The Memphis Medical District is 'really growing.' What's next for the area? – Commercial Appeal

On June 1 Rory Thomas will mark one year of being president of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative
That year has brought everything from the grand openings of multiple businesses and the groundbreaking of a significant-mixed development — Orleans Station — to seeing the struggles small and large employers and developers have endured due to the pandemic, inflation, supply chain issues and workforce shortages. 
The Commercial Appeal talked with Thomas one year ago as he started with MMDC and talked with him again this year to see what has changed over the past 12 months.
Some responses have been edited for clarity and length. 
Commercial Appeal: Looking back on the past year, what are the big takeaways from one year on the job?
Rory Thomas: How important the Medical District is for the city. We have a really great Downtown that continues to grow. Obviously a great Midtown and Overton Square. And, right in the middle is the Medical District. So you want to have a great experience going from Downtown and Midtown, but not just that. You want the Medical District to be a destination on its own. 
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So I would say it’s really, really growing. A lot of people are taking interest in it. And as people have shared with me, I mean the Medical District touches so many people in so many different ways. So you know, whether you have a sick family member or a sick child or someone’s having surgery or anything like that, or you’re going to school there, you’re going to work there… it touches so many employees, residents, students, visitors, so it’s a very important part of the city. I think people recognize that, and as I get out and talk with people, they see the value and importance of the district and are willing to work with us. That’s kind of been the biggest takeaway: people see the Medical District, if we’re able to get it right and grow it, revitalize, it’s going to elevate not just the district but the entire city and county.
CA: What do you think has been the biggest accomplishment for you and your team in the past year?
Thomas: Some key things…obviously as a nonprofit operator you always need funds as well. So, the Hyde Family Foundation’s nearly $3 million commitment was very important for us and the work that we have going forward to really expand our programs. 
I’ll say the $30 million Medical District investment fund. So having three banks come in and provide $10 million each to really spur inclusive and creative development in a specific district… I don’t know if that is taking place in other parts of the city or maybe around the region as well. So that was tremendous. 
Orleans Station as well. Just having that type of development coming into the district. A public-private partnership like that with Henry Turley Company and UT is, you know, pretty groundbreaking for us in the Medical District.
CA: What do you think has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face or overcome in the past year?
Thomas: Well, again, nonprofits just having limited resources, there’s so many different needs and priorities as you try to make a place better for everyone to live, work, learn and play. So that’s always something.
I would say as well what we want to do for housing… It’s something that we’re continuing to look at because you want to make sure you have the right mix going on. So people who work together ought to be able to live together in the same community. Institutions have vast arrays of income (levels), so making sure that everyone has the right housing, that they can all stay in the same community. So whether it’s affordable housing, market rate, single-family homes, all of those things.
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CA: Housing is something we’ve been talking about for the past year. Where do you feel you are in adding housing to the district and spurring more housing development? 
Thomas: A lot more messaging has been very helpful in the Medical District because as we share about our anchor institutions, those major hospitals and education institutions… in 2014, they had about 16,000 employees. Seven years later, 2021, they had over 23,000 employees. And they continue to add. Having that kind of concentration of employment in the district, I think a lot of people now see the opportunity in the Medical District that as these institutions grow people would love to live close to where they work. 
So it’s making people want to invest in a district and provide housing. So it’s now becoming more as opposed to us really getting the word out and wanting people to come in, developers people are proactively coming to us to say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity, I want to do some housing, what are the best locations?” Our team has been doing a really good job at that. 
We see smaller boutique housing coming in and see a potential boutique hotel… small opportunities, hotel opportunities for maybe traveling physicians and family. So you see a lot of opportunity with that. But I think people see that concentration of employment, 23,000 employees, 8,000 students, the residents hopefully continue to grow in the district.
CA: You mentioned the grant from the Hyde Family Foundation and you got that Kresge Foundation grant as well in the past year. What type of programming will those funds expand?
Thomas: A key part of our strategic plan is building community wealth. I’ve shared about the employees that we have, student growth, but still within the Medical District it’s a lot of poverty. Over 40% of households live below the poverty line. It’s about two-thirds African American in the Medical District. Most people don’t own their own homes there. So, those are the type of things that we and our anchor institutions want to have an impact on in the community. 
Our Hire Local program where now, as these institutions are growing and trying to hire new employees… we’re able to take underemployed or unemployed residents in the district, getting them job opportunities at those institutions. With that comes a lot of training and other assistance that we have to provide. So we’ve kind of been a little bit more limited in how many trainings that we can provide.
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But now, obviously, we could expand that because the need is so great, and offer more opportunities for residents in the community. Also trying to help emerging developers in a district. We have a pre-development program, $5,000 grants, where people can get formal statements and architectural drawings of sites that they want to possibly build on in the medical district and 70% of those have been minority women who received those grants. 
CA: You mentioned to me that much has happened in the past year, but there’s much more to do. What do you see for the next year or two at the helm of the MMDC?
Thomas: I see a lot of continuing to make it a better place to live, work, learn and play. We have the annual surveys that go out to employees, residents, students about looking at the things they want. So, growing commercial options, attracting those new businesses into the district that provide the services that people want to be able to visit and really make it more of a 24/7-community with a big focus on minority- and women-owned businesses, too, since data really shows that minority businesses tend to hire more minorities as well and same with women-owned businesses.
We’re looking at increasing the housing supply. Of those 23,000 employees, less than 2% live in the district. So we want to definitely continue to focus on increasing housing supply for building that community wealth. Continuing to affect those residents in the Medical District and getting them new opportunities to gain employment and benefits and things at these health care institutions.
Another thing we’re focused on is additional anchor collaboration, especially looking at safety initiatives and pedestrian safety. Because as we have more people and density increases in the district, and it’s no longer 8-to-5, (it’s a) 24/7 community, pedestrian safety becomes even more important in the district. So, making sure that you know, everyone that’s gathering, whether they’re having something at Orleans Station, at The Ravine, The Rise and all those projects coming up, that hey, everyone has a safe experience in the district.
CA: This is something I asked you when we talked a year ago and I’d love to see if and how that answer has changed. What excites you most about what’s happening in the Medical District right now?
Thomas: It’s really exciting, just the momentum in the Medical District. And to kind of go back… we, again, have a great Downtown, a great Midtown. The Medical District is now being mentioned in that way, as a great place for people to live work, learn and play. And it’s really exciting to see that momentum happening. Really exciting that, you know, as we share with people, whether it’s private sector, elected officials, they all see the value in the Medical District. So I’m just really excited about the growth has taken place and the investments that continue to come into the district. 
And I think it’s really going to be, over these next few years, a destination that everyone will be proud of. And one day we’ll have people saying on a Saturday evening, “Let’s go down to the Medical District,” because so much has happened and is taking place. It will be a great, vibrant, prosperous, equitable place that people want to be and want to continue to live, work, learn and play.
Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development and healthcare for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com

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