published Monday, June 10th, 2013

Blight persists on M.L. King as Bessie Smith Strut nears

Champy's Chicken, seen on Friday afternoon, is one of a few businesses doing well on once- thriving M.L. King Boulevard, where the Bessie Smith Strut will take place Monday.
Champy's Chicken, seen on Friday afternoon, is one of a few businesses doing well on once- thriving M.L. King Boulevard, where the Bessie Smith Strut will take place Monday.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
JUNE 7-15 • CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE

A sea of white working- and middle-class customers noisily chows down on hot chicken and catfish under the cool covered porch at Champy's. The parking lot is so crowded that cars pull into the grassy vacant lot next door. Patons walk-race each other to get in line, where everyone is watching women's tennis.

But they could have parked anywhere. Up and down M.L. King Boulevard, away from the hustle of Seth Champion's popular restaurant, it's a quiet, empty street.

A short distance from Champy's, a man is rooting around in a city garbage can. In the shade of the Key Bonding Co., a painter is napping in public, oblivious to the cars rushing down the boulevard.

Most of the cars don't stop. There's little reason to do so.

Champy's is surrounded by vacant lots and empty buildings that stretch in both directions on M.L. King Boulevard between Lindsay Street and the railroad trestle. Mold covers the bricks of former hot spot The Whole Note. Thick, green moss is thriving on the awning of its neighbor, the Half Note. No one answers a knock on the door, and a phone number for the business is disconnected.

The two nightclubs were all the rage in the segregation era, when they were a must-see for musical acts who would often stop in to party after a performance, said Sandra Kelly, who co-owns 2 Sista's Deli down the road.

"I used to come here when I was young," she said, recalling the days when M.L. King Boulevard was called Ninth Street. "This was the strip, the Big Nine."

The closest it will get this year to those glory days is today's Bessie Smith Strut, when thousands of Chattanooga residents gather to listen to music on the boulevard, sample soul food and say hello to old friends under the watchful eye of dozens of Chattanooga police officers. It's the single day of the year when one of downtown's most neglected streets begins to resemble its old self, and serves as a reminder of the Chattanooga renaissance that has left this corridor behind.

The decay started after desegregation, when many traditionally black businesses -- no longer limited in where they could operate -- moved elsewhere, leaving cracked paint and barred windows behind.

As urban renewal took hold on Main Street and the city's North Shore, little renewal happened on M.L. King, despite the area's proximity to downtown and tremendous potential that comes from being in a university district.

Even the street's new buildings remained immune to Chattanooga's economic awakening. The optimistically named Renaissance Square development remained empty for years. The city's attempt to help rehab the street turned one viable residential or retail building into a foreboding fortress for IT infrastructure, complete with security doors and barbed wire out back. The vacant building next door belongs to a New York resident who couldn't be reached for comment.

Some whisper that the remaining owners of the boulevard's shuttered properties would prefer to wait for a big payday from nearby UTC, which is acquiring land to expand housing and services for its 12,000 students.

"People are waiting to get paid," Kelly said. "They're waiting for UTC to come to them."

As they wait, buildings have literally crumbled. Once the rain begins to trickle in through the roof and the mortar between the historic bricks hardens and becomes brittle, it becomes much more difficult to save a structure.

UTC, for its part, isn't in any hurry to pay exorbitant prices for dilapidated buildings.

"That's certainly not going to happen, and that's certainly not our role," said Dr. Richard Brown, vice chancellor for finance, operations and information technology at UTC. "The good news is that the university provides about 15,000 people daily. I think this is one of the areas that has the most potential of anywhere in the city."

Brown, who just finished a comprehensive master plan for UTC's expansion in the next decade, said it's going to be mostly up to private developers and community leaders to choose their own destinies. The university will provide the students, but property owners will have to provide the pharmacies, convenience stores and grocery stores that could make the area come alive.

"I think our appropriate role is to really facilitate and collaborate those conversations and get the right people at the right seats at the right table at the right time," Brown said.

