Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Creeping Blight in DeSoto County - More Interstate

One of the most harmful myths affecting the Mid-south is the mistaken belief that blight, decreased property values and increased taxes are problems inherent to Memphis that can be escaped by moving outside the city. Unfortunately the city's government has helped promote this myth with its steady annexation of poorly planned developments over the past several decades.

Last week I took a bunch of pictures of vacant commercial property along Winchester to go with my post about the Southern Hands restaurant in front of the Hickory Ridge Mall. There are plenty of people who will tell you that all of Hickory Hill's problems were caused by it being annexed by Memphis. But a lot of the area's current problems were an inevitable result of its design, which is why Memphis hurt itself in the long run annexing it. On Monday I stopped for lunch at the Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q on Stateline Road in Southaven, MS, which is already running into some of the same issues.

Moving to DeSoto County, MS, has seemed like the ultimate panacea to many Mid-southerners, since annexation will never be an issue on that side of the state line. The growing population on that side of the border is what caused Jim Neely to open another restaurant there. He realized how many customers from DeSoto County were driving to his flagship location on Third Street in Memphis and decided they'd probably eat his barbecue even more often if it was closer to home.

The Interstate Bar-B-Q in Southaven occupies what appears to be a former Pizza Hut restaurant along what was once the city's main strip before the continuing overdevelopment of Goodman Road to the south caused most businesses to move there. According to an article from the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper on the restaurant's wall, Neely was looking for a space on Goodman himself but discussion with DeSoto County residents caused him to realize that most of them understandably hate driving on Goodman. Businesses locate there because of the heavy traffic and because other businesses are there. Most of them never bother to ask locals if they actually like having to shop on Goodman.

Inside the restaurant I ordered the chopped pork dinner since I wasn't overly impressed by the ribs during my visit to the Interstate location on Third Street. The chopped pork was good and tender while the flavorful herb-filled sauce once again demonstrated why it is such a big part of Jim Neely's success. Most barbecue sauces are dominated by sugar, vinegar or spicy heat but the sauce at Interstate takes a more subtle, balanced approach that ends up being very satisfying. The slaw was good too, and like on third Street, the beans once again stood out for being slow cooked in the restaurant's smoker.

I've never understood why some other barbecue restaurants serve warmed-up, canned baked beans. When you already have a barbecue pit going why not simmer some homemade beans in it? It doesn't require much extra work while you are already tending to the meat in the pit. And the thick, smoky sauce that comes from simmering in a barbecue pit can't be replicated.

Once I finished eating it was time to do some quick sightseeing on Stateline Road before I went back to work. 

This shopping center is across the street from Interstate Bar-B-Q on Stateline Road. It isn't completely vacant but it is definitely very under-occupied. While I was taking this picture a guy came up wanting to bum, "50 or 60 cents so I can pay my ride." This is the inevitable destiny of outward sprawl.

 As businesses have flocked to Goodman they have left behind plenty of vacant properties on Stateline the same way the overdevelopment of the Wolfchase area caused a collapse in the commercial real estate markets in nearby parts of Raleigh and Lakeland. Developments can't go more than a couple decades without major upkeep. When cities subsidize new development they effectively pay people to abandon existing properties even though the empty properties still absorb tax dollars.

Debt-driven government subsidized sprawl effectively forces families to abandon neighborhoods. As blight begins to diminish property values people look to protect the money they've invested in their homes by selling and moving. Once people start moving no one wants to be the last one to sell their house after things hit rock bottom so property values plummet further as For Sale signs pop up everywhere. Local governments that sold bonds to cover the cost of schools, roads, sewers, etc., for what were once booming areas are faced with diminishing property values at the same time that bonds are coming due. So property tax rates have to go up. 

I can't blame any individual family for moving when faced with the falling property values, increased taxes and declining schools that inevitably result when people and businesses begin to abandon a community.

I don't have kids so schools weren't a factor in where I bought my house. I understand people being concerned with the perceived immediate safety of their children. But that mentality can blind people to the bigger picture. Especially when combined with the natural groupthink tendency of humans that causes people to not question anything that everyone around them assumes is normal. Ongoing suburban sprawl is based on the unsustainable use of debt and nonrenewable resources to create buildings that are abandoned within a few decades. And by definition, an unsustainable society is one that cannot, and therefore will not, continue on its current path.

As long as I don't have children I don't have to worry as long as we can eek out a few more decades from our available topsoil, water and energy sources because what happens to this country after I'm gone is as academic of a concern to me the fate of some ancient society. But if I have children I want them living in a sane, sustainable society; not dying in a war over oil, arable land or water while society crumbles around them.

I think one thing that throws a lot of people off about this blog is that they can't figure out if I am a Democrat or a Republican, since those are the two options in a lot of people's minds. Political parties combine the worst elements of organized religion and big business. Like a religion, each has a list of dogmatic beliefs and demands that its followers unquestioningly accept them all. Do you think government regulation is always good or always bad? And like big businesses, they are more concerned with maintaining their brand and increasing their "market share" in the short term than any longterm concerns for the good of society.

Politicians just look to the next election the same way foolhardy corporations just look to the next quarter. That is how you end up with Republican congressmen treasonously attempting to sabotage the economy just to unseat an incumbent Democrat president. Or as Vietnam-era generals would say, "we had to burn the village in order to save it." 

A society based on debt and disposable goods -- where things are constantly thrown away before they are even paid for -- encourages an entitled attitude in people that is completely divorced from reality. Unfortunately, in a democracy people tend to get the government they deserve. So we get cronyism and debt used to create the illusion of choice and prosperity.

People in the suburbs frequently spend a lot of time talking about the corruption in Memphis politics. But even the most corrupt politicians usually entered the realm of government thinking they could do good for their community. Corruption occurs when politicians start accepting money and favors from people courting their favor. These people often pretend, or delude themselves into thinking, that they have the community's best interest at heart as well.

Northern DeSoto County was developed along the same patterns, often by the same people, as Hickory Hill. It is foolishly naive to think that local politicians weren't getting paid along the way, especially considering the recent corruption charges against Southaven Mayor Greg Davis. Subsidized suburban sprawl breeds political corruption the same way that the war on drugs breeds police corruption.

To survive into the future the Mid-south will have to be rebuilt from the core of Memphis outward. That is already happening; it is plainly visible in Downtown, Midtown, Binghampton, and even Orange Mound, South Memphis and North Memphis if you pay attention. But the outer suburbs will harm the entire region, themselves included, if they continue borrowing money to bleed people and businesses from the city who will just add to their own climbing pile of debt.

Not only are a large number of the business spaces vacant on Stateline, but a large portion of the occupied ones have cash-for-title and payday loan places in them, often sitting next door to each other. There are so many of them I don't know how they all manage to make a profit. Some of them probably don't, which will eventually lead to even more vacancies.

A shopping center with only one tenant is limited in how much it can charge other prospective tenants, which continues the decline in property values.

This is especially true when the shopping center is across the street from yet another title loan/check advance place.

Just like on Winchester in Hickory Hill, on Stateline in Southaven the under-occupied strip malls are nowhere near as bad of an eyesore as the vacant big box stores.

We can work towards developing a stable, sustainable society. Or we can just keep paving new land until the entire country is one giant, asphalt-covered ghetto.

Interstate Bar B Que on Urbanspoon


  1. I love your blog. I look forward to the updates and I especially like the "unrelated" commentary. I share it often with my like-minded buddies.

    1. Thanks. I always appreciate it when people help spread the word.

  2. Nice insight. Please keep it up. Memphis needs reasonable voices like yours.

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