MLK50: Where do we go from here? Archie Willis

In a way, transforming South City – the area around what used to be Foote Homes – into something new is a return to the past for Archie Willis.

He grew up there with his mother, four siblings, and his father, Archie Walter “A.W.” Willis. Back then, South City was predominantly Black and that was predominantly because of segregation. Segregation also made South City a mixed-income neighborhood.

“We had all kinds of neighbors,” Willis says. “There were other professionals [like Willis’ father, a lawyer] and there were laborers, and teachers — just all sorts of professions. We all lived together and went to school together and went shopping together.”

This all changed after the 1950s. Those who could afford to move away did just that. When public housing moved in, South City (and other neighborhoods like it) became a “sea of poverty.” Gone was the middle class that could provide support and help to neighbors.

But when South City comes back over the next five years, it won’t look like the rows of brown institutional shelters that stand vacant now at Foote Homes. There will be a vibrant collection of apartment buildings with stores, green space, and community amenities. And hopefully these will bring back that mixed-income structure that Willis remembers from his youth.

“[The mixed-income model] provides a means of both mentoring and support, and opportunities for folks who may not be on the same economic scale to actually see other people in the neighborhood and interact with other people who are doing different kinds of things,” Willis says. “It goes back to what we had in the past, so it's difficult sometimes to make that a reality. Hopefully, in South City we can bring back some of that.”

That theme — the past informing the present and the future — has been a common one through Willis’ career, it seems.

Ernest Withers took the photo that hangs close to Willis’ desk in the Midtown office of his company, ComCap Partners. It shows several men in suits standing around a judge’s bench, trying to convince the judge to release some Civil Rights activists who had been arrested during a sit-in at a Memphis library. Benjamin Hooks stands in the middle with his hand on the judge’s desk. Standing close to him is a very young, bespectacled A.W. Willis.

A.W. Willis is remembered for many things, for working to desegregate the Memphis City Schools, or for being the first African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly since Reconstruction. He also gave his son, Archie Willis, his start in real estate. Willis got his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California and his MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he came back home to Memphis in 1981, he started with his father’s firm, Supreme Mortgage and Realty Co. His first task? Developing a 22-unit apartment building and office space in the then-desolate South Main neighborhood.

“My dad was a bit of a visionary and he was pretty good at being ahead of his time in many respects,” Willis says. “So, we developed the apartment building that’s on the corner of what’s now MLK Boulevard and Main Street.”

Though he admits that he “really didn’t know what I was doing at the time,” Willis also admits that his father’s vision paid off. South Main with its Chisca Hotel and the long stretch of empty South Main warehouses has been converted into one of the hottest real estate markets in Memphis.

Archie’s father passed away in 1988 at age 63, leaving no real transition plan for the business. So Willis went to work for Morgan Keegan, working in public financing. He worked with government clients like the City of Memphis and others in Atlanta and Jackson, Mississippi. Many of those clients worked with Willis on affordable housing, which he says is an issue that is “in my heart.”

“I was introduced to [affordable housing issues] back with my dad. Even then, you could see the great need and it’s one that hasn’t been really addressed X number of years later,” Willis says. “Back then, we had totally segregated neighborhoods and African Americans were in a difficult time and in need of financing for home ownership.”

After many years with Morgan Keegan, Willis was able to do something else close to his heart: he started his own company. Growing up, entrepreneurship was natural, he says. His family knew so many people who owned their own businesses.

“My goal was to get back into the space of affordable housing, and to be able to control my own destiny without having to work within an organized structure,” Willis says.

He launched Community Capital in 1999. The name was chosen, Willis says, to reflect his goal of bridging the gap “between what was happening in the neighborhoods and communities with resources available in the capital market.” The company rebranded as ComCap Partners in 2016.

Willis has built and rebuilt plenty of Memphis through his company. He helped The Works CDC build the Alpha Renaissance Apartments in South Memphis and teamed up with Memphis developers Henry Turley and Belz Enterprises to rebuild Uptown.

He’s helped to flip so much of the city’s old housing projects into those mixed-income developments he likes, just like what is planned for South City. He’s also working with Turley to transform Central Station, the city’s 104-year-old train station, into apartments, a hotel, and a campus that includes green spaces, transportation options, and a seven-screen Malco theater.

Memphis Magazine - April 5, 2018

~Toby Sells