Around here, you hear Belz.
October 22nd, 2015
Just before it closed, mice ran across its once polished floors, mold and cracks covered its once proud walls, and – like the downtown it once was queen of – only memories served as witness and court to the majesty that once was The Peabody.
One person, more than any other, changed all that.
At the time The Peabody reopened in 1981, the campaign I wrote and directed to rebrand it was the biggest and scariest assignment I had ever had. For my ad agency. For my city. It won a bunch of awards and gave my confidence and career a boost, but the satisfaction I felt came less from that and more from the feeling that I hadn’t let that one person down.
Jack Belz gave me the chance to that work. And Jack Belz gave downtown Memphis a chance to survive and its ducking strut back.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, October 23, 2015, and in The Memphis News, October 24-31, 2015
BELZ IS AT IT AGAIN. AND THAT’S A GOOD THING.
If you think you know Memphis, and you don’t know about him, you don’t know Jack.
Following his father Phillip as patriarch to the Belz family, Jack Belz led Belz Enterprises for decades, a company close to or at the top of Tennessee property owners for all that time. A quiet philanthropist and quiet pioneer in the concepts of city gateway centers and discount malls, Belz went very public with the world-class renovation and reopening of The Peabody. As surely as the ducks march to the lobby fountain in the South’s grand hotel, Jack Belz’s vision has led the march back downtown for people and businesses for more than 30 years. At the top of the list of people most responsible for the city’s central business district revitalization, there’s only one other comparable name, fellow visionary and downtown developer Henry Turley, and even at that, Turley has partnered with Belz in several successful ventures.
I was fortunate enough to be part of that reopening and I’ve worked for Jack and Belz Enterprises off and on over the ensuing years, my career shaped by that experience and my respect for Jack and what he’s meant to Memphis only growing.
Anybody that’s ever been looked in the eye and addressed by Jack Belz knows what you say next might just be a career-altering moment. When my ad agency was hired in 1981, I was introduced to Jack on The Peabody mezzanine as the massive remodeling was underway. Several mattresses being considered for the guest rooms were lined up, and Jack, immaculately dressed as always, was jumping up and down on one to test its worthiness. Dismounting and straightening his finely tailored jacket, he took my hand, fixed those eyes on mine, and said, “Young man, you had best do a damn good job.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
Just before the hotel was to open and everyone involved was in a huge mandatory meeting chaired by Jack, I was called to the phone. Nora was any-minute-now pregnant, and I raced to take the call. As I reached the door, Jack called out over the entire assemblage, “You will, of course, name that child Baby Peabody.”
“Yes sir,” I said. I rarely see Jack anymore, but when I do, he asks about Baby Peabody.
Now Belz Enterprises wants to revitalize the intersection of Union and McLean, replacing outdated eyesores with sleek apartments and signature retail, pumping some $43 million of new life into a vital artery.
If the result does a fraction for that corner what Belz did for the corner of Union and Second, it’s more than worth a little help from the city. Reopening The Peabody and revitalizing downtown required more tax breaks than a Republican stump speech and more connections than a Lego set, but if Ron Belz, now president and COO of Belz Enterprises, is asking for a hand…
“Yes sir,” I say.
I’m a Memphian, and I’d like to say thanks to Jack. From me. From an entire city.
If you don’t read it, I’ll read it to you.
The book is available in print online and all over town and now in audio online at Amazon, Audible and iTunes, read by the author – columns, comments and character references for a city filled with it and often absolutely full of it. Take a look or a listen.