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Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN) - Thursday, July 23, 1998 Author: Toni Lepeska The Commercial Appeal

A Golden Corral franchise became the American Way corridor's latest casualty this summer, with closures in the area blamed on a variety of factors.

The busy American Way retail corridor east of Perkins is an enigma to the untrained eye. Successful, longtime businesses stand a few doors from empty buildings with ``for sale'' signs on them. Yet, new arrivals to the area construct shiny, bright buildings or choose to renovate vacated retail structures.

Competition, transitional demographics and poor management provided fatal blows to defunct businesses, say two longtime Memphis Realtors, Arnold R. Engleberg and Gary Myers.

They also point to the perception of crime in the Mall of Memphis area.

``We're still saddled with that baggage, mall general manager Ray Baxter said. ``You've got to draw a distinction between the Mall of Memphis and the ` Mall of Memphis area.' (The mall) has been unfairly designated as the geographic center of everything bad that happens in the area. I cannot do anything about what happens a block or two east.

In 1992, mall shop manager 71-year-old Louise V. Warren was shot to death during a robbery attempt in the parking lot. Crime problems that police say have since subsided also fueled the area's poor safety image.

But it's the perception that matters in business, the Realtors said.

``The mall, in my opinion, needs to have a new self-image, said Engleberg, a commercial and industrial realtor for 25 years and member of the Memphis Board of Realtors. ``It would directly reflect on that area.

Retail shopping and restaurants grew up around the Perkins and American Way area behind the Mall of Memphis , which opened in 1981.

Then, it was the place to go. Now, competition has increased, especially of late with developments in the northeast and southeast part of Shelby County. The Mall of Memphis has 75 percent of its retail capacity filled, down from higher percentages in its earlier years.

The hot shopping areas now are Oak Court and Laurelwood in East Memphis and the area around Wolfchase Galleria, which opened in February 1997, Engleberg said

``Everything in-between is going through a transition, he said. ``It's just sort of a natural trend.

Some businesses that closed on American Way were caught up in corporate decisions that affected more than one site.

Central Hardware closed three Memphis stores in 1996 as part of bankruptcy proceedings by the chain's parent company, Illinois-based Handy Andy Home Improvement Centers.

Campo Electronics, Appliances and Computers Inc. closed the American Way store and a Raleigh store a year ago following a national shakedown in the electronic retailing industry.

Circuit City closed about a year ago when the company opened a new store in Hickory Hill.

New Horizons Computer Learning Center moved into the old hardware store this spring. The Campo and Circuit City sites remain vacant. A South Carolina businessman plans to open a motorized cart track in what was X-Site, an indoor amusement complex that closed several months ago. Before it was X-Site, it was a Children's Palace toy store.

Popeye's Fried Chicken, just north of American Way on Showcase Boulevard, moved into the former Kenny Rogers Roasters.

Despite closures, some people maintain the area is a prime location that could be a plum for businesses.

Two longtime American Way corridor residents are MegaMarket, which opened west of Mendenhall at least 12 years ago, and Wal-Mart, at 5000 American Way in the Delta Shopping Center, which opened 11 years ago.

``That is an area we think we can do well, said Golden Corral chief financial officer Lamar Bell, who is looking for a Realtor to peddle the empty Golden Corral building. ``It could be just about any kind of retail. That should be a marketable area.

Bell, who moved from Memphis 13 years ago and works from Golden Corral's corporate offices in Raleigh, N.C., often returns to visit relatives. He pointed to the successes of the Olive Garden restaurant at Perkins and American Way and of Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar as reasons to believe in the area.

With an Interstate 240 exit, the area ``truly is a location 15 minutes from anywhere,'' said Myers, a commercial and retail Realtor with 21 years in the business.

But that high exposure can be ruinous for a restaurant with bad service or food, Myers said.

The Golden Corral on American Way was among eateries named in February 1995 by the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department as a place where employees had confirmed cases of hepatitis A.

The restaurant was identified amid an effort by the health department to control an epidemic of the viral illness that triggers liver inflammation and, in rare cases, death.

Applebee's, at 4855 American Way, also was named but remains a bustling business.

In April, Golden Corral got an ``unsatisfactory'' score of 67 out of a possible 100 in April. On Aug. 4, 1997, the restaurant received a 46 score from the health department.

American Way corridor newcomers constructing buildings include Sleep Inn. Fairfield Inn, a Marriott property, is under construction just north of American Way. It's within walking distance of a fairly new Marriott and Hampton Inn.

Myers said he showed property recently to a prospective buyer who had friends in the area.

The potential buyer was scared away from the American Way corridor after hearing a mall nickname, ``Mall of Murder.'' Caption: photo By Justin Fox Burks The Golden Corral Restaurant closed in June. Reports of employees with hepatitis and poor health code ratings may have driven off diners. Other closings along American Way have been blamed on the Mall of Memphis 's poor image. Memo: PARKWAY VILLAGE