Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cell Towers Are Attracting Lawsuits

It’s a battle of goliaths: Can you hear me now vs. Not in my backyard.

More than 500 cell tower disputes have already ended up in court across the U.S. and as the towers become as ubiquitous as the phones themselves, look for the number to climb, especially now that they are showing up in parks and on church property.

Some cities, worried that towers reduce property values, oppose new towers within their borders. They have been surprised to learn that federal law allows cell phone companies to set aside local zoning decisions if those decisions would prevent seamless cell phone service. Also, the Federal Communications Commission says that cities can’t cite health hazards as grounds for lawsuits.

In other word, fighting cell towers rivals fighting City Hall as the ultimate uphill battle.

Public outcries have given rise to mutated 150 foot tall fir trees and cacti and giant flagpoles. To those who prefer form to follow function, the disguises only make them more visually intrusive. Apparently cell towers like the mammoth fir in East Memphis are supposed to show environmental sensitivity. The argument would be more convincing if the base of the cell tower wasn’t full of trees felled for it. (We didn't even know Rusty Hyneman was involved in cell towers.)

With 171 million cell phones already in the hands of Americans today – 58 percent of the public – technology marches on. So will more and more lawsuits, conjuring up images of people in their cars on their cell phones calling their lawyers to complain about cell phone towers.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Pyramid Development Remains Daunting

The Rameses statue standing in front of The Pyramid is an exact copy of one found broken, lying in the sands, at the site of the dead Egyptian city of Memphis. The committee studying future uses for the Memphis icon hopes its presence is not prophetic.

There are days when the most appropriate statue these days would be of Yogi Berra, because proposals for development of The Pyramid conjure up his immortal words: “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

Like previous attempts to line up well-financed development proposals to take over the building, or at least parts of it, these new ones, too, have the familiar feeling of past ones -- a feast of ideas and a famine of financing. If there is any one who can find a solution, it would seem to be a committee headed by Scott Ledbetter, well-respected, level-headed business leader. He normally labors under the radar, but whatever he takes on is normally a success. This one will severely test even his formidable skills.

We’ve learned a lot about The Pyramid since the FedEx Forum opened, primarily that it bears as much resemblance to a big-time sports venue as Tim McCarver Field did to AutoZone Park. Only now with the opening of FedEx Forum do we fully understand what was missing at The Pyramid all along – creature comforts, first-class finishes and a major league environment.

About half of The Pyramid’s original bargain basement cost remains to be paid, and if we learned anything from its history, it is that white knights are like free lunches. There aren’t any.

The theme park proposal being handicapped now as the leading one looks like an expanded version of one submitted years ago when the city and county governments were yet again looking for a developer for the 100,000 square feet of developable space on the north side of The Pyramid and the 10,000 square feet on two levels at the apex. This time around, the plan also includes the cavernous arena itself, but it still has the feel of a project in search of a raison d’etre. Or at least in search of financing.

At a time when Gaylord Entertainment’s deep pockets couldn’t make a theme park work at Opryland and national theme park chains are fighting for business, it’s not unreasonable to question the staying power of an indoor theme park for Memphis. Another leading proposal – an aquarium - is equally problematic. As Otis White said on Smart City, cities fishing for downtown revivals with aquariums have often come up short. Tampa and Long Beach, California, were forced to bail out theirs, and Denver let its aquarium go into bankruptcy and sold it for a fraction on the dollar to a restaurant chain. Aquariums were to the 1980’s what festival marketplaces were to the 1970’s.

Unpublished financial projections of city and county governments in the past raised questions of whether a development is financially feasible without major concessions from local government. It was essentially political fantasy that there would ever be a tenant who would pay off the building’s remaining construction debts of roughly $30 million, invest tens of millions of dollars, and spin off revenues to local government. The city and county financial pro formas from previous years show that lease payments were always considered political window dressing, because there were no expectations that there would ever be any.

As this most recent process unfolds – the fourth since construction of the building –two things point to the tough realities facing The Pyramid. If it had a use – tourist attraction, shopping mall, office building or grain elevator - that could generate big bucks and exploit a market niche, Memphis and Shelby County Governments wouldn’t have to knock on the doors of national developers (which remain closed). They would be knocking on ours. Even more telling is that in 14 years, no one has stepped forward with a plan to add the inclinator ride to the apex, although it has been considered the “cash cow” by city and county officials.

