A bright future in the works for legendary South Main

One of the city's historically hip neighborhoods is commanding new attention. South Main is attracting development projects and new business by capitalizing on its history, fostering the creative community and relying on its signature charm.

While excited chatter abounds about the $180 million Sears Crosstown renovation and visitors to Broad Avenue continue to celebrate a constant buzz of activity, another section of Memphis is experiencing its own reawakening. And it wants to make sure it's a part of the conversation.

South Main Street downtown has enjoyed popularity and growth for many years--retail shops, restaurants, businesses and cultural institutions have made the neighborhood a significant destination. Regular events like South Main Trolley Night and the seasonal Memphis Farmers Market bring droves of visitors, and staples like The Arcade Restaurant and dive bar Earnestine & Hazel's are tourist and local favorites.

But the established neighborhood is seeing concentrated new growth recently. Since the new year, Orpheum Theatre broke ground on a new $15 million performance center, site work began on the new 64-unit New Blossom Apartments, the National Civil Rights Museum completed a $27.5 million remodel, a public bocce court was installed and a continuous influx of new stores and restaurants can be spotted setting up shop up and down the South Main corridor.

"It's just a cool district. It's this cool, weird place that's not like anything else in the city," said Kerry Hayes, Director of Public Relations for South Main advertising firm Doug Carpenter and Associates.

Local residents, business owners and organizations see an opportunity in this confluence of activity and have leveraged their assets to bring attention back to Memphis’ historically hip neighborhood.

"We were here first. We were one of the City's first and oldest cool neighborhoods," Hayes said. "We want to make sure we're not getting obscured by all the Midtown entertainment districts."

Area residents and businesses first reached out to redevelopment agency Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) on how best to take advantage of their situation. The commission, which offers public incentives on projects, helps oversee and promote events and offers other assistance to Downtown, responded with the sage advice, "Write what you know."

"There's great energy around what South Main already is, their inherent assets. We got involved to help stakeholders grasp onto what is happening in the neighborhood," the DMC's Vice President of Marketing Leslie Gower said. Those assets include the unique history of the area, its distinct architecture, the diverse choice of retail and restaurants and its original identity as an arts district.

To share that rich history, the area launched its virtual guided walking tour, an online tour that is activated by clicking on addresses listed on the neighborhood's website, gosouthmain.com, scanning with smartphone QR codes posted on buildings, downloading the tour from the website or picking up walking tour brochures at different locations around town.

"There are six blocks of museum-like pieces of architecture that have been untouched since the early 1900s,” Gower said.

Modern creativity will blend with the stunning historic beauty with the addition of some public art pieces in the coming months. On May 20 DMC will announce the artists chosen to construct and install a multitude of public art projects, known as South Main Mosaic: Public Art Program, in various vacant lots and empty buildings along the corridor. "We want to remind people this was the first arts district," Gower said.

Other events include Mimosas on Main, a sort of trolley tour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays which will tie in with the established Memphis Farmers Market behind Central Station. A collaboration with the Brooks Museum is also in the works to present an art walk of curated student work inspired by artist Marisol Escobar, who is spotlighted in the museum's major exhibit this year. From May 12 through June, 17 different works will be displayed in South Main businesses.

Gower and her DMC team haven't labored over these efforts alone. Award-winning branding firm Farmhouse was hired to offer help with these ideas and figured how to tie all the work together with just one word: "legendary."

"We took it upon ourselves to rebrand all the cool stuff already in place and enhance it to reflect what South Main is. We tried to create a message that would create a trigger," said Farmhouse Principal and Creative Director Ben Fant.  

Fant and team rebranded the area to be the "Legendary South Main," titled the tour to read "So the Legend Goes," and launched a series of banners advertising "legendary" dining, history and shopping, along with four other similar assets.

"It makes people ask, 'What legends?' Exactly. It causes you to pick up a visitors' guide and find out," Fant said. "We wanted to create something authentic and not rebuild but enhance what has already been done. It's a legendary part of town where you will have a legendary experience."

The series of banners now hang on lampposts from the Orpheum to Central Station to identify the area as a vibrant neighborhood and alert visitors to continue south past Beale Street. "They're cool call-to-action banners that give it a cohesive look that goes with the visitors guides," Fant added.

Gower and Hayes both point to South Main stakeholders as being responsible for the whirlwind of activity and the realization of getting out their message. Some of the city's greatest galleries, non-profits and cultural organizations, from Leadership Memphis to the Memphis Music Foundation, call South Main home and have been working to highlight its value.

"People that have been on the street for a long time have been taking control on how to promote all of their great assets," Hayes said. "They wanted to take responsibility and say, 'Hey, we're amazing and we're growing and we're a place to hang out and eat and live.'"

It's working.

South Main is expecting 50 percent growth in residents over the next two years. And soon they will welcome new restaurants and new shops, including Stock and Belle, a retail store selling men's and women's clothing, accessories, home and lifestyle goods, which is set to open in July.

"South Main has always intrigued me with its old charm and beautiful architecture," Stock and Belle owner Erika Smith said. "There could not be a better time than now to open a business on South Main.  There are so many great projects all happening at the same time. Everywhere you look, buildings are being built or renovated, and it is such an exciting feeling to be a part of rebuilding the core of our city."

Smith opened a pop-up shop during the South Main River Arts Fest and decided to open a temporary store in the area for the Christmas season. "During that time we were able to get to know the area and the people that reside there.  We made great relationships with our customers and realized the overwhelming need for more permanent retail establishments in the area," Smith said.

Watching so much growth in "arts and entertainment" districts, some question the future of  South Main. With the explosion of activity in Overton Square, the established destination status of Cooper-Young, the new electricity felt up and down Broad Avenue, the anticipated marvel of the Sears Crosstown building and the $100 million worth of investments in South Main, can Memphis sustain this much coolness?

"They can 100 percent," Fant said. All of these emerging districts have something in common: they stay busy. Memphis residents are flocking to and filling such places. "If you have more places, you just have more places that are packed."

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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