Point Man 

Is Robert Lipscomb the most influential man in Memphis?

Robert Lipscomb

Joh Branston

Robert Lipscomb

When Robert Lipscomb stepped up to a microphone under a pavilion at Foote Homes earlier this month to announce the beginning of the end of public housing in Memphis, it was a proud moment for the executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority.

A visiting official from Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., took note, saying that MHA, under Lipscomb's leadership, has gone from a troubled and ineffective agency 20 years ago to a model of success.

It was just one part of the many-faceted public life of Lipscomb, who has held more titles than anyone in the history of modern Memphis government, including two of them at the same time. Since 1999, he also has been the full-time director of the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development, a gateway for millions of dollars in federal funds. And from 2005 to 2007, he was the city's chief financial officer.

Titles aside, his most prominent job is being point man for the city on its long-running courtship of Bass Pro Shops and even longer-running redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. A few days before his appearance at Foote Homes, he briefed the Memphis City Council on both of those tantalizing projects. He is also point man for the city on the future of Overton Square, Beale Street, the Soulsville USA commercial center, and the proposed $250 million repackaging of Graceland and Elvis Presley Boulevard.

It would take a small book to describe all of those relationships. This story touches on only three of them: the Pyramid, the fairgrounds, and public housing. Lipscomb, 61, declined to be interviewed other than to confirm some biographical details.

"Self-promotion is kind of a gray area," he explained.

Lipscomb was raised in the south Mississippi town of Crystal Springs and moved to Memphis as a teenager. He wanted to attend Hamilton High School, then a middle-class school in Whitehaven, but was, by his description, "too raggedy" and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1967. He went to LeMoyne-Owen College and, after graduation, the University of Chicago, where he earned an MBA degree.

He is single, lives downtown, and is partial to suits with vests. He is actually quite accessible if you are not writing about him. He has a wealth of information about wonky subjects as well as local folklore and history. More than once I have enjoyed riding with him on tours of the suburbs and inner city, where he pointed out the good and bad features of different retail centers and subdivisions, the childhood homes of various Memphians, former neighborhood hangouts, and old lovers lanes. Desk-bound and pretentious he is not. To veteran city hall employees and council members he is simply "Robert." He tends to talk rapidly when he makes a presentation, with the impatient tone of someone explaining something for the umpteenth time, which he may well be.

There is another side to him. In celebration of its 35th anniversary this month, our sister publication, Memphis magazine, did a feature on 35 "movers and shakers of the past three decades." Lipscomb isn't in it, which suits him just fine, but a case can certainly be made for him. It would go something like this: Celebrity is a red herring. Many movers and shakers avoid it. It's a pain. The opposite of a mover-and-shaker is someone well known for being well known. The same goes for politics. The hero can become the hated, as Willie Herenton found out.

True mover-and-shakerdom in the government realm equals influence times tax money under control times territory under control times number of years on the job. Add to that the fear factor, or how freely colleagues and people who have to do business with you feel they can speak candidly. On each count, Lipscomb is a man to be reckoned with.

The Division of Housing and Community Development was established in 1977 to address slums and blighted communities. In 1992, the year Herenton took over as mayor, HCD expanded its role to include economic development, especially in areas that had previously been underserved or ignored.

Lipscomb was the first director to wield the broader authority. He is political without being political in the sense of having to run for election. His career has spanned the popular Herenton to the unpopular Herenton, interim Mayor Myron Lowery, the two incarnations of A C Wharton as two-term Shelby County mayor and first-term Memphis mayor, Operation Tennessee Waltz, Operation Main Street Sweeper, and a couple of major turnovers on the Memphis City Council.

The city's partner on the Pyramid and fairgrounds projects is O.T. Marshall Architects and Engineers, headed by Tom Marshall, a former councilman for 20 years. After a decade of deterioration, grand plans, and false start at the fairgrounds, this collaboration, with some timely support from FedEx boosters, spurred the council to action and produced the $16 million grand entrance and west face of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium known as Tiger Lane.

