Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Clear Cutting Trees And Taxes For A New High School In Southeast Shelby County

Construction has begun on the Southeast Shelby County High School, and already, Shelby County Schools is showing as much sensitivity to the environment as it does to people trying to speak at its meetings.

Most of the site has been clear cut so thoroughly it would be the envy of the suburban developers whose interests are so well-served by the district.

Gone are hundreds and hundreds of trees that had grown for decades on the location at the northwestern corner of Hacks Cross Road and Shelby Drive. It’s a poetic start for a school that’s a testament to poor educational decision-making. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the high school is at the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, it’s the wrong price and it’s built for the wrong reasons.

Student Drivers

It’s hard to imagine a worse location for a school. This morning at 8 o’clock, the intersection was clogged with motorists blowing their horns and rushing through yellow lights (and an occasional red one). It portends well for the day when hundreds of car-driving high school students are added to the mix.

As Sheriff Mark Luttrell’s office points out in its monthly report about intersections with the most traffic accidents, the intersection already is regularly one of the worst three accident locations outside Memphis. Look for it to get lots worse.

Then, there’s the question of why Shelby County Schools needs a site 50 percent larger than the national average for high school sites (and that’s if it includes a football stadium). Here, Memphis City Schools normally needs 25 acres for a high school and increases the footprint to 40 acres if it’s to add a stadium that serves several schools.

A Premium Price

And yet, Shelby County Schools bought about 62 acres for the new high school at a price that was somewhere between 60 – 100 percent more expensive than the alternate site nearby. Interestingly, 10 acres that the county schools added to the site had sold for one-quarter of what the district paid only about a year earlier.

Over the past 15 years, the county district has repeatedly allowed developers to pick its school sites and in the process, the pockets of county taxpayers. County school location decisions have literally produced millions of dollars in profits for politically connected developers while fueling sprawl that our grandchildren, and possibly our great-grandchildren, will pay for.

Add to that the county district’s tendency to warehouse students in a 2,000-student school and its thin overcrowding arguments to justify the new high school, and it’s hard to point to a decision that is as poor as this one.

It Blinked

Unfortunately, Memphis City Schools – which will eventually assume management from its county counterpart – had the opportunity to force a wiser decision, but it blinked, allowing the county to win its argument for the site in spite of deep reservations by the city district’s staff and board and in the face of strong indications that the new school is motivated by an ugly side of racial politics in Shelby County. The school staff and board felt compelled to respond to a need to move African-American kids out of the city limits of Germantown because of local objections to the racial makeup at Germantown High School in particular.

The county system’s plaintiff pleas about overcrowding, delivered with a regularity that conjures up images of the boy who cried wolf, is producing more skepticism these days because of suspicions about how the Shelby County Schools calculates capacities for its schools. But the damage has been done.

With the new high school, the capacity of Germantown High School will drop below 50 percent, but it will indeed be much whiter in its student population. It will be 2012 before the growth in enrollment in Southeast Shelby County can justify a 1,200-student high school, much less the 2,000-student one being built by Shelby County Schools.

Apples And Oranges

In the end, it’s possible for any school district – including Memphis City Schools – to paint a picture of overcrowded schools. All it needs to do is to adjust how it calculates its classroom capacities. For example, to produce overcrowded schools, Shelby County Schools can calculate capacities at 15.5 students for each elementary school classroom, 18 students for each middle school classroom, and 20 students for each high school classroom.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools calculates capacities at 20 students per elementary classroom; 24 students per middle school classroom; and 28 students per high school classroom. In other words, by adjusting the classroom capacity, a school district can seemingly present powerful albeit manufactured evidence about overcrowding to county elected officials whose votes are needed to fund new schools.

In fact, Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson could adopt the county method for determining capacities, and she could argue that no city school should be closed in her Five-Year Facilities Master Plan, which to the contrary, recommends the closing of several city schools. It would be the politically expedient thing to do, but fortunately for taxpayers, she’s been willing to take a cold, hard look at the need for every city school.

Back To Basics

At this point, we have more confidence in Dr. Johnson’s philosophy for building schools, and it seems logical that Memphis City Schools should be in charge of building the new school in the first place since Shelby County Schools is to only be a short-term tenant. The city district has an Economy of Scale model for schools that discourages the placement of these mammoth buildings in areas where students have little or no connection to the neioghborhood.

