Aerotropolis Pitch to Council Receives Mixed Reaction

By Bill Dries

After years of very general talk about the aerotropolis concept, Memphis City Council members are ready for leaders of the effort to bring it in for a landing in specific terms that work with plans in smaller areas of the district around Memphis International Airport.

In a briefing Tuesday, March 19, before a set of public hearings in the area that begin Thursday evening at Whitehaven High School, what caught the ear of most on the council was the question of who would govern a master plan.

Leaders of the effort, which is being coordinated by the Greater Memphis Chamber and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, want some kind of body to govern a development master plan that would work like the Downtown Memphis Commission has. That includes the ability to raise funds with a fee on business owners within the boundaries of an aerotropolis district.

“The question becomes when do you pull the trigger,” council member Harold Collins said of the organization. “It’s sitting on the desk ready to go but we can’t pull the trigger until we have a conceptual idea that’s manageable for everybody.”

The funding from businesses in the district is a pool of money to finance other projects already in place but a new scramble to fit those pieces into a new plan would shatter a hard-fought unity.

“Go to the business community once we get the idea in place and get them to all agree so we don’t have the discord and move forward and everybody knows what will happen,” Collins said of the plan to have a coordinating authority to hold the funds and use them.

“If you haven’t talked with neighborhood groups – I’m being nice. They won’t,” Collins said of groups that endured years of public hearings by state transportation officials about improvements to the Elvis Presley Boulevard streetscape before the plans were set in stone.

Work began this month on the intersection of Elvis Presley and Brooks Road, which is the start of the improvements that will go south to Shelby Drive.

Collins questioned aerotropolis consultants about their knowledge of what was in some of the renderings and found them lacking, starting with the intersection of Winchester Road and Elvis Presley.

“It’s Bluebird Estates and Twinkeltown,” Collins said. “Those are $100,000 homes plus. … Graceland has a project in play already and I would hope that the group begins to coordinate with everybody. … I’m concerned that our consultants who are global are not really connected to what’s going on.”

The idea of a specific area around Memphis International Airport planned for uses that center on the airport from residential and commercial to tourism and manufacturing is a long-term pursuit by the Airport Authority and the chamber.

But what is emerging remained too general for many at the council executive session.

“To me the whole focus of this should be about how we create jobs,” said council member Kemp Conrad. “It’s not anywhere in the presentation.”

Council member Wanda Halbert questioned why the boundaries didn’t venture into her district or deal with several rounds of cuts in passenger flights in and out of Memphis International Airport.

“I’m struggling,” she said. “While we’re talking about this big capital infrastructure with the aerotropolis project, what are we doing about the inside of the airport and getting some flights back in?”

Meanwhile, leaders of the Crosstown Development Project are asking the city of Memphis for $15 million toward a $175 million project.

Memphis City Council members got a look Tuesday at the “ask” as well as the financing and goals of the project centered on the old 1.5 million-square-foot Sears Crosstown building.

No council votes on the funding are scheduled and the council reception was much more friendly than it was for the aerotropolis presentation.

City Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb said the administration of Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has not committed to providing the amount.

The money would be used for blight work and infrastructure including some demolition on the site.

Developers are seeking $14 million in new market tax credits and another $25 million in federal “historic” tax credits. They have raised $25 million from “philanthropists” with a sustainable debt of $86 million.

A total of 600,000 square feet is committed to leases with eight tenants including Church Health Center, ALSAC/St. Jude – the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.