South Memphis isn't just a food desert. It's an all-around retail desert, according to the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team.
Those are the findings of the team's neighborhood retail strategy. The team, funded by a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, is focusing its efforts on boosting retail in South Memphis.
"They have to go so far to get to a grocery store if they have to walk. And the same goes for clothing and other goods. There's no place to shop for the basics," said Tommy Pacello, project manager for the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team. "We've identified the need for 56,000 square feet of retail in South Memphis, plus an additional 25,000 square feet of grocery."
Part of those grocery needs may soon be fulfilled by a local shop owner whom the mayor's team is assisting with a feasibility study for a new location in Soulsville's Towne Center. In March, Clemmie Lester's corner store at Walker and Neptune burned down, but the plan is to help him relocate to the currently vacant grocery store space in Towne Center.
When Towne Center was built in 2009, it included a space for a grocery store but the deal with the store that was supposed to move in fell through, and it's sat vacant ever since.
"One of the models that works in food deserts is to work with a local operator who is trusted," Pacello said.
LeMoyne-Owen College is in the process of building several hundred dorms in the neighborhood near Towne Center, and the city is moving some of its public works and police offices into the Towne Center space. If all goes as planned, Lester's new store would cater to all the new residents and employees in the area.
The mayor's team is also working to recruit national, regional, and more local retailers of all kinds to the South Memphis area. Although Lester's store would fulfill a need in Soulsville, Pacello said there's still a need for a larger national grocery chain on South Parkway or Crump.
Even the businesses already operating in South Memphis could use some sprucing up. Many have faded signs and awnings, so the team is working with those businesses on facade improvements.
"We're doing forgivable loans where we'll match dollar for dollar the investment you make in the property. We retain architects to help design the storefronts. It's very simple things like lighting, signage, and awnings," Pacello said.
For example, Tyler's Grocery on East McLemore currently doesn't have a sign large enough to be seen from the street, and the sign for the neighboring Nelli's Academy is small and faded. But plans for the properties include removing bars from the windows and adding better signage and colorful awnings. Pacello estimates that work on the improvements could begin in about six weeks.
There are also plans to bring MemFIX, the neighborhood festival that features pop-up retail, food trucks, and other temporary improvements such as bike lanes, to South Memphis in 2014.