Thursday, January 29, 2009

If Beale St. Could Talk

The latest from John Elkington and Robert Lipscomb on the street's fate.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 29, 2009 at 4:00 AM

A pair of names in the news, John Elkington and Robert Lipscomb, want to clarify their roles in proposed changes in and around Beale Street.

A flurry of recent news stories has centered on a bitter lawsuit over control of Beale Street, the fate of the nearby Greyhound Bus Station, and a prospective massive redevelopment of several square blocks of blighted property south of downtown called Triangle Noir.

In separate interviews, Elkington said he wants credit for the 26 years he put in managing and leasing the Beale Street Historic District. Meanwhile, Lipscomb said he isn't trying to push Elkington out in favor of a national developer with ties to singer Justin Timberlake.

"I may not have been the best, but I was not the absolute worst," said Elkington, who was called "the most incompetent property manager in history" in open court last week by attorney John Candy, representing Beale Street Development Corporation. "Most people know I was a guy who stayed in there and made it work."

Elkington said that he would gladly let someone else have the job and has told that to Mayor Willie Herenton many times. Elkington figures he is due about $100,000 a year in commissions as long as the leases he made with Beale Street tenants are in effect. More than money, he said, "I want a thank you very much for what you did" in bringing Beale Street back to life.

The city and Beale Street Development Corporation don't see it that way.

As for his possible successor, Elkington said he met a representative of the Baltimore-based Cordish Company development firm at a convention last year but they did not talk about Cordish replacing Performa, Elkington's company, on Beale Street. Cordish specializes in urban entertainment districts in cities including Baltimore, Louisville, and St. Louis.

E-mails published here last week indicate that between July and November of 2008, Cordish representatives, along with a financing firm and Timberlake's stepfather Paul Harless, sought specific information about Beale Street leases, tenants, and profit-and-loss statements. Elkington believes the city may have turned over proprietary information to Cordish under the guise of collecting it for the lawsuit.

Rey Flemings, the former head of the Memphis Music Commission, arranged meetings last summer between Lipscomb and representatives from the Cordish team "to discuss Beale Street," according to e-mails.

In an interview this week, Lipscomb said he had meetings with Cordish last year about the Memphis riverfront and its relationship to proposed downtown projects around Beale Street, FedExForum, and Union Avenue across from AutoZone Park that have been in the talking stage since at least 2006.

"We never had a discussion about them taking over Beale Street," Lipscomb said. In May, he met with Jonathan Cordish, vice president of Cordish Company, according to an e-mail that Lipscomb provided:

"The meeting is informal as they are meeting in the lobby of the Peabody for 15 minutes regarding city projects which include the riverfront development initiative. Mr. Cordish is in town for a short period of time and we would like to capitalize on the opportunity to meet with him before his departure."

Lipscomb, head of the division of Housing and Community Development, has been Herenton's point man on major development projects for several years. It would be standard practice for any prospective developer interested in Memphis to schedule meetings with him. Flemings apparently played a middle-man role for Cordish. Lipscomb said he has not gone to Baltimore for any meetings with Cordish.

"This stuff has gotten out of hand," he said. "It's a bunch of disinformation, misinformation, and all kinds of stuff."

The ongoing federal investigation of Herenton has put a mysterious cast on stories about possible new developments on and around Beale Street and the nearby Greyhound Bus Station. But Lipscomb said he has nothing to hide, and he provided copies of his own e-mail correspondence about Beale Street and Triangle Noir, a massive proposed development south of FedEx Forum stretching all the way to Crump Boulevard.

The city is seeking federal funds for Triangle Noir, as it did with the conversions of former housing projects next to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center.

"If you hope to get [funds] you have to have leverage, and that is why we looked at all the projects around it," Lipscomb said.

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