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VOL. 131 | NO. 3 | Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Tri-State Bank HQ Sale Heightens Speculation

By Bill Dries

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The northeast corner of Main and Beale streets is more than prime real estate; it’s historic ground with a direct connection to ongoing racial and economic issues.

Tri-State Bank, the city’s 70-year old black-owned bank, and Belz Investco announced Thursday, Dec. 31, that the bank was selling its headquarters, 180 S. Main St., to Belz Investco GP in a $3 million deal.

Tri-State Bank has been on Beale Street since its founding in 1946 at 392 Beale Street. The bank’s current headquarters at Beale and Main, where it has been since 1974, sold on New Year’s Eve to Belz Investco as Tri-State relocates over the next year and a half.

(University of Memphis Department of Art)

As terms of the deal, Tri-State will lease the building from Belz for up to 18 months as its relocates headquarters and main branch operations. Belz also will become a depositor and stockholder in Tri-State.

In a written statement announcing the sale last week, Tri-State president and CEO Jesse H. Turner Jr. acknowledged the bank has had numerous offers for its Downtown headquarters site.

Turner specifically mentioned Belz’s involvement as a depositor and a stockholder.

“This level of investment demonstrates a confidence in the bank and its future by one of Memphis’ most prominent and successful companies,” Turner said.

The bank building stands next to the Hard Rock Cafe, which opened at 126 Beale St. – the corner of Second and Beale – in June 2014. Hard Rock moved to the northwest corner after 16 years at Beale and Rufus Thomas Boulevard, two blocks away.

And in October 2014, Hard Rock Cafe International Inc. president and CEO Hamish Dobbs told The Daily News that a hotel would be a “natural extension” for the restaurant.

“Again, I think for similar reasons that we are here in our restaurant business, we would want to be here in our hotel business,” Dobbs said then. “I’m hoping that one day soon we can be more definitive on that. It’s certainly something that we’ve been actively looking at.”

Dobbs said then that he believed Hard Rock could make a hotel work in its current footprint at the corner of Second and Beale.

“We would like to make it work here but we are also looking at other options,” he said then. “I think this footprint would be unique but we can make it work.”

With the Tri-State Bank building sale, there will be another option in the next 18 months.

Tri-State’s Deep Civil Rights Roots

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the land was the site of a school that was burned to the ground in the city’s 1866 race riots. The city’s police force and white citizens, including elected leaders up to the mayor, went on a violent three-day rampage in which 48 people died and 103 structures – most of them homes – were burned.

Dr. J.E. Walker and his son A. Maceo Walker founded Tri-State Bank after World War II. The elder Walker founded Universal Life Insurance Co. in 1923, which along with Tri-State was a pillar of black finance and capital in a city that was racially segregated by law.

The bank’s headquarters has been on Beale for 70 years. It was originally located at 386 Beale St. in a building that’s now the law offices of attorney Charles Carpenter.

In its first decade, Tri-State made more than $10 million of first mortgage home loans, a dollar figure the bank says equates to home ownership for 2,000 black families.

Tri-State’s boardroom hosted some of the meetings to coordinate important chapters in the protest history of the Memphis civil rights movement. The bank also provided bail money for protesters.

All of that was in an environment where protest leaders faced not only hostile city officials and financial pressure from employers, but illegal surveillance by the FBI that was only made public in the late 1970s.

In his final speech, April 3, 1968 – the night before his assassination – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged those at Mason Temple supporting striking sanitation workers to support the bank by transferring their savings and checking accounts to Tri-State.

The building at Main and Beale was built in 1974 after the bank bought the land from the Memphis Housing Authority. The MHA owned much of Beale Street land as part of the urban renewal process in a larger Downtown area that was struggling by the mid-1970s.

When the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination, faced foreclosure in 1982, Tri-State provided $60,000 in loans as part of the effort that led to the motel’s conversion into the National Civil Rights Museum.

PROPERTY SALES 51 180 16,377
MORTGAGES 21 57 10,144
BUILDING PERMITS 103 665 39,209
BANKRUPTCIES 31 107 7,704