Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Action, Not Press Conferences, Will Restore Public Confidence

Sometimes it’s easy to feel sympathy for our elected officials who, spending their lives in the hothouse that is Memphis politics, try to do something to show action, and in the end, it does just the opposite.

That’s what we thought when we read The Commercial Appeal article about today’s high-profile press conference on yet another crime prevention “initiative” for our community.

While intentions were good, and participants candidly acknowledged that they were reacting to the growing community outcry about rising crime, the public probably would have reacted better if the news coverage was to announce the results of actions that had already been taken, rather than about multi-layered plans for the future and a summit six months from now.

The plan, dubbed Operation Safe Community (if government wants to save money, it should shut down the committee that comes up with these names), was replete with buzzwords and stern talk, but in the end, it was lost on the participants that another press conference might not be the most effective way to send the message that we’re getting tough on crime.

After all, many of these same elected officials have had press conference in previous years on some of these same issues, notably Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who has been firing off press releases claiming credit for cracking down on gangs and domestic violence for years now.

Much of the “ambitious anti-crime initiative” seemed to be new packaging for favorite agenda items – reinstatement of the domestic violence court, a push for more and more gun crime laws, attacks on gangs and help from faith-based programs. There was something for everyone, and since The Commercial Appeal published an editorial praising the effort on the same day that the press conference story was printed, it’s pretty clear that the initiative will have a big-time cheerleader behind it.

Watching the elected officials announce that the program will make Memphis one of the safest communities of its size in the nation by the end of the decade, it was hard not to think it's too bad that the announcement wasn't made in the last decade, because some of leaders were in office then, too. Perhaps that why Attorney General Gibbons and Mayor Willie W. Herenton were happy to let new U.S. Attorney General David Kustoff take the lead, and that was good news, because he brings some fresh eyes and new thinking to these strategies.

While others were handing out bromides like “together, the community has the resources to fix it… we just need to engage the community” and “it’s going to take the rest of the community to step in,” Mr. Kustoff spoke directly, admitting there are “no easy, push-button answers.” Just telling the public like it is seems to be a dying art form, but the U.S. Attorney's candor is refreshing and encouraging.

There is broad consensus and concern within the political community that the public is fed up with crime. They are tired of the level of crime that they have to accept as a normal part of their lives. They are tired of police officers treating stolen cars as our birthright and unworthy of finger printing.

Most of all, the public doesn't want to be told that they are the answers to fighting crime. They are paying more than $250 million a year for law enforcement and criminal justice, and simply put, they want something to show for the investment.

There are a number of things that can be done that would produce a much-needed boost in public confidence for its law enforcement agencies, chiefly visible enforcement and some press conferences about actual results of new programs, rather than announcements about new plans.

The depth of public cynicism is as deep as most observers have ever seen it. Hopefully, elected officials will downplay press conferences and press releases, and perhaps even forego plans for another summit.

The sentiment of the public is unmistakable. They want to see action and results. Just do something, anything, they say, and hopefully, somebody at the podium is listening. So much is riding on it.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The IDB Parallel Universe

Government officials and agencies have an aversion to admitting they’ve made a mistake, but no agency is more tone deaf than the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board.

Case in point. Yesterday, on the same day that Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton was in Nashville, engaged in hard-nosed negotiations to get more revenues for his cash-strapped government, the IDB is at the same time giving away $820,000 in taxes for two more questionable applicants.

Being stubborn is one thing, but the board’s actions have long since reached the stage of irresponsibility. Not only does its continued rubber stamping of tax freezes fly in the face of the opinions of most taxpayers, but it’s just simply bad public policy. Period.

Unfortunately, in recent months, there has been a lot more talk about reining in the board’s authority than action. Normally, talk is cheap, but not in this case. While city and county governments debate what should be done, the IDB simply goes on its way, with each approval adding to the $50 million a year in taxes already waived in Memphis and Shelby County.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, the county’s mayor has to suffer the indignities of going to Capitol Hill, hat in hand, to plead for the state’s largesse in granting him a new tax on development. In the end, he is able to get $5 million this year, or roughly the equivalent of 10 percent of the total amount being waived by tax freezes annually.

An Oblivious IDB

The IDB meanwhile acts as if it’s oblivious to the way that it is compounding the financial woes of city and county governments. It is so single-minded that it sees no broader responsibilities to the community, such as using tax freezes only when absolutely necessary to close a deal for quality jobs in a targeted industry.

Yesterday, the board gave preliminary approval to two more pedestrian applicants – one with a habit for posting losses and another in the habit of paying welfare wages. The new jobs created by the companies actually drag down the per capita income of Shelby County, because the average salary of one company was $32,000 and salaries at the other company average $22,880, both below the county’s per capita income of $34,000.

So, clearly, it’s not the strength of the salaries that got their taxes waived. Rather, it must have been the capital investments of $4.2 million and $2.1 million, once again making the point that the PILOT program is a real estate development program masquerading as economic development.

The company paying the average wages of $22,880, Knox St. Clair, a supplier of interior doors and windows, is paying so little that its 32 new employees will be eligible for food stamps and human services on the day they start their new jobs. In other words, taxpayers are not only subsidizing the company’s bottom line with the tax freezes, but we may also be subsidizing it by providing its employees public assistance, public health and human services programs.

These kinds of tax freezes say volumes about the IDB’s long-term vision of Memphis and Shelby County as a center for the low-wage, low-skill jobs that it so easily approves. It certainly didn’t engender any great feelings of pride for us when an official with one of the companies took his tax freeze and praised Memphis’ “highly-skilled distribution workforce.” That, in a phrase, is the legacy of the IDB.

Low-wage Jobs

In effect, the low-wage jobs being given tax freezes have hidden costs, and as we’ve suggested before, the evaluation for all tax freezes should include all public costs, not only of roads and interchanges, but public health care costs, utility subsidies and housing assistance for low-wage employees.

In Minneapolis, for example, companies seeking business incentives must provide the names of all programs to which they are applying, profiles of their workforce, projections of future wages and the total cost of public assistance for their workers.

