Memphis’ geographic center, its physical heart, is Binghampton.
Located across just a few square miles from East Parkway to Holmes Street and from Summer Avenue to Poplar Avenue and housing fewer than 15,000 people, the area is about to receive an unprecedented amount of public funding.
With its new designation as a tax increment financing district, Binghampton will receive an investment of $26 million.
TIF districts cap property tax revenue and allocate any revenue above the cap for improvement to infrastructure, public amenities, blight removal and affordable housing.
Before a single dollar is spent, a coalition of community partners is making sure that residents’ voices are front and center in the decision making.
Related: "Understanding Binghampton Through Community Voices"
Shun Abram is a 10-year neighborhood resident, pastor of Binghampton Community Church, and a member of that coalition that is leading the TIF's foundation. For Abram and the team, this is an exercise in deeper research and deeper understanding than previous efforts in public development.
“We can learn more about the heartbeat of our community, what the community wants and needs,” said Abram.
Binghampton has a lot going for it. It’s arguably the most diverse area of town with many U.S. ethnic groups represented as well as immigrants and refugees from around 15 different countries, including Sudan, El Salvador, Jordan, Cambodia, Somalia and Nepal.
It has a strong network of organizations and individuals with a long history of deep community work. Groups such as Caritas Village, the Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC), the Center for Transforming Communities (CTC), Centro Cultural, and the Benjamin Hooks Central Library have supported the community for years alongside churches and schools like historic East High School.
Binghampton is also home to the booming Broad Avenue arts district, the Hampline and Greater Memphis Greenline, and a new grocery store at the corner of Sam Cooper Boulevard and Tillman Street that allows residents to access to fresh and healthful foods, which has been one of the neighborhood’s biggest challenges,
For its many assets, there are also still opportunities to improve the community. Poverty, low educational achievement, crime and safety, blight, low homeownership, and limited employment opportunities are all top community concerns.
In late summer of 2017, community leaders sought a new solution for funding some of the work to address these challenges. The BDC applied to the Community Redevelopment Agency for the creation of a Binghampton TIF.
In September, the CRA, the joint city-county agency that oversees TIF funding, approved the application for Binghampton’s designation. The TIF is expected to generate $26 million over the next 30 years to be used to make physical improvements to the neighborhood.
TIF community task force members Kenny Latta, Henry Nelson, and Mary Williams (left to right) at a May meeting working together to understand what they've heard from community members. (Submitted)Previously the CRA oversaw funding of the original Uptown TIF district, granted in the early 2000s. Since that first endeavor, the CRA has grown its knowledge and its staff from one to three full-time employees.
With its added capacities, the CRA wanted to better engage with community members to decide how TIF dollars are spent.
With the 2017 expansion of the Uptown TIF, the CRA sought community input through a week-long public visioning workshop and the creation of a community advisory community comprised of residents and business owners who review development proposals and make recommendations to the CRA staff.
Related: "Uptown Residents set priorities in $95 million TIF expansion"
In Binghampton, they wanted to build on what they learned for even richer community input.
“We had a little bit more flexibility and a little bit more time to really go deep with residents,” said Kenny Latta, coordinator of special projects with the CTC and lead facilitator for the Binghampton community engagement work.
That extra time to genuinely listen was particularly important in Binghampton, said Abram.
Over the years, he’s seen plenty of well-meaning people offer help but fail to do the work necessary to “tap into the heart” of the community. It has created what he calls a “beautiful grind,” the long but rewarding process of regaining people’s trust. In this TIF planning process, he has witnessed people feel included and heard for the first time.
First, a 16-person task force was established that represented a wide variety of cultural groups, community organizations, and geographic areas.
“There isn’t always a lot of connection among different groups of people. We’re excited to see neighborhood activists from East Binghampton, West Binghampton, people from Lea's Woods and Broad Avenue, all sitting around together talking about a common vision for the future of the neighborhood,” said Latta.
The task force then began to capture the voice of the broader neighborhood with a simple but effective strategy — talking to their neighbors.
“We had the taskforce members go out and interview their neighbors and ended up doing something like 180 interviews. These are in-depth conversations with neighbors about what they value about living in Binghampton and what they’d like to see happen in the future,” said Latta.
The next step was to host six focus group sessions to address specific priority areas focused on concerns like safety, connectivity, and beautification and decide how TIF dollars could help address concerns.
The focus groups began in March and wrapped in May. In June the coalition held an open house to share findings and get feedback from residents.
The task force is now in the process of compiling everything they’ve heard to create a report and a set of community-centric guidelines and priorities that will steer TIF development for decades. They expect the process to be complete and their findings presented back to the CRA in August.
Preliminarily, some of the key TIF priorities are increased homeownership and affordable housing, traffic calming, improved physical connections within the neighborhood, lighting enhancements, and blight removal.
But the biggest priority is creating stability and prosperity for existing residents and avoiding displacement, particularly through the creation of affordable and subsidized housing that doesn’t price out current neighbors.
“One of the main things we want to try to do within Binghampton is elevate everyone," said Abram. "It is a diverse community, we want to continue to keep that and see that everyone benefits from the development."
He gives the example of a woman who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years as she raised her family and became a staple of the community.
“How can we help her crossover into [homeownership]? Get her into a home that’s affordable so that she can pass that on to her son or daughters or grandchildren and have a stake in the community?,” he asked, noting that if she were to be displaced now, it would be a huge blow to the community.
Public spaces like Binghamton Park are part of the built environment that can be built or improved upon with TIF funding. (Submitted)
A TIF designation means new housing developments must include a certain percentage of affordable and subsidized housing. TIF funds can also be used to help anchor existing residents and business owners.
For example, rather than offer incentives only for new businesses and homeowners, funds can be used for improvements to existing structures and other incentives for existing businesses. In Uptown, partnerships with Habitat for Humanity have helped with rehabs for existing homeowners as well as affordable new home construction.
Now that the community sessions have wrapped up, the task force is coming to the end of its duty.
“The next question is what happens with this task force group and what is the public accountability process for the TIF moving forward,” said Latta. “How do we want the Binghampton community to continue being a voice at the table when decisions are being made about the TIF?”
In the meantime, the partners are at least certain that the CRA is serious about taking the community’s wants and needs to heart. They believe that with its expanded capacities, the organization can and will pursue developers for projects that residents deem important.
There’s also an opportunity to advance a larger community vision outside of the TIF’s domain.
Because TIF dollars can only be spent on the physical assets within a community such as blight remediation, infrastructure, public amenities, and affordable housing, many of the residents’ concerns and suggestions couldn’t be addressed by the TIF. Priority concerns like better community-police relationships and more programming for youth don’t qualify for TIF funds.
Rather than dismiss these important findings, members of the task force are looking forward to a plan for whole-community development, not just TIF-specific work.
“What we’re excited for, from CTC’s perspective, is just this broader community vision, something that the TIF can’t address directly that we hope to continue to keep community members engaged and working on in the future,” said Latta.
Abram agrees that the momentum is there and it’s an exciting time for Binghampton.
“I think it will be great," he said, "Just [in] continuing to build the diversity between ethnicities and socioeconomic elements within our community. Hopefully this TIF can help foster community and allow people to grow together….We’re looking for generational change.”