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VOL. 128 | NO. 226 | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Elkington, Harris Talk of Beale Street Nonprofit

By Bill Dries

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The next manager and developer of the Beale Street entertainment district should be a nonprofit entity similar to the Downtown Memphis Commission that focuses on improving the district and planning for its expansion, according to longtime Beale Street developer John Elkington and Memphis City Council member Lee Harris.

Longtime Beale Street developer John Elkington joined Memphis City Council member Lee Harris on “Behind The Headlines” to discuss the district.

(Daily News File)

Elkington, who opened the renovated Beale Street district 30 years ago this past October, and Harris talked about the future of the district and tourism on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.

“I think we need a consistent plan of where we’re going,” Elkington said. “I think when I was involved, one guy made the decisions basically, and that was probably not good. But I got all the criticism, so I guess I got to make the decisions.”

Harris talked of a more cautious approach than when the district was seeking to lease up property, which is now 94 percent occupied.

“I’m not sure that the next manager of that street should be a for-profit corporation,” Harris said. “For-profit operations are going to risk-seek. And I’m not sure this is the time to swing for the fences.”

The program can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Elkington said the city needs to rethink its tourism master plan, which he sees as stagnating.

“I don’t think the city ought to be investing in a baseball stadium, and I don’t think the city should do a lot of the things that they do. I see Beale Street as a finished product that has an opportunity to expand and do other things,” Elkington said. “All the things that have made us an attraction are starting to get some hair on them.”

He favors an expansion to the south and the west, toward the Mississippi River, as well as an expansion of the Memphis Cook Convention Center or the construction of a new convention center.

Harris said the city “doesn’t have the capacity” now to finance either option for a convention center.

“I think the immediate priorities that we could actually touch and get something done on right now are hotel rooms,” Harris said. “If you move west down Beale Street, there is property there.”

For nearly 20 years, Elkington has talked of a westward and southern expansion that links up with the National Civil Rights Museum, a link that turned up as part of the Wharton administration’s larger Heritage Trails development plan, which has stalled.

Harris foresees a nonprofit entity that includes business leaders and elected leaders guiding the district’s future direction and growth.

“I think we’ve got models – the Downtown Memphis Commission,” he said. “They manage day-to-day operations. They have a dedicated revenue source. But they still come to the City Council and city government at least once a year so we can go over their budget and how they are spending their resources.”

Elkington agrees on a nonprofit group that makes group decisions but doesn’t think direct involvement by elected officials in that body is the way to go.

“Beale Street is pretty well set now. We’re 94 percent occupied. We just have some office space that is vacant. We have no receivables. We have very little payables,” he said. “I think you need to have a body that’s consistent that will be there that won’t have sudden changes.”

Elkington’s Performa Entertainment remains in day-to-day control of the district for the city.

That is pending acceptance by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Jennie D. Latta of an agreement in which the city will pay Elkington back for $500,000 he took out in a personal loan for improvements to Handy Park.

When it comes, Elkington will then formally exit as developer.

But Elkington points out that the Shelby County Chancery Court suit between the city of Memphis and the nonprofit Beale Street Development Corp. will still remain. He believes that is likely to drag on for several more years.

The BSDC is a middleman between the city, which owns the property on Beale, and the developer that was set up by the city in the mid-1970s.

“They wanted black participation, so they said, ‘Let’s set this organization up,’ and they didn’t empower it,” Elkington said. “I think we’ll be in court for another year or so deciding what their role is or are they going to be involved.”

PROPERTY SALES 61 61 6,453
MORTGAGES 46 46 4,081
BUILDING PERMITS 113 113 15,474
BANKRUPTCIES 19 19 3,289