Monday, October 31, 2005

Chicago Shows How To Use Grand, New Park To Gain International Attention

From Boston Globe:

There's something for everyone at the beautiful, civilized Millennium Park

CHICAGO -- This city's new Millennium Park is the best urban public park I've ever seen, anywhere, and that includes some famed ones in places like Rotterdam and Paris.

The downside for Bostonians comes when you compare it to what we can expect on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is apparently going to be mostly grass, trees, paths, and two or three isolated cultural institutions.

Millennium Park is much too big and wonderful to be fully described here. Suffice it to say that it boasts a fountain, Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa, that smiles and frowns (yes, literally, from 50-foot-tall LED displays) while it plays games with you by spurting water in unexpected ways and places. There's an amazing sculpture, the ''Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, which virtually hypnotizes everyone who looks at it. There's a brilliant outdoor performance pavilion, the Pritzker Pavilion, by California architect Frank Gehry. And much, much more.

Best of all, Millennium Park is a true commons. People of every age and ethnicity un-self-consciously merge and mix. The location is as public as public gets. Lake Michigan is on one side, the downtown Loop is on another. The Art Institute of Chicago is across the street. Oh, yes, and there's an underground parking garage under most of the park.

Rather than go on listing merits, I'll describe just one small feature that can stand for the others. This is the Bicycle Station. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the park, it's a building where you can park your bike in a 300-space heated room (there are thoughtful little gutters along the stairs, so you can easily walk your bike up and down), change your clothes at a private locker, rent a bike (it will have a map in the handlebar bag), get your own bike repaired, buy a helmet or other equipment, take a shower after your ride, nosh at the snack bar, and sun yourself on outdoor lounge chairs in an enclosed patio. The price? A dollar a day.

The Bicycle Station also markets itself, pointing out to employers that employees who bike to work take fewer sick days and help the company convey ''a green, money-smart, people-oriented image." You can check it out at

You'd think such a place would have to be in Copenhagen or Tokyo. But no. This amazingly civilized amenity is right here in the rowdy, ungovernable USA.

The real question, for a Bostonian, is how can Chicago pull off something so fantastic --Millennium Park cost half a billion dollars -- where we Bostonians always seem to be quarreling over what species of tree to plant.

Whomever you ask, the answer begins with the mayor, Richard M. Daley. It turns out the mayor is a devoted bicyclist. His ambition, says a friend, is someday to bicycle across America. And he reads. Mark Schuster, an MIT professor of city planning who spent a year in Chicago, says: ''He's always searching for new ideas for the city. He reads voraciously. Almost every day he sends some magazine clip to his aides with a memo that says: 'We need one of these.' And he has good rapport with the foundations and the corporate community. They consider Chicago to be a museum of architecture to be curated."

I checked with the godfather of Chicago architects, Stanley Tigerman, and asked why we can't do it in Boston. ''Everybody in the East is worded to death," he says. ''Chicago is not an intellectual place. We're blue collar Czechs and Polacks. 'I will' is the city's motto. The park was three or four years late and $150 million over budget, but the money was raised privately. For the city, it's a win-win. The entire population of Chicago comes here. The fountain is packed wall to wall with kids every day, many of them from the suburbs. Foreigners come from Terre Haute, [Ind.]. The restaurant is minting money, and the towel concession makes more money than I will in my life."

The more you talk to Chicagoans, the more you're impressed with what can only be called civic patriotism. Millennium Park's chief fund-raiser, on the private side, was John Bryan, a retired CEO of Sara Lee. Bryan raised $240 million; the city and state kicked in $260 million. How did Bryan do it?

''Originally, the idea was just a parking lot with 'enhancements' on top," Bryan says. ''But the mayor gave the private sector a license to figure out and create the enhancements. We wrapped a civic cloak around the project. We said it would be an iconic symbol of the city. It would define Chicago as a place where art and design are alive, one of the greatest in the world. We wanted the best architects and artists the world had to offer. The strategy was to seek the enhancements first, and then look for sponsorship. There are nine sponsors for the nine principal enhancements.

''We made it seem that donating to the park was joining a club. We said the price of membership was a million dollars, not a dollar more or a dollar less. Some people we hadn't contacted called and asked if they could join. There are 106 members, and we gather annually on the stage at the Pritzker Pavilion. We had a small maquette made of the ''Cloud Gate," with the donors' names on it.

''Altogether we raised 30 million more than we spent. We've kept that as a fund for maintenance and programming. A lot of programming is important at this early stage. Everything is free. We provide the only free outdoor classical concerts in the country."

Boston no longer has so many locally owned businesses of the kind that might feel a patriotic attachment to the city. Most of the major corporations in Boston, including the Globe, are now owned out of town. Does this make a difference?

Bryan doesn't think so. He believes Chicago's kind of enthusiasm is universal. ''People like to show they've been successful, that they've given a free park to the people of the city," he says.

Chicago, though, is unique when it comes to architecture. ''The project kept evolving, it kept getting more courageous," says Donna Robertson, dean of architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. ''Chicago has so much appreciation of architecture in all income levels."

The park has a board and a three-person staff, plus volunteers. It's Millennium Park, Inc. The executive director is Ed Euler, an architect who previously shepherded the project for the city. ''We think it's the greatest outdoor music facility in the world," says Euler. (Eat dirt, Tanglewood.) ''We do 50 free concerts every summer, all kinds -- gospel, classical, world cultures. Two and half to 3 million people are coming each year, including many foreign visitors -- it's been widely publicized.

''Basically, the public built the infrastructure [the underground garage and its covering] and private donors built the surface. The money came from folks and businesses who made their fortunes in Chicago and who then want to give back. Giving back is just in their blood. It's always been that way."

Euler says it's estimated that the park will increase surrounding real estate values by $1.2 billion. As a result, the city was able to arrange tax increment financing.

Boston can raise plenty of money for private institutions like Harvard or the MFA. It doesn't, though, seem to possess the patriotic love of public works that you find in Chicago. It doesn't help, either, that the Rose Kennedy Greenway has been planned and managed by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Who wants to donate to a Turnpike Authority?

Chicago and its mayor have mastered the art of marrying private wealth and public power. It's an act we can learn from.

P.S. On the same visit to Chicago, I arranged a tour of the new Soldier Field by the owner of the Bears, Mike McCaskey. The designers were Boston architects Wood and Zapata. Soldier Field -- also in a downtown waterfront park -- is as inventive and terrific as Gillette Stadium is timid and predictable. I hope we're not seeing a trend here.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Atlanta Looks To Expand Its Parks While Memphis And Shelby County Go The Other Way

From New York Times:

An 'Emerald Necklace' May Grace Urban Atlanta

City leaders are looking to transform an abandoned 22-mile railroad loop into a civic jewel of parks and public transit.

ATLANTA — Kudzu smothers the old steel tracks. Broken bottles, chairs and grills litter the gray wooden crossties, and rusty chain-link fencing flanks each side. But the derelict railroad that circles the city may have a bright future — one bustling with joggers, cyclists and commuters.

Atlanta's civic leaders envision the bleak alleyway as a lush "emerald necklace" of trails, parks and public transit, a jewel that could transform a poster child of sprawl into the archetypal city of the 21st century.

The massive redevelopment plan — known as the Beltline — would convert the 22-mile loop into a paved trail and streetcar line linking 45 historic neighborhoods and creating more than 1,200 acres of parkland. The proposal has captured the imagination of many in the city and has sparked a rash of real estate deals.

But formidable political and financial hurdles will need to be cleared for the project to move forward.

Among them is a vote by the Atlanta City Council on Nov. 7 on whether to establish a tax district designed to raise nearly $1.7 billion to fund the Beltline. If approved, property taxes collected on new developments in the district would be earmarked to pay for the parks, transit and trails. Total cost of the project is estimated from $2 billion to $3 billion.

The Beltline has a good chance of becoming reality — eight of Atlanta's 15 council members are sponsoring the legislation.

"The Beltline would make Atlanta a new kind of city," said Alexander Garvin, professor of planning and management at Yale University and president of Alex Garvin & Associates, a New York design team. "The transformation would be staggering."

Garvin, who analyzed the Beltline's green space potential last year, has been impressed with the vision of Atlanta's officials. "No other city has this momentum," he said.

Atlanta's opportunity is unusual. After the Civil War, the city built a railroad around its industrial outskirts, enabling freight trains to transport the South's cotton to the world.

Atlanta is now framed by highways, which lead to suburb after suburb. Of the 4.7 million people who live in metropolitan Atlanta, fewer than 500,000 live in the city.

With Atlanta's metropolitan population predicted to increase by 2.3 million by 2030, the city's mayor, Shirley Franklin, has identified the Beltline as a way to steer economic development toward the urban core.

An unlikely coalition of city officials, private investors, community leaders and environmental groups have rallied behind the Beltline, an idea first proposed by an architecture student at Georgia Tech.

Ryan Gravel, who developed the concept for his master's thesis in 1999, works for the Beltline Partnership — a steering committee set up by the mayor — honing the physical design of the loop and helping to build public support.

Gravel says that every time he tours the Beltline he notices shifts in the urban landscape: a new row of town homes near Enota Park, a sleek restaurant in Old Fourth Ward. "The growth is already coming," he said. In the last year, he's seen new single-family homes sprout up in derelict commercial lots, selling for as much as $300,000.

