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Soulsville Returns

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Jeffrey Higgs has been working on the Towne Center at Soulsville project for three years, so it's understandable if he's a little anxious. "I'm ready for the ground-breaking," says the executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation. "I'm ready to see things happening on the site."

But it looks as if Higgs will have to hold on a little longer. County commissioners this week deferred approving a $700,000 investment in the venture until July 24th. The $11 million mixed-use lifestyle center, which involved funding from both the city and the federal government, will bring retail, restaurants, and a 24,000-square-foot grocery store to the Soulsville U.S.A. neighborhood in South Memphis.

"You come out of the Stax Museum and look around and say, 'What do you want me to do now?'" says Higgs. "There's a lot of slum and blight there. ... We know we'll get tourists because of Stax, but it's really for the neighborhood."

Higgs and former county commissioner Bridget Chisholm, a consultant on the project, went before the county's budget and finance committee last week to present the proposal. Though commissioners are supportive of the project, they are wary of giving the Community Development Corporation (CDC) what could essentially amount to a blank check.

"I think we need to have further conversations about how we structure the county's involvement," says David Lillard, the commissioner who asked to defer the item. "It would amount to the county giving $700,000 -- basically in cash -- directly to the CDC."

Lillard suggested the county earmark funds for the CDC and then disburse them directly to contractors to build streetscape improvements and infrastructure for the project. Because the CDC has time to finalize the deal, the other commissioners agreed to wait two weeks.

"We're not getting in the business of making open-ended ... contributions to any organization," Commissioner Bruce Thompson said at the committee meeting, "no matter how worthy the cause."

Regardless of the capacity or how they structure the deal, if this is the cue that the county is getting more in tune with urban redevelopment, I'm all for it. Traditionally, the city has played a more active role than the county in revitalizing communities in the inner city. Which is understandable, I admit.

For the Towne Center project, the city paid for the demolition of existing structures on the four-acre property and pledged an additional $250,000 to the project. The CDC also secured several federal grants, as well as a pending $9 million bank loan. But for a project this large, it doesn't make sense for anyone to try it solo.

I think that more often than we like to admit, we forget that the county and the city are not two separate entities struggling independently with their own challenges. Granted, they're not completely in sync. But perhaps we should view them as a harmony and a melody, playing off each other, making both sound better. Redevelopment within the city limits obviously helps the city, but it helps the county as well, slowing sprawl and thus that big, fat debt.

"This is really about economics," says Higgs. "It's not about a little nonprofit. This is serious economic development."

The CDC estimates that Towne Center will create roughly 200 jobs in restaurants and retail. The four acres it will encompass currently generate about $13,000 in property taxes each year. Once developed, it's expected to generate about $200,000 each year for a 20-year period.

"That's only speaking to our four acres," says Chisholm. "It does not factor in the ripple effect: the sales tax revenue, the property taxes of nearby businesses."

"Or the turnover effect of the wages the workers make," adds Higgs.

Even so, Higgs maintains that the real benefit is to the neighborhood.

"Because of what's going on in this particular community, all the dollars being put in by the federal government, by private businesses, by the city ... [Towne Center] is just another cog in the wheel turning this community around," he says.

But perhaps this will give the entire region something to sing about.

"I liken it to Peabody Place," says Chisholm. "That was really the fulcrum of downtown's re-emergence. Now you have restaurants; people walking around; they need housing. Downtown is a neighborhood. This is a catalyst to the continued development of this area."

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