City-owned apartments face uncertain future

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Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Plans for the Azalea Gardens apartment complex are still not set in stone.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Plans for the Azalea Gardens apartment complex are still not set in stone.

By Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – City Council members may have assumed too much when thinking an all-volunteer neighborhood revitalization group would embrace property management responsibility for a city-owned 220-unit apartment complex.

Council discussions in mid-March to buy the apartment complex with 43 tenants counted on the Neighborhood Development Corporation taking a leading role in the city acquisition. Including NDC could be premature since the organization hasn’t agreed to take on apartment management responsibilities.

NDC members didn’t attend city discussions to pay $2.1 million on the property with a history of crime and code enforcement issues.

The all-volunteer board of directors for the nonprofit organization already invests significant time leading the city-funded $2.9 million West Jackson Street redevelopment project, an effort to protect neighborhoods from growing blight and turn rundown properties into attractive options for middle-income residents.

NDC agreed nearly a year ago to lead the project as part of a public-private partnership.

“Our board had agreed to do West Jackson Street,” NDC chairman Duke Loden said recently. “We haven’t agreed to do Azalea Gardens.”

A key difference between NDC agreeing to participate in the West Jackson redevelopment and Azalea Gardens property management agreement is city officials received buy-in from the nonprofit’s board members before planning to involve them.

This time, the council, Mayor Jason Shelton and city officials discussed buying the apartments and NDC having management responsibilities behind closed doors without anyone representing the group. Shelton and some council members say buying the property moved so swiftly not all details could be discussed, or apparently even known.

Last week, Shelton pressured the council to approve a property management contract with a real estate company owned by NDC board member Ellen Short, saying the five apartment complex employees had to receive paychecks in three days. It turns out, the employees’ biweekly schedule pays them this week, not last.

City officials didn’t even know Tupelo taxpayers would inherit responsibility for Azalea Gardens’ payroll until the day the property transferred to the city. City officials incorrectly believed the existing property management company would continue for a few more months.

No detailed plan exists to redevelop Azalea Gardens’ 7.8 acres.

Tupelo will pay roughly $14,600 in unanticipated costs for the first three months for the property management contract with TRI Inc. and will give a 30-day cancellation notice to end the agreement.

Loden said the city can’t assume NDC will take over the apartment project expected to involve building tear-downs.

“We’ll look at the numbers and decide if Azalea Gardens is what we want to redevelop,” he said. “We want to look at numbers.”

robbie.ward@journalinc.com