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VOL. 127 | NO. 130 | Wednesday, July 4, 2012

City Kicks Off Neighborhood Innovation Effort

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration is set to begin a concerted effort to bring back neighborhood retail in three parts of the city.

A pair of pedestrians passes the bike lanes on Broad Avenue. The neighborhood’s rebirth has been touted as an example for other communities in Memphis. 

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

Wharton and his Innovation Delivery Team, funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies of New York, rolled out the first moves Monday, July 2, for parts of South Memphis, Binghampton and the Madison and Cleveland area.

It begins with access to the best retail experts available on the persistent problem of creating and attracting retail in blighted areas.

“The demand in our Memphis core city neighborhoods for things like groceries and apparel is very strong,” said Doug McGowen, director of the Innovation Delivery Team. “But what we lag in Memphis in is being at the national conversation of attracting new retailers where we need them. We’re bringing national experts in to work with our existing retailers to give them the most modern business practices to provide them with reliable data about the market in which they operate.”

McGowen and Wharton kicked off the plans at Victory Bicycle Studio in the Broad Avenue Arts District.

“We have the money to bring in the best experts to tell us how to do it. But we’re not getting carried away with the loftiness of all of the experts,” Wharton said. “We’re getting down in the trenches.”

And he used the bicycle shop and the surrounding set of businesses as an example of the kind of success he hopes to have in other areas.

“It went downhill but look at it now,” Wharton said. “A few years ago someone said that’s gone. … But look at what’s happening now.”

The head-first parking spaces that make more parking available along Broad also weren’t permitted by the city until recently. Wharton says without the parking allowances many of the small businesses wouldn’t have met previous development code requirements for a certain number of parking spaces and couldn’t have opened.

The business district in which merchants and property owners drew their own bicycle lanes and parking spaces on Broad without city approval has also caught the attention of Chuck Marohn, a nationally known urban planner, who came to Memphis in April. He talked about a different economic development philosophy he termed “economic gardening” as opposed to “economic hunting.”

“(Broad Avenue) went downhill but look at it now. A few years ago someone said that’s gone. ... But look at what’s happening now.”

–Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Much of what Marohn talked about during his visit to the city is similar to the Innovation Team’s strategy and the timing of Marohn’s visit to the city before the roll out of the team’s plan is no coincidence. Marohn’s visit was an introduction to the direction the effort is likely to take in the months ahead.

The effort will also include a re-examination of how the city-run Renaissance Business Center operates. The center for new businesses has undergone several incarnations as a business incubator over the years.

“The bottom line is as local businesses seek to either expand or open new business in core city neighborhoods, we need to be there to respond with the services they need,” McGowen said.

City Hall’s direct contribution to the effort will be intensified and sustained anti-blight efforts aimed at opening up parts of the core city to commercial development on a scale that works well with surrounding residential areas.

The city’s other Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative, the Family Rewards program, was affected by the City Council’s decision in June to cut the $400,000 in matching funds the city was to put up.

The program offers low-income families money for tasks like making doctors appointments and attending school.

“That program is off to a great start,” Wharton said. “We are going to work through that. It’s regrettable but we’ll work through that.”

PROPERTY SALES 98 172 17,556
MORTGAGES 101 194 20,229
BUILDING PERMITS 223 349 36,295
BANKRUPTCIES 52 115 11,279