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Nonprofits strike history-making deal with Shelby County for land transfer in Klondike, Smokey City

On January 24, a ceremony was held at 943 Vollintine Avenue to celebrate the historic transfer of properties from the Shelby County Land Bank to Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corporation and its partner, Neighborhood Preservation, Inc.

Nearly 30 guests attended the event where Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris signed the last deed of the approximately 150 properties. Klondike Smokey City CDC’s executive director, Quincey Morris, took possession of the deeds to finalize the transfer and ceremony.

“The idea that people who live in underserved communities or forgotten communities don’t care about where they stay is not true,” said Morris.

The partners paid $1,500 per parcel, which covered transaction, administrative, advertising, notification, and processing fees. Many of the parcels have been in the county’s land bank since the 1970s, with taxpayer dollars footing the bill for upkeep. 

“The county doesn’t have the resources to carefully maintain all of the lots in their inventory. So if they’re going to be locally controlled, then the neighborhood is probably in the best position to provide the proper kind of care,” said Steve Barlow, president of NPI.

The transfer was the first of its kind for the county, and the first step in what many hope is a path to stabilization for North Memphis. 

The event marked the end of a nearly four-year process for Klondike Smokey City CDC.

“There was some legal innovation to make this kind of transfer to a nonprofit with the kind of protection that a local government would want to see,” said Harris of the county’s responsibility to ensure the transfer was in the best public interest.

Key terms of the agreement state the two entities will form a nonprofit subsidiary of NPI known as KSCCDC-NPI, LLC. The nonprofit will cover demolition, rehabilitation, title clearance, and ongoing maintenance of the properties.

KSCCDC-NPI is also required to hire North Memphis residents and local minority-owned contractors for maintenance and development at a rate of at least $15 per hour.

District 7 Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer spoke at the event and praised the agreement for including living-wage employment for North Memphis resident.

“As all of you know, I am an advocate for a living wage, so I’m really excited that people will be able to live where they work and know that they are investing in their community and also earning a wage that will allow them to take care of themselves and their families,” said Sawyer.

“…one of my top priorities is making sure that we raise people out of poverty,” said Harris of his administration’s motivation to pursue the transfer.

Sawyer also praised three Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie students who opened the ceremony with tributes to Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Claudette Colvin and a reading of Langston Hugh’s “I, Too” and noted that it would take work across generations to see North Memphis thrive. 

District 11 Commissioner Eddie Jones also spoke at the event and District 1’s Amber Mills was in attendance.

There are currently 3,209 properties in the Shelby County Land Bank.

Barlow said the transfer is now part of the county’s bulk transfer policy and has already piqued the interest of other local community developers.

“Someone else could approach the land bank from some other neighborhood and say, ‘We’d like to do a bulk transfer.’ So this has been precedent-setting for the county, for sure,” said Barlow.

Now that community entities own the properties, attention is turning to what to do with them.

“We’re going to focus our attention on doing some of the things that the community wants to see. We’re not thinking about a major development plan,” Morris said.

“[KSCCDC-NPI LLC] may not have a specific development idea right now. But just having these properties together in that community is a great start,” said Harris.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris hands 150 property deeds to Klondike Smokey City CDC’s executive director Quincey Morris as part of a ceremony celebrating the historic land transfer. (Ashlei Williams)

The Plan for the Parcels 

North Memphis residents will play a big role in development decisions. 

At a community meeting on January 11, nearly 100 attendees shared their suggestions. Ideas included: larger two- and three-bedroom homes; prayer and meditation gardens; nail and hair salons; laundromats and dry cleaners; a grocery store; restaurants; a community pool; a basketball court; an outdoor movie theater; and dedicated spaces for youth.

Morris confirmed that the next community meeting will take place in February.

“We’re going to meet again soon, and put people on track to see some of the things they’ve put on paper come into fruition,” she said.

Viola Hudson is a North Memphis resident and board member of Klondike Smokey City CDC. She said she hopes to see community involvement surge, including youth involvement in the process. 

“They have voices too,” she said.

In his speech at the transfer ceremony, Jones called Morris the “one true soldier” in North Memphis, saying she “has not waivered one day to bring her community back to where it once was.”

But Hudson said every North Memphian is capable of deep dedication, the community just needs more people to step up like Morris has. 

“We’re all Quincey Morris,” she said. “We need people. We’re going to get it done.”

Harris said that in deciding whether the transfer was in the best public interest, the county also did its due diligence on the viability of community-led development.

“When we really started working on this, we found other examples in other cities,” he said. Atlanta was able to put together several properties and get the attention of private investment and private development to actually create a whole retail center.”

Klondike Smokey City CDC’s executive director, Quincey Morris, poses with Neighborhood Preservation Inc.’s executive director, Steve Barlow. The organizations are partners in the ownership and development of 150 parcels of land. (Ashlei Williams)

The Trip to the Bank

Morris said that in 2016, residents of Klondike and Smokey City began expressing to their CDC an interest in purchasing property. The CDC inquired with the Shelby County Land Bank, which informed the CDC that the properties in question were unavailable or restricted. 

The partnership between NPI and Klondike Smokey City CDC was key to convincing the county of their capacity to handle the transfer, as neither had enough individual resources to manage such a large number of properties.

“We were not satisfied with that answer,” Morris said. “So when the election came and we got a new [county] mayor, NPI and the CDC went to the mayor and made a presentation. And he considered it.”

North Memphis nonprofit leaders and residents told High Ground at a recent advisory meeting that several organization, including religious organizations, were also told the properties were frozen in response to and anticipation of the Crosstown area’s development.

Traditionally, the Klondike Smokey City CDC’s work has centered on community, workforce and family initiatives. To better understand the development, management, and financing components of property ownership, it turned to its partners including: NPI, The Works, the local Community Redevelopment Agency, and the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. 

In October 2018, negotiations with the land bank began. In September 2019, the Shelby County Commission unanimously voted to authorize the transfer.

The agreement acknowledges that the county’s resources for demolitions and maintenance are severely limited. It also states that Shelby County does not rehabilitate single family homes in the land bank’s inventory. 

The property transfer agreement is included in public records online.

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