In the years since previous development processes came up empty, ittle has changed. The likelihood is remote that anyone will take responsibility for the building’s unpaid debt and also make a multi-million investment in it, whether it’s for a theme park, an aquarium, an outlet mall or even the world’s biggest Starbucks. The only way to hit those goals with certainty is going nowhere – a casino.

As a frame of reference, the MGM Grand Casino in Detroit has 75,000 square feet (about a third of the space of The Pyramid), cost $225 million to build (more than five times the Pyramid), employs 2,500 people, and 20,000 visitors go there every day, 24/7/365. Two-thirds of its vendors and suppliers are from Michigan, and its $400 million in revenues is more than the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions and Detroit Pistons combined.

It is unlikely that The Pyramid will ever be a casino, but regardless, its future is largely a crap shoot.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Washington Testimony for CEOs for Cities

The following testimony was presented today on Capitol Hill by Carol Coletta on behalf of CEOs For Cities to the Saving America's Cities Working Group, comprised of a group of House Republicans who support cities. Organized by by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and chaired by Congressman Mike Turner, former mayor of Dayton, Ohio, the group includes other House members who are former mayors and city officials, including Rep. Sue Myrick (Mayor of Charlotte, NC) and Rep. Kay Granger (Mayor of Fort Worth). Former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp chairs the Saving America's Cities Advisory Committee and attended today's meeting, and he was joined by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League.

Carol joined 20 other representatives of national organizations, including the National League of Cities, the National Association of Home Builders, the American Institute of Architects, the Enterprise Foundation, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Association of Realtors, that National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, the Business Roundtable, the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It was a remarkable demonstration of support for cities, an issue that has had almost no profile in Congress during the past five years.

Carol's testimony:

Congressman Turner and members of the working group, thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak with you today. My name is Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities.

CEOs for Cities is a national organization, headquartered in Chicago, dedicated to increasing the competitiveness of cities. Our membership is cross-sector, made up of more than 70 key urban decision-makers, including mayors, corporate CEOs, university presidents and foundation officials.

Contrary to the old idea of cities as places of deficit, as drags on our economy, our research shows that, in fact, it is our cities that will save America -- because America's best opportunity to prosper in a global economy is to strengthen urban competitiveness.

Cities are the places that generate the new ideas and new industries that help move our economy forward and help us compete in a global economy. Metropolitan areas are the new competitive units, containing 75-90 percent of the nation’s economic assets. The nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas contain 80 percent of all U.S. employment and produce more than 80 percent of the nation’s Gross National Product. They also produce 86 percent of all federal tax revenue.

Cities are also the gateways to the global economy. These are the places where U.S. exports are sold and shipped, the flows of funds and trade are managed, and they are the meeting places, points of departure and destinations of international travel. They are also the immigrant gateways where the newest Americans begin building their lives.

Many of our important national problems — transportation, housing, and education, to name three — are all most felt, and can only effectively be addressed on a metropolitan scale. It is no longer the case, if it ever was, that the suburbs can flourish while the central city flounders – or vice versa. The prosperity of the different parts of all of our metropolitan areas is deeply interconnected, and so must be the solutions to these problems.

Let me give you three quick facts from our most recent research, then suggest four areas of focus that, we believe, will strengthen our cities, and thus, strengthen America.

Number one, we should focus on raising incomes for American families. Our research shows that for the first time in modern American history, population and income growth no longer tend to go together. Cities do not necessarily have to grow big to grow wealthy.

But cities do have to grow smart if they want to be wealthy. And that is point number two. Education levels are the single biggest driver of economic growth. But high school degrees are no longer enough. It is the presence of college graduates that drives economies. And we know that everyone benefits when our nation is the world leader in the creation of new ideas and innovative businesses by those college graduates.

The third point is that the proportion of particular racial and ethnic groups matters less to economic performance, but their segregation generally has negative effects on the economy. Income inequality also negatively affects economic performance.

In sum, our research shows that healthy, vibrant cities are key drivers for national economic growth. To increase urban competitiveness and, therefore, our nation’s competitiveness, let me suggest four areas in which we should concentrate our efforts:

First, we need to support the development, recruitment and retention of talent. The critical ingredient in a knowledge economy is fully developed human capital. Investments in education, research and job training are essential to our economic success, as are immigration policies that encourage study and work in the U.S. by internationals.

Second, we need to support the creation of new knowledge and new businesses. Cities are the most productive generators of research and development, well-educated workers and new businesses, so support for those activities should be focused in cities.

