Here's one thing I never thought I'd find myself saying: Memphis does not need any more retail space.
I love to shop, and I would love Memphis to have as many national retailers as Nashville or Dallas, but when it comes to retail space, Memphis is maxed out.
Yet if you look at most of the pending revitalization projects in the city — and, to be fair, probably in the country — retail is a key component.
At press time, the City Council's executive committee is scheduled to get an update this week on Bass Pro Shops' proposal for the Pyramid. The outdoors retailer has been paying $35,000 a month since last year as a sign of good faith, and Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery would like to close the deal during his interim mayorship.
Fair Ground LLC, with developer Henry Turley, a stockholder in the Flyer's parent company, wanted to revitalize the fairgrounds property with a combination of sports complexes, parks, and retail. Under the proposal, taxes from the stadium and retail would have funded public improvements on the site.
During the past few months, the Riverfront Development Corporation has been holding public input meetings on a master land-use plan for Mud Island. Two of the three alternatives presented last week include space for mixed-use development, which could mean restaurants, residential, and retail space.
But does Memphis really need more retail space? During the Coalition for Livable Communities' Annual Summit for Neighborhood Leaders last weekend, coalition consultant John Lawrence and Germantown planning director Josh Whitehead traced how retail development has moved through the region, leaving empty shopping centers behind.
In Memphis, there are 27 square feet of retail space per person (and this is pre-Pyramid Bass Pro). The United States average is 20 square feet per capita, and, in European countries, that number hovers around three.
"Is that good for the economy? We're not talking about fully functional retail space," Lawrence said.
Lawrence created maps that showed retail centers moving east and south with the area's population, while leaving older shopping centers vacant. But we're not just talking about retail space downtown or in Whitehaven or Frayser. I don't know if you've been to East Memphis or Saddle Creek in Germantown recently, but there are a number of empty storefronts.
"Investors don't like this," Whitehead said of the trend. "An investor wants more than just a 10-year span to make their money back, so I don't know who wins."
Shopping might be America's favorite pastime. There's a reason why retail is an anchor tenant of revitalization, but at what point does it become a shell game?
We need to find other ways to create a critical mass of people.
During the Mud Island input meetings, SkateLife Memphis argued for a skate park not just because they want a place to skate but because they think a skate park will create a critical mass of people on Mud Island that could support other services.
Frankly, one could look at the public meetings — each full room dominated by skaters — and see exactly who is interested in going to Mud Island.
(To read the viewpoint from SkateLife Memphis founder Aaron Shafer, see page 17.)
But while SkateLife Memphis has momentum and excitement right now, one wonders how long they can maintain it. Because, if history is any indication, the turn-around time on these projects is years.
The Bass Pro project was announced in 2005. They still haven't finalized a deal.
The Mid-South Fair held its last event at the fairgrounds last fall, only to come back and hold Memphest there this fall because, though work was expected to have begun by now, a developer for the fairgrounds has yet to be approved. The city is moving forward with a clean-up of the site, however.
Maybe things will be different under a different mayor, but government is typically slow. And I'm not sure we can afford to wait. While the city is dragging its heels, Memphians are voting with their feet.
During the Coalition for Livable Communities summit, Whitehead and Lawrence showed regional population growth of select cities since 2000. Austin, Texas, grew 32 percent; Atlanta grew 27 percent; Dallas grew 22 percent; and Nashville grew 18 percent.
The Memphis region grew 5 percent, and that includes a growth rate in Hernando of 81 percent and a growth rate in Horn Lake of 53 percent.
Millington, Memphis, and West Memphis all lost population. In fact, in the last nine years, the Memphis region has lost almost 20,000 25- to 44-year-olds. As Lawrence pointed out, that's the group that pays for most of an area's services.
These revitalization projects certainly won't solve all the city's problems, but people are obviously shopping around. We need to give them other reasons to stay.