State senator Roscoe Dixon (D-Memphis, District 33) recently involved himself in the ongoing redevelopment of the Whitehaven area. The Flyer
took him aside for a few moments for a conversation about those efforts.
Flyer: Tell me about your visit to Whitehaven, its purpose, and its results.
Dixon: Well, one of the things is that many of the people I represent want me to be involved in trying to redevelop Whitehaven, even though Im at the state level. I figured I had better do that since my constituents were telling me I needed to be involved in it. Ive worked very closely with Tajuan Stout Mitchell, the Memphis City Council person for that area, on the many different projects she has been working on and assisting her where I can. I decided to have the Commission of Economic Community Development to come get a look at the area and also to familiarize myself with what is going on. We came in and spent time the first day at the Southland Mall with Pat Jacobs, the general manager.
I was pleasantly surprised with the briefing that he gave us. Hes running an 80% occupancy rating at this time, with some new tenants on board. For example, theres an International House of Pancakes coming in where the First Tennessee [bank] is. First Tennessee will be building a new facility at Southland Mall. [Jacobs] informed us that Southland Mall is doing extremely well and is expected to do better because he has prospective tenants on the drawing board.
We met with TVA, hoping to add whatever resources they could add to Whitehaven. The next day we met with Jack Soden. I am working now with getting a handle on cleanliness on the streets and right-of-way in Whitehaven. Presently the state contracts with the city for all of that. I want to look at those contracts and see what can be done to do a better job of keeping Elvis Presley Boulevard clean. So we have that contracted out to the city of Memphis. I want to talk to the city and find out if they will be doing a better job and, if not, it may just be in the best interest for the state to take that function back over.
We went over to Smith & Nephew. They are a story that needs to be told. They are doing expansion as we speak. They are intensely hiring 400 to 450 employees. These employees make anywhere from 17 to 25 dollars an hour. I was surprised to find that this is the largest manufacturing facility in Shelby County. I didnt know that, with all that lease space that they have. I was really impressed. We have a jewel in Smith & Nephew. We then went on to Metronics, [which wants to move its] headquarters to Memphis [and Whitehaven]. Theyve already acquired the land. But they do have a problem that we are trying to resolve regarding state taxes. So were looking into that also.
So, man, I tell you I was just really, really pleased. Theres still a lot that has to be done, but Whitehaven is not dead by a long shot. Ironically, I met with Richard Greg, who is the leasing agent for Whitehaven vacancies. He cannot reveal what is about to happen, but, let me tell you, he is on the job. He has a game plan, and, if all of this comes about, we are all going to see something we are going to like in Whitehaven. Im not at liberty to talk about that. Hes working on that.
I am disappointed at Southbrook mall. So Im going to try to find the owners of those properties. It is embarrassing. They have potholes that a truck would fall off in. The state has pulled its lease out of there and I dont blame them. I want to find who owns that and condemn [it]. Its an absolute embarrassment. Thats the only negative I saw there. Its owned by some company out of Pennsylvania.
Are you asking them to put up or shut up so that new businesses can come in or are you asking them to redevelop what is there?
I think they have to make a commitment. It is just absolutely horrendous for the parking lot to be in the condition it is in. I cannot envision a businessperson asking to patronize that facility with it looking like it is. It seems to be an absentee landlord not looking at his facility. They need to know we are not going to tolerate that. Whatever we can do to change the way he does business, were going to do that. Its a safety hazard. It creates a legal liability for him. And thats why hes losing tenants like the state of Tennessee. I am going to encourage other tenants to come out of there too if he doesnt fix that place to an acceptable level.
How important are the cosmetics in this reconstruction process?
[Cosmetics] are the most important thing of all, because Whitehaven is the gateway of our city, since we have so many tourists [visiting Graceland]. Its kind of like when I went to Disney World. What impressed me was the upkeep of the facility. You are either turned on or turned off once you hit the area, and we have to turn people on.
What other sorts of things are happening in Whitehaven now?
[Mitchell] is working on getting us a convention and visitors center. We have the commitment. We just cant work it out right now because the land [prices] are just so high. But Kevin King is working with [Mitchell] and Im putting pressure on him as well. The mayor has feverishly put together a plan with Robert Lipscomb where they are doing a survey with the Chesapeake group. So there is just a lot of activity going on right now. The Whitehaven Levi Corporation, which is part of the Whitehaven Community Development Corporation, is holding a luncheon this Friday at the Holiday Inn Select. Joe Webb is really picking up the pace with the Whitehaven Community Development Corporation. Theyve brought on a new acting executive director. So theres a lot of activity. Things are turning around, but we have a long way to go. But its not as bad as I thought it was.
How bad did you think it was?
