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Jones Addresses Blight in Communities

Shelby County and Memphis officials tour blighted South Memphis

By Linda A. Moore, Commercial Appeal

Published April 21, 2015

"But, having the city and county join together to fight blight marks a “new era."- Otis Tidwell, Code Enforcement Manager

To talk about blight is one thing.

But to see it puts a face on what some residents see every day in their communities.

So on Monday, 17 elected and government officials took a tour of South Memphis as the joint Memphis and Shelby County ad hoc committee on delinquent tax and blighted property began what will be a regular visit to some of the county’s most blighted areas.

The committee’s goal is to find ways to reduce blight, improve the quality of life for residents and bring properties back onto the tax rolls.

Together, Memphis and Shelby County spend about $8 million annually to maintain properties taken for delinquent taxes or still in the hands of negligent owners, said county Commissioner Eddie Jones, ad hock committee co-chairman.

“What if we took some of that money and began redevelopment and got rid of blight and let that money regenerate itself?” Jones asked.

Tour participants included employees with code enforcement, the county trustee’s office, both mayor’s administrations and the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

Blighted properties present an opportunity for job creation and an improved quality of life, said Mark Herbison, senior vice president of economic development.

“We see this as a real economic development initiative,” he said.

The tour started on McLemore and the Soulsville area with its new commercial redevelopment.

It made its only stop at a burned and abandoned apartment complex at Willett and Foster.

It’s where City Councilwoman Wanda Halbert spent part of her childhood. Even before being elected in 2007, she reported it and the many other blighted properties to code enforcement.

“To have this sitting in the middle of a neighborhood, for years, I don’t understand. I’m not sure how this happened,” said Halbert, who noted it will take changes in state seizure laws before some of these problems can be fixed.

Oftentimes, the worst properties are owned by people who live out of state, said City Councilman Edmund Ford, whose district was part of the tour.

Those absentee owners use the law effectively, making minimal improvements or putting the property in someone else’s name, which restarts the clock on when government can seize it, he said.

“The real credit goes to the community residents. These people, after all these years of seeing this blight and despair, they still haven’t given up hope. They still believe in this city,” said County Commissioner Reginald Milton, who shares many of the same constituents as Ford and Halbert.

As the tour progressed, it traveled west to the Riverview-Kansas area, where in the middle of a workday parking lot sat empty at vacant warehouses and commercial sites.

Most of the tour participants weren’t surprised at what they saw.

But, having the city and county join together to fight blight marks a “new era,” said Otis Tidwell, a city code enforcement manager.

This was the ad hoc committee’s first blight tour, but there will be others, said Halbert, committee co-chairwoman.

With blight extending east to Parkway Village, Fox Meadows and Hickory Hill, finding another area won’t be difficult, she said.

“Unfortunately, we can just toss a coin,” Halbert said.

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