More than two year after it was originally proposed and more than a year after receiving final approval from the Memphis Park Commission, a redeveloped Handy Park-- now named W.C. Handy Performing Arts Park-- is set to open.
According to John Elkington, CEO of Performa Entertainment Real Estate, Inc., the company that manages Beale Street, construction is on schedule for the parks October 19th opening ceremony-- a private benefit concert that will feature Aaron Neville and Ronnie Milsap.
Performa signed a 20-year lease with the Park Commission in order to develop and manage the city park. Under the agreement, the city will receive 5 percent of gross revenues for the park while Performa is responsible for the entire $1.6 million in financing, as well as management and maintenance. While it is unusual for a city park to be privately operated, this deal was seen as a way to significantly revamp the park without spending taxpayer money on the project.
According to Elkington, the new Handy Park will become the anchor for the district. There is no gathering place in downtown Memphis right now, says Elkington. We wanted to take what has been a negative fixture on the street and make it the focal point. I think that its important for that corner to look good. With the new Hampton Inn and Peabody Place going in there, thats going to be the central corner of the new downtown. [Handy Park] was a disgrace before-- drug deals going down, public urination, vagrants. And that was not acceptable given what the Belz family has invested in the community right across the street.
Elkington claims that Performa is less concerned with making back its $1.6 million investment than he is with what the park will add to the overall appeal of Beale Street. The objective is not revenue, but the elimination of an eyesore and embarrassment, Elkington says.
The new parks capacity is flexible Ñ from 1,400 to 3,500 people-- depending on how the space is organized. The park also includes an information center, professional dressing rooms, and the streets first public bathrooms. The park will be used for both free public events and paid-admission concerts. Both the Memphis Park Commission and the Beale Street Merchants Association have to give approval for events in the park. The park also has a 9 p.m. curfew in order to ensure that events dont compete with other clubs on Beale, though the Merchants Association has the prerogative to waive the curfew for certain events, as it has for the parks opening and for the annual Beale Street New Years Eve celebration. Other than New Years Eve and a few other exceptions, park events will be seasonal, occurring between April and October.
The booking strategy for the park seems to be a work in progress, but Elkington says that paid-admission concerts are not a major thrust of the park and estimates that there will be about 20 such events per year. Elkington says that most dates will be reserved for free, community-oriented events, such as gospel music on Sundays. The park will also be used for non-music events such as food and arts fairs.
Performa employee Cato Walker is in charge of booking the venue and Elkington says there is currently no plan to work with any outside promoters. Walker says that he envisions several concert series being organized at the park and cites blues, jazz, Southern rock, and Tennessee music as being probable areas that the series will focus on. Elkington echoes this notion by saying that the park will initially focus on the Memphis-Nashville-New Orleans music corridor, citing The Oxford American
;s annual Southern music issue as an example of the parameters of the parks musical bookings. Elkington doesnt see the park as a much of a competitor with the casino strip. Were not trying to bring retro groups, says Elkington. We want acts associated with the South. I dont think youll see us booking the same entertainers as the casinos.
With the sporadic use of the Mud Island Amphitheater over the last couple of years and with the relative dearth of mid-sized music venues in town, the idea of using the park to book more high-profile rock shows seems tempting, but Elkington wont bite.
There arent going to be mosh pits on Beale, he says.
(You can write Chris Herrington at email@example.com