- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Fried grits, down-home blues and a new luxury hotel will be central to the newest development taking shape in the city’s famed Beale Street entertainment district.

The $52 million project, called Lee’s Landing, will include Beale Street’s first hotel — with a top floor fitted out with oversized rooms for pro basketball players — and a Ground Zero Blues Club.

“People want to hear the real Delta blues, and we’re going to offer that,” says Bill Luckett, a co-owner with actor Morgan Freeman of the original Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Miss.

Lee’s Landing is named for Lt. George Lee, a black World War I veteran, community leader and reputed political boss of Beale Street in the early 1900s.

Bawdy and bustling in those days, Beale Street was an entertainment and business center frequented by black folks from throughout the Memphis and Mississippi Delta regions.

By the 1970s, though, the nightclubs that had hosted entertainers such as W.C. Handy, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and B.B. King were gone. Political and social shifts had turned the strip into a run-down cluster of empty buildings.

The strip began a comeback in the 1980s, and now the Beale Street Historic District, with its bars, restaurants and shops, is a major tourist attraction and a key part of the revival of downtown Memphis.

Performa Entertainment, the private company that manages Beale Street for the city, puts the total number of visitors to the strip at 6 million a year. Performa is also a partner in Lee’s Landing.

“We think that fully 40 percent of everybody who comes to Beale Street is either an out-of-state visitor or out-of-country visitor,” says Performa Chairman John Elkington.

To accommodate visiting NBA teams, the nine-story hotel is raising the ceilings and doorways of its top-floor rooms and putting in longer beds. Shower heads are being raised, too, so the NBA players can freshen up without scrunching up.

“And we’ll have a special side entrance they can come through as well as going through the lobby,” says Dave Jones, a founding partner in the hotel with the Senate Hospitality Group in Brentwood, Tenn.

The 200-room, $39 million hotel, part of the Westin chain, will have 21 suites and a Daily Grill restaurant providing 24-hour room service. Most hotels its size, Mr. Jones says, have three or four suites.

In its heyday, Beale Street had rooms to rent for the musicians, gamblers and prostitutes working the strip, and the remnants of what was called the Clark Hotel are still evident in the small rooms, now used for storage, above the Blues City Cafe, one of the district’s night-life staples.

“There were a lot of rooms, but they weren’t really what you’d call a hotel,” Mr. Elkington says.

The Ground Zero in Clarksdale, famous for its fried catfish and fried grits as well as its music, is in a building that housed a general store and a cotton business before sitting empty for 30 years.

“Most of the time, juke joints popped up in buildings that were abandoned,” Mr. Luckett says. “This will be the first juke joint ever built new, but we’re going to try to make it old immediately, on the inside, anyway.”

Ground Zero will bring its Clarksdale menu to Memphis.

“Our favorite thing right now seems to be the fried green tomato sandwich with bacon and cheese,” Mr. Luckett says. “People go crazy over that one.”

And just how do you fry grits?

“They’re leftover grits,” Mr. Luckett says. “You let them cool, and they sort of jell, and then you fry them. They’re delicious.”

Though Beale Street’s revival has been a success, critics sometimes complain that the blues are overpowered today by rock ‘n’ roll and other newer forms of music.

Mr. Luckett says Ground Zero’s booking agent, Roger Stolle of Clarksdale, will try to take care of that.

“He’s a purist,” Mr. Luckett says, “and even if some of our bands start to drift off into rock ‘n’ roll and stuff, he snaps them back into place.”

Most Beale Street business owners in the old days were white, but the street holds a special place in the history of black Americans.

“This project was set out to make sure that the majority of the owners were African-American,” Mr. Elkington says, noting that 70 percent of the investors in the Lee’s Landing garage and entertainment project are black.

Putting together a project like Lee’s Landing offers a particular challenge on Beale Street because the strip is owned by the city.

Developers have a 99-year lease on the Beale Street site, but they don’t own it, and lenders want large cash investments for such projects, Mr. Elkington says.

“It took two years to get the hotel done,” he says. “It’s a complicated process.”

Beale Street ended up as public property when the poor, mostly black neighborhoods surrounding it were leveled by a federally funded urban renewal program designed to help revitalize American cities.

“It was a misguided program. The money would have been much better used for restoration,” says Charles Carpenter, a University of Memphis history professor. “They left it a wasteland.”

• • •

Beale Street: www.bealestreet.com. Places to hear live music include Alfred’s on Beale, B.B. King’s Blues Club, the Black Diamond, Blues City Cafe and Band Box, 152 Beale St., Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall, and Rum Boogie Cafe. Retailers include A. Schwab, which has been in business since 1876, where you can buy souvenirs and nickel candy; and Memphis Music, which sells keepsakes and recorded music. The Pig on Beale is one of several places where you can get barbecued ribs; Dyer’s is famous for deep-fried burgers.

Beale Street Historic District: Beale Street between Main and Fourth streets; 901/526-0110.

Lee’s Landing: A luxury Westin hotel and Ground Zero Blues Club will open on Beale Street in spring 2007, near the FedEx Forum, the sports and entertainment arena built for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

Memphis Tourism: www.memphistravel.com or 901/543-5333. Memphis is also home to Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Sun Studio and the Gibson Guitar Factory.

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