Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beale's Old Guard Speaks Out

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Some of Beale Street's most experienced and heavily invested owners aired out some gripes along with a little dirty laundry Wednesday for the benefit of Memphis City Council members.

"Unfortunately, the way the climate is now, we are losing all our local support," said Mike Glenn, manager of the New Daisy Theater.

He wasn't talking about the heat.

Glenn, along with other veteran operators such as Preston Lamm (Rum Boogie Cafe), Bud Chittom (Blues City Cafe), and Tommy Peters (B. B. King's), said the combination of a recession and security concerns have cut business 10-15 percent. Strong support from international visitors, who enjoy a favorable currency exchange rate, is helping to offset waning local support.

Several merchants met for lunch above B.B. King's with seven members of the city council. Lamm and Onzie Horne, head of the Beale Street Merchants Association, did most of the talking. John Elkington, head of Performa, the company that manages the Beale Street Entertainment District, was not there and apparently was not invited.

In an interview after the meeting, Lamm said he and other owners want the city of Memphis and Elkington to work out their differences without a lawsuit so that attention can shift to improving security and growing the business. A federal criminal investigation of a privately owned parking garage south of Beale has also produced publicity, as did the guilty plea on bribery charges of former Beale Street Merchants Association director Rickey Peete, who is serving a prison term.

"We're caught in the crossfire," said Lamm, operator of the Rum Boogie, King's Palace, and Pig On Beale.

After several lean years in the 1980s, Beale Street took off, thanks to a growing economy, a global marketing campaign centered on blues and barbecue, the construction of FedEx Forum and AutoZone Park, and the success of the University of Memphis Tigers men's basketball team. Now that success is in jeopardy.

Peters, whose investment in B. B. King's 17 years ago was a positive turning point for Beale Street, said business is "fragile" and is down significantly in the last four weeks.

The meeting was mainly a get-acquainted session for new council members and club operators. Lamm gave a brief history of the street's 25 years, noting that most clubs that opened in the first two years failed. Horne gave credit to Elkington for persistence in seeing Beale Street through tough times in the early years.

More recently, however, Elkington has been a focal point for criticisms on everything from minority representation to security and marketing. Elkington has indicated a willingness to restructure Performa's management agreement or even abandon it for a price, but a lawsuit with the city has made a swift resolution unlikely. Subpoenas have been issued to club owners, but Horne said they are too broad and complying with them would be "onerous." He told council members that owners "have nothing to hide."

Club owners and merchants want the city to either take a bigger part in security and maintenance or get Performa or someone else to make changes. They say they often have to clean up the street in front of their businesses themselves, and Chittom said they have to pay $46 an hour to police officers to supplement the regular force on Friday and Saturday nights.

Security has been a special concern since a private security guard was involved in a well-publicized physical confrontation with a patron last year.

We've been able to keep all the tough trade out and keep our noses clean, but sometimes under the weight of the world you ask if it is worth it," said Chittom.

Travis Cannon, owner of Wet Willie's, said he came to Beale Street in 2000 when business was booming. Lately, however, an increasing number of panhandlers and homeless people have driven away business.

"We need to make people feel safe," he said.

Horne, who has been involved on and off with Beale Street in various capacities since its opening in 1983, said Beale Street is the biggest tourist draw in the city.

I promise you, international tourists do not come to Memphis just to see the (Peabody) ducks," he said.

Beale Street, Horne said, draws some four million visitors a year, and they spend approximately $40 million, but that is low per-capita spending because "a large number of visitors are not spending money." Crowds of young people flock to the street around midnight on weekends and try to get inside the clubs or just wander around, several owners said. Clubs stay open until 5 a.m. and drinks can be sold and consumed on the street -- in both cases thanks to local legislative action.

"When they congregate in large numbers they intimidate our paying guests," said Horne. "We have a security problem that needs to be addressed."

Councilman Myron Lowery said he is not sure what if anything the council can do at this point, but he wondered why extra police have to be hired by the private sector to patrol a public street. Councilman Barbara Ware said she's concerned that Handy Park and the statue of W.C. Handy are overshadowed by Budweiser advertising.

Lamm said Beale Street needs a guiding force. He noted, for example, that there are separate websites for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Performa, the Beale Street Merchants Association, and the city of Memphis that feature Beale Street. Branson, Missouri, in contrast, has a single site where visitors and tour groups can plan their visit and buy tickets.

Interviewed later on Wednesday, Elkington said Performa does not add any surcharge to the police billing rate, as Chittom said. He agreed that security is a problem, not only on Beale but all over downtown and other parts of Memphis. Peforma is trying both off-duty police officers and "greeters," or civilians (all female) who check IDs at barricades on Beale and Second Street on weekends.

He said Memphis is in a recession and Beale Street is feeling it.

"When Peabody Place says it is closing its retail, that is a serious commentary on the state of things," Elkington said.

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