But the Beltline faces many unresolved questions.

In September, a panel of transportation experts issued a report saying that large portions of the loop — particularly the low-density, low-income neighborhoods in the west — do not have sufficient ridership to support trains or trolleys.

Nevertheless, conservation groups are racing to secure land ahead of developers.

"This is one of our top national priorities," said James Langford, Georgia's director of the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group that recently paid $4.4 million to secure 4 1/2 acres around the Beltline. "We have to jump in and purchase this land before it's too late."

Langford said the Beltline created an opportunity for a new public realm. "Suddenly, we would have a connected green system that we could add to for the next 100 years," he said.

The race between environmentalists and developers highlights the different — often competing — visions of the Beltline. Some enthuse about the green trails and public transport, while others focus on adjacent development. Many residents realize that their concept of the Beltline differs from their neighbors' idea.

"This is the most important planning event Atlanta has ever had," said Liz Coyle, a resident of the Virginia-Highland neighborhood who set up the Beltline Neighbors Coalition, which hopes to curtail mega-development. "If we do not get it right, it will be chaos."

Last year, a suburban real estate developer, Wayne Mason, bought 70 acres of the northeast portion of the Beltline corridor. He pledged to donate half the land to the city but residents are concerned about what will happen with the remaining 35 acres.

In June, a real estate firm submitted a rezoning application for two high-rise condo towers — 38 and 39 stories tall — to be built above Piedmont Park, Atlanta's largest green space.

Nearby residents were aghast. "Can you imagine a tower throwing your house into shadows for the rest of its life?" Coyle asked.

Dense urban development is a tricky proposition in Atlanta, where landscaped bungalows dating as far back as the late 1800s sit within walking distance of the urban core.

Keith Mason, Wayne Mason's son and a principal in his Northeast Atlanta Beltline Group, believes it is time for Atlanta to embrace density: "This is a watershed development for Atlanta," he said. "The question is: Do we grow up or do we grow out?"

Deborah Bauer, a resident of the affluent Piedmont Heights neighborhood, supports the Beltline in principle. She works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and would love to see Atlanta become a more walkable community, but her 1920s bungalow backs up to the area the Masons want to develop.

Now she is worried that the Beltline will get a green light before she understands how it will change her neighborhood. "I understand development is necessary," she said, "but this is the one area that really doesn't need development."

Some neighborhoods on the proposed Beltline loop are crying out for development.

In Bankhead — where 83% of the residents are black and the median household income is $25,537 — many stores are vacant, their parking lots sprouting weeds and scattered with glass.

Many residents did not seem to know about the Beltline's proposal to convert 400 acres around nearby Bellwood Quarry into a park and lake.

Robert D. Bullard, a sociology professor and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, is skeptical of the Beltline's claim to link neighborhoods and foster diversity. He said the proposal represented a tourist-orientated marketing campaign that made no attempt to transport poor African Americans without cars to work.

"There is so much attention on this sexy new transit system," he said, "but the people who are pushing the Beltline have been silent — conspicuously silent — on the devastation of MARTA."

The Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority — Atlanta's main public transit system — is chronically underfunded and recently warned that its $53-million reserve would be depleted in four years unless it cut employees' salaries.

"Transit is perceived in this region as being for losers and poor people and black people," Bullard said. "The political reality is that the Beltline has to be sold as something that's non-black and backed by the business community."

The Beltline Partnership believes its project could strengthen MARTA by pumping thousands of new passengers into the transit system.

Though Gravel acknowledges that the Beltline could end up creating a circle of privilege in the urban area — raising home prices and pushing poor African Americans to the suburbs — he says gentrification is happening anyway.

At least, he says, the Beltline Partnership's redevelopment plan will attempt to distribute growth equally, setting up 12 development nodes in the rich and poor areas of the Beltline.

"This is just the beginning," Gravel says. "Atlanta is adolescent but we're growing up, and we're learning how to build our city in a smart way."

Friday, October 28, 2005

Diversity Is About Seeing The World In More Than Black And White

Yesterday, Leadership Memphis concentrated on a provocative question, “What Makes a Great City?” and it heard from a highly informative panel of five local leaders, from a noted national urban observer, and from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, named as one of Time’s five best mayors in the U.S.

Opinions were personal, impassioned and always illuminating. The question was answered with examples of great cities, lists of cities’ unique assets and the fundamental essence of greatness. One of the threads that held all of the answers together was this – the richness found in ethnic diversity.

Whether panelists were talking about Indian neighborhoods in New York or Japanese neighborhoods in San Francisco or African-American neighborhoods in Atlanta, there was a consensus that the variety of ethnic experiences that can be engaged in a city is one of its most potent forces for greatness.

It is just common sense these days that multi-cultural diversity is a competitive advantage in a world economy characterized by its mind-boggling diversity. Whether calling the Dell computer help desk and talking to a technician in India, calling customer service for a New York City company and talking to someone in England, or eating in the FedEx World Headquarters cafeteria which harkens to the United Nations food court, it is increasingly clear that diversity is a fact of life in today’s marketplace.

It is equally clear that sometimes, Memphis actually runs from the diversity that has the potential to be a distinctive strength. Rather than tell the world that we are a minority majority city, our economic development strategies skirt away from our African-American majority.

We continue to do so at our peril, because instead, we need to embrace our diversity and tell the world that if they want to compete in a diverse world economy, there is no better place from which to do it than Memphis, because we were diverse before diverse was cool.

And while diversity in Memphis is normally defined in terms of white and black, it’s time to expand the circle.

That’s because in the Memphis region, the number of different languages being spoken is 55. Let’s say it again. When families gather in their own homes tonight, there are 55 different languages being spoken in the Memphis metro.

Who would have imagined?

The first 10 are relatively easy – English, Spanish, French, German, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Tagalong and Italian.

Then, things get more interesting. The second 10 are Russian, Hindi, Gujarathi, Japanese, Mon-Khmer, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Urdu and Laotian.

And that’s not even half way through the list. To get there, add Telugu, Kru, Tamil, Portugese, Bengali, Cushite, Polish and Amharic.

They are followed by Mandarin, Thai, Dutch, Yiddish, Indian, Kannada, African, Hungarian, Kurdish, Serbocroatian, Cantonese and Fulani.

That brings the number to 40. By now the number of people speaking each language is only in the double digits, but still they come – Swahili, Formosan, Malayalam, Turkish, French Creole, Swedish, Marathi, Panjabi, Gullah and Norwegian.

The final five are Slovak, Croatian, Ukrainian, Patoil and Irish Gaelic.

No, Memphis is not Los Angeles, which has the highest number of languages – 137, but it’s a long way from the homogenized black and white image of Memphis that many of us carry around.

In other words, it is not accurate to continue to describe our diversity in terms of Caucasians and African-Americans. In doing so, we exclude 62,000 people of various ethnic backgrounds who deserve the chance to be part of the civic conversation and decision-making. In embracing all of these ethnic cultures and traditions, we enrich our city and contribute in a direct way to a more expansive world view that serves our city well as it addresses its problems and its opportunities.

“Many languages, one Memphis” is a theme that all of us should adopt, and as a panelist suggested today, Memphis needs to celebrate Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and other ethnic occasions as citywide celebrations, because in doing so, we make our city more vibrant, more appealing, and yes, more fascinating.

In doing this, we also tear down the walls that separate us from ourselves. If the Hispanic community reports that it feels disenfranchised and it is our second most spoken language in Memphis, just imagine the feelings of disengagement felt by the Cambodian community.

But we need more than celebrations. We need also to connect these ethnic groups to the American Dream. One way to start is for the City of Memphis to change the language of its minority purchasing program which now says that the only group that is considered as a minority group are people with roots in Africa. It was a way to address the lack of business opportunities in the African-American community, a noble goal, but in writing the rules in this way, it fuels an “us versus them” mentality that only hurts Memphis’ future.

In defining minorities in an Africa-centric way, city government even eliminated any black Memphians from Caribbean countries, much less disregarded the needs of the array of ethnic groups that now call Memphis home.

If Memphis wants to send the message that it is ethnically and racially diverse, the first sign of a truly diverse Memphis would be to define minorities as broadly as possible to give all minority communities equal access to entrepreneurial opportunities.

Nashville Mayor Wraps Up His Legacy In Two Terms

From Nashville Tennessean:

Mayor Bill Purcell set about the business of establishing his legacy yesterday, telling his cabinet to use the next 22 months to "get 'er done" on sidewalks, courthouse renovations and the other major projects of his administration.

Twenty-two months, the time he has left as mayor of Nashville, is plenty for them not only to finish all those projects but to cut the ribbons, Purcell told city department heads and mayoral aides at a lunchtime huddle with them yesterday.

It was the mayor's first meeting with his top city officials since announcing Saturday that he would not seek a third term. That move unlocks the floodgates for 2007's mayoral race, removing an incumbent who pulled down 84% of the vote in his last race.

Purcell, a lawyer by trade, has not said what he will do after his term is up but said he has ruled out running for governor or U.S. Senate next year. He turns 52 today and has led Nashville since 1999.

"I have given no thought to what I would do after" the mayoral term is up, Purcell told the group yesterday. Purcell told his department heads yesterday that even as the contest for City Hall hits a fever pitch in the coming months, they should maintain independence from all the political noise and focus their energies on running the city.

