Like many of its students, the University of Memphis has big dreams.
According to its master plan, the university would like to build an impressive alumni center — with a lush, sprawling lawn — on Highland between Watauga and Midland avenues. The center would serve as the school's "front door" to the community. Unfortunately, the school doesn't own that property.
But a new state-funding plan will make it easier for the university to achieve its dream. Under a bank line of credit, the state will make $7 million available to the school immediately to buy property targeted under the university's master plan. Only $4 million can be used at any one time.
"In the past, whenever the university wanted to expand, we had to purchase properties using cash on hand," says Teresa Hartnett, director of administration and business analysis for the school. "This will allow us to purchase properties when they become available, rather than turn down prospective sellers because we don't have the cash."
Even though the credit line was announced last week, the university isn't wasting time. The paperwork already is under way to acquire several nearby single-family homes.
"There's been a demand on the part of the sellers to move forward," Hartnett says. "We've been in discussions with them for the past few months."
As part of the university's master plan, presented last fall, the school wants to add pedestrian tunnels under Central Avenue — where vehicular traffic doesn't always stop — and under Southern and Walker avenues — where trains often do.
In addition, the Park Avenue campus near Getwell, formerly called the South Campus, will be home to a new speech and hearing center and the nursing school.
But perhaps the most significant change will be west of the main campus. The university wants to add a new music center, more student housing, and the alumni center, all located west of Patterson and east of Highland. And in a bit of synergy between town and gown, the University Neighborhood Development Corporation has an intertwining plan for Highland.
According to the Highland Street Master Plan, "the very best college towns embody a close symbiotic relationship between the town and the college. A university rarely supports all the services that its population might require on a day-to-day basis, and a small downtown can thrive on the built-in clientele found on a college campus."
The community's plan would turn Highland into the area's "Main Street."
"The front door of the university used to be near the railroad tracks," says Melissa Pearce, president of the University District Initiative (UDI). "Instead of going to Poplar, they're bringing it home and putting it on Highland."
The proposed location of the alumni center seems to be an almost symbolic change in attitude between town and gown relations. Pearce, a resident of the university area for 12 years, says the last two administrations have welcomed community involvement. The UDI, for example, includes two representatives from each of the seven neighborhoods surrounding the university, two representatives from the school itself, and two from the business community.
"There's no more, 'we're going to wall up the university to the outside world,'" Pearce says. "Instead it's, 'we're going to invite them in.'"
When Pearce first moved to the area, people told her it was a "dead zone."
"Highland has been overlooked for decades, and it shows," she says. "When we're through, Highland will be incredible."
She thinks the proposed changes to Highland will be hard for some people to get used to but are ultimately needed.
"The most important part of the community plan is the positive impact it will have on Highland and thus the surrounding residential areas," Pearce says. "We're trying to incorporate the new and the old, so you don't lose the history of the area, but you don't keep things you know need to go."
And, with the new state funding, students and nearby residents might start seeing changes sooner than later.
"It will allow us to acquire the properties in a reasonable amount of time," Hartnett says of the state's line of credit. "We can achieve the goals of the master plan without having to wait 20 years to purchase a piece of land here and a piece of land there."