Amazing as it sounds, there is no effort to connect decisions about PILOTs to a more comprehensive, overall plan and to place the emphasis on areas where the existing infrastructure had already been paid for by local taxpayers. As a result, PILOTs approved by the IDB cause local government to spend more money to build roads, bridges and sewers, however, these factors aren’t considered in the evaluation process.

That’s why we have made our own recommendation. Every PILOT should have a “fiscal note” that tells not only the amount of taxes being waived, but any other costs that will have to be incurred by taxpayers, whether it is for a new road or food stamps for workers.


Decisions about tax freezes shouldn’t be made in isolation, and if we are to act as investors, we are entitled to know the entire investment that we are making in each company.

The heart of our economic development policy should be increased opportunity, better jobs and bigger paychecks. Tax incentives should be aimed at achieving all three objectives, because if government is a party to a process that puts its own citizens in low-wage, dead end jobs, it is not just bad public policy. It is the most cynical kind of public policy.

That’s why it’s disheartening that the common sense recommendations of the consultants who studied the tax freeze programs continue to languish five months after they were issued and business as usual continues.

At the end of the day, the recommendations go a long way to putting the emphasis on tax freezes where it belongs – back on an understanding that this is the public’s money, and it must be invested wisely and in a more targeted way.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Shelby County Schools' Political Payback Only Hurts Students

It’s always the innocent bystanders who get shot.

That’s especially true in school politics, where the ultimate victims are always the students.

Recently, in the latest salvo from the Shelby County School Board, Memphis City Schools was notified in a letter from county superintendent Bobby Webb that 155 students in an area being annexed by Memphis cannot attend county schools next year in keeping with past practice.

Sometimes, it just doesn’t seem possible for the county school system to exhaust its supply of pettiness and cheap shots. The letter seems to come from the same place as the outbursts by County Schools Chairman David Pickler following Memphis City Schools’ refusal to support legislation before the Tennessee Legislature that would have made the county system into a special school district.


As we pointed out April 14, there were major political obstacles to the city schools’ support for the special district, primarily connected to the question of what benefits, if any, would Memphis City Schools receive from lobbying for the legislation. In the end, there was no benefits and it did nothing to support the special district, igniting an overheated hue and cry from Shelby County Schools which complained that its city counterparts had violated an agreement and a newly minted spirit of comity.

It’s a tendency of the county schools to see their interests as the center of the educational universe and to pander to their constituents, but we’re hard-pressed to imagine how they missed the call so badly on the special school district. Even a political novice could have predicted that unless there was some reciprocity for Memphis City Schools, there was little reason for it to support this change.

It was a telling indicator of how poorly the county district handles issues that require serious negotiation and compromise. Memphis City Schools’ officials contend that they never made a commitment to support the state legislation, and privately complained that they felt that Shelby County Schools had tried to bully them with Memphis Tomorrow’s approval of the special district.

All that’s just background, but apparently, as a show of their displeasure and pique, the county district decided to send a message. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of students living in the Southwind-Windyke annexation area.

The 155

There are 155 of them – 81 in elementary school, 44 in middle school and 30 in high school. In the past, Shelby County Schools has allowed for a transition period up to several years for students to move from their present schools to city schools. In addition, students in the 11th and 12th grades – and sometimes the 10th – have been allowed to graduate from the school they attended at the time of annexation.

But no more.

In an effort to show its muscle, the county school system gave Superintendent Carol Johnson one week’s notice that it would not be allowing a transition period for the 155 students in this year’s annexation area. It’s one week’s notice for the superintendent to plan for them. This week, the county district will notify parents of its decision, forcing their children to move next fall from schools in Germantown to schools within the Memphis city limits.

Under Capacity

Most incredibly of all, the students being removed from Germantown High School are now in a school whose dominant characteristic is that it is under capacity and will be even more so in the future. In other words, the county system could easily have allowed these students the opportunity to complete high school in the present school they are attending. By the way, the grand total of students who would have been seniors at Germantown High School next year is 10, hardly a problem for a school about 200 students below capacity.

Instead, today, Memphis City Schools is unexpectedly trying to find places for these students in its schools. Some of the obvious options are Ridgeway High which is 147 percent over capacity; Ridgeway Middle School, 111 percent over capacity and Ridgeway Elementary School, 110 percent.

Prepare yourself for the county system's normal claim that its school are overcrowded, but as usual, its statistics would have made Enron proud. Not only is Germantown High School under capacity, but so are Germantown Elementary (about 40 students) and Germantown Middle Schools (about 250 students).

All in all, even in a political environment known for its adversarial positioning, the county’s position is spiteful to the extreme. And sadly, its willingness to use students as pawns for its political agenda says more about its commitment to education than any amount of speeches that its officials can give.


The area being annexed is, roughly speaking, an oddly shaped area north of FedEx World Headquarters and east of Hacks Cross Road, a sliver of land that runs east along Hacks Cross Road and then eastward along Nonconnah Creek, and an area that is essentially Windyke.

These areas were immediately annexed, but most of Southwind and the area west of Wyndyke will wait to be annexed until 2013 in an agreement entered into by The City of Memphis. Looking at the annexation plan, it’s hard to find the logic in it. Some areas are leapfrogged for no apparent reason except they are largely single family residences and given a seven-year reprieve in city taxes.

Politics is a contact sport, but some things should rise above the normal daily political gamesmanship.

Fair play for these 155 students is surely one of them.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Funky Memphis Keeps Hottest Music To Itself

From the Hollywood Reporter comes this reminder of the most important asset of Memphis Music - the music being created right now - and why we need to do a better job of showcasing and supporting it. If we're looking for the best indicator of success for Memphis Music, it's measured by the money being put into the pockets of today's musicians, not merely the numbers of tourists visiting yesterday's sites:

Interesting town, Memphis. I was reacquainted with that fact when I spent 10 days there early this month on what I laughably called "vacation."

I went down to the Bluff City to attend the annual Beale Street Music Festival and the fifth Ponderosa Stomp, temporarily relocated from New Orleans to Memphis this year (HR 2/23). I also poked around the city's small, noisy, smoky bars and schmoozed with the locals.

