Tennessee Brewery: Untapped potential

From Crosstown to Binghampton, Memphis has proven that temporary neighborhood activation projects can yield long-term results. With Tennessee Brewery: Untapped events ready for rollout this week, the city is once again ready to reimagine a forgotten space.
Beginning April 24 and lasting through May, live music, pop-up retail, craft beer and other programming will reactivate and animate one of Memphis' hidden jewels, weekend by weekend. It's a jewel that might still be considered a lump of coal just awaiting the right amount of polishing by a visionary developer.
 
The Tennessee Brewery at 495 Tennessee St. was built in 1890 and at one time produced 250,000 barrels of beer a year and employed 1,500. It last operated in 1951 and has sat idle since.
 
Tennesee Brewery: Untapped, as the event is known, isn't the first such reimagining of a blighted neglected building, or the first time that a few city blocks might benefit from the grassroots efforts of an enthusiastic few. Such successes can be seen in neighborhoods such as Bingampton and its Broad Avenue Arts District, and Crosstown with the redevelopment of the Sears Crosstown building.
 
"Our goal was to have 5,000 people, and 15,000 showed up," says Pat Brown, vice president of the Broad Avenue Arts District, on the event that started it all--"A New Face for an Old Broad"--held during a single weekend in 2010.
 
A series of charettes hosted by the City of Memphis in 2006 was the jumping-off point for the district and garnered the interest of over 200 business owners, stakeholders and residents. There was promise, and with that promise came a lot of hard work and planning.
 
"It was very complex just with logistics and thinking through how you activate a space," Brown says. "We were trying to activate all the different properties along Broad that had been closed up for years. Most of them did not have power, and so just getting electrical service, that was one thing we had really overlooked in our planning."
 
At the Brewery, the team behind Untapped--restaurateur Taylor Berger, commercial real estate broker Andy Cates, attorney Michael Tauer and Kerry Hayes and Doug Carpenter of Doug Carpenter & Assoc.--has enlisted a revolving legion of volunteers over the past few weeks to clean and refurbish the 5,300-square-foot courtyard that will see much of the action. A stage has been built, furniture fashioned out of repurposed wood and electricians brought in to add lighting. It's a physical effort to help people imagine the possibilities, the same challenge faced by the Crosstown redevelopment team when it held its MEMFix event in November of 2012.
 
“The biggest challenge that we had, and they (the Brewery team) have as well, is getting people to see something beyond what they see,” says Crosstown co-developer Todd Richardson. “I can’t say it any more simplistically than that. What people see with the Crosstown building is the huge, blighted building that has been empty for 20 years and that defines an expectation. For us, the biggest challenge is getting people to see or to imagine something beyond what’s before them and that’s just harder than it sounds.”
 
Cates, Executive Vice President for Brokerage Services with Colliers International, is part of the Untapped team, not as a commercial real estate broker, but as a citizen who has known the other members for years and finds the project "exciting as hell." Still, with his knowledge of the city's real estate, his pragmatic point of view is invaluable.
 
"From the commercial real estate perspective, the property is a dramatic challenge on lots of levels, just from the mass of the building," he says. "So the challenge of it from a long-term perspective is you've got to find a different use than the norm and then you’ve got to find out if that use can be profitable."
 
The best use of the Brewery may not be realized in the café, beer garden and live music of Untapped, but the organizers hope it will offer a different way to see the space and, maybe, how it can ultimately be used and saved.
 
"I don’t personally think that using the whole building and creating offices or lofts is feasible," Cates says. "So I think you've got to find a way to use different parts of it to make sense, and that's what we’re trying to show."
 
In the end, the success of A New Face for an Old Broad was in the 15,000 attendees, three times the expected crowd. But once the facilities, amenities and necessities (like electricity and bathrooms and caution tape) are in place, and once the people come and go, the goal becomes to maintain that level of interest and see to it that people--consumers, vendors and developers--come back.
 
This is where the difference between the efforts of Broad Avenue and the Brewery become apparent; one thing Broad has over the Brewery is time. The 65,000-square-foot building is almost certainly facing a sentence of demolition unless someone can meet the $1.2 million price tag.
 
"I would say it took two years to start to see true payoff in that event where we were really starting to convert vacant buildings into viable tenants," Brown says. "I think at its core our goal five years ago was ‘how do we just keep bringing people back to Broad Avenue?'"
 
They continued to hold yearly art festivals, and had a MEMFix event just last November. Brown points to that recent event and the fact that, since then, six new businesses have opened on the street. In all, there has been $25 million worth of investment in the district since A New Face for an Old Broad.
 
The Brewery has, in essence, condensed those years into a single stretch of weekends, and it's no accident that it comes during one of the busiest months for events downtown and coincides with Memphis in May for the extra boost.
 
"It is how you've got to approach that property," Brown says. "The beauty of activation is that once you stage something, people can visualize their buy-in growth exponentially."
 
Given its size and needs, it took larger, more-established organizations partnering with Crosstown to reactivate the Sears Crosstown building. The reward of the MEMFix event in 2012, though, was something less tangible than a lease signed or money granted.
 
"There were banners on the side of the building that said 'Here Comes the Neighborhood,' and six months later the media began to refer to Crosstown as a neighborhood again," says Richardson. "MEMFix was not just about getting space leased, it was about helping people understand that Crosstown is a neighborhood and has been a neighborhood for a century and we needed to put that back into the vernacular just like (the Cooper-Young neighborhood). Crosstown is a neighborhood, it's not just about the building. So for us … that was the most important priority for that event."
 
That said, businesses such as Amurica Photo Studio, the Hi-Tone and Co-Motion Studio have moved into the area, and Crosstown Arts has expanded in size. Broad Avenue has had almost 30 new businesses enter the district in the past five years.
 
As Richardson said, though, success can be measured in ways other than square footage occupied.
 
In a recent guest column for The Memphis Daily News, Carpenter wrote, "Success will not be determined by saving the Tennessee Brewery, but rather by inspiring people to think differently about these kinds of properties elsewhere throughout our city."
 
Broad Avenue has had great success in changing the way Memphians have thought about their sense of place. The promise of a revitalized Crosstown neighborhood, hinged on the redevelopment of a single building, has become an infectious rallying point. In the shadow of the Brewery is the South Main Arts District, which has struggled since its reinvention in the late 1980s yet has hit its stride with the recent renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum, the anticipated Blues Hall of Fame, The Orpheum’s addition, Chisca Hotel renovation plans and a slew of small businesses from restaurants to retail.
 
"Any positive representation of any historic place that maybe gets people back is good, not only for the building or the structure or the site itself, but the surrounding community,” said Brian Douglas, president of the South Main Association.
 
"The key to successful revitalization is making sure you stay authentic to that neighborhood," says Brown.
 
Grassroots and "bootstrapping" efforts are quickly becoming the spark that ignites creative ways to look at available and underused space citywide. And if Tennessee Brewery: Untapped is only a spark, then Crosstown and the Broad Avenue Arts District are the fires by which preservationists and entrepreneurs have warmed their hands.
 
Richardson suggests that with such larger-than-life properties, the vision might go beyond the development, beyond profit, and into something more akin to civic duty "if it's about local identity and an environment that defines this place as opposed to Nashville or opposed to Little Rock or opposed to Jackson."
 
"These are the buildings that define our skyline, and the importance of doing something with them is beyond simply the bottom line, and, at some point, that creates value."

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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