Third, we need to recognize that different cities have different assets and different opportunities. Distinctive city traits represent a reservoir of knowledge and ability that can be important in developing and extending local economic activities. One size policies and approaches definitely do not fit all, so flexibility and incentives that generate local market responses to problem-solving and to opportunities are needed.

Fourth, we need to recognize that an America full of have and have-not cities is a danger for our nation. As economic success now tends to concentrate in fewer cities, we must look for innovative new strategies for cities and citizens that the economy is leaving behind. Your support for programs such as new markets tax credits, community development block grants and the earned income tax credit continues to be crucial.

Our nation's economy and our future prosperity depend on healthy cities. They'll create the new ideas and businesses than drive our economy forward. They'll be our connecting points to the global economy. We'll tackle big national challenges more effectively by developing metropolitan-level solutions. And in the end, we'll help all Americans have the means to build better lives.

We look forward to working with your working group an

Memo to Northwest Airlines: Customer Service Training ASAP

Heard in Washington National today from a harried Northwest gate agent: "Folks, I hate to tell you that we're still not going to Minneapolis. A window in the cockpit is broken and maintenance personnel are looking at it now. We just haven't been able to do anything right with flight 477."

A refreshing bit of honesty.

Unfortunately, I was then subjected (as often happens) to listening to Northwest flight attendants and gate agents loudly complaining about passengers before take-off. Don't they know other passengers are listening? Is Northwest management completely oblivious to this behavior? I spent one recent flight in first class with the lone flight attendant complaining to me that management never listens to front line employees and that management is ruining the airline.

Message to Northwest: Get some secret shoppers on those planes and listen to what they tell you!

Doing Nothing Is Not OK

OK, so maybe the Riverfront Development Corporation has done a less than stellar job selling its Promenade plan. But that's no reason for the Commercial Appeal to fall for the case to do nothing being made by the so-called "Friends for Our Riverfront."

You've heard the debate: The Big Bad RDC wants to "develop" our riverfront along Front Street from Union to Adams. The good ole Friends want to "save" our riverfront.

Here's the real story: Today, the west side of Front Street is full of aging public buildings -- a too-small Fire Divison headquarters (with a new chain link fence around it), two parking garages (one of which opens onto Riverside Drive and welcomes visitors coming off the Hernando Desoto Bridge with an offer of "Car Detailing"), and a library that even the librarians want to close. The property also has a park (which looks better than it has in years, thanks to the RDC) and a Customs House that the RDC is actively helping the University of Memphis acquire for a new law school.

Today, this property offers essentially no public access to the bluff, other than in the park.

Now, here's the choice: Keep it as is. Or develop it according to the Promenade plan developed by Cooper Robertson with public input for the RDC.

That's it. It's that simple. The alternative offered by Friends to tear down the public buildings, remove (and not replace) the parking, and build a park is just a smokescreen. No one -- no one who understands the City's finances, anyway -- really believes the addition of a five or six block long park on Front Street is a viable option.

Think about it. The only parks decently maintained in Memphis today are those maintained by the RDC. The money for doing so comes from the savings the RDC has been able to manage from its operation of Mud Island and maintenance of the downtown parks compared to earlier management by the City. (And it sure helps to have Danny Lemmons, a smart, committed manager, in charge, who has been spotted picking up trash himself with his crews on Sunday morning after a big weekend event.)

Who believes we're going to add six new blocks of parks in a part of the city that already has an abundance of green space?

For that matter, who believes that we can remove two parking garages, not replace them and keep office tenants and residents in an area that is already tenuous?

You may not like the Promenade plan (although I can't imagine why). But your alternative is clear -- leave the Promenade as is -- a broken down, embarassing collection of underperforming public buildings with no public access.

This is the best Memphis can do?

That's the real contention of Friends. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Chicago's Difference: Taste of Chicago and Summerdance

Over the weekend, I had my first opportunity to visit "Taste of Chicago," a 10-day annual event held in Grant Park. The basic formula is simple: a few (very few) rides for the kids, street performers for the adults, several scheduled concerts and lots and lots of food.

The big attraction is the food. It's served out of multi-colored tents lined up back to back down the main north-south road through the park and along two intersecting streets. Tickets get you food -- 11 tickets for $7. Every booth is required to choose one item to be sold as a "taste" for three tickets, but they also offer larger portions.