And yet, even if Dr. Johnson hadn't applied that model, taxpayers would have at least saved about $2 million that was spent to buy acreage that really isn’t needed in the first place.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Memphis Needs To Make Sure It's Not "Buffalo'ed"

Well, clearly, we spoke too soon.

Based on the always reliable David Williams of The Commercial Appeal, Memphis is already virtually matching the huge incentive package being given in Buffalo, New York, for its Bass Pro Shop.

Our post last Tuesday, August 22, commented on the chains’ proven ability to wring public incentives for its stores and noted that the number of incentives in the range of $25 - 40 million paid by cities across the U.S. That said, we pointed out that Buffalo is in a category all its own, coughing up $70 million in promised incentives to attract a mega-store to a former downtown arena in the declining New York city.

We also noted that if Memphis and Shelby County Governments could negotiate a deal with the store that only gave it the empty Memphis arena, he would have negotiated a good deal. But, Mr. Williams says that already, local government has pledged $30 million in federal incentives for the Pyramid project.

In other words, when you add the federal incentives to the approximate city-county debt left on The Pyramid, it adds up to roughly $60 million. So, Memphis already is putting up a good fight for the distinction of being the city that has offered up the most incentives to get the fishing and hunting store.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Conservation Easement To Protect Shelby Farms Park Comes Up Short

Last week, The Commercial Appeal called the vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on a conservation easement for Shelby Farms Park a “big step in preserving the park forever.”

More accurately, it was one step forward and two steps back.

Once again, given the opportunity to take definitive action to protect the park’s 4,500 acres for the public for all time – including 900 acres controlled by Agricenter International with no apparent public purpose - Shelby County Government couldn’t quite pull the trigger. In the end, the commissioners approved the conservation easement, but put off its implementation until some time in the future and only if and when a master plan for the park’s future is approved.

It’s too bad, because on its own merit, the master plan aside, the conservation easement is an idea whose time has come. It’s a tool used to protect natural resources and preserve scenic open space by limiting the uses of the land to protect its conservation value. The easements are gaining popularity, and in a recent five-year period, the amount of land protected by them tripled to 5 million acres. Unfortunately, because of the commissioners, that amount didn’t grow to 5,004,500 acres.


It was déjà vu all over again, a flashback from four years ago when the visionary plan of former First Tennessee Bank chairman Ron Terry blew up in the face of the rantings by longtime Commissioner Walter Bailey. As the clock winds down on the last days of Commissioners Bailey’s 35 years on the county legislative body, he proved once again that he still has the rhetorical firepower to dynamite a good idea.

Of course, it didn’t help that whoever drew up the Wharton Administration’s plan to get the easement passed gave all appearances of being politically tone deaf. It’s a mystery why the administration, in the last days of this commission’s term, gave Commissioner Bailey a platform to attack the proposal with the same vigor that he showed four years ago.

With only 16 days left in their terms of office when the vote was taken and with new commissioners set to take their places, there is the very real prospect of new attitudes and a new interest in establishing stronger cooperative relationships with Mayor A C Wharton and his administration. That’s why to many, it seemed that the wiser time to consider the long-needed protection of this irreplaceable public land was in the early months of the next board’s term.

It’s a notion that seems on its face to make good sense, because even if the current board of commissioners had approved the easement to take effect immediately – as Mayor A C Wharton originally advocated before amending the resolution in the face of the onslaught led by Commissioner Bailey – it requires action by the next board of commissioners to pass amendments to finalize the easement anyway.

Politics Before Parks

Often, it’s hard in the heat of the political battle to evaluate options clear-headedly, because it’s becomes all about who’s winning and who’s losing, but perhaps the better part of valor would have been to ask for a continuance of the resolution once its support showed signs of collapsing. The unamended conservation easement wasn’t perfect, but it would have gotten something in place to protect the park for the first time in its history, and the watered down version that was passed left the clear impression that once again, the priorities of county government are politics before parks.

On their side, commissioners contend that some basic questions of theirs were not answered well, and this stumble created a vacuum into which opponents rushed. It was in this environment that Commissioner Bailey’s criticisms gained traction and slowly swayed colleagues to his side.

