The Forge (BJCC)
The Forge was a planned entertainment district to have been developed by Memphis, Tennessee-based Performa Entertainment Real Estate, under contract with the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. As part of the BJCC, the Forge was to have been constructed on both sides of 10th Avenue North just east of the BJCC and to fill a need for additional lodging, dining and entertainment facilities within walking distance of the convention center.
The BJCC conducted a national request for development proposals. Discussions with the authority's first choice, Bayer Properties, broke down for lack of public commitment to the planned BJCC expansion. Performa won the contract to lease and develop the BJCC-owned property during the Board's annual retreat in February 2007 in Salt Lake City. Performa and its CEO John Elkington are most known for their investment in the redevelopment of Beale Street as an entertainment district in Memphis. Their other projects (in Jackson, Mississippi and Trenton, New Jersey) have been mired in delays, with the developer's involvement receiving mixed reviews.
As announced, the $41 million, 135,000 square foot project would have included 100,000 square feet of retail, restaurants and performance venues, 100 residential apartments, and a 140-150 room hotel. The agreement was formalized on April 27 with a minimum commitment of $25 million in private capital development for construction and a 99-year lease for the land. Performa would have payed the BJCC 5% of monthly gross income from the project and 50% of distributable net annual income after expenses and debt service.
The project was originally scheduled to break ground in Fall 2007 and open as early as the following year. The last announced completion date was set for August 2009, with construction to have begun in September 2008. In the summer of 2007 Elkington approached several local business owners about relocating or expanding to The District. Ona Watson expressed strong interest in the project. Restauranteur Frank Stitt declined, but expressed support for the developer's interest in using local entrepreneurs.
Elkington also approached Golden Rule Bar-B-Q executive Charles Matsos, and Clayton Sherrod, owner of Chef Clayton's Food Systems. Elkington mentioned other national operators that he planned to court such as Coyote Ugly, Hard Rock Café, Dick Clark's American Music Café, and Pat O'Briens. He also talked about expanding some of Beale Street's signature venues and about inviting Alabama sports figures like Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson to participate in the district.
Renderings published in Black & White showed red brick and glass facades with light-colored trim fronting the BJCC parking deck. Streetlights and ornamental trees were shown along with café tables and signage as part of the streetscape. Plans called for two large outdoor courtyards and 24-40 tenant spaces for nightclubs, restaurants and shops.
In July, Elkington announced that American Idol winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks had both agreed to lend their names to nightclubs in the district. Comedy Club Stardome operator Bruce Ayers agreed to work on a concept entertainment venue for the district. Randy Adamy, owner of O'Henry's Coffees has also been contacted about opening a location there.
In December 2007 Performa indicated that it expected to have 60 percent of tenants signed and to have financing together by March, in time for a spring groundbreaking that would allow for a Summer 2009 opening. In January 2008 the BJCC board announced plans to re-create the famous Magic City sign that stood in front of the Birmingham Terminal Station as a gateway into the district.
The board also toured Memphis' Beale Street development in January and met with Elkington, at which time he informed them that 86,000 of the District's 136,000 square feet was spoken for either by pre-lease or letter-of-intent, which should have been enough for him to finance the project. He expected that groundbreaking would take place in June 2008 with the project open for business on schedule in the Summer of 2009. He also said that a final name for the district would be announced later in the week, and would be either "City Station", "The Forge", or "Whatley Yard".
On January 31, the name "The Forge" was announced as Performa's selection. Elkington told the press, "We wanted a name with historical associations for Birmingham that also suggested a new era for entertainment."
On April 17, 2008 Elkington told the Birmingham Commercial Real Estate Women that the project was 82% leased and that he expected that number to grow after the May convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers. He mentioned discussions with AEG about constructing a 2,500-seat theater as part of the project and expressed confidence in a June groundbreaking. As of May 16 the district was still 82% leased as Performa made plans to open an office in Birmingham. Elkington was still negotiating for a second new hotel.
On August 29, a group sponsored by the Birmingham Business Leadership Group published a report supporting building the Domed stadium near the BJCC and site of the Forge. Performa announced at the time that they would order steel for the project and break ground in September, with completion scheduled for August 2009.
In February 2009, with ground yet to be broken, Performa reported that it was still unable to secure the necessary financing. Elkington announced that changes were being made to the design of the district to allow it to be constructed in phases and reported that the opening would be pushed back until at least 2010. Mayor Langford later proposed giving a six-month extension to Performa, but the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex board voted the motion down in April 2009, effectively ending its agreement with the developer.
Elkington admitted that he would not have been able to meet the board's deadline, but affirmed his commitment to pursuing the project somewhere else in the Birmingham area. He looked at sites in Lakeview, near the Railroad Park, downtown, Homewood and near the Birmingham Race Course. In early May, when BJCC board chairman Clyde Echols announced that he would ask the board to reconsider an extension, Elkington declined to comment on whether he would be interested in resuming the project at the BJCC site. By 2010, Elkington was leasing spaces in the Cityville 121 project near Railroad Park.
In May 2010 Mayor William Bell announced preliminary plans for the The Marketplace, a $70 million development featuring a 303-room Westin Hotel along with multiple restaurant, nightclub and retail spaces.
- Williams, Roy L. (December 14, 2007) "Comedy Club, O'Henry's Coffee owners consider expanding to BJCC entertainment district." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (June 21, 2007) "BJCC district's promoter has a taste for local flavor." Birmingham News.
- Diel, Stan, (April 28, 2007) "BJCC OKs $25 million hospitality district plan." Birmingham News
- Crowe, Christina (April 19, 2007) "Downtown Doubt." Black & White
- Williams, Roy L. (January 29, 2008) "Birmingham officials say trip to Memphis convinced them Beale Street model will work here." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (January 31, 2008) "Developer selects name for downtown entertainment district." Birmingham News
- Cooper, Lauren B. (April 17, 2008) "Developer: Construction on entertainment district to start in two months." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (May 17, 2008) "Performa opening Birmingham office." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (July 6, 2008) "The Forge developer has 390 days to complete Birmingham entertainment district - and he swears he will." Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. and Roy Williams (August 30, 2008) "Study concludes dome should find home near BJCC; Langford, execs support proposal." Birmingham News
- DeButts, Jimmy (February 20, 2009) "The Forge still searching for financing." Birmingham News
- "Forge developer's extension denied." (April 17, 2009) Birmingham Business Journal. Accessed April 20, 2009.
- Tomberlin, Michael (April 18, 2009) "The Forge no longer planned for BJCC site." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (May 5, 2009) "Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex chairman wants to give Performa Entertainment more time to seek financing for a downtown entertainment district." Birmingham News