I was reminded again that there are two Memphises. The one most people know is the city of Graceland, the redeveloped and Disney-fied Beale Street and such sites as the Stax Museum and Sun Studios. (Hi Records, home of Al Green, does not yet have its own shrine, but give it time.) Elvis, rockabilly, Southern soul -- that heritage continues to draw the tourists.

But the rock music made in today's Memphis remains largely invisible to out-of-towners. It doesn't make it downtown, but you can hear it almost any night in the city's midtown joints.

I managed to catch some astonishing stuff. Local indie goddess Alicja Trout, who fronts three bands, played a thrilling set Friday at Murphy's with the quintet Mouserocket. A Recording Academy event Saturday at a downtown warehouse showcased Secret Service, a punchy, Southern-fried hard rock band featuring guitarist and second-generation Memphis musician Steve Selvidge, and Brad Postlethwaite & Friends, a new project by a member of the chamber-rock collective Snowglobe.

You probably have not heard of any of these fine performers, for contemporary Memphis rock seldom makes its way outside the city limits. It's only the rare act like the North Mississippi All Stars and Lucero who get on the national map.

Memphis almost is a Bizarro World version of neighboring company town Nashville. Infrastructure? Forget about it. The only thing Memphis has a lot of is studios. Well-capitalized indie labels are few; many performers issue music on their own hip-pocket imprints. Managers, attorneys and booking agents also appear in short supply. And who's the top "rock" seller this week at local indie distributor Select-O-Hits? Jimmy Buffett.

Add to this mix a generalized suspicion of the musical establishment by the town's indie-rockers, and an equally pronounced apathy on the part of local audiences and city fathers, and you have a musically robust community that remains steadfastly balkanized commercially.

It might be left to the city's rap community to lead the rock brethren out of the wilderness. Three 6 Mafia's surprise best original song Oscar win for their "Hustle & Flow" track "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" made a nationwide impression, and homeboy Al Kapone, whose "Whoop That Trick" also is heard in Craig Brewer's film, continues on the rise.

During the Beale Street fest, Kapone performed a rambunctious set backed in part by the Bo-Keys, an indie-rock/funk crossbreed that includes Stax vets Skip Pitts, Ronnie Williams and Willie Hall. The band is led by bassist Scott Bomar, who scored "Hustle & Flow" and is composing for Brewer's upcoming "Black Snake Moan."

Watching the rappers and instrumentalists interacting so vibrantly onstage in Tom Lee Park, one began to dream that a new day of cooperative black and white music-making could birth another glory era in Memphis. Here's hoping, y'all.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Full Frontal Assault On SOB's Is Called For If Change Is Going To Come

Yesterday, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners had one of their infrequent joint meetings to discuss a bothersome issue for Memphis – the S-O-B’s.

The news they got was B-A-D.

In this case, we’re referring to S-O-B’s as in sexually-oriented businesses. The news from the consultants hired by the Office of Planning and Development was startling: Memphis is in the top three cities in the U.S. for “anything goes” in its sex clubs.

It’s not what the local legislators were expecting to hear, judging from the grim looks and incredulous comments. But then again, it’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in Memphis that strip clubs here are famous for their uninhibited, graphic behavior.

Over the years, there’s been periodic talk about regulating SOB’s, but it always fades away as suddenly as it begins. Normally, the public’s ire about this issue is raised when a business considers a suburban location. A double standard is seen when it comes to the rest of the city, and despite the talk, there’s been very little done to control the clubs on any level.

Three-time Loser

In that regard, Memphis is a three-time loser, failing in regulation, licensing and zoning. Put simply, it should really come as no surprise that things are completely out of control.

The nationally prominent consultants, after visiting Memphis’s sex clubs, said that Memphis is in the major leagues in public obscenity. Few cities rival ours, and the consultants’ recent work in Detroit showed that the city pales in comparison to Memphis.

In the clubs here, sex is ever present and ever available -- any kind, any way, any cost.

If you want food, you go to the kitchen and order it from the cook, because the woman serving your table is delivering services, but it’s not food. There is “full body contact” between male customers and female dancers on stage, frequently moving to a back room to complete the exchange of cash and bodily fluids.

In other words, if you’re wondering what takes place in these clubs, let your imagination run wild. You’re probably not imaginative enough to compile the list of activities taking place there.

The problem is basic. There are no checks and balances and no serious consequences in the current regulatory system.

Beer Board

The Memphis Beer Board – the regulatory body over these clubs – repeatedly slaps club owners on the wrists, collects the fines that it needs for its operations and sends the club owner back to his business. To the club owner, the fine is just another routine cost of business.

Unlike some cities, in Memphis, there is no “three strikes and you’re out” regulation, but even if there were, it’s hard to see the Beer Board applying it.

Here’s the normal scenario: someone is arrested inside a club for drugs or prostitution, usually by one of the only seven vice officers with Memphis Police Department. Notification of the arrest goes to the beer board, which shows a lack of concern that is as much of its make-up as its politically appointed members.

The Beer Board is headed up by Reginald French, plugged-in political operative and Democratic candidate for Shelby County Sheriff. Past performance of the board certainly does nothing to polish his law and order credentials.

Lessons from other cities show that the ones that have been effective in handling the SOB’s rely on a combination of aggressive enforcement of criminal obscenity laws and the type of stringent regulations that the consultants have written for other locales.

National Consultants

Eric Kelly and Connie Cooper, the consultants advising city and county planners on a course of action to control these clubs, have national credentials, and their work has been instrumental in other cities successfully balancing First Amendment issues with the interest of a community to regular SOB’s.

In fact, they wrote the book on this problem. Literally. It’s titled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Regulating Sex Businesses,” and it was released by the American Planning Association.

They tends to reject the term “adult entertainment,” a marketing term invented by the pornography industry, in favor of sexually oriented businesses, because it provides a useful acronym for these enterprises, which pose public health and safety hazards.

They describe activities in Memphis clubs as coming close to legalized prostitution, and it is this aspect of the clubs’ operations that are most troublesome, because two clubs are owned by rival gangs whose dancers may be coerced into working there.

They acknowledge that municipalities can’t legally prohibit sexually oriented businesses from building within their borders, but they can regulate where they are built, such as in commercial or industrial areas and away from schools, parks, playgrounds and churches.


