Beale Street Bucks Gets Heated Debate

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Beale and Third - ALAINA GETZENBERG
  • Alaina Getzenberg
  • Beale and Third

Supporters and opponents of the Beale Street Bucks program hashed it out (and sometimes raked it over the coals as a conspiracy for profit) in a Memphis City Council committee meeting Tuesday before a vote that could end the program.

Visitors to Beale Street must pay $10 to enter the street between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. on certain Saturdays throughout the year. Those visitors are given back $8 in Beale Street Bucks that they can then spend with most merchants on the street for food, drinks, souvenirs, and more.

The program was started last June after stampedes there brought injuries and property damage. It was meant as a way to control the crowds on Beale Street during peak times.

However, some city council members have said the program targets African Americans and have sought to end it. A vote to end the program is on the council’s agenda for its regular meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland asked council members Tuesday to let the program stand because it enhances public safety, saves taxpayer taxpayer money, and because other public facilities also charge fees to enter.

“I ask you to vote no on whatever legislation is proposed later today ending Beale Street Bucks,” Strickland said.
He said crime is reduced by 30 percent on Beale whenever the program is implemented. Costs for Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers go up by 11 percent on nights when the program is absent.

Also, he listed a host of public properties that charge entrance fees in Memphis, including the Memphis in May International Festival (which has been held in public park for 40 years), Africa in April (which is also held in a public park), the Memphis Botanic Gardens, the RiverArts Festival, Shelby Farms Park during its Starry Nights event, “golf, tennis, softball,” and more.

MPD director Michael Rallings also supported Beale Street Bucks, saying “it was one of the only tools we found that actually works to help with overcrowding and reducing the stampedes and to increase safety.”

He said the MPD and the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), which manages the street for the city, have tried assigning more officers and private security to the street. They’ve cut off admission to the street altogether at some peak times.

“Beale Street Bucks has been the only thing we have found that significantly controls the crowd size and reduces the risk to public safety,” Rallings said.  Rallings showed three videos of the stampedes that led to the creation and implementation of the Beale Street Bucks program.

Council member Joe Brown said that “with all due respect” to Rallings, Strickland, other elected officials, and other interested parties in the room, that those stampedes were a conspiracy “to create a projectionary picture of what’s going on down there.” The stampedes were created, he said, to keep the Beale Street Buck program going.
That assertion was the first in a long rant by Brown who, along the way, said more security personnel (private and public) is the answer to the problem, that West Drive was once shut down to keep African Americans from walking down the street, and that “you got damn fools down there (on Beale Street) drinking. OK? They get drunk. And drunk on Beale Street. You can’t control a drunk person. You can manage them but you can’t control them.”

However, Brown held tight to three main points of his argument — that it is illegal to charge people to enter a public street, that indictments from higher government authorities would follow if the city continued to do so on Beale Street, and that if that happened “I’m not taking no hit for nobody.”

Council Worth Morgan pushed Brown on his assertion that the stampedes were a part of conspiracy and asked Brown for evidence.

“Morgan, you are not being culturally inclined to look like me, look at yourself and then look at me,” Brown began. “I know what’s going on in any community. Word gets out where I am.”

Pushed further by Morgan to supply evidence on his claims, Brown turned to MPD director Rallings, noting that Beale Street had security cameras, and asked “Who started it, director?”

Without giving Rallings an opportunity to fully respond, Brown noted that the director needed get intelligence behind the stampedes and discover “the structure of that crowd.”

Council member Jamita Swearengen was concerned that some of the businesses on Beale were not honoring the Beale Bucks vouchers. She also wanted to know who kept the money from the program and said that, in general, there were a lot of “unanswered questions” about the program.

DMC president Terrence Patterson said he gave answers to man of those questions to council member Edmund Ford Jr. in an email sent Monday. Swearengen chided Patterson on the late notice, saying the move was “very unprofessional.”

Patterson said all Beale merchants take the Bucks, except for Eel Etc. and the Old Daisy. Patterson and DMC CFO Jennifer Oswald also answered her question about who keeps the money from the program. The funds are given and reimbursed through many channels, from the city, to the DMC, and, finally, to the Beale Street Merchants Association.

That was the thorn in council member Martavius Jones’ side about the project. He said he’d have no problem giving the money to a non-profit organization but didn’t like that the money went to for-profit companies.

However, Beale Street Merchants Association executive director Ken Taylor said that money is given back to the DMC to pay for security. He noted that Beale Street is “very, very unique” and unlike other entertainment districts in the country.

“Bourbon Street is 13 blocks long; Beale Street is three,” he said. “So, our biggest issue is stampedes. That is not a concern you find on Bourbon or other street like Sixth Street (in Austin) or other tourists attractions like in New York is other places.”

Council member Morgan said he’d be voting to keep the Beale Street Bucks program alive, pointing to the opinions of director Rallings and those from the DMC.
“Anything that happens after we shut this down — any of those injuries and safety issues — is on us,” Morgan said. “That’s 100 percent our responsibility. I think it’s a poor choice (to shut the program down) because Beale Street Bucks protects everyone who visits, citizens or tourists, black and white, young and old, everyone going up and down the street.”

Brown promised to vote against the program.




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