Plenty of intrigue pushed the Memphis City Council’s discussion on Beale Street Tuesday (a deathbed settlement agreement, a lawyer disbarred, a deadly nightclub stampede in Chicago) but no concrete action was taken on the entertainment district’s future.
Tuesday’s meeting was the third time the council’s Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology committee hosted a discussion on Beale Street. Suggestions of racism spurred those talks as some council members believe 21 Beale, an African-American-led company, was denied a contract to manage the street last year.
The Beale Street Tourist Development Authority (BSTDA) was established by the previous council to find a permanent manager for the street. The BSTDA requested proposals from companies in two separate rounds of negotiations. In the meantime, former Mayor A C Wharton chose the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) to manage the street on an interim basis in 2013.
21 Beale was the last company standing at the end of each of those rounds of negotiations but the BSTDA decided to deny them the contract and, instead, allow the DMC to continue to manage the street. This move has rankled some city council members who believe that the company was held to unfair expectations and was passed over simply because its principals are black.
Race has been at the heart of all of the tourism committee’s discussions about Beale Street. Tuesday’s talks were no different, though the conversation went deep and into some unexpected territory.
The deathbed agreement (that wasn’t?)
Lucille Catron told council members that the Beale Street Development Corp. (BSDC) still holds the master lease of the street (and, therefore, the right to manage it) from the city.
Her husband, Randle Catron, the former executive director of the Beale Street Development Corp., signed a settlement agreement with the city (which ceded control of the street back to the city) on his deathbed in February 2015, according to council member Martavius Jones.
But Catron said she hired a forensic handwriting examiner and proved that the signature on that agreement was not her husband’s. Not only that, Catron said, her husband was in an ambulance, on the way to the Intensive Care Unit, in septic shock, intubated, with an “infection to the bone,” and “he didn’t know he was in this world.”
She pleaded with council members to help her argue her case that the BSDC does, indeed, still hold the street’s master lease, which is “worth millions of dollars,” according to a post on the BSDC Facebook page
. Council members listened to Catron but did not promise aid.
Swearengen on defense
Next, council member Jamita Swearengen hoped to get more color on just why the BSTDA voted against giving the contract to 21 Beale. She said board member Jamal Whitlow, an African American who made the motion against giving the contract to 21 Beale, agreed to attend Tuesday’s council meeting but he did not show.
Instead, Swearengen delved deep into the motivations and the vote behind denying them the contract. Casey Shannon, legal counsel for the BSTDA, said the company lacked experience managing an entertainment district and that there were some “red flags” about the company’s leaders.
Though he said he’d rather not detail those red flags, Swearengen pushed Shannon on the issue. He said one principal in the company, though he didn’t name him, was disbarred after misappropriating $150,000 of client funds. Another principal, was a part owner of a Chicago nightclub in which 21 people died in a stampede.
Swearengen went on the defensive, wondering if the men were treated fairly. She pointed to the fact that incidents have occurred at 152 Beale, a club partly owned by Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane, though he remains in his job.
“So you are going to hold these individuals…and not knowing all the ramifications of those assumed accounts….,” Swearengen began. “[There] still seems to be some sort of disparity still exists because they are African-Americans because this person [Kane], is still in public service.”
Throughout he comments on the subject, Swearengen refused to use Kane’s name. When asked who she was referencing, specifically, Swearengen stammered and said, finally, “I think we all know.”
Swearengen then cast doubt on the vote that denied the contract to 21 Beale. She asked how many people voted to deny them the contract, how many of them were black, and if the board even had a necessary quorum to hold a vote at all.
Shannon told Swearengen five voted against it, two of those votes were cast by black members (Whitlow and Nathaniel Jones), and that — at the time — seven members were enough for a quorum because some vacancies on the board had not yet been filled.
The nightclub stampede
Somewhere during the meandering discussion about the board vote, Dwain Kyles, a principal with 21 Beale addressed the committee to clear the air on several points.