Tiger Lane and the removal of the cow barns and other "quick wins," Lipscomb has said, set the stage for requests for proposals from a private developer for an "urban village" of sports facilities, retail, and housing. For $25 million, the stadium would get two Jumbotrons and more upgrades, the Mid-South Coliseum would be torn down, and some neighboring property would be acquired. The city acts as project manager.

The last part — city as project manager — is one of the things that distinguishes this plan from Henry Turley's proposed Fair Ground sportsplex, which was chosen by a selection committee in 2008 and sidelined by interim Mayor Lowery and the council in 2009. Turley insisted on an independent oversight board.

Lipscomb's proposal envisions two special financing tools: a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) and a tax-increment financing (TIF) district. They rebate to the city a portion of state sales taxes and capture taxes above a baseline amount within the district, which in this case includes most of Midtown. This triggers the now familiar refrain that "no money from the city's general fund will be used." It was Turley who got the legislature and governor to approve the fairgrounds TDZ, with the stadium as the "qualified public facility" and a Target-type store and hotel as tax generators.

A 2009 retail market analysis by a consulting firm said a fairgrounds TDZ would produce enough taxes to retire $65 million in bonds, but that would not necessarily be new revenue because the fairgrounds "lacks highway presence and the tenant mix to be a regional consumer draw."

The TIF is a new wrinkle that indicates a funding shortfall and some mission creep. If approved by the city council, it would capture tax growth from Cooper-Young, Poplar Avenue, Union Avenue, and residential neighborhoods in Midtown. It could be used for Overton Square as well as the fairgrounds, Lipscomb said.

"The Fairgrounds Vision" packet handed out to the city council says "the current operational structure is working optimally, and Tiger Lane is testament to its effectiveness. In addition, the City of Memphis has performed a similar project management role in the mixed-use, mixed-income developments funded by HOPE VI," the program that replaced the housing projects.

In the Pyramid part of his presentation, Lipscomb said Bass Pro wanted to "test the appetite" of the council for spending up to 20 million additional dollars on seismic remediation. The phrase "test the appetite" is apt. A few times a year, Chef Lipscomb presents his seasonal specials to the table of hungry diners known as the city council. After some questions about the cost of demolishing the Pyramid (estimated at $6 to 8 million, less salvage), council chairman Lowery said, "I have not heard anything negative."

Once again, thanks to a TDZ, "no general fund money from city government will be used," and Bass Pro's mouthpieces can imply that the city is getting something for next to nothing. At a Center City Commission meeting last November, the total cost of the Pyramid, Pinch, and Lone Star property improvements was estimated at $121 million. We are now at $140 million.

Contrary to reports that Poag & McEwen Company will develop the Pinch District east of the Pyramid, the status report says "the city has not previously selected or negotiated a contract with a developer for the Pinch District." Bonds have not been issued. After a study of revenue projections and a final decision about seismic costs, Morgan Keegan & Co. will determine the project's bonding capacity.

The Bass Pro courtship is now in its eighth year, and the Pyramid looks pretty much like it did when it closed in 2004. Two things have kept it in the news. One, obviously, is that the Pyramid is a white-elephant arena and a Bass Pro super store on the river would be a catch in a city that badly needs jobs and economic engines. The other is the bulldog tenacity of Lipscomb, a steadfast champion when others called Bass Pro a "bait shop" or questioned its sincerity.

If, in the end, Bass Pro backs away from Memphis as it has from Buffalo, New York, Lipscomb will still have a legacy. He and HUD and Herenton got rid of the housing projects that warehoused thousands of poor people for 70 years, including the young Elvis Presley.

Visually, the HOPE VI developments have been a smashing success.

"When you drive by them you can't tell that they're public housing," said Ricky Wilkins, chairman of the board of Memphis Housing Authority.

Hurt Village, Lauderdale Courts, Dixie Homes, Lamar Terrace, LeMoyne Gardens ­— one by one, the barren, crime-ridden, densely populated two-story brick housing projects that bordered downtown have been demolished and replaced by apartments, houses, duplexes, landscaped streets, and green grass. Cleaborn Homes south of FedExForum, a housing project that once had 3,000 residents, will come down in April.

