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VOL. 127 | NO. 170 | Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nonprofit Center Could be New South Memphis Gateway

By Bill Dries

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The giant milk bottle will outlive the old dairy plant it stands atop in South Memphis. For more than 80 years, the giant milk bottle adorning a now old and crumbling dairy building on Bellevue Boulevard at Walker Avenue has been an icon.

Workers begin work on a laundromat on Bellevue Boulevard near Walker Avenue. The laundromat is being renovated by the South Memphis Alliance for a reopening that will include access to social services.

(Photo: Bill Dries)

These days it is a last reminder of the once bustling retail strip that greeted motorists emerging from the railroad overpass nearby. It included the old Leonard’s Barbecue and its neon sign of a top-hatted strutting pig farther south at Bellevue and McLemore Avenue and the old fire station that remains the longtime home to the Black Arts Alliance.

The milk bottle is going to survive, although the building below it will soon fall to the wrecking ball.

The South Memphis Alliance announced this week the demolition of the badly blighted building to make way for a 25,000-square-foot center to house several nonprofit agencies.

The milk bottle will go to the Children’s Museum of Memphis once the graffiti is sandblasted from it, said museum director Dick Hackett.

“We’ve still got to figure out how much it weighs,” Hackett said.

He and his staff have done some research and found 20 similar milk bottles made in other parts of the country, but none as big as the one atop the building.

South Memphis Alliance executive director Reginald Milton expects to keep the interest of north and southbound traffic on Bellevue with the new center that he hopes will become a gateway to the Soulsville neighborhood west of the dairy.

“We’ve invested so much money into the core of Soulsville, it’s important to get people to turn that corner,” he said. “And they won’t do if they see blight on the main street.”

The alliance has started a capital campaign with the center coming in at an estimated cost of $6 million.

The city of Memphis is providing federal funding for the demolition.

“We do not purport to come in and just completely transform a community. But it’s amazing what happens once you make a major lick like this,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said Tuesday, Aug. 28, as he and others marked the demolition that is about to begin. “This is what government does. We don’t come in and do the complete transformation. But we stimulate it.”

As Wharton and other leaders marked the occasion in a tent by the alliance headquarters across Bellevue from the old dairy, the sounds of a salvage crew working at a soon-to-be renovated laundromat occasionally drifted between the sounds of speeches and the rumble of trucks.

The laundromat is another part of the gateway that Milton admits took some explaining.

He remembers approaching city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb five yeas ago by saying, “Robert, I’ve got a great idea. It’s a laundromat.”

Lipscomb and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, each needed more convincing before getting behind the idea of a laundromat that doubles as a point for social service agencies to interact with families.

“It was about to be converted into a nightclub,” Milton said. “We decided to go ahead and buy the laundromat and run it as a laundromat.”

The alliance also provides services for the state Department of Children’s Services, which is where the idea of a laundromat with a purpose got expanded as Milton pondered the half hour or so wait time.

“How do you provide preventive services to people who don’t know they need the services?” he added. “What we decided to do was go where they are and guess where we found them – at laundromats. … They are in a good mood and they are conducive to preventive services.”

The Assisi Foundation of Memphis Inc. and the city, with federal funding, helped with $1 million to bring in new equipment and create a space for the different agencies.

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