HED: Tupelo pins fairgrounds future on Memphis developer

CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories

AUTHOR: MOULDE

HED: Tupelo pins fairgrounds future on Memphis developer

By Philip Moulden

Daily Journal

If Tupelo obtains the services of Henry Turley to head development of the old fairgrounds area, the city won’t have bought a plan but a planner.

Turley, 57, has been recommended by the city’s Fairgrounds Advisory Committee to guide the proposed $66 million project. The city council is expected to act on the recommendation next month.

What Turley would immediately bring to the table is not a vision for the 50-acre downtown tract, but a philosophy, a track record, a demand for quality, and a passion for linking people with their history, heritage, and each other. An urban conscience, if you will.

Hailed as one of the first, and best, of the “new urbanists,” the Memphis native has carved a trail of successes, both in resurrecting downtown derelicts and creating old-town new towns.

He’s turned vacant downtown office buildings into thriving apartments and condominiums and created enclaves of residential tranquility a hop, skip and jump from the bustle of midtown.

Memphis’ Harbor Town, South Bluffs, the old Shrine building, the old Businessmen’s Club, the old Cotton Exchange, even his Parking Can Be Fun, are results of a desire to make living immensely more livable.

That’s why backers believe Turley can stamp on the “old fairgrounds” – a tract that now spreads on both sides of East Main Street from the existing downtown to U.S. Highway 45 – a new city face for the 21st Century.

The city council this month tentatively agreed to spend almost $23 million to see it happen. Planners expect at least another $44 million in private investment on the site.

Tupelo vision

So what’s the blueprint for Tupelo’s fairgrounds?

Well … none. Yet.

Clearly it won’t be a replica of Harbor Town or other of Turley’s Memphis projects.

“I think what Henry is good at, he’s far above average in creating a vision, just imagining what it can be and figuring out how to get there,” said Frank Ricks, partner in Looney Ricks Kiss Architects Inc. of Memphis, a firm that has done new urban projects throughout the country and works closely with Turley.

Looney Ricks Kiss will be part of the Tupelo team.

Ricks said Turley has great skill in grasping the soul of a community and translating it into an integrated design.

“He’s good at scheming, dreaming up what these things would be,” Ricks said.

At the same time, Turley remains keenly aware of the need for an “economic engine,” knowing if a project doesn’t work financially it’s useless, Ricks said.

Turley sees his fairgrounds role as “a for-profit partner and adviser with the fairgrounds group.” The city’s proposed contract with the Henry Turley Company would pay 17.4 percent of land sales revenues, plus a 6 percent real estate commission to the developer.

Something different

The fairgrounds will be different, Turley agreed. Not because of his desire to broaden a portfolio, but because the goal here is different.

The site, the city, the citizens demand not a Memphis transplant but a vibrant creation, supporters concur.

“The worst thing you can do is import things from somewhere else. You can import ideas … but not projects,” Ricks said.

Surveys have shown residents want more dining and entertainment facilities as well as family-oriented entertainment, and sports, education and civic programs.

For its part, the city plans to build a new city hall, a convention center and automobile museum.

“The (downtown) is a place where the town’s history is shared as well as a place where geography is shared,” Turley said. “So far we’ve had good luck with getting people downtown.”

Who and where

Turley works comfortably behind a half-moon table in a glassed-in penthouse office atop one of his projects, the old Cotton Exchange building at Memphis’ Union and Front streets.

The wall behind him reflects his past and passions – a jumble of pictures, posters, editorial cartoons and awards.

He attended the University of Tennessee as a liberal arts major on an agriculture scholarship, then returned to Memphis and joined a property management company. In 1977, he faced a choice of becoming president of the company or going to work for himself.

He chose himself.

At the time downtown Memphis was deteriorating. And to Turley, downtowns hold the glue that binds a city’s many parts, reflecting the history and heritage that define who its people are.

“I guess I thought it was important to do … and I kind of felt an obligation to do so,” he said of downtown revitalization efforts. “I couldn’t see wasting a perfectly good city.”

He started with the Shrine building about 20 years ago, turning the virtually abandoned office structure into apartments. Other buildings followed.

It wasn’t easy. Lenders weren’t interested and government officials, though recognizing the need, faced constituencies telling them downtown was a waste.

But it worked.

Tough enough

It won’t be easy in Tupelo either.

Until now, Turley has worked almost exclusively in Memphis. He’s had calls from near and far asking, but until visiting Tupelo regularly declined.

There, Turley said he was immediately impressed with the people – fairgrounds committee members, the mayor, businessmen and others – and their hard-core commitment to do something special downtown.

They seemed “tough enough, dedicated enough to withstand the sort of pressure they’re going to get … it’ll be more than they know they’re going to get now,” Turley said.

Experience assures him that fairgrounds redevelopment backers will be second-guessed and criticized for their effort, he said.

“I was impressed that he (Mayor Glenn McCullough) wanted to get something done and seemed to really have a sense of urgency about it…,” Turley said. “Then I liked the vitality of your economy.

