The Orange Mound historical marker sits on Park Avenue, in front of the Orange Mound Community Services Center and Vertie M. Sails gymnasium. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

After earlier serving notice that property values in the Orange Mound Community had declined by up to 30 percent over the last 10 years, Shelby County Tax Assessor Melvin Burgess held his first Economic Empowerment Summit at the Teaching & Learning Center on Tuesday.

Hundreds of homeowners, entrepreneurs, legislators and investors turned out for the summit. They heard Burgess set the stage for inclusion and difficult conversations with one goal in mind – community restoration.

Audience comments indicated a strong commitment to return Orange Mound it to its beginnings 130 years ago when African-American small businesses thrived and homeowners exuded pride, unity and ambition. (Orange Mound was developed for African Americans 25 years after slavery was abolished.)

The summit was designed as the start of an initiative to make minority neighborhoods vibrant and safe. Goals include: (1) developing a dedicated task force (2) creating a comprehensive plan and (3) avoiding gentrification. A panel of policy makers, real estate experts and housing agencies was heavily engaged.

Defusing racism – “the elephant in the room” – was on the mind of participants since funding for disenfranchised minority communities can be challenging.

“If we plan to do something, we’ve got to change the culture and the thinking,” said Anthony Elmore, entrepreneur, activist and former five-time World Karate/Kickboxing Champion, who has long resided in Orange Mound. Elmore asserted that because of race and power, business models he proposed to past city administrations were never supported.

“Racism is strong in Memphis,” said Roshun Austin, summit panelist and president/CEO of The Works, Inc. community development agency.

“We need investment in minority communities to replace roofs and plumbing like there’s investment in the suburbs. Memphis can seem like it’s still on the plantation of a William Faulkner novel.”

Summit panelist Dr. Mark Sunderman, a Real Estate professor at the University of Memphis, asked, “Are we obsessed with moving forward, or is this just another meeting? …

“Will the city, county and state work together? Are we really committed to understanding the issues of blight? If we are, then the second and third generation of young adults will have homes they can devote to their children.”

“We got the best up here to provide ideas,” said Burgess, “so when we plan with good thinking, people will be in place in my office to take calls directly on this initiative.”

Bobby Rich, a married 32-year-old Orange Mound resident, said his “green thumb” has turned into a business growing vegetables. He started growing his own food two years ago and gets excited seeing vacant lots in the area  because he wants to use the land for urban farming and small scale agriculture.

“Seeing people go to McDonald’s (for food) is sad,” said Rich. “Seeing my veggies leave the table is encouraging.”

Partnering public officials include: Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray, State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, State Sen. Katrina Robinson, Trustee Regina Morrison, Shelby County Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley, County Commissioner Reginald Milton and Memphis City Council members Martavius Jones and Jamita Swearengen.

“Demolishing properties isn’t the answer,” said Hardaway. “There’s more to transformation than that … we need to recapture repairable properties and put them back into service.”

“The root cause of crime is lack,” said Robinson, referencing an uptick in criminal activity in Orange Mound and media focus on crime. She committed to securing capital investment as residents indicated strong desires to remain in the community.

Several homeowners said they willingly cut yards of nearby vacant properties that may only need small repairs – larger repairs require loans or grants when insurance won’t pay.

Austin referenced assistance provided by United Housing and other agencies, but stressed that “funds run out and more is needed.” She said the National Fair Housing Alliance is investigating insurers unwilling to cover roof replacements in the area.

Orange Mound Community Development Corporation Director Tiana Pyles, who has been on the job two years, urged residents to continue helping to mow nearby, abandoned lots as new strategies for maintaining properties develop. Pyles has lived in Orange Mound for 15 years.

As a vital contribution for the future of Orange Mound, SCS Supt. Ray committed to providing financial literacy education to district students at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Next steps

In the next two weeks, Hardaway and Billingsley will work to identify prospective partner agencies for the Orange Mound Task Force.

The task force will map out steps for a formal plan – Hardaway recommends the name, Renaissance 2020: A New Vision for Orange Mound. Preliminary ideas include restoring one block to start and working with agencies such as Habitat for Humanity to erect or repair housing.

With Orange Mound hampered by a “food dessert” (an urban area lacking access to affordable, high-quality fresh food), the task force will review options for creating a community garden with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Melrose High School principal Taurin Hardy expressed interest in being on the task force with Latonia Blankenship, the school’s family engagement specialist, to encourage millennial families to purchase area homes.

Orange Mound is included in Tennessee Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) funding, a plan in initial stages to transform vacant land at the former Mid-South Fairgrounds site and surrounding area, including the old Melrose High School.

TDZ funding aims to attract visitors and families through development of a hotel, youth sports center, retail stores and possibly housing at the site. Approval passed at the state level and is now being reviewed at the local level.

(For more information, contact Yvonne Parron, public relations specialist at Shelby County Assessor’s Office: [email protected])