By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Tupelo City Council’s intentions to buy a low-income apartment complex on 7.8 acres sparks both revitalization efforts and accusations of racism.
Tupelo’s elected officials continued debate Wednesday after a supermajority voted a day earlier to negotiate with the new owners of Azalea Gardens, a more than 220-unit apartment complex with meteorite-like cracks in the parking lot and a history of poor living conditions cited by city code enforcement officers.
Councilman Willie Jennings, the sole dissenter against trying to buy the property, calls “disturbing” the trend of city government buying property where predominantly low-income blacks live – areas also associated with crime.
Jennings said council members should instead ensure police and code enforcement officers have adequate resources to do their jobs.
“I feel like they’re taking the chicken way out,” Jennings said of his fellow council members. “At one time I was in subsidies, and I’m not a criminal.”
Jennings’ views help illustrate the clash of perspectives toward revitalization efforts as Tupelo grapples with declining neighborhoods.
Altogether, Azalea Gardens includes six parcels of land with an assessed valuation of $4.1 million, Lee County Tax Assessor records show. However, the property sold for $800,000 last week as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
The property has been tied up in court since 2007, part of a string of financial difficulties with the complex that includes a $6.3 million bond in 1999 involving a public-private partnership with Tupelo Housing Authority.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mills of the Northern District of Mississippi approved on Feb. 27 selling the property as part of a receivership order.
If Tupelo officials successfully negotiate with South Carolina-based Southeastern Development to purchase the property, it will bring neighborhood redevelopment efforts to the central part of Tupelo.
Sources close to planned property negotiations say the city could pay in the $2 million range for the property. Currently, Tupelo has allocated around $2.9 million in redevelopment efforts toward the West Jackson Street redevelopment project, an area that faced mounting crime at an apartment complex bought with city tax dollars.
While Jennings sees a targeting of poor blacks, other Tupelo elected officials see potential for dramatic improvement for residents along Ida Street.
Among the hundreds of vacant apartment units, 40 have occupants. City Council President Nettie Davis, who is black and also represents that area, said she wants to protect current apartment residents from displacement but also believes potential to improve the neighborhood justifies the acquisition.
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said he’s generally not supportive of the city buying private real estate but sees the purchase as key to creating opportunities for middle-income residents in Tupelo.
“If we can strategically get some blight areas and raze them, it kick-starts neighborhood redevelopment,” he said.
Whittington and other council members envision the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation – a city partner leading the West Jackson redevelopment project – with a key role in a future Azalea Gardens redevelopment.
Mayor Jason Shelton said more details on plans for the property will unfold after purchasing the land, possibly as early as the end of the week. He voiced reservations about the project but said the city must improve residential areas for current and future residents.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “If there was a guaranteed easy way, it would have been done 15 years ago.”