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VOL. 127 | NO. 239 | Friday, December 07, 2012

Renewed Focus

South Memphis Alliance increasing community impact

By Bill Dries

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Reginald Milton calls it the “dirty little secret” of nonprofits whose mission is to provide social services.

Tommy Reaves of Smith Interiors works inside the South Memphis Alliance Community Laundry Resource Center, which is expected to open in January.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

“We are not having the impact we once had,” said Milton, executive director of South Memphis Alliance Inc.

As he talked, a construction crew outside his window was working on the laundromat next to the alliance offices at 1048 S. Bellevue Blvd. that is his answer to the secret.

The alliance bought the neighboring laundromat four years ago as its original owners contemplated selling the building to someone who wanted to develop it as a nightclub.

The alliance is renovating the laundromat and changing the floor plan just a bit to make room for several kiosks where it will offer prevention services and an introduction to other services for families that the alliance can help with.

“We really have to be creative,” Milton said. “The great thing about this is it’s self-sufficient.”

Money the alliance makes from the laundromat go back into the operation of the laundromat as well as the kiosks. And laundromats are largely self-service businesses.

“Prevention works on repetition. You have about an hour of downtime where you can provide that service,” said Milton, adding that those who use laundromats usually come two or three times a month.

“What’s great about it is it requires you to lose something to utilize the service. That’s a lack of something. If you are looking for the poor, they don’t have access to a washer or dryer,” he added as he sketched out the business plan. “We looked at sites like a car wash. But the problem is you would have to have something – a car. And we can focus on the service of the people and not be wrapped up in some complex business.”

If all goes according to schedule, the old dairy building on Bellevue near Walker Avenue, also owned by the alliance, should be coming down in January as the new refurbished laundromat across the street has its grand opening. Milton wants to mark both occasions at the same time.

The nonprofit bought the dairy plant earlier this year with funding from the city’s division of Housing and Community Development. The Assisi Foundation also provided funding for the effort.

In place of the dairy, the nonprofit is raising money to build a center for families and children that will offer some of the assistance customers at the laundromat can ask about.

The South Memphis Alliance plans to demolish the abandoned Reed Dairy Plant and build the SMA Center for Families & Children at the site. 

That includes parenting supplies and support for pregnant teenagers through the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth. The alliance’s Hope Chest is one of four baby stores the county office operates in which expectant teen mothers earn “bucks” for the supplies through parenting classes and similar activities.

Milton has described the future center on the dairy site as an eastern gateway into the neighborhood. The alliance performs social services for the still-developing comeback of the area where South Memphis meets Midtown.

Soulsville’s return as a vibrant neighborhood is a multipart enterprise that includes the Soulsville Foundation that runs the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville charter school next to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on McLemore. The LeMoyne-Owen Community Development Corp. owns the Soulsville Towne Center across McLemore, which is returning retail to the area.

The South Memphis Alliance operates programs that are designed in most cases for children and young adults from foster care.

The alliance has a third property on the South Third Street side of the Soulsville area.

First Tennessee Bank has donated its recently closed circa-1955 bank branch at 1200 S. Third St., which includes a post office facility that was also recently closed.

First Tennessee executives sold the property to the alliance for $1 and donated money for expenses for the first few months of operation.

And Milton has secured $500,000 in federal funding through U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, as well with plans for a capital campaign to raise a total of nearly $3 million to get the space operational on a full-time basis. The city and the Assisi Foundation have also helped with the move to what the organization calls Dream Seekers Resource Center.

The post office facility could become eight lofts for transitional living of six to eight months at a time for foster children.

The tentative plans include using the basement as a “hang out” area with other activities including mentoring, classes and recreational activities.

“All too often, we are trying to provide services at a distance. If you really want to be effective, you have got to build trust,” Milton said. “Trust means being on the ground. People have to see you, they have to know you are part of the community – that you experience things they experience.”

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