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Former Orange Mound Fire Station to House Performing Arts Organization

Jordan Chatman (from left), Kylan Brown and Nia Smith crack up during a Young Actors Guild theater camp activity where the campers took turns acting out impromptu skits Monday, July 15, at Capleville United Methodist on Riverdale Road. The guild plans to operate its Harriet Performing Arts Center in a former Orange Mound fire station starting in 2021. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

The Young Actors Guild plans to operate its Harriet Performing Arts Center in a former fire station in Orange Mound when construction is completed in 2021.

That site, located at 2788 Lamar Ave., could have become a gas station and convenience store. A business owner offered to purchase the site from the city of Memphis for $307,000 to do so. 

But local citizens – and the city – said no.

Instead, Young Actors Guild purchased the property from the city for $1 on May 21 (effectively a donation). The youth theater and dance organization is hosting a groundbreaking on Thursday, July 18. 

The journey to the guild’s new performance home started more than a year ago when the Memphis City Council heard a resolution on July 24, 2018, requesting approval of the fire station’s sale to IG Management LLC.

IG Management was one of two bidders; the other developer also intended to build a gas station at the site.

The resolution stated that the former Fire Station No. 22 had been vacant since July 2010 and was in “great disrepair.”

Workforce Investment Network actually operated YouthBuild at that site for a few years. But after that ended, the city couldn’t find another municipal adaptive reuse for the site, said Division of General Services director Antonio Adams.

Per the resolution, proceeds from the sale would be applied to a capital improvement fund for city Fire Services and used to replace Fire Station No. 43 at 1235 E. Holmes Road in Whitehaven, as well as generate new tax revenue and eliminate blight and city maintenance costs.

Young Actors Guild dancers rehearse Monday, July 15, 2019, at Capleville United Methodist on Riverdale Road. The city of Memphis donated a former Orange Mound fire station to the organization, which plans to open a youth arts center there. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

IG Management’s letter of intent indicated the owner, Mahmoud Ghannam, had opened similar gas station operations at 2466 Jackson Ave., 3004 Overton Crossing St., 1474 S. Third St., and at 4029 Frayser Raleigh Road.

At that July council meeting, Jamita Swearengen, who represents the Orange Mound district and is up for re-election this year, said she was concerned about adding another convenience store to the intersection.

“This is a six-lane intersection that includes three streets,” she said. “Two sides of Lamar (Avenue), two sides of Kimball (Avenue), two sides of Pendleton (Street). It’s a very confusing intersection.”

Swearengen asked for a traffic study and that the matter be postponed. 

“It’s a very critical intersection and I cannot imagine another convenience store or service store being added,” she said. “I think it would be horrible.”

The resolution was held at several ensuing City Council meetings last year, before being dropped by General Services, its sponsor, on Oct. 23. 

Adams said opposition from citizens to a gas station going in at the site dates back to when Wanda Halbert represented the district. But it’s the division’s responsibility, he said, to find the highest or best use for properties it sells.

“The mayor made the decision to stand with Swearengen and donate the property (instead),” Adams said. “We felt that it was in our best interest and the community’s best interest.”

The city selling commercial property of that kind is rare, Adams said. On a weekly basis the city sells vacant lots. But he said there were only about 10 commercial properties in the city’s inventory.  

“The city of Memphis was very instrumental,” said Chrysti Chandler, founder and executive director of Young Actors Guild. “They let us know they support our vision.”

Chandler founded the organization in 1991. Its mission is to serve inner-city youth in Memphis and North Mississippi. It operates out of sites it leases in Uptown and Southaven, as well as donated space in a former South Memphis home.  

Laila Johnson couldn’t hold in her laughter while acting out a skit her friend made up on the spot at the Young Actors Guild summer camp Monday, July 15, 2019. The organization, which serves inner-city youths in Memphis and North Mississippi, will make the Harriet Performing Arts Center in Orange Mound its primary site when it opens in 2021. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

At the former fire station, Young Actors Guild plans to add a theater, dance studio and multipurpose area. Once construction is complete in 2021, the organization plans to use that as its primary site, but keep satellite sites for students who are unable to travel to the main location.

Executive director Sabrina Norwood said the guild has a lot of students in Orange Mound and Bethel Grove who have issues traveling to sites. The new space will allow students in those areas to attend more readily. Norwood said the guild serves between 375 and 400 annually, with 250 of those students being served during the summer. 

The new site means the organization won’t have to rent space at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, Buckman Performing Arts Center and University of Memphis’ Rose Theatre for events, and other spaces for summer camp.

The building will be named the Harriet Performing Arts Center in recognition of Harriet Tubman.

“It's named because her job was to lead over 300 slaves to freedom,” Norwood said. “Our job is to lead youth to freedom through the arts.”

Young Actors Guild will join other art organizations that have moved into Orange Mound in the last few years.

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