MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - If vacant stores were a sign of wealth, downtown Memphis would be rich. There may be some signs of life on South Main and other pockets, but the Downtown Memphis Commission admits there are problems.
Downtown Memphis during the lunch hour is about as busy as it's going to get all day. Dan Evans, who works downtown, said, "The majority of traffic that you see down here are the employees and people who work in the city during the day."
On Main Street south of Madison there are plenty of vacant store fronts with a few restaurants that close early in the afternoon.
Downtown resident Jennifer Provost used to live in Nashville, and she says downtown Memphis is no Nashville. "You'll rarely see vacant stores in downtown Nashville," she said. "Everything is always bustling; there are a lot of people down there."
There have been big dreams for downtown Memphis over the years, models of a modern metropolis that don't seem to mesh with real life. While things are better - a lot of people have moved downtown over the years - a lot of people have also followed that old saying, "Go east young man, go east."
Paul Morris heads up the Downtown Memphis Commission, a group that is supposed to pump life into something that for years had been a Rip Van Winkle of downtowns. He said, "There are a lot of vacancies and we're challenged, in part, because a lot of the population over the last 30 or 40 years has moved east. So it hurts your downtown when the mass of your population is farther and farther away from downtown."
He talks about more people moving in and of the big changes on South Main, but adds those who criticize his agency for not doing enough simply don't get it.
"Downtown is still the most densely populated, most visited part of this region," Morris stated.
The city is planning on spending millions of your dollars on making the Pinch District a gateway to Memphis. Paul Morris admits, however, you can't have much of a gateway if it leads to the land of empty buildings.
Take the Main Street trolley some day and do some sightseeing. Pay attention to areas like the Pinch District of north downtown Memphis. You won't find any finer blight anywhere.
There are some who opened businesses there hoping they'd make a go of it, but the closing of the Pyramid didn't help. Some even tried using French. If this is Rue North Memphis, the owners could be called Les Miserables.
There are plans to improve the Pinch District, big money plans.
But Eric Groff, who also works downtown, wants to know about the other sections. "I think the Mayor has done a lot of work to bring in jobs, but as far a developing downtown, I don't think he's put as much into it because you've got to balance with all of the other initiatives as well."
Over at the Downtown Memphis Commission they've got a fancy little model set up of how downtown will never look. Morris said instead it will be a place where people live, eat, and enjoy life. Although, they might have to be careful they don't trip over the cracks in the pavement.
"We've got a lot of vacant buildings, a lot of blight," Morris said. "The infrastructure downtown is abysmal. The public infrastructure and public spaces have not been maintained."
The facts are any big downtown project gets rough treatment by the Memphis City Council. With a budget that bleeds red ink, they are often reluctant to spend money in a place where some claim only the tourists go, even though there are more than 20,000 people who live downtown.