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    Grant to help revitalize Soulsville community

    By Jon W. Sparks - The Commercial Appeal -

    The neighborhood around the Stax Museum of American Soul Music will receive an arts-based revitalization through a $678,000 grant that will be awarded today.

    The grant comes from ArtPlace, a Chicago-based collaboration of foundations, banks and federal agencies that works to improve communities around the country with strategic investments in the arts. Former Memphian Carol Coletta is executive director of ArtPlace.

    The revitalization plan will be carried out by local partners Community LIFT, an economic and community development organization, and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which has been mentoring students at Soulsville Charter School since 2007.

    The one-year grant kicks off what officials hope will mark a decisive boost for the neighborhood that once was home to historic Stax Records. Stax went into bankruptcy in 1975 and the McLemore Avenue neighborhood stagnated until the Stax Music Academy opened 10 years ago and the Stax Museum a year later.

    Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT, said of the proposed revitalization, "The more we get people over there in a positive setting, the more people will think of what they can do."

    Officials involved in the grant say work could begin as soon as the end of this month on renovating a warehouse that would be used by the MSO for concerts and in transforming the nearby family home of bluesman Memphis Slim (John Len Chatman) into an arts center called "Memphis Slim's Collaboratory." It will feature artist collaborations, music and studio training and will record neighborhood oral histories.

    The grant provides funding for the MSO to do a year of programming in the neighborhood, including concerts aimed at children and adults, and leadership training.

    In addition, the grant allows preliminary planning for a musician-focused residential block of single-family, multifamily and transitional housing designed to attract new talent and strengthen the community.

    The long-term budget is $1,609,435 that planners hope will imprint the area as an arts-centered and vibrant community steeped in history and playing on the city's musical attraction.

    These efforts carry out part of an initiative by the Memphis Music Magnet, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations that emerged from Dr. Charles Santo's classes at the University of Memphis Division of City and Regional Planning. The Music Magnet's arts-based approach stresses both physical and cultural avenues to neighborhood revitalization.

    "This first phase calls for creative neighborhood amenities," said Robertson. "We want to attract musicians back into the neighborhood," he said, and provide an atmosphere where creative people can develop relationships.

    A key element is redeveloping the Memphis Slim home into the "Collaboratory." "It's a place for musicians to come practice their craft and that would have a recording studio, and maybe some rooms can be converted into places where oral histories for the community can be recorded and uploaded onto YouTube."

    Community LIFT is working with the Memphis Music Foundation and the Visible School to help bring this about. But the major partner in the grant is the symphony.

    Rhonda Causie, director of grants and innovation at the MSO, was instrumental in crafting the grant proposal. She noted that the symphony had a history with Stax Records, having provided string players to the recording studio in its heyday. Now, the MSO is committed to community outreach. "To be sustainable, we really have to be very much about relevance and service in the community, so we've transformed ourselves. What we'll be doing is very deep work in the Soulsville community, like an artist residency. We want to drive as much of the audience to Soulsville over the course of the coming year so they can get comfortable in the community and feel its vibrancy."

    A collaboration with the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is also planned in Soulsville. "It's more than just concerts," Causie said.

    The Memphis Music Magnet idea evolved from Santo at the U of M when his city planning students realized that the theory of transforming neighborhoods was often disconnected from the reality. "They asked what they could do as planners to make tangible policy. So I created a course on taking up that challenge of linking creativity to neighborhood revitalization. It became more and more focused until we came up with this plan."

    The Memphis grant is one of 47 creative initiatives in 33 communities around the country approved by ArtPlace. Some 2,200 applicants originally sought a share of the $15.4 million available this cycle.