Soulsville USA plan looks at what's next

Soulsville USA residents and stakeholders move ahead with a neighborhood plan thanks to an 18-month process that examined the needs and wants of the community.
It could be said that change is happening from within in Soulsville USA, where the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program recently wrapped its work thanks to community residents and stakeholders.
                    
The 18-month process began in February 2015 and ended Sept. 30. Rebecca Matlock Hutchinson was the Soulsville USA Site Director as part of the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program.
 
“When you say a picture tells a thousand words it really does,” Hutchinson said. “I saw what the residents had accomplished. There is no way I could’ve known or imagined what we’d accomplish. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to make sure we’d make an impact in our community. I wasn’t sure how that would happen. This whole process was a learn by doing. It happened organically. It wasn’t a forced fit-type thing.”
 
And because it happened organically residents established ownership of the plan, she said.
 
The group came up with a mission statement: “To enhance, strengthen and empower the residents of Soulsville USA, while creating a safe, inviting, diverse and economically sustainable community.” And the vision is to “improve and enhance the quality of life in Soulsville USA by dedicating ourselves to finding solutions to blight in order to create a thriving and safe community; to be a neighborhood that targets public safety through education and collaborative efforts; and to be a community where businesses and entrepreneurs flourish.”
 
The Soulsville USA team presented the plan to a large crowd that gathered at Metropolitan Baptist Church in late September. The nearly 200 people in attendance included not only neighborhood residents but elected officials, members of the neighborhood police precinct and people from other neighborhoods interested in Soulsville USA.
 
Hutchinson and members of the neighborhood association unveiled elements of the plan before attendees learned more about community service providers working in the neighborhood at a gathering following the event.
 
So what is Soulsville USA? Simply, it’s the South Memphis neighborhood that sits between Crump Boulevard and South Parkway, stretching from Lauderdale Street to Bellevue Boulevard. The neighborhood is young; 46 percent of the population is 29 and younger with 14 percent aged 30 to 44, 24 percent aged 45 to 59, 10 percent 60 to 74 and 5 percent 75 and older.
 
Memphians and outsiders alike possibly know the neighborhood for its Stax music legacy. But more than the world-class music once recorded there, the neighborhood is in some ways undergoing a transformation.
 
The Soulsville USA part of greater South Memphis once was an area teeming with activity. McLemore Avenue from the Mississippi River east to College Street had everything from furniture and grocery stores to dry cleaners and restaurants. It was a main thoroughfare, something that is more than a dream for the future.
 
Even before the BNCP effort, members of the Soulsville Neighborhood Association wanted a plan for how the community will grow. Without partners or resources, residents conducted a neighborhood survey and used focus groups to learn the priority areas. Among the priorities were housing and economic development, crime prevention and public safety, blight, education, transportation and community engagement.
 
The BNCP grant that came in 2015 helped organize that original effort.
 
“It was just what we needed to get back on the ground and start over,” Hutchinson said. “When I came on board I was able to pick up where we left off. That was the blessing. The foundation had already been established in 2012 when the residents decided they wanted to develop a neighborhood plan.”
 
One of the first steps was the creation of a planning team of 20-plus members of the neighborhood association who were part of that original effort. It grew to include people from city of Memphis and Shelby County government, churches and neighborhood nonprofit organizations.
 
The effort launched with a June 16, 2015, town hall meeting at Metropolitan Baptist Church. Out of that gathering came three top priority areas for the next year: blight, crime prevention and public safety, and housing and economic development.
 
Key findings of the three priority areas included:
  • The blight team conducted windshield surveys to better understand what blighted properties exist in the neighborhood. That information is being used to spearhead clean-up campaigns that include selecting specific properties and coordinating with potential partners on those efforts.
  • The crime prevention team’s leaders went through the Memphis Citizen’s Police Academy, the first step in gaining official Neighborhood Watch designation for Soulsville USA.
  • The housing and economic development team is looking into buying a piece of investment property while pursuing businesses to set up shop to generate employment opportunities for residents.
In addition to cleaning up properties and focusing on improving the neighborhood’s Chandler Park, other strategies include turning vacant lots into pocket parks. And with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music located in the heart of the neighborhood, there are untapped opportunities with tourists.
 
“We need to develop the cultural tourism industry,” Hutchinson said. “How can we benefit from 55,000 tourists that come to Stax? We need to earn a living off the thousands of tourists that come to the neighborhood. We could create an open-air market. There are things residents can do. We can create our own tours. Who knows the neighborhood better than we do?”
 
The team also wants to continue crime reduction, becoming a “place where crime is not an option.” In addition to the establishment of a Neighborhood Watch, those strategies include Light Up Soulsville USA. This effort encourages residents to have Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division install lights on poles that light up private property as well as next-door vacant lots.
 
The overall implementation includes establishing a three-year plan that will further define strategies and objectives along with creating a budget and identifying potential partners. Gaining government support is important; the association wants the Memphis City Council to adopt the plan so it’s in alignment with long- and short-term goals.
 
“We want Soulsville to be on their radar for future plans for our neighborhoods and they know what the residents want,” Hutchinson said. “The beauty is this is all resident-driven. It’s not a developer saying this. But we also know we can’t do this by ourselves. We’ll need partners and the assistance of our local government. That’s the point of bringing it to our elected officials.”
 
The next step is transitioning into implementation mode and deciding what strategies are the first priorities.
 
“All these are cool strategies but now we have to make them happen,” Hutchinson said. “We need some serious support. And we’re going to start courting more funders and foundations so we can receive funding we need to make this happen. We can’t let our plan become a document that sits on a shelf and collects dust.”
 
The Soulsville USA festival in mid-October was a celebration of sorts before those next moves occur. And as the name implies, building the neighborhood’s capacity was an important goal of the work.
 
“The festival was an amazing event, for us and by us,” Hutchinson said. “That’s the beauty of what we do. Everything is resident-driven.
 
“The beauty of this is the residents are so enthusiastic and the momentum is high right now,” Hutchinson continued. “So they’re starting already implementing some of the strategies.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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