Thursday, September 21, 2006

Man of Many Hats

Robert Lipscomb has so many titles that some wonder if he is spread too thin.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Robert Lipscomb has plans.

Plans for Bass Pro Shop and The Pyramid, plans for the Kroc Center and the Mid-South Fairgrounds, plans for the medical center, plans for LeMoyne-Owen College, plans for public housing and police precincts, plans for the old Mall of Memphis, plans for transit systems.

He has them on his desk in neatly bound folders with titles like "Rebuilding Communities One Brick at a Time" and "Functional Consolidation," and he has them on oversized show-and-tell color renderings stacked 10 deep against the walls. It sometimes seems as if the city and Mayor Herenton must have a giant catch-all file labeled "Lipscomb."

As if Lipscomb didn't already have enough to do, one year ago, Herenton admitted that his finance staff wasn't getting the job done and named Lipscomb chief financial officer for the city. That made Lipscomb the most titled person in local government. He was already head of the Division of Housing and Community Development, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority, chairman of the board of LeMoyne-Owen College, and the mayor's representative on committees exploring new uses for The Pyramid and the fairgrounds.

City Council members, not known for being friendly with Mayor Willie Herenton or members of his team, generally praise Lipscomb.

Rickey Peete calls him "the glue that has held the city together through the financial crisis." Jack Sammons says Lipscomb "has as good a relationship with the council as anyone in the administration. We've got confidence in the numbers now."

Myron Lowery, however, says he'll wait and see if the city is able to add $20 million to its reserve fund, as Lipscomb predicted last year. "I don't see anything that has increased our downside," Lowery says. And Carol Chumney says Lipscomb "has too many responsibilities, wears too many hats, and has no staff. I think eventually that's going to catch up with him."

Lipscomb, 57, has worked for Herenton for most of the mayor's 15 years in office, leaving for two years in 1996 to be chief operating officer of LeMoyne-Owen, his alma mater. He is both insider and outsider. His office is in MHA's headquarters near Victorian Village, several blocks from City Hall. He is apt to return phone calls at any hour from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but he is something of a loner. He says, with evident pride, "I never get asked to lunch." Jeff Sanford, director of the Center City Commission, says he has had breakfast meetings where he ate and Lipscomb watched.

Lipscomb and Herenton have had their differences, but they teamed up with developers for one history-making change: the end of "the projects." The first public-housing projects, Lauderdale Courts for whites and Dixie Homes for blacks, were built 60 years ago. Hurt Village, LeMoyne Gardens, Lamar Terrace, and others soon followed. By the 1970s they were synonymous with crime, murder, overcrowding, and neglect.

Spurred by loss of residents and a stinging federal audit in 1997, MHA began demolishing them and building $122 million worth of mixed-income communities, including College Park (formerly LeMoyne Gardens), Uptown (Hurt Village), Uptown Square (Lauderdale Courts), University Place (Lamar Terrace), and Dixie Homes. Since 2000, there have been only 18 murders in MHA properties.

"Robert is doing a good job with the resources he has," says developer Archie Willis. "I often wonder how he gets to all the things he has on his plate."

The conversion of Lamar Terrace is revealing. For several years MHA tried unsuccessfully to acquire the abandoned Baptist Hospital Rehabilitation Center on Crump Boulevard next to Lamar Terrace in order to condemn it. An elusive nonprofit organization proposing to build a giant homeless shelter tied it up for six years. A few years ago, developer Rusty Hyneman suddenly appeared in the ownership picture seeking, Lipscomb says, more than $1 million for the neglected building. Hyneman is politically connected, and there was some pressure on Lipscomb to deal with him. But Lipscomb said no, and the case went to Circuit Court. Public records show MHA wound up paying $571,000, including $338,000 in back taxes. The owners, with whom Hyneman abruptly denied any association, got $199,353.



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