CLEWISLEAKE | DREAMSTIME
It’s a City Hall mantra heard often by Memphis neighborhoods: We’d love to help but we don’t have any money and times are tough.
And yet, millions of dollars are given to profit-making projects and millions more are waived in tax freezes for private companies. Meanwhile, neighborhood leaders wonder if they can ever get to the front of the line when the money is handed out.
The Memphis economy, projected to return to pre-Recession levels at the end of next year, is finally rebounding and $4 billion in signature projects underscore that fact. City government gets little credit for its role in getting these projects off the ground in the form of tax abatements, direct appropriations, or financing mechanisms.
For example, Crosstown Concourse got a 20-year tax freeze waiving about $42 million in city-county taxes, but also $15.2 million from the city. The Chisca Hotel project got a $2 million check from the City of Memphis to go with a 20-year tax freeze that foregoes $6 million in taxes.
The---- Tennessee Brewery got a 20-year tax freeze waiving more than $7 million in taxes plus $5.1 million from the Downtown Parking Authority for a parking garage and $2.5 million from city government. Most recently, the city council approved a $4 million loan/grant for a development at Union at McLean that also got a 15-year tax freeze that gives it a pass on $10.5 million in city and county taxes.
These are exciting projects, but it often seems that when developers are shown the menu of options for how city government can support them, they pick “all of the above.”
At the same time, small-scale projects that could make a big difference in neighborhoods go wanting, leading activists to ask: If the city can approve funding, give away taxes, and issue bonds for big projects, why can’t it find money to help us?
City council members at a meeting about Crosstown Concourse were told that as part of the work on that project, a plan to revitalize the Klondike/Smokey City neighborhoods to the north would be implemented. A slide presentation emphasized that “neighborhoods are the building blocks of community” and city government would “redevelop Memphis inside out, neighborhood by neighborhood.”
The high-profile project got its money, but a city council vote on the money to execute the neighborhoods’ plans has never taken place.
Neighborhood leaders took it as a hopeful sign when Mayor Jim Strickland called for his transition committee to focus on neighborhoods. Committee recommendations called for more direct city government involvement in identifying the needs of neighborhoods, creating measurements of programs’ impact, improving poor customer service, and stimulating economic revitalization by creating stronger partnerships.
In addition, the committee said that “the City should establish and capitalize a new redevelopment fund comprised of city funds, private investment, grant funds, and other available national, state, and local funds to assist non-profit and for-profit investors who seek to develop single family, multifamily, and retail projects that will accelerate demand and investment in Memphis,” and “the City should partner and assist in developing a strong and independent community enterprise development entity that partners with the City, charged with facilitating increased urban revitalization for both commercial and residential areas.”
There is growing demand for greater attention to neighborhoods to build on the work of Memphis HOPE, Methodist Health Assets, Neighborhood Christian Center, Agape, Le Bonheur’s nurse practitioners, GrowMemphis, Christ Community Center, BRIDGES, Caritas Village, Community Development Council, Community LIFT, neighborhood associations, and others.
The transition committee said words matter, recommending that rather than talking about “blighted neighborhoods,” urban neighborhoods should instead be called “reinvestment zones.” As for the plan for the Klondike/Smokey City reinvestment zone, it remains on a shelf with other neighborhood revitalization plans waiting for a life line from City Hall.
All that’s needed for the plans and recommendations is money, but unlike many cities, city government puts no local money in the budget for neighborhood redevelopment. Instead, whatever gets done here has hinged on how much HUD funding is received by the Memphis Housing Authority and Division of Housing and Community Development. With yearly declines in federal funding, city government funding will more and more determine if neighborhoods can be improved.
When city government talks about the need for a balanced budget, it’s referring to revenues and expenditures. But the budget also needs to be balanced between big projects and neighborhood improvements.
As neighborhood leaders say, it’s time for neighborhoods to move to the front of the line.