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    Downtown Memphis Commission Celebrates Progress

    Sarah Baker - Memphis Daily News -

    There was bicycle-powered smoothie preparation, an aerial circus-style art show, Beale Street Flippers, live music outside, a disc jockey inside, and food and drinks from Downtown restaurants and suppliers.

    It was the Downtown Memphis Commission’s Open House Party and Vision Awards presentation held Thursday, Sept. 27, at the agency’s office, 114 N. Main St. The event replaced the DMC’s annual luncheon with a celebration of the progress made in Downtown Memphis over the past year, from multimillion-dollar redevelopment projects to rotating art galleries in vacant storefronts and the renaming of a stretch of Linden Avenue for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

    It was 30 years to the day that Robert McGowan and Annie Mahaffey formed the South Main Street Historic District during a time when the area was practically abandoned and full of blight. Realizing the architectural and historical value of the neighborhood of South Main, they began the journey to protect the district from further deterioration, vagrancy, demolition and civic apathy.

    “Frankly, their efforts weren’t supported as much as they should have been by the Center City Commission,” said Paul Morris, DMC president, while presenting their Visionary Awards. “It’s people like that who have real vision that’s something nobody else can see and they drive forward on their vision, they don’t give up just because other organizations are not supportive.”

    High-profile deals South Main has seen take shape this year include the Chisca Hotel redevelopment, Storefront Improvement Grant Program, branding efforts with North Star Destination Strategies, growth at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis and Memphis Central Station, a flurry of apartment and loft rehabs, and a new athletic club.

    McGowan, unable to attend the party due to a recent radiation treatment, sent over some thoughts about the “life-consuming, nearly 10-year struggle on many difficult fronts, aided later by others who ventured into the district to encourage revitalization.”

    “I doubt that very many of you can fully appreciate how astonishing it is to me, here in 2012, to see what a transformation has occurred in the district and surrounding areas,” he said. “South Main has for several decades now lived in my heart and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.”

    The Individual Achievement award was presented to Jason Wexler, president of Henry Turley Co. and co-founder of Greenhat Partners. The architect, lawyer and developer is credited with leading new urbanism in Downtown through the Flats concept, where more than 300 people live within one block in residential developments and rehabs: Van Vleet Flats, Barboro Alley Flats, Main Street Flats, The Cornerstone at Main Street Flats and Radio Center Flats.

    What’s more, these projects between Union and Gayoso avenues are filled with ground-floor amenities like a grocery store, restaurants, a dentist, an optometrist and parking.

    “These are the apartments that are on the block that we used to call the hole in the ground – the Center City Commission actually named this block the Demonstration Block because it was the hardest to develop in Downtown Memphis,” Morris said. “People like Jason and his team recognized the potential of what was a pretty ugly block. Few others have created such an impact in Downtown Memphis.”

    Meanwhile, the Special Merit Award was presented to Memphis history “storyteller” Jimmy Ogle. Beyond his role as an urban historian, he’s the community engagement manager at the Riverfront Development Corp. and has managed several Downtown organizations like Mud Island River Park, Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Memphis Park Commission and Memphis Queen Line.

    Ogle recounted to the crowd – in his typical affable, fast-talking style – his history in Downtown Memphis, from his first job at the Front Street loading dock of Goldsmith’s making $3.15 an hour to his work today with the Riverfront, which at present is the subject of $300 million worth of projects.

    He recalled the state of Downtown three decades ago when Jack Belz outbid Prince Mongo for The Peabody hotel on the courthouse steps for $550,000; Beale Street was fenced off and the only operating business was A. Schwab (rear entry only); Memphis Development Foundation spent $285,000 to save The Malco that later became The Orpheum Theatre Memphis; and twice as many people were in jail than living residentially.

    “That’s where we were 30 years ago,” Ogle said. “Now, there’s 16 museums, 23,000 people living Downtown. We’ve rebuilt ourselves differently to residential and tourism and recreation. It’s a real pleasure to be down here, walking these streets.”

    Honored with the Organization Achievement award was University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and its second year at its new Downtown campus.

    The school’s renovation of a historic former U.S. Customs, Courthouse and Post Office into an award-winning educational facility sparked new life for its 380-students, while substantially increasing its externship program through better connections with Downtown law firms and Memphis Area Legal Services.

    “The law school being Downtown has changed Downtown’s atmosphere. You walk around and you see people with backpacks and carrying academic books – it brings that academic vibe,” Morris said. “They moved down here a couple of years ago, and they were followed by the graduate school of the Memphis College of Art as well as the Visible Music College. It really started a great trend for Downtown Memphis an academic campus.”