Although recommendations from Mr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper won’t be presented until next month, several themes have already emerged in meetings discussing what could be done to help with this problem in Memphis. One, regulatory oversight should be removed from the ineffectual Beer Board and given to a public agency prepared to enforce and punish; two, existing zoning ordinances need to be fine tuned to restrict the location of these clubs and their operations; and three, clubs should be required to get a license or permit.

Surprisingly, none of the clubs is required to get a permit to get into the sex business. The required permit is to sell beer and food only, although the dancers have to get a permit. To compound enforcement efforts, if codes enforcement officials cite the businesses into court for violations, the maximum fine that can be levied against them is $50, because the Tennessee Legislature has refused to allow higher fines for code infractions.

Meanwhile, there are primary three local owners of these SOB’s, and they interchange ownership frequently with quit claim deeds so that codes regulations can’t be enforced in any meaningful way. Every time property ownership is changed, the clock starts running all over again.


In other words, there are plenty of changes that need to be made if Memphis is to get serious about these problems, but the ability of cities to have some control over these businesses has widened as a result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the past 20 years.

Lately, the Office of Planning and Development has been showing a more aggressive side in its leadership, bringing in nationally known experts to help with issues from tax freezes to Broad Street revitalization to a new development code to sexually-oriented businesses. But high-quality information means nothing if elected officials don’t act on it.

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper have exposed the ugly underbelly of Memphis to the light, and hopefully, government officials will take strong action to control the illegal activities in these clubs. Not only is it needed to address public health and safety issues, it’s needed to eradicate the ugly whispers in the halls of government about influence exerted by these club owners.

In the end, that’s the most insidious problem of all.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

New Orleans' Lessons Could Have Memphis Applications

The following is the City Journal column in the May issue of Memphis magazine by Smart City Consulting's Tom Jones:

Spray painted on a New Orleans wharf warehouse near the Lower Garden District: “Next time, we vote for somebody who cares.”

Nearby, inside the 79-year-old po’ boy restaurant, Domilise’s, Karen, a petite 63-year-old with deep family roots in Louisiana, says: “Our form of government doesn’t work anymore, and it’s not worth saving. When there’s no accountability and no responsibility, what good is it?”

The room nods in agreement. No one even bothers to narrow it down to a specific government. Every one seems to agree that it applies to all of them – federal, state and city.

There’s an air of revolution in the small, cramped restaurant. It’s not that such emotions are unusual for New Orleans. Rather, it’s the sense that people aren’t going to take it any more and mean to change things.


It’s a dramatic turnaround for New Orleans, where the air has always been heavy with the aroma of good food and with fatalism about public corruption. The city has always been the city equivalent of an Internet chat room, where people could reinvent themselves and their past. This time, the people seem determined instead to reinvent the city and its future. Activist groups are springing up with a regularity usually reserved for new restaurants.

After initial resistance, Governor Kathleen Blanco was met with a blistering assault from the Citizens for One Greater New Orleans, and she reversed course, leading the fight to reform the levee boards that had come to symbolize all that is wrong with New Orleans government – favoritism and corruption, ineffective and short-sighted.

The “One Voice” movement also got the attention of Mayor Ray Nagin, businessman turned government reformer, who supported the group early and often. However, he was assailed by many for his clumsy political rhetoric and his lack of understanding that being mayor is more about being a leader than a manager. Many of the grassroots activists are campaigning against his reelection.

But the most intense vitriol is aimed at the federal government, and rather than ebbing over time, it seems to grow in intensity as headline after headline chronicles federal officials who are out of touch and inept, giving Congressional elections new importance. Leading the charge is the Times-Picayune, a powerful reminder of the impact that exceptional newspaper reporting and impassioned editorial writing can have.

Why does this matter to Memphis?
Because we’ve always had more in common with New Orleans than river and music. Frequently, we’ve looked to the Big Easy to glimpse into the future. Because of the strikingly similar demographics in Memphis and New Orleans, that city has always been the place where we could look to see what could happen if we didn’t deal with problems. No matter how bad poverty, teenage pregnancy, student performance, infant mortality or the disparity between white and black family incomes were in Memphis, we could always count on it being worse in New Orleans.
Now, all that has changed.

For the first time, we may be able to look to New Orleans for something other than a worst case scenario. Yes, there are the obvious lessons that apply to us, such as the need for a disaster communications system based on up-to-date, reliable technology; completion of the emergency preparedness plan that seems to be never ending and for seamless coordination between our troubled Homeland Security Office and our undermanned Emergency Management Office.

Big Picture

Beyond these kinds of lessons, however, New Orleans is a petri dish for innovations in city-building. The “big picture” issues pivotal to a 21st century New Orleans are just as pivotal to our city:

· Make its future known for smart growth, rational land use and high-quality design

· Create a shared vision for economic development that shifts the economy from low-skill to high-skill and from tourist-centric to talent-centric

· Enact a development code that binds together a city too often divided by race and that encourages density and mixed use, mixed income, walkable neighborhoods

· Capitalize better on universities as engines of economic growth and innovation and as neutral ground where unifying plans for the city can be developed

· Encourage newfound citizen involvement by formalizing a process that invites new voices and new people into the public process

· Build a wireless city where connectivity and communications – keys to the future - are omnipresent

· Anchor the future in today’s musicians by providing housing incentives, practice space and financing

· Build a “green,” environmentally sensitive ethos seen in planning, energy efficiency, construction codes, architecture and a network of parks and outdoor recreation

· Build a transportation system that emphasizes bicycles as much as streetcars and includes a light rail system

In the end, for New Orleans to succeed, it must raise the bar. Blown away with half of the city was citizen apathy, and Katrina left New Orleanians with little choice but to rethink how they want to live in their city and how to make it happen. Maybe Memphis can learn enough from its sister river city to start building a future of innovation on our own. Pre-earthquake.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Agricenter President Could Usher In A New Era Of Communication and Cooperation

John Charles Wilson is a breath of fresh air.

In an interview with The Commercial Appeal, the president of Agricenter International admits what others there have refused to face for years. The facility’s founding vision and promises have failed.

