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5 Star Stories: Henry Turley restoring glory to shuttered sections of the Bluff City

Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 10:54 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In every direction in downtown Memphis, as far as the eye can see, is an archway, rafter, or balcony touched by real estate developer Henry Turley.

He’s the man behind a Memphis comeback story for the ages: the late 1970s and 80s revitalization of downtown Memphis.

The real estate pioneer took Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony on a ride-along to talk about some of Memphis’ most treasured neighborhoods that he developed.

“All downtown work is hard,” Turley pondered, as his hands twirl the wheel of his car. “I don’t love to build. I feel an obligation to do it because I’m so acutely aware of the need.”

In 1977, after years of experience as a property manager, Turley founded The Henry Turley Company. The downtown Shrine Building was his first big renovation amid the suburban flight that had decimated downtown. Businesses were boarded up, stores were shuttered, and premises were padlocked.

“Downtown was deplorable and hurt the whole city,” he remembered.

Turley believed the only way to bring back people was to turn the ghost town into a livable landscape.

He said to himself back then, “Wait. Why wouldn’t downtown have people? This idea that a central business district has been defeated by the movement to the suburbs? I said, ‘I’m gonna really focus, single-mindedly, on getting people to live down here.’”

With the help of partner Jack Belz, Turley set his sights on a sandbank along the Mighty Mississippi River. Raw, but priceless waterfront real estate.

“The obvious project was Harbor Town where 132 acres was available in one purchase,” said Turley. “Not only did we have an obligation to rebuild downtown, but we had the obligation to treat that very special piece of Riverfront property in a very special way.”

Belz put down two-thirds of the $2.25 million asking price and Turley’s team got to work. The sandbank only had one vehicle access point on the northern end, so a new bridge had to be built in addition to hundreds of new living spaces.

“Let me tell you something terrible,” recalled Turley. “So, we start building significantly. We had to build significantly. Three hundred apartments, 102 single-family homes, but people were slow to buy.”

Unfortunately, Turley’s turnaround had a tepid takeoff.

“I said, boys, we’ve got to make this more normal behavior where more people will do it. We’ve got to buy South Bluffs too. What? We’re already stuck with Harbor Town, now we’ve got to buy South Bluffs too?”

South Bluffs is located on the opposite end of the downtown core. Turley broke ground there in 1989.

He drove the Action News 5 crew through the gated neighborhood and points around to all the trees he says are critical for the southern heat, how he kept the old cobblestone and added water features.

“Million dollar houses and inexpensive houses. We like to mix it up,” he said.

There isn’t a local award Turley hasn’t won for his new urbanism developments. He drives the short distance through downtown to the uptown neighborhood.

“Oh, there’s Roxie,” he points out to the general store where you’ll find some of the city’s best burgers.

He says one day, when he was almost done developing Harbor Town, he remembers looking out at the 120 blocks of real estate that were ripe for redevelopment.

“It was just a neglected piece of North Memphis,” he said.

Turley says A.W. Willis, Memphis’ first African-American state legislator, inspired him to keep building.

“Kontji, A.W. was a mentor to me and he always challenged me that you always include everybody. I thought, I wonder if I could do a place for lower-income people and particularly minorities, black people?”

He again called his partner Belz.

“We wanted people to buy houses if they could afford them, so we subsidized,”Turley said.

Turley secured funding to create what he called the uptown community.

“A neighborhood that doesn’t gentrify, but takes care of the lower-income people,” he said.

With a promise not to displace anyone, the work was painstaking. He would find ways to improve existing homes by putting a whole new roof on a family’s home for free, just to keep the continuity of the development.

Turley looks out at a man working in his yard.

“He thinks I’m his gardener and he calls me to do certain things, and I do,” said Turley.

In fact, if you see someone pruning a tree in Uptown, Harbor Town, or the South Bluffs, it just might be Turley himself. Next month, a UT Health Hub will open in Uptown. Turley asked UT to move in after seeing great health disparities in the African American community. He felt a health hub would bring the care closer to the people.

People who work, live and play in the places Turley’s touched have deep appreciation.

“We thank Mr. Turley for the new houses, the development, the upcoming of Memphis and the downtown area. It’s awesome,” said Roxie’s Grocery manager Keisha Edwards.

Today, Harbor Town is home to restaurants, businesses, a private school, even a grocery store named after Turley’s mother, Cordelia.

His butcher of 22 years looks out at Turley who is speaking with the mailman and says, “He’s done so much for the city of Memphis all the way through. You can’t ask for a nicer guy. Whether you’re a politician or a man on the street, he meets you the same way.”

Turley shies away from taking any credit for anything he’s done.

“I have to attribute most of the energy to others,” he said as he brushed off acknowledgments of his works. “I look at it as that’s my job to take care of things and build a better city.”

As 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Harbor Town’s first residents, Turley is beginning work with the UT Health Science Center to reshape the 10-acre Medical District, from 12 three-story apartment buildings to retail to streetscaping.

Click here to view their live construction camera.

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