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VOL. 130 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 6, 2015

Southbrook Project Resurfaces Again

By Bill Dries

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The owners of Southbrook Mall got $1.5 million in improvements from City Hall this week. But it wasn’t the $1.5 million the owners of the Whitehaven mall wanted in 2012, when the city contemplated giving them that sum to fix the roof and make repairs to the mall’s heating and air conditioning system.

The owners of the Southbrook Mall are getting $1.5 million in infrastructure improvements from the city. But the money doesn’t go for the roof and HVAC repairs they’ve been seeking city funding for since 2012.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The nonprofit group that owns the aging mall at Elvis Presley Boulevard and Shelby Drive in Whitehaven won’t touch the city capital funding approved by the city council Tuesday, March 3.

It’s for public infrastructure including improving the parking lot and sidewalks and other similar features.

It’s also what city housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb describes as a “good faith” effort by the administration of Mayor A C Wharton Jr., which wants to convert Southbrook to a “town center” that would include city government facilities and possibly a police precinct.

City council member Harold Collins, whose district includes the mall, said so far the infrastructure work is the only commitment to what could become a much more expensive project.

“Where we are today is specifically for the city of Memphis to demonstrate its good faith in doing the project at Southbrook Mall,” he said. “Anything after this would require further meetings.”

The next step would be mall owners applying for $2.1 million in federal energy conservation bonds for the roof and HVAC repairs.

The city is showing its good faith to an ownership group that was adamant it only wanted $1.5 million to fix the roof and the HVAC system. The group wanted no part of the town center concept Wharton wants to use at Raleigh Springs Mall and the Soulsville Town Center as well as at Southbrook.

The concept relies on city facilities as a catalyst for private investment.

As Lipscomb explained what the $1.5 million amount would specifically be used for at Southbrook, he was talking as much to the owners of the mall as he was to the council.

“It would be a shame and a doggone shame to say our vision is so small that we are willing to settle for $1.5 million for infrastructure. I’m embarrassed,” Lipscomb said. “It’s a high-income African-American neighborhood that must be protected and elevated. We must elevate our vision.”

He also cited competition for Southbrook and neighboring Southland Mall from the Tanger outlet mall in Southaven, Miss., which formally begins construction this month.

“Don’t we have to protect Whitehaven’s borders?” Lipscomb asked.

Lipscomb has talked before about the need for Southbrook’s owners to “step up their game.” He made the comment in 2013 as the Delta Division of Kroger began a $5 million renovation of its supermarket next to Southbrook.

Collins has been the driving force behind that and other funding for streetscape improvements of more than $40 million along Elvis Presley Boulevard between Brooks Road and Shelby Drive. And last year, Elvis Presley Enterprises broke ground on a $90 million, 450-room resort hotel north of Graceland.

The first plan to give the Southbrook owners $1.5 million in city capital funding ran aground when city attorneys said it was a private use of public funds that was illegal and could cause the city to lose the federal funding for the larger streetscape improvements.

Some council members also expressed concern that the estimated cost of the roof and HVAC repairs was around $1 million and not $1.5 million, as well as over the involvement of political operative Greg Grant.

But other council members including Janis Fullilove argued that the nonprofit group headed by Willie Harper is operating honestly.

Fullilove reacted to questions about ownership and responsibility from council member Bill Boyd by asking if he and other critics had the same questions about the Raleigh Springs Mall project funding approved by the council last month.

The Raleigh project is getting more than $30 million in city funding for its conversion to a town center with city facilities including a police precinct and a library.

“I wish we could get out of living in the 1950s here,” Boyd replied. “I’m sorry you read things into this all the time.”

“I don’t think anybody is out to steal anything,” Fullilove responded. “It seems like with this project there is always some kind of hoop or some kind of loop that we have to go through.”

There is a “distinct difference” between Raleigh Springs Mall and Southbrook Mall, Collins said.

A nonprofit board owns Southbrook.

The city has reached an agreement with outparcel owners at Raleigh Springs Mall, so the city owns the property where its facilities will go. Wharton has started eminent domain proceedings on the mall itself as the city and the private owners of Raleigh Springs Mall continue to negotiate.

The mall owners last year said the city had not consulted them about its town center plans for their mall and that publicity about the city plans, including partial demolition, was making it difficult for them to recruit tenants.

Even with the differences, Collins said the two projects have similarities.

“Both of these projects are considered to be inner-city development projects, which are gravely needed in our community,” he said.

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