In describing what was supposed to be a national center for agricultural technology and research, Mr. Wilson told about how much children enjoy the place today – with its pay-to-fish lake, its eight-acre corn maze, its fishing rodeo and his community outreach programs to teach forestry and farming to students.

While all of these activities sound like fun, it vividly paints the portrait of a facility that fits more into the framework of a regional park than an isolated facility commanding 1,000 acres of public land like a feudal lord.


Of course, no one at Agricenter mentions any more their 1981 justification for public funding: Agricenter International will be a “regional resource and technological center for all aspects of agriculture…a showplace for cutting edge technology and equipment…a repository for information in a state-of-the-art data bank…a prominent center for innovative research…the site for permanent and changing exhibits…and the host/sponsor/organizer for significant agricultural conferences, seminars and conventions on emerging themes.”

Now, cheerleaders for the facility have lowered their sights, pointing to its importance in giving kids a chance to experience farm life. Left unsaid is why that requires 1,000 acres of the county’s most prized land at Shelby Farms Park, or if this is the highest and best use of a building that’s received more than $20 million in public subsidies.

Once the organization was disconnected from the financial artery of county government about 10 years ago, Agricenter International could no longer count on deficit funding each year from the public sector, and in its haste to reinvent itself, it floundered for years before it arrived at its present focus anchored in youth activities.

A Mixed Bag

It still has its mixed bag of events held in the building. Most have only tenuous connections to its agricultural mission. Lately, one of its biggest events was the Southern Women’s Show, and the newspaper coverage said that 22,000 people in three days attended the show. What it failed to mention is that Agricenter International stole the event from the Memphis Cook Convention Center, where it had previously been held. This in turn reduced revenues at the convention center, a building where the city and county governments are still responsible for deficit funding.

We are told that events rentals account for about 33 percent of the facility’s revenues; office rent accounts for about 20 percent; 10 percent from crops and the remainder from miscellaneous activities.

In its Valentine to the Agricenter, The Commercial Appeal quoted the economic impact study by Younger and Associates that the Agricenter generates $527 million in economic spin-offs. It makes that same firm’s prediction that the NBA would produce more than $1 billion in economic impact almost seem reasonable.

Based on the facility’s annual revenues of roughly $2.5 million, it would mean more than a 250:1 return on investment. Besides demonstrating once again how utterly meaningless these economic impact studies are, the report is merely a distraction from key decisions that need to be made about Agricenter’s future.

Over the years, Agricenter has shown an institutional inclination to stonewall any questions about accountability, shift in mission, iron-gripped control over the 1,000 acres or even modest proposals for greater coordination between the operations of the park and the facility.

Staying Alive

But our intent is not to beat up Agricenter International. That’s much too easy. Our purpose is to acknowledge that it is in fact an organization trying to stay alive despite the failure of its original mission. That happens to a lot of organizations, and even critics of the facility have to admire Wilson’s dogged determination to find a niche and his enthusiasm for his job.

However, it does seem time to address some critical questions about Agricenter International.

For example, it’s time for Shelby County Government to re-visit the resolution which turned over 1,000 acres to the organization. The fruits of that resolution -- a hodgepodge of buildings creating an eyesore along Germantown Road, a desolate RV park, a decrepit old farmer’s market building, an architecturally jarring ShowPlace Arena, and a series of buildings whose who look no more permanent that the trailers parked nearby – call out for a fresh look at the relationship between county government and Agricenter and a more logical allotment of public land.

Mr. Wilson exhibits rare honesty in explaining Agricenter’s activities, so perhaps, his leadership can usher in a new era of openness in considering these issues.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Memphis' Best Future Begins With A Dose Of Reality

Memphis is in trouble.

There, we’ve said it. Please tell us we’re wrong.

We have traditionally been dependable cheerleaders for Memphis, but right now, we’re hard-pressed to feel like our team is even in the major leagues, much less competing there.

This jolt of reality slapped us in the face when we read Forbes’ always influential rankings of the “Best Places: 200 Places Rated For Business.”

It wasn’t pretty.

Sometimes in Memphis, it’s as if we’re the city equivalent of the frog sitting in the pot on the stove as the water gets warmer and warmer until it’s boiled to death.
We rationalize away the low Milken ranking or a poor showing on another competitive list. We justify our lack of impact on the “Places Rated” types of rankings. We dismiss a negative Tennessee study or a national Brookings report.

All the while, we’re slowly boiling to death.

The Forbes magazine jolted us off the stove.

Of the 200 largest metro areas, Memphis ranks 98th on the list of “the best metros,” according to Forbes. As a wake-up call, just consider that Nashville is in the top 10 – ranked at # 7.

Span of Success

But it’s not just our natural competitiveness when it comes to Nashville. It’s the impressive performance by a number of places located roughly between the 34th and 36th latitudes.

Besides Nashville, there’s Raleigh at # 2, Durham at # 8, Charlotte at # 24, Asheville at # 24, Knoxville at # 5, Fayetteville at # 9, Little Rock at # 22. Tulsa at # 43 and Oklahoma City at # 13. Albuquerque ranks # 1.

Yet, as your eyes sweep eastward to westward along this “span of success,” there is Memphis, mired down in 98th place. A non-player. A no-show in the big leagues. A non-factor in business decision-making.

And yet, Memphis is not mired down in the bottom rungs in all categories. We’re in the top 10 in one. Unfortunately, it’s the list of the most crime-ridden cities. Only one other metro area in the entire U.S. has more crime. We are # 2.

In the past, I admit that I’ve tried to justify the impact of these devastating crime statistics by pointing at Atlanta, which has always been a hub for economy vibrancy and a magnet for talent, although it’s had one of the highest crime rates in the country for years. Yet, I realize that I’m only whistling in the graveyard.

The difference between Atlanta and Memphis is in national positioning. Atlanta has a news network broadcasting from its headquarters there, it’s constantly held up for the lessons of its economic boom, it has the nation’s most impressive park project under way and it never seems to rest on its laurels.

Information about Memphis comes largely from articles and lists like the one in Forbes. There is little countervailing information about Memphis, so our city becomes defined by the negative, defined by others.

