Editorial: Drop Beale Cover Charge, But Keep the Security

Saturday, July 15, 2017, Vol. 10, No. 29

Beale Street doesn’t need a cover charge, with or without rebate coupons, to solve its problems. Two summers into the policy, and after several crowd stampedes in the entertainment district before it, Beale needs a better security plan that probably includes a mix of Memphis Police and private security. But linking that to a cover charge, and the resulting checkpoints to enforce it, is sending the wrong message at the wrong time.

Beale Street’s image is in one of its periodic states of flux three years after the exit of Performa Entertainment, the real estate firm that under John Elkington’s leadership developed and managed the district from its 1983 renovation onward for the next three decades.

The district’s way forward involves protecting its hard-won success over those three decades and building on it. That means continuing to draw tourists and finding new ways to include Memphians in a district that should reflect the city’s diversity more than any other place we cherish for its history.

This is the Beale Street that James Clark – the owner of the street’s longest-running business since the renovation, Eel Etc. Fashions – is talking about when he explains why he doesn’t agree with the cover charge. To charge Memphians and visitors just to get on the street to encounter this history and culture is not only a questionable crowd-control measure, it’s also bad business.

No matter what the intentions were, the cover charge is an immediate reminder of the rigid racial segregation that old Beale Street always tried to find a way around, in the name of commerce if not altruism.

The way forward also keeps in mind the reality and need for order as well as the important role perception plays in a district that is all about entertainment.

Jim Holt, the CEO of the Memphis in May International Festival and a member of the city’s Beale Street Task Force, makes a good point when he warns against confusing a cover charge with security. Memphis in May charges admission to some of the largest crowds that come Downtown, but it isn’t in the name of security. When Tom Lee Park reaches what is judged as capacity, the park is closed until there is enough room for everyone to be comfortable.

Memphis Police can do that now on Beale, and we saw evidence of crowd counts at the different checkpoints on three consecutive Saturday nights after 10 p.m. Technology that can do more precise crowd counts for just this purpose is also available.

Soon enough, the task force will give the Memphis City Council its recommendations about possible methods of crowd control that differ from a cover charge.

We hope those recommendations lead to firm leadership in a district where merchants don’t always have the same vision of what Beale Street can become. The way forward begins with a unified voice.