WREG Exclusive: Wharton Prepares Major Anti-Blight Plan

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(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.


  • NoMoreForMe

    Here’s a way to help revitalize Memphis, get rid of all the Clique-ism that goes on in this place. The best and brightest who were born here are leaving by the truck load because they can’t gain any traction in this city. You don’t have to import it, you have plenty of talent here. You can fix up the buildings all you want, until you change the mentality of the people living here, nothing will change.

  • Steve Tapp

    AC, I thought I told you and Barlow about the Medicaid-lien abandoned house next door to me. When Medicaid is owed more that the recipient’s house is worth, why not proceed to take it and sell it and get it inhabited again and paying taxes?

    • Don

      Hey Mike,
      Long tome no hear from.
      Why is Mayor Zero asking the state to help get rid of his BLIGHT. Taxes are high enough for Zero to take care everything Memphis needs.

  • MikeHall

    In the 80’s Memphis was a golden city, but everyone ran off all the white people out and now it has gone down the drain. Compare the demographic at the peak of Memphis to its lowest point and you will see. The gangs moved in, in the late 80’s and also had a huge part in it. Racism in any form is a destructive force. The racist in this city filled with blind hate are at fault. This city will remain in ruins until the black hate mongers and corrupt politicians bank rolled by gangs are ousted from this city. Good luck!

  • Thomas H. Evans

    A C Wharton has been talking about Blight in this city every since he was elected, yet , has done little to follow up. If they would truly concentrate on improving blight in this city, especially in the downtown area, Second Street, Main Street for starters; but if they are taking years to do something in those areas, please don’t hold your breath waiting on them to come to your neighborhood. People, remember, this is going into election time, promises will be made to get your vote, and then we are back to the same old thing. Insist that something is done now, no more studies are needed, we know where the blight is the same as they do, start in the NAACP Offices area and work yourself North or South. “MikeHall” has some good points even though I know some people don’t want to hear it; the Gang’s are a part of our blight, but we must run them out of the city, not just the other side of town creating more blight.

  • j m Doe

    Once again the focus is on the wrong people. To keep beating on the people you need to help with the problem only runs more of them off. Do you think property owners want what they are getting? More and more of us will capitulate as we continue to be assaulted financially, legally, or however chosen. The problem is those that “create the blight”. There is no money in property ownership in Memphis as it is. That is why owners abandon their property. They do not want to, they have to. Continuing to brow beat them by any means necessary instead of assaulting the crime problem, which is what causes the blight through vandalism, copper theft, etc., and not holding the criminals responsible, especially financially through restitution or at least stiff community service, shows how clueless or insincere the leaders are. The true deadbeats are not the property owners. They will be increasingly missed as more and more of them disappear. Refocus! You should be helping those who can help you instead of running them off. Crime is rampant!

  • Don

    Wharton campaigned on removing Memphis blight. Frustrated, Duh!

    People of Memphis, the best way to get rid if the blight is to get rid of the leadership (mayor & council. or petition Germantown to annex the city of Memphis, now that town has a competent leadership.

  • Terrie

    I wish AC would continue to investigate the offices he’s running for theft and fraud~ His very employees are stealing that City into ruins! Half do not even live in Memphis!
    Stop the fraud and he just might get enough money back to enhance Memphis.

  • Buckwheat

    “The city is great” – WHAT CRACK IS THIS MAN SMOKING?? One of the top 5 most dangerous cities in the area, white flight, and he says it’s great? Maybe for an NWA reunion video or an Ice Cube video, but seriously? There’s NOTHING great about the city except for the constant crime and racism and WREG filtering the true nature of this city being a ghetto hell hole.

  • Joe Williams

    If you want to remove the blight of Memphis, get several thousand bull dozers, flatten that sewer of a city, and start anew. First remove the criminals, drunks, junkies, clowns, liars and thieves from city hall and get some actual leadership in place. Sounds like AC just wants to pi$$ some more money away.

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