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VOL. 121 | NO. 183 | Monday, September 18, 2006

CDC Forms To Preserve Victorian Village

By Andy Meek

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POWER OF A CDC: The LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp. is working on this 106,000-square-foot commercial, residential and retail redevelopment effort in the Soulsville neighborhood in South Memphis. -- Image Courtesy Of Lemoyne-Owen College Cdc

It's going to take a village to shore up - a village.

That's apparently the sentiment driving a group of people who want to breathe new life into Victorian Village, the historic cluster of stately mansions, 19th century homes and small businesses on the eastern edge of Downtown Memphis.

At the end of August, a few neighborhood stakeholders filed the paperwork that made the Victorian Village Inc. Community Development Corp. an official body. Organizing the group and getting the CDC up and running - which has been an effort long in the works - came largely through a push by Scott Blake, creative director of Design 500 Inc., which is based in Victorian Village.

'Like cooking gumbo'

Some of the historic and architectural gems that bedeck the neighborhood include the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County building and the 25-room Mallory-Neely House, built in 1852. So much of what will keep the CDC busy likely includes preserving the neighborhood's history, promoting progress and reversing the ruinous effects of inappropriate development.

"I've sat in on several of the neighborhood meetings and been impressed with their energy, and I think this is an excellent way to move forward," said June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage Inc.

"We've all been baffled by what to do with Victorian Village, and I think this is probably the very best thing that they could do to help revitalize that area."

It's still early in the process for the Victorian Village CDC, and nothing in the way of a comprehensive strategic plan yet has been made public.

But the situation is a strong example that when budgets are tightened, development runs amok, residents move out and blight moves in, Memphis neighborhoods often turn to CDCs - creating them, if none exist - to do the heavy lifting in turning communities around.

And CDCs, which rely on an alphabet soup of grants and public and private entities, are making a big impact in communities across the city.

"I think of CDCs like cooking gumbo," said Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp. "You've got all these different mixes in a neighborhood and in a community, and you have to have something to keep it from burning, something to keep things moving, and that's where I see the role of a CDC in the community."

Banking on it

Higgs has been working for three years on a big redevelopment project his own CDC is involved with in the Soulsville neighborhood in South Memphis. It's the Towne Center at Soulsville, a 106,000-square-foot collection of commercial, retail and residential space that will include grocery stores, small shops, banks and other amenities.

Higgs said the CDC may unveil the final look and feel of the project on Saturday at a community-wide event, the Soul-a-bration Festival 2006.

"We're trying to get the final details done with our banks as we speak," he said. "This is all just another step really in bringing this neighborhood back and revitalizing this community."

Attendance is expected to top 5,000 people for the festival, which will be held on two blocks of McLemore Avenue in front of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Entertainment will include performances by hip-hop group FreeSol and the soul group the Bar-Kays, which will be celebrating their 40th anniversary to coincide with the festival.

What's at stake

Emily Trenholm, who heads the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis, said one of the strongest benefits of CDCs is they're often governed by people with deep ties to the area.

"Before CDCs were around, the majority of urban revitalization projects were dictated by the government, and that's probably still the case, in terms of the majority being very sort of top-down," she said. "CDCs emerged to give people who were in the areas being revitalized some more influence in how their neighborhoods were redeveloped."

The groups depend on support from the government. In 2001, for example, representatives from 18 CDCs in Memphis trekked to City Hall, where members of the Memphis City Council and local housing official Robert Lipscomb presented each CDC with large checks, all of which were worth at least $50,000. The checks, made of Styrofoam, resembled the kind sweepstakes winners receive on their front doorstep.

Neighborhoods, in turn, depend on support from the CDCs.

"Traditionally, the people who are governing a CDC are a combination of residents, business owners, perhaps faith leaders from the community and other people who might have a stake in it," Trenholm said. "Sometimes it might be a school principal. Those kinds of things, in their purest sense, are what make CDCs different from other redevelopment entities."

'A gem'

Victorian Village has been the subject of reams of government planning documents and focus groups over the years. Memphis and Shelby County planners recently have drawn up a proposal to finesse the zoning regulations that govern the Downtown Medical District, a planning area adjacent to Victorian Village.

The creation of the CDC is the latest - and could be one of the most significant - steps in bringing back the storied neighborhood.

"I think there's just a desire to stabilize this neighborhood, do a plan for it and then try to encourage some infill that's going to be consistent with what's there," Trenholm said. "It's a gem, and it's a neighborhood that really has a lot of potential."

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396