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VOL. 11 | NO. 33 | Saturday, August 18, 2018

Firestone Fallout

Once employing 7,000, impact of closed plant still felt in North Memphis community.

By Bill Dries

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The red letters grow fainter as the years pass in North Memphis. The Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. plant’s smokestack, once a symbol of the industrial base that defined North Memphis, has become a different kind of symbol in the 35 years since the tire plant closed.

With the acreage up for sale after a youth golf program failed to grow into a nine-hole golf course, 900 Firestone Ave. in Frayser comes on the market as the city debates a new direction for its economic development strategy.

Eric Robertson, president of Community Lift, the nonprofit that works with community development corporations across the city, argues the Firestone site is an important indicator of how serious local leaders are about attracting economic development that helps cure the rot hiding in plain sight.

The former Firestone plant rises in the heart of the New Chicago neighborhood. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“Here is what happens when you don’t have this broad definition of what community development is, and you are not being intentional in marrying place to that economic development,” Robertson said of the site, noting the last of several generations of workers walked through the gates in 1983 and never came back.

Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. opened in 1936 on land that included the Murray Wood Products Co. plant that was owned by Fisher Body Corp. at the time. It was the first Firestone plant to make tires using a new method. Within 20 years of its opening, the Memphis plant was the largest single tire-making plant in the world with 35 acres of floor space. The company estimated one of every 17 tires made in the U.S. were made at the Memphis plant.

At its height in 1945, the Memphis plant employed 7,000 men and women.

In August 1982, the company announced the facility, then employing only 1,940 workers, would close the following spring.

Firestone established a charitable trust in 1952 to fund neighborhood nonprofit groups. And as the trust evolved into the Bridgestone/Firestone Trust Fund after the Memphis plant closed and Firestone became Bridgestone, the trust planned to help redevelop the facility and the area in the late 1990s.

The smokestack is not all that’s left of the industrial behemoth, although most other signs of a plant on land overgrown with summer brush taller than the fence surrounding the site are hard to find.

“There are a lot of tunnels still underground,” said Memphis City Council chairman Berlin Boyd, whose district includes Firestone.

Robertson says during a visit to Washington, D.C., during the Obama administration, he and other local economic development officials were greeted by an administration official who without prompting asked why the city had not applied for federal “brownfields” funding specifically for the Firestone site.

A brownfield is “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which estimates there are 450,000 such sites in the U.S.

The Memphis Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. plant opened in 1936 and at its peak made one of every 17 tires made in the U.S. (Submitted)

The city did apply for and get some brownfield funding 20 years ago. Memphis was awarded a $1 million grant and $4 million in guaranteed loans from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in late 1998 for a clean-up of the Firestone site under HUD’s brownfield redevelopment initiative. A year earlier, the city was awarded another $200,000 from the EPA for site acquisition, environmental remediation and infrastructure.

The goal of former Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration was developing a new industrial park to create 400 jobs.

That changed to First Tee, a youth golf facility operated briefly by the Mid-South Junior Golf Association. Herenton, other city leaders and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. executives announced plans for First Tee in late 2001.

When those plans came to moving dirt, the tunnels and “catacombs” on the site were discovered anew.

“Today, it is an underutilized landscape of abandoned and razed buildings with little remaining of a thriving industrial complex except the signature smokestack,” Mark Emkes, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone, said at the 2001 press conference.

Seventeen years later that remains an apt description of the site.

Bridgestone/Firestone put up $3.5 million toward the First Tee effort, noting that it hadn’t owned the property since the early 1980s. The money went toward a nine-hole golf course, a building with classrooms and computer labs, and offices for the Mid-South Junior Golf Association, which operated one of 138 First Tee programs developed across the country.

As First Tee’s plans were taking shape, the Tennessee Legislature approved a Brownfield Redevelopment Act that same year to reduce the liability of new owners of such sites and encourage more cleanups across Tennessee.

Edward Dowell (left) moves a sectional sofa into Roy Hughes' (center) club on Thomas Street near Firestone Avenue. The former Firestone plant sits in the heart of the New Chicago neighborhood, but is unlikely to be incorporated into the city's economic development plan. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Six years after the First Tee groundbreaking, a 400-yard driving range and putting greens opened.

“I think, intuitively, you can kind of see the difficulties and the hurdles that have to be overcome in doing that,” Berry Jones, the board chairman of the Memphis First Tee effort, told The Daily News in November 2007. “It’s just been a very challenging project. There’ve been huge hurdles to overcome.”

That included demolishing a 1 million-square-foot plant building.

“Then you had all types of little underground pipes, catacombs that were underneath the building that nobody knew about and had been there for 50 years,” Jones said.

At that point, the second phase was a $1.8 million life skills learning center to be followed by a nine-hole golf course. The golf course depended on an endowment to fund future maintenance of the park.

