On one very hot afternoon, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s effort to break public-private development projects out of Downtown got a $1.5 million boost.
With two food delivery trucks passing by on the crowded parking lot of Garibaldi’s Pizza, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam came to the University of Memphis area Thursday, July 26, to deliver three checks from transportation enhancement grants in the Walker Avenue area where Garibaldi’s and other locally owned businesses coexist in a compact area as well as the fourth phase of the Wolf River Greenway in North Memphis and the Highway 61 Blues Trail project.
Later that evening, city leaders unveiled the first detailed plans on long anticipated improvements to the Elvis Presley Boulevard streetscape between Brooks Road and Shelby Drive.
The money for all of the projects is federal and passed through the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
“It says something about the quality of the proposals,” Haslam said of the three projects that got the federal funding specifically from a pocket of federal funding for “non-traditional transportation projects.”
“We looked in terms of, ‘Can it have a multiplier effect – can us putting in some dollars mean other people investing more dollars?’” he said. “We try to concentrate on the heart of that area. We’re pretty big on downtowns and center city areas.”
Of the three projects, Haslam said the Walker Street improvements are the furthest along in terms of planning.
Wharton and his administration have touted such projects as an indication the city wants revitalization efforts to spread beyond Downtown and happen at the same time as Downtown projects continue.
Merchants in the area, working with the University of Memphis, lost in the competition for federal funding two years ago and came back again this year.
They want a better defined and organized area for a tiny street with local businesses that have been frequented by generations of University of Memphis students.
University president Dr. Shirley Raines said the general goal is to create “a vital, unique and significant place that transforms this entire area.”
Peter Moon, co-owner of RP Tracks at the point of Walker and Southern Avenue, has been part of the effort for the last four years with “a vision of revitalizing this whole area.”
“You start one block at a time – a small city block,” he said. “I think the overall effect will be it’s going to change the dynamics of this area. … This area is bringing more alums to the neighborhood, to the university, than any sports event.”
The effort has been helped by the university’s decision to re-orient the campus toward the western border with Highland Avenue and making Highland more of an entrance than Central Avenue.
Another veteran business operator in the area is Mike Garibaldi, owner of Garibaldi’s Pizza.
“This was developed in the ’60s and there really hasn’t been any major renovation since then. This will breathe some new life into it and get the traffic from the university shopping and staying in the area,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of owners that are excited. … It’s going to be a great gateway for the university. Hopefully this is part of bigger and better projects for other phases.”