Summer Avenue Merchants Association works for new neighborhood

A group of business and community leaders along Summer Avenue are working together to forge a better future for the neighborhood with the Summer Avenue Merchants Association.
The story of Memphis’ decades-long attempt to get an NFL expansion team has a footnote along Summer Avenue.

In the early 1980s, backers of the city’s NFL expansion efforts had the idea to throw a football across Tennessee, from Memphis to Knoxville. The pass went along U.S. Highway 70, including the stretch through Memphis otherwise known as Summer Avenue.

Memphis never got that NFL team, but that’s not really the point. Like many stories of failure and success in Memphis, Summer Avenue played a role. America’s first Holiday Inn opened on Summer. So did the city’s first McDonald’s.

Summer Avenue’s story is one of cultural diversity and a heritage that harkens back to a bygone day of highways before the interstate system. It’s not exactly Route 66 lore, but hints of the old road between Memphis and Nashville remain.

Look no further than the Malco Summer Drive In movie theater. At one time there were thousands of drive-in theaters across the United States. Today, that number stands at about 500. But Memphis still has one of those theaters and it’s thriving on Summer Avenue.

U.S. Highway 70 was completed in 1927 as one of the first paved signed highways across the country, gaining the moniker of Broadway of America.

Interstate 40 eventually came through the city, creating a quicker alternative to get to Nashville and beyond. That alternative to Summer Avenue played a role in taking the city’s attention from the street.

Today, the good, the bad and to a degree the ugly all exist along Summer Avenue. The Summer Avenue Merchants Association began in April 2015 with the idea of promoting the street and the growth occurring there while also working to rid it of blight.

It’s a grassroots effort, one that intends to bring the thoroughfare back to everyone’s attention. There’s a vision in place, one that drives the Summer Avenue Merchants Association.

“We see Summer Avenue improving, businesses moving into Summer,” said Meghan Medford, president of Medford Roofing and founder/president of the association. “It will get there. It’s been many years a dumping ground and place people didn’t care about. But we’ve already seen major improvements. At our meetings people are super passionate.”
Malco Summer Drive In movie theater
The stretch of Summer from Highland Street on the west and White Station Road on the east has a wide mix of family-owned businesses, restaurants, home and design establishments and more. The association also generally stretches south to Walnut Grove Road and north to Macon Road. Summer isn’t without its challenges, one of which is its large footprint. Medford said there are a number of goals for the association, among them the addition of greenspace along with a better biking and walkability. Little things like planters that beautify the street are part of a plan.

The association has come out against some projects but only when the members believe it doesn’t jive with the long-term health of the community. The association opposed a coin laundry that was proposed adjacent to Grahamwood Elementary, for example. But the group doesn’t want empty spaces so its members are working with developers to find uses that satisfy everyone.

The popularity of the group’s mission has driven membership up. Medford said she receives multiple inquiries on a weekly basis. The association decided to form a sister organization of sorts, Friends of Summer. It is for anyone who supports the Summer Avenue Merchants Association’s mission but isn’t a business.

The Neighbors group is for anyone who wants to get involved in improving and promoting Summer. That often includes residents of nearby neighborhoods such as High Point Terrace, Highland Heights, Berclair and Pigeon Estates. It also includes people who don’t live anywhere near the community, but maybe grew up in the area.

Memphis historian Jimmy Ogle grew up near Summer. He has fond memories of what the street once was, and believes it can come back to a similar glory.

To be clear, there aren’t disillusions of becoming the next Broad Avenue Arts District or Overton Square. Those areas are more confined. Summer is a busy highway with a larger footprint.

“We hope to create a unity and identity for the five-mile stretch that can be colorful and bring people together of all races and nationalities so we can have a voice,” Ogle said. “It’s not going to be like it was 50 years ago. It will be different, but I think it will be fun. I can’t go a week without eating anywhere but on Summer.”

It’s no coincidence Summer Avenue has grown into an international district. The changing population mix of the nearby community has had an impact on the business mix that’s found along Summer.

“If you go north of Summer you see a lot of Hispanic neighborhoods and that business comes to shop on Summer and you now see a lot of international restaurants,” Ogle said. “It’s probably the most international street we have in Memphis. You could probably find 12 to 15 nationalities in restaurant options between East Parkway and the interstate. … Over the years, it’s naturally been a melting pot, a magnet for businesses to open.”

That international business mix is part of the good. So are the home design-related businesses that call Summer Avenue home. Some businesses have called the street home for decades; Kitchens Unlimited has been on Summer since 1969. Joe and Karen Kassen have owned the business since 1998. They’ve made investments through the years, including doubling the building’s size.

Joe Kassen said they decided Summer’s central location made good business sense, and he believes the merchants association will only help.

“Before we had an association anybody could come in. People looked at Summer as a dumping ground,” he said. “You can only have so many laundromats and title loans. That’s been the best thing to happen. We have new businesses. There is no reason it can’t be a Poplar. One of the bumper stickers at Mortimer’s says ‘Summer Avenue is my Poplar.’ We’re not planning to go anywhere. Hopefully some other people will see it and continue to improve their businesses.”

More recent additions include Pyramid Stone’s massive granite showroom and Propcellar’s vintage rental business.

Of course not everything is rosy. Part of the reason the Summer Avenue Merchants Association formed was to fight blight and businesses the membership felt had a negative impact on the street. As Kassen pointed out, there have been businesses come and go through the years that haven’t had a positive influence.

“One of the main challenges we’re seeing is with the blight,” Medford said. “They’ve been getting slapped on the wrist and reopen, and reopen, and reopen. That has been a challenge. We just have to keep a united force and keep staying on top of things and stay on top of City Councilmen and County Commissioners.”

Medford said one of the issues with blighted properties the merchants association has is property owners who pay the minimum to keep a property out of tax sales. The organization has worked with Memphis Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter and Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir to address blighted properties.

“That’s helped,” she said. “A lot of things don’t go on the tax sale until we bring attention to it. If we hone in and laser focus on one issue it gets things done so we tackle things one at a time.”

A victory of sorts for the association has been the closure of a flea market that operated for a few years in front of the former Imperial Lanes bowling alley. The market’s special use permit expired and Potter ordered it closed.

The idea that just any kind of business should be accepted along Summer doesn’t sit well with Medford and other members of the association.

“If people just say, ‘I don’t care, it’s just Summer,’ that bothers me,” Medford said. “The businesses around the flea market are speaking. They’re leaving. We just want to change it. We want to make it better. The people who don’t care probably aren’t affected by it. They probably don’t own a business next door and have cars broken into and have things stolen. … I think now that we’ve had some positive results people are starting to feel differently. At first, people were skeptical but we’re showing results and people are coming around.”
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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.