Q&A with Paul Morris 

President of the Downtown Memphis Commission

In 1954, WHBQ deejay Dewey Phillips first broadcast Elvis Presley's "That's All Right Mama" from the radio station located inside downtown's Chisca Hotel.

But the 100-year-old vacant hotel has seen better days. It's stood as a blighted eyesore at the corner of South Main and Martin Luther King for years. The property was donated to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in the 1970s, and although COGIC has made several attempts to renovate the structure using private funds, all have failed.

That's why the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) is seeking $2 million in public dollars to remediate blight at the Chisca, thus making a planned project to transform the hotel into moderately priced apartments more attractive to developers and investors. On Tuesday, August 7th, the Memphis City Council will decide if those funds should be allocated to save the historic Chisca. — Bianca Phillips

Flyer: I've heard the blight at the Chisca is so bad that a private developer would not take on the project.

Morris: That's been proven by decades with many efforts being made to get it redeveloped that never could get off the ground. The reason always cited was the huge cost of blight remediation greatly exceeded the likelihood of any private investment. There's water in the sub-basement, lead paint, asbestos, and the structural columns and beams that hold the building up have rotted.

Why did the DMC take on this project?

Do we want to leave it there forever in its current state — crumbling and surrounded by a chainlink fence — and let it get worse? Or do we want to tear it down, which costs more than $3 million and would remove a big piece of our history? The other option is, we can roll up our sleeves and work really hard to come up with a private-public partnership to get it redeveloped.

What if blight remediation costs more than $2 million?

To fix all of the blight will cost more than $2 million, but the $2 million is the cap the city is putting on this project. The rest of the blight remediation will have to be covered by the private sector. The private sector will cover 100 percent of the additional costs to take it from where it is to what we want it to be.

What do you want it to be?

Apartments and commercial space with maybe a restaurant or a retailer or a bank on the ground floor. There's talk about having a place where you can learn about the history of the events that occurred in the Chisca, including the studio where Elvis' live broadcast first occurred. That studio is still there, and we could move it and recreate it on the ground floor.

The $2 million from the city comes with certain conditions. Can you explain those?

We don't want to spend $2 million of the city's money and not be ensured the project will get finished as promised, so we created a structure that has seven conditions before a dollar of city money is spent. If any condition is not met, we will return the entire $2 million.

First, the developers have to use their own money to buy the Chisca from COGIC by mid-August. The developers have to close on their entire private financing for this project, and they have to execute construction contracts backed up by performance bonds.

They have to fully comply with our women and minority business enterprise policies. The developers have to sign a reimbursement agreement that requires, if the project generates excess profit, the Chisca owners will share half with the city until the city gets its $2 million back. The last condition is we have to get all of the work contracts signed and the blight remediation begun within nine months.

There's blight all over the city. Why should the council put $2 million into this project?

Downtown is not just any other neighborhood. It's where our city was born. It's our brand for the rest of the world, and that makes it the anchor for the whole city.

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