Just a Guy Who Can't Say No

At some point, somebody has to put a stop to public improvement projects.

Beale Street Landing

rendering courtesy Riverfront Development Corporation

"I’m just a girl who cain’t say no," sings Ado Annie in the musical Oklahoma.

And Robert Lipscomb is, by his own admission, a kindred spirit.

“My problem is I can’t say no,” the city’s director of Housing and Community Development and head of the Memphis Housing Authority said at a community meeting in Raleigh in April.

The subject of the meeting was the forlorn Raleigh Springs Mall, once home to department stores and a movie theater but now mostly empty and targeted for at least $36 million in public improvements.

The crowd of about 225 people loved it. Many of them were members of the Raleigh Community Council, a civic improvement association of seemingly infinite patience, exemplary citizenship, neighborliness, and good cheer.

“We deserve this,” said Bill Morrison, the Memphis City Council member who represents Raleigh.

Indeed they do. The mall is an eyesore. The improvement plan, in various forms, is more than three years old. Residents have played by the rules — staying in their homes, improving them, and paying taxes while public schools deteriorated and businesses closed or moved elsewhere.

The problem, as Morrison and every other member of the City Council knows, is that the same can be said of the residents of Whitehaven, Midtown, Orange Mound, Hickory Hill, Frayser, Fox Meadows, you name it. Throw a dart at a map of Memphis and, outside of the Poplar Corridor and East Memphis, you are likely to hit an area of need.

Saying “yes” to everyone is a recipe for bankruptcy. Generosity is contagious.

Midtown has the empty old Sears Crosstown building. The ask is $15 million from the city and $5 million from the county. At Overton Square, there’s a tax-funded parking garage and stormwater retention pond under construction. The Cooper-Young Entertainment District would like a parking garage too, thank you. The Fairgrounds is getting another $9 million for Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, and the Coliseum is supposed to come down. That will cost a few million. So far, no hotel or retail store is planned for the property to produce tax dollars.

Whitehaven has Elvis Presley Boulevard from Raines to Shelby Drive. The ask is $16 million. The Southbrook Mall would like another $6.8 million. Southland Mall across the street has seen better days and will be watching.

Downtown has the still-evolving Bass Pro Pyramid, unfinished Beale Street Landing, the cobblestones, and Heritage Trail with its public housing projects slated for demolition. AutoZone Park is for sale, and the city is the most likely buyer. A council member told me the asking price will be about $20 million.

Arguably, Midtown, Whitehaven, and downtown are the “haves.” The “have-nots” in Frayser, Orange Mound, and South Memphis are worse off, and don’t have the clout or curb appeal.

And Lipscomb, who has been on the job for 20 years, and Wharton, who has been city or county mayor for 12 years, can’t say no. Or don’t want to, if they can help it.

“You cannot cut your way to prosperity,” said Lipscomb, as the Raleigh audience applauded. “Austerity does not equal prosperity.”

And you can’t spend your way to prosperity using Memphis tax dollars when Memphis already has the highest property tax rate in the state and, more important, Shelby County. Saying “yes” to everyone is a recipe for bankruptcy. Generosity is contagious. It was only a matter of months before Cooper-Young interests demanded a parking garage after the developers of Overton Square got one. Developers routinely ask the city to pay for demolition, asbestos abatement, or “infrastructure improvements” because they know competitors have gotten a deal.   

Curiously, Lipscomb listed Peabody Place, the Fairgrounds, and Beale Street Landing in his map of anchor developments in the city’s “connect-the-dots” strategy. The Peabody Place retail center closed.

The Fairgrounds has no private developer. Beale Street Landing cost twice its original budget and won’t have a grand opening until 2014.

Maybe someone should have said “no” somewhere along the way.     


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