In a well-received reference to comedian Larry the Cable Guy, Purcell told his key staff they could "get 'er done," though he also told them it wouldn't be a cakewalk.

"For us to get it done in 22 months is going to require the same level of sustained focus, and in some cases a little more," Purcell said.

In round-robin fashion, his department heads committed to opening Public Square near the historic courthouse downtown, connecting east Nashville to Pennington Bend by a pedestrian bridge and building a new Head Start facility in south Nashville, as well as numerous other projects:

Public Works head Billy Lynch said his department would make all sidewalk ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as required by a 2000 Justice Department suit against the city. Based on the suit, the deadline for completion is the end of this year, a Public Works spokeswoman said in a later interview. After that's worked out, Lynch told Purcell, more sidewalks. Purcell has made neighborhood issues like sidewalks the hallmark of his time as mayor. He set up an Office of Neighborhoods, and that focus was apparent yesterday as numerous department heads talked about how their staff would work harder at the grass-roots level over the next two years. The new Head Start facility, on Cotton Lane, will be the first built from the ground up by the city, Purcell said, after a long history of that program inheriting the left-over physical plants that other city agencies did not want or could no longer use.

The Codes Department will put an online system in place that will allow people to look up derelict properties on the Web and find out how many inspections the city has made there and whether new permits are pending on the land, director Terry Cobb said. That will come online in the next few months, Cobb said in a later interview. "What we're trying to develop is a system where the information and the process is completely transparent," he said.

Public Works plans to expand recycling convenience centers to the outer ring of the county. Currently those centers, which are equipped for furniture, refrigerator, and other large-item drop-off, are only in the inner part of the city, or the Urban Services District.

The renovation of Church Street will be finished in November, said Lynch.

Parks Director Roy Wilson said his department would finish connecting Shelby Bottoms to Two Rivers Park via a pedestrian bridge, build nature/visitors centers at three parks and Fort Negley and open a Donelson soccer complex.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The City's Budget Crisis Calls For Honest Answers

City government has dug a financial hole that an elephant could fall into, and that’s only fitting, because there is an elephant in the room every time the city’s budgetary collapse is discussed.

First, the hole. With this week’s announcement that the deficit for the fiscal year is two and half times larger than announced just two months ago, it’s becoming clearer that before it’s over, the “errors” to which Mayor Herenton referred Tuesday will be about $60 million.

These have to be the most uncomfortable events in the life of the Memphis mayor, who is thinking about gutting the city’s entire financial procedures and starting over. And while it sounds drastic, it is also probably realistic.

It’s hard to believe that it was little more than two years ago, in June, 2003, that City Council adopted a budget without a tax increase after Mayor Herenton said, “I am truly proud of our fiscal accomplishments and want to thank the Director of Finance Joseph Lee and his outstanding staff for the work they do.”

Ten months later, in April, 2004, in presenting his next year’s budget to the Council, the mayor said: “It is a balanced budget that requires no tax increase. And it uses only $2 million of our reserves…More importantly, we are continuing our efforts to upgrade our credit rating thanks to the leadership of Joseph Lee, our exemplary Finance Division Director.”

Two months later, Joseph Lee was nominated as president of Memphis Light Gas & Water Division by Mayor Herenton and approved by City Council on a 7-5 vote.

Within weeks, the city’s finances began unraveling, and just before Christmas, Mayor Herenton notified City Council that Memphis’ budget was off by $28 million. By April, he recommended a 54 cent tax increase, saying, “We do not have a management problem. We have a revenue problem.”

In August, two months after the budget was approved, Keith McGee told the City Council that the budget has been found to be $10.3 million in the red. And this week, we were told that the deficit isn’t $10.3 million; it’s actually $25.8 million.

In making this politically damaging announcement, the mayor told City Council: “There were some accounting errors that were made. Reports were not accurate and they did not conform to accounting standards.”

As a result of this financial crash, Memphis’s budgets are in a shambles and its fund balance, its so-called “rainy day fund,” is effectively gutted.

Worst of all for him, Mayor Herenton finds himself in an untenable political position, largely because he has been forced to violate one of the basic precepts of politics – when you dump crap, dump it all at once.

Instead, the financial catastrophe for city government dribbles out month after month in a way that has destroyed one of the mayor’s proudest accomplishments – the financial management of city government. In previous years’ debates about consolidation of the governments, finances were always Memphis’ trump card. While the county’s debt was climbing and its finances were inexorably worsening, Memphis city government was steady, tax increases were rare and bond ratings were strong.

But those days are now over.

Which brings up the elephant in the room – Joseph Lee.

Mayor Herenton is in an untenable political position. If, as he says, the previous finance team is responsible for the current crisis, does that include Joseph Lee, who he hand-picked to head up Memphis Light, Gas & Water? If it does include Mr. Lee, does that change the mayor’s confidence in him as president of our utility company? If it does change the mayor’s confidence, what does that portend for Mr. Lee and MLG&W?

Whatever your opinion about Joseph Lee’s appointment, it does him a disservice to pretend like the questions don’t exist. There is no more personable guy than Mr. Lee. Rumblings that he is responsible for the city’s financial house of cards must be answered, and they need to be answered with the facts. If he was responsible, it's out in the open where it won't fester and it can be dealt with, and if he was not, he needs to have his name cleared. Either way, it is a better situation than exists now.

Only then will there be the accountability that lies at the heart of a well-run government. And only with accountability will the public’s trust rebuilt. So far, Robert Lipscomb, new city chief financial officer, seems determined to root out the problems and report them in detail to the Council (and by extension, to the public). Over the years, in his public service, Mr. Lipscomb has been known for telling it like it is and for his openness, and here’s hoping that he does it in the post mortem of this disaster with a candid, honest airing of what caused the current problems, what specific mistakes were made and who made them.

That would be a strong first step in addressing the only thing more serious than the damage to the city’s financial health – the damage to the public’s confidence in its own city government.

In addition to determining what went wrong, Mr. Lipscomb and his team will also be trying to cut spending and increase revenues. A review of what other cities are doing around the U.S. gives clues as to what Mr. Lipscomb may be thinking about.

On the expenditure side, the most popular strategies to control expenditures are:

• Hiring freezes

• Targeted cuts

• Postponed capital expenditures

• Across the board cuts

• Travel freezes

• Deferred maintenance

• Employee layoffs

• Reduced employee benefits

• Early retirements

Some cities, rather than look to efficiency studies for answers, have looked to their own employees. Austin, Texas, set up a comprehensive employee cost-cutting program, and its employees submitted more than 4,000 suggestions over two years that produced $10 million in spending cuts and new revenues. Oakland, California, had a shutdown of non-essential services of city government for 12 days, saving more than $2 million.

However, one tendency of local governments caught in a budget vise is to look within for answers. Surprisingly, few cities use their budget crises to be innovative, entering into interlocal agreements with other governments to deliver services more economically, to contract out services or to pursue privatization. Rather, most city governments turn to time-worn answers like the reorganization of its departments and performance measures for pay raises.

On the revenue side of the ledger, things are even more problematic. With no payroll or income tax, city government’s options are largely limited to increasing fees and creating new fees. In other cities, these fees have run the gamut from golf course greens fees to parking meters, to burglar alarm fees to false alarm fees, and solid waste removal fees to sewage fees. In St. Paul, Minnesota, city government produces $6 million in revenue with a right of way maintenance assessment program that includes patching city streets, snow plowing, sidewalk maintenance and tree maintenance. Meanwhile, Las Vegas has taken the unusual approach to charging higher income neighborhoods higher fees than lower income neighborhoods.

Then, Memphis also has not capped out its local sales tax option, which would produce enough money to handle the city’s problems for years, but getting public approval for that is as likely as Dr. Kevorkian being honored at a Focus on the Family banquet.

In a recent survey of city officials, the majority said they would like the option of adopting a new tax source. Of course, to city officials, that’s like supporting motherhood. The predictable problem is overcoming taxpayer opposition, and that would be even more difficult in Memphis. Now, the lack of confidence by voters that Memphis is able to solve this problem dooms such an effort.

In the past 15 years, all local governments across the U.S. have ridden a roller coaster as the federal government, and then state government, made significant cuts in funding. As usual, the buck always stops with local government.

That said, it is difficult to comprehend how the current Memphis budget crisis took place without ineptitude on an almost incomprehensible scale. To clear the air and reassure city taxpayers that the problem has been corrected and new safeguards are in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again, city officials need to act fast, because the public’s patience is already frayed.

This time around, short-term, one-time only answers won’t be enough. Neither will quick fixes. From all appearances, this is a structural problem that can only be corrected by structural solutions.

And it has to be done in complete openness and candor, explaining it every step along the way to the public who foots the bill for city government in the first place.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Shelby County Government Sees Green, But It's Not The Green Of Neighborhood Parks

In last Thursday’s blog, “Lack Of A Green Vision Leaves The City's Reputation Black and Blue,” we were critical of Memphis Mayor Herenton’s plans to sell neighborhood parks at a time when they are needed as pivotal anchors for urban neighborhoods’ health.

In the interest of equal time, we need to acknowledge that Mayor Herenton is not alone. Shelby County Mayor Wharton is right there with him.

Already, Wharton has a neighborhood park, Whitten Park, on the auction block. It’s yet another indication of the pervasive lack of understanding in local government about the role that parks can play in the creation of healthy neighborhoods – not just from the standpoint of residents’ health but in the development of the social bonds that keep an area from a future of disposability.

