Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Grizzlies Eye Beale Street

This is a match of neighbors that the city should make happen.

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Memphis stars of the NBA Playoffs so far: Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Beale Street.

The neon lights of B.B. King's Blues Club and other clubs and restaurants — and by extension downtown Memphis — are getting an advertising bonanza from ESPN and TNT thanks to the Grizzlies' run into the second round and, so far, five home games at FedExForum.

An alley is all that separates FedExForum from Beale Street. And there is an opportunity to connect these two large dots.

The Grizzlies have controlled events in FedExForum since day one. They have new majority owner Robert Pera (and a local minority ownership group), a long-term lease on the arena, a season that lasts from October to June, and a desire to broaden the fan base regionally. The city of Memphis owns most of the properties in the Beale Street Historic District and has been looking for a new manager to replace John Elkington and Performa Entertainment Real Estate.

The obvious question: Should the Grizzlies take over Beale Street?

"In our discussions with the city and the mayor, we expressed our interest in participating in the continued growth of Beale Street and downtown Memphis," said John Pugliese, vice president of marketing communications and broadcast for the Grizzlies. "We understand how important Beale Street is, and, as a key stakeholder, we want to be part of the process."

One of the organization's new hires, Jason Wexler, brings a background in development with the Henry Turley Company in Memphis. And ex-ballplayers Penny Hardaway and Elliot Perry are other team members with Memphis roots and upside on the business and entertainment front.

I know our history. Sometimes the "obvious" answer is the wrong answer. In 1989, sports and entertainment entrepreneur Sidney Shlenker, after making his mark in Houston and Denver, came to Memphis as Man of the Hour to develop the Pyramid and Mud Island River Park. "Shlenkered" became a verb for suckered.

And consolidations have not gone well in Memphis in recent years. But this is one consolidation that ought to happen sooner rather than later. Beale Street needs fresh horses. B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Silky Sullivan and the Hard Rock Café are not getting any younger.

Memphians may shun Beale Street as dangerous or a tourist trap, but ESPN and TNT love those nighttime shots of the neon signs and the Elvis statue. Beale Street was rocking Saturday night, hours after the Grizzlies game was over, with live music on the sidewalk, Handy Park, and clubs from B. B. King's to the New Daisy Theater. At midnight, there were hundreds of people in line at the security checkpoints waiting to join the party.

Which, of course, is both a problem and an opportunity. You don't get carded and frisked on Bourbon Street, in Times Square, or on Lower Broadway in Nashville. Managing Beale Street or any place where alcohol is served in super-sized cups on the sidewalk is as hard as guarding Kevin Durant. The businesses that are there have long-term leases and owners who are used to doing things a certain way. Could some cash-and-carry transactions go unreported to the agencies that are supposed to collect taxes or a share of profits? Stranger things have happened. The Beale Street Merchants Association, you may remember, was once led by Rickey Peete.

Besides, what do the guys from California who run the Grizzlies know about managing an entertainment district, much less one freighted with so much Memphis history? They have their hands full with hoops and less than a season worth of experience at that. One thing at a time?

No. It is time to multitask and go for the big one on the court and on the street.

If not the Grizzlies, then who? Former Center City Commission president Jeff Sanford and a 31-member committee named by Mayor A C Wharton spent several months working on a report about the future of Beale Street. It was finally turned over in March. The generic recommendation was for either a business-improvement district, much like the current Downtown Memphis Commission with a city-appointed board, or a for-profit developer and management company funded by rental revenues.

"No small challenge," the report says of balancing Beale Street's history and its future as an entertainment center.

As Sanford told me this week, "Logic would suggest that the Grizzlies would have a strong interest in Beale Street, for better or worse, because they are part of it."

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