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Old Posted Feb 24, 2007, 4:24 PM
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Location: Birmingham, AL
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BJCC has Memphis makeover in mind
Beale Street developer may work magic here
Saturday, February 24, 2007
ROY L. WILLIAMSNews staff writer

SALT LAKE CITY - The firm that turned Beale Street in Memphis into an international tourist destination was selected Friday by BJCC directors to develop an entertainment district for Birmingham's convention center.

The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex board directed its lawyer and executive director to negotiate a contract with Memphis-based Performa Entertainment Group, aiming toward being able to court prospective tenants for the BJCC entertainment district as soon as May.

In a related development, the Sheraton Birmingham told BJCC board members that it intends to add a 300-room hotel that would be adjacent to the entertainment district.

In a presentation Friday at the BJCC board's retreat in Salt Lake City, Performa CEO John Elkington told board members that the venue - tentatively named District at the BJCC - would cost $55 million to build and would include a mix of restaurant, entertainment and retailers new to Birmingham.

He said the project would not need government incentives, that he had already lined up private financing and that he was in preliminary discussions with several well-known businesses as possible tenants. He would not disclose their names.

"These wouldn't be just a Chili's or Applebee's - people can drive to the suburbs to eat there," Elkington said. "The key to success is to attract entertainment and restaurants unique and special to draw people downtown. What makes Beale Street a draw are things like the B.B. King blues club and the Pat O'Brien's bar that is one of only two in the U.S."

Elkington estimated the BJCC entertainment district would generate $55 million in sales after its first full year of occupancy and create 800 full- and part-time jobs.

The selection of Performa was the biggest development Friday as the BJCC kicked off its Utah retreat, where the panel today is expected to learn how much it would cost to expand the civic center with a 40,000-seat arena that both Birmingham and Jefferson County's top government leaders support.

Under the entertainment district deal, Performa would lease space on BJCC land adjacent to the Southeastern Conference headquarters and develop a two- to three-block entertainment district. The BJCC would get a percentage of sales generated by the district.

Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid and Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins jointly seconded a motion by fellow board member Dennis Lathem to give Jack Fields, the BJCC executive director, and lawyer Tom Stewarts permission to draft a contract with Performa.

Once the contract is written, the full board will vote on it.

Kincaid and Collins said the project would be a "win-win" for both the city and county because Elkington said that Performa doesn't need any government incentives and has enough private financing to complete the project.

"I'm here spinning cartwheels because it's rare you have a developer offer to build something with this magnitude and not need anything from the city," Kincaid said.

Boogie down Beale:

Collins, who said she has seen firsthand how Performa's Beale Street project has revitalized downtown Memphis, said: "We'd be foolish to not go with this group."

Fields said development of an entertainment district will be a crucial part of the BJCC's expansion plans. He said it would be a tremendous draw for tourists and conventioneers, especially when coupled with the 40,000-seat arena that would be built adjacent to the district.

Elkington said Performa plans to include a 100-room hotel in the district as well as apartments above retail shops. In addition, the Sheraton Birmingham plans a 300-room addition to its hotel that will be connected to the district, General Manager Mark Noyes said. That hotel will have services provided by the current 757-room Sheraton Birmingham.

Fields also said that Chattanooga developer Franklin Haney is still interested in building another 300-room hotel near the BJCC. Getting more hotel rooms within walking distance is crucial for the city to attract more conventions, said Jim Smither, president of the Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Two major religious conventions that attracted nearly 6,000 people last year - the Freewill and Presbyterian groups - have both said they wouldn't come back to Birmingham because their members had to stay in hotels as far away as Hoover, Smither said.

"It's not just the lack of hotel rooms," Fields said. "Some of them said there was simply nothing to do at night outside the conventions.

"This is not the first time we've heard this."

Birmingham-Hoover: 1,117,847
Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman: 1,199,171
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