VOL. 132 | NO. 258 | Friday, December 29, 2017
Beale’s Question Mark
By Bill Dries
For all of the change in the Memphis landscape announced in 2017 – including the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s decision to move to the riverfront and plans for several “gateway” developments around the city – Beale Street was in a holding pattern for most of the year.
At year’s end, the Memphis City Council is in the process of hiring a crowd control consultant to advise the council on a way forward for the entertainment district’s security measures.
That’s quite a change from the start of 2017, when the street was under the control of the Beale Street Tourism Development Authority, a body whose members were appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
Workers add steel beam supports to the facade of Silky O’Sullivan’s on Wednesday, Dec. 27, as the Beale Street bar prepares for the many visitors it will see on New Year’s Eve. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
In late 2016, the authority broke off negotiations with 21 Beale Street Inc., one of a handful of companies that applied to manage the district, and the only one that had made it to the point of negotiation. Instead, the authority decided to stick with the Downtown Memphis Commission, which originally had been tapped to manage the district for the city on an interim basis until the authority made its hire.
The DMC’s interim run as manager, which began before the authority was put in place, continues into its fifth year Monday when the ceremonial Gibson guitar drops on Beale to mark the start of 2018.
“I think in order to make Beale Street profitable for the city of Memphis – in order to make Beale Street grow – we needs someone who breathes, sleeps, eats Beale Street and Beale Street businesses,” City Council chairman Berlin Boyd said in November. “I think that we need to have a robust conversation, and the council has nothing to do with choosing a management company. I think that’s the mayor’s discretion.”
The council got involved specifically over the issue of a cover charge to get on the street Saturdays after 10 p.m. during the spring and summer – the peak season for crowds on Beale.
The cover charge has become the ultimate political slippery slope.
As the council’s involvement in the night-to-night life of the district deepened, Boyd’s business was doing consulting work with the Beale Street Merchants Association on promotional events to bring even larger crowds to the district.
Critics contended it was a conflict of interest. Boyd denied any conflict, but when the controversy continued, he canceled the consulting contracts with the merchants.
After abolishing the tourism development authority in April, the council took a look at the $10 cover charge, which came with $8 worth of coupons that could be used in Beale Street businesses. In May, council members voted to cut the cover charge in half and do away with the coupons.
The council acted because the security measures and infrastructure for the cover charge involved use of a public street, which is within the council’s responsibilities by the city charter.
Beale Street visitors paid a $10 cover to enter the street on Saturday nights during the spring and summer. The Memphis City Council voted in November to abolish the charge. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)
The idea was to study how much money came in and what it was used for. By September, Boyd had formed a Beale Street task force that includes merchants, police, the DMC and leaders of some other Downtown institutions that also deal with crowds.
Most of the merchants and police insisted the cover charge at $10 was the only thing that prevented a repeat of stampedes on the street the previous spring and summer. But there were no such incidents with the $5 cover.
Over 13 consecutive Saturdays, the reduced cover charge brought in $361,645 from 72,329 patrons. It cost $41,584 to set up the five checkpoints on Beale. The busiest of the 13 Saturdays was Sept. 9, when 8,916 people paid the $5 cover.
The task force went to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which does not have a cover charge or the checkpoints with metal-detector wands that Beale Street visitors see on Saturday nights in the spring and summer. But Bourbon Street has several different public police forces that patrol the area and amount to different rings of security. That’s in addition to measures merchants pay for.
The task force also spent several hours on Beale Street after 11 p.m. on a summer night and were critical of police for staying in their cars too much and not walking around enough.
The group was prepared to recommend keeping some kind of cover charge and allocating it toward beefed-up security when the Beale Street leases came into play.
Former DMC president Paul Morris, who became the first interim manager of Beale Street in 2014 at the start of the transitional period still underway, knew the leases with businesses and tenants on the city-owned street intimately. And Morris said the ongoing leases include the cost of security inside the businesses and on the street itself to be borne by the merchants.
The task force put off its recommendations and the council moved to abolish the cover charge entirely.
At year’s end, the council was still awaiting the result of a request for proposals from the crowd-control consulting firms that have applied through the Downtown Memphis Commission.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit that Lucille Catron, the widow of Beale Street Development Corp. director Randle Catron, and other plaintiffs brought against the city, the DMC and the tourism authority is still pending in Memphis federal court.
The BSDC was the group that had the master lease with the city of Memphis prior to the settlement in 2014 that put the city back in direct control of the district as the tourism authority was setting up shop.
The 2016 lawsuit claims the cover charge was unconstitutional and aimed at black patrons of Beale Street.
Out of court, Catron also has claimed her husband never signed the settlement agreement that took effect at the start of 2014 and that the BSDC remains in control of the district.
The latest case file notes show a move toward mediation, with U.S. District Judge John Fowlkes setting a third timetable for discovery and other pretrial actions that are to end in February.
All sides are due before Fowlkes in January for a status conference.
The city has moved for a second time to dismiss the lawsuit, with attorney Casey Shannon beginning his latest memorandum to the court this past June with, “Ignoring 17 years of litigation on the very subject…” to answer continuing claims about the master lease.
“I still think it’s a bit of a breakable toy,” city councilman Kemp Conrad said of Beale at the end of another turbulent year. “It’s gone through a lot of turmoil in the last couple of years in terms of management.”