Having produced and attended many Memphis outdoor events over the years, I took note of the many differences in "Taste of Chicago." First, the place was so clean. (Remember, the point of this event is food, and food produces a lot of trash.) There were trash containers everywhere. Second, "Taste" encourages recycling by providing a recycling bin for plastic drink bottles next to many of the trash containers. Third, the park site offers a mix of hardscape and softscape, which means the park is left undamaged. The park also offers a mix of sun and shade -- thick, extended shade. Fourth, guests are invited to bring their chairs, even walk in with drinks. Nobody checks your backpack at the door. In fact, there is no one checking anything at the door because, fifth, "Taste" is free. And finally, "Taste" attracts an incredible mix of people -- many ages, ethnicities, groupings are in evidence.

Seems there is much for Memphis to learn from "Taste of Chicago."

The same night, I also attended Summerdance, also in Grant Park. Wednesday through Sunday all summer long, free one-hour dance lessons are provided to willing students followed by two hours of dancing to live bands (except Wednesday which are reserved for the hottest DJs). Again, the mix of people who showed up for dance lessons was surprising and impressive. The evening's lesson was devoted to Salsa and Mambo. Tonight is West Coast Swing.

You may pay more to live in Chicago, but the rewards of citizenship seem worth it.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Emotional Days in County Budget Hearings

The underlying emotions in county budget hearings are rarely understood outside the commission meeting room where Finance Committee Chairman Cleo Kirk and other commissioners hear public managers present their spending requests for the coming year.

But in private conversations, it is clear that department heads and division directors of county government resent the way schools are handled. For years, they have felt that there is a double standard for budget hearings. The county managers have cut services, budgets and employees so schools could get more. They are seen as political appointees while school officials are seen as educators. While they are grilled over every spending increase, school officials are treated mostly as professionals talking in philosophical terms.

With about $1 billion spent for education every year for public schools, the aggravation of county managers is almost palpable. As schools continue to get about 60 percent of all county property taxes, the portion for “general government” has shrunk.

Of course, the most pressing financial issue is the $2.2 billion in debt that demands about $2 million a week to service in debt payments. This has been done by increases in property taxes, but also, in cuts to county services, including the formerly sacred areas of libraries and grants to the Arts Council and various social service agencies.

It is a tough time to be a county manager, when such formerly untouchable areas get the ax. It sends the message that every thing is expendable…except for schools.

In fairness to commissioners and schools, however, even the most seasoned county manager rarely understands the little influence that Shelby County elected officials have over the composition of school budgets. In fact, state law forbids the mayor from getting involved and commissioners only have the power to set the tax rate to fund education. Other than that, they have no power to comb through the school districts’ budgets asking questions and making adjustments as they do with other county-funded services.

For more than two decades, school funding has been the #1 priority for Shelby County, a fact often obscured in the yearly budget rhetoric. Every thing else is a distant second. When school advocates fill the commission chambers with applauding supporters, it’s easy to pick out the county managers. They’re the ones sitting on their hands.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

It's the Little Things Like Clean Air

In recent weeks, close to 170 U.S. mayors of both parties have signed on to do their part to fight global warming on the local level by pledging to carry out the Kyoto Accords – an international environmental agreement that would reduce heat-trapping gas emissions to levels 7 percent below those of 1990, by 2012. The U.S. under President Bush has refused to sign these accords. So the mayors have taken it into their own hands.

It was a movement sparked by visionary Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Mayors from liberal Los Angeles to conservative Houston have joined the coalition. Even our neighbors to the west, Little Rock and North Little Rock have signed on. Not so conspicuously missing from this list is Memphis, Tenn.

Perhaps we didn’t get the letter.

A member of the Smart City Consulting staff recently wrote a note to Mayor Herenton’s office urging him to join the coalition. It would be good for the 19th largest city in the country to participate if for nothing else than image. Though we are no longer the cleanest city, we could at least pretend that it is an aspiration both aesthetically as well as environmentally. But alas, no response and no sign of Memphis joining the bandwagon.

By NOT joining the other mayors on the Kyoto initiative, the perception is simply that our city leaders don’t care. Don’t care about air pollution, global warming, the environment and the health of the citizens of our city. While many of the mayors who are a part of the group have plans to actually do something to reduce emissions (Seattle is asking ships in its harbor to turn off their engines while they are docked, for instance), Memphis could gain a lot of respect from both local residents and a national audience simply by just supporting it on paper. It’s the little things that count. Like cutting the grass. Planting flowers. Keeping the streets clean. Placing your signature on a measure for clean air. Showing support for this measure doesn’t cost anything. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain with this simple gesture.

