Neighborhood Vitality

Innovation Delivery Team works to revitalize city’s communities

By Amos Maki

The history at the Four-Way Restaurant is as rich and soulful as the food.

The Binghampton-Broad Avenue area  is one of the focus neighborhoods of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The walls of the South Memphis institution are decorated with photographs of politicians, athletes, entertainers, business leaders and civil rights icons – including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – who made the famous restaurant at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue a “home away from home.”

“We try to make people happy,” said owner Willie Earl Bates. “It’s all about what you put into it, and we put in long hours, blood, sweat and tears.”

The South Memphis community where the Four-Way Restaurant is located is part of Bates’ DNA.

His mother, whose picture occupies a prominent wall in the restaurant, raised Bates and his three sisters in the former LeMoyne Gardens public housing complex. He lived in the neighborhood as he pursued a 38-year career in the insurance business and he has a burial plot at nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

After the Four-Way Restaurant closed in the mid-1990s following the death of longtime owner Irene Cleaves, Bates and a partner acquired the real estate where the restaurant sits and a few adjacent parcels, and Bates reopened the restaurant in 2002.

“I took it on because of the deep appreciation of the heritage of this great community and what it has done for this city and will continue to do for this city,” Bates said. “When you really get involved and appreciate the value of a venture, it just becomes a part of you, and that is what happened to me.”

City officials say they share Bates’ passion for the Soulsville community and hope a neighborhood revitalization plan funded by a grant from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic organization will help lift the neighborhood and two other targeted areas, the Binghampton-Broad Avenue area and the Madison Avenue-Cleveland corridor.

The neighborhood vitality initiative is an outgrowth of a $4.8 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and his staff last year formed an “Innovation Delivery Team” to carry out the grant’s mission of neighborhood revitalization and reducing youth handgun violence.

The goal of the neighborhood support program is to increase business starts, boost business activity and lower vacancy rates for commercial spaces by removing blight and other environmental barriers, and generating interest and ideas tailored to each community and aligning resources – public and private – to meet each neighborhood’s goals.

“Our approach to this was to first clean it, take action to reduce blight or crime in those neighborhoods,” said team leader Doug McGowen, former head of the Naval Support Activity Mid-South base in Millington. “Next is to activate it, and that is to put into place very specific activities so that people can begin to imagine what this neighborhood could look like in the future. And the final step is to sustain it, putting strategies in place to maintain the successes you’ve had so far.”

The nine-member team provides the city and its partners with extra capacity and fresh eyes and ears to analyze and address public and private issues facing the neighborhoods.

Crosstown Arts is developing four new storefronts totaling several thousand square feet near the Sears Crosstown Building. (Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

The Soulsville neighborhood is one target of the initiative. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Four-Way Restaurant in Soulsville is one of the mainstays the Innovation Delivery Team hopes to preserve and replicate. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Barkley Whitney enjoys lunch at the Four-Way Restaurant in Soulsville. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The two main “activation” pieces sponsored by the team and its partners so far are MemFix and MemShop.

MemFix, designed to demonstrate to the targeted communities what is possible there, is a weekend event that is one-part urban intervention and one-part street festival brimming with arts, entertainment and retail.

It’s not a fly-by-night affair. Team members go through an in-depth planning process with community stakeholders to understand their vision for the neighborhood and then bring all of the city resources to bear to help make that vision a reality.

The MemFix events include the temporary redesign of city streets to make them more pedestrian friendly – including the addition of streetscapes, bike lanes, crosswalks and on-street parking – a clean-up effort, pop-up retail and surveys of existing commercial real estate stock to gauge what type of moderate private improvements could attract more businesses and people.

The first MemFix event was held last year around the Sears Crosstown site, and included nine temporary, or pop-up, retail locations in vacant storefronts, which gave rise to the MemShop idea. The second MemFix event was held around Highland Avenue and Walker Street near The University of Memphis.

“That brings together nearly every division of city government to deliver resources and services in a very precise way, and it takes the neighborhood through a very detailed planning process to imagine what this key intersection can be and what can happen there,” McGowen said. “If you think about Crosstown as revitalization, you can think of MemFix as ‘pre-vitalization’ because it’s demonstrating the art of the possible.”

The Crosstown event brought around 10,000 people to the neighborhood, and in its wake roughly 30,000 square feet of formerly vacant retail space has been leased.

