Let’s just pick a year. Like 1970. It was nearly the worst of times for Memphis, but it was finally an opportunity to work on a comeback. Memphis magazine writer Michael Finger took a look at the state of the city as the decade sullenly got under way: “In 1970, downtown Memphis was essentially dead, its stores and hotels shuttered following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just two years earlier. Beale Street was a ghost town, its once-vibrant rows of cafés and nightspots reduced to seedy pawnshops. The main shopping centers were Poplar Plaza and Laurelwood, but places like Sears and Lowenstein’s were pretty dull compared to the galleries and shops of Overton Square. And except for Ellis Auditorium and, on occasion, the Overton Park Shell, Memphis had no decent venue for touring musicians.”
So Overton Square was eclipsing the Memphis downtown area that, 150 years earlier, was a place with investment potential envisioned by John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson.
The Seventies were good for lively Overton Square, but for Downtown’s resuscitation, it was slow going. But life by the Mississippi River did come back thanks to some visionaries who made commitments to see it through.
Here’s a timeline of some of the key moments in Downtown’s resurrection.
1973: The Beale Street Development Corporation is formed. The once-vital street was on life-support, with many historic buildings razed by urban renewal. The nonprofit aimed to get entrepreneurs to bring it back as an entertainment district. In 1978, the city OK’d restoration grants to BSDC to make it happen.
1975: The Peabody is purchased. The Belz family committed to a $25 million renovation. Before that, “The South’s Grand Hotel” was threatened with demolition as it declined and went through ownership changes.
1977: Memphis In May International Festival. It was the first event where MIM presented its programming as we know it, honoring Japan that time. But it had begun forming in the early Seventies when the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce developed plans for a promotional festival that would encompass the Cotton Carnival, the Danny Thomas Golf Classic, the annual visit by the Metropolitan Opera, and others. It coordinated the grand opening festivities of the Cook Convention Center in 1974 and the city’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976. By 1977, it was ready for prime time.
1977: The Orpheum. The Memphis Development Foundation bought the theater building, restored its former name of Orpheum, and started booking Broadway productions and concerts. In 1980, MDF brought in Pat Halloran as president and CEO, and he guided it through decades of successful performing seasons as well as significant improvements, expansions, and restorations.
1979: Henry Turley brings the Shrine Building back to life. The derelict office building represented a typical situation in Downtown. Turley saw an opportunity, although he was advised to stay away from Downtown, and he decided to make the Shrine Building an example. It worked. The apartments that went into it lured residents who formed a community, and investors did well. The success set the stage for going after South Main.
1981: The Peabody reopens. The ducks were back, waddling along the red carpet to the lobby fountain and bringing in guests. The rejuvenation sparked the first wave of a downtown revolution of commercial redevelopment as well as once-unimaginable residential development.
1982: The Beale Street Development Corporation signs a lease with the city. Performa, a management company led by John Elkington, was part of the deal. Although there was no shortage of controversy through the years, Beale Street developed into a top Memphis tourist attraction.
1982: Mud Island River Park opens. Even if not a complete success, it remains an effort to keep Downtown alive. It opened with an amphitheater, monorail, a river model, museum, playground, and two full-service restaurants. But access wasn’t easy and attendance suffered. It survives, though, and continued development in the area sustains hope for the park’s future.
1987: Henry Turley begins Harbor Town. The developer saw what few others did, which was to build homes on Mud Island. There were doubters, but he says, “I just decided to build a place that I thought people would like.” He joined with Jack Belz and Meredith McCullar, formed Island Properties Associates, and purchased the 130-acre Harbor Town site for $2.25 million. Later would come the South Bluffs on the other end of Downtown, and the housing revolution was well in play.
1991: The Pyramid opens. Although the 20,142-seat arena scarcely lived up to its hype, The Pyramid continues to make its mark. It hosted basketball games and concerts before going dormant in 2004. But Bass Pro Shops chose it as a megastore that offers shopping, a hotel, restaurants, a bowling alley, an archery range, and an outdoor observation deck.
2000: AutoZone Park opens. It was a risk to build a ball park downtown, or so everyone thought — except Allie Prescott, who was instrumental in bringing the $80.5 million minor-league baseball stadium to life. When it was done and proving to be a success, people quit scratching their heads.
2004: FedExForum opens. Memphis had to have a professional sports team, preferably basketball, and it wasn’t going to happen without a first-class facility. A collaborative effort among investors, sports devotees, and local government made the $250 million project happen and since then, the NBA’s Grizzlies has made its home there along with University of Memphis Tiger basketball. Filling out the schedule are concerts, family friendly shows, and public events.