For more information on the coalition, visit

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Giving Incentives for Poverty Level Jobs

As their taxes are waived, employees of Jabil can take heart. They not only will have new jobs, but they likely will qualify for food stamps.

That’s right. The Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board actually gives away taxes for jobs paying $8.50 and $11.50 an hour. If you calculate salaries like the federal government does, rather than the way the IDB does, the annual salary calculates out to $15,937 for the lower paying hourly wage and $21,562 for the higher. At the lower, a family of three can qualify for food stamps, and at the higher, a family of five can qualify.

Most amazing of all is that the IDB not only gives incentives to offer Memphis workers food stamp wages, the jobs pay less than the per capita income in Shelby County, thus beginning a self-fulfilling prophecy where public policies create low-skill jobs that pay low-wage salaries that attract more low-skill jobs that…

With Shelby County as the world headquarters for the creator of global commerce, FedEx; with a major facility for UPS and with an airport and a highway grid often called the best in the U.S., it’s easy to think that distribution jobs would need no other incentives to locate and expand here.

Coupled with the new policy passed by city and county legislative bodies whose end result is that distribution warehouses rarely pay property taxes any more, it begs the question of why this remains a targeted industry for Shelby County tax freezes and why tax freezes aren’t limited to companies who pay a living wage.

There are some days when those jobs at McDonald’s must look pretty good to some Memphis workers.

Maybe We Ought to Be Looking for a New Strategy...

"Jabil adding 500 new jobs" was the headline on the front page of yesterday's Commercial Appeal. Third paragraph: "The new jobs will pay from $8.50 to $11.50 per hour."

It was only in the twelfth graph, deep in the jump (and after Mayor Wharton is quoted praising the company), that we learn Jabil is seeking a three-year tax break for its investment. That's on top of the five-year tax break (graph 13) the company received in 2003 when it planed to hire 400 people. (Today it employs 372 workers, according to the story.)

Let's see... $8.50 an hour x 40 hours a week = $340 a week. That adds up to a whopping $17,680 per year. Let's take the higher figure, $11.50 per hour. That's $460 a week or $23,920 annually.

For that we offer an 8-year tax freeze.

If, in fact, "There's not another city in the world that's done a better job with its distribution infrastructure than Memphis," as Jabil's operations manager told the CA, then why does it require an 8-year tax freeze to get the company to locate here?

Perhaps the more pertinent point is, if our economic development strategy produces a best-of-class infrastructure that only supports $18,000 a year jobs, maybe we ought to be looking for a new strategy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Summer in Panhandler Heaven

It is officially summertime in Memphis. Flowers are blooming, the temperature is going up, tens of thousands of people flood downtown for baseball at the best minor league stadium in the country and the panhandlers are back in force. As reliable as the swallows at Capistrano, they reappear to wander through downtown, some in constant conversation (often with themselves), to sleep in an alley or two, to follow downtown residents they have come to recognize and to torment the poor, bewildered tourists their radar always seems to fix on.

Other cities seem to be making strides in addressing this nuisance. Gone are the homeless people living in cardboard boxes above grates outside the federal buildings of Washington, D.C., and even Jackson Square in New Orleans, once panhandlers paradise, is free of harassment.

Few cities have resorted to anti-vagrancy laws, which has the deserved stigma from its legacy as a weapon in the South to deprive African-Americans of their rights. A more measured response is anti-panhandling laws, especially when coupled with social services that prepare people for re-entry into society by finding them jobs and training and diagnosing and treating mental disorders

To set the record straight, this is not a problem with homeless people. The majority of them, probably less than five percent according to research, panhandle. Rather, it is an attack on behavior of a few who devalue and demean the common space that we collectively share, not to mention the smell of urine and worse that emanates from downtown parks and alleys in the summer. As the assault by one panhandler a few years ago against mental health advocate Nancy Lawhead reminds us, there are reasons to be wary. That is why Nashville’s new police chief made the fight against panhandling a priority. Cincinnati conducts a quarterly census and has passed laws against panhandling and for the removal of camping sites. Other cities that are actively addressing this problem include Little Rock, Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Back in Memphis, the word is out. There are panhandlers that come back to Memphis each year expressly because of its lax reputation and laxer enforcement. There is the man who regularly lives in Barboro Alley for the summer. There are the panhandlers who hitchhike back to summer in Memphis. There are the panhandlers who feel invincible.While there is the irritation to downtown residents that comes from the insistent begging, it is nothing compared to the discomfort that comes from watching a family from Spain or tourists from Denmark confronted by an imposing fellow who follows them down the street, talking loudly and with his hand in their faces.

