. Cooper summed it up best: “Anything that helps and is a positive for Midtown helps our business.”

Along with Sears Crosstown’s redevelopment, Sowell said Overton Square “will have a positive impact on people wanting to locate in the Midtown area.”

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