The Edge District has a rich history as home to entrepreneurs and craftsmen, and the trend continues today with new investments from local makers. A few enterprising individuals have shown a variety of business concepts can thrive in the neighborhood, from a flower store to a brewery to a guitar workshop.
To the east is the eighth largest medical center in the U.S., which offers jobs to 40,000 employees and classes to 10,000 students. To the west is a ballpark that generates a $24 million annual economic impact and serves as a gateway to a very energetic downtown. In between are a few key businesses and property owners who’ve caught on to the potential of traffic linking the two major Memphis resources and tried to get in on the early side of an advantageous position.
How early is relative depending on to whom you talk. Pinkney Herbert’s version of early is 20 years ago.
He snagged a 10,000-square-foot building, formerly an auto dealership during the neighborhood’s midcentury “Gasoline Row” era, in order to make for himself a studio.
His studio turned into 16, which he rents out, and a gallery, as well as an eye for real estate.
“(Memphis property owner) Larry Bloch was my mentor. He bought buildings in the area at different times in the ‘70s, and he taught me about real estate when he sold me my (first space). It just made sense for me to go that way,” Herbert, an internationally shown artist, said.
After acquiring what became Marshall Arts at 639 Marshall, Herbert invested in two more large properties across the street, breaking them up into artists’ live/work spaces, retail parcels and other various incarnations over the years, including the original location for Hattiloo Theatre.
“Before I knew it, I was the proud owner of over 20-something renovated spaces,” Herbert said.
His decision to focus his investment on the arts positioned him as a key player in the neighborhood’s identity as a haven for creative types, and one that has had an extensive reach.
“The billboard above my building across from Marshall Arts has one of Virginia Overton’s pieces. She’s a local artist who lives in New York and is rising star in the art world, being featured in Art in America and having her work shown on the High Line and traveling the world,” Herbert said. “It’s been a bit of an incubator. Dolph Smith’s daughter Allison Smith now works at the Gagosian in New York. She’s manager of exhibitions.”
His smart money got that way slowly and by its own accord.
“It was all very organic. It wasn’t that I set out to create alternative art spaces. In order to pay rent, I had to rent it out,” he said. “It’s been a real slow evolution. I wish things would happen quicker, but I’m patient.”
Herbert shares his role as early investor, property owner and arts incubator with Mike Todd, who purchased several ample spaces in the early ‘90s as well.
He also went the residential route, renting mostly to artists, and turned other buildings into event and commercial spaces, and office and storage spaces for his building contractor business.
“I have 15 parcels, eight buildings, and 21 rental spaces,” Todd, of Monroe Associates LLC and Premiere Contractors, said.
His initial interest in the Edge, a tag he came up with for this particular area of town, was sparked by its unique position—at the edge of downtown and bound by the medical district on the other side.
“I knew it was very well located geographically. It’s one of the major east-west arteries, and its bookends are downtown and the medical center,” Todd said. “People aren’t going to stop getting sick, so I knew UT wasn’t going anywhere, and with downtown, I was betting on its total collapse or it having some sort of revitalization. I bet on the latter.”
His entertainment venue, Premiere Palace, maintains a steady amount of traffic as an event rental space, and graphic arts businesses, restaurants, and other hangouts have stuck with him of late.
Recently his investment at 598 Monroe became a venture for a group representing what area folk hope are the next crop of entrepreneurs—the well-received High Cotton Brewing Co.
Brewery owners Brice Timmons and his partners Ryan Staggs, Ross Avery, and Michael Lee scouted the city over for the perfect location, and came to rest on Todd’s property across from Kudzu’s, even if it meant taking a slight hit financially.
“We could have invested in some industrial park and spent half the money and experienced some mild success, but we wouldn’t have experienced as much success from the standpoint of helping build a community,” Timmons said. “We feel we’re doing something very different. We’re building a community. By picking our location in the Edge District, we think we can show what beer historically can do in building communities.”
The style of buildings in the neighborhood carried a lot of weight in their decision.
