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VOL. 121 | NO. 227 | Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How Does Our Garden Grow?

Utility connections give clue about greatest metro growth areas

By Andy Meek

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When the Memphis City Council moved to annex the 14-square-mile suburb of Hickory Hill in 1987, it sparked what became the longest fight against annexation in Memphis history.

The fight ended in 1998 after those annexation opponents who hadn't yet moved away decided to throw in the towel and sign an agreement officially ending the dispute. In return, they were assured the newly annexed community would get $150 million in capital improvements, including four city schools and two fire stations.

But almost a decade later, the once prosperous, quiet suburb of Hickory Hill still is reeling from the state of demographic flux that mostly didn't exist there before its annexation by the city of Memphis.

Promises, promises

On the one hand, new schools and a community center have opened in the last 10 years. Hickory Hill's median household income - $47,216 - is higher than the city's as a whole, which is just above $33,000. Hickory Hill's population grew over the last decade, and it also got younger, going from mostly white to mostly black, according to a 2003 University of Memphis study.

Also during the last decade, the number of families in Hickory Hill with children living in poverty grew more than 200 percent, according to the study. Foreclosures and bankruptcies are prevalent, possibly because most homeowners in the community are younger than 50 and might be inexperienced with the cost of homeownership.

Young homeowners, moreover, are likely attracted to the area's housing affordability. The average sales price of homes in Hickory Hill between November 2005 and October of this year was only $95,820, according to real estate information company Chandler Reports, www.chandlerreports.com.

In and out

In addition to young homeowners, Hickory Hill has a large coming-and-going group of renters, which occupies 64 percent of the area's housing units, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

Whatever the reason, new utility hookups reveal that, in addition, the suburb is definitely a haven for newcomers.

Over the past year, Hickory Hill had 3,000 new utility hookups, more than any other Memphis ZIP code. And for Hickory Hill, at least, the figures - compiled from Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division data - apparently have more to do with necessity and perception than anything else.

"The turnover is the key," said U of M professor Dr. Phyllis Betts of the area's population ebb and flow, which would account for a large number of new utility hookups, especially among renters. Most people who need the service are either new to Memphis or are moving into their first apartments or homes.

Sparks of life

The number of hookups illustrates, at least to some degree, which areas of the city are growing the most. Using the MLGW figures, the other high-growth areas of the city, such as Hickory Hill, generally are concentrated around the fringe.

Cordova's 38106 ZIP code, for example, saw 2,336 new utility hookups from November 2005 to October 2006. In the South Memphis ZIP code of 38116, there were 1,887. Bartlett's 38134 ZIP code, which dips a little south of Cordova, saw 1,843 hookups.

Cordova, meanwhile, has such draws as the upscale, heavily trafficked retail corridor around the Wolfchase Galleria mall.

Hickory Hill, according to Betts, has a population that's constantly churning and, of course, a large number of rental housing units that make it more attractive than other pockets of Memphis.

"The number of housing subsidy units in Hickory Hill also has tripled in the last three years, so that brings new people in," said Betts, who's spearheaded studies of Hickory Hill for the U of M. "It's not like you've got a lot of new homeowners who are beating down the doors to move to Hickory Hill, because it's not so much a neighborhood of choice at this point."

The outer circle

While Hickory Hill, Cordova and South Memphis saw the largest number of newcomers moving and ordering new utility connections over the past year, the largest percentage increase of those hookups occurred even farther toward the fringe of the metro area.

In other words, the 38053 ZIP code near the Tipton County line, the 38002 ZIP code near the Fayette County line and the 38109 ZIP near the DeSoto County line all saw the biggest leap in their percentage of newcomers, based on the MLGW data.

That trend mirrors building activity and population migrations that have flowed conspicuously in all directions away from Memphis' urban core. It also is partly related to growth in each of the outlying counties themselves, such as DeSoto.

Just across the Shelby County line in Southaven, Mayor Greg Davis touted Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, which opened its 447,000-square-foot tower this month.

"And we've had a few industrial distribution centers open up - we've done like six tax incentive programs in the last month and a half," Davis said. "Residential, we're still pulling about five permits a day."

Kicking and screaming

The MLGW data, though, is only an imperfect indicator of what parts of the metro area are experiencing population growth. Sometimes, the biggest influence on the trend is a stroke of the pen or the pressing of a vote buzzer.

Lately, Memphis officials have been discussing the impending arrival of a large batch of new potential residents, some eager, others not so eager. This week, Memphis City Council members were scheduled to vote on a series of annexation proposals that would effectively make about 37,000 people the city's newest residents.

Heading into Tuesday's vote by the council, the question appeared to be not when the annexations would occur, but how to pay the bill for them.

"Next year and on into 2008 and 2009, the city would be picking up substantial additional costs," said Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 19 170
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 20 118 736
BUSINESS LICENSES 27 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0