Their successors — College Park, Uptown, Legends Park, and University Place — dressed up main streets, encouraged the expansions of neighbors including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Methodist-Le Bonheur Hospital, and replaced old buildings with New Urbanist architecture whose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. An estimated 30,000 residents were displaced and dispersed to other parts of the city. Thousands of them were given Section 8 housing vouchers, but Wilkins admits no one knows where all of them landed.

The migration has had a ripple effect on school enrollment, neighborhoods, politics, retailing, white flight, black flight, and crime. The big-picture story caught the attention of the Memphis Police Department, criminologist and MPD adviser Richard Janikowski, and The Atlantic magazine. In 2008, it published a deeply reported, hard-hitting story that linked dispersal of public housing residents to the dispersal of violent crime in Memphis, which earned the dubious title of America's most violent metro area that year.

"Memphis has always been associated with some amount of violence," the article said. "But why has Elvis' hometown turned into America's new South Bronx?" The article went on to say, "It's a dismal answer, one that city leaders have made clear they don't want to hear. It's an answer that offers up racial stereotypes to fearful whites in a city trying to move beyond racial tensions."

The article quoted Lipscomb's objection: "You've already marginalized people and told them they have to move out. Now you're saying they moved somewhere else and created all these problems? That's a really, really unfair assessment."

Through its spokeswoman, MPD declined requests to interview either outgoing director Larry Godwin or incoming director Toney Armstrong. Janikowski did not respond to requests for an interview. Wayne Goudy, commander of special operations for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, said he read the Atlantic article when it came out and shared it with Mark Luttrell, who was then sheriff and is now county mayor.

"I agreed with it at the time," Goudy said. "In Northaven in particular we really saw an uptick in crime and gang activity. There is gang activity in the southeastern county too, but I cannot attribute that to the relocation of people from the housing projects. In 2011, I think things have settled down."

The crime trends in Memphis have been reversed since 2008. According to the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, due to targeted policing and a five-year plan called Operation Safe Community, in 2010 major violent crime was down 23.6 percent, including a drop in murder by 40 percent and a drop in aggravated assault by 13 percent compared to the same period in 2006.

Although he did not grow up in the projects, Wilkins was from a poor family and graduated from Carver High School, Howard University and Vanderbilt Law School. He has been involved with MHA since 1992.

"From my vantage point, we have to believe in the power of human potential," Wilkins said. "The poor will always be among us. We are judged by how well we treat them. We are giving people resources and housing that allow them a fighting chance."

Bass Pro/Pyramid Timeline

2004: Pyramid closes.

2005: Bass Pro says it will take control of Pyramid in six months.

2006: Bass Pro says it is “coming to the Memphis Pyramid and should open store in 2008.”

2008: Bass Pro signs development agreement with Memphis and Shelby County.

2009: Bass Pro starts making $35,000 monthly payments.

2010: Bass Pro signs a lease for the Pyramid with Memphis.

2011: Mayor A C Wharton says seismic concerns put project in “serious jeopardy.” Bass Pro asks city council to “test its appetite” for added cost of seismic upgrades.

Fairgrounds Timeline

1997: Memphis Park Commission director Wayne Boyer unveils a $200,000 master plan that “will give us a road map for the next ten years.”

2005: Libertyland amusement park closes.

2007: Mayor Willie Herenton unveils Project Nexus, a plan for demolishing the stadium and replacing it with a new one. “Why invest $50 million in a gutted stadium?” he asks.

2008: Fair Ground, a proposal from developers Henry Turley and Robert Loeb, is chosen by the city’s appointed fairgrounds reuse committee.

2008: The Mid-South Fair is held for the last time at the fairgrounds.

2009: City council informs Turley his proposal is off the table.

2010: Tiger Lane opens in time for football season.

2011: Robert Lipscomb unveils “The Fairgrounds Vision.”

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