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Tackling blight to ‘build a better Memphis’

Michael O. Harris, the new executive director of Blight Authority of Memphis has a vision to transform communities through redevelopment.

Since announcing his new role on Aug. 3, Harris has spent much of his time strategizing how to conduct an audacious vision to “build a better Memphis.”

By tackling the city’s decades-old blight issue, he hopes that more communities thrive. 

Blight Authority of Memphis (BAM), a quasi-governmental agency, was formed in 2015 by Memphis City Council to operate a local land bank and “provide a tool to support economic revitalization through returning vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive use,” according to the organization’s website. 

Harris wants to elevate BAM’s efforts by acquiring 30 parcels each month. His plans to use the vacant lots to create affordable homes and projects that benefit the community. 

“It’s bold because it’s something that we’ve never done before,” he said. “Our goal is to make the community stronger and better. We want to bring these parcels back into economic use to add value to the community — which in turn creates opportunities.”

Harris provides an “in-a-perfect-world” scenario as he gives an example of a situation that occurred while working with a group of community development organizations earlier in his career. 

He recalled a South Memphis resident who wanted to build a playground in the community. Harris said a situation like this could be ideal for BAM to provide the property to a local citizen, like the South Memphis resident, for a discounted rate and a pre-determined amount of time.

To aid in its success, he would want to bring in community partners to help the resident(s) complete projects that support the community. 

And while only an example, Harris believes that scenarios like this could soon become a reality as BAM centers community in all their future efforts. 

“We could do all types of things,” he said. “The idea is to have a community engagement focus and do more to take our communities back.” 

Harris, a Memphis native and Whitehaven resident, considers himself a community advocate. He served as the executive director of the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation for two years before resigning to lead BAM.

“Michael brings more than 20 years of knowledge and experience that fuel his main passion — investing in Memphis,” a news release from the Blight Authority stated. “We know that under Michael’s executive leadership, he will leave BAM and Memphis better than he found it.”

Harris said community development and engagement work he did in Whitehaven prepared him for his new role.

“It has positioned me to understand the importance of keeping community at the heart of what we do,” he said, “I know that without the community’s input, you’re missing the mark every single time.”

Harris’ role as executive director isn’t just about fighting blight by securing vacant properties. For him, it’s more about building community. 

“I have a responsibility to the community to make this theirs,” he said. “At the Blight of Authority of Memphis, we say that ‘together, we can build a better Memphis,’ and that is what I intend to do.”

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