Jan. 19--Plans to relocate Hard Rock Cafe raise a question.
Does the Beale Street entertainment district face financial distress?
It's a point Memphis taxpayers might soon have to consider.
If you missed it, Hard Rock's plans surfaced in our digital report Wednesday morning.
Real estate expert John Elkington said his client, the bar owners, will move into the Lansky Bros. building.
Left unsaid was why. Of course, what private folks do with their cash is their business. Beale Street, though, is public business.
The city of Memphis owns the three-block historical district, and nursed it to life as part of a broader Downtown revitalization.
Now, Beale Street primes Memphis' tourist economy, drawing an estimated 4 million visitors a year. So you have to wonder.
Lansky's is a red-brick dowager, an empty building just outside the entertainment zone at Beale and Second.
Why would Hard Rock vacate their location next door to FedEx Forum, the building able to seat the most people in Memphis?
Mayor A C Wharton wouldn't touch the question.
Neither would Paul Morris, head of the Downtown Memphis Commission, a city agency which manages the Beale Street entertainment zone.
Morris did say if Hard Rock -- he said "if," refusing to confirm Elkington's point -- if Hard Rock moves, Beale Street would not suffer.
"Think about where Hard Rock now is," Morris said. "Footsteps to FedEx Forum. We're not going to have a problem filling that space."
OK. But why move?
Sean Danko moved to Memphis from Montreal years ago to manage the Hard Rock. Then he looked around.
Investors and taxpayers were pumping millions into the Downtown. The Peabody was renovated. Peabody Place opened, followed by AutoZone Park, FedEx Forum, restaurants along Main Street's new trolley line, and apartments, houses and lofts housing 24,000 residents.
After a quarter century of decline, the urban core was coming back. Danko saw opportunity.
He opened his own restaurant, the Kooky Canuck, on Second three blocks off Beale. That was then, in 2005. This is now: "We need something big to move this city forward," Danko said.
Well, Danko didn't say this. But it's clear what happened.
Wall Street's 2008 financial storm shook Memphis and America.
Greater Memphis lost 50,000 jobs. Average wages fell 12 percent. Pay hasn't come back. Neither have most of the jobs.
Even as wages slid, the City of Memphis' population shrank in every category -- high-, middle- and low-income.
Within the city limits, the number of middle- and high-income families slipped 3 percent to 145,000 households between 2000 and 2010.
For the first time ever, the suburbs contained more high-income households (77,000 of them) than the city. Many of those families must motor 30 minutes or more to reach the riverfront and Beale.
And now Downtown merchants like Danko, who says tourists account for 30 percent of his winter revenue, must confront a new rival. The revitalized entertainment district not far away at Overton Square is booming.
"While we've had some success re-energizing South Main, success in bringing in condos and residential development, we're still missing a catalyst," said Danko, a member of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau's board of directors. "We need something else to move the needle."
Downtown merchants look to the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
They say big trade shows and conventions would return and give Downtown a new jolt if it were renovated.
What would have to accompany a renovation is a new hotel. Downtown has too few hotel rooms for major conventions.
Where could a hotel fit in? This is pure guess. But let's say it's next to the Lansky Bros. building. Hard Rock is a Florida company whose main business is hotels.
And members of the prominent Belz family reportedly own the Lansky site and the parking lot next door. Hotels are a business the Belz's, who renovated and own The Peabody, understand.
Neither the mayor nor his advisors are talking about this in public. But one day Memphis taxpayers may hear the administration make the case:
While Beale Street is fine, public incentives could support a new hotel able to help spur on Downtown.