Broad Avenue's future tied to Binghampton

As the Broad Avenue Arts District looks to what’s next in its future, its first executive director is looking at ways to better connect to the greater Binghampton neighborhood
One of the great Memphis success stories over the past 10 years has been the resurgent Broad Avenue Arts District.
Growth in businesses along Broad from just east of East Parkway to Tillman Street has been substantial. And that growth has moved north toward Summer Avenue.
The district now finds itself at a crossroads of sorts. Many of the vacant buildings along Broad Avenue are filled with various small businesses, from coffee shops to boutiques. But where does the district go from here?
With that in mind the Broad Avenue Arts District recently brought on its first executive director, Katie McWeeney Powell. Her mission is to work with the district’s stakeholders to map out a plan for the future, something that will include ways to better connect to the greater Binghampton neighborhood that the district technically is a part of but has an actual border to overcome, namely Sam Cooper Boulevard.
“It would be unintelligent to say I can figure that out on my own but it’s something I want to explore and figure out,” Powell said. “If I could have a five-year goal it would be a land bridge across Sam Cooper so then there’s a physical connectivity.”
The district’s boundaries are Summer Avenue south to Sam Cooper Boulevard and East Parkway east to Tillman Street.
Plans for Interstate 40 to cut through the heart of the city created a separation between Broad and the rest of the Binghampton neighborhood. Those plans were never realized, but Sam Cooper ultimately was extended to East Parkway and a boundary was cemented – literally.
Change for the better began when a master charrette was completed in 2006 and business growth occurred slowly, eventually leading to the robust street that exists today.
West Memorials was part of that growth. Paul and Missy West started West Memorials in 2001. Paul West said they were looking for a space that was large and inexpensive to grow into, and they were pointed to the former Binghampton Post Office space on Broad.
They bought the space in 2006 and moved in the following July.
“I still don’t know how it happened,” said West, referring to the growth of the neighborhood over the past 10 years. “It attracted the kind of people who know how to get things done and then things got done. There’s no formula for it. But as I’ve run into real estate folks I’ve realized there is a formula. It was stupid to buy this building. Business-wise it would be stupid but I followed instinct. People up and down the street did the same. When you have a street full of those people they’re going to make things happen.”
The Binghampton Development Corporation played an important role in helping the district in the early years, particularly with obtaining various grants for improvements.
“To the degree that Broad succeeds Binghampton succeeds,” said Noah Gray, the BDC’s Executive Director. “Their success is important to Binghampton. Broad has played an integral role in economic development and in perception changes around Binghampton.”
Powell said the district needs to build on the variety of successful events that have occurred there through the years, starting with 2010’s A New Face for an Old Broad, and continuing with Dance on Broad, art walks and events that now occur at the Water Tower Pavilion.
“There is this moment that’s happened with Broad and there is this accountability that has to happen that has to be consistent,” Powell said. “Are we a bunch of businesses with an art walk or just businesses? We could be an asset to Binghampton.”
Realizing those questions should be answered by a full-time person, the decision was made to hire Powell, West said. It will also help unify efforts for the entire community.
He gave the example of his business doing a fundraiser for Carpenter Art Garden. Other businesses have done similar projects for the Binghampton organization.
“One of the reasons I wanted Katie here is so we could collectively do that,” he said. “We can go across (Sam Cooper) and say what do you need? We haven’t been able to do that. We’re too busy planning art walks and painting the water tower. While individually we’ve all been part of the overall community I think if we did it collectively we can get a lot more done and be better neighbors.”
Over her first four weeks on the job this summer she said she met with 86 people. But it’s more than members. She talked to people who have moved out as well as people on the fringes of the neighborhood.
“My focus is building solid relationships and trying to help this area find community spirit again,” she said. “We want to use the arts, but not just visual. Music and food also as really engaging tie-ins to bring a diversity of people together and using the pavilion or vacant spaces that can be huge assets in doing that.
“We want to make it feel more inclusive. It doesn’t feel accessible to anyone in Binghampton.”
Individual businesses along Broad shouldn’t be credited with too much, but West said as a group the positive energy of the street surely couldn’t have hurt in the coming Save A Lot grocery store that will be built at the corner of Sam Cooper and Tillman.
Powell’s addition can help Broad better connect to the greater Binghampton community as both explore ways that the street’s businesses can be more relevant for the neighborhood’s residents.
“The main reason I’m here is the desire to be more organized instead of divided efforts,” Powell said. “You can compare it to the nonprofit world where you have various nonprofits tap dancing around each other’s missions that are similar. It goes back to partnerships. … We have 70 businesses in one area that aren’t corporate and a lot of those are makers or artists or skilled tradesmen or retail shops that support those things.”
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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.