by John Branston
Ten years ago, a profile of Andy Cates graced the first cover of the very first issue of this magazine – then called Memphis Business Quarterly -- published in the autumn of 2006. Back then Cates was best known as the “boy wonder” most responsible for having brought back to life one of Memphis’ most famous brands, when the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy opened their doors to start the twenty-first century.
Tim Sampson, longtime communications director for the Soulsville Foundation — the organization that has overseen the Stax revival — recalls first meeting Cates in 1998 (when he was just 28 years old) at the empty lot where the Stax Recording Studio used to stand: “And then I watched him go into action to do something that not many people would have had the perseverance to do: build a world-class museum and music school in one of the most blighted areas in the country.
“Andy is brilliant, energetic, and focused. And he has a huge heart.”
Today, Cates is a ripe old 46, with twin sons in high school, but he’s hardly slowed down a bit over the past decade. A native Memphian, he began his real estate career with the Trammell Crow Company in Dallas, after graduating from the University of Texas. In 2006 — the same year that he appeared on our first cover — he founded RVC Outdoor Destinations, intending to transform the very nature of recreational vehicle vacationing. “Better vacations are in our nature” is in fact the company’s slogan, as RVC now operates 10 high-quality outdoor resort destinations all across the country, site-designed to provide vacation opportunities in unique natural settings, and designed to take the concept of “camping” to a whole new, twenty-first century level.
Cates is still very much engaged in the Memphis philanthropic community, but these days RVC Outdoor Destinations is his real passion. He is particularly excited about the possibility of developing a unique site very close to home: right here on the banks of the Mississippi.
Cates wants to redevelop Mud Island River Park, a prominent if not popular piece of downtown Memphis and the riverfront since 1982. With the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid now one year old, Beale Street Landing finished, the high-rise apartments on the South Bluff transformed, and the Harahan Project coming later this year, everyone seems to agree that it’s about time. As Cates said in our interview 10 years ago, wasting time is the best way to stop things from happening.
“It’s time to take another step,” Mayor Jim Strickland said in June while asking for development bids. “I have authorized a process to envision the best and most responsible outcome in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake a large part of our Downtown, all without using a single cent of your property tax dollars.”
Needless to say, a Mud Island makeover won’t be easy or, necessarily, successful, as the very gods seemed to be reminding us when Cates and I recently drove from his office in Downtown’s Pinch District across the A.W. Willis Jr. Bridge to Mud Island. Ugly storm clouds were piling up over Arkansas, and the river went from glass to heavy chop in about 30 seconds. The skies opened up to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning just when we got to the guard shack.
“Go on through, he knows me,” Cates said with a wave to the attendant who was probably roused from his seat for the first time all day since the River Park was closed, as it always is, on Monday.
We drove through the empty parking lot, past the remnants of the playground torn down long ago, past the skeleton of the Memphis Belle pavilion closed long ago, up to the River Terrace restaurant closed long ago, and stopped to admire the Brutalist architecture (brutal is more like it) and the berm cutting off views of the river.
“So,” I said. “You’ve done pretty good with Soulsville, the Greenline, the Grizzlies, and RVC Outdoor Destinations. Whaddya think of this fixer-upper?”
Here’s how our discussion developed:
How has the Memphis business climate changed since 2006?
It hasn’t changed dramatically, but thankfully it also hasn’t lost ground while many other cities have fought for their lives. The biggest negative, by far, has been Delta Air Lines pulling out — and doing so in an obnoxiously aggressive way. I do whatever I can in life to avoid Hartsfield [Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport]. On the positive side, in addition to FDX, AutoZone, and IP (we need to say thanks for them every day) doing really well over the last decade and staying committed to Memphis, nice-sized companies like MAA, Sedgwick, and ServiceMaster are growing as well; the ServiceMaster announcement is a huge deal on a few levels.
RVC Outdoor Destinations was founded in 2006, the same year as this magazine. Where did the idea come from? How did it come about?
After Soulsville was open and running, I had to go back out into the world and make a living. I had done a few real estate deals but wanted to build something perpetual, meaningful, and value added. I was intrigued by outdoor hospitality and great recreational land, and had some friends who owned RV parks, but the main “aha” moment was talking to Barb Poier at a Grizzlies Christmas party. I had read a story about how she and Don [the late Grizzlies’ radio broadcaster] had traveled the country in their RV and asked where they stayed. Her answer regarding how hit or miss the places were, how people find the locations, and how no one really provided a Hilton-type of consistent, high-quality experience led to longer conversations and research. I logged a lot of mileage checking stuff out and rented an RV as well. And we quickly realized that other lodging options — cabins and cottages, and furnished tents — were also a big opportunity.
How did you weather the recession that hit a year later?