“I see it as a real joint venture with the city, with my providing ways to implement their vision,” Turley said. “It needs to be a collective (citywide) vision … because I think downtown is owned by everyone.”

Making it fit

While the fairgrounds development will have residential areas – city planners foresee at least 40 condos, townhouses and homes initially – there won’t be enough to sustain the needed commercial and civic activity. That means whatever is built, it must draw people to the area, Turley said.

Any plan also must meld with and strengthen the existing downtown area as well as the entire city, he said. It cannot compete with mushrooming Barnes Crossing commercialism, nor can it become a residential enclave such as Turley’s famed Harbor Town.

“In Tupelo, it’s about building something for the next century…,” Turley said. “They want its development to be excellent. A statement of what the city can be.”

Therein lies his strength, supporters believe. Turley has an innate ability to see how things fit together, how to forge comfortable places for people to be, special places that draw on the traditions and spirit of a community, Ricks said.

“He’s a developer but he’s sort of a self-made urban designer,” Ricks said. “He’s great at seeing how things fit together. Since that’s what we like to do as architects and designers, it’s gratifying working with Henry.”

The Elvis factor

Turley is ardent about playing the Elvis card wherever possible – “Elvis is big” – but not enthusiastic about a development concept that would form a huge guitar from streets and landscaping. Too esoteric, he suggested.

Any plan must also deal with some apparent conflicts, either through design or attitude changes.

Among key elements of the development proposal is construction of a museum to house the vintage car collection of Tupelo native and broadcast magnate Frank Spain. Supporters also want a hotel on site.

But local officials want the museum and hotel to be in the heart of the development while Spain and one interested hotel group apparently want their projects much closer to U.S. 45.

Best in show

A 135-acre inspiration rising from what was a field of cottonwoods, Harbor Town sits between the Wolf and Mississippi rivers in view of the Memphis Pyramid and downtown. It is probable the work for which Turley is most noted.

Single family homes valued at $400,000 or more sit next to homes valued at $150,000 or less, both a stone’s throw from condominiums and moderately priced apartments. Lots are small … most homes have gardens but little yard.

Most also reflect deep South influences – New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, whatever – but there is no set style. There is, however, a set feeling: Intimacy.

Balconies abound and sidewalks run throughout. Turley’s designs encourage neighborly encounters.

A town square, across from a Montessori school, offers a grocery store – run by Turley’s mother – a book store eatery, a combined pizza parlor and movie rental outlet, a dry cleaner’s and other small shops and offices. They’re within easy walking distance of all homes.

Walking, in fact, is what the development is about – walking and talking to neighbors, walking to the school, walking along or fishing in area ponds, walking to various parks.

Turley’s not big on cars. They’re there, of course. Necessary.

But garages are mostly in the rear of the homes, condos and apartments. Alleys have been reintroduced, not only so cars can be hidden but to re-establish “the domains of children.”

Streets are narrow, reducing and slowing traffic. Narrow streets also make financial sense to Turley.

“You don’t give land to cars. They can’t pay,” he said of the cost of land.

“Cars (in our society) get a better deal on streets and a better deal at homes than you get. Now you know that’s not right.”

Turley admits that for a developer, the easier path is repetition and concedes Harbor Towns aren’t for everybody.

But he scorns the sprawling suburbias that crawl like kudzu across the nation’s landscape and their myriad of cookie-cutter homes cloaked by two-car facades.

“(You) end up with what we are building everywhere, the way we’re building America, which is pretty sorry, really,” he said.

“We’ve got people (in Harbor Town) who are saying, ‘This is a better way of living.’ Well, what’s so damn mysterious about that?”

Little big things

Little escapes Turley’s mind and it’s often the little things that set his work apart. Attention to detail makes Harbor Town and South Bluffs eye-pleasing rather than eye popping.

Flagstone rather than concrete is used to line drainage catches flowing into Harbor Town’s ponds; gravel paths wind through trees along waters in its commons areas; an intricate catfish weather vane sits unobtrusively atop a park cupola near the Wolf River.

In mimicry Turley loves, nearby homes also sport river-related weather vanes.

In South Bluffs, carved from 35 acres of old rail yard, cobblestones and bricks enhance street design. Grassy commons form medians and corner fountains replicate a downtown historical fixture.

And everywhere he builds, Martin houses rise from curbside and building top.

There is a purpose, besides attracting pretty birds. Martins eat mosquitoes.

“People complained about mosquitoes on the river. We thought that was a good way to deal with it,” Turley said.

Neighbors have followed the lead.

In fact, Turley believes the surest way of getting people to do good things is to provide good examples.

“We set an example that people will follow. What really counts is what they do,” Turley said.

For instance, he doesn’t blame renters for run-down apartments, or tenants for run-down neighborhoods.

“They will treat the property about like you (owners) do,” he said.

“It isn’t cheap,” Turley admits of the special touches that grace his developments. “But people are willing to pay for quality.”