There was a home tour last Sunday afternoon at Southwind, the gated community of executive homes built around the Tournament Players Club, site of the St. Jude Classic golf tournament.
Times are hard all over. More than 10 percent of the 527 homes in the development are for sale, many at prices well below their 2009 appraisals. So real estate agents and the residents association decided to open the gates that are normally about as hard to penetrate as a fortress, unless you're a resident, friend of a resident, or driving a service vehicle.
I'm none of the above, so I called my friend Henry Turley, the downtown developer, and we drove out for a look. The German shepherds at the gate barely acknowledged us in the 100-degree heat. Just kidding. Henry was welcomed with a hearty hello and a quick check of his license plate number. Professional courtesy.
The first houses in Southwind were built some 20 years ago. The architecture is eclectic. Big entrances — really big entrances and porticos — are popular. The landscaping is lush, more so since the trees and bushes have grown. Prices of the 37 homes open for inspection ranged from $279,900 to $1,950,000.
Southwind is next to FedEx world headquarters and popular with executives who move around a lot. Turley commented that it did not look unlike upscale developments in Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta, and that was part of its appeal.
Low taxes are another part of its appeal that doesn't get mentioned much. Southwind is in Shelby County, not in Memphis, so residents only pay county taxes. A few years ago, the Memphis City Council moved to annex Southwind and nearby Windyke but backed off at the 11th hour. The property tax savings on a $1 million home is about $8,000 a year. Southwind is supposed to be annexed in 2014, but we'll see about that. Being in Memphis is a powerful deterrent. The land directly across from Southwind on the west side of Hacks Cross is mostly undeveloped. It is inside the city limits of Memphis.
So near yet so far. It's about 25 miles from City Hall to Southwind. The closest public school is Southwind High School at Hacks Cross and Shelby Drive. Shelby County operates the school. It too is supposed to be annexed at some point, along with its feeder schools, becoming part of the Memphis City Schools system. If that happened tomorrow, the black enrollment of Shelby County schools would go from 37 percent to 7.68 percent, which is roughly the percentage of white students in the city schools.
We left Southwind without buying anything and returned to Midtown via Shelby Drive, Winchester, and Lamar. I call this the Memphis reality tour. If you want to see the underbelly of America's Distribution Center, try it sometime. The Poplar corridor this ain't.
You'll see the eight-lane roads that spurred the sprawl, the warehouses and distribution centers that got tax incentives to locate here but are now laying off workers, the huge trains-to-trucks intermodal shipping yard on Lamar, the giant orange-colored machines that can pick up a container or three, the big-box stores, restaurants advertising $3.50 specials, the vacancies in the shopping malls, the residential neighborhoods that sprang up in the last 30 years, and the day-rate motels and too-many-to-count blighted and abandoned properties on Lamar, including the old headquarters of Holiday Inns, once the flagship company of Memphis.
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton told FedEx founder Fred Smith that retailing is about moving things, not about selling things. Memphis and Shelby County boomed and prospered because of that. But if people don't start making things and buying things next year or the next, then there won't be as much to move, and Memphis will be in a fix.
"Why would anyone want to be mayor of all this?" Turley wondered out loud as we drove north on Lamar.
I don't know. But whoever it is, they better have good help, smarts, backbone, a thick hide, and lots of zeal.