County officials have adopted the language of their efficiency study, describing parks as a “retail service,” one of this year’s buzzwords adopted by government to indicate services that can be provided by other sources. Of course, it would be more reassuring if the county wasn’t turning 150 years of American history on its head. Parks are a public service precisely because there is no other sector of society willing to pay for them.

If parks are indeed a “retail” service, where are the examples of the corporations and the nonprofit organizations that have stepped forward to buy and develop parks for their communities? There is a reason that some services are public in nature. Parks are a solid example of one.

Which brings us back to the 10-acre patch of green on Whitten Road in eastern Shelby County that the county is trying to sell out from under the neighborhood that uses its lighted ball field, playground and even its tire swing. In its dismantling of traditional network of core services by Shelby County Government in the past couple of years, officials give the appearance of chasing money at the expense of coherent public policy.

This seems the case with Whitten Park, as county officials appear excited about the chance to sell the acreage for about $250,000 to a company developing a parcel next to it. Under the county’s theory of retail services, we can assume that the company is likely to operate the 10 acres as a park. Right.

Fortunately, members of the Shelby County Conservation Board showed more conscience than its advisors from the county division of public works. The board tabled the possible sale of the park until all neighbors and user groups could be notified. While the upcoming weeks will be marked by intense lobbying by the Wharton Administration to convince board members to change their minds, for now, at least, there is some sense of reason in park decisions from the volunteer board members.

The pressing reason for the county’s push to sell Whitten Park –it costs $15,000 annually in maintenance. To put that in perspective, that’s about what county government spends every 20 minutes, 24/7/365. In other words, this neighborhood park, which led some of the neighbors to buy their houses in the area in the first place, isn’t worth 20 minutes of county expenditures. It’s a telling indictment of local priorities.

At a time when county government regularly spends much larger sums on consultants, perhaps a contract could be eked out that hires someone to develop some creative maintenance arrangements – lease it to a neighborhood association, set up a fee structure to pay for maintenance, seek a benevolent corporation to sponsor the park, sell a few acres to create a fund to pay for maintenance, etc.

While the county administration’s focus on budgetary sanity is well-placed in light of its debilitating debt, suggestions like the one to sell Whitten Park give new meaning to the phrase, “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Most of all, it is just one more indication of how badly our community needs a well-reasoned “green strategy” that becomes a major competitive advantage in the future. It’s working in other cities where parkland isn’t see as a retail service, but as a vital service in the competition for new jobs and economic growth, as reported in the white paper of the Trust for Public Land (see photo).

Ironically, just last month, the National Association of Counties – which counts Shelby County among its largest members -- released information on of The County Leadership in Conservation Awards. The awards recognize leadership, innovation and excellence in local land conservation and park creation by county leaders across America.

“County officials around the country are leading efforts to protect open space and conserve land critical to their communities' quality of life," said NACo President and Umatilla County, Ore., Commissioner, Bill Hansell. "This award showcases innovative county land conservation programs and provides best practices to help more counties accomplish conservation goals."

"The American landscape will dramatically change over the next decades and communities cannot neglect today's conservation challenges," said TPL president Will Rogers. "Counties are taking charge of their conservation future and continuing recognition of the best efforts to think strategically about how best to grow is an exciting opportunity to highlight conservation models for the rest of America."

The officials note that in 2004, county voters approved $2.97 billion in new land conservation funding - nearly double any previous amount in history.

Sadly, back here in Shelby County Government, we can’t even find $15,000 for a neighborhood park.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Tennessee Waltz, Like Katrina, Shows Racial Fault Lines

Hurricane Katrina was an event that revealed clearly the fissures that exist in the divergent world views of whites and African-Americans. Tennessee Waltz is another.

Here, white Commercial Appeal editorial writers flippantly dismiss African-American questions about the fairness of the federal investigation as off-base and without merit. In their responses, an FBI spokesman and a senior federal prosecutor essentially take a “trust us” attitude, saying they follow investigations wherever they lead.

But that’s disingenuous and is the crux of the issue. This wasn’t a traditional investigation. It was a sting operation in which FBI agents and prosecutors set out to entrap African-American elected officials. To this end, they pursued them in Memphis, in Nashville and even in Miami, and as individuals and as members of the Tennessee Black Caucus, spending more than $250,000 on the operation.

To brush off the pervasive concerns among African-Americans only bolsters their feelings that their voices are never heard and respected. For this reason alone, not to mention the interest of blind justice, African-Americans deserve more than pro forma answers from investigators and prosecutors. They deserve a better explanation of how and why this investigation was launched in the first place, and why it fixated on African-Americans.

Justice is nothing unless there is public credibility and confidence in its impartiality. The pervasive rumblings of doubt in a majority African-American city by its majority population require clearer, more complete explanations. At a time when racial profiling has come under increasing criticism, without more information, African-American fears only deepen the feeling that the Tennessee Waltz is profiling taken to a whole new level.

Empathy is a quality in short supply by those who dismiss African-American concerns. They should try just for a few moments to see Memphis from the vantage points of African-Americans.

Many feel that the highly publicized crackdowns by the Shelby County attorney general are at the expense of black people. They point out that in a city where more than 60 percent of the people are black, they can’t even change the names of parks named for Confederate heroes. They mention that the average salary of a white citizen of the Memphis region is twice the average salary of a black citizen. They tell about tax freezes that are granted for companies that pay below average salaries for workers who are largely African-American. They tell of the government subsidy of sprawl that enriched white developers.

In the justice system in which they are told to trust, African-Americans see their over-representation in prison populations by a factor of four. The U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest rate in the world, and since 1970, the number of people in prison increased six fold as the “prison-industrial complex” lobbied for tougher laws and enforcement on crimes like possession of marijuana while winning contracts to build the new jail cells. As a result, one in eight black men between the ages of 25 and 29 is in prison, and African-American men have a one in three chance of serving time in prison during their lifetimes.

There is an abiding belief in the black community, a belief always just below the surface, as we saw in New Orleans, that government policies – from human services to law enforcement, from workforce development to community development – set out to destroy the black family.

Looking at the statistics on how policies – backed by hundreds of millions of dollars - have only resulted in poverty as a birthright for a large segment of black Memphians, in 5,000 black men in local jails and infant mortality rates in some black neighborhoods higher than Haiti and Cuba, it is cavalier to simply wave off their concerns.

This is why Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey cautions in a recent column against the denial that obscures the racial divide in many cities and the “powder kegs ready to explode with the most random incident.”

In their book, Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America, authors Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner point out that rumors are a barometer for the social health of a city.

Rumors in New Orleans contended that the flooding in the Ninth Ward had been intentional while the white-populated Garden District was spared, that white people were evacuated first and that the federal government wanted to get rid of the black people in New Orleans and Katrina gave it an excuse to tear down their homes.

On the other side, white rumors moving through New Orleans claimed that the city looked like a third-world city and that African-Americans in the Dome were raping children, murdering old people and eating corpses.

Here, rumors move through the black community that the federal government is out to destroy any African-American politician. Meanwhile, whites repeat rumors that all Democratic elected officials (translation: black elected officials) are on the take.

Why does all of this matter? Unless lines of trust are stronger and there is a belief in the innate fairness of government services - particularly, the equity of enforcement and prosecution - Memphis will always be a wounded city limping into a global economy in which its divisiveness prevents any hope of success.

But, more fundamentally, until lines of trust are stronger, we fail at the basics of American democracy.

As long as African-Americans see racism in events like the Tennessee Waltz and white people complain that the African-American community is paranoid, we create a civic brand of quicksand that slowly pulls all of Memphis under, and at precisely the time that together, we need to be staking out a strong competitive place in the global economy.

This is why glib assurances about fairness from federal officials leading the Tennessee Waltz are not enough. For the sake of the city, they owe it to explain how they came to concentrate on African-American politicians in all branches of city, county and state governments. These investigations of elected officials must be sanctioned by officials in the Department of Justice in Washington, and it would be helpful if they too would elaborate on the justification that was given to them.

That would be a start in addressing rumors that undermine a feeling of full citizenship by many in the black community. Perhaps that could be the first step in dealing with the intractable problems of Memphis that are rooted in class and race and are well past time to solve.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Nashville Mayor Won't Run For Third Term, Saying Two Terms Keep A Mayor Focused

From the Nashville Tennessean:

Mayor Bill Purcell said yesterday he will not seek a third term of office, ending months of speculation and creating a wide-open field for the August 2007 race for his successor.

The timing of Purcell's decision not to seek re-election caught some of the city's political guard by surprise. The announcement set off a flurry of political activity as prospective candidates and politicos flooded phone lines to determine its impact on their ambitions.

He said he made the decision earlier last week after talking to his wife, Debbie, and several close associates.

"I have a sense of what you can accomplish," Purcell said. "I think two terms keeps (mayors) focused, keeps the people that work with them focused and gives them the reality and the belief that they must and can finish in those two terms."

The timing is a surprise because Purcell's second term still has 22 months left, but he said he can accomplish his goals in that period.

Purcell said he would seek to end any ambiguity about the number of terms a Nashville mayor can serve by proposing a charter amendment to limit the office to two terms. He also said he would seek an amendment to cut the Metro Council size in half to 20 members.

Both would require voter approval next year.

