Corps of Engineers intends to leave federal building, eventually

By Updated: May 15, 2019 5:28 AM CT | Published: May 14, 2019 1:12 PM CT

A major tenant of the Downtown Memphis federal building –the Army Corps of Engineers – intends to move out.

But when the corps will leave Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building and to where in Memphis it will move are questions the federal agency continues to grapple with as it has for years.

Jim Pogue likens the energy behind the relocation project as “a kind of steady movement right now. No special sense of urgency, but sort of a sense of inevitability.”

He is the longtime spokesman for the corps’ Memphis District, which has 200-250 personnel headquartered at the 11-story building at 167 N. Main.

The corps also operates its Ensley Engineer Yard, a marine maintenance facility at 2915 Riverport, and employs about 480 total in the Memphis District.

In the federal building, the corps occupies the fifth, sixth and seventh floors as well as parts of other floors. The other major tenants are the federal courts and supporting offices.

The Corps of Engineers works primarily to keep the Mississippi River navigable and floodwaters from causing damage. A support staff that includes biologists, archaeologists, attorneys, financial managers and others helps with the work.

The Memphis District stretches from Cairo, Illinois, on the north to the mouth of the White River in Arkansas on the south.

Reasons for move

A move has been on the federal government’s radar for many years, especially since the domestic-terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

 The Memphis federal building meets neither the post-Oklahoma City security standards nor the seismic standards for the New Madrid fault earthquake zone.

The government has been forced to corrupt the architecture because of threats that include domestic terrorism.

The grand entrance off the Civic Center Plaza offers six double-doors under a canopy, and all are closed to the public. Signs direct visitors to walk 80 yards south behind City Hall, down the steps to Front Street and into the federal building's rear, basement entrance.

The International-style building also strains to accommodate modern technology. The building was completed in 1963 when lamps were about the only device workers plugged in at their desks, Pogue said.

Why a move hasn’t yet happened

Some Memphis commercial real estate professionals have long been aware of the corps’ intention to move. For some, the project has experienced so many false starts that it conjures up the theme from the fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

One theory is that the project suffers from a lack of continuity. The colonel in charge of the Memphis District changes every three years.

Pogue says he understands the perception, but adds, “I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.”

The move has been a consistent intention through the years and the colonels do hand off the project to their successors, Pogue said.

Such a move cannot happen quickly; it has to be plugged into the corps’ budget request. “It’s got a lot of moving parts,” he said. “A lot of things have to fall in place.”

And life happens. “There are things we do here that can really seize somebody’s attention, be it Hurricane Katrina or the 2011 flood or the flood we just came through,” Pogue said.

“These kinds of things play more heavily on the leadership’s time sometimes.”

Possible destinations

Corps officials in Memphis have only to look out the window to see the source of their main missions:  The Mississippi River.  

“If we can go to the window and look out and see the river, it’s kind of a tangible connection for us.”
Jim Pogue, Corps of Engineers Memphis District spokesman

Ideally, any move by the agency would stay close to the river.

“If we can go to the window and look out and see the river, it’s kind of a tangible connection for us,” Pogue said. “… When the river is up, you can see it almost to the levee in Arkansas. When it’s low, you can see the shoals. And you can see the tows and our vessels going up and down.”

But practically, the corps may not be able to afford a river view.

“There is a desire to (stay by the river), but I’m not sure that will be able to happen,” Pogue said. “Simply because the real estate Downtown here is pretty hot. Price-wise, just finding a spot would be a challenge, let alone the cost that would go into that.”

The new location must meet the standoff limits – the distance between a possible explosion from unscreened traffic and the building – as well as seismic code and the parking needs of employees, Pogue said.

The Corps of Engineers could either lease space if it finds the right location, or it could build an office building, he said.

'Going to happen'

“Our boss was talking yesterday and said, ‘It’s going to happen,’” Pogue said of the move. “It’s a matter of when the funding comes through.”

Some other agencies that used to operate in the federal building already have moved out, including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) offices.

The easiest solution would be for the General Services Administration – the landlord of the federal building – to retrofit the structure for seismic and security, Pogue said. “I’m sure cost is a big factor” in preventing such a retrofit construction project, he said.


Commercial Real Estate Corps of Engineers Federal Building Clifford Davis/Odell Horton Federal Building Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey covers business news for The Daily Memphian. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He's worked in journalism for 40 years and has lived in Midtown for 36 years.

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