Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Concerts Achieve Dual Goals - For Downtown and Memphis Music

Tomorrow night, and every Wednesday evening until October 25, we have a chance to do two things that are seriously needed in Memphis – animate Main Street with activity and support Memphis music.

That’s because the second Court Square Concert Series, billed as a celebration of local Memphis music, is back from 6 until 8 p.m. each week, so skip Prayer Meeting (God won’t mind; as Sam Phillips once said, when Jesus returns, He’s coming to Memphis first to soak up some great music for a few days), bring your blanket and even a picnic and join in and prove that great Memphis music is still being made today.

Tomorrow night's concert stars Tennessee Boltsmokers & Friends, and the variety of the lineup over the next two and a half months does indeed celebrate our greatest export – music – and showcases our deep reservoir of talent and genres before wrapping up with the legendary Jim Dickinson and his protégés, The North Mississippi All-Stars, on October 25. Of course, the Court Square Concert Series is free and held in the gazebo of historic Court Square at Main Street and Court.

Getting The Basics Right

While we are passionate about downtown and frequently frustrated by our inability to get the basics right, the Center City Commission and its partners – FaxonGillis, Newby’s of Memphis, Remax on the River, Memphis Flyer, Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, MLG&W, Dr. Kellis Dumas, Memphissound.com, the Spring Hill Suites and Sleep In - are doing exactly what we need more of - events to liven up downtown and create a downtown scene that not only draws tourists but lures back office workers.

In that vein, anyone who cares about the overall economic health of the region should also care about downtown’s new push to increase its office market.

We just need to keep in mind that the answer isn’t about better downtown marketing. It’s about a better downtown reality.
And we’re confident that the strategist developing the marketing campaign didn’t mean to give the impression in The Commercial Appeal that downtown’s future is merely as a branch office for companies located in East Memphis and that there’s nothing that we can do to stop the eastward movement.

Appeal Is A Key

We weighed in on this subject a couple of weeks ago, so we’ll resist flogging that horse one more time, except to say that if downtown is clean, well-maintained, vibrant and appealing, it will go a long way in attracting the companies that we need for our office buildings.

In fact, we ought to aim for an attitude like the one in Chicago, where Fortune 500 companies who moved to the suburbs years ago are returning downtown. In the end, it is the vibe, the vibrancy and the vitality that attracts them, and most of all, it is about getting closer to the kind of knowledge workers that they want in their companies and that are found downtown.

What we like most about Chicago is that city officials and downtown leaders aren’t bashful about standing up and fighting for their downtown. Sadly, when the exodus from downtown Memphis began years ago, political and Center City Commission officials were just too polite, looking the other way and refusing to make the calls insisting that major employers stay downtown (the kind of calls that Chicago Mayor Daley seems to relish [and it shows]).

The Voice In The Wilderness

Back in the day when Jack Belz was sounding the alarm about the impact of the moves, he was a chorus of one. He pleaded with government and downtown development officials to stand up for downtown, but playing it politically safe won out in the end.

Although the day-to-day operations of Shelby County Government were managed by a former head of the Center City Commission, the county administration was in no position to respond to Mr. Belz’s pleas for help, because it also was also moving several departments out east itself, a shift that continues today but in smaller numbers.

This timid reaction meant that no one really lobbied downtown’s case or pointed out the public importance of maintaining downtown’s sizable commercial tax base. Because this timidity existed even before the political takeover of the present Center City Commission, it was good to see that the downtown redevelopment agency signed on as part of the new campaign to attract new occupants for downtown offices, and hopefully, it is prepared to be aggressive and persistent.

Chamber Leadership

It’s even more exciting to see that the Memphis Regional Chamber under its reinvigorated leadership is part of the effort. In the past, the Chamber tended to treat the draining of the downtown pool of office workers as a subject as verboten as weaning itself from tax freezes. But no longer.

In addition to the Center City Commission and the Chamber, CB Richard Ellis, a longtime business advocate for downtown, spearheads the campaign along with other downtown partners.

Perhaps, this program can do even more than fill offices. More to the point, it can usher in a more assertive attitude among downtown proponents and elected officials. Maybe we not only can attract back some offices to downtown, but maybe we could do thinks like luring WKNO-FM/TV to join them. A good example of what can be done is in Louisville, where the public radio station built studios downtown that face a main street, where the station injects activity and energy into the area.

The office initiative can achieve its important target, and and along the way, it might even inspire us to raise our aim.

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