Downtown Creative District teeming with possibilities

The vision for a Downtown Creative District centers on the idea of a neighborhood where creative professionals thrive in a community of ideas.
The idea of luring young creatives to Downtown Memphis is a real mission for Russ Williams, CEO of Archer Malmo.

But don’t think a neighborhood filled with millennials is the core goal. Yes, Williams does envision an active, vibrant Downtown. And, yes, millennials are a big part of the equation. It’s also Gen-Xers and baby boomers, really anyone with a creative sensibility and desire to work, live and socialize in a community of like-minded individuals.

A Downtown Creative District is more than a dream for a team that consists of Williams, Archer Malmo’s Dan Price and Patrick Woods, Creative Works’ Josh Horton, Downtown Memphis Commission’s Leslie Gower, Henry Turley Co.’s Alex Turley and Start Co.’s Eric Mathews and Andre Fowlkes. It is a vision with a plan to lure what Williams calls creative millennials to a 60-acre area of the Downtown Memphis core, from Riverside Drive to Second Street and Madison Avenue south to Gayoso Avenue.

That neighborhood is no coincidence. Many of the city’s creative companies have offices in that core, including RocketFuel, Red Deluxe Brand Development, Lokion Interactive, Farmhouse, Start Co. and Archer Malmo.

These commercial creatives – whether 22 or 62 – are the target. They have a millennial attitude and spirit, Williams said, but more than that, these Web developers, software engineers, digital entrepreneurs and writers share a similar appreciation of good design, food, music and art.
Russ Williams, CEO and Principal at archer>malmo
“They know the difference between a good and great restaurant,” Williams said. “They know the difference between well-designed anything and a poorly-designed anything. What’s important about it economically, look at Portland, Seattle, Denver, Boston or Austin where the creative people and entrepreneurial people that are driving all the growth and vibrancy in those places, that talent, they have taste regarding all these things. When they come to Memphis they know whether we have it going or not. We need to be intentional about creating the features in this community that those kind of people would appreciate and give thumbs up to.”

The team Williams is part of in this effort in some ways is a coincidence. Williams said he’s been personally focused on the strategy for nearly two months. He made a presentation to the Downtown Memphis Commission board’s planning retreat in late January.

Separately, Horton has been steering in the same direction of an increased focus on creating an environment that is welcoming to the creative class. Horton founded the Creative Works conference in 2014, which has been widely successful with its mix of visiting creatives and Memphians.

Horton had been talking to archer-malmo’s Price and Woods about his vision of creating a Creative Works that’s going year-round instead of just for three days in the fall. They connected Williams and Horton, and the separate visions became one.

“If people leave the conference and want to take a risk how do you keep the momentum up for them,” Horton said. “It led me to believe there is a need in this community to do that programming and connection year-round. … You have this life-changing experience for people and then have 362 days a year with what do you do? If people leave the conference and want to take a risk, how do you keep the momentum up for them?”

The vision is simple in some ways and complicated in others, with short- and long-range goals. The Downtown Creative District won’t necessarily be a well-defined neighborhood with signs welcoming visitors once they cross Union.

But there is an area of Downtown Memphis where many of the city’s creative agencies have offices. And that’s as good a place as any to follow through with the strategy that advocates for Memphis to intentionally build a dense, walkable urban creative community.

“Density is extremely important,” Williams said. “Look at the vibrancy in other cities. The walkability is crucial. You have brilliantly talented people working in great organizations that are out of offices in cafes, collaborative working spaces or a bar to have creative collisions.”

That walkability factor is what makes the Downtown core attractive for this vision versus other neighborhoods in the city such as Crosstown or the South Main Historic Arts District. And, again, the location of many of the aforementioned creative agencies is an added incentive to target the Downtown core.

Williams said the stretch of vacant historic buildings along Front Street provide great bones physically.

“These creatives don’t want to work in corporate office environments,” Williams said. “They want to work in more distinctive creative environments. Landscaping is important so we want to accomplish a little more greenspace where people can spill outside. Imagine Main Street full of colorful outdoor living room furniture where people can sit and brainstorm together. Imagine activating these wonderful historic alleys. Imagine lighting up those alleys, lots of great urban art and great iron signs arching over these alleys.”

Taking advantage of those historic structures is a start. Utilizing empty alleys and creating urban art enhances the scene. Additional quirky cafes and bars take the idea to new heights.

In the coming months, Horton hopes to have a physical home in that core district for his 365-day Creative Works vision. The space ideally will be something neutral, meaning it’s not associated with another agency. It’s welcoming to employees of all agencies as well as creatives from other companies and freelancers and entrepreneurs.

It likely will be a co-working space, but one that also provides access to conferences, quarterly speaking engagements and the amenities that come with being part of a full-service agency. Horton said he envisions taking the Creative Works conference idea and establishing a regular workshop, something like a “Creative Mornings.”

Horton said connection, growth and opportunity are the keys to making this a thriving community. And it’s something he envisions happening within months, not years.

“Memphis is a city that has spent too much time in idea land,” he said. “We’re driven to action and we’re comfortable with action.”

But in a city the size of Memphis, how realistic is it to envision those empty spaces one day filled with creatives working in offices or discussing ideas in a cafe, especially when the city’s office core is in East Memphis and near Southwind?
Josh Horton is founder of the annual Creative Works Conference and Director of Hieroglyph
What if some of those East Memphis-based companies decided to open a satellite office in Downtown for a team of software engineers, for example? Yes, AutoZone’s corporate headquarters is in Downtown, but a company doesn’t have to relocate to Front Street to be part of the creative district.

One example is the University of Memphis relocating its Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law to Front Street where its students are within blocks of a number of the city’s law firms and courts.

Williams said this vision goes beyond just focusing on Downtown, although it is what he calls the bullseye of a broader strategy for the city’s ability to be innovative in the future economy that is driven by millennials who spend, think, work and lead differently. And in many cases the desire to do so in an urban environment is mission critical.

“We have the opportunity for people to get off the plane at Memphis International Airport and interview for great jobs. But if we take them out East and you’ll work in this suburban office building with no history they’re going to say no,” Williams said. “We have to visualize the future and intentionally build the community. The tipping point will be when you see human vibrancy in that community and you have decision-makers in these companies that see that.

“This is coming like a locomotive down the train track,” Williams continued. “I want Memphis as a community and I want all the companies in Memphis including archer-malmo, I want us to thrive in that new world. The most critical thing in my opinion is the ability to attract this talent I’m calling creative millennials. They’re innovative and entrepreneurial. They’re the people with imagination and skill to create and produce the ideas that will make our companies successful. For us to thrive we have to be able to attract these people.”

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. 
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