The issue of term limits for the mayor was a cloud hanging over a possible third-term bid for Purcell. He maintained yesterday that legally, Metro's charter, essentially the city's constitution, allows a mayor to serve three terms, although he acknowledged there is an ambiguity.

When voters adopted two-term limits in a 1994 referendum for all city officials except judges, the section added to the charter failed to remove the existing three-term limit for mayors. Thus, while it's clear that Metro Council members are limited to two terms, the mayor's limits are somewhat cloudy.

Lawyers on both sides of the question disagree, however. Purcell or any other mayor seeking a third term would face a political liability and possibly a legal challenge.

With his announcement yesterday, Purcell removes his own destiny from that debate and will carry a two-term-limit proposal to the Metro Charter Commission.

With approval from the commission and the Metro Council, the proposal would go to voters for a decision next year. A change in the size of the council would be made by the same process and timetable. Purcell also plans to introduce a charter proposal to make the city's audit department independent from either the mayor's office or the council. It currently is within the Metro Finance Department.

"The truth is 40 people is just a huge number, and I think the people of Nashville will be better served and be better represented if they have a more reasonable number who are more greatly accountable to them overall," Purcell said.

Purcell, 51, made his announcement to a group of neighborhood activists and city officials gathered for a neighborhood conference. It was a backdrop that fit the image that Purcell, a politician who pays attention to detail, projected as the neighborhood mayor. The signature moment in his 1999 campaign was a television commercial with him sitting at a desk positioned on a front lawn.

A lawyer by trade, he started his political career in 1986 when he was elected to the state legislature. He served 10 years there, including three terms as House majority leader for the Democrats. He worked at the Vanderbilt Institute of Public Policy Studies before becoming mayor.

He would not rule out seeking elected office again, although when asked he said he would not seek the seat of outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, which is up for election next year.

Beyond that, Purcell, who always keeps his cards close to his chest, would not talk about his plans.

"I'm going to go out this afternoon and mow the lawn," Purcell said. "It frankly has gotten a little high … And then tomorrow I'm going to go to church and the next day after that I'm going to go out there and work very hard to be mayor for the next two years. That's a long time. That's what I'm going to stay focused on."

Purcell said he would continue to focus the city on education, public safety, parks and neighborhoods — all issues he has trumpeted during his first six years in the office. Yet, that agenda, which Purcell says can be completed, has also started to meet challenges.

While Purcell likes to underscore his commitment to education by pointing, as he did yesterday, to a city school budget of $397 million when he took office compared to this year's $541 million, there are chinks in the armor.

His administration has had a second term stormier than the first, when he seemed almost effortless in his control of the political dynamics of the city.

He has publicly battled the school board in recent years. And the current Metro Council is regularly hostile to the mayor's agenda, although most of that animosity so far has resulted in symbolic skirmishes over minor issues.

There are also increasing challenges in the city's financial position. Purcell has pushed two significant property tax increases through, in 2001 and this June.

Last month, voters overwhelmingly rejected a sales tax referendum that would have raised millions in additional revenue for schools. The school system is stretched thin this year and looking at budget deficits in the years ahead without major cuts or new revenue.

After making his announcement yesterday, Purcell was upbeat about continuing his work over the next 22 months.

When asked what he hopes his legacy would be, he said:

"I hope that it's during the time I became mayor a general agreement was established in this city about what was important and that we would never stop doing those things that made a city great."

Friday, October 21, 2005

Overton Park Expressway Memories Triggered By Walnut Grove Road Bridge Project

You can forgive environmentalists for flashbacks to the Overton Park expressway controversy in the 1970’s as they watch the relentless push to to construct the massive Walnut Grove Road/Humphreys Boulevard redesign although a final decision hasn’t even been reached on the alignment and design of Kirby-Whitten Road through Shelby Farms Park.

The city’s single-minded attitude rightfully inspires memories of the federal lawsuit to stop the interstate through its signature Midtown park in the early 1970s. As the trial was under way and testimony was being given by witnesses, bulldozers and construction crews were building the interstate closer and closer to Overton Park.

Incredibly, despite the federal lawsuit, the Tennessee Department of Transportation never stopped construction of the highway aimed straight at the park. Remarkably, TDOT’s attorneys even had the audacity to argue that so much money had already been spent on the road, it just had to go through the park.

U.S. District Judge Bailey Brown wisely decided otherwise, commenting on the brazen attempt to paint the court into a corner. As a result of his ruling, the portion of the interstate headed for the park was never finished and ultimately became Sam Cooper Boulevard instead.

Supporters of Shelby Farms Park have watched a similar sensitivity on the Walnut Grove project. While a special context sensitive design committee is weighing alternatives for the highway through the park and will make recommendations soon, Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Memphis City Engineer’s office couldn’t even wait for that road decision to be made.

Rather than allow the committee to make its decisions without the smell of asphalt in their nostrils, the engineers embarked on a project that will enlarge the Wolf River bridge entering Shelby Farms Park on its western edge from its present wide of 50 feet to a massive 250 feet. Construction at the bridge site (see photograph) already hints at the size of this project. When completed, the bridge will be about 1,000 feet long, and actually there will be three bridges. The one in the middle will have six lanes and the two on the outside of it will have two lanes each.

The immensity of the project raises quite reasonable suspicions by some that the engineers intend to build a huge concrete funnel pointed at the park, so they can then argue that the Kirby-Whitten highway must be larger to keep traffic from backing up. Essentially, it would be a reprise of the Overton Park argument, just with a 30-year fresh face put on it.

There’s one other similarity to the landmark parkland case. Back then, testimony revealed that transportation engineers actually aligned their highways to go through parks. They saw parkland as free land which helped to keep project costs down.

Looking at the Long Range Transportation Plan of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, it is easy to conclude that the same attitude exists today. While the Kirby-Whitten highway has received a barrage of media attention for the past 10 years, there are actually a cluster of highway lanes aimed directly at Shelby Farms Park.

Despite the community uproar about highway plans for Shelby Farms Park, current road plans actually aim 24 to 27 more new lanes of traffic (not even counting the six new lanes of the Walnut Grove bridge) at the 4,500 acres of green space in the heart of Shelby County. All together, they will eat up hundreds of acres of Shelby Farms Park, but no matter, it’s free land.

The new highway lanes aimed at the park:

• five new lanes from Sycamore View

• six or seven new lanes from Whitten Road

• six or seven new lanes from Appling Road

• five new lanes widening Mullins Station Road into the northern perimeter of the park

• two or three new lanes widening Walnut Grove Road

All of these road expansion plans are puzzling in light of the report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group that Memphis is 6th in the U.S. in the number of lanes of highways per capita, contributing to our city’s ranking as the 17th worst city for air pollution from vehicles. Meanwhile, Memphis and Shelby County were cited by the Federal Highway Administration for lack of safe alternative forms of transportation such as bike and pedestrian lanes and light rail.

Speaking of bike lanes, the current Walnut Grove bridge plans do not now call for them. Despite being the western entry point to one of the nation’s largest urban parks and serving as access point to several park trails, the city engineer’s office did not include bicycle lanes as part of his plans. Somehow, cars were worthy of getting 200 feet of new pavement, but bike riders couldn’t even get four. It says volumes about the sensitivity to community needs generally and Shelby Farms users’ needs specifically.

It has been reported that the city engineer’s office will now look at the potential of adding bike lanes, but the office warns that it may be too late to change anything at this point.

Shades of Overton Park.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Lack Of A Green Vision Leaves The City's Reputation Black and Blue

There is an aphorism in local government that goes like this: “There’s always money for anything the mayor wants to do.”

It doesn’t matter if the deficit is growing, it doesn’t matter if the budget is out of balance and it doesn’t matter which way the winds of controversy are blowing. If a mayor wants money for a special interest or a personal priority, it’s always found.

That’s why it’s unfortunate that parkland doesn’t seem to even hit the radar screen of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton. Instead of green space being a priority, he tells neighborhood associations that city government is looking to sell some of its neighborhood parks.

Never mind that 5,387 acres of parkland in Memphis is meager when compared to our so-called peer cities.

Never mind that the Research Triangle area is launching a GreenPrint program to increase green space by 158,000 acres in the next 25 years.

Never mind that Nashville is embarking on a $151 million park expansion program.

Never mind that Atlanta is beginning development of a spectacular 22-mile linear park.

Never mind that Memphis is in a race with these cities for jobs, workers and economic growth. And never mind that parkland is one of the wisest investments that can be made by a community.

The mayor’s comments seem especially deflating since they come at a time when Memphis should be pulling out all the stops to lure people back to city neighborhoods. Just as Smart Growth shows some potention of taking hold outside Memphis, just as Memphis needs to try to lure people back into its charming, distinctive neighborhoods from the redundant developments that cascade across the landscape toward Fayette County, Mayor Herenton puts a bullet into any marketing plan by sending the message that Memphis doesn’t invest in its neighborhoods.

Just for the record, let’s do the numbers: Memphis spends about $32 per citizen on parks. It’s hard to find a major city that does worse, and we are topped by cities ranging from Seattle to Oakland, Denver to Oklahoma City, Cincinnati to Virginia Beach. In fact, most of these spend from two to seven times more per resident.

As for parkland per 1,000 residents, Memphis is in a race to the bottom. As for parkland as a percentage of the city total area, Memphis (including Shelby Farms Park’s 4,500 acres) rate is 6 percent. By the way, the plan for the Research Triangle will raise its percentage from 8 percent to 15 percent.

