Jump to content

Cincinnati wooing creator of Beale Street!


Recommended Posts

City looks for Main St. boost


Cincinnati officials looking to create a regional entertainment district on Main Street are turning to John Elkington, the author of Beale Street in Memphis, to help create a strip of music clubs, breweries and chili parlors that will be "authentically Cincinnati."

Mayor Charlie Luken and Councilman John Cranley will propose hiring Elkington - at a cost of $100,000 for six months - to bring his marketing know-how and list of national entertainment contacts to Cincinnati. Luken and Cranley launched their Main Street initiative in March, consciously trying to emulate the home of Memphis blues.

But the first thing Elkington told them: "This is not going to be Beale Street. Beale Street is its own street."

Cincinnati's Main Street, he said, has to be Cincinnati's Main Street.

Elkington, a Memphis native who said he got through college on Cincinnati's Hudepohl beer, said he sees huge potential amid the neighborhood's dilapidated buildings and rough reputation. But Main Street lacks the Cincinnati culture and history that would make it a signature spot.

It should recognize King Records - the pioneer rock label whose artists included James Brown - and the sports legacy of the Big Red Machine, he said.

"Cincinnati is a magical city. It really is," he said. "What disappointed me about Cincinnati is that you don't really have any live music with the exception of one or two places. You don't celebrate your local music," he said.

"I think the culture is even more important. I thought we'd see some breweries, some great German food, some Cincinnati chili. I didn't see any of those things in Over-the-Rhine."

Elkington said he's already in discussions with a major German brewery to rival Newport's Hofbrauhaus. The Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues are in his Rolodex. And he's determined to get an internationally known musical artist with Cincinnati connections - say, a James Brown or a Bootsy Collins - to open up his own place.

"If you don't dream big dreams, if you don't try to do something special, you're in Anywhere, U.S.A. Look at Newport. Newport is not a special place," he said.

That's exactly the kind of message Luken and Cranley want to hear. After two years of hearing about riots in Over-the-Rhine and successes in Newport and Norwood, it's time for Cincinnati to shine, they say.

Cranley said his goal is to create an entertainment spot "for all races and all ages."

"This is our attempt to put ourselves on the map in the Midwest and perhaps in the country," Luken said.

New establishments are opening every month. Tonight, Moose on Main debuts.

Joe Birkenhauer, 28, opened the bar with a few partners.

He's looking for an eclectic district of antique stores, gift shops and coffee shops mixed in with the bars and nightclubs.

Visitors agree.

"Cincinnati needs a theme for its Main Street," said Michael Thompson at the Courtyard Cafe on Main Thursday night.

Thompson, a 26-year-old Clifton resident who visited Beale Street last month, wants to be able to walk outside with a beer, but also wants to see Main Street mainstays like Kaldi's Coffeehouse and Bookstore, and Neon's Bar flourish.

Tony Cafeo, the owner of Jefferson Hall and the soon-to-open Harry's Bar and Pizza, said he's hoping Elkington can land a nationally known club as an "anchor" attraction. He said Elkington has the credibility to get all of Main Street moving in the same direction.

"If me or some other owner says to the city, 'We need to get rid of the bums, and the panhandling, and the corner stores,' nothing gets done. If some national guy comes in and says the same thing, they're going to listen to him more, because he has a proven track record," Cafeo said.

Elkington succeeded in rejuvenating Beale Street after others had failed. It's now one of the largest tourist attractions in Tennessee and has been called "the best bar-hopping stretch in the land."

Beyond Beale Street, Elkington's Performa Entertainment Real Estate Inc. is developing districts in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; South Trenton, N.J.; Knoxville and Shreveport.

Elkington's critics - and there are one or two in every town - say he's too much of a fast-talker, full of dreams that are slow to materialize. Last month, the mayor of Shreveport accused Elkington of dragging his feet on efforts to lure businesses to the city's Red River District.

But Elkington says those disagreements are most often because he refuses to accept that any development is good development. "Putting Applebee's, Chili's and a Macaroni Grille there is not going to get people excited," he said.

"The kinds of things we do, there is always the possibility that things will turn south, I promise you. This is hard. It takes more effort to get done, and it takes more thought. If people don't understand that, I'm not your guy."

Elkington quietly came to town to meet with key players last month. Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce Chairman Bob Schneider and condominium developer Chris Frutkin, among others, gave Elkington their thumbs-up.

He'll come back in two weeks to meet with City Council, where he'll already have the support of two members, Laketa Cole and Alicia Reece, who were won over by his commitment to diversity. Half his company's management is African-American, as is 35 percent of Beale Street.

"I'm not just impressed with Beale Street, but with South Street in Jersey and Farish Street in Jackson, Miss.," Cole said. "What I liked about each of the deals is that they're unique to their city's demographics, and not just a copy of another city."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 13
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Great pictures and I hope it works out well.

One positive thing Beale Street had going for it was that it was pretty much a bar/music strip from 1900 until the early 1970's, and was historically and culturally significant, and an icon of the city's identity.

The negative thing was at that time the the city of Memphis decided to buy up all the property under urban renewal and turn it into a tourist destination, and that really killed whatever still existed. The city may have not had much choice since it was declining, but the street remained virtually boarded up until the mid 80's.

Fortunately, those empy years didn't sever present day Beale from its connection to the past, and it certainly has retained--or acquired--enough grit to appear real, including a certain seediness and sinisterness that's probably appropriate for the juke joint atmosphere. It's also become not just a tourist mecca, but a real meeting place for locals, black and white, with a lot of independent streetlife. With the new NBA arena just a block off Beale opening in a year, I'm sure the street will do even better.

About the Applebee's and the other chains, Beale turned down a House of Blues for that reason--they didn't want "chain" music, although they do have a Pat O'Brian's.

In the early 80's I suspect that downtown Memphis was more down at the heels than Cincinnati ever was, and a good deal of Memphis' downtown residential revival may well be traced to Beale. At least you know if you live downtown, you can go out and mingle on the street with a crowd at 3 AM, drink beer and listen to music if that's your thing. So, I hope the guy is successful in Cincinnati.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...
  • 3 weeks later...

I like the of enhancing Main Street, by attracting entertainment and dining establishments based on the city's culture, food, music & past, but I don't agree with paying this guy $100,000 dollars. Imo, that's like a city paying Richard Florida to tell them what half of the people in the city already know.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Richard Florida! lol Noooooooo. :blink:

Cincinnati has more character as it is with Jerry Springer or is he in Chicago with his show nowadays.

I think Cincy has a lot to offer that the "sunbelt" or "new economy" cities dont and Im glad to see their capitalizing on it!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...

Its good to see so many positive things development wise happening in my old hometown. I was down there just last month and was pretty excited about it all. While Over the Rhine obviously is hurting the most, it definitely has maximum potential for vibrancy. I was impressed to see some new developments over at the west end right before you get to I-75. The only real dissapointment is the lagging of the city/county on the Banks project. The most valuable piece of property in the downtown district sits as a vacant parking lot. The city needs a good push like this to keep competitive with across the river rivals like Newport.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.