With a tourism industry of $2.4 billion, it creates memories that do nothing to enhance the city’s reputation. But more to the point, it is more than a disservice to our guests. Most of all, it is a disservice to the panhandlers themselves. They deserve opportunities for to do better, and the first step is to get them off the streets so their needs can be addressed. Some say it is not compassionate to target them, but the sign of a compassionate city lies in offering these people the means to end their dependence on their skills as public nuisances.

Friday, June 17, 2005

When Shelby County Is "Built Out"

A recent Michigan headline was enough to make a Memphis reader homesick: “The Height of Foolishness: Sprawl Without Growth.” The article told how Detroit treated sprawl as the engine of economic development, and as a result, the city is hollowed out and it has the highest rate of brain drain in the nation.

It is a cautionary tale for Memphis and Shelby County, where the term, “growth,” is often used to describe the migration of Memphians out of the city. It is a misnomer, of course. In fact, the population increase for Shelby County as a whole is a simple equation -- births over deaths. There is no large influx of people to swell our workforce, the so-called in-migration that is the brass ring for urban areas.

Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws tend to mask the issue for Memphis. Its population continues to grow slightly, but only because of annexation. The former city limits pre-Hickory Hill, for example, are recording net population loss. The masking of population loss through annexation is expected to end in 20 years, when it is predicted that Memphis will have annexed all of the land that it is gets under the annexation reserve agreements with Shelby County’s other municipalities. Whenever that day comes, there will only be 49 square miles of the county’s 785 square miles that will not be within a city – extreme northeastern Shelby County and the Shelby Forest area.

When this happens, it will transform Memphis and Shelby County Governments as we know them. Gone from county government will be the urban level services that it mistakenly delivered 20 years ago -- fire services, stepped up sheriff’s patrols, ambulances and land use planning and zoning. These are services that cities normally provide. When areas are annexed, then people are supposed to receive an urban level of services, not before. They have fueled sprawl, resulting in Memphis being named 34th of all U.S. cities for worst sprawl. As for City of Memphis, full annexation will result in it facing the reality of population loss that is occurring and heading to first-ring suburbs. Not to mention that it will also have to contend with governing an area larger than Los Angeles or New York City.

At the time when all of the annexations are completed, Memphis will have 489 square miles of area, up from 317 square miles; Millington will have 74 square miles, up from 32; Collierville will have 51 square miles, up from 29; Bartlett will have 44 square miles, up from 21; Arlington will have 34 square miles, up from 24; Lakeland will have 24 square miles, up from 20; and Germantown will remain built-out at its present 20 square miles.

Projections by each city predict population of 848,451 in Memphis in 2020; 60,000 in Bartlett; 49,200 in Collierville; 46,500 in Germantown; 32,000 in Arlington; 28,000 in Millington; 25,000 in Lakeland, and only 17,459 in the 49 square miles of unincorporated area. The eastern edge of Shelby County which had 6.6 percent of the county’s population in 2000 is predicted to have twice that amount by 2026. The people making the move will come largely from Frayser, the Quince area, Oakhaven, Whitehaven and the Defense Depot district. (Desoto County is expected to grow from 87,000 in 2000, a 58 percent increase from 1990, to 200,000 by 2026.)

The ultimate question is whether local governments can afford this vision of the future. Clearly, current sprawl is not sustainable, and there was actually a minuscule drop in population for Shelby County between 2000 and 2001. These are trends that will change the face of local government. Hopefully, somebody is planning for that day now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Beginning of the End of Tax Incentives

Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the escalating bidding wars that cost cities and states millions of tax dollars for incentives to attract new companies. It is now only a rumble, but citizens' objections are growing louder as these incentives continue at a time when state and local governments are raising taxes to pay for basic services.

Already, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati has struck down Ohio's $281 million incentive package for Daimler Chrysler, and because it is a district court, its ruling applies also to Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee. Similar lawsuits against incentives have been filed in Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and one is threatened in North Carolina against tax breaks given to Dell.

Ironically, governors are appealing to the U.S. Congress to let them continue to give away the taxes. The governor of Ohio argues that incentives are needed to compete in a global economy, although it's pretty hard for Ohio to compete with Bangladesh on the basis of cheapness.

As Mary Lou Waits said on Smart City recently, cities that succeed in the global economy will excel in ideas. She stressed that cities that work on keeping pace with their rival cities are losers already, because only with "leap frog" strategies can cities compete and succeed.