But getting everyone to agree on a course of action is difficult. Not everyone even agrees that the street is in trouble.

Local boosters point to a handful of barbershops, restaurants and drinking establishments as a sign that M.L. King Boulevard still has a beating heart.

"Well, there's Champy's," is how most such conversations begin.

New life

Some believe that, like much of the rest of Chattanooga, the historically black district is due for a resurrection. A new dollar store, tobacco mart and barbershop are signs that the street is turning the corner. The Chatt Smokehouse is doing well, they say, and the street appears to have as many hair care establishments per capita as any other street in Chattanooga.

Yet for some of M.L. King Boulevard's ongoing businesses, it's not immediately apparent whether tugging on the front door will reveal an exciting dining experience or trigger a roof collapse.

Memo's, an established eatery that opens only on Friday and Saturday, is the former. Known for its chopped hot dogs marinated in sauce, Memo's sees a steady stream of customers when it's open. Last Friday, most customers chose not to eat inside, leaving the car running while they waited for their food and then driving off.

Next to Memo's, the doors are hanging from the hinges of the eyesore known as the "Re-Tiredmen Den." On the other side of Memo's, a new tobacco mart and barbershop are doing brisk business. And the Chatt Smokehouse is busier still, even keeping regular business hours during the week.

"People have started coming back to the street," said Chatt Smokehouse owner James Massengill. "My customer base has started to grow."

Signs of life

Outside the central business district, new homes have popped up, taking advantage of the vacant lots in the area. There are regular musical acts at JJ's Bohemia and the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

While a full recovery will take more than a handful of part-time shopkeepers, no one's exactly sure what will push M.L. King Boulevard over the top, or what's currently holding it back.

Asked what the community could do to grow the street's commercial appeal, Al Jackson, owner of Jackson Towing, that's the "million-dollar question."

"There's nothing that I can think of, short of a large anchor coming in to the area," he said.

A collective approach to marketing the street's events would be a good start, said Rose Martin, director of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. But some merchants say they haven't met together in a long time -- not since last year's Bessie Smith Strut.

Roger Patel, who owns a number of Smoothie Kings in the area, said construction on his building has been held up by city officials and regulations, a critique echoed by other building owners. Patel said has been waiting for eight months for the OK.

"We are still waiting on approval from the City Council," he said.

Jessie Stoutemire, a barber at the Live & Let Live Barber Shop, said the street's economy was hurt by federal agents' efforts to clean up the local drug trade. Outside the barbershop, an old sign in front of the Whiteside Manor retirement home says "Never Stop S_ng_ng," with the two i's removed.

"Business is bad," the barber said. "Things ain't like they used to be. The feds cleaned it up, but they cleaned it up too much."

Adding to the street's woes, the state next year will give up one of the biggest office buildings on the boulevard -- the James Mapp Office Building -- along with the Chattanooga State Office Building a couple of blocks away on McCallie Avenue.

The move will remove 400 state employees from the vicinity, though that loss could be offset by 3,000 new UTC students coming to campus over the next few years.

Just east of the railroad trestle, Warren Logan is overflowing with optimism. From his offices in the Chattanooga Urban League headquarters, the president and CEO of the Urban League sees a growing wave of new businesses just over the horizon.

"I think this is going to be a tremendous transition over the next 12 to 24 months in terms of what you're going to see on the boulevard," said Logan. "I have talked with people who have specific plans, who basically will be funded one way or the other, and I think they're going to be an attribute to the further development of the boulevard."

While Logan didn't divulge specifics, there's at least one concrete sign of hope.

Renaissance Square, now called Park Town @ 301 by new owner Troy Potter, has a Dollar Store moving into one of its bays, and more establishments will be on the way in the next 18 months, Potter said.

"We're looking at maybe even going out and finishing out the rest of it, putting a concrete floor in it," he said. "We've had grocery stores talk to us, still got a couple of those that we're talking to."

And yet, whenever he comes downtown to look at his building, the only place where he stops to eat is Champy's.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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