We have remarkable team members and partners. And we had no debt, which saved our bacon while things took longer to get going and were harder than we thought it would be (and we thought it would be hard!) all in the face of a terrifying economic environment. I’ve never been as stressed about business in my life because I felt very stupid and responsible if this didn’t work. But, I also have never been so thankful to have a wonderful wife and family and incredible investment partners.
Is there a generational change in attitude toward outdoor extreme sports, biking, and urban activity?
Outside magazine named Chattanooga the “Best Town Ever.” Nashville and Chattanooga have done a great job of marketing themselves. I think that Memphis is underestimating the power of the Harahan Project. It is over the top, beyond belief — you go a mile each way on the Harahan Bridge, there’s going to be another 75 miles of bike trail on the levee, then you come back this way on Riverside Drive. Whether you are biking, hiking, or driving it is going to be special. When the Greenline opened it was more popular than we hoped, and the Harahan will be that and more with a bigger impact on tourism. And it’s not only the generation of Millenials that is more focused on outdoor activities. Our city needs to be healthier and have more opportunities for that while coming together as a community.
What is in your vision to add excitement to Mud Island?
Picture a zip line four stories in the air, dramatically designed, then picture a water park done right. And I don’t mean just a water slide, but an artistically designed water park that is sculptural in its own right. Then picture our lodging as a big outdoor hotel. Imagine if you can rent a cabin furnished with wifi, a coffee maker, you wake up on a pretty morning and you are sitting on your porch looking at the river. This becomes your vacation without leaving the city, and you’re 10 minutes from Midtown. For those who are not from here, what better way to stay than in this unique environment? Or the family that wants to have a family vacation? And now we’ve got thousands of tourists coming off riverboats. This is the end of June, Monday, you have not seen one human being here. It’s crazy.
What about the current state of the Mud Island River Park?
Look at the tables, trash cans, the light standards; this place has not changed since the eighties. There is still a perception that this is hard to access. Part of that is because of where the entrance gate is. This road started as a construction entrance. Later on it became the service entrance. In reality, the park is as easy to access as Harbor Town, but the majority of Memphians don’t perceive it that way. Look over there across the parking lot, there’s a recycling center. Is that the best thing to have here? There hasn’t been real capital invested into Mud Island for decades. It’s massively undercapitalized.
What happens to the monorail?
The monorail is very dated. The Sky Bridge [the sidewalk above it] has a lot of potential and should be transformed into an active place. It’s one of the great views of the city and should be an experience and destination unto itself. And it should be tied into the Harahan, which will be a game changer itself.
And the amphitheater?
These outside walls are now dead space. There’s a ton of opportunity for branding the city. Go Grizzlies, Go Tigers, Memphis In May Honors This Country. Robert Plant was here and there was nothing in the way of marketing. The architecture is Brutalist, and, by the way, the architect, Roy Harrover, used that term. There is too much Normandy Beach here. See where the flags are at the tip of the island? That is screaming for LED, or a water feature that becomes an artistic monument to the city. Have you read Beale Street Dynasty? I would love to do something to memorialize Robert Church there. Both Church Jr. and Sr. were remarkable men in a hostile environment. They’re great Memphis stories and would have been supporters of the Grizzlies’ “grit and grind”!
What do you think of the success of the Stax museum, music academy, and charter school?
Regarding Soulsville, I stepped off the board last year after something like 15 years. It was time for new blood all around. That said, I am ecstatic and honored to be associated with it. The folks, including [executive director] NeShante Brown at the school and now [executive director] Jeff Kollath at the museum, are extremely solid and talented. I can’t take credit for their heavy lifting, but am happy to have helped lay the original foundation. It has served a lot of souls and protected the powerful Stax legacy.
What do you see as the next step for Soulsville?
If I have any regrets about Soulsville, it’s that we haven’t seen the neighborhood revitalization hit the level we all envisioned. That’s not to say it hasn’t been hugely improved and that our 6-plus-acre-campus didn’t provide a total 180-degree change in that epicenter, but there’s so much to be done to get it to be a healthier neighborhood. I am hopeful that Tom Shadyac buying the Town Center building across the street will help spark additional improvement. I am also grateful that Eric Robertson of Community LIFT is so focused on this. All of that is to say that I think the next step for Soulsville is for the neighborhood to improve even more rapidly, and that’s not code for gentrification.
You said in our inaugural issue that the first year you spent putting land deals together in Soulsville and meeting with the neighbors was “one of the most rewarding I’ve ever had.” Have you had such a year since?
The last couple of years with RVC have been very rewarding. Not because we are high-fiving and slapping ourselves on the back, but because we’ve built a real, sustainable business with an incredible team of people throughout the country who are doing this because they love it and believe in our mission. And no one gets paid enough, so if they aren’t all-in it wouldn’t work.
You said then, regarding Soulsville, that “we’re far from a tipping point in the market for commercial in the low-income neighborhoods.” Has that changed?