We know it’s not all bad news. Memphis Bioworks Foundation is doing impressive things. St. Jude’s is known for its breakthrough research. FedEx is well, FedEx, and thank God it’s located here (although it has boosted operations in other cities because of workforce issues here). There are some nationally significant innovations on public issues inspired by the philanthropic community. The Memphis Regional Chamber’s new leadership grasps the importance of our city having strategies to attract talent.

Fundamental Problems

That said, the mayor is essentially invisible, emerging periodically to announce that he’s running for reelection and talking about his legacy. Sadly, it seems that the more he talks about his legacy, the worst it gets.

Rather than investing taxes to strengthen our urban core, our elected officials made the choice to take these taxes and use them to pay for sprawl that is financially and socially devastating. In other words, Memphians have been made to pay for the policies that led to the deterioration of their own neighborhoods.

We worry about the infrastructure for a distribution economy when we need to create infrastructure for a knowledge economy at a global scale. We have a propensity for chasing low-wage, low-skill jobs and even rewarding them with tax freezes in an age when cities competing globally are doing it with high-skill workers. We are obsessed with competing with DeSoto County when we need to be considering ways to compete with regions on other continents.

We have no over-arching public policy vision, complete with action steps and measurements. Crime is a good example, where we’re lulled to sleep by the barrage of press releases out of the state attorney general’s office and the lack of leadership from the director of police. No one seems to care that the birthright for young black boys in this city is jail, not college, and that there are ways to deal with the symptoms, not just the causes. Through it all, there’s no demand for action or attention from City Hall.

List after list of urban indicators paints the picture of Memphis as a troubled city, and we continue to drop in key benchmarks.

Boiling Water

So, why did we feel the water beginning to boil?

We just attended a national meeting of urban leaders for about two dozen cities. They talk of innovation, they talk of new public policy, they talk about new thinking and they describe bold, new actions that they’re taking.

They look blankly when Memphis comes up in conversation. It’s as if either Memphis doesn’t exist on their landscape of progressive cities, or they’ve already given us up for dead.

And yet, there much that can be done to turn things around.

But the first thing we have to do is to realize that the water is boiling.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Need For Coalition For A Better Memphis Extends Beyond Election Season

Primary elections are about a candidate identifying a base and talking about the red meat issues that its members care about. The general election is about broadening the base to appeal to more than the true believers.

Unfortunately, in county elections here, we rarely have the second phase, because districts are so carefully drawn to preordain them to one political party or the other. As a result, there’s normally not even a challenger from the other political party in places like the Republican suburban district or the Democratic urban district.

This is why while there are 13 county commissioners, only three have opposition on the August general county ballot, and political insiders only see a serious contest in one of them.

As a result of the party interests institutionalized by the partisan county elections, candidates normally are frozen in the first phase of a campaign, the part known for its partisan rhetoric, such as every Democrat railing against privatization or every Republican promising to lower taxes.

Unfortunately, because there’s normally no general election where candidates from both parties compete to sell their differing viewpoints, there’s little pressure for most candidates to move beyond the partisan rhetoric to develop substantive plans for Shelby County Government.

We never learn how the Democrat plans to hold down the costs of government if an operational option like privatization is summarily taken off the table. We never learn how the Republican is going to vote against every tax increase while encouraging suburban sprawl.

It was in response to this parallel universe that The Coalition for a Better Memphis was created and why it is such a welcome development. This year, as promised, the Coalition “qualified” candidates running for county commissioners and announced their “grades.”

But, perhaps, The Coalition for a Better Memphis would serve the community’s interests best if it did more than just weigh in at election time. Rather, it could seriously elevate the political debate if it stayed engaged after the election, pressing winners for detailed plans of action.

So far, in the interview process, some candidates have gotten away with offering up the normal hyperboles and vague (if sometimes conflicting) promises. It happens when the questions are general and the grading process isn’t precisely spelled out. (In some races, it was arguable that candidates got the highest grades when they said the least.)

Backers of the Coalition concede that the organization has some work to do before its next entry into the election process, however, it was a promising first step that the Coalition took with the county commissioners’ elections.

Yes, in truth, its impact was probably limited, and there are deep suspicions by some political activists that the endorsements were predetermined. But such complaints were also heard when the Committee for a Better Atlanta – the prototype for the Memphis group – began its work there. The complaints were expected as a byproduct of a political scene that breeds conspiracies by the hour.

That said, for the most impact, the Coalition should make the interviewing and grading process as transparent as it can so candidates and voters understand the context that it’s using to determine if a candidate is answering “right” or not.

Back to our point about the Coalition staying engaged after the election, let it be said that whatever the Coalition can do to stimulate greater interest in local elections and increase understanding of what’s at stake is good. It’s clear that Memphis has a cancerous voter confidence problem. In the county primary elections, the turnout didn’t even manage to break into double digits.

Perhaps, if we want to engage the voters, accountability must become more than just an election cycle issue. Perhaps, the Coalition could truly transform the civic discussion by reporting back to the voters on a regular basis about whether politicians are doing what they promised.

The upside to this is that it would require every candidate who becomes an elected official to offer up specific, measurable plans for the future. It’s would no longer be enough for a candidate to answer a question about economic development by saying that he’s for more economic growth, fine turning tax freezes and looking closely at smart growth. Instead, he would have to say what he would precisely do to improve the use of tax freezes and to make growth financially sustainable.

There are no serious accountability in the process now, and the media do not seem inclined to play this role in a structured way. Here's a vacuum that the Coalition could fill, and in doing it, it would fulfill the full potential of its founding vision.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Libertyland And Coliseum Futures Must Hit Civic Targets

Everybody’s all for government acting more businesslike until it affects their special cause. This comes to mind when we listen to some of the arguments from grassroots leaders who insist that Libertyland and the Mid-South Coliseum must remain open.

We applaud their willingness and their determination to have a voice in the public decision-making process. It’s just hard to see how they end up on the “winning” end of this debate.

First of all, there is the deliberate, inexorable movement by city government to cut expenses. The current budget woes demand it, but in addition, that’s what we voters kept telling city officials like Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb that we wanted.

The city owns 60 percent of the Coliseum and apparently most of Libertyland, and it leans toward closing both and using the land for development that would be an anchor for rebirth of the area.