Mid-South Junior Golf Association still owns the 72 acres appraised at $773,700. The sale of the property in a tax sale would return $139,000 owed to the city and county in back property taxes and penalties.

“When they originally remediated the site they just buried some things,” council chairman Boyd said of the First Tee effort. “It’s going to take some state help in order to get that site ready in order for someone to come in and actually build and develop.”

Reid Dulberger, president and CEO of the city-county Economic Development Growth Engine – or EDGE – said his agency functions like an industrial development board, providing tax incentives for worthy development projects. He said EDGE is focused on seeing something happen on the Firestone site.

“It has challenges,” he said, talking about remediation and other issues for a massive manufacturing plant operating well before there were environmental standards and federal agencies enforcing those standards.

“The slab is still on site covering about 34 acres,” Dulberger said. “It’s a combination of environmental and engineering issues. Bridgestone will be involved in any reuse of the site. They have a deed restriction with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.”

TDEC also issues what are known as “comfort letters” on properties that might have such issues. It did that recently for the Shelby County Board of Education’s purchase of the Bayer Building at 3030 Jackson Ave., a manufacturing site. The comfort letter outlines assessments of potential issues TDEC has made with a property and the role of the previous owner in being involved in the remediation.

Boyd has talked of manufacturing or industrial uses returning to the Firestone site, as well as nearby residential.

“That’s the reason people moved to North Memphis at that particular time,” he said of the plant’s origins.

“It came up because of the fact you had International Harvester. You had Firestone. You had all of these other entities that were over there – a lot of jobs, a lot of opportunities there,” Boyd said. “So now that trend has changed. If you revitalize that area for an industrial or a new use, you have more opportunity to start growing the local economy.”

The Crockett Grocery sits just down the street from the former Firestone plant. The plant's adaptive reuse comes with a high cost of redeveloping such a brownfield site and remediating it from its ndustrial uses. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Robertson says the return of housing in an area where Manassas High School remains in the shadow of the Firestone smokestack – albeit in a different location than the original Manassas that was across Firestone Avenue from the plant – is the kind of economic development the city should be pursuing.

“The alternative to not doing so is a further expanding geography of blight and deteriorating neighborhoods,” he said.

Robertson points to other cities that work to coordinate the different elements of what happens around an economic development site like Firestone – sometimes with incentives and other times with limits on industrial uses.

Boyd agrees.

“Firestone is in a prime location for redevelopment, major manufacturing facilities and/or applied manufacturing or an industrial site. It’s there,” Boyd said. “But you put restrictions on what type of manufacturing and what type of industrial uses you can have there. I think that’s the way we can start revitalizing and rebuilding that community.”

Dulberger says agencies like his and elected officials like Boyd have to take on community-building around such sites because site consultants for companies looking for land to build a plant or factory are not interested in taking on that role.

Their ideal site is often an industrial park far from residential areas and free of remediation concerns.

“Brownfield sites are slower. They take more time to develop because you’ve got regulatory hoops to go through, you’ve got issues to deal with and they are expensive,” Dulberger said. “And just to put the cherry on the sundae, what we are really doing is spending a fair amount of time and a lot of money to create what, in essence, is an inexpensive asset because industrial land is an inexpensive asset.”

A string of Roy Hughes' businesses line the intersection of Thomas Street and Firestone Avenue. The Firestone plant nearby once employed 7,000 Memphians. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Dulberger said the site has advantages that make it worth the effort to use it as a catalyst for a return of the area’s sense of community.

“It is an appropriate use of time, energy and resources for government entities,” he said. “If we don’t step up the private sector is not going to.”

Robertson said time is also a factor for 72 acres in the inner city that have been mostly unused for 36 years.

“If we don’t, the Firestone and International Harvester land will be vacant for 50 years,” he said. “Klondike, Smoky City will be in decline for 50 years.”

And Robertson says it takes more than an active and strategic community development corporation to approach the scale of community-building needed.

“People in communities don’t have a sense of who that is. And in some cases they think that is the job of a CDC,” he said. “And sometimes what you find is an animosity between communities and CDCs because they are like, ‘You are not doing enough to change my neighborhood.’ And the CDCs are saying, ‘Well, my annual budget is $75,000.”

The Sears Crosstown store and distribution center that formally reopened as a repurposed Crosstown Concourse a year ago this month is 1.5 million square feet.

As the first seeds of Crosstown Concourse were tentatively taking root at the onset of the Great Recession, the Firestone site in North Memphis was being cleared of its 1-million-square-foot plant idled in the wake of the late 1970s, early 1980s national recession.

But Firestone was a heavy industrial manufacturing site and Sears Crosstown was a distribution center — each with very different issues and challenges.

Crosstown has been the inspiration for other ambitious efforts. Firestone’s future is a heavy lift that tests the reach of such inspiration.

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597