Turley: ‘You Can Be Somebody in Memphis’

By Sarah Baker

Years after Henry Turley experienced the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, took advantage of the Community Reinvestment Act and persuaded banks to reinvest in the Downtown core, not to mention spearheaded revitalization in the Harbor Town and Uptown areas, he’s making a “micro bet” on building nice neighborhoods around excellent schools.

Coining the process as the “communities of scholars,” Turley hopes to eventually counteract his theory that Memphis lost population and vitality because people were afraid to send their children to the neighborhood schools. And it’s not so much a theory as it is a reality – it’s the “economic imperative” that he said built DeSoto County, Germantown and Collierville.

“Let’s take one of those scorecards and let’s get a real good school,” Turley said at last week’s Rhodes College’s “Memphis Centered” speaker series on building a better Memphis. “Then let’s eliminate slum and blight around it and let’s build there. Let’s start at the place that ruined us, where it gets good, and build communities of scholars. That’s a simple idea, I’ll be damned if I’m wrong about that.”

Turley said schools to watch include KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, Caldwell Elementary School, Porter-Leath, Memphis College Prep and Humes Preparatory Middle School.

A sixth-generation Memphian, Turley still favors the older parts of the city over the far-reaching areas. But he knows that it’s hard to fill the city if there isn’t adequate education.

Turley calls himself a “social worker who did things backwards and kind of lucked into” investments. His planned career path was that of a progressive farmer, reforming the one-crop system. Yet he had an “unarticulated sense” of what he wanted to do and his father helped him break into the real estate business in 1963.

“I’ve really been blessed,” Turley said. “I mean, it just worked. I wonder why, but it wasn’t deliberate. I was deliberately a farmer. But I didn’t lose that reform.”

As a developer, Turley said his core job is to fulfill the needs of the community and society. In the 1960s, Downtown was in desperate need of help – and Turley was one of the only ones helping.

“It was clear to me that I was supposed to repopulate Downtown,” Turley said. “It was clear to me that I was supposed to go invest in the disinvested inner city. It was clear to me that I was supposed to think of new urbanism and all of that crap. I wouldn’t trade anything for having that opportunity.”

Many blamed the garbage strikers as the reason the Central Business District was abandoned for projects out east. But Turley said America as a whole had zoned a center city with businesses and “put the people somewhere else.”

“We were well on our way,” Turley said, citing Henry Ford and the founding of Ford Motor Co. “It made everything else possible, and so we put our energy in the new things that were newly possible. I remember when (Bill) Goodwin built Poplar Plaza – it was just all predicated on everybody having a car, thank goodness.”

Turley said he purposely tried to make deals economically successful because he figured that was “the best motivator for any emulation.” That’s why he abandoned the two development forms of the 1980s (urban and suburban) and started thinking like the customer.

“I thought a lot of people would like to live with different people and they’d see it as a richer life and a richer opportunity,” he said. “I thought, ‘They don’t want to be all by themselves in the alternative they have in the suburbs. They want some point of community, a coffee shop, density, diversity.’”

With a notebook of ideas in tow, and simply pictures – not ownership – of the rail yard that’s now South Bluffs and the land that’s now Harbor Town, Turley convinced RTKL in Baltimore to design his vision.

He admits that in the years that followed the construction, selling the residential was slow and “hard as hell.” But his persistence with seeking financing and creative lot exchanges with homebuilders during the 1991 real estate depression eventually combated the “psychographic problem” that residents had about Downtown’s safety and image.

Turley said he was “always able to talk (his) way through some money.” He also credits the government with getting him funding to do his first Downtown projects.

“I’d been going around the banks promoting some Downtown projects and I wasn’t getting anywhere much except lip service until the federal government passed something called the Community Reinvestment Act where they required the financial institutions to reinvest more equitably in the communities from which their deposits and resources (originate),” Turley said. “I thought, ‘A-ha! That could work.’

“I didn’t have any competition. I kind of made money accidentally, I swear. I didn’t know, but looking back now, that’s the way it happened.”