New study looks at bringing economic development to under-served Memphis neighborhoods

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The new look in Binghampton includes the area's first full-size grocery store, a new  dollar store and room for other businesses to come in.

But just blocks away is a much different scene.

Boarded up businesses and abandoned houses litter the Klondike-Smokey City community in North Memphis.

Now a study by an economic development agency is looking at new ways to use incentives to encourage small businesses to spur development.

"It's time to invest in this community," said Quincey Morris, a longtime resident who now leads the Klondike Smokey City CDC. She wants to see more here.

"I would like to see some healthy food on Jackson. I would like to see some soul food on Jackson or somewhere in our community," she says.

Community LIFT, an economic development agency that gives loans to small businesses, is about bringing life back to neglected communities. Now it will soon have a new tool to get things moving around Memphis.

"If we improve neighborhoods, we improve Memphis," said Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT.

Recently the agency commissioned a study to find out how Memphis can spur development in new ways.

The study that is set to be released in days looked at cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis and Detroit, seeing how they have moved beyond things like PILOTs ( Payments in Lieu of Taxes) going to big companies and embraced incentives to small businesses.

"Revolving loan programs, land trusts, how do we use business improvement districts more, how do we think about Main Street programs. There are other options we can consider," says Robertson.

It means making it affordable for small businesses to set up shop.

"How can we create opportunities for people who live in that neighborhood who don't have access to goods and services?" says Robertson. "How are we working with agencies that sell Memphis to companies to attract them to view that site as a potential place for location?"

It also means re-purposing space like the Old Firestone Plant, applying for grants to remediate any environmental issues and turn the idle land into useful space.

Then they can make sure that residents in the community are ready to be a part of the workforce that is attracted there.

LIFT is not looking for a one prong approach. What works to revitalize the old Firestone plant may be very different from bringing life to this area around Stax.

Commercial property near Stax is ready for tenants, but so far not many businesses have landed here.

"You still can't go on that intersection go over there to enjoy soul food or hear soul music. So how do we think about creating particular programs given that commercial corridor and its significance to our tourism?" Robertson asked.

It's a plan that also takes into consideration housing opportunities, so when areas are developed, residents aren't displaced.  That could mean freezing taxes for seniors so they can afford to stay in their home.

It all requires a buy-in from government leaders for funds and policy changes.

"Are there opportunities for small businesses to borrow money, to access dollars, to access facade grants?" says Robertson. "To do facade and tenant improvement to some of these spaces so we can get them back on line and try to make these communities whole from an economic standpoint."

And residents are ready to be on the winning end, no longer left out as big business thrives and neighborhoods suffer.

"I would hate to think that our elected officials and our city planners and our developers would let our community die before they revive it," Morris said.

The Community LIFT study will be released this month and presented to city and county leaders, the Chamber of Commerce and EDGE.