South Main follows own blueprint to success

With $450 million of new investment in the works between Beale Street and Crump in the South Main District, including developments that will double the residential population, the outlook for the neighborhood is bright. But the path to vibrancy for this booming district was a slow and deliberate one that required vision and collaboration from those willing to take a chance.
The South Main Historic Arts District hasn’t always been the home to boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, creative agencies and museums.

On one hand the feel of Downtown Memphis’ South Main Street has been frozen in time, with storefronts that haven’t been touched since they were built in the early 1900s. But on the other hand, those storefronts spent many years boarded up, vacant and dark.

Particularly since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the neighborhood’s Lorraine Motel in 1968 sent businesses away from Downtown Memphis in droves, there has been plenty of neglect in the neighborhood.

And that might be the first reason for the successful "rebirth" over the past 20 years with art, history, a little dose of funk, a heavy heaping of Downtown sexy and a big leaning to residential development.

“There wasn’t a plan because nobody cared about the area,” said Leslie Gower, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the Downtown Memphis Commission. “It grew organically because you had these people who cared about saving the area to go in and grab up land. Ironically, all those buildings were safe because no one cared about it.”

Gower calls Phil and Terry Woodard and other early developer visionaries who were willing to go in and buy the historic properties before they were demolished.

Phil Woodard isn’t sure about the label, but he is sure he knew a good deal when he saw one. It was the mid-1990s and he and his wife wanted an apartment Downtown but didn’t see anything that was of interest.

“I found this old building on South Main,” he said. “We looked in the north end, the core and at the time Central Station hadn’t been developed yet.”
Central Station
There were signs posted at the old train station promising its redevelopment, and Woodard said he had reassurances that the nearby project would happen. So he decided to go all in on the building at 508 S. Main, what once was known as the Hotel Grand.

“There was a sign laying in the floor and a tree growing out of the building,” Woodard said. “I thought this looked like a good place to start. I wasn’t thinking to do more than a building. It took 10 or 11 months…all the other buildings on the street looked pretty rough. After doing the first one, it wasn’t bad. I bought one, then I bought two. I can’t count them all now. I must have 10 or 12.”

Woodard laughed at that last part. He remembers how many buildings he owns in the neighborhood when the tax bills are due, he said.

But it took men and women like the Woodards and Mark and Cynthia Grawemeyer, who own several buildings and operate multiple businesses there, to take the neighborhood from blocks of neglected buildings to a thriving community.

Off the Tracks
The road South Main has taken to where it is today has been a winding one. An early smattering of developers renovating old buildings into first-floor commercial space with residential above was a start. The National Civil Rights Museum’s opening in 1991 put the neighborhood back on the map, not to mention the Memphis Area Transit Authority opening the Main Street Trolley line through the neighborhood that decade.

Slowly, those boarded-up buildings began seeing new life as art galleries and apartments. Then in 2000 a monthly event combined MATA’s trolley with the fledgling art gallery scene. The South Main Trolley Night began its run on the final Friday of every month and celebrated the 15th anniversary Sept. 25.

If there is a negative energy in South Main it’s the 2014 suspension of trolley service as MATA updates the system. A mix of hybrid buses and rubber-tire trolleys have replaced the vintage trolley cars to mixed results.

“I used to get a lot of folks in here on a weekly basis who were riding the trolley and discovered South Main that way and hopped off to walk around and see the shops and landmarks,” said Anna Avant, who has owned the vintage clothing boutique Hoot + Louise on G.E. Patterson Avenue just east of Main since 2010.

Woodard said the trolley was instrumental in bringing tourists from the Beale Street Entertainment District to South Main early on. Often times they would board the trolley to take the Riverside loop, ending up in South Main by accident.

And it was those accidental visits that played a major role in creating fans of the neighborhood. Avant said she is hopeful the rubber-tire trolleys will help return some of those visitors. Woodard is hopeful the real thing returns soon in some form.
“We don’t need 20 of them but five going up and down the street would help,” Woodard said. “I’ve heard from my retail buildings it’s not helping.”

Avant said the location of well-known attractions in the neighborhood is important in bringing more than just Memphians. “Being in the midst of such landmarks as The Arcade, the Civil Rights Museum and Earnestine & Hazel’s is always helpful,” she said. “The diehard Elvis fans still find us down here, trolley or no trolley. I feel things are on the rise as far as getting more folks down here, both locals and visitors. I am planning to be here for a long, long time.”