While politicians look for quick fixes to budget problems, citizens are looking for long-range commitment to park improvements. And they’re willing to pay for it. In the most recent reporting year, voters in 23 states approved three-fourths of the referenda for parks – to the tune of about $1.8 billion. Since 1995, more than $25 billion in new capital funding for parks has been approved by voters.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis, we’re looking to sell off neighborhood parks. You would at least expect that in the face of such a plan, the Administration would have an alternate vision for the future, such as a “green strategy” linking the grand parks like Shelby Farms, Overton, Riverside and the Riverfront. At least, that way, we could feel like we are at least trying to keep pace with our regional rivals.

But apparently, it’s too much to hope that our park officials are thinking in such terms. Perhaps, some tips might spark them to craft a vision for a city once known for its network of attractive parks:

• Some people are concerned that parks foster crime. Actually, the reverse is true. According to scientists at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, parks create neighborhoods with fewer violent and property crimes and where neighbors watch out and support one another. Research found that residents near parks expressed feelings of safety more than residents lacking parkland. That’s because parks are places where the social bonds of the neighborhood are forged and a spirit of community is incubated through the social contacts on common ground. In addition, researchers compared the crime rates for apartment buildings with little or no vegetation to buildings that had just the opposite. The buildings with vegetation had roughly half as many crimes. These findings were consistent with prior studies that indicate fewer quality of life crimes occur in neighborhoods near parkland.

• Parks increase property values and produce more taxes for local government. Chattanooga saw property values grow by 128 percent when it embarked on a parks and open space plan, producing an increase of 99 per cent in city and county property taxes. Similar increases were reported in Atlanta, Boulder, San Antonio and Philadelphia.

• Quality of life is a major factor in the decisions of Knowledge Workers on where to live and work. A survey of 1,200 technology workers showed that a high quality of life increased the attractiveness of a city by 33 percent. Other surveys, including this firm’s Memphis Talent Magnet Report and the Young and Restless Series on the movement of 25-34 year-old workers (which can be read on our website,, show that these young professional workers prefer places with diverse outdoor recreational options.

• Parks are lures to homebuyers, and Memphis needs all the weapons in its arsenal to attract people back to its neighborhoods. A survey by the National Association of Realtors reported that 65 percent of home shoppers felt that parks would seriously influence them to move to a community; 57 percent would choose a home close to a park and open space over one that is not; and homebuyers would pay 10 percent more for the privilege of living near parkland.

• Families living near parks are fitter and healthier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an epidemic in obesity. Access to parks increases the percentage of people exercising on three or more days per week by 26 percent, the CDC says, adding that 15 percent of children are overweight. That percentage is much higher in Memphis. Children need parks now more than ever -- as alternatives to video games, television and computers.

What is the main lesson Memphis can learn from cities with excellent park systems? Leadership matters.

Visionary mayors understand that the green infrastructure is just as important as the public works infrastructure. They understand that the natural ecosystem is critical to the health and well-being of their citizens. They insist on “green plans” that create an interconnected system of parks that produce all of the economic, quality of life, environmental and sense of community benefits that are found in vibrant cities.

There’s always money for anything the mayor wants to do. Here’s hoping someone will send Mayor Herenton a civics book to remind him how Memphis’ once dynamic system of parks was not only a source of pride but a selling point during the city’s growth years.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Disaster Preparedness Begins With Knowing Who's In Charge

If officials in the Capitol are confused about the role of Homeland Security and the role of FEMA, they’re not alone. The same goes here.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, elected officials sought to reassure us that we should not worry, because in Memphis, we have a plan and people in charge. We’ve been assured by photo ops and interviews, but still, we are haunted by the most basic question: Who’s in charge?

Is it Memphis and Shelby County Emergency Management Agency or is the District 11 Department of Homeland Security? Each of the agencies has made noises that it is in charge of making sure the citizens of Memphis survive a disaster like an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault.

Yet, all they have done with any effectiveness is to confuse us more.

For years, EMA has been responsible for the development and implementation of emergency preparedness plans for our city and county. But for more than a decade, there has been gnawing friction between City of Memphis and Shelby County Governments when it’s come to who’s in charge of the agency.

Although it’s a joint city-county agency, in truth, county government has limited authority, accounting for the parade of city firemen and city mayoral allies who have populated the director’s job over the years. Despite grumbling and overt threats to cut EMA funding, county government is essentially helpless to exert the amount of influence over the agency that it would like.

That’s why when the federal government started handing out big checks for its quilt of regional homeland security office across the U.S., Shelby County Government was first in line.

Now, thanks to the largesse of the federal bureaucracy, we have a local homeland security bureaucracy of our own, eight people hired within the past year to make sure we are safe from terrorist threats. Its news releases talk about much-needed security at our port, “our lifeblood,” and extols the importance of the $6 million port security grant. Then, there’s the plan to “have security cameras blanketing the bridges, port, interstates and much of the downtown area.” (Unfortunately, the release doesn’t mention what the point of all this surveillance is supposed to be.)

Following Katrina, the rhetoric of the local Homeland Security office took a decidedly natural disaster bent. In a meeting of his Citizens Corps, Homeland Security Director James Bolden talked about the training that is needed to deal with disasters like Katrina. Meanwhile, local EMA officials caution us to get prepared for emergency situations like an earthquake, flood, or tornado.

While cooperation between city and county over EMA operations has always been fractious, the appointment by Mayor Wharton of Director Bolden as homeland security chief did nothing to mend any fences. After all, Bolden formerly was Memphis Police Department director before he was fired by Mayor Herenton.

If this isn’t enough intrigue to be worthy of “inside the beltway” machinations, there’s still the lingering question about who’s in charge in a disaster. Keeping in mind that the director of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis recently said that Memphis, particularly its schools, is unprepared for a natural disaster, it’s a question that we need answered immediately.

“New Orleans pretty much bet the house that the worst-case scenario would not happen,” said director Arch Johnson in The Commercial Appeal. “I hope that Memphis in its disaster planning would not make the same mistake.”

If you are trying to sort all of this out, we advise you to ignore the agencies' websites. Homeland Security is largely a vanity website. You won't be able to find any useful information about what to do in the event of a disaster, but you can find a “suitable for framing” photo of the director. You can look at a slide show of all the elected officials at a recent meeting, and if you would like photographs of the county executives of the six counties in District 11, that’s here, too.

Meanwhile, the EMA website is as cluttered as a Salvation Army rummage sale.

The bureaucrat-speak on the websites defies understanding. Homeland security’s mission is described thusly: “To secure the citizens of Tennessee District 11 by having a strong, coordinated, cooperative approach through a comprehensive communication effort for crisis prevention and to establish preparedness plans to respond efficiently and effectively should a crisis situation occur.” Gesundtheit.

Meanwhile, over at the EMA site, its mission statement says: “To provide the most efficient and effective coordination of resources available in the mitigation of; planning and preparation for; response to and recovery from emergencies and disasters.”

All of this conjures up images of the agencies battling for the microphone at a news conference following a disaster. If they are serious about the coordination that they covet, their first act of coordination should be a shared website that sends a unified message and reliable information about what we are supposed to do in the event of an emergency.

It is absolutely amazing that neither site offers this kind of practical advice for citizens. To its credit, at least the EMA website links to Homeland Security. It’s a favor that is not reciprocated.

Hopefully, behind the scenes, things are more coordinated than they seem. If they are, it would be a positive step to tell us about it.

After all, the demographics between Memphis and New Orleans are troublingly similar – large numbers of people living in poverty, 11-13 percent of the people older than 65, large numbers of people with disabilities, both with about 1,200 houses with two rooms or less, and about 10,000 owner-occupied houses in which the family has no car.

Much has been made of the snarled communications and broken coordination that resulted from the failure of Homeland Security and FEMA to get on the same page to deal with Katrina. At a time when Bush Administration officials are proposing that FEMA should no longer be responsible for disaster preparedness, let’s at least get our signals straight here.

Perhaps, we can give inspiration to what is the most important part of effective disaster preparedness in the first place – meaningful communications and well-defined responsibilities. Now, that would be worth a photo op.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

It's Time To Give The Film Commission The Incentives It Needs

Last week, the Tennessee Film Commission held a hearing in Memphis that focused on the need for tax incentives for film companies in our state. Chief among the witnesses was Linn Sitler, executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission, who competes against states every day that offer incentives in the form of waived state taxes. Even California, the birthplace of the industry itself, is now considering legislation for incentives.

In light of these developments, it seems timely to reprise a blog from August:

At a time when Memphis and Shelby County Governments are waiving more than $60 million in taxes every year to recruit new businesses, the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission -- which has the greatest return on investment of any economic development agency in this city -- continues to beg for peanuts.

Increasingly, executive director Linn Sitler and her staff are competing with rival locations like Louisiana which are offering significant financial incentives. Louisiana has followed a trend across the U.S. and has passed legislation offering special financial benefits for film productions. The local film commission has made national impact recruiting a series of films and television programs to Memphis, but even the staff's considerable charm, good will and national reputation for getting the job done cannot carry the day with producers looking to squeeze every dime out of their production budgets.

Considering that Memphis and Shelby County manage to waive more than $1 million a week to get anything from a warehouse paying its employees less than average incomes to 94 high-paid executives from International Paper, it’s time for the city fathers to pause long enough to set aside something to support our film business.

