WREG Exclusive: Wharton Prepares Major Anti-Blight Plan
(Memphis) WREG has learned Memphis Mayor A C Wharton is so fed up with the city’s blight problem, he’s preparing a major initiative that will take his case to the governor and state lawmakers.
He says it’s time to remove the legal roadblocks getting in the way of removing blight.
I first learned of Wharton’s plans when I started asking some questions about the blight at our front door.
I’m talking about the blight we all see every day, not to mention people visiting Memphis for the first time.
To show you what we’re up against, we found just three buildings tell the tale when it comes to first impressions.
Crye-Leike real estate agent Judy McLellan knows her stuff.
She’s the Mid-South’s top-selling realtor.
Half of her clients are executives and others moving here from out of town who know very little about the city she loves.
She doesn’t just sell houses – she sells the city of Memphis.
“One of my favorite lines that I tell people is the city is great, but the most wonderful part about Memphis is its people, because you’ll never meet a stranger,” McLellan said.
She knows that when selling a house, first impressions matter.
“People are drawn by houses that have great curb appeal,” she said. “Something that when you drive up, you can picture yourself living there.”
She admits sometimes Memphis’s curb appeal can present a challenge.
“When you’re driving by, you try very carefully to keep them engaged in conversation so as not to draw attention to that,” she said.
That starts when she picks clients up at the airport, where the city’s poster-child for urban blight greets visitors.
Councilman Harold Collins said, “They see that and they wonder, ‘What in the world are we doing in Memphis?’”
The old Executive Inn has sat vacant in Collins’s district for more than ten years.
“How can we be the city we say we are if we got this?” he asked. “This is on our front porch!”
In June of last year, we caught tourists from Las Vegas who actually stopped to take pictures, figuring the still-visible curtains, room keys and furniture must be due to a bad storm.
“We just assumed it was something that came from a tornado, that it had blown away and been left like this.”
Nope. Just a textbook example of the stubborn obstacles Memphis faces in getting rid of blight, especially commercial buildings.
At least now the hotel’s first floor is boarded up, although the eyesore remains.
Out-of-state owners still owe a quarter million dollars in back taxes.
“Right now, they always stay one step ahead of us.”
Wharton campaigned on removing Memphis blight. Frustrated, he’s doubling down on the fight.
WREG was the only TV station allowed access to his new monthly E-Team war room. It’s made up of attorneys, health and code enforcement inspectors, the top brass at police and fire, and state officials.
The mayor says having everyone gathered at once allows for a more relentless pursuit of problem properties.
“Sure, you own your little piece of property,” the mayor said. “But you don’t have the right to let it fall into neglect. Rats and snakes in and out of the place. Criminal activities going on. But people say, ‘It’s my property and you can’t touch it.’”
The mayor’s E-Team is well aware of two other eyesore properties at our front door.
Like 271 Alston, an old Best Western hotel.
It’s the first building welcoming 50,000 motorists every day as they cross the I-55 bridge into Memphis and Tennessee.
Nothing’s pretty about it, not even the for sale sign.
So why isn’t it considered a public nuisance?
The owners, DeSoto Pointe Partners, are current on their taxes and are actually planning a revitalization project — condos, hotels and offices.
But in this case, the hold-up is the state of Tennessee, which plans on re-doing the I-55/Crump interchange to improve access to the neighborhood.
But so far, the state won’t say when construction will begin, so everything sits.
It’s exactly why the mayor wants to take the problem to the state capitol.
Our third problem property might be considered an example of “new” blight.
The Horizon at 717 Riverside was going to be 16 stories of pricey riverfront condos.
Instead, the recession hit, and the newest addition to the Memphis skyline remains empty.
Banks, developers, and contractors have a maze of 17 different lawsuits to work through.
But of all three eyesores, the president of the Downtown Memphis Commission says this one has the most hope.
“There’s a path toward success for that property because it’s got a prime location and it’s 80/85 percent complete.”
Paul Morris says the lawsuits could be settled soon, and several developers already have plans.
If only all our problem properties had such a bright future.
“This is very personal to me.”
Wharton says the longer his team tries to fight blight, the more they realize it’s time for outdated state laws to help cities catch up with deadbeat property owners.
“Those are the folks we want the legislature to give us a green light to really come down on.”
“When you bring in new people, these are jobs being created. That’s what we’re here for is to make Memphis absolutely hustle and bustle, with great jobs and great talent that comes into the area.”
Progress is being made.
There’s the old Chisca hotel, and of course around Court Square, the Lowenstein building, Peabody place and Autozone’s headquarters.
So what is the mayor hoping to accomplish in Nashville exactly?
Basically, each of the four laws he wants passed would get rid of some outdated obstacles.
For example, you currently have to personally serve a property owner of an eyesore — you can’t just sue the company with a registered letter.
Owners can be behind on taxes by three years, and still have six months to lay claim to the property.
And if a new developer is ready to rebuild a blighted building, Wharton wants local government to be able to wipe away the tax debt.