Mall Walkers 

Should the city buy the Hickory Ridge Mall property?

Like many Americans right now, Memphis City Council members are a little wary of the mall.

Especially when it could cost them more than $60 million over the next few years.

The city is considering purchasing the Hickory Ridge Mall concourse and renovating it for the new Fire and Police Dispatch Center, among other things. The close-out price of the building — damaged in a tornado last February — is $1.25 million, but renovations could be much more costly.

The City Council is expected to vote on the allocation at its next meeting. The city administration, however, thinks the mall is a bargain.

According to CAO Keith McGee, the cost of building a new fire and police dispatch facility would be between $25 and $40 million.

"When we look at the cost of building a new facility and compare — even on land that we own — we believe it's a good investment and, in the long term, we'll save money," McGee said.

The city would purchase the mall concourse and an Applebee's restaurant, with an eye toward acquiring the former Dillard's and Macy's spaces at the mall, as well. The city hopes the still-functioning Sears will remain open.

But City Council members aren't quite ready to head to the cash register.

"We don't know what construction [to renovate] the building is going to cost," said Reid Hedgepeth. "What's it going to cost over the next three or four years? This is a huge, huge space."

And with Hickory Ridge Mall sustaining massive damage during the February tornado — a part of Sears' wall was torn off — council members wondered how much structural damage the city would have to contend with.

That wasn't the only sticking point. The city's current budget already included more than $8 million for a police and fire dispatch center. Previous plans were to house the facility at the Lamar Commerce Center. But McGee said the mall site would give the city more square footage for its money, as well as having plenty of parking and room for other city services and community groups.

"All the things we're being told about the Hickory Ridge Mall and how wonderful it would be are the same things we were told about Lamar," said council member Barbara Swearengen Ware. "We have property sitting in Raleigh that was purchased some years ago that is still sitting there with a fence around it."

The Lamar Commerce Center was expected to cost the city $7.25 million, and $8.8 million already was allocated in the current year's budget for that purchase.

Councilman Jim Strickland asked why — if the mall's price point was $1.25 million — the council was being asked to transfer $6.25 million. He was told the extra money would be used to purchase the Macy's and Dillard's spaces if the city thought the prices were reasonable.

"We're trying to compare apples to apples, but actually, the prices are about the same because you want Dillard's and Macy's," he said.

Council members also were concerned about taking the mall off the city's tax rolls. Currently, the property generates $400,000 for the county and $300,000 in taxes for the city each year.

"Looking at taking $700,000 off of the tax base, plus the construction expense, would it not be better to take a vacant piece of land that is city-owned and develop it and build something new?" Hedgepeth asked.

Members also suggested other locations, including the Fairgrounds.

"I'd be willing to bet, if we looked around town, we could find vacancies where we could lease [property] and probably get landlord participation with retrofitting it while we're in these uncertain times," said Shea Flinn.

I'm always interested in adaptive re-use, especially when it comes to big, empty buildings such as the Mall of Memphis or The Pyramid. It's not like any mom-and-pop store can take over these spaces.

And with so much of the city's population shifted east, having a satellite office for renewing car tags and driver's licenses, among other municipal services, could make sense.

But the over-all cost has the council thinking one thing: Caveat emptor.

"If we end up with Dillard's and Macy's at $100 a square foot in renovations, that's a lot more than Lamar," Strickland said. "There are so many open-ended questions. ... We're being asked to allocate $8 million, and we don't know how much the back-end cost will be."

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