Memphis-based developer John Elkington first became acquainted with Sheffield more than a decade ago, when the city’s Mayor Ian Sanford contacted him for advice about redeveloping the city’s downtown.
Like many small Southern towns, Sheffield’s downtown district had grown increasingly vacant and needed new life. Elkington had made a name for himself as the redeveloper of Memphis’ Beale Street, transforming three blocks of urban decay into the top tourist attraction in Tennessee and the catalyst for the rebirth of downtown Memphis.
Elkington traveled to Sheffield, part of the Shoals area in northwest Alabama and home of the historic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. There, he made a presentation for residents interested in redeveloping the downtown area, and more than 400 attended.
Soon after Elkington’s presentation, the U.S. economy fell into the Great Recession, and the excitement about redeveloping downtown Sheffield fizzled. But the forward thinkers of Sheffield remembered Elkington, his ideas, experience and connections. And about four years ago, Elkington received another phone call from a 256 number.
Bill Campbell, president of Construction Engineering in Sheffield, had a plan to develop 300 acres of land on the Tennessee River on the northern border of the city. Remembering Elkington and his presentation of several years before, Campbell called to ask the Beale Street developer to come to Sheffield once again.
Committing to a Project
Skeptical at first, Elkington became increasingly intrigued as he learned more about the potential project. The city owns 117 acres of the Tennessee riverfront land and agreed to install major infrastructure, including water, sewer, electric, gas and roads, if Elkington and his team agreed to develop the mixed-use project. The City of Sheffield and Colbert County, which has recently seen Sheffield’s downtown area begin flourishing again with new restaurants, shops and bars, also set up a Capital Improvement District to direct a portion of sales taxes, hotel taxes, liquor taxes and all the incremental property taxes within a designated area to help fund the infrastructure and other public improvements.
Elkington and his team undertook an economic impact study and feasibility study to determine whether their investment in Sheffield would pay off. Their studies showed that the project would have an economic impact of more than $100 million and more than 1,000 jobs created in the first year, he says. Over five years, the study showed more than 400 permanent jobs would be created and an economic impact of more than $200 million, “which is huge for a community like Sheffield,” Elkington says.
Some of the demand for this project stems from the fact that a new, $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota plant is under development about an hour away in west Huntsville, along with strong population growth in the Shoals area.
In addition to the clear demand for a mixed-use development in the area, Sheffield and the Shoals area offered a rich, colorful history and unique vibe that Elkington knew could draw a crowd.
“There’s no need to make up a story; the story’s already there,” Elkington says.
That story includes the history of iron making on the very riverfront land where Inspiration Landing’s first phase will stand. There, five blast furnaces run by Ensley, Sloss and other names familiar to the Birmingham iron industry, produced pig iron and sent it down the Tennessee River from the 1880s until 1927. Across some of the same land, thousands of Native Americans marched through on the Trail of Tears, many of them departing for Oklahoma at Tuscumbia Landing on the Sheffield side of the river.
And the Sheffield story also includes its role as the birthplace of some of the greatest R&B, rock and pop hits ever recorded, and home to the famed Muscle Shoals Swampers and the vibrant recording studios that are producing award-winning music today. “After the documentary Muscle Shoals came out in 2013, it helped people identify the area and understand its impact,” Elkington says. “It’s right in the middle of the Americana Music Triangle between Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, which is the birthplace of blues, jazz, country, rock, R&B, bluegrass and gospel music.”
Developing a Plan
Elkington and his team developed a plan for Inspiration Landing, which includes a marina with more than 100 boat slips and a residential development on one side, and a mixed-use development known as Furnace Hill on the other side.
Furnace Hill at Inspiration Landing will include a 4,500-person amphitheater, three hotels, event center, craft brewery, distillery, wedding chapel, town center, interpretive history and culture center, movie theater, shops, restaurants and live TV and radio broadcast music venues.
DittyTV, a television network dedicated to Americana and Roots music, has committed to opening a broadcast and production facility at Inspiration Landing, along with its Vibe & Dime store, which will sell records, books, instruments, vintage items and DittyTV merchandise. The network will broadcast live concerts in its production facilities and interview local and visiting musicians.
Other tenants will be announced in the coming months, but developers are committed to recruiting businesses that will resonate with the theme of music and history.
“Redeveloping Beale Street taught us that you have to stay true to the history that is there,” Elkington says. “It would have never worked if we’d brought in a bunch of chains like Applebee’s, Chili’s and Macaroni Grill, and that won’t work in Sheffield either.”
Instead, Elkington envisions restaurants with live music to create a music scene that’s currently not available in the Shoals area (similar to how he recruited B.B. King to open his first B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street). He plans to help develop regional restaurants, regional shops, a brewery and distillery, movie theater and hotels, tying it all together with an amphitheater to host trade shows, boat shows, car shows and concerts.
Jumping Through Hoops
Large, mixed-use developments always take time, but Inspiration Landing has taken an especially long time because of all the various agencies that needed to be involved and provide approvals. To get a “developable piece of property,” Elkington and his team have had to work with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Valley Authority, Alabama Historical Commission and Alabama Indian Affairs Commission, among others.
Meeting with all the various groups and completing their requirements to achieve approvals has taken time and money, and Elkington and his team have recruited investment from other areas outside the Shoals. “Sheffield is not a wealthy town, so we’ve had to develop funding sources from outside the city to do all these things,” Elkington says.
The city of Sheffield, for its part, won environmental grants to complete site cleanup. It has secured loan funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the construction of a new road through the Furnace Hill side of the development, Mayor Sanford says.
Final approval from the Alabama Historical Commission was granted in September, and Elkington plans to start construction in October. He predicts that roads and utility construction will take about six to seven months.
The next phase, forecast to start in late spring or summer 2020, will include the movie theater, town center, amphitheater and the first hotel. The residential section of the development will also start next year. “We expect to start delivering product in late 2020 or early to mid-2021,” he says.
Plans are to develop 22 acres in the initial phase, but there’s plenty of room for additional development. And Elkington is excited about the long-term possibilities.
“There is a history of giving up in Sheffield; people’s hopes have been raised many times and then nothing happened,” he says. “This has the opportunity to be the next great place in Alabama, and we have a chance to really change the face of a community. We’re being very careful to do it right.”
Nancy Mann Jackson and David Higginbotham are Decatur-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.