A review of these kinds of strategies by U.S. cities never shows them to be based on selling their cities at a discount -- cheap land, cheap labor, cheap taxes. Rather, they are built on investing in better workers, high-quality universities, an enriching quality of life and efficient, economical public services.

This trend is especially important to Memphis and Shelby County, which waive enough taxes annually to pay for FedEx Forum in less than four years. The first signals of changing times have surfaced in meetings of Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners, who are beginning to question the process that gives non-elected boards such broad power to waive taxes.

Years ago, the legislative bodies delegated the authority to grant tax freezes to boards like the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board and Center City Revenue Finance Corporation. Tennessee law gives commissioner and council members the power to take it back whenever they like.

No one yet is arguing that incentives are not a tool for business recruitment. Rather, some local legislators are asking why they are responsible for piecing together a budget each year that becomes increasingly more difficult, but tens of millions of revenue is taken off the table before they even begin. There is a sense that tax freezes, payment in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), have become an entitlement, as shown in the fact that close to half of all tax freezes given in Tennessee are granted in Shelby County.

Some business recruiters argue that Shelby County can't compete without the incentives, because state government, unlike our surrounding states, has little to offer in the way of state incentives. Others point out that Nashville operates with the same incentives but gives less than one a year. And finally, some say that Shelby County's overreliance on tax freezes sends the message that its workforce is so poor that companies have to be paid to come here.

For eight years, local government officials have talked about targeting freezes for priority industries such as biotechnology and granting them only when jobs pay at least the county's median income. The lawsuit considered in North Carolina makes an argument along these lines - that freezes are unfair because they allow certain companies to receive special treatment and they are poor public policy.

Ultimately, it appears that the last word on the lawsuits will come from the U.S. Supreme Court, but regardless of the legal outcome, the conversations in local government about the tax freezes show no sign of slowing down.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

I'd Like a Table on the Patio, Please

It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t too long ago that Memphis was in the dining dark ages. In those days, Memphians looked with envy at those centers of sophistication which actually let diners eat outdoors at their favorite restaurants.

Back in the 1980’s, leaders of the Memphis Restaurant Association – Thomas Boggs of Huey’s fame and Mike Warr, former restauranteur now doing a great job of heading the Porter-Leath Children’s Center – lobbied city and county governments as if they were K Street lobbyists in D.C.

Their revolutionary request: permission to have outdoor dining in Memphis.

There was also another request even more monumental to the future of the city -- allowing people to eat barbecue from the booths at Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Contest and allowing the booths to remove the screens which separated the cooking area from the public.

Each year, when the weather warmed up, so did the two restauranteurs. They held meetings with anyone in local government who would listen (and some who wouldn’t). They asked questions like whether it is that much more unsanitary in Memphis than other cities and what health risks were floating the air outside Memphis restaurants. The answer was always the same: it’s the health code and it’s not going to change.

The extremely stringent health code was a legacy of the Yellow Fever epidemics, and the standing water in the bayous were now under ground, but the law is the law, they were told.

But like the water that keeps dripping on a stone, they finally wore down the immovable. Overnight, it seemed the rules changed. What was revolutionary thinking at the time is now an every day expectation of Memphis diners.

It was a sign of how far we’ve come that umbrellaed tables and chairs recently appeared on the sidewalk in front of the Green Beetle, a more than 50-year landmark on South Main. There were health hazards to be had there in the past, but they didn’t come from the food. It was the kind of hangout that even newspaper reporters refused to brave.

The grizzled guys at the bar looked like they might punch you at any moment, the bar was so dark that you ordered a drink whenever a shadow of a bartender moved, the cursing at the back of the place substituted for a juke box and an air of menace was as dependable as a Holiday Inn room.

But times have definitely changed. New owner, Andrew Davis, is creating something altogether different – a friendly destination known for its down home food and hospitality. To top it off, the tattoo parlor just north of the Green Beetle has now added tables and chairs of its own.

Even Thomas Boggs and Mike Warr might agree that the revolution they started may finally have just gone too far.

Monday, June 06, 2005

If I Were in Charge

Below is Carol Coletta's piece that ran in the Memphis Flyer in May that asked what she would do if she were in charge of Memphis:

If I were in charge, here's where I would focus: Develop a new story for Memphis. Today, Memphis is defined increasingly by its deficits. We need to define Memphis and its future in terms of its potential.

