Makeover Planned to Improve Business Appeal of Memphis Airport Area

When local law enforcement targeted the Black Tail Shake Joint on Brooks Road recently, alleging more than 30 incidents of prostitution and pornographic acts, officials at Smith & Nephew surely cheered.

Doctors and researchers from around the world often fly into town to visit Smith & Nephew's 35-acre campus near Memphis International Airport.

They are whisked by limousine to the high-tech, well-manicured facility on Brooks Road.

However, on their way to the facility they often must pass two strip clubs, prostitutes wandering up and down the street and an area in dire need of cleaning and redevelopment.

Now, business and civic leaders are openly saying what many Memphians have whispered for years, that the Airport/Brooks Road corridor - home to the city's economic engine - is an embarrassment and could even be an impediment to further growth.

In October, city chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb convened many of the city's division directors to begin working on the problem.

On Jan. 24, officials from the Memphis Regional Chamber, Smith & Nephew, Medtronic, FedEx, Pinnacle Airlines, Elvis Presley Enterprises and the Airport Authority, among others, will team with community and business organizations such as the Lamar Airways Business Association to begin formulating a comprehensive plan to improve the area around the airport.

"It's important to the more than 1,800 employees we have there and the surgeons that come there that we provide a world-class operation," said Victor Rocha, spokesman for Smith & Nephew. "The tide could be turning."

Johnson Controls Corp., a Fortune 100 firm that specializes in automotive interiors, building efficiency and power solutions, will lead one of its MetroMarkets Ideation Workshops, designed to help communities create strategies for sustainable economic development, on the area.

"You've got Smith & Nephew, Medtronic and the FedEx hub and they are all growing and prospering and yet the surrounding community isn't," said Eric Reisner, who will lead the session for Johnson Controls. "I view it as an opportunity for Memphis. We want to come away with a plan, with input from all the stakeholders, that can be executed."

The area that includes the airport, Brooks Road and Elvis Presley's Graceland is home to three key industries the city wants to grow: distribution and logistics, medical device manufacturing, and tourism and entertainment.

"That's our engine," said Lipscomb. "That's the airport. That's biotech. It's entertainment and residential. It's rare that a community has all those ingredients in one place. It's so important for the economic well-being of the community."

Memphis International Airport pumped $20.8 billion into the area economy in 2004 and supported one of every four area jobs, according to a study done by analysts at the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis. That includes $5.6 billion in payroll and 166,000 jobs generated by airport activities.

John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina and a main proponent of aerotropolises - cities built around the economic power of airports - said visitors to the city's airport may get a less-than-favorable impression of the city.

"My initial reaction to the area around (the airport) was that its aesthetics should be improved," he said. "The immediate airport area is a critical first-impression setter for many first-time visitors to Memphis.

"Major efforts, in particular, should also be made to have visually attractive corridors leading from the airport to the Downtown and to other key commercial and tourist nodes," said Kasarda. "Poor planning of the future Memphis aerotropolis could prevent the city and region from realizing the full potential that it offers to job creation, economic development and resident quality of life."

Larry Cox, chief executive of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, agrees.

"What goes on around the airport and how it looks has an impact," he said. "The airport and the area around it is the official front door to the community and region. If it doesn't look attractive and have the right environment, for the people who are visiting us or considering investing in the community, then we're all losers."

During a recent tour of Smith & Nephew's campus, City Council members were told that hotels and other businesses interested in the area have backed off because of the existing conditions.

Nearby Graceland brings an estimated 600,000 visitors to the area every year.

While the neighborhood around Graceland is middle- to upper-middle class, the drive from the airport to Graceland - particularly along heavily traveled routes like Brooks and Elvis Presley - is dotted with empty, outdated and decaying buildings.

When Robert F.X. Sillerman, who paid $100 million for an 85 percent stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises in late 2004, visited Memphis last year to tout his vision for an improved Graceland, he wanted assurances that the city would do its part to improve the area.

"It needs to be because we have around 600,000 people, for the most part getting off at the interstate at Brooks and Elvis Presley, making their way down to Graceland," said Jack Soden, president and CEO of EPE. "Every step of the way they have to be going, 'Surely we're lost.'

"A lot of them have this vision of Tara and they're coming down Elvis Presley Boulevard saying, 'It can't be here.' But, you know, Graceland tends to save the day."

EPE has been buying property along Elvis Presley Boulevard in anticipation of making millions of dollars worth of improvements to the area.

"We've got an ownership group with very deep pockets and significant intention to invest in the future of the Elvis legacy," said Soden. "If we make Graceland as big a draw as we think it can be, we are going to suffer if we don't control the doughnut of land around us."

Piecemeal efforts have been made to rehabilitate the area before, including a Brooks Road task force created by the Memphis Regional Chamber in 1998, but stakeholders said this could be the beginning of a sustained effort.

"We've been working and made some incremental benefits," said Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development at the Chamber. "What we've realized is we've got to step it up a notch."

"We've got to have senior levels of leadership in business, the community and government of the same mind and committed," he said. "It's kind of like the Brooks Road task force on steroids."

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