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VOL. 132 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 11, 2017

Beale Street Issues Deepen and Grow

By Bill Dries

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The issue of who controls what in the Beale Street entertainment district has come to the forefront after the abolition of the Beale Street Tourism Development Authority.

As city council members debate their control over the Beale Street Bucks program, the discussion about who controls the entertainment district and its direction is deepening.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The Memphis City Council abolished the authority in April and has now moved into a deepening debate about the Beale Street Bucks program used by merchants and the street’s interim manager, the Downtown Memphis Commission, as a crowd control measure.

The council wants a legal opinion on whether the $10 cover charge on Saturday evenings can be done without the council’s approval and who the money collected belongs to.

The cover charge includes a $7 rebate in the form of coupons from Beale businesses.

DMC president Terence Patterson says his organization’s agreement to run Beale Street – going on three years and counting – is with the city administration, not the council.

But council members point to the city charter that gives the council control over the use of city property.

In the most recent chapters of the controversy over the Overton Park Greensward, it was the council that set the terms for the use of the greensward with Mayor Jim Strickland, saying that while he made recommendations, it was the council’s decision to make.

“We are the authority,” council chairman Berlin Boyd told Patterson this week. “I can go get the charter and show you. That’s our right. That’s our city asset. The city council decides what goes on at our city asset. … No judge can circumvent what our city charter says. We are the authority. Don’t get that twisted, my man.”

The Beale Street Bucks program is the issue in a pending federal lawsuit against the city by Lucille Catron, director of the Beale Street Development Corp.

She and other plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit that the cover charge is racially motivated and discriminatory.

Catron is also contesting a legal settlement among the city, Performa Entertainment and her late husband, Randle Catron – as head of the BSDC – that ended the BSDC’s status as the holder of the city master lease for the district.

U.S. District Judge John Fowlkes has not ruled on Catron’s request to declare the cover charge illegal and unconstitutional. But he has said the program can continue to be used until he makes a decision.

Council member Jamita Swearengen is among those on the council who agree with the basic premise of Catron’s federal lawsuit.

“We all know that that’s the night that most African-Americans visit the Downtown area,” she said.

Boyd said he is constantly asked, “Why do you charge black people to go on Beale Street?”

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” he added. “It doesn’t happen on any other night. … Perceptually as an African-American male, it looks bad to me and I kind of take offense and take it personal.”

Patterson denies any racial discrimination.

“I am also an African-American male and I also take exception to the fact that people think we are charging African-Americans only,” he said. “We are unequivocally not. This is not any type of profiling in any way.”

The council put off a vote Tuesday, May 9, on a resolution that would end the Beale Street Bucks program. It is now scheduled to vote on the resolution at the May 23 council session, which would put any suspension of the program past the Memphis In May International Festival, the peak of the spring season for the entertainment district.

It’s what council member Philip Spinosa referred to as “our super bowl month.”

“We prepare for this month all year,” Spinosa said. “I would definitely consider voting yes (on stopping the program). But I do want to get more information.”

Council member Worth Morgan said he wanted to “err on the side of caution” and wondered aloud whether the council would scrutinize every temporary street closure.

“It’s based on public safety and serious concerns about crowd safety – tourists as well as citizens.” Morgan said of the cover. “We haven’t had an issue on the nights this is in place.”

Council member Martavius Jones countered that the city’s agreement with merchants on the street is that they are to provide the security. He called the cover charge “a tax on the people that visit there.”

“To use visitor funds or proceeds – it shouldn’t be used to subsidize security,” he said. “All of us want increased security on Beale Street, but it’s a matter of who should pay for it.”

PROPERTY SALES 23 23 1,365
MORTGAGES 21 21 1,068
BUILDING PERMITS 117 117 3,173