By Byron McCauley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Memphis businessman John Elkington transformed that city's famed Beale Street from a decaying, four-block assemblage of nondescipt buildings into one of Tennesee's top tourist destinations.
He believed that Beale Street, once a haven for blues travelers and gambling halls in the early 20th century, could return to glory. He invested millions of his own money in the the project beginning in 1983. Today it is a model for urban entertainment development.
Automobiles are prohibited from the cobble-stoned street after dark, when it becomes a neon-bathed row of 24 nightclubs, restaurants and bars, ranging from the Hard Rock Cafe to B.B. King's blues club. According to the Memphis convention and Visitors Bureau, the district generates about $24 million a year in sales.
Because of his reputation with Beale, other cities have sought Elkington's advice. His company, Performa Entertainment Real Estate, now has projects in Shreveport, La.; Jackson, Miss.; and Trenton, N.J. And now the city of Cincinnati is hoping Elkington can help give Main Street the push city officials and business leaders believe it needs to gain the brand of a regional tourist destination.
Elkington will be in town this week to meet with city officials and Main Street business leaders to talk about strategies for Main Street, which is already experiencing a resurgence. In recent months, newly built condominiums on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine have sold out and more are being built. New bars are opening. Younger professionals are mainstays on the street.
So why does Cincinnati need Elkington, and is he worth $100,000 the city is considering paying him for management advice and business contacts?
Yes, says City Councilman John Cranley, who along with Mayor Charlie Luken in March made revitalizing Main Street a priority.
"What we hope John will do for us is actually put deals together, and convice (Main Street merchants) that they can work together and really put us on the map nationally. John's expertise is convincing everyone they can all make money if they work together."
A Cincinnati flavor
Elkington visited Cincinnati last month. He walked through Over-the-Rhine and met with a number of business leaders on Main Street. Not only will he put deals together, he will help develop a plan to attract both nationally recognized businesses to the district and help create venues that capture the unique flavor of Cincinnati. He said that while there are "three or four" great businesses that have survived on Main Street, there is a lack of "consistent, quality-type businesses" that can be sustained over the long term.
Elkington said he believes some businesses must get out of the mode believing that the business pie is finite. "They almost believe in the zero-sum theory," he said. "But I believe a rising tide lifts all boats."
For starters, Elkington said Main Street might develop a Hard Rock Cafe with a King Records (Cincinnati's legendary rock 'n' roll record label) theme. He said he has contacted James Brown about possibly opening a nightclub there, and he has also contacted the House of Blues, which has locations in New Orleans and Las Vegas, and is looking to grow in new areas.
When he visits Cincinnati next week, he will bring a representative seeking a first American location for the Munich, Germany-based Paulaner Brew Haus, a 370-year-old brewery.
"It can't look like what's over in Newport," Elkington said. "We have to have the idea that this will be the place where if they were giving an annual award for places you want to bring your guest to from out of town, this would win every year."
Dreams and controversy
From his earliest days in business, Elkington has had a reputation as a risk-taker and a dreamer. He went to Vanderbilt University in the 1960s on a football scholarship and later earned a law degree at what was then Memphis State University. He said he earned $10,000 as a lawyer in 1973, but quit his job two years later to work for a developer who was a client for a $5,000 raise.
That year, the real estate market tanked, Elkington said, and his salary was cut in half. "I learned to really handle some tough developments," he said. A few years later, he later earned a fortune selling real estate ("I sold 473 condos in one year," he said) and parlayed that into developing commercial properties.
Controversy has also followed Elkington's success. On more than one occasion, he has been criticized for being a visionary who doesn't follow through on the details.
Shreveport contributed a $5 million federal Housing and Urban Development loan toward construction of the year-old Red River District. It has been slow to take off. Among its most popular attractions are the upscale MacArthur's Chop and Crab House, Funny Bonz comedy club, Meatbalz! Spaghetti House, and Wet Willie's, a daquiri bar. But city leaders have accused Elkington of failing to aggressively market the district. At least three businesses there have closed.
A deal with professional golfer, 2004 Ryder Cup team captain and Shreveport native Hal Sutton to open a restaurant there recently fell through. It would have replaced a restaurant that closed within its first year of operation. Elkington said a new investment team for the Red River District will soon be in place. Performa has a 37 percent interest in the Red River District. There are two other partners.
Bob Schneider, chairman of the board of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and a developer there since 1987, said he is not concerned about Elkington's business prowess.
"If everybody just loved him that would mean that he was just rolling over," he said. "He knows what works and what doesn't and he's also realistic enough to know that some things you try won't work."
Schneider said he is aware that there have been good things and bad things said about Elkington, but Schneider said in cities where there have been bad things said about him, Elkington did not have the city's support.
The difference here is that the city and businesses are asking for his support, he said. "That's the first step of saying 'we're behind what this guy is going to come up with.'"
Main Street businessman Chris Frutkin, who developed the 18-unit Crawford Lofts condominiums, believes Main Street will benefit from Elkington's outsider's perspective.
"Most people who come to Cincinnati and see Over-the-Rhine think it is the most beautiful, underutilized resource the city has," Frutkin said. "John brings with him the ability to see that and make a positive difference. I've met the man and I've heard his story. I think what we are going to be doing is formulating a process whereby he can move forward."
The story of how Elkington would be lured to Cincinnati has its origins, interestingly enough, in the fact that Cranley was badly in need of a vacation two years ago.
After a tiring 2001 election season, Cranley and his assistant, Elliott Ruther, decided to go to Memphis' popular Beale Street "to have a little fun," Cranley said.
It was there that the wheels began to turn. "We thought, 'Why can't we have something like this?' (in Cincinnati)"
What's more, Cincinnati could do it better, Cranley thought, because the Main Street district is more architecturally significant and downtown Cincinnati is much more vibrant that downtown Memphis.
At the time, Cranley said he didn't realize that Elkington was the mastermind behind Beale, but in discussing downtown entertainment ventures with business contacts, Elkington's name kept surfacing, and eventually they made contact.
Cranley said he believes Elkington's background in developing properties where there has been racial tension will also help Cincinnati. Main Street business suffered after the April 2001 riots as curfews were put in place and people no longer felt safe in the area.
"It is not at all coincidental that this guy has really been through the wringer in cities that have had racial unrest," Cranley said. He noted that 35 percent of the tenants on Beale Street are minority-owned business. "
Elkington himself said half his management staff members are minorities. He said that in light of the recent racial unrest in Cincinnati, finding minority developers and businesses to located on Main Street must be a priority. "Diversity is a strength; it's not a weakness," he said.
Said Jay Kirkpatrick, owner of The Lab: "I don't think anybody wants to see a Friday's or an Applebee's There are a lot of pieces to be put together. It's screaming opportunity. I think he's (Elkington) the guy who can get people motivated. He can look at the big picture. If he can get private investors to come in, I think this is something he can definitely make happen."
Byron McCauley is associate editorial page editor of The Enquirer. Call him at (513) 768-8473. Email him at email@example.com
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