by Frank Murtaugh
Alex Turley is a Memphian. But a Memphian with perspective sharpened by his days in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, not to mention a college semester in Ireland (where he happened to meet his wife, a native of Phoenix). A city’s dynamics — how it breathes, functions, and grows — are now Turley’s tool kit as vice president of real estate at Henry Turley Company. His understanding of how other cities thrive, though, has come to enhance Turley’s skills with that tool kit.
“I spent my childhood back-and-forth, between Memphis [where his dad lives] and D.C. [his mom’s home],” says Turley. “I’m glad I had that experience, living in different places. I actually spent my sophomore year of high school in D.C. [before graduating from Christian Brothers High School in 1997]. Those experiences made me who I am today.
“It was a very different time, my childhood in Memphis,” continues Turley. “I lived in the Evergreen district, in the 1980s. All those homes had been demolished to make way for the interstate, which was going to go through Overton Park. It was all fields. There was an abandoned quality to it, which is a pretty fun place to be as a kid. We’d pull up manhole covers and walk through the tunnels under the city. There was always a band of us on bikes. I remember riding from Evergreen to Downtown when I was 11 years old. It was abandoned, too. Pre-Harbor Town. Nobody was living down here. Beale Street was just beginning to capture attention as a tourist destination.”
Turley embraced life in D.C. every bit as much as his Memphis adventures, cultivating his talents as a hip-hop deejay (“Capital A”) in the nation’s capital. As though two distinct regions weren’t enough to shape him as a young adult, Turley attended college at DePaul where he studied political science in the heart of the Windy City. “Chicago continued my educational process,” says Turley. “My friends from college were locals. I got to really immerse myself in that city and its culture. It’s the quintessential American city. The neighborhoods were changing, so I got to see the gentrification, the phasing out of public housing. My studies being focused on urban politics and urban sociology, I learned a lot. I had the benefit of leaving Memphis, to appreciate the opportunities we have in this city.”
Before joining Henry Turley Company in 2014 (Henry is Alex’s uncle), Turley spent a decade with CBRE Memphis as a retail broker. He managed the brokerage and asset services for the likes of Kroger, Target, Walgreens, Starbucks, and First Tennessee. You’ve heard of the final account Turley handled for CBRE. “I thought IKEA was a good account to transition on,” says Turley. “There’s not a better retailer, as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity for our city.”
Turley is now tasked with overseeing the acquisition, development, sales, and leasing of Henry Turley Company’s commercial portfolio. It’s more than connecting businesses with buildings, or buildings with street corners. Fundamentally, Turley emphasizes, his role is that of nurturing community.
“Everything we do takes five, seven, ten years,” says Turley. “As a broker, it was how many deals are you working at any given time? How many contracts are you executing? Here, we’re playing long ball. I want to make a difference in our city. Growing up, I was always inspired by Henry’s work. Seeing what Henry was doing with Harbor Town and South Bluffs and South Main was inspiring. When we evaluate how we’re spending our time, we first ask, ‘Will it make the city better?’”
St. Jude’s ongoing expansion and the move downtown by ServiceMaster are significant opportunities for further development of the city’s most distinctive sector. “St. Jude creates every kind of job you can think of,” notes Turley. “We have an opportunity to develop inclusively. Uptown’s our closest model for what we can see occurring on a larger scale. We have an opportunity to seamlessly connect downtown, Uptown, South City, and the Medical District. Think about that. We have the benefit of affordability, so we can build a different kind of city. Neighborhoods thrive around these economic generators.”
The possibilities invigorate Turley, and call to mind the leadership qualities he most admires in his uncle. “Henry set out to repopulate downtown,” says Turley. “If a city doesn’t have a healthy and thriving downtown, you don’t have a healthy city. He’s a thoughtful and very perceptive person. Seeing how relentless he’s been in the pursuit to make our city better has inspired me. He keeps his eye on the ball. And Henry has a financial sixth sense. Our developments have to be something a bank would finance, but that’s not what drives us or motivates us. We develop communities, and continue to manage beyond property lines. That’s what separates us from others.”
Turley and his wife, Mindy, live in Midtown with their two children. Fatherhood tends to reshape one’s definition of leadership, but for Turley, it remains a matter of community outreach. “I’ve been trying to be a connector,” he says. “It’s about helping others in their questions and pursuits around civic endeavors and development. Being a resource for people, and doing the small things well. The South End Improvement Alliance is an example. You can’t rebuild a neighborhood by yourself. You have to collaborate.”
Memphis is not Washington, D.C. It’s not Chicago. The ripple effect of visionary development can be greater here, if for no other reason than the city’s relatively small population. “The scale of our city invites people to really make a difference,” says Turley. “We’ve seen that in action over the last few years.”
And impact is needed. Turley notes the pervasive challenge Memphis faces, the factor that weighs, to some degree, on every development, however visionary it may be. “We have a high poverty rate,” he says. “If we don’t change the trajectory by improving people’s lives, connecting them to these economic opportunities . . . .
“Schools are the biggest factor in realizing sustainable neighborhood redevelopment,” says Turley. “And with all the positives, we’re still a poor city. But we see that as an opportunity. It goes back to inclusive development. We can rebuild our city — from the river to Crosstown, from Chelsea to Crump — where we intentionally set out to rebuild for everyone. The economic drivers are St. Jude and the Medical District, along with the convention center and our hospitality industry.”
In gazing forward, Turley acknowledges the challenge of attracting young leaders to the Bluff City. “In recruiting millennials,” he says, “we’re competing with Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York. We have the opportunity to heal from within as a city. Considering all the positive opportunities we have today, if we don’t use that to reverse our trends in regard to poverty, access, and inclusivity . . . well, we don’t have a choice.”
So the development of a new Memphis continues, with a downtown unlike any other in the United States. As it turns out, the vision requires more than one Turley.
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