Memphis City Council members profoundly disagree with one another on how far the city should go to fund a renovation of Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven.
City Council members are at odds over funding for Southbrook Mall.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
But both sides of the council discussion were of one mind Tuesday, Nov. 5, about their dissatisfaction with the qualified support the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has gradually given to the project.
George Little, the city’s chief administrative officer, took the brunt of criticism Tuesday from council members on both sides of the issue.
“What filter do y’all use to say yes or no to a project?” asked council member Kemp Conrad, a critic of any funding for the mall. “Certainly there’s no shortage of buildings with bad roofs. … There’s no shortage of need in this community. … In an era of less and finite resources, what filter do y’all use to get behind and allocate scarce dollars?”
Little said the administration has a rigorous process and says “no” frequently to projects that the council never hears about.
Conrad became more pointed on a day when the council unanimously approved a transfer of $7.5 million capital funding for a Memphis police traffic precinct to redevelopment of Raleigh Springs Mall, which could be the new site of the precinct.
“What do y’all say no to?” Conrad said. “What about other malls?”
Little and the administration also took fire from council member Janis Fullilove, who proposed the original $1.5 million in funding for the project.
“Has not money been juggled around to do what the administration wanted done?” Fullilove said. “I just get the feeling that you all don’t want to do this little black project for $1.5 million but we can do these other projects. Coming before us soon will be the Crosstown project where we will come up with some $15 million that we don’t have, according to the administration.”
Fullilove has said several times that she believes the project has had difficulty at City Hall because the developers are African-Americans.
“What do y’all say no to?”
Despite the wording of the October resolution that made city funding contingent on a legal opinion about whether it was a prohibited private use, Fullilove claimed the legal complication that killed the funding that way was a surprise.
“You said nothing and sometimes silence is golden. But sometimes silence means consent,” Fullilove told Little. “Surely with all of these attorneys we have on the council … someone knew at that moment that they couldn’t take place.”
The funding would have come from state and federal money for improvements to the Elvis Presley Boulevard streetscape that will not be spent this year. But if the funding had been used for what federal officials later determined was a private use, it would have endangered the larger amount of federal funding for the streetscape improvements as well.
The legal opinion from the city attorney’s office is that the council cannot fund the mall renovation in that way. And council attorney Allan Wade made the same point.
“You lost complete control of it after that,” he told council members. “It’s gone. It’s in the administration’s hands. … The public uses are still going to be an issue.”
That set off a council debate about whether to try to revive the possibility with a public use like a police precinct in the mall.
Conrad, at one point, proposed and the council approved an amendment directing the administration to “attempt to conjure up a public use for the property.”
“This, to me, is more that we are conjuring up things … just so we can give someone a million and a half dollars because their roof is falling in,” he said.
Council member Harold Collins later amended that language out of the resolution and replaced it with directions to “find an appropriate use for the facility, if any, and identify the proper funding to carry it out.”
The council approved Collins’ language on the feasibility study and a report from the administration is due by the Dec. 3 council meeting.
“To use the term ‘conjuring up’ to come up with an idea, in my opinion, is disingenuous to the people who work very hard out there to make something of a good community,” Collins added.
At one point leading up to the first vote on funding for the project in October, Fullilove and Collins said they were each getting different messages from the administration on the Southbrook Mall renovation.
Collins said the month before the council vote that the administration has expressed strong reservations about the use of the streetscape funding for it. At the same committee session, Fullilove, sitting next to Collins, responded that the administration had told her they supported the funding and had no reservations.