Macon mu$ic: City could make millions by creating a downtown entertainment district

Macon is in prime position to revitalize the Poplar Street section of downtown and turn it into an entertainment district that could be worth millions in revenue, a Memphis, Tenn., developer told a crowd Wednesday.

But it’s up to the community to come together with a plan of action and execute it, said John Elkington, president of Performa Entertainment Real Estate, which operates Memphis’ famed Beale Street entertainment district.

Elkington came to Macon to speak at the request of the newly formed Macon Music & Creative Arts Alliance, a group of Macon residents hoping to use many of the empty buildings on Poplar Street and redevelop the area as a nightlife draw centered around Macon’s musical heritage.

“You have hallowed ground here,” Elkington told a crowd of about 200 at Cox Capitol Theatre. “It’s amazing the impact music has had here.”

Elkington told the crowd he was impressed with his visit to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and was encouraged by such projects as the Big House Museum, devoted to the history of the Allman Brothers Band.

Some in the crowd raised concerns about the alliance’s proposed slogan for Macon, “The Birthplace of Southern Rock,” saying it excludes the famed soul acts that got their start here — including Otis Redding, Little Richard and James Brown — before the Allman Brothers created the style of music known as Southern rock.

But Kirsten West, the public relations director for The Big House and one of the alliance’s organizers, said “The Birthplace of Southern Rock” isn’t a firm slogan. Rather, it’s something to build from.

“We may call it ‘The Birthplace of Southern Rock and Soul,’ ” she said. “It’s up to the community as to how we brand ourselves. But if you go to places like Europe, they know Macon is the home to the Allman Brothers and Southern rock.”

Local developer Zan Thompson, another alliance member, said Poplar Street is the perfect place to create the entertainment district because of its many vacant buildings and its wide streets with park-like areas in the middle, which would be perfect for events such as street festivals.

Elkington said that the Beale Street district was built upon Memphis’ heritage of soul music and rock ’n’ roll acts such as Elvis Presley but has since opened itself up to other styles of music such as hip-hop and country.

Elkington told the crowd it’s important to create unique restaurants, nightclubs and shopping for the district and not to populate it with chain restaurants that don’t identify the area as Macon. He pointed to Underground Atlanta as an entertainment district that failed in part because it featured generic chain restaurants.

One of the biggest challenges facing the alliance will be financing the project, Elkington said, given the recession.

“It’s hard to develop right now,” he told the crowd. “It’s hard to finance these type of projects. ... The days of government financing these type of projects are over.”

But Elkington said that if the development proves successful, it can lead to huge gains for the community. He said Beale Street has 171 events every year and averages 13,000 visitors per day, making it the single-largest tourist attraction in Tennessee.

“If you develop an entertainment district, it needs to be unique and different,” he said.

West said the Macon alliance isn’t trying to replace any of the existing organizations that are promoting downtown Macon, such as NewTown Macon and the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Rather, she said, the alliance has already been working with them.

Sonya Rice, a CVB spokeswoman, said anything that serves as an attraction for Macon is a good thing.

“(Prior) research shows that music and architecture were major draws for tourists,” she said. “We support any efforts to bring more tourists to Macon. We want to work hard with any organization to that end.”

Mayor Robert Reichert, who attended the meeting, said he came away impressed and optimistic.

“I’m very optimistic that this group can develop something concrete over time,” he said. “I’m pleased (Elkington) found so many positive things about Macon that can be an attraction.”

Thompson said the next step the group should take is put together a concrete plan of action. But he said he’s pleased with where the alliance stands now.

“We wanted to hear what (Elkington) had to say,” Thompson said. “He has a history of doing what we want to do. I think we are already so much further along (than Memphis was). We have to come up with a business plan and a timeframe. I think that will be a topic of conversation at our next meeting.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.