In the midst of feverish vote counting that showed the entire easement was at risk of going down in defeat, the compromise emerged for approving the easement now, but with it to taking effect some time in the future when (or if) the master plan is approved. If the easement remains as it is, it delays the easement taking effect until 18 to 24 months from now.

It was a vote that left a sour taste in the mouths of many park advocates who have invested in a new spirit of cooperation with county government by cooperating (or at least withholding their judgment) with the master planning process and compromising to reach agreement on Kirby Parkway through the park (an agreement that was the best outcome). The reward for their compromises and their good will, they thought, was passage of the easement.

No Comfort Level

Instead, they see the conservation easement as one more bait and switch, and some argue that there is no reason to continue to try to be a partner with the public sector. To some, the approval of the conservation easement isn’t cold comfort; it’s no comfort at all, and the vote is proof that a more confrontational, adversarial attitude is in order.

It would be unfortunate if that takes place, because it seems likely that the Wharton Administration recognizes the political powder keg that is building and will take some action to resolve the problem.

It seems clear that Mayor Wharton’s political logic at the board of commissioners’ meeting was his compromise ensured that something would be approved at that time to move forward the easement, and at least it would take effect upon approval of the master plan. The suspicions by many long-time park advocates – including those who were responsible for it remaining public land in the first place – runs deep, however, and to them, the political machinations on the easement only portends more political problems ahead for the master plan itself.

As they rightly point out, there are a number of critical obstacles that have to now be cleared before the easement becomes law - a master planning firm needs to be hired, the master planning process needs to be launched, park governance needs to be resolved, the process needs to avoid sabotage by the Agricenter, and the board of commissioners finally have to approve the plan and turn over park management to a private nonprofit as recommended by the county’s “efficiency study” of two years ago. It seems to many like an awful lot of hurdles that have to be cleared to finally reach the ultimate destination of a conservation easement.

Bean Fields

While it only seems logical to administration officials that the master plan will be created within the context of the conservation easement, there is widespread uneasiness about moving ahead without the easement firmly in place and giving Agricenter International 18-24 months to water down the master plan’s recommendations for something truly visionary.

There are times when observers scratch their head at the zeal in which Agricenter defends its bean fields. It’s essentially been a grudging party to the master planning process, and were it not for Mayor Wharton’s personal investment in the committee process that’s producing it, they would likely have already declared war on it and trotted out the same old faces from back in the day – including Tennessee Lieutenant Governor John Wilder – to argue that they are engaged in God’s work, and it’s unreasonable to suggest that there are better public uses for most of their acreage, rather than as the private preserve of a nonprofit whose mission became irrelevant a decade ago.

Of concern to many is that with a window of opportunity while the master plan is being developed, Agricenter could proceed with plans to build even more unsightly buildings on the land or begin construction on facilities that would make more sense in other parts of the park.

With Friends Like These

Sadly, this board of commissioners leaves office without doing anything substantive to help support or preserve county government’s premier natural asset. This lack of understanding was abundantly clear in comments by Commissioner Julian Bolton. In opposing an easement, he said, “Everybody needs to understand what we’re doing here. It’s irrevocable, for all time.”

Exactly, commissioner, exactly.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Growing Up In Cities

This week on Smart City:

Growing up in cities shouldn't be difficult. Good cities have ample sidewalks, parks, unmatched cultural opportunities and plenty of places to play and explore.

But according to David Driskell, UNESCO chair of Growing Up in Cities at Cornell, that is increasingly not the case. David is working with students around the world to find out from them how cities can be better places for kids, and he is with us this week to tell us what he's learned. David is a practicing planner with extensive experience in community participation, comprehensive planning, and community design, and he is founding principal of Community Planning Collaborative.

Smart City will also talk with Money magazine staff writer Donna Rosato about why only cities with fewer than 300,000 people qualified for the magazine's annual list of Best Places to Live in America.

And we'll visit with Marianne McGinnis at Prevention magazine about the simple joys and big benefits of city walks.

Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Ushers In A Stronger Role For Planning

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson took a major step forward Monday in pursuing the more influential role that she envisions the district playing in the redevelopment of Memphis neighborhoods and as a leader for smart growth.

