VOL. 132 | NO. 95 | Friday, May 12, 2017
Poag Works with Residents to Build Strong Neighborhoods
By Micaela Watts
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
When it comes to community development, money helps. But if the neighborhoods don’t know what you’re up to – or if they don’t like it – you may as well stop now, because your plan is doomed to fail. It’s a lesson Memphis has learned the hard way.
“Historically, you’ve had figures like Boss Crump come into a neighborhood and say, ‘Here’s your plan,’” says Josh Poag. “And it never worked, because there was no community buy-in.”
Poag is the board chair of Community LIFT, an organization that leverages financial resources and coordinates among community organizations to give Memphis neighborhoods a boost. Lately he and LIFT executive director Eric Robertson have been learning just how powerful it can be to hand the tools of development to ordinary community members.
“The question is, how are we going to help struggling neighborhoods?” says Poag. “And the first answer has got to be, bring everyone from those areas to the table.”
During the day, Poag is the president of Poag Shopping Centers LLC, a real estate development company; some of his most visible properties include Highland Row, Tanger Outlets and Carriage Crossing. Such high-end retail may seem a far cry from grassroots neighborhood development, but Poag says the two have a lot in common.
“Our mantra has always been, ‘Get on the ground, and let the neighborhoods come up with the plan,” he explains. “We’re not marching into a community and telling residents what should go on each corner. We’re working with them on a daily basis to earn their trust.”
LIFT’s approach is threefold: help develop and implement Memphis 3.0, the city’s comprehensive plan; support neighborhood-based community development corporations (CDCs); and oversee business loans to previously unbanked entrepreneurs in target areas. Their grassroots work encompasses the entire city, but they are focusing on areas such as Frayser, Binghampton and Soulsville.
“In order for Memphis 3.0 to be successful, we need between 30 and 40 CDCs that function at a high level,” says Poag. “What we’ve found is that, out of 24 existing CDCs, only about five or six are highly functioning. In other words, we’ve got a long way to go.”
Even with everyone at the table, Poag knows that strong neighborhoods require strong independent businesses. That’s why LIFT administers small-business loans to neighborhood entrepreneurs. Many of these small-business owners have gone on to run successful companies – but initially, they may have been unable to qualify for loans at traditional financial institutions.
Lois Lee is a prime example. She used a $15,000 loan from LIFT to make improvements to her business, Qwality Qwick Cleaners in South Memphis. She fixed up the parking lot and façade and then watched as business took off.
“We figured, going in, that some of these loans would not work out,” Poag concedes. “But so far, everyone is paying on time. It’s making me think that we need to stretch even further in the future.”
Poag says his work with LIFT is best understood from an altitude of 20,000 feet. From up there, you can see the quilt that is Memphis, a patchwork of struggling neighborhoods interwoven with thriving ones. LIFT’s job is to repair the torn patches and to reinforce the fabric as a whole.
“We’re always asking, ‘What’s next for these communities?’” Poag observes. “What do they need? And how can we help them find the right answers?”
Josh Poag is a graduate of New Memphis’s Leadership Development Intensive (LDI). Learn more at newmemphis.org.