Summer Avenue has had many names over the years — Hwy 78, The Bristol Highway,
The Broadway of America — and now it’s adding international district to the list.
According to data from the Summer Avenue Merchants Association, the business owners along the roughly three-mile section of Summer between Highland Street and White Station Road hail from over 30 countries.
One of the highlights of the area is its food scene. A hungry patron could eat their way from Colombia to Jerusalem to Japan without ever leaving Summer.
This unique, multicultural experience has inspired a locally-led campaign to officially brand the area as the city’s first international district.
Phase one will include installation of poles with two-sided banners to demarcate the space. One side will feature the new international district signage while the other can be changed to note holidays or advertise events. The association, which has around 60 members, hopes to complete installation by spring 2019.
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Meghan Medford is the owner of Medford Roofing, located on Summer Avenue, and president of the Summer Avenue Merchants Association. (Medford Roofing)
“We just want to brand to where it’s a destination spot, people will want to come and recognize, ‘Oh, this is Summer Avenue, it’s an international district,’” said Meghan Medford, owner of Medford Roofing and founder of the merchants association.
The project is funded through a $50,000 Community Enhancement Grant from former County Commissioner Heidi Shafer. In 2016, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners began allocating funds to each commissioner to distribute to nonprofits and other agencies in their district. After eight years in office, Shafer termed out at the end of August but not before earmarking the funds for Summer, as well as grants for two new access points to the Shelby Farms Greenline at Perkins Road and Agricenter International.
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“We’ve really been trying to bring Summer up for about a decade now,” said Shafer. “One of the things I thought would be helpful is if we could start to give Summer a sense of place.”
Michael Fahy is president of Prime Development Group, a planning and engineering firm consulting pro-bono on the branding initiative. Fahy’s family moved to the area in the 1960s and he fondly remembers Summer’s heyday, especially Mike Ladd Guitar Center where he met members of famous bands like Led Zeppelin who were recording at nearby Ardent Recordings.
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“[Summer] was the hub for food, services, hardware, whatever you needed,” he said.
Fahy and his firm helped the merchants association narrow in on the best way to spend the $50,000 for maximum impact. After the first signs are installed, the partners will turn to funding phase two, which will include beautification efforts like improvements to greenery and landscape design and recruiting businesses to sponsor additional international district signage.
“The better the area looks, the more customers are there because they feel safer to shop [and] the more businesses can keep their doors open [which] reduces blight. It just does a lot of great things for the area,” said Medford.
Fahy said branding the area as an international district will help attract more locally owned businesses who want to contribute to the multicultural hub. That means more jobs, dining and retail opportunities that fit with the family-friendly, mom-and-pop character of the area.
“The mom-and-pop folks are the ones that you get to go back and they know you by name, and I think we’re all looking for a little bit more of that,” said Fahy. “I think we’re all starting to see that we’re kind of responsible for each other.”
Improvements on Summer also benefit the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the business owners, especially immigrant business owners, live in The Heights and neighboring Berclair, and businesses draw many of their employees from the surrounding communities.
Medford said you simply can’t separate Summer from its neighborhoods in terms of economics, crime, education and job opportunities.
“We’re very much intertwined,” said Medford. “The better we make Summer Avenue, the better we make the neighborhood. It’s a ripple effect, and we work together.”
Decorations outside of Arepas Deliciosas celebrate its Colombian heritage and Memphis home (High Ground)
The merchants association has partnered with neighborhood groups to improve safety.
“We have helped to reduce blight by recruiting new businesses to the area,” said Medford. “We’ve worked with code enforcement to clean up the area ... We’ve worked with [Memphis Police Department] to increase safety in the area, and we’ve done things like help with street lights and potholes and things like that.”
To promote safety measures in the district, the merchants association is asking new property owners to install Skycop cameras, which benefit tenant businesses and the overall community.
The merchants association also works to recruit desirable new businesses like Planet Fitness and Aldi’s in place of less desirable merchants like unlicensed flea markets and laundromats. One of the merchant association’s first actions after forming in April 2015 was to help a real estate developer recruit a smoothie shop as a tenant instead of a laundromat. Medford said it’s not that coin laundries aren’t necessary, but they do deter new development and the Heights-Berclair stretch of Summer already has nine of those businesses.
That same year, a property survey conducted by the merchants association showed 16 vacant properties on Summer between East Parkway and I-240.
“Historically, there are empty bays next to coin laundries because a lot of businesses don’t want to be located right next to them,” said Medford.
“And this was going to be a three-bay anchor tenant of a giant center so I could see an empty center with an anchor tenant coin laundry. And Grahamwood is one of the top schools in the country and was going to be right next door.”
Ultimately, the Memphis City Council praised the group for working together and resolving the issue without the need for government intervention.
“It really did set the tone to say we’re not going to stand for being a dumping ground around here anymore, we’re going to fight back and make sure we get the right businesses in the area,” Medford continued.
Shafer said even in the early 1990s, she saw the connections between the residents of The Heights and Berclair, especially Latino residents, and the health of Summer.
“North of Summer there were some really good family units settling in there,” said Shafer of the area in the 1990s. “My thought was that if we could stabilize Summer and make it a more attractive, safe place, those families might want to stay ... I think one of the things the Latino community can offer is a really strong family unit, and I want to strengthen that every place we possibly can.”
Joe Kassan, whose family has owned Kitchens Unlimited on Summer since 1998, said he’s seen definitive changes in the years since the merchants association formed — problematic tenants moving out, diverse new tenants moving in, and existing tenants fixing up their properties. He’s looked forward to more of the same as the area brands itself as an international district and attracts a whole new generation of Summer Avenue enthusiasts.
“The trend within probably the last three to five years is that Summer Avenue is a good viable option to the Poplar corridor,” he said. “I feel like it’s a positive vibe right now ... and I hope it continues.”