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Q&A: Robert Phillips

Executive director, Midtown Redevelopment Corporation



Overton Square, once a bustling entertainment and shopping district, isn't what it used to be. The sprawling building that previously housed a dance club and, before that, a comedy club, has been empty for over a year. Square Foods, Cosmic Closet, and other retailers have relocated.

But the Midtown Redevelopment Corporation (MRC) has big plans for reviving the square, as well as other areas of Midtown.

The MRC, which is currently working to obtain nonprofit status, will function similarly to downtown's Center City Commission. It will find funding for Midtown projects, assist with security in public areas, and focus on luring retailers and other businesses. -- By Bianca Phillips

Why start with Overton Square?

No one is really taking care of the square. It was once the most vibrant entertainment district. Now it's partially defunct.

It's owned by a nice family who happens to not live in Memphis. We'd like to see if we could get some degree of local ownership. We're also going to plant some trees in the square and make it prettier. We're going to create some signage to create a sense of space.

What would you like to see in that large building on the corner?

Something that works. I never thought [a dance club] was going to be viable. There are great clubs in New York and Atlanta, but I don't know that we're a club city.

It's a unique space, so it's hard to say. If there were an easy answer, that space would already be filled. Maybe it could be broken down into smaller places. Maybe a dry cleaner, a place to pick up dinner, a place to rent a movie, and a place to buy music or get your shoes repaired.

What about the rest of Madison Avenue?

If you look at Madison, it's virtually intact, almost by neglect. It has the bones of a great old Midtown east/west corridor. It has all these stores up close to the street. We've even got the trolley now.

There are vacuum-cleaner repair shops and cleaners and restaurants. We'll have to go building to building and find out if each is adding to the neighborhood. If they're not, we'll try to encourage the owner to make it look nicer.

We may try to pull together some grant money to help owners change their signs or their facade and make them look more historic. If we find that one building is owned by a slumlord, we can buy it and renovate it.

What about safety?

I live in the Evergreen Historic District. I moved there a year ago, and I've been burglarized six times. I've had two bikes stolen out of my backyard.

We're thinking about tracking systems. You put a radio device in the seat of your bike, and if someone takes it, you instantly know when it's been moved. Police are notified, and you can apprehend the person red-handed.

We've also talked about putting cameras in public spaces and entertainment districts. That creates a state of deterrence.

Any plans for bringing in new businesses?

We want to bring a culinary institute into Midtown, and I'm not talking about a stove in a community classroom. I'm talking about a very viable, large culinary institute.

Memphis does a pretty good job of promoting its music, but fitting right in with that is the culture of food. There's all the ballyhoo of attracting the creative class. We don't have mountains and oceans, so we need something to attract talented young people. A culinary institute on a big scale would have a major impact.

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