Pay attention to details. Make Memphis clean, green and well-maintained. Toughen up and speed up code enforcement. Institute a 411 system and use it as an "early warning system" so that you know where problems are developing. Then respond, and report results.

Create reasons for people with choices to stay in Memphis. Consider where Memphis can develop strategic advantages and with what kinds of people. Figure out what they want and then deliver. For instance, Memphis is likely the most logical choice for people without children in their households, immigrants, people who go out frequently, people who want a more maintenance-free lifestyle. If so, let's develop a deep understanding of their needs and serve them.

Re-imagine the commercial corridors and aging neighborhood commercial centers. Many of our best neighborhoods are masked by horrible-looking major streets. Poplar is the new Summer. And because of the super-sizing of retail and entertainment, neighborhood commercial centers have lost their vitality. Bring together the best minds in the country to develop a new strategy for redevelopment.

Hit the streets. The mayor and senior staff should be forced out onto the streets and into the neighborhoods monthly to get an up-close look at what they govern. If you want to know what's really going on in our city, knock on doors and ask. And when you find someone who is adding value to their neighborhood by keeping their home particularly well-maintained and planted, issue a Mayor's Award on the spot.

Make it easier to invest in the city. Developers -- good ones who want to do the right thing -- say it is almost impossible to get a new project through City Hall and MLGW in a timely way. That's ridiculous. Break the logjam so we can rebuild the city and reap the benefits of new taxes.

Elevate design and planning. As architect Andres Duany said in a recent Smart City interview, 1.5 million new homes are built in America every year, and the vast majority degrade the landscape. That is certainly true of much of the new development in Shelby County, especially the design of new roads and commercial centers. It doesn't have to be that way. An excellent new planning code is being developed for Memphis and Shelby County. Let's get it finished and passed.

Make the tax premium count. Memphians pay more to live in Memphis than citizens pay to live in surrounding communities or in unincorporated Shelby County. That's fine when the taxes are being invested in real gains for Memphis. But why should Memphians be expected to invest in schools when the people of Germantown do not? Why should Memphians pay for fire stations in Lakeland when the people of Lakeland will not tax themselves to do so? Why should Memphians be expected to pay twice for the Health Department, once as Memphians and once as Shelby Countians? Why should Memphians subsidize the move of Memphis businesses to the county? That's the dumbest move of all. Why should Memphians pay for emergency services for unincorporated Shelby Countians who won't pay for the service themselves? It's unfair, and it needs to end. Let's pay more only when it benefits Memphis.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Carol's Thoughts on Re-Use of the Pyramid

Like many others, I have been disappointed by the proposals for Pyramid re-use. It's a reminder that too often, we're 15 years behind the rest of the country. An aquarium? It's a dicey proposition. How many aquariums have been major disappointments -- even outright flops -- for cities? Simulator rides? Oh my God. Vegas gave up on that a decade ago, and Vegas has money to burn.

It seems to me the fundamental problem is that the pyramid is not easily or cheaply re-usable. When we made the decision that the pyramid couldn't be retrofitted to serve the Grizzlies, we made the decision to eat the debt. We should have calculated that (even privately) as part of the cost of luring the Grizzlies to Memphis.

If we assume that we won't find any use that covers the debt service, then we can re-think the use of the building, and perhaps more importantly, the use of the land.

With that said, I want to float an idea that may be the worst I've ever had. But just as a thought starter...

I just walked down the bluffwalk to see from above what was happening at Tom Lee Park. And it occurred to me that the Pyramid and its parking lots could be a great festival grounds for Memphis. It could become the new home of Memphis in May and perhaps five other major festivals.

We could re-think the land from the north end of the cobblestones all the way to Auction (including the Pyramid) and make it work as one great urban space, rather than these pitiful little pieces. We could connect the land more obviously and more visually to the water. And we would have the option of indoor/outdoor festivals, making it a year-round option.

Perhaps we should challenge Memphis in May to re-make itself into a year-round festival producer.

We could then make the festival grounds available for conventions, if that has any value. (Could it give us a way to differentiate our offerings?)

We wouldn't use the pyramid for "concerts." Only for "festivals." Would that allow us to get around the non-compete?

This land has a history as a festival grounds as it was once used for the Cotton Carnival Midway. (Ok, I'm stretching the geography a little bit, but you get the point.)

This strategy would allow us to re-design Tom Lee Park as it desperately needs to be without letting the considerations of a 2-weekend festival drive the park's design for the other 50 weeks.

Ok, call me crazy. Just thinking...