Memphis Giveaways to Developers

Upton_and_BuehlerMemphis Even though I wasn’t speaking at the University of Memphis about Citizen Wealth until Monday evening, it was worth flying in the predawn on Sunday to be able to take advantage of Professor Ken Reardon’s offer to meet with twenty community leaders who wanted to talk over dinner about how to push Memphis to do both more and better in serving all the communities and constituencies in the Bluff City.  It was a treat to meet members of the faith community, organizers, lawyers, activists, and academics that had led efforts over the years, including Shelby County Inter-faith, a significant community organization here in the 80’s and 90’s, and RISE, an important campaign in Memphis targeted at predatory practices (music to my ears!).   I couldn’t believe we had been talking for four hours with the clock struck 11 PM!  The time had flown with so many ideas, issues, and things that needed to be done.

Many themes returned again and again, but one of the themes that echoed so loudly that it was impossible not to hear was the way that developers were literally having their way with the City of Memphis and Shelby County.  A more than $100 million dollar giveaway of public dollars for one developer of the Memphis Fairgrounds was averted with no community benefits agreement asked or offered for the nearby communities.  Planners in the afternoon told me story after story of developers benefiting from 15 year tax incremental financing (TIF) districts in the by-and-by hopes of community benefits without any efforts to assure community benefits on the front end.  It was enough to make my head spin.

These were great leaders, well trained and experienced with a good grip on the issues and the nuances of Memphis, who needed a process to finally make a decision to re-engage resources and participation for this generation of organizations and activists to curb the excesses and try to wrest the city away from the developers and their public lackeys and back to the people.

The last point made by a well respected minister at dinner caught my ear.  A developer named Harold Buehler was being given 140 lots in a lower income, inner city area of Memphis, despite owing over $2 million in taxes for his previous developments.  People were outraged.  There was a roar of response about the “fix” being in with the County Commissioners.  It all seemed so wild and bizarre, I knew I would have to look under the hood to try and figure it out.

I found a squib by Jackson Baker in something called the “political beat” in the Memphis Flyer. Despite Baker’s bias in favor of Buehler and his contempt for Commissioner Henri Brooks, and anyone who opposes this project, his piece does confirm the facts behind the minister’s disgust and my new friends’ revulsion at this action:

Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery spoke before the commission on the premise that it would be folly not to develop the vacant lots Buehler sought title over (140 out of some 3,000 in the inner city, including many that were the result of arson and neglect). Antonio Burks, the former Memphis Tigers basketball star who was recently wounded by gunfire, showed up on crutches to extol Buehler for having provided Burks’ mother a rental home for the past decade.

Even a Klondike resident who had been featured in The Commercial Appeal as opposing Buehler rental property on style points was shown in a Buehler-produced video extolling the builder for having arrived at new designs. (Both the video and several posterboard displays of previous Buehler properties were stage-managed by Upton.)

Buehler opponents got up to speak, too, including one man who said,” We need to do a background check on this criminal.”

Besides Brooks, overt opposition on the commission itself was limited to another longtime critic of the builder, Mike Ritz, who succeeded in adding an amendment to Commissioner Steve Mulroy’s enabling resolution, one that required full repayment of Buehler’s delinquent taxes. Another Ritz amendment, which would have mandated approval of Buehler designs by community development organizations in all affected areas, was rejected.

In any case, Wednesday’s apparently definitive vote notwithstanding, Brooks announced that she intended to soldier on. “I’ve just begun to fight,” she said — though how and with what allies and to what end remained to be seen.

From this piece it looks like a “Hail Mary” pass forcing Buehler to pay up before he cashes in on these lots may have landed safely in the end zone, so I’ll have to check on that, but regardless of the pros and cons here, there’s no doubt that the community is increasingly clear that Memphis cannot continue to be developer heaven and community hell.  One dinner guest who lives near the development in Memphis caught my ear making the point that the area had housing, but “needed jobs!”  There were other comments that could not be missed about the need for people to have a “voice” again and the lack of equity and citizen centered priorities in Memphis.

It was great to be a fly on the wall and an excuse for some great people to get together who could make a difference in Memphis by deciding once again that “enough is enough,” and taking the next steps to make something happen again in this great city.

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