story and photos by Tricia Dewey
Already a model of support for his tenants during the pandemic, he’s redoubling efforts to work with Black business owners to join in Laurelwood’s success.
On June 3, 2020, Cory Prewitt, president and marketing and leasing director of Laurelwood Shopping Center, issued an invitation on Facebook, “Let’s take the Blackout further. If any Black- owned businesses are looking for retail space, please don’t hesitate to contact me.” He went on to post his cell phone number and explain “I want to help. I want to listen. Supporting local businesses and charities is my passion.” Prewitt was referring to the Blackout that was trending on social media on June 2, in response to the death of George Floyd. Explaining his post later he said, “I’m not a long-winded guy. I like to act. Just like that Blackout thing… that was great. But if you don’t back that up with any action, what did you actually do? I mean, unless you act on your principles, I don’t really understand the point of having them in the first place.”
Response to Prewitt’s post has been overwhelmingly positive. He received almost 20 calls back. He’s held several meetings with Black-owned business owners and is excited about the prospects. He loves the ideas and the creative, smart, and talented people involved. He hopes for more conversation. “The first step is talking to each other. Listening and not yelling and letting people finish what they’re going to say, respect it even if you don’t agree with it.” Figuring out what taking action might look like for him, he said, “personally I have not received any calls from Black-owned businesses and I know part of that has to be that there’s some fear involved, a bit of rejection maybe.” Or the idea that his offer was just talk. “As long as your heart’s kind of in the right place I think people kind of know what you meant to say or what you want to say.”
Working in the business world was not something Prewitt ever anticipated. A native Memphian, Prewitt returned to Memphis from UT Knoxville and gave law school some thought, but almost 15 years ago he started marketing work at Laurelwood, working his way to his current position. He didn’t take business classes in college, but he says “you don’t need to, as long as you’re a relatively intelligent human being and you have some common sense.” Prewitt says his wife has been a great influence on him. “[She’s] probably the best person that I know and . . . then when we had our son in October that was kind of the icing on the cake that I wanted to spend the second half of my life dedicated to kind of lifting others up….I mean I’m not saying I’ll make a huge impact but you know I’m gonna try.”
Since its beginnings in 1959, Laurelwood Shopping Center has been a family-owned enterprise. With no large mortgage payment owing they can be more flexible in crises. They are well positioned for the COVID crisis and strive to continue to support their tenants, 85% of which are locally owned. Laurelwood has forgiven rent and fees in April and May. In June they waived rent and only charged fees and will continue that trend in July. Prewitt sees the center as a family relationship. “I really do see it as a family because when they succeed I succeed; when I succeed they succeed. Why wouldn’t you support the people that support you? That’s the way I look at it and at life in general.”
Prewitt is most proud of his work helping to bring the bookstore Novel to life in a space that has anchored a bookstore in Laurelwood for more than 30 years. He says there was a lot of pressure from those who were ready to move on from a bookstore because of negative market trends. But he was unwavering: “Novel is Laurelwood. To me, there is no Laurelwood without a bookstore and I’m going to quit if y’all ruin this deal.’’ Now the store is completely locally owned and thriving once again. Novel is a great example of a business that was able to pivot and adjust to COVID circumstances. “I mean they were a bookstore in the middle of a pandemic and they were making good sales. I think that’s what you get with a local tenant that people grow up with and love because they’ll support you in times when you’re down.”
With Zu ̈pMed, a new tenant, Prewitt says he had to convince the board to support what he sees as the wave of the future in medicine. Zu ̈pMed is a minor medical office where patients don’t wait and doctors want to treat you, stay in contact with you, and genuinely solve problems. The office is comfortable, clean, with local art, and, just to repeat, no wait. According to Prewitt, “It’s a much better minor med than I’ve ever experienced.” President and co-owner Dr. Shannon Finks says the experience of working with Prewitt was helpful. “Cory is like everyone’s favorite coach….His guidance through opening an essential business during a global pandemic and forgiving rents to his tenants when we needed it most shows how much he cares.”
The next project on the horizon is filling the space of the Grove Grill, which was a Laurelwood staple for more than 20 years. Prewitt says he’s excited about the possibilities. He wants to see a restaurant with a fun and festive vibe that would bring in traffic later in the evening to watch Grizzlies and Tigers games. The space will be reduced so it will be a six- to 12-month process. “I want to give them the best opportunity to succeed long term.”
In the end, Prewitt is not one to mince words or shy away from the moment. “I get it,” he says, “everybody thinks of Laurelwood as this kind of high-end privileged location. I want to change the perception of that. Because there’s a lot more love and family than I see in most of the business community….Why can’t that include Black-owned businesses and it should.” According to city data cited in a February 2019 Forbes article, Memphis has 40,000 Black-owned firms (800 with paid employees) whose average annual receipts are $695,500, while the more than 26,000 White-owned firms (7,200 with paid employees) whose average annual receipts are $4.53 million.
The conversations Prewitt’s begun in the past couple weeks with owners of Black-owned businesses or those who want to start them have gone well and he’s confident of a good outcome in the near future. As he reached out, others have reached back and trusted him with their ideas. This work may start to address the disparity and lead to more job creation, more options in the business sector, more people making money, more people paying sales tax. “Why wouldn’t we want that?” he asks.