Main Street Journal: Online Exclusive: Is Downtown Up To Snuff? A Q&A With the Center City Commission’s Paul Morris

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Is Downtown Up To Snuff? A Q&A With the Center City Commission’s Paul Morris
By: Michael Roy Hollihan


A few weeks ago, the Memphis news media was suggesting that the Main Street Mall was getting dirty and unappealing. The implication was that the CCC wasn’t doing its job.

The articles were a reflection of the CCC doing its job. The articles arose because the CCC is aggressively and loudly advocating for better maintenance of our public spaces, including Main Street Mall. The pedestrian Mall in the heart of Downtown is traveled by millions of tourists, workers, and residents each year. For decades the City has not adequately maintained this highly visible public space, and it will take awhile to get it fixed.

The good news is that now Main Street Mall is getting cleaner and more appealing. Mayor Wharton is leading the effort city-wide to take better care of our public spaces. The Main Street Mall is now filling up with great restaurant patios, apartments and offices. Come see for yourself! The CCC will continue calling out problems we see while also not losing sight of the fact that Downtown is the coolest, most vibrant neighborhood in the region.

The corner of Main and Madison—where the roof of the building has fallen in—has been blocked off rather crudely and is just sitting there, an eyesore. What’s the plan for the corner, the building itself and any further renovations? Is there a timetable?

The roof of 118 Madison fell in because the property owner did not adequately maintain it. Because the building is unstable, the public street is being blocked, causing losses and inconvenience to the nearby businesses and residents, as well as looking ugly. It’s also blocking the Madison trolley from making its connection to the Main Street trolley. After several court appearances, the property owner is finally getting around to doing the work necessary to open the street back up. The property owner says the building is being demolished and that it will take at least a month, maybe longer. The CCC will stay involved in the court proceedings to ensure that the work proceeds expeditiously and that the site is not left blighted.

The CCC is also working with the City on a broader anti-blight campaign to raise the level of responsibility for property owners who don’t take good care of their properties.

Massive crowds came down to the Mississippi River (and Mud Island/Harbortown) to watch the flooding, to take part in the celebrations over the Grizzlies’ tournament run, and for Memphis in May in general. What was the wear and tear to the Downtown?

Downtown is built for massive crowds! We love them! Massive crowds make Downtown more vibrant and more fun. The wear and tear to Downtown happens when people don’t visit. For instance, Downtown decayed when few visited during the decades of the 1970s, 80s and much of the 90s. We are still trying to fix all that decay, and the more people come Downtown the better Downtown gets.

Last year, there was concern about the infrastructure needs of the Main Street Mall and finding the money to maintain the appeal of this district. Was new money found? Was it from the City of Memphis, from the taxing district or from other sources?

Last year we applied for a federal stimulus grant that would have made major infrastructure improvements to the Main Street Mall as well as the rest of Main Street from Uptown to South Main. But we didn’t get it. So now we are searching for another source of capital funds to make major capital improvements to our Main Street one day.

In the meantime, the City is making some repairs to Main and doing a better job cleaning it. The CCC is providing some enhanced landscaping along the Main Street Mall and we are programming it with activities that make it a fun place to be. If you look closely, as I do, you will see several areas of Main Street that need fixing. But overall Main Street in Downtown Memphis is one of the most vibrant and fun streets in this region. That’s why so many restaurants, offices, residents, retailers, etc, choose to locate there.

Your predecessor, Jeff Sanford, was known for stressing the “experience” of Downtown. What do you have to say to people (Memphians and tourists alike) about the quality of the experience of going Downtown as head into mid-2011?

I love Downtown because there is so much to do and so many people to see within walking distance. It’s a strong and diverse community of businesses and residents who welcome everyone, especially the millions of tourists who choose to visit this exciting place. Downtown is gritty and quirky, fun and interesting. Downtown exemplifies the unique character and authenticity of Memphis. You can be who you are here and have unexpected, spontaneous adventures. It’s the place for bankers,
lawyers, doctors, artists, wanderers, young professionals, young not-so-professionals, empty nesters, fun families, Elvis impersonators, Blues singers, professional basketball and baseball players, civil rights fighters, children’s cancer fighters, and well-tended ducks.

What do you know of the status of the deal with Bass Pro Shops and the Pyramid? WMC recently had a story yesterday talking about BPS being some $400,000+ in arrears on rent. During the River flooding there were folks putting up sandbags next to the Pyramid at the height of the flooding. Why? Was there ever a real danger of flooding inside the facility? Did representatives from BPS come to Memphis to check up, or to inspect the Pyramid?

The City, through Robert Lipscomb, is leading the effort to repurpose the Pyramid and redevelop the Pinch. Robert hasn’t told me anything he hasn’t told the media. It’s my understanding that Bass Pro is still committed to Memphis, and that Memphis is still committed to Bass Pro. There are seismic issues that are being studied through this summer, and hopefully we’ll have the answers to those questions soon so that we can move forward one way or the other. The neighborhood has certainly
suffered through the years of not knowing the fate of the Pyramid. Uncertainty is very harmful to business and development.

Care to give us a sneak-peek of your speech to the annual Downtown luncheon next month?

No speeches from me! I’m going to defer to our Mayors and our Governor, who will be addressing the crowd about the importance of Downtown and how we can make it better. We’ll also be giving some awards to some Downtown visionaries. And we’ll be having some fun! This is Downtown, so everyone is invited! Get your tickets now for the July 21 lunch at

Moving the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest to Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds was a last minute decision but it seems to have gone over spectacularly well with almost everyone, earning near-universal raves. Is there any likelihood of returning the BBQ event to the Fairgrounds in the future?

I’m on a BBQ team, and the logistics are easier at the Fairgrounds. But I don’t participate in the BBQ Fest because it’s easy logistically. There is something about the setting next to the Mighty Mississippi that gives the BBQ a special flavor and atmosphere that distinguishes the event from any other in the World. There are many BBQ contests in parking lots in this country, but Ol’ Man River makes ours special. Having said that, I had a great time at the Fairgrounds this year!

Lastly–and admittedly it’s kind of silly–but what’s with with the name change? “Center City Commission” rolls off the tongue while the new name is … rather clunky.

We will be changing our name next month. Sometimes an organization needs to go through a rebranding to redefine itself and reintroduce itself to the community it serves. The CCC is about advancing Memphis and Shelby County by making Downtown Memphis a better place to work, live, learn, invest and play. Our Downtown is not in the center of our city, and the CCC receives no City funding. We work for the benefit of the whole community, but we are funded by Downtown property owners and developers. Our research revealed that very few in the community really know what
the CCC is about, and the name is misleading.

The new name aligns with the brand we are promoting — Downtown Memphis. Our organization is not about promoting itself with a slick name, but rather promoting Downtown Memphis. I agree, though, that the proposed name is too long, and the board will be discussing the issue again next week before we launch the new name at the annual luncheon on July 21, to which everyone is invited! Get your tickets now at and stay on our website to find out all the fun things happening in Downtown Memphis.

(Our thanks to Mr Morris for taking the time to answer our questions, and doing so with a modicum of good humor.)


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