With the neighborhood redevelopment plans of the University of Memphis on the east and the Fairgrounds redevelopment on the west, this critical section of Memphis could then get the economic shot in the arm that it deserves. When you consider the growing strength of Cooper-Young, it is not hard to imagine a completely new set of uses for the Fairgrounds property that could bridge Cooper-Young and the neighborhoods just to the east of the Fairgrounds all the way to the U of M.

Fairgrounds Redevelopment

Redevelopment of the Fairgrounds creates a 365-day-a-year force for improvement, rather than the intermittent bursts of activity at the Coliseum and Libertyland, the deteriorating buildings whose highest and best use seems to be as sites for flea markets, and the expansive (and empty) asphalt parking lots that stretch for blocks.

In the end, discussions about future uses of the Fairground property, including Libertyland and Coliseum, need to centered on identifying the uses that can strengthen the adjacent neighborhoods, spark new investments in the area, spur economic growth and stabilize and increase property taxes.

The current uses just don’t hit the mark on any of these.

If the current uses are to remain, it seems to mean that government must throw good money after bad at the Coliseum, where the deficit now is about $400,000, and it must adopt Libertyland from the Mid-South Fair, which has been paying the thumbnail theme park’s deficits for years.

City of Memphis officials have been driving these key decisions, but a sense of urgency has developed around the Coliseum when county government announced that it wouldn’t pay its 40 percent of the deficit, causing the city to announce that the building would be closed. However, since that announcement, Mayor A C Wharton, after a meeting with renters of the building yesterday, now seems to be reconsidering. It has all the appearances of the classic political dilemma in these joint city-county projects. In truth, none of the staff on either side of Main Street thinks that it makes any sense to keep the Coliseum open, but neither side wants to be the ones that take responsibility for locking its doors.

Bring A Check

And yet, the problem seems simple. If all these tenants, who are imploring Mayor Wharton to keep the building open, want to make it happen, they need only come up with a plan for the rents to be raised to cover the $400,000. That of course isn’t practical, but then again, there are no practical options for the building’s future in the first place.

Consultants told the city and county six years ago that the building should be shuttered, unless there is someone who wants to buy it, operate it and pay all expenses. Nothing has changed, and if that recommendation had been followed, city and county governments would already have saved several millions of dollars.

Keep in mind that the city and county governments don’t pay the operating deficit at FedEx Forum, and it seems to be a prevailing trend in city governments around the country to get out of the building management business. It’s just not something government is good at.

If proponents for keeping the Coliseum open are to gain any traction in their arguments, they need to develop a more persuasive case. The justifications that the city needs the Coliseum because some renters need fewer seats or can’t afford more rent doesn’t really move opinion on this issue. After all, government – more precisely, we taxpayers - doesn’t have the obligation to operate venues of various sizes solely to satisfy the particular needs of a specific tenant, whether it is the jury commissioner or the Liberty Bowl’s pregame buffet.

In the end, like most things, it comes down to money. The public has been telling government for years that it should act more like a business. The balance sheet is bleeding red ink, and unless someone can submit a funding plan along with their petitions, this discussion is actually over.

We’re just going through the motions until the inevitable (and logical) choice is made by city government – to redevelop the property in a way that creates more stability and economic growth for this key section of the city.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Headline-making Events At Memphis City Schools

They won’t get headlines in the newspaper or be tonight’s “big story” on television news, but nonetheless, some national programs recruited to Memphis and transplanted into Memphis City Schools are producing “stop the presses” kinds of results.

Of course, anything that can be filed under a heading as portentous as “cultural transformation” discourages media interest from the get-go. They take longer than 20 seconds to explain, they have no red meat conflict and no emblematic event that’s a compelling visual image.

It’s a shame, because wonkish as they may seem, these are marquee programs with a singular focus – to improve students’ grades and change the culture of the large bureaucratic organization that is the nation’s 18th largest school district.

That’s precisely what’s being done by a triumvirate of programs recruited to Memphis in the past 24 months after national competitions – New Leaders for New Schools, The New Teacher Project and Teach For America. They are supplemented by other influential initiatives like the Harvard University Public Education Leadership Project and University of Memphis New Teacher Center.

Taken together, they form one of the nation’s most interesting, most closely watched school reform programs. They also symbolize everything that Superintendent Carol Johnson is trying to accomplish in her vision of Memphis City Schools as an innovator for U.S. urban school districts.

Already, New Leaders for New Schools has turned out 18 graduates who are uniquely qualified to become principals and assistant principals. In a nutshell, the program is producing a new breed of principals who are trained to be leaders, not managers. Instead of being trained to make sure the buses arrive and leave on time, their success is graded on their ability to improve the academic performance of students.

The principal leadership program chose Memphis in early 2004 after a national competition, and Memphis joined Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago as part of the New Leaders program. With more than half of all Memphis City Schools’ principals eligible for retirement in the next five years, this program has a historic opportunity to change the school district school by school.

As part of the agreement to get New Leaders for New Schools to Memphis, these specially-trained principals are given greater autonomy over school decision-making. The selection process is national in scope, and it is as rigorous as one conducted by FedEx for a key executive position. Selection is followed by six weeks of intense training and a year’s residency with a high-performing principal.

In addition to leadership in the principals’ offices, The New Teacher Project and Teach For America are meanwhile improving the quality of teachers recruited and hired for the classrooms of Memphis City Schools.

The New Teacher Project began its work in December, 2004, and Teach For America was announced a few weeks ago and will place its first teachers in city schools this fall.

Teach For America, the national corps of top college graduates who commit to two years as a teacher in high-poverty public schools, will start with 50 teachers. But by next fall, it will have 100 teachers in under-performing schools where they can make the most difference and create a culture of reform.

The program recruits nationally and selects recent college graduates from major universities. Last year, 17,000 applicants vied for 2,000 teaching spots, with 12 percent of Yale’s senior class and eight percent of Harvard’s and Princeton’s. Locally, Rhodes College has always been an active partner in the program. The 2005 profile of incoming teachers showed an average GPA of 3.5, and in addition, 93 percent held leadership positions in their schools or communities.