Finding the Formula
Nora Tucker has watched much of the changes in the neighborhood over the past 12 years, first as administrator at The Powerhouse from 2003 to 2005 and as a member of the South Main Association’s committee composed of the neighborhood’s art galleries. She also has worked in retail in the neighborhood and even as a strolling musician at trolley night.

Today, she is Manager and Curator of the Blues Hall of Fame, which opened at 421 S. Main in May.

“Two stores would open and one would close,” she said. “The district was always trying to figure that combination of what would work. Are there enough restaurants? Who is going to make it and who is not? I’ve seen so many retail places come and go. Right now it seems like in 10 years the local restaurants are stable and flourishing, the retail has the right kind of traffic. (Bluff City Coffee) seems to be doing really well, and the civil rights museum renovation continues to bring more visitors, which is a blessing to us at the Blues Hall of Fame.”

Finding the best mix of businesses has been tricky, as has defining the neighborhood.

“A few years ago we started hearing from different groups,” Gower said. “‘It needs to be the creative district.’ ‘No, it should be the garment district because we have so many independent shops.’ ‘No, it should be an arts district because we were the first arts district.’ We stepped in and worked with stakeholders to get everyone comfortable. South Main is all that. Technically it’s the South Main Historic Arts District. And history and arts are two ways to define it but beyond that it’s branched out into other things. It’s a creative mecca. There are so many creative organizations with the film commission, Blues Foundation, Signal Flow, WEVL; you have all of these creative organizations and all of these ad agencies. I don’t think you can put a label on it because it’s all of those things.”

One constant is the residential component. It might’ve started with a few scattered developers renovating storefronts and warehouses, but today it’s become a lively neighborhood where pretty much every building has been snatched up, and even vacant lots for new development are rare.

“There is $450 million of new investment from Beale to Crump,” Gower said. “That new investment will bring in about 1,700 new residential units. If you look at the population in that area, it’s just over 3,000 people. You’re looking at doubling the population in that area, which is significant.”

Connecting the Dots
The black hole – that’s what the section of South Main from Beale Street and the Orpheum Theatre south to Huling Avenue could be called. The core of the neighborhood near G.E. Patterson and Main was vibrant while the area closer to Beale was a ghost town at night. The massive Chisca Hotel sat vacant for decades, and the smaller storefronts along Main were dark.

But other visionaries stepped in and took their own chances. Spindini, Pearl’s Oyster House and South of Beale all opened six to seven years ago, giving new life to the dark spot of South Main.

Those small-business owners took chances that have paid off and have been followed by other restaurants, with the reopening of Green Beetle and Café Pontotoc joining the scene.

“We made a bet that South Main, instead of being up and coming would actually get there,” said Ed Cabigao, who along with his wife, Brittany, opened South of Beale in 2009. “We wanted to be one of the first businesses to be on South Main to take advantage of seeing progress and be one of the originals that helped with that. The neighborhood is on the way up. The only challenge is making sure we have a cohesive amount of businesses that complement each other.” Cabigao said South of Beale’s business is a mix of Memphians, some from the neighborhood and others from other parts of the city in Downtown for a night out. And there are plenty of tourists, especially during the summer.

The restaurant is likely to see more neighborhood customers in the coming months as the biggest piece of the “dark hole” is closed: The Chisca on Main.

The first residents moved into the first phase of the massive mixed-use development in early September. The larger and historic Chisca hotel building of the development should be complete by the end of the year, and what was a dark, boarded-up gap in South Main will be an active community that connects the dots of the Downtown Core and entertainment district to South Main.

And what was an unsure bet 20 years ago seems to be a sure thing today.

“I didn’t know if anybody would come rent, much less have the vision it would be one of the highest dollars per square foot to sell in Memphis,” Woodard said. “Did I think people would come? Yeah, but for $30,000 a square foot? No I didn’t.”

What will be the story as the 30th anniversary of Trolley Night rolls around? It’s hard to say, but there are so many other ideas and projects on the horizon now, from a Malco movie theater at Central Station to a grocery store and more residential development to the east of the neighborhood. If it’s like the first 15 years, the heart of the district with its historic buildings will be there while a new wave of possibilities rolls in.

“We see all the foot traffic that comes by here, and when evening comes it picks up,” Tucker said. “It’s a pleasant place to walk for tourists and locals. It took the right kind of combination. At some point in the recent past the tipping point was met.”
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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.