“Most of the buildings were built as a distribution hub, for auto parts and services and things like that. All the buildings support light manufacturing, have loading docks and good utility service, and they’re put together in these beautiful storefronts,” Timmons said. “We were just enamored with the neighborhood.”
Then there’s the ever-present locale factor.
“This corridor ties directly into the downtown core at one end, and the medical center at the other. Those are the two single largest areas of economic activity, aside from FedEx or the airport. I’ve been making the argument from early on that the Edge is the natural corridor to tie the two economic drivers together,” Timmons said.
Since tapping their first keg in May 2013, High Cotton Brewing distributes close to 150 barrels per month in Shelby County, including regular kegs to their neighbors-slash-friends down the street at the Trolley Stop Market.
High Cotton Brewing Company
Husband-and-wife farmers Jill and Keith Forrester cased the city for a while before settling on 704 Madison for their idea to open a restaurant and market that featured locally raised goods.
They met with a mixture of reactions.
“Several people told us we were flat out crazy,” Jill said. “We couldn’t see how we could fail with that much foot traffic from the hospitals and UT college. We thought it was a pretty solid neighborhood.”
They took a chance by renting the 6,400-square-foot space in 2010, and received quite another response from area business people.
“John Schorr from Sun Studios was very welcoming and encouraging to us,” Jill said. “The board at Victorian Village helped a lot. Everyone was great.”
Not to mention the people who matter most–customers.
“We’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed. We’ve had our noses to the grind ever since. It’s mind blowing actually,” Jill said. “We love the Edge District. It’s the best of both worlds—a little bit of Midtown and a little bit of downtown. It’s a good place to be.”
Banking on the neighborhood’s history, i.e. the birth of rock and roll, Bryan Eagle chose Monroe Ave. just a few doors down from Sun Studio to relaunch the popular albeit niche guitar line St. Blues Guitar Workshop, knowing that one day the two locations would soon be cronies.
“90,000 people a year go through the doors of Sun Studio right up the street. With all these tourists coming through, it was the perfect location for us,” Eagle, co-owner of the custom guitar manufacturer, said. “Our guitars have been played in Sun Studio sessions over the years. People who are interested in Sun are also interested in us.”
Trolley Stop Market
Again the building’s bones—a former Chickasaw Motor Works site, which then became a NuGrape Soda manufacturer, with its windowed store front, expansive space, and decorative outside facade made it an obvious choice for Eagle.
“It’s a perfect fit. We have the big glass windows in the front to show off what we do, with 8,000 square feet of manufacturing space in the back. It’s the perfect layout soup to nuts,” Eagle said.
Since bringing in partners Jeff and Teri Cox, the team have opened a showroom with a lounge and now offer tours of their manufacturing process.
The lounge area provides a much-needed respite from hour-long waits during Death Week at Sun Studio.
“Sun Studio is small, so when a big group tour comes in, they’ll have an hour or an hour and ½ wait, We have a couch and chairs and air conditioning, so they can come and sit down and look around, and they end up taking a tour,” Cox said.
Besides opening shop in proximity to where the magic happened, Eagle zeroed in on the Edge District out of principle.
“I have a long-standing aversion to urban sprawl. I started Emerge Memphis in 1998 because I wanted to keep people downtown. I believe in renovating historic buildings and keeping them alive instead of just tearing them down,” he said.
After biding their time for two decades, or “time being on (his) side if (he doesn’t) die,” as Todd describes it, a little momentum is picking up in the Edge District, and after years of sitting empty, more of the manufacturing-style buildings are looking attractive to businesses.
Next up is Holliday Flowers and Events, who recently purchased two buildings totalling 42,000 square feet to expand the events portion of the family business and is creating quite the buzz in the neighborhood.
“That part of the company was really growing, uncontrollably almost,” owner and clan patriarch Mark Long said. “We were going to go somewhere.”
They chose 440 Monroe and the building directly behind it because they could sense the momentum in the area slowly gaining traction.
Plus they found the right kind of building at the right price.
“It was a great location for us logistically, and it financially made sense,” Long said. “It seems like there’s a lot happening here. The whole area is on the upswing. Hopefully the whole place will get better, cleaner, nicer.”