“We knew it wasn’t just enough to come up with a plan to redevelop the (Sears Crosstown) building. We needed Crosstown to become a community again,” said Todd Richardson, project manager for the Crosstown Development Project, which is seeking to use arts, housing, education and health care to redevelop the 1.5 million-square-foot Sears building, constructed in 1927. “In one day MemFix accomplished three times what we had worked on for several years.”

The MemFix event for the Soulsville community around Mississippi Boulevard and Walker is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 12. During a recent planning session at the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp., team members, city officials and stakeholders huddled around large maps of the Soulsville neighborhood and brainstormed everything from how to create a “food court” by using food trucks and outdoor furniture to creating gateway entrances that would grab attention.

“We have a saying – a MemFix event seeks to put an area back on the mental map of Memphians,” said Maria Fuhrmann, the special assistant to Wharton who helps coordinate the MemFix events.

Program events are tailored around the history, people, assets and conditions that make each community unique.

“I think to activate it and bring some fun to the community at the same time is a great thing,” said Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen CDC. “Music, culture and education is what this community is known for and we’re looking forward to sharing that.”

For MemShop, the team helps match budding businesses and entrepreneurs with vacant commercial spaces for days or weeks at a time. Last year, the team helped create a weekend Christmas holiday market in Overton Square for three weeks. One of those temporary tenants, Delta Groove Yoga, signed a long-term lease at the square and developer Loeb Properties Inc. has signed several additional sports-based retailers.

“It’s a marriage of three things: a person who wants to start a brick-and-mortar business who hasn’t been able to quite get there, a neighborhood that may be in need of more retail and a property owner who has a vacant commercial property they want to get filled,” said Cynthia Norwood with alt.Consulting, who is providing technical assistance to the businesses and coordinating MemShop events.

MemShop has grown into a retail and small-business incubator on Broad Avenue.

The team selected four businesses – Five In One Social Club, Indie Style Market, My Heavenly Creations and NJ Woods Gallery & Design – out of a pool of 35 applicants and

negotiated affordable, short-term leases with landlords, provided small allowances for improvements, which the businesses matched, and helped offset the cost of rent for the first few months. A fifth business, Guitar Spa, just got enrolled in the program, and My Heavenly Creations has signed a long-term lease.

“What we’ve found is that the difference between getting into a storefront or not is about $5,000,” McGowen said. “That’s five new businesses, so the vacancy rate is going down significantly.”

Broad Avenue will be the site of the team’s first “Night Market,” where they use the same components found in MemFix and MemShop but during a nighttime setting once a month for three months.

“It has spurred the rehabilitation of some of the oldest and most neglected buildings on the street,” said Michael Wayt, owner of Landscape Works and board member of the Historic Broad Avenue Business Association, of the team’s efforts on Broad.

“I used to say I couldn’t wait until the day comes when I have to drive around the block to find a parking spot to come to my office, and that has happened several times,” said Wayt. “It’s a wonderful thing to see people on the street from the morning to the evening – and it’s all kind of folks.”

The team’s neighborhood retail strategy includes a detailed study of market conditions – existing stores, store designs and demographic information – in each neighborhood, which can expand an existing business’ customer base and attract new businesses.

“We’ll know what the needs are so we can accurately go out and look for the right fits to bring resources to each neighborhood,” McGowen said.

The team researched a proposal from the Economic Development Growth Engine of Memphis and Shelby County to establish an Economic Gardening program designed to help existing businesses grow. While the city’s main incentive tool, the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program, is geared toward attracting new businesses or retaining companies that may be considering a move, the Economic Gardening program seeks to provide smaller existing businesses – those with nine to 99 employees and $750,000 to $50 million in annual revenues that have experienced growth in two of the last five years – with the technical assistance they need to expand.

Participating businesses get 36 hours of technical assistance from the Lowe Foundation, including strategic business planning and detailed market research that highlights areas for growth.

Two businesses – Action Chemical and AVPOL International LLC – have graduated from the Economic Gardening program. Two companies are participating in the program now and nine more are waiting to participate.

Back at the Four-Way Restaurant, Bates mulls over the attention the neighborhood will soon receive and daydreams about the possible, about a thriving commercial intersection and corridor that lives off of, and supports, the surrounding neighborhood.

“They recognize the need to reseed it and get things going, and that’s the great thing, when the powers recognize it,” he said.

Bates says anything is possible in his neighborhood and reminds a reporter that many seemingly intractable political and community problems have been solved inside the restaurant’s walls over the years.

“It’s easy over a good meal,” he said.