Onzie Horne, Memphis' deputy director of Community Enhancement, was a proverbial cornucopia of information on Monday's bus ride through various "hoods" of Memphis. As we slowly came to a stop in South Memphis, the corner of Mississippi and Walker, he eloquently pointed out key historic sites and their significance, particularly to the African-American community in times past.
Although the bus tour and announcement by Mayor A C Wharton Jr.'s Innovation Delivery Team was clearly about the future of inner city Memphis, Horne's historic accounts helped shape a context of a time when those communities were thriving with business, commerce, connection and appeal.
Time, urban sprawl, abandonment, failed experiments, and a lack of clear focus and directions were amongst the things that led communities such as South Memphis into points of steep decline from the heydays of which Horne spoke. Marred by blighted buildings, lost retail business and a lack of new business investment, Binghampton, the Crosstown Cleveland/Madison Corridor and a defined portion of South Memphis all represent neglected parts of our City, the core of the City that the administration is focusing on for this aggressive new plan.
Funded by a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Foundation and matching funds from local foundations and philanthropist, the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team was founded as a "hands-on" team charged with bringing unique and implementable ideas to solving challenges within the city of Memphis. The two areas of primary focus for the team established in the grant are to revitalization the inner city or core of Memphis and the reduction of youth handgun violence.
Monday's (July 2) tour for the media, led by Innovation Delivery Team head Doug McGowen and staff, was all about the core city initiatives. Prior to the tour, the attendees were given a brief presentation that revealed an ambitious plan to address three primary strategies for strengthening the initially targeted inner city areas (with more to come). The strategic focus is on the aggressive removal of blight, the support of existing businesses (retail and otherwise) in those areas and attracting new retail businesses to those areas.
McGowen summarized the strategy for each neighborhood,
"It is a three part process: clean it, activate it, and sustain it," said McGowen, who summarized the strategy for each neighborhood.
Tuesday, he said, was the "launch" of the initiative, also indicating that some additional study and analysis must be done to reach ultimate solutions and outcomes in each component area.
One such component is the restructure and re-branding of the Renaissance Business Center, the 12-year-old small business development center located at 555 Beale Street. Director of Housing and Community Development, Robert Lipscomb, indicated that his team is looking at updating the services offered to meet the needs of today's entrepreneurs and rebranding the facility to reflect those changes. Those offered services will be a key component in assisting existing businesses in these targeted inner city communities with their growth and expansion.
The city has already established a successful model for blight abatement that will become a part of this initiative. Called "25 Blocks" and operating under the division of community enhancement, it was determined that 25 block areas of communities could be targeted with concentrated efforts to clean up and mow vacant lots and address issues of abandoned properties and absentee property owners. Central to the effort is blanketing those areas with resources, time and attention over a defined period of time. The model has proven successful and presents a clear and visible change to residents. In many instances it has spurred more neighborhood involvement and pride.
Mayor A C Wharton Jr. applied the analogy of the human body to the City.
"If the core is sick and crumbling, ultimately the extremities of the body will start to wither also," he said. "You cannot have a strong body without a strong core."
The mayor added this: "As we applied for the Bloomberg funds we understood the need to focus on inner city development and the strengthening of our core as New York did in communities like Harlem and others."
The third part of the initiative is called the "Neighborhood Retail Strategy" and will involve a partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber (GMC). Mark Herbison, senior vice president of Economic Development for the GMC, was present at the press conference. The aim of the "Neighborhood Retail Strategy" is to strengthen existing retail businesses while also attracting into the targeted areas various regional and national retail brands, including grocery store chains, clothing retailers and other core family-needs retailers.
Wharton briefly mentioned the nearly 27 percent poverty rate that exists among residents of the City and its concentration amongst these targeted neighborhoods. This initiative, in large part, doesn't appear to directly address that issue but does address some of the symptoms. If the assistance targeted at stabilizing and growing existing businesses in these neighborhoods and recruiting new ones is solidified, there is a possibility of economic empowerment to those business owners and additional job creation for those that reside in the communities. However, it has to be made a high priority and executed with resource and commitment.
That is where the challenge to the community comes. This is a newly launched initiative with both funding and high promise. However, what it ultimately shapes up to be and what it delivers will be no better than what those living in those communities demand.
Each of those communities contains a diverse population that is largely African American and poor. This does not appear to be a strategy based in gentrification, moving in middle class and wealthy while moving out poor- and moderate-income folks and calling it economic development.
But more importantly, the community has a chance to engage in this process early and often to be sure it does not become a gentrification-based strategy. Here is an opportunity to engage the Mayor's office, his assigned administrators and to build solutions based on real needs and the wishes of the people.
McGowen said an announcement is forthcoming about a series of community meetings, town hall meetings if you will, to discuss with and solicit input from those living in and running businesses in the targeted core communities and potentially most impacted by any solutions developed. If we live in and or love these communities, it is critical that we are at these meetings and continue to be at the table as the initiative moves forward.
The future of the "hood" – our neighborhoods – depends on our willingness to engage, get involved and demand quality solutions from City leaders rather than being handed alternatives that may or may not be best for us. The only question is whether we really want to get in the game and help create change or stay on the sidelines and complain.
(Bernal E. Smith II is President/ Publisher of The New Tri-State Defender.)