In the past legislative session, Ms. Sitler and staff member Brett Smith lobbied state legislators for tax breaks to get Tennessee on a level playing field with its rivals, but they came up short. Hopefully, next year legislators will see the light (no pun intended). Film production is exactly the kind of economic shot in the arm Memphis and Tennessee should be chasing. It doesn’t require any increase in public services, and it leaves millions of dollars in the local economy.

Ms. Sitler, who has developed a national reputation in her field, says the incentives are needed. And, if that’s not enough justification, so does local director Craig Brewer, basking in the glow of national praise for “Hustle and Flow” and who is paying a $800,000 premium to film his next movie in Memphis. That’s the amount of financial incentive offered to him by a competing state and which he rejected to stay in his hometown.

Our two best experts tell us the incentives are needed. It’s time for all of us to listen. Lord knows, we've gotten more economic activity from the film commission than many of the other trendy economic strategies that have come and gone, accomplishing little except a batch of plans for the shelves.

And if you're skeptical of the value of the film commission, just consider the lsit of movies since 1990:

1990 "Silence of the Lambs" Orion)
1991 "Trespass" Feature (Universal Pictures)
1991 "Taking Back My Life:The Story of Nancy Ziegenmeyer" (CBS-TV)
1992-93 "The Firm" (Paramount Pictures)
1993 "The Client" (Warner Brothers)
1994 "Without Air" (Winghead Films/Independent)
1994 "Separated by Murder" TV Movie (CBS-TV)
1995 "A Family Thing" (MGM-United Artists)
1995 "The Delta" Charlie Guidance Prods./Independent)
1996 "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" (Columbia Pictures/Code Pink)
1997 "The Rainmaker" (Paramount Pictures)
1997 "The Road to Graceland" (Largo Entertainment/Independent)
1997 "Why I Live at the P.O." Film Short (Eudora Prods.)
1998 "Breakfast with Arty" (Metamorphosis Prods.)
1998 "Cookie's Fortune" Sandcastle 5 Prods./Independent) *Based in Holly Springs, MS
1998 "Woman's Story" (Muddy River Productions/Independent)
1999 "The Big Muddy" (Fine Grind Films/Independent)
1999 "Intersections" (Workingman Productions/Independent)
1999 "The Poor and Hungry" (BR2 Productions/Independent)
1999 "Breakin' It Down" (Red Ceiling Pictures/Independent)
1999 "Cabbin' It" (Cinehaus, Inc./Independent)
1999 "Central Garden" (Fine Grind Films)
2000 "Cast Away" (Dreamworks)
2000 "Death Row" (Teamworx Productions)
2001 "Going to California" (San Vincente Productions/ShowTime)
2001 "The Angel Doll" (Angel Doll Productions)
2001 "Death Row " (Teamworx Productions)
2001 "Cast Away" (Dreamworks)
2001 "American Saint" aka "Cabbin' It"(Cinehaus, Inc./Independent
2002 "A Painted House" (McGee Street Productions, Inc./Hallmark Entertainment)
2002-2003 "21 Grams" (Focus Features)
2004 "40 Shades of Blue" (Forty Shades of Blue, LLC/Independent)
2004 "Streaker" (Creative Forces/Independent)
2004 "Walk the Line" (Fox 2000)
2004 "Hustle & Flow" (New Deal Entertainment/Homegrown Films/Independent))
2004 "Send In The Clown" (Sharp Entertainment/Independent)

To underscore the importance of supporting the work of the film commission, an article in yesterday's New York Times makes the case for us.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Here's Hoping The Moratorium Inspires New Thinking On Other Fronts

In a week when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners took a landmark vote to end “business as usual” and enact a moratorium on development, it was disappointing to see more of the same on two other fronts -- the Memphis Regional Chamber and the Memphis City Schools Board.

The week began with the first fracture line – albeit a faint one – beginning to show between developers and politicians. In a unanimous vote and despite all predictions to the contrary, the board of commissioners sent a message that will reverberate in political circles for some time. It sent the message that things have to change and the silence of the homebuilders seemed to underscore the import of that message.

For the cynically minded (which is a frequent result of our bouts of idealism in the face of political realities), it is possible to minimize the impact of the vote by pointing out that development interests largely sat this one out. They are not hurt by a six-month moratorium, and their concerns and the concerns of homebuilders are not overlapping.

But still it was enough to raise feelings of hopefulness. Perhaps, finally (and hopefully, not too late) local government seems finally willing to come face to face with the unsustainability – both in land use and public finances – that sprawl ushers in.

Actually, it was business as usual on two other fronts that dampened the mood of the week and the sense that finally the times are changing.

The first deals with tax freezes, or in government parlance, payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT’s). Faced with the growing restlessness about how tax freezes have become entitlements in Memphis, some economic development officials seem to equate the end of the tax waivers with the End of Days.

While a more modulated approach is needed than the elimination of the business incentives, it is easy to sympathize with legislative officials who have to brave the anger of the public over property tax increases while more than $60 million in property taxes is taken off the table before they even begin budget hearings. Most of all, it takes place without city and county legislators –who are in charge of setting the tax rate - even having a voice in the decisions.

As we have written here, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reported that our city and county give more tax freezes than all of the other 94 counties in Tennessee combined. This amount includes the taxes waived by the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board and the Center City Revenue Finance Corporation. It does not include tax breaks received from sports authorities; enterprise zone development corporations; health, education and housing facility boards; tax increment financing projects; and from enterprises located on city and county property.

While it sends shivers up the spines of some local Chamber officials, it seems like it’s time for tax freezes to be presented to the Board of Commissioners and City Council for their votes, at least in the short-term, until some rationality is brought to the system. And with the IDB staff refusing to release to the media the file of a company who has asked for a waiver of taxes (in violation of the Tennessee Open Records law), it seems that the process now also demands more transparency.

Tax freezes were intended to be a support for economic development. Instead, it’s become a crutch. Other major Tennessee cities – who must work with the same tax structure, business incentives programs and state policies – do not give a tax freeze to any company who can fill out the forms, as happens here.

Nashville, for example, only stamped approved on 5 applications for tax freezes in a 10-year period, while Memphis/Shelby County approved 415 tax freezes. And, no, that’s not a typo. It’s 5 compared to 415.

No wonder Chamber officials' pleas for continuation of the tax freezes are falling more and more on deaf ears. It’s also no wonder that county commissioners and city council members are more and more suspicious about the way that tax freezes are handed out here.

Rather than defend the tax freezes unilaterally and liken their end to an economic Armageddon, a position that marginalizes their influence over potential changes in procedures and enforces the view by some that it's elitist, Chamber officials should end its sometimes hysterical defenses of tax giveaways and recommend changes that could keep tax freezes as a weapon in economic development.

But it requires moderation and more concern for the impact of tax freezes on homeowners’ tax bills. If the Chamber continues to take its present position that absolutely nothing is wrong with the current tax freeze program and refuses to look for middle ground, it increases the real risk that the PILOTs will be eliminated all together.

So, what should the Chamber propose that would keep tax freezes alive, but make their use more strategic and reasonable?

First, economic development officials should adopt a compelling position: they should advocate the end of tax freezes as entitlements.

There’s the joke in local government that if a baboon escaped from the zoo and wandered into the IDB office in City Hall and managed to check a few boxes on the tax freeze application form, it would get at least a five-year tax freeze.

To gain some credibility for itself in the policy debate, the Chamber should propose some much-needed reforms of the policy:

1) Target people, not buildings.

Now, any one asking for a tax freeze is rewarded for creating a building about as much as they are for creating jobs. This traditional measurement for success must be turned on its head. The yearly press conference touting the success of our economic development activities should be based on new jobs, not on new construction. Creating temporary construction jobs is not as important as the creation of long-term, new jobs. Period. End of sentence.

With the current tax freeze program, the IDB matrix gives as many points for a $40 million building as for 250 jobs. The importance of construction costs in the program should be drastically reduced to shift the focus to people, where it belongs.

2) Target certain industries.

The distribution industry has been a major beneficiary of tax freezes, and local elected officials need only look in the mirror to see how that happened. At a time when the first grumblings about tax freezes were being heard, developers went to local government and got even more concessions that directly benefitted the owners of warehouses.

As we have written: “Sometimes it’s like the (IDB) board is saying, to heck with the global battle for knowledge workers, we’re sticking with a strategy to see if Memphis can compete with Bangladesh for cheap workers. The weakness in this approach was shown in the recent decision by International Paper to close its call center in Memphis and move it to Krackow, Poland.”

We’ve wrapped distribution in the new vocabulary of logistics, but too often, companies get their taxes waived while creating jobs that pay less than the average income, further creating the national perception of Memphis as a blue-collar, unskilled market.

It’s time to only give tax breaks to companies in targeted industries, such as biotechnology. If we can’t attract distribution companies on the logic of them being in the home of FedEx, the home of a regional hub of UPS, and the home of an airport touted as one of the world’s most efficient, we shouldn’t be investing our taxes in companies that are that stupid in the first place.

3) Target the end of low-wage jobs.

For too long, companies that pay less than the average income, much less a livable wage, have received tax incentives. Some economic development officials argue that it’s not fair to require distribution companies to pay the average income, because wages in the distribution are lower than other jobs.

