In 2002, Ben Avant, now 35, was a young, Charleston, S.C.-based stock and bond trader with a world of possibilities at his feet and a heavy choice to make.
Ben Avant is the new South Main Association president, and wife, Anna, runs Hoot-Louise at 109 E. G.E. Patterson Ave.
(Photo: Lance Murphey )
“It was right after the stock market crashed in 2000, and it was pretty rough,” he said. “Emotionally, it was probably the lowest time in my life. I was dealing with clients whose investments were continuously dropping while trying to sell them new products to keep their investments stable. Mentally, it was tough on me and I just couldn’t do it any longer.”
So he and his wife, Anna, decided to move closer to their families in Greenwood, Miss., and make a fresh start. They considered Nashville or possibly New Orleans, but it was Memphis that beckoned the loudest.
“A friend who worked with The Blues Foundation convinced me that Memphis had great heart and soul,” Avant said. “And its history, particularly the history of music here, was a great draw for me.”
Little did he know then just how much that history would become part of his life. Avant, who now works as an architectural lighting specialist with Clear Advantage Lighting, is the newly appointed president of the South Main Association, a group of residents and business owners dedicated to promoting, improving and preserving the South Main Historic Arts District.
“I accepted the challenge because I wanted to give back to the community,” Avant said. “I didn’t know the South Main Association was going to change my life.”
Located in the south end of Downtown Memphis, the South Main Historic Arts District runs from Linden Avenue in the north to Crump Boulevard in the south and east to west from Third Street to the Mississippi River. Most of the buildings were built between 1910 and 1920, when local businesses catered to Union and Central stations’ passengers and employees.
However, when the railroad era ended in the 1960s, the area was reduced to a wasteland of empty buildings and warehouses for decades. Its revival began in 1982, when 11 blocks and 105 buildings were designated as a historic district. Now filled with galleries, retail, restaurants and upscale apartments and condominiums, South Main has been making a steady comeback ever since.
Avant joined the association as a board member in 2012 and immediately got to work. He redesigned the website, revived monthly member socials, organized meetings with guest speakers and pushed for membership growth and more hands-on involvement. He became vice president later that year.
“We try to create events and activities to get people involved,” he said. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the cycle of getting up, going to work and coming home. Once you step outside that routine, you’ll likely find that it enriches your life. And I get excited about what the future holds for us. South Main will always be a beacon of historic preservation and culture.”
Bert Sharpe, the former chief of design and installations at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art who now specializes in installations for area businesses and private collections, has lived on South Main Street for 25 years. He said he’s thrilled that Avant isn’t trying to turn it into an extension of Beale Street.
“What has pulled me to Ben is the fact that he’s a get-it-done guy,” Sharpe said. “He’s very savvy to what South Main is about, and he’s passionate about keeping its history and heritage intact.”
Avant’s investment in the district, however, lies in more than just an interest in its history. In 2008, Anna Avant, a financial risk analyst, decided she too needed a career change. The couple put their heads together and decided to open a boutique. Anna was the creative force, selecting a distinctive mix of new and vintage women’s clothing, and Ben managed the business end. It took two years of smoothing out the details, writing a business plan and applying for loans before Hoot-Louise – a combination of Anna’s grandmother’s first name and nickname – opened at 109 E. G.E. Patterson Ave. in 2010.
“I was worried about the riskiness of it all, but Ben constantly built up my confidence in it,” Anna said. “He was always pushing me to move forward. If he felt like I was starting to doubt it, he would talk me through it.”
Their son, Finch, also was born during that time, and that’s when everything fell into place, Ben Avant said.
“I probably took the biggest turn in my life when we had our child two years ago,” he said. “I really started looking at our community. That’s when I learned that’s what life is all about: family and community.”
His involvement in the community hasn’t stopped with the South Main Association. Through his job at Clear Advantage Lighting, he’s influenced the lighting at The Pyramid, the ALSAC Pavilion, the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law library and many other law school projects. In December, he was elected to the American Institute of Architects Memphis board of directors.
And through it all, he still finds time for a long list of hobbies. Biking, running, camping and fly-fishing are among the activities he enjoys, but music tops the list. An avid blues lover, he plays guitar, collects old records and loves books about rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s yet another reason why he’s a fan of Memphis.
“There’s something about being on Beale Street at 4 a.m. listening to live blues music – there’s really nowhere else in the world you can get that feeling,” he said. “I love that about this city.”