Memphis, TN – Vacant historic buildings in Overton Square have local business owners concerned about their fate. Nicole Erwin reports.
Fantastic Sam's of Midtown opened in Overton Square a little more than seven years ago. Owner LeeAnna Ferguson says she was the last business to occupy the historic buildings that line Madison and Cooper. This week for the first time, her store doors open to the Madison and McLean intersection.
"We survived the wind storm and was without electricity for two weeks and still cut hair. We survived a pipe busting in the ceiling and flooding the entire store and and rebuilding it, and we have survived Overton Square and the death of that commercial space," Ferguson said.
The same building that was home to Fantastic Sam's of Midtown was also home to the nation's second TGI Friday's, remembered mostly as one of the first places in Memphis to sell liquor by the drink. Other businesses like Cosmic Closet and Nomadic Notions also occupied the street line, but none of them are there today. Prior to Beale Street, Overton Square was the bullseye for entertainment. However, new development sparked east of the city created competition for the square. Ferguson says most future business prospects are reliant on the square's history, which is why Memphis Heritage is so concerned about what will happen to the space that is no longer occupied.
"Midtowners are tough. I mean you know, we believe in what we believe in and we fight for it. And so I tried to express that to the owner, that because they are in Denver and because AWG being in Kansas City. They didn't understand that, and I was trying to express that there is a great deal of passion about Overton Square, not that it could ever go back where it was but that those structures and those facades mean a lot," West said.
That's June West. She is the executive director of Memphis Heritage. As of right now, rumor has it that the now vacant buildings are the potential site for a new low-end AWG grocery. West says there is no way a business like that would thrive in the square. Not only would it hurt the other businesses but would lack consumer interest and overall appeal. West says the future success of Overton is somewhat dependent on what happens to the space.
"I realize that it is a complicated project and we don't want to run any development away, but we want the right kind of development put there. And unfortunately a box grocery store in the back corner of that parking lot just does not seem to be the right thing. And then demolishing the buildings at Madison and Cooper just seems to negate the energy and the history and the look of that area," West said
The facades of the buildings appear Spanish with Terracotta roofs, displaying a rich ambiance for foot traffic. Because the buildings were redeveloped in the 70's some argue their historical significance. West says the buildings were first developed in the 20's. It is only a small portion of the three-sectioned space that originates from the renovation. So why have so many businesses come and gone from this beautiful space? Former tenant Bill Baker, owner of Le Chardonnay, moved across the street from the old buildings.
"For all these years I have been here I have seen retail business try to operate in that space over there and they have all failed. None have ever survived and it's just not feasible economically for anybody to do a business over there and so something needs to change," Baker said.
Baker says not only do the businesses not do well, but the space for growth is limited and the buildings are somewhat beyond repair. Baker says his relationship with the owner of the buildings is friendly. All his past concerns were met and the space he leases now is under the same person Blake Fisher with Fisher Capital. He refused to comment on his future plans for the space due to inaccurate reports. Fisher claims his words have been twisted by the media and had nothing left to say. The lack of comment though is what has the Memphis Heritage and others in the square so concerned. Why are the plans for the building so secret? A meeting was held by the Memphis Heritage Association to spark dialog between the suspected contract holder of the property AWG. According to West, two men showed up reluctant to identify themselves immediately Scott Wilmoski, senior vice president of development with AWG and Leeland Clark with Sooner Investments and Development. Both denied response to future prospects or connections to the development of the property. Multiple attempts were made to clarify the relationship of AWG and Overtone Square. Mr. Wilmoski has yet to return a call. Leeland Clark has explained via telephone that his company has no interest in the property neither do they hold a contract. When asked why he attended the meeting, Clark responded it was a courtesy to AWG. He said he is unaware if AWG intends to develop the property, but that the company has discussed potential projects at the location.
LeeAnn Ferguson says every story needs a villain and that role has been applied to Blake Fisher. She says he is a businessman and she holds no ill will towards his decision to not renew her lease. Ferguson does say she wonders why all the fuss now when all the businesses have already gone. Ultimately she says the life of Overton is dependent on one thing.
"It comes down to the consumer and if Midtown doesn't have the stores Midtowners want it to have it is because Midtown, the consumer is not supporting those stores," Ferguson said.
Before Fisher Capital can do anything permanent to the buildings, like demolish them, the company must ask for approval by the Memphis City Council. The resolution passed earlier this month requiring the Division of Planning and Development Code Enforcement issue the permit first. June West says the ordinance will force the contract holders to at least enter into dialog with someone before finalizing their secret plans.