"They dot the Memphis landscape like craters on the moon — old bridges, shut-down factories, and abandoned office buildings. In their day, all these places were humming with activity, helping to spin the wheels of Memphis commerce and industry."
That was the opening sentence of Michael Finger's 1997 story in the Flyer called "The Big Empties." Cited in the piece were the Sears Crosstown Tower, the Tennessee Brewery, and the Harahan Bridge — all now undergoing renovation and reinvention.
Now Bass Pro has brought the Pyramid (the pointiest big empty in the world) back to life in a grand way. And just this week, it was announced that the long-dormant French Quarter Inn near the now-booming Overton Square will be torn down and replaced by the 134-room Hotel Overton. On South Main, the Hotel Chisca is coming back, and numerous other downtown and Midtown properties have gotten or are getting new life — too many to mention here. As I wrote last week, a renaissance is happening. And more big empties are filling up.
Twenty years ago, you would have been hardpressed to find anyone who thought any of those edifices had a future. Remember the huge debate about the wisdom of building AutoZone Park downtown? Lots of folks were insisting that it should be built "out east, where the people are," instead of in what was perceived by many then as a dying downtown. Now the ballpark is one of the city's crown jewels.
Visionaries like AutoZone's Pitt Hyde and forward-thinking developers like Henry Turley and Jack Belz, and precious few others, put their money where their hearts were and invested in the city core when many businesses were fleeing to the hinterlands. Their commitment to Memphis is now bearing fruit for all of us.
And I know this isn't often said, but we also owe a debt to former Mayor Herenton, who first unleashed Robert Lipscomb on the city's wretched public housing, almost all of which has now been transformed into livable and attractive multi-income housing. I predict that Lipscomb's often disparaged role in the city's redevelopment will be one at which future historians will marvel. He's gotten a lot of things right.
There are still plenty of big properties lying fallow, of course, still acres of blight in some of the city's poorer neighborhoods, but the conversation has changed from "What can we do about these eyesores?" to "What's the best way to reinvent this property?" That's huge.
Looming ahead is the battle over the future of the Fairgrounds and the Mid-South Coliseum, which pits Lipscomb and an as yet unknown developer against a core of Midtown activists who want to save the historic venue. I won't predict how that will play out, but one thing is certain: The "save the Coliseum" proponents can point to numerous examples where reinvention has paid off handsomely for all of us.