Henry Turley is puckish and claims that he never takes himself too seriously. Keep in mind that he is seriously good at knowing which way the wind is blowing and how to ride it to success, but sometimes he’ll mess with your assumptions. Like, perhaps, the notion that he’s a savvy salesman.
“I don’t think I know how to sell,” Henry Turley once told an interviewer.
You can be forgiven for laughing out loud. He founded Henry Turley Co. in 1977 and made urban redevelopment a remarkable pursuit. He’s the driving force behind Harbor Town, the South Bluffs, Uptown, and others. Of course, making those happen meant he had to, well, sell his partners on his ideas, Jack Belz, Archie Willis, and Billy Orgel among them. And investors. And the public.
Except that he’s not a salesman. “I think it’s just dogging it,” he says. “Dogged determination.”
To further understand this non-salesman, consider his take on enterprise in this city that he has done much to reshape. He was asked about the idea of developers working in concert to, shall we say, maximize efficiencies.
“This is Memphis, we don’t do coordination,” Turley says. “We’re independent and outlaws. Right? We don’t do that. The Memphis way is discrete and atomistic. You’ve got freedom to do what you want to do.”
What Turley wanted to do in the 1980s at Harbor Town was rescue some riverfront property from becoming a highway, a proposal that had been considered in one form or another for years. He also wanted a development that tucked cars in the back, let front porches be a connection to the rest of the neighborhood, and spread trees and walkways and nice shops in easy walking/biking distance. To hear him tell it, he had no idea what he was doing was new urbanism, but he ended up showing the world how it was done.
“There was no name at the time, but it was developed in Memphis,” he says. “I’ll never forget, I went to some bullshit conference, and a guy laid out this thing that was essentially what we now call new urbanism. And I went up to him at the end of the presentation, and said, ‘You know, I built one of these in Memphis. He said, ‘You couldn’t have built it, it’s just a concept.’ And I said, ‘Well, rock-and-roll was a concept too.’”
That, he says, is his answer to whether developers should coordinate projects. “We don’t do that. We’re not supposed to. Look at Sam Phillips as the guy who really epitomizes the way Memphis works.”
Reimagining Central Station
One of Turley’s current projects is one he’s proud of and loves to talk about: the $55 million Central Station project.
The railroad station once was where people arrived and departed Memphis in large numbers. But in the 1960s air travel began to prevail and passenger trains became less relevant. One survived, the City of New Orleans, which pauses in Memphis coming and going on its New Orleans-Chicago route.
But the station and the surrounding neighborhood along South Main Street made for an unimpressive sight.
Still, as South Main began to find new life, so too did the 17-acre Central Station property. The building’s upper floors became apartments and the main concourse was turned into a venue for special events. The Amtrak station was tidied up and a police substation located nearby. A farmers market went up west of the tracks and the old, distinctive Power House was used as an art gallery.
Welcome as the improvements were, they were not, in truth, a great fit. The train station and the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) presence as core transit entities were awkwardly connected. There were apartments but not a hotel. MATA was also handling the leasing of Hudson Hall, the event venue — not really part of its mission of movement.
Turley and project partner Willis knew the Central Station neighborhood’s potential had not been reached.
“Archie and I had talked about it for 15 years,” Turley says. “We really tried years ago to say to the leadership of MATA this could be better.” But its leadership was in transition and the initial deal was not the best possible. New leadership came along, however, and was responsive. “We said we had the potential here of doing a real transportation center. At least the best we have in Memphis. I mean, we can extend the trolley tracks, which we are doing. We can put that bike rental stand right there, and where they can ride across the bridge. We can stack up scooters. You’ve got buses and I mentioned trolleys. You got a damned train! We can have as good a transportation center as we can. And with that communal activity, we can join above South End with Willis’ South City. And have a real integrating place from Arcade through Central Station.”
Turley and Willis saw how much more it could be beyond a transportation center. “If you were coming from Chicago headed to New Orleans, and you arrived in Memphis, would you want to arrive at an apartment building?” Turley says. It doesn’t really serve the travelers or the apartment dwellers. And then there’s that wedding/event venue. “MATA, do you really want to be in the party business? You are having to pay people to run that party room in the party function.”
MATA agreed — they wanted to move people, not entertain them. “I said well, let’s get you out of that business,” Turley says. “Let’s get a hotel here. They want customers. I’m talking about a cool hotel. I want a place so fine, if you bought a ticket from Chicago to New Orleans, you’d tear it up and you would stay here.” A deal was struck for the Central Station Hotel – Curio Collection by Hilton to be managed by the Kemmons Wilson Companies. It will have 133 rooms, a ballroom, a 3,500-square-foot restaurant, and around 6,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. As for the apartments, they needed to go and be replaced with a better setup. Turley’s company is creating 200 apartment units.
Rethinking the farmers market and repurposing the empty Power House went hand in hand.
Turley says, “The farmer’s market operates from 6:30 to 1 on Saturday during the season. Hmmmm. Who could use that space better without displacing the farmers?” He pretty well knew the answer to that one and says he asked Jimmy Tashie of Malco Theaters, “when do you run your Saturday matinees? He says about 1 p.m. I said, you got the right number. You want the Power House property? And the parking lot? And he said yeah.” And that’s how they co-exist.
For the hotel, Turley called McLean T. Wilson at Kemmons Wilson Companies. “I needed a hotel, so who do you call?” he says. “It’s like saying, if you need a rock-and-roll record you got to call Sam Phillips. So, McLean called back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that.’ We got the Turleys, the Willises, the Wilsons, and Malco’s Lightmans. That’s not bad. So you know, you got to count on the homeboys to do your damned town. I mean to do it with some heart and soul.”
The upshot is that Turley wants Central Station to be central again. “We want it to be central to transportation. We want it to be central to the neighborhood. We want a place where people come together, particularly those within South City and those who are in South End. And it’s about as simple as that, except all the 10,000 details.”
Who To Watch
Turley knows what’s going on and who’s making a mark.
“I’m thrilled with what Billy Orgel is doing around the brewery,” he says, referring to the Tennessee Brewery project. “It’s hard as the dickens and I think it’s exceedingly well run. It’s successful and it certainly embellishes the neighborhood we started, with the South Bluffs and the Orgel Properties. He’s doing a good job.”
He also speaks approvingly of the Carlisle’s One Beale concept and is energized by the FedEx Logistics move Downtown.
And he mentions Phil Woodard, who is currently developing the 30-unit Frontline Townhomes going up at Front and Nettleton. “He’s real energetic, a good guy, who really did South Main,” Turley says. “We started South Main — was it 1984 maybe? — but we didn’t really get anything done. And then along comes this guy and starts doing these old two-story buildings down there that I wouldn’t fool with, and he really puts the shops and the restaurants and whatnot. Ephraim Urevbu comes in and puts his art studio, his gallery, his restaurant, and those two guys made South Main. They were the seeds of change.”
For The Birds
Turley has this thing for purple martins. He is something of a birder, yes, but in the larger view, he finds a way to combine that interest with his mission to get people to come and live Downtown.
Back before Downtown became a hotspot, some of the early adapters were thinking about it. But they weren’t necessarily sold on it. “They would come up with millions of excuses,” Turley says, “but one of them was mosquitoes around the river. So I hired a house full of purple martins to eat the mosquitoes. I thought how you’d do it that was really environmental. I mean do you call the county mayor and say, will you spray more pesticide on my clients? That’s the traditional response. No, we hired those purple martins. And that’s what they do for a living. Eat mosquitoes. If it seems kind of nutty, well so what? It certainly has gotten a lot of use — you see them.”