For decades, the Roxy Theater in the McFerrin Park neighborhood of East Nashville was the centerpiece of a thriving neighborhood commercial district that included a post office, department store, pharmacy, grocery store and barbershop. But for more than 20 years, the only thing playing at the Roxy has been a real-world drama involving lawsuits, eccentric millionaires, legendary music production companies, and heart-wrenching disappointment. All other establishments in the district have gone the way of the shuttered theater, with mature trees replacing shoppers inside old storefronts.
The neighborhood and surrounding area is now poised for a resurgence, riding the wave of redevelopment started more than 10 years ago in the nearby East Nashville neighborhoods surrounding Five Points. Local residents, many of whom remember the glory days of the Roxy, see this commercial area as a potential catalyst for turning around a neighborhood plagued for too long by high crime, unemployment, poverty and economic disinvestment. The Roxy and its adjacent storefronts are now rubbing shoulders with brand new quarter-million-dollar infill houses, the celebrated Holland House and Pharmacy restaurants, and mixed-use developments by Urban Housing Solutions and Vernon Winfrey. Even as recently as three years ago, a new Roxy owner generated excitement among East Nashvillians with an announcement that the Roxy would be completely restored, and the old department store and pharmacy renovated into trendy retail space. To understand why the Roxy still remains a deteriorating eyesore, we need to travel back to 1979.
Thirty-four years ago, the moderately successful music producer Aubrey Mayhew purchased the Roxy with plans to open a Hollywood-quality music and movie production facility. Although Mayhew was able to operate a small music-recording studio out of the Roxy for a few short years, nothing more significant ever materialized. Mayhew became more and more reclusive, spending his last years living in a makeshift apartment inside the theater. He did stay active enough, however, to mire his estate in a lawsuit with King Records over music copyright infringements.
When the current owner, Robert Solomon, bought the Roxy in 2009 following Mayhew’s death, he inherited a lien that King Records had placed on the property. Solomon is owner of the once prominent Woodland Studios, and has tried without success to find a new home for the fading Woodland Studios since it was knocked down along with much of East Nashville during the 1998 tornado. For a while back in 2010, Solomon was in talks with Urban Housing Solutions, which would develop property that Solomon owned adjacent to the Roxy into apartments and retail space. The revenue generated by the deal was going to provide enough of the $800,000 Solomon needed to get started on the Roxy restoration. Unfortunately, the lawsuit with King Records was never resolved, and Urban Housing Solutions took their plans elsewhere.
In the meantime, Solomon forgot to pay property taxes on the Roxy, and the property was auctioned by the city for $35,000 in January 2013. Solomon claimed he was never notified by the city of outstanding taxes, and fully intends on exercising his right to settle unpaid taxes within one year of the auction sale.
That brings us to today. Solomon has stated that King Records has released the lien against the Roxy property, and his statement has been verified by a real estate attorney that had formerly worked closely on the case. However, that same attorney also points out that the lien is still recorded with the Register of Deeds. Why the lien lingers remains a mystery. But Solomon and his attorney, Ron Nevin, believe Mayhew’s estate is responsible for resolving the issue, and is filing a lawsuit against the estate hoping the estate will take action. This lien remains a major obstacle to the Roxy’s redevelopment.
As with most redevelopment projects, another obstacle for a rosy Roxy future is financing. Restoring the Roxy to its historic charm has been conservatively estimated to cost $800,000. Solomon has floated the idea of launching a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for more than a year, but since the deal with Urban Housing Solutions fell through, no other promising prospects have materialized.
There continues to be some question as to Solomon’s commitment to the Roxy. As recently as November 2012, Solomon entertained an offer from a potential buyer. His asking price — $150 per square foot. With no debt on the property and the only real holding costs being a few thousand dollars a year in property taxes, Solomon could conceivably sit on the property for years to come.
We operate in an economy where the rights of individual property owners are paramount, but certain places — like the Roxy with its surrounding shops, memories and prospect of hope for a struggling neighborhood — belong to everyone. Busy shops. Meeting places. A life full of fond memories. All of us stand to benefit from these. That much is clear. But those benefits await the right people to come together and bring life to these ruins.
Dane Forlines and Christopher Cotten