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VOL. 130 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wharton: Tourism Is Serious Business

By Bill Dries

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Sometimes in tourism, it is the little things that count. But “little” is relative. Consider the digital LED display screen on the west wall of the Memphis Cook Convention Center – big enough to be seen by eastbound traffic on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge – which local leaders debuted this month after three years of planning.

Memphis and Shelby County officials flip the switch on the new digital display on the western side of the Cook Convention Center that welcomes eastbound traffic on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge to Memphis. The display will feature advertising for local events and replaces the neon Memphis signs that topped the Lone Star Industries silos that were demolished in 2012.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

That was about the time the lighted sign promoting Memphis as “Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock and Roll” atop the Lone Star Industries cement silos was put in storage as the silos were demolished just south of The Pyramid.

“I cannot tell you how many comments we’ve received since the Lone Star building came down,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People wanted to know when we were going to replace that. We looked at it and said, ‘What’s really the most ideal thing to do.’”

The bureau did a request for proposal that drew lots of interest and then lots of concern from some of the sign companies initially interested.

“A couple of them withdrew their bid because they said it was problematic with the building and the height off the ground,” Kane said. “It was not your typical erecting a messaging board.”

There will be some limited advertising on it to pay for its $400,000 cost and another LED board to be closer to street level on Front and a marquee wrap around display for the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts at Poplar Avenue and North Main Street.

“This is not just a hobby,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said last week before throwing the switch on the convention center display. “Tourism is not just a play thing. There are 35,000 jobs in Memphis and Shelby County that depend on tourism. So it is a significant portion of our economy – $3.2 billion in visitor expenditures every year.”

But there is hesitancy about relying too much on that sector of a Memphis economy in which Memphis is also competing closely with North Mississippi for better-paying manufacturing jobs.

It’s been 30 years since local leaders led by then-Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett and Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris created the tourism superfund that bulked up the Convention and Visitors Bureau with a budget big enough for world-wide marketing and presence to promote the city in a competitive way that wasn’t seasonal or an afterthought or a welcome-center focused pursuit.

There were some notable critics of the strategy at the time. Thirty years ago this month, the late Memphis industrialist Ned Cook, who was instrumental in the development of the convention center and Memphis International Airport as well as a diversification of agri-business in Memphis away from solely cotton to include grain, had some harsh words for the pursuit of tourism.

He told an agribusiness policy symposium near the airport that Mud Island “attempts to capitalize on something we are not.”

And he drew a distinction that wouldn’t necessarily be made today.

“Memphis is a good convention city,” said Cook, whose father was honored with the naming of the convention center. “But for tourists, it is basically a pass-through city.”

Wharton, meanwhile, told the small group on the south parking lot of The Pyramid Wednesday, Feb. 11, for the lighting that the pursuit of an upgraded convention center continues.

“We all know that we have to keep up,” Wharton said. “We’re serious about that. So for those who are worried about the future, we are going to be better for it and we are going to do it in a financially sound way.”

Wharton has previously suggested using the Peabody Place mall, between the Peabody hotel and Beale Street, as an interim convention and meeting space with a shuttle system between it and the Memphis Cook Convention Center to the north.

He’s also formed a working group for a much longer term pursuit of a new convention center. The group has been working quietly toward the goal as a much more visible effort to build new attractions begins to surface with opening dates.

That included the opening of Beale Street Landing last summer and the upcoming May 1 opening of Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid as well as the opening the same month of the Blues Hall of Fame in the South Main District.

There is also a raft of new hotel rooms in various stages from the 450-room Guest Room at Graceland resort hotel in Whitehaven ready to begin construction to the just proposed four-story 104-room LaQuinta Inn and Suites on Union at Danny Thomas.

The resurrected One Beale twin tower complex includes plans for a 300-room hotel and there are longer held plans for a 140-room Hilton Garden Inn on Union Avenue across from AutoZone Park as well as a 115-room Holiday Inn Express a block to the east.

As of last October, the planned or under development hotel room count across the city was more than 1,000 new rooms adding to an existing 241 hotels with 22,353 rooms, according to Convention and Visitors Bureau numbers.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 263 9,865
MORTGAGES 0 246 10,862
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 12 1,301
BUILDING PERMITS 0 686 21,643
BANKRUPTCIES 0 256 6,219
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 93 4,032
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 85 2,977
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 71 2,092