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, a company paying salaries that are only 70 percent of the per capita income for Shelby County still gets points for a tax freeze. In the poster boy for such cases, Jabil’s eight-year tax freeze was approved on the creation of new jobs, although most of the company’s jobs still allow its new employees to apply for food stamps.

When taxes are invested or waived, there should be serious discussion about their public policy benefits. Giving away citizens’ taxes to attract jobs that then pay these same citizens less than poverty wages simply doesn’t make any sense.

4)Deal with the problem, not its symptoms.

A regular refrain of Chamber and IDB officials is that tax freezes are necessities because of problems in the Memphis economy, such as the large number of low-skill workers and the lack of Knowledge Economy workers. Rather than argue for a continuation of policies that create this structural problem, our experts need to concentrate on addressing the cause of the problem, rather than its symptoms.

To be honest, there are a number of economic development professionals who believe that Memphis and Shelby County have an overreliance on tax freezes and that we need to rein them in. Also, they welcome the chance to prove that they are skilled enough to compete successfully with other cities on the merits of our city, rather than on our tendency to throw money at prospects to show that we love them.

In the end, however, we don’t convince companies that our city has value when we tell them that we don’t even deserve their taxes. What did your mother tell you about expecting to pay for the cow when you give away the milk for free? It’s simply time to stop sending the message to prospects that we are so unworthy and undeserving that we have to give them money to love us.

While economic development types were wringing their hands over the future of tax freezes, the Memphis City Schools board blinked, approving the questionable site for a high school picked by Shelby County Schools without consultation with the city schools district.

Over the past 15 years, county school officials have had the effect of throwing gas on the raging wildfire of sprawl that was burning in Shelby County. In fact, on more than one occasion, the county school district seemed to light the fire itself.

Strangely, Shelby County Schools has never been held accountable for its role, successfully portraying themselves as educators, rather than as instruments of the development industry.

At this point, city school officials have only agreed to the proposed site for the proposed high school, and a number of thorny issues remain to be addressed. As these issues play out, city schools officials should be more forceful, insisting that their policies on construction and school sizes should guide future decisions:

1) Build the schools to city schools specifications.

The schools built by the county system have the charm of a medium security prison. There is no sense of community importance, there is no sense of arrival and there is no inherent pride in creating a productive learning environment symbolized by a quality physical place. Rather, county schools seem primarily interested in warehousing kids in architecturally insignificant buildings.

Media attention has focused on city schools construction practices in the past, and Superintendent Johnson has moved mountains in bringing reason to the district’s building policies. In fact, construction costs have been cut about 25 percent in recent years.

Unlike its county counterpart, Memphis City Schools has a sense of the importance of schools as centers of community. City educators understand that the quality of the physical environment tell students volumes about the value that is placed on them by their community. City educators emphasize the building of schools that will last for decades. In fact, it's still using about three dozen schools built before 1935. The schools built by Shelby County Schools feel as disposable as the subdivisions they've inspired in high-sprawl areas.

That’s why Memphis City Schools, rather than allowing the county school system to be in charge of building a high school in Memphis’ annexation reserve areas, should do just the opposite. Memphis City Schools should build the school to its specifications, and then the county district could be allowed to use it until it’s annexed. This is precisely what the Memphis Fire Department did with the Hickory Hill fire station. It built it and then let Shelby County Fire Department use it until the area was annexed. That’s a model worth emulating.

2) Don’t warehouse students.

Superintendent Carol Johnson is a proponent of smaller high schools, rather than the 2,000-student megaliths that the county prefers. Her position is well-founded, because research supports the student achievement that is linked to smaller schools.

Supt. Johnson prefers a high school of about 800 students. County officials claim that the constructions costs of a larger school is more efficient. But that’s the wrong measurement for schools. The real test is in the measurements of students who attend smaller schools, and these back the city superintendent's philosophy of smaller schools.

Building larger schools may actually make sense as construction policy, but as educational policy, it is pennywise and pound foolish.

Despite the business as usual attitudes by some in the economic development and education communities, there is a genuine, hopeful feeling that the dam has finally burst. And perhaps, just perhaps, there is no holding back the progress that can come from doing something that we have much too little experience in doing – giving serious attention to substantive public policy issues.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Clock Is Ticking Loudly In Rove's Ear

Mr. Rove, meet Mr. Haldeman.

Or Mr. Adams. Or Mr. Lance. Or Mr. Sununu.

Karl Rove continues to hang on for dear life following yet another date with the grand jury to testify about his Valerie Plame leak. Even owning the negatives isn’t likely to keep him from soon being the good soldier and falling on his sword.

As politically savvy as Rove has been as the architect for Bush’s election, he’s about to re-learn two lessons that appointed officials never forget. One, loyalty flows up, not down. Second, every one is expendable.

The peril of his position at this point is reminiscent of the days when President Carter defended his friend Bert Lance when he was accused of banking infractions before the administration took office. Shortly thereafter, Lance was shown the door.

In fact, the defense and the exit often almost occur simultaneously, the defense often given at the same time a gentle push on the back takes place.

With President Nixon, his defense of H. R. Haldeman and John Erlichman shifted into a strategy to place the blame on them for the Watergate break-in. They knew all the Oval Office secrets, but that didn’t keep them from getting the boot.

Every president seems to have his own example of a friendship that falls victim to political expediency. Reagan had his John Poindexter. Johnson had his Sherman Adams. And Clinton had too many to mention.

Already, Bush Administration spokesman Scott McClellan has proclaimed that Rove has “the confidence of the president.” That’s really ominous. After all, at one Bush photo op at a Cabinet meeting, Bush dodged when given the opportunity to back up Rove.

It created one of those strange Washington moments that seem totally detached from reality. Bush sits at the conference table. Rove sits on the wall right behind him. They’re in the same camera shot.

In the real world, the boss would likely turn around and say: “Karl, did you do that?” But inside the Beltway, Bush answers the question as if Karl is a dead man, much less in the room.

It’s a powerful lesson for every one serving at the “will and pleasure” of an elected official. And there are dozens of similar examples at the local level, but a favorite is the city government director -- a longtime friend of the mayor's -- who had Mayor Herenton stand for him at his wedding. About a week later, just before New Year's Day, he was fired.

And yet, it's almost impossible to count Rove out. He's taken stonewalling and misdirection to a higher level. Before it's over, somehow this entire issue yet may morph into more rhetoric about an attack on Christian values, part of the gay agenda or a skirmish in the culture wars.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Better Suburban Planning Needed To Curb Obesity

From the Globe and Mail, Toronto:

It's time to shift the focus from blaming individuals for being fat to understanding how the environment we live in discourages healthy living, a scientific think tank has concluded.

"We need to look well beyond getting more gym classes for kids and better food in school cafeterias," said Diane Finegood, scientific director of the Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes, part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a federal funding agency.

"We need to understand how we can fundamentally alter the environment so the healthy choice is the easy choice."

Dr. Finegood said that means rethinking the way public policy is created and implemented in a broad range of areas, including urban planning, transportation, education, agriculture and taxation.

But the immediate focus needs to be on infrastructure, including urban design and planning, she said.

"At a time when we're about to embark on major investments in infrastructure, we need to make sure we do things differently," Dr. Finegood said.

"We can't allow ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past."

Stephen Samis, director of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, agreed.

He noted that when governments began establishing zoning bylaws, they had three main goals: to ensure the health, the safety and the welfare of citizens.

"Unfortunately, the focus today is almost exclusively on safety. We need to get back to those other basic tenets, health and welfare, in the way we regulate our built environment."

He said there are several factors that should come in to play when there is development, including building sidewalks, ensuring roads are interconnected to facilitate walking and public transport, building walking and cycling paths, ensuring mixed-use development so people are not forced to drive to stores, and even financing for new housing.

"Suburbs are a proven thing, so financing is easy, but financing smart, healthy development is a lot more difficult," Dr. Samis said. "That's not smart if you look at the impact of suburbs."

Canadian researcher Larry Frank has shown that suburbanites are about 35 per cent more likely to be obese than their urban counterparts, in large part because they spend so much time in their cars.

Dr. Finegood and Dr. Samis led a think tank that met last week in Toronto to establish research priorities for tackling the obesity epidemic. The meeting involved more than 100 experts from a wide array of specialties, including medicine, public health, the environment, urban planning, economics, agriculture, the food industry and consumer groups.

While there was broad consensus on the need to address suburban sprawl as a health issue, the expert group was not able to agree on how to deal with the obesity problem through economic incentives and disincentives.

While some public-health officials tout a "fat tax" as the way to discourage consumption of unhealthy foods, others believe healthy foods should be subsidized to make them more accessible.

"Clearly this is a sensitive issue, and politically charged," Dr. Finegood said. "But the reality for us as scientists is that the evidence is poor: We don't know what works and doesn't work because economic incentives haven't been properly evaluated."

The main goal of the think tank is to help focus research priorities and eventually develop better public policies.

"Bringing a diverse group together to look at what we know and what we need to know about tackling obesity is a Canadian first," Dr. Samis said. "But it's just a first step. We're keen to start kicking some of this research out the door."

According to Statistics Canada, more than 59 per cent of Canadian adults are of unhealthy weight. The total includes 23 per cent who are obese (meaning more than 30 per cent or more of their body weight is fat) and 36 per cent who are overweight (25 per cent or more fat).