The proposed plan to renovate Southbrook Mall was delayed for another two weeks at the Memphis City Council meeting on Tuesday (April 1st) and the management team for the mall's owners, Southbrook Properties, took the development in stride.
The team's spirits were bolstered earlier in the day during a probing session by the council's Economic Development Committee (EDC) that seemed to point toward a decision that eventually would be in the group's favor.
"I'm happy. We all are. We have to be," said Southbrook Properties Chairman Willie Harper, who huddled outside of City Hall with team members Cherry Davis, Jerry Johnson, consultant Greg Grant and mall tenant Coleman Thompson.
Southbrook Properties is requesting $1.5 million from the city to begin the first phase of returning the 40-plus-year-old mall to viability. The money is needed for: roof costs, $412,550; HVAC costs, $497,873; and other costs, $589,577.
Grant said Southbrook Properties "is not just begging the city for money to go into business."
"The owners have invested $500,000 in improvements to date to bring the building up to code. An additional $1.5 million is ready to be allocated, if the city's funding comes in for needed final repairs, ventilation system, infrastructure and code requirements. We have more than 100 applications on file for space."
The council has agreed to provide the funds, but the allocation will not be finalized until the council approves the minutes of the meeting agreeing to the funding. The economic development committee met Tuesday morning to decide whether to recommend acceptance of the pending minutes.
Members of the committee continually noted that Southbrook Properties has been trying for two years to get the deal closed and receive the funding. The company says the funding is "absolutely necessary" for the project to move forward.
An initial request for the funding was turned down because it was judged that Southbrook's plans did not provide enough public benefit to qualify for part of a grant that is funding the upgrading of Elvis Presley Blvd.
The mayor's office also suggested turning the mall into a town center but the owners balked at that idea.
For some, the future of the pending mall allocation is part of a bigger picture, which came into play during the EDC meeting. Before the mall discussion began, a prevailing wage issue was tabled when it was learned that information from state and city sources had not been updated and that no coordinated effort had been made to include minority- and women-owned businesses.
"This is exactly why minority and women are always left out," said EDC chairperson Wanda Halbert, who observed that noone from the mayor's office was in attendance. She dispatched word to the mayor's office that the committee needed someone from the office to attend.
"This is exactly what I'm talking about," said Halbert. "They knew this meeting was occurring. Someone from the administration should have been here."
Shortly after, Chief Administrative Officer George Little came in to represent the administration, emphasizing that Robert Lipscomb, director of Housing and Community Development, was heading the project for the city.
"Well how come he isn't here then," Halbert retorted. "This administration keeps passing the buck."
In March, the property owners sent a "Memorandum of Understanding" to the EDC. It includes an assertion that Lipscomb misrepresented the cost of the project to the council, putting it from $17 million to $20 million.
Told of the assertion in the memorandum, Lipscomb said, "We have got to quit demonizing people in this city. We submitted a facility assessment stating that it would cost $16 to $18 million if you replaced it. But the report also stated that it was perfectly viable to renovate it, which would be around $6 million dollars. The report is on file. Nothing new.
"You also have to be very aware that this is the third time around for that building," said Lipscomb. "My only concern is to challenge them to think higher so we can make this facility the best we can to keep people shopping in Memphis. All the tags you see in Southhaven are from Memphis."
Before the EDC meeting, Halbert said she was "very disappointed in the administration's response due to the fact that it appears that certain demographics can come to the city and request funding from the city and get it easily, while others cannot, as is the case here. So I do not understand what has been so difficult about trying to renovate the Southbrook Mall.
"We've seen a constant stream of private-public projects that come through the council and get funding with the mayor's support," she added. "This is not looking right about what they are doing and I don't understand why it always has to be that way for black business concerns.
"We gave Pinnacle $3 million and we knew they were going to leave. And it has never been properly reported to us what it was used for. They talk about the space-age aerotropolis but cannot figure out how to engage the majority population to generate a dollar from Frayser to Whitehaven. Something's not right about this."
During the EDC meeting, Councilman Joe Brown told Little that, "What the mayor needs to understand, and I have told him this before, is that all the citizens want to share in the tax (generated) wealth and it is their right to do so. We give to everybody else, why not Whitehaven. We are never going to have 'One Memphis' if all the citizens don't share in the tax wealth."
Cherry Davis, Southbrook Properties' building and grounds manager, said in an interview that it comes down to this:
"We were first told that we needed to satisfy public benefit. We've done that, even coming up with an innovation I think would be very beneficial for this area, a night court that would service the needs of this neighborhood and other proposed public services, performing arts center. We have done surveys to find out what people think they need here and responded.
"Whitehaven is a strong, family-based working class community and we feel this mall would be reflective of the African-American economic base, which is considered one of the strongest income demographics in the state."
The engineers report has been properly responded to, said Davis. "We think we have met every criterion that has been brought before us."
Grant said the mall could be an economic incubator. "A nice family-based shopping center is our goal. A great place to stop, shop and eat before and after church, young families to fulfill their needs, jazz, older citizens..."
Southbrook Properties Chairman Harper pointed out that he has been in business 31 years (as owner of A & A Bail Bonds) and said the mall team is strong and experienced.
"It's simply a fact that Whitehaven does not exist just for Graceland, we deserve something in Whitehaven too. I live in Whitehaven. ... I won't say that people try to bring Whitehaven down, but for me it's about making a difference here. It should not have to be so difficult."
The March memorandum includes this point of reference:
"The way we have been treated is an injustice to the Southbrook Mall project, disrespectful to the right thinking Council Members and an insult to the Black community...we would like to be approved and bring this long running matter to a close."