“It has been suggested that we are injecting racism into this process, and that could’t be further form the truth,” Kyles said. “But we have been treated unfairly and, I swear to you, I can’t help but think that none of that would’ve happened had we not been African American.”
He said he was, indeed, a part owner of a Chicago club where 21 people died in 2003 and that fact had been disclosed at the very beginning of negotiations with the BSTDA. He said he had rented the club that night to a man (whom he found out later was a Drug Enforcement Agency informant).
Two women got into a fight, Kyles said, and people fled for the door. But police had closed and barricaded the doors because there was gunfire outside the club, Kyles said he was told. Visitors were bottlenecked on the stairs and 21 people died.
Kyles and his business partner, Calvin Hollins Jr., were each charged with 63 counts of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to do 500 hours of community service in a deal worked out with city attorneys, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.
Kyles told council members Tuesday that he served his hours.
“It’s done,” Kyles said. “It’s over.”
However, he said the area around his club, E2, was gentrifying and that the DEA agent he rented the club to on that night in 2003, “it was his job to set us up to go out of business.” He said city officials “trumped up a bunch of charges” on him, in an effort to deflect the liability of the stampede — which Kyles said Tuesday was about $100 million — from the city and pin them on he and his business partner.
21 Beale’s disbarred lawyer
Kelvin Willis, another 21 Beale principal, said he did, indeed, lose his law license in 1989 because he took money from a trust account and used it for personal reasons.
“I was going through a divorce at the time and I had personal issues and I made a mistake,” Willis told council members.
He said he has since “rehabilitated” himself, is a successful real estate mortgage broker and “I have a high trust in my church and am generally well thought of in the community.”
“Like I said, [his disbarment] was 28 years ago,” Willis said. “I have paid that price and I wish I could turn back the hands of time but I can’t.”
The disappointed publisher
Bernal Smith, the publisher of The New Tri-State Defender
, noted that Beale Street was once an “epicenter of commerce and entertainment power” but that there are few black business on the street today. The Defender
is located on Beale and that “we have been encouraged to vacate our space” on the street.
Smith said that original black culture and history on Beale has been “appropriated and exploited to the economic benefit of everyone except African Americans.”
“Beale Street has evolved to where a handful of white, well-heeled (business leaders) are driving the future and the strength of their economic kingdom and keeping things in place to maintain their kingdom,” Smith said.
He said black-owned businesses sometime lack business experience, capital, and access to capital. However, Beale Street could become an incubator for these business, though. The only group with the power to do that, he said, is the city council.
The real power on Beale?
It seemed the mechanism Smith was referring to that’s keeping white businesses powerful on Beale was the Beale Street Merchants Association (BSMA). But Ken Taylor, the executive director of the group and an African American, said the group is open to any business owner on the street.
Taylor said there are 25 potential members of the association. Though, four members don’t have a vote now because they are behind on their association dues.
Swearengen asked Taylor how many members of the association were black. He said he didn’t know but would have the answer Tuesday. Swearengen didn’t like the answer, shooting back to Taylor, “You know many members there are and how many are in arrears, but you don’t know how many are black?”
Council member, and tourism committee board chairman, Jones ended the meeting by briefly summarizing the reasons 21 Beale was passed over for the contract. He also noted that the DMC had no experience managing an entertainment district either but have done it for three years now.
But he, then, shifted into un-trod territory, telling council members that he got a front-row seat to the inner-working of the Memphis and Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) and was surprised. He said that board gives away tax breaks to companies who won’t necessarily give jobs to Memphians or Shelby Countians.
“We are ceding control of this most precious resource — taxpayer money — and we don’t have a handle, largely, on some of this stuff,” Jones said.
In that vein, Jones said he has asked EDGE officials for a council refresher course. He also hinted at the possibility of reeling control of EDGE back to the council, the same course of action he’s promised for the BSTDA.