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September 14, 2017

Benny Lendermon is president of Riverfront Development Corp., a leader in the movement to reclaim the Memphis riverfront.

Memphis is on the move. That message is reverberating throughout the Bluff City, from Downtown to Frayser to Orange Mound. The message is heard at City Hall, in the private sector, and among community activists.

And The Kresge Foundation is supporting this movement, applying lessons learned from its revitalization work in Detroit to this historic Southern city. Through its American Cities Practice, Kresge invests in Memphis by strengthening the city’s systems and neighborhoods so that it can become an accelerator of opportunity for people with low incomes.

“We look to support places that have need, but also assets,” says Kresge Program Officer Chantel Rush. “Memphis has a lot of assets.”

Chief among those are its people, who form a tapestry of cultures working to create opportunity in their city. Kresge’s support of a distributive leadership model acknowledges the work already happening across Memphis by city government, nonprofit organizations, and private enterprise, all of whom are working to build racial equity, foster business growth, and strengthen neighborhoods.

RECLAIMING A RIVERFRONT

Many Memphians believe a key to progress – and a basis for changing the city’s image and ultimately increasing opportunity – is a long underutilized asset: the Riverfront. Memphis is situated atop a bluff over the mighty Mississippi River. On clear evenings, the setting sun creates a stunning backdrop to the swift current of the river that has given the city so much life.

Everything about Memphis came from this river,” says Benny Lendermon, president of Riverfront Development Corp. But as happened in so many cities, he adds, industry took precedent over residents on the riverfront. Over time, those industries declined and their facilities fell into disrepair. Memphis became a city with its “back turned to the river.”

Lendermon’s Riverfront Development Corp. is a leader in the movement to reorient the city and entice residents to reclaim the riverfront.

Walkways, urban art, stairs, and “lots of connections” are just part of the story. In August 2016, for instance, Lendermon coordinated a four-day trip for Memphis leaders – from the political, development and philanthropic sectors – to see waterfront revivals in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. The experiences – suggested by Carol Coletta, senior fellow of Kresge’s American Cities Practice – had the desired catalytic effect. They led to the creation of a cross-sector taskforce to push forward the next stage of Memphis riverfront development.

The four-day trip, says Lendermon, “has totally transformed the priority of the riverfront, and decision-makers are now very much aware of how valuable it is.”

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Innovate Memphis Fourth Bluff Fridays present a pop-up beer garden with free music in Memphis Park, a “Reimagining the Civic Commons” site.

ATTRACTING INVESTMENT, BENEFITING NEIGHBORHOODS

Using funds from a 2016 Kresge grant, the Memphis Riverfront Development Corp. will bring together local leaders, architects and planners to start work on a plan that unleashes the riverfront’s potential to enhance quality of life for all residents. The riverfront of the near future is envisioned as a cohesive civic amenity that residents will use in numbers, taking pride and a sense of ownership. That in turn can attract investment and development, which will benefit distressed core city neighborhoods over time.

This was the takeaway from the group’s visits to Chicago, where the waterfront has long been seen as a civic anchor and asset to be developed, and in Detroit and Philadelphia, where riverfront transformations over the past decade are particularly instructive. In Detroit, Kresge was the lead funder to jump-start a riverfront revival that began in 2003 and is ongoing.

“Kresge’s investments not only resulted in a valued amenity for Detroiters of all income levels, but also helped to strengthen the city’s downtown core and attract business and private development,” Rush says. “Detroit now has a world-class riverfront.

“Inspired by our work in Detroit, our goal is to support Memphis as it plans and implements an ambitious future for its Riverfront – arguably the city’s richest natural amenity, which can serve as its front porch.”

Another effort to reinvigorate public spaces in Memphis is happening through Reimagining the Civic Commons. For decades, cities have neglected the public places that once knitted people and neighborhoods together – the libraries, trails, and community centers that can bring diverse people together and help communities prosper. A three-year initiative to reinvest in these civic spaces in neighborhoods of Detroit, Philadelphia, Akron, Chicago, and Memphis is funded by Kresge in conjunction with the JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.

In Memphis, a three-year grant from Kresge is funding a demonstration on four Downtown blocks that are home to the Cossitt Library, the University of Memphis School of Law, the historic Promenade, and the Memphis and Mississippi River parks. The goal is to show how this “civic commons” can “allow people the opportunity to come together for civic engagement, create new spaces for new economic integration, help people get to know one another while crossing lines of economic segregation, and grow together as a city,” says Justin Entzminger, CEO of grantee Innovate Memphis.

Already, the work in the four-block area is spreading to branch libraries and parks throughout the city.

TRANSFORMATION IN PROGRESS

Another area in which Kresge is investing is the Memphis Medical District – a 2.5-square-mile area that sits between Midtown and Downtown.

It contains several smaller neighborhoods and medical and educational anchor institutions including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Methodist Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and the Southern College of Optometry.

While more than 24,000 students, professors, and medical personnel work or attend school in the district, fewer than 10,000 people live there. For decades, the area has been plagued by crime and blight.

But several years back, leaders of a number of the district’s anchor institutions formed the Memphis Medical District Collaborative. The collaborative has set out to make the district cleaner, safer, more prosperous, and generally more livable.

A grant from Kresge helped fund market studies showing that the district can support nearly 200,000 square feet of retail space and up to 2,600 new residential units over the next five years, says Tommy Pacello, president of Memphis Medical District Collaborative, adding that many of those would need to be available at affordable rates.

“Kresge’s investment helped us make the case to neighborhoods, developers, and financing institutions that there is a reason to be excited about the investments that are coming,” he says. “But Kresge did not just sponsor a market study – they are holistically involved in the work.”

This includes sharing lessons learned from Kresge’s work in Detroit, where, Rush notes, higher education, medical, and cultural anchor institutions worked in concert to jump-start the successful revitalization of the city’s Midtown district.

“Anchor-led revitalization shows what’s possible when disparate sectors get together and work collaboratively to unleash their complementary resources with engaged residents and institutions,” Rush says.

Challenges still loom large in Memphis, of course – but Memphians have new tools and a new spirit of collaboration across sectors to confront them.

044-kresgeTommy Pacello is president of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, focused on making the district more livable, prosperous, and safe.