Sadly, no. If anything blight has been even more brutal in its cancerous growth (especially with the ’08 crash). Thankfully, folks like Steve Barlow, Archie Willis, and my dad are taking that on, but they will be the first to tell you that it’s a massive battle. Also, thankfully, the mayor and his team, as well as Judge Potter, get it and are all over it. It’s just bigger than anyone can fix in a short time period.
Do you still have an ownership stake in the Grizzlies?
I am out but my brother Staley is still very much a partner and really helped keep the team here when the last transaction happened (although he will be angered I brought him up since he studies how Howard Hughes avoided publicity). The new TV deal made all of the new buyers look very smart and I am happy for them, especially since I think most, if not all of them, didn’t do it assuming it was a great financial investment.
What do you think of the Grizzlies’ run in Memphis the past 10 years?
It has to be one of the greatest community sports stories ever. No way anyone, including any of the pursuit team, could have scripted this. Now you add Mike Conley re-signing and it’s just fantastic. He’s exemplary as a civic leader, as is Marc [Gasol], so to have your two primary superstars be great people is something we need not take for granted. We always said the Spurs were our model and it’s exciting to say that we are competing with them at every level on a heads-up basis.
To touch on a question from 2006: “Memphis has a lot of problems and potential, and a lot of people with good money. What’s the best way to bring them together?” Ten years ago your answer was “education.” Still the same?
It’s still education but I would now add that I think the folks who are making the biggest investments in education also realize that you have to talk about the entire person and their neighborhood. You can put a young person into a first-class school with first-class teachers and administrators, but if that young person is going home to a disaster area (or has no home), it’s almost impossible to help them effectively enough. Also, no one questions that we need more economic development, especially for low-income folks, but obviously there are lots of opinions on the best way to solve that brutal challenge. And I would add that quality of life for all Memphians, no matter economic status, is crucial to attract and retain folks. Things like the Harahan Bridge, Shelby Farms, Overton Park, continued downtown improvements, and possibly Mud Island affect how folks participate in their civic lives.
There has been a lot of talk about the north end of Downtown lately, especially with the opening of Bass Pro Shops and now possible development of the south end of Mud Island. How would your Mud Island proposal work with Bass Pro?
This is absolutely helpful to them whether they see that, whether they accept that, or not. Even though our guests will be focused on doing things outdoors other than just hunting and fishing, a ton of the guests who stay here with us will be checking them out. It’s also important to point out that any activity and tax revenue generated at Mud Island will have a positive impact on the $200 million bond issue that was done for the Pyramid.
What’s the plan to finance this Mud Island makeover?
This is about a new vision that is actually based in many of the original ideas for embracing the river and requires a ton of energy, execution, operational excellence, and capital. We’ve undersold it, poorly articulated our vision, and refrained from the typical hype because we don’t control anything. There should be additional Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) money in it if the city can get the state to agree. The Bass Pro bonds were over-collateralized. All of Downtown’s sales tax over a certain amount is going to pay off that bond issue, and that covers it even before you count Bass Pro’s new sales tax revenue. Now $1.5 million a year is being spent to maintain Mud Island. Some folks debate that number but we did a specific breakdown and can support it. Even if it’s $1 million, that is $1 million a year we are spending to operate something that needs to be completely redeveloped and isn’t currently showing well. The folks on the ground at Mud Island do a good job with what they have and have to scramble to keep it together with duct tape and gum.
If a business called City Hall and said, “We’re interested in coming to Memphis and putting our office in the Pinch District. We are in nine states with a product that is hugely positive, original and gaining steam, and we want to expand our concept by spending $10 million in your community on a broken asset.” Wouldn’t you think the Chamber of Commerce and civic folks would be all over it? I really respect the mayor and appreciate being brilliant at the basics. But as a community we also need to keep playing offense. This is about picking the right partner. Negotiate the heck out of it, get things structured right on the front end and then let us run. We’ll do the deal with a sense of urgency, transparency, and authenticity to Memphis. If you have those three things then we are fired up about it. If not, then we’re not.
As far as being Mud Island’s neighbor, what do you think of the recently announced plans by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for the Pinch District, home of RVC Outdoors headquarters?
I like “Home of RVC headquarters!” St. Jude is the equivalent of two or three Fortune 500 headquarters — oh, and they also save kids and come up with cures for diseases. Rick Shadyac and the folks there are all over it and we are ecstatic they are growing and committing to downtown. As Memphians, we need to continue helping them and the mayor get additional resources from the state, although there has already been some exciting news there. It’s another massive, long-term win for the city and another huge deal that we will look back on and realize just how big it is. It’s totally logical that they anchor the Pinch. And one day, if we ever figure out Mud Island and are involved there, Rick can kick us out and take our space as we move to the island.
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