Once hailed as a linchpin of inner-city redevelopment, Five Points Village Plaza in East Knoxville sits almost dormant now, barren save for the gas station and convenience mart that has replaced a failed IGA grocery store. But an agreement with local minister James Davis and his Eternal Life Harvest Center could see the plaza reoccupied by a new branch of a heavily service-oriented Mechanicsville-based church and community-outreach program.
â“We want to take all the programs we've done in Mechanicsville and take them to East Knoxville,â” says Davis, who is currently engaged in â“aggressive conversationsâ” with Five Points plaza developer LeRoy Thompson. â“We feel the mandate of the church is to do more than just preach; we want to aggressively make an impact.â”
The Five Points Village Plaza was a $6.3 million public and private development spurred by Knoxville's federal Empowerment Zone (EZ) grants, part of a Housing and Urban Development program to create new social and economic opportunities in disadvantaged urban areas. It opened in May 2006, anchored by an IGA grocery store and a handful of other retail and business outlets.
The grocery store closed after only eight months; more recently, a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage outlet also moved out of the shopping center, leaving as the only remaining tenants a gas station/convenience mart and a Knox County satellite office.
Though disappointed by the grocery store's failure, developer Thompson has steadfastly maintained that the closing is only a setback, and not a larger indicator of the failure of redevelopment efforts. â“I see the glass as being half-full, not half-empty,â” Thompson says.
â“The grocery failed, but on the positive side, we took an area, cleaned up the blight and the drugs and the prostitution, put the land back on the tax rolls and created potential for the next tenant. If we're still having this conversation in five years, that's one thing. But right now we're only 16 months into the investment.â”
More than just a ministry, Thompson believes that the Eternal Life Harvest Center could fulfill the HUD requirements that still govern any new tenants of the EZ-funded shopping plaza. The center, which Davis founded 18 years ago as an outreach to encourage inner-city youth to stay away from gang- and drug-related activity, has expanded over the years to include programs such as a senior-citizens' outreach called Pioneer Circle, community development, after-school programs for academic and spiritual development, and a jobs-creation outreach affiliated with the national Jobs Partnership program.
Davis says that portion of the ministryâ"dubbed Jobs Partnership Knoxville when it was begun eight years agoâ"will figure heavily in the center's proposed Five Points location.
â“We're in negotiations with some of the large companies we're partnering with, looking to find ways to get people into serious middle- and upper-class positions with hard skills,â” Davis says. â“Our program has always taught soft skills like conflict resolution and delegation of authority. Now we're looking at sending in representatives from our partner companies to come along with us and train hard skills to go along with our soft-skills program.
â“After they're trained, two major players in the city are looking at aggressively working with us at hiring people in good-paying positions after we've trained them.â”
But the potential of another ministry-style outreach in an inner-city plaza created for the purpose of economic redevelopment raises some questions. One local community leader, speaking off the record, lauds Davis's ministry, but asks whether â“this is really the best way to build that community. I personally have some mixed feelings.â”
It also points to larger issues that face the Five Points community, and to the need to reexamine priorities to further its redevelopment. The reasons for the grocery's failure have been mulled at length in local media, with reasons ranging from allegedly high prices to the difficulty of changing entrenched shopping patterns. Thompson says, too, that he â“underestimated the difficulty of running a grocery store and how expensive the investment is compared to the amount of return. For a commercial developer, if you're not running 12 percent at the end of the day on performer potential, you don't do the deal. In groceries, if you're doing two to four percent you're doing as well as anyone in the country on your profit margin potential.â”
Thompson also admits that Five Points planners may have underestimated some of the problems that threatened the success of the plaza, specifically the issues posed by the nearby Walter P. Taylor housing project.
â“What we learned is it's going to be very difficult to attract the type of quality retail outlets that we want until we deal with some of the peripheral issues,â” Thompson says. â“Issues such as a highly concentrated public housing outlet in Walter P. Taylor with a lot of crime. It's also an eyesore, and it negates attracting potential customers and homebuyers and retail into the community.â”
As president of Knoxville's Community Development Corporation (KCDC), Alvin Nance has long held that the 500-unit Walter P. constitutes a major obstacle to Five Points progress. â“I would think maybe a HOPE VI type of development would be in order, where we would tear down Walter P. and build back with some single-family units,â” Nance says. â“We have to look at that property differently. We have to ask, can we produce a better property? And I think the answer is, yes we can.â”
HOPE VI is the federal program that helped fund the replacement of the problematic College Homes housing project in Mechanicsville with a series of quality low-cost single-family homes. Along with other efforts there, the HOPE VI housing is credited with helping to rejuvenate the economically disadvantaged Mechanicsville community over the last decade or so.
â“We didn't use the same strategy in Mechanicsville that was used in Five Points,â” Nance says. â“We addressed residential issues first there, rather than commercial ones, which is what happened in Five Points. In Mechanicsville, we addressed housing issues, got the rooftops in order, and then that drove the private investment, even without incentives.â”
In the meantime, Nance admits that he has a limited familiarity with the Eternal Life ministry, which seems set to commence the next chapter in Five Points' redevelopment. But what he has seen, he likes.
â“I'm not aware of everything that's being proposed there, but they (the ministry) may well bring in services that fulfill the EZ requirements,â” Nance says. â“They were doing some good things in Mechanicsville, I know. We're glad they're there.â”
â“'We haven't nailed everything down yet, but there are very serious negotiations on the table that are moving forward rapidly,â” Davis says. â“We have to make sure we're fitting all the criteria for what the Empowerment Zone requires, for what the Five Points plaza development is supposed to be doing.
â“If there's one thing we learned from Mechanicsville, it's that we must go in with a long-term commitment. Because it's a letdown for the community if we go in and only stay as long as things look good for us. If we don't commit for the long haul, we shouldn't go.â” â" Mike Gibson
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