Teach For America builds on the momentum created by The New Teacher Project, which is proving that the conventional wisdom that Memphis City Schools can’t recruit high-quality teachers is just dead wrong. Building on its report, Missed Opportunities, The New Teacher Project believes that with good recruiting, up-to-date technology, efficient human resources system and better data, urban school districts can successfully recruit better teachers.

So far, in Memphis, it’s proving to be true. Already, The New Teacher Project has:

1) Restructured Memphis City Schools’ human resources department
2) Created the first online application and computerized tracking
3) Created the first teacher recruitment website - Teach Memphis, Change Memphis
4) Doubled the number of applications – from 1,519 to 3,464
5) Increased the grade point average of applicants from 2.87 to 3.10
6) Increased applicants with previous experience to 60 percent, reducing the reliance on new, inexperienced teachers
7) Quadrupled the percentage of applicants with advanced degrees from 10 percent to 41 percent

To us, that last statistic is most dramatic of all. Research and common sense tell us that the single most critical factor affecting a student’s academic performance is the quality of his teacher. Last year, The New Teacher Project recruited and selected just under 400 new teachers for Memphis City Schools, and with current attrition rates in city schools, the program has the opportunity to have impact in the short-term by hiring a cadre of better educated, smarter, more experienced teachers for our city classrooms.

The reason all of this came to mind was because of an op-ed column by Nicholas D. Kristof in Sunday’s New York Times. He wrote about the need to remove obstacles for people who want to teach, but who do not have a teaching diploma. As the column pointed out, Colin Powell and Meryl Streep are considered “unqualified” today if they wanted to teach social studies or drama, because of the archaic teaching certification program that lies at the heart of our system of public education.

The columnist said that just to keep student-teacher ratios where they are now, the U.S. needs a 35 percent increase in the number of people entering teaching. He also emphasized that between 1971-74, 24 percent of teachers scored in the top 10 percent on their high school achievement tests, but now, only 11 percent do.

To complicate things even more, not only are there fewer 25-34 year-olds now than 15 years ago – three million fewer – but women are the most-educated, most entrepreneurial demographic group. As a result, there are fewer women choosing to enter a profession that has been historically dominated by them.

In other words, the U.S. faces a critical shortage of teachers, and districts across the country are waging recruiting wars for applicants. Who would have ever believed that Memphis City Schools wouldn’t be the district to come up empty-handed?

It just proves once more that many times the really important progress being made in this city doesn’t even hit the media radar, but nonetheless, these are milestones that shouldn’t just be reported, but celebrated.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Transportation Breaks Don't Build Great Cities Like They Once Did

The following column is from Otis White's Urban Notebook. Otis is a regular contributor on Smart City each week, and his daily missives are instructive to anyone who cares about cities. This one on multi-modal centers and the changes that make them less attractive as economic engines has special importance to Memphis.

New Breaks in Transportation

Transfer Points for the Global Economy

There are several academic theories about why big cities are where they are. One is called the break-in-transportation theory. It's easy to grasp: Where large volumes of goods come in on one form of transportation and are transferred to another, cities grow. In past centuries, these transportation breaks gave us Chicago (lake steamers to trains), New York (ocean ships to trains, river barges and coastal vessels), and New Orleans (river barges to ocean ships). Interestingly, these shipping breaks are still building cities, though not as powerfully as they once did, and now they tend to be on the edges of metropolitan areas.

The great growth in freight these days is in containerized shipping. A manufacturer in Thailand places TVs for the American Midwest in a 40-foot metal container. The container is loaded on a freighter bound for Oakland, Calif. There, it's plucked off the ship and loaded on a truck that takes it through the city to an outlying rail hub like Stockton, Calif., where it's placed on a freight train, which hauls it across the country to a rail hub in the Midwest like Rochelle, Ill. In Rochelle, it's again placed on a truck, which drives it to a distribution center, where the container is opened and the TVs routed on smaller trucks to individual stores.

Two things stand out in this journey: First, the breathtaking efficiency of it. Except for a possible customs inspection or security scan, the container goes straight from Bangkok to a distribution center in suburban Chicago without ever being opened. This is how the global economy works these days. Second, there are at least three breaks in transportation inside the U.S. (ship to truck in Oakland, truck to rail in Stockton, rail to truck in Rochelle). Hence, three opportunities for urban growth.

The Wall Street Journal took a look at one of these transfer points recently, the small city of Rochelle, where three years ago the Union Pacific railroad built a giant rail-to-truck complex (transportation professionals call these "intermodal inland yards"). The Rochelle yards are hardly a thing of beauty. Set on two square miles, the complex is surrounded by earthen berms that shield 23 rail tracks. Big cranes lift containers off the trains and plop them on the back of trucks. This is not an industry every city could accommodate (requirements: a major freight line or two and direct access to an interstate highway; nice to have: proximity to a major metro area).

Nor is it the kind of industry some cities would welcome. Union Pacific approached two cities closer to Chicago in the late 1990s; they said no thanks. (Perhaps they feared the traffic and noise. The yards are at only 18 percent capacity and already 500 trucks a week roll in.) So the company built in Rochelle, 80 miles from the city.

Rochelle's business leaders are delighted with the growth the yards are bringing. Big distribution centers are popping up nearby, people are moving in (population, which grew very little in the 1990s, is up 3,000 since 2000 to 54,000) and restaurants are thriving, the Journal said. And there's almost certainly more growth ahead. "The rock is just penetrating the pond, so to speak, to start the ripples," one civic leader told the newspaper. Land prices are rising; so is the city's tax base.

And yet there's a difference between these transportation breaks and the ones that created great cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The real value then was the manufacturing that sprang up nearby. Goods were expensive to ship in those days, so most shipping was raw materials - rubber from the Far East, cotton from the American South, grain from the Midwest and so on. When these materials reached a place like Chicago or New York, they were used to make tires, clothes and refined wheat, which were then placed on the final leg of the trip to the consumer.

Transportation costs have dropped precipitously in the last 50 years, so now it's cheaper to make TVs in Bangkok and ship them to the other side of the world than to import the parts to Rochelle and make TVs there. Hence, there's growth near these transfer points, but it's not the kind that creates large and prosperous communities anymore. "Distribution isn't a high-labor activity," one logistics consultant told the Journal. "It's not a manufacturing plant."