I thought Whitehaven was going downhill, from what I heard.
I will continue to meet with just as many people as possible. Ill be going on the road to sit in some peoples offices. For example, Im going to Dillards, which is just across the bridge in Little Rock. Ill just be pleading with them to come to Whitehaven.
With Memphis downtown renaissance, much of the governmental focus has been on that area. Do you feel in some ways that that exacerbated Whitehavens decline or that the lack of support gave the perception of decline?
I think it gave the perception. The mayor had to focus on that. As you know, the downtown is a heartbeat of a city, and, if you dont have a vibrant downtown, then the rest of town suffers. But at the same time, some of us should have continued to focus on Whitehaven. We may be late to the table, but were there at the table now. I think thats happening now, and I think you will see some of the resources from the mayors office coming that way. I think he will be looking at Whitehaven after breaking away from the gravity of downtown.
What role can you play at the state level?
I want to bring the toolboxes that we have, the incentives, particularly the manufacturing facilities, so they know about those incentives and use those incentives to make new jobs. And I will be working with the DOT to work on transportation and roads, job training, things like that. We have a few tools. I want to make sure they know they can use them because they can impact the area.
What sort of role do the citizens of Whitehaven play to get this thing rolling?
Thats the role I want to play. I want to talk to the citizens of Whitehaven about rebuilding Whitehaven. We have nobody to blame but ourselves. It is the highest income-level [area] for African Americans [in Memphis]. It has a significant number of whites in the area. It has a number of pluses going for it. Were probably the only real mixed community. The demographics are at least 15% white, if not more. Maybe 20%. And for American Africans, it is the highest income [area] for its size in the city. There are just so many people in it. And it has a strong, strong, strong middle class. Memphis First Bank told me they located there instead of Hickory Hill because when they did their survey, thats where people had equity. Thats where the money in the African-American community was. The citizens have a responsibility. Part of the fault is that-- maybe because of selection [of businesses]-- people do not shop in their neighborhood. We have to get people to shop in their neighborhood. If you dont shop there, then you cant put the pressure where it needs to be. We must use the economic power of Whitehaven to say, Hey, we have money and we want to spend it. But you have to locate some of your stores here, whether it's Home Depot or whatever. We are just not going to travel miles away from our neighborhood just to spend money.
But if you have to get something from Home Depot, you have to go to Home Depot. How do you get people not to go there?
Well, if Home Depot doesnt come, well get Ace Hardware to come. If Ace doesnt come, well get Joe Toolbox. But we have to have someone show that the people of Whitehaven have money. To give an example, at Southland Mall, I will be talking to Goldsmith's in particular. I want to buy my suits there, but they dont sell suits [at that location]. Its kind of like [they only carry] leftovers. I want to talk to Goldsmiths about outfitting that store like they outfit Oak Court and ask them to give us a chance to buy suits and shoes there. Now, they refer us to Oak Court.
It seems that in African-American communities, the retail is second-rate and retailers consciously move their inventory away from those areas.
Absolutely. And it has to stop. I dont wear yellow suits, I wear pin-stripes like everyone else. Now theres a place for that, dont get me wrong. But I need a pin-stripe suit like they have in Oak Court Mall.
Do you think then that Whitehaven could become the model for this sort of middle-class, economically stable African-American community? Could it show that it can support the same sort of businesses that white suburban America can support?
Absolutely. It can do even better, if given the chance. Ill give you a classic example: If you go down Holmes Road toward Third Street, youll see all the homes being built. After Dr. [Mayor Willie] Herenton decided to live in the African-American community, others tried that. David Walker is developing all of that. This is what I like, the partnership with white builders. They are building homes like mad, even in this soft economy. All up and down Holmes road you have bustling home-building activity. Housing permits are being [issued] probably at the same rate as other communities in Memphis. If you'd look and see what is happening in the southwest community, it would surprise you.
Well, if the numbers are there, why is growth difficult?
Its difficult because we live in such a mobile community. You have people living in Whitehaven shopping in Southaven, shopping at Wolfchase. Dont get me wrong. Im for all of that because I live in Memphis. But I think [residents] have a responsibility to strengthen the commercial sector in Whitehaven. We love all of Memphis, but we want to have a strong commercial base. But the only way we will have that is to make a commitment to shop and get people competing for the business. We have taken the attitude that we will just go wherever they put the store.
What havent I asked you that you would like to address?
Well, whats so good about Whitehaven is that it has a strong white base as well. Thats the beauty. Its not all-black. It is probably the most mixed community in Shelby County. We have poor people now because of all the housing projects that shut down. Half of them moved to Whitehaven to live in those vacant apartments. We have poor people, we have a strong middle class, we have white people. We are a true replica of Memphis and Shelby County.