To a standing ovation from school board members, she announced that she hired Louise Mercuro, now deputy director of Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, to become a key member of her staff. It portends good things for the district, because Ms. Mercuro has been the driving force behind OPD’s involvement in some projects like the Broad Avenue Corridor Planning Initiative, the Unified Development Code and the new controls over sexually-oriented businesses.

Based on the response from Dr. Johnson’s enthusiastic comments and the board’s equally enthusiastic response, there seems to be a clear understanding of the disadvantage that the district has had in all kinds of issues because of a lack of current data and professional planning. The issues range all the way from attendance zones for individual schools to negotiations with the Shelby County School District over new schools to deliberations of the Schools Needs Assessment Committee.

In her Five-Year Facilities Master Plan, the superintendent laid out “new directions” for the district, including joint use of schools with neighborhood organizations, adaptive reuse of former schools and development of surplus land owned by the district.

With this hire, it’s obvious that these directions weren’t just filler for the master plan, but serious objectives for Memphis City Schools. With city neighborhoods needing all the help they can get, the more active involvement of the district is good news and important progress.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bass Pro Shops Leads Demands For Public Subsidies For Retailers

Some people are suggesting that it’s time for Memphis and Shelby County Governments to tell Bass Pro Shops to fish or cut bait with its announced plans to put a massive store in The Pyramid.

The truth of the matter is that we really don’t have much leverage to be making any demands. It’s not as if there’s a bunch of folks lining up to fight over the building.

And city and county seem resigned to a lengthy negotiation process. Already, they have set November 5 as the day they shutter the 15-year-old building, once hailed as Memphis’ national signature.

Early this year, it was announced with fanfare that the big-box retail mega-store would convert The Pyramid into a new species of store – the kind that is more tourist attraction than retail outlet. But the months since that announcement have brought little except updates that take on the character of State Department briefings: continuing discussions, substantive talks and meaningful agreement.

No Demands

As a result, Memphis CFO Robert Lipscomb is planning to sit down with a company rep on Monday to see if he can get any more definitive answers about whether the progress is a go. There’s really not much to be gained from his pounding the table and setting deadlines. Bass Pro Shops is experienced in moving at its own pace and negotiating until it has wrung as many concessions out of the public sector as possible.

In that regard, we should be closely watching Buffalo, New York. We’ve written previously about the grand plans announced there to convert Buffalo’s downtown auditorium into another permutation of the fishing and hunting mega-store planned for Memphis, and yet, almost two years after New York Governor George Pataki announced the state’s contribution of $20 million to spur on Buffalo’s downtown redevelopment, the project languishes, much to the chagrin of elected officials, who are taking increased heat from their constituents.

It feels pretty familiar. Citizens of Buffalo are up in arms, first, because of the large incentive package of $70 million to get the giant-sized fishing store, but second, because even with those incentives, they feel that their city is being jerked around. As recently as August 4, an environmental assessment of the old Memorial Stadium was made as part of the process for the Bass Pro Shop, but no contract has ever been signed.

Progress On A Small Scale

In Buffalo, it’s now watched with a cynical eye, as suggested by a sarcastic report by a citizens’ group, which said that a television reporter “says it’s very really, infintestimally close to being finalized.” At least in Buffalo the proposed location for the mega-store is a 70-year-old building. Here’s it’s one opened with such fanfare as the “final piece in the downtown puzzle” and shut down unceremoniously when the FedExForum was inaugurated.

As we’ve said previously, perhaps these fishing mega-stores are this decade’s equivalent of the aquariums built in too many downtowns as the panaceas for their economic downturn. The hunting and fishing store seems the latest manifestation of the tendency for cities to chase a magic bullet or a quick fix as the answer to rejuvenating downtowns.

If it makes us feel any better, Memphis isn’t the only city being reeled in. Actually, if Mr. Lipscomb can get Memphis and Shelby County off with just providing a public building (and with some hope of ever being paid rent to offset debt service), he will have done well. Other cities are ponying up taxfree bonds, tax increment financing, direct grants, infrastructure improvements and state aid packages.

It defies logic, but from Pennsylvania’s $25 million in aid to the about $24 million coughed up by Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Wichita, Kansas, and Garland, Texas, city after city is lining up to bribe the retailer to come to their market. That said, no one comes close to trumping the city and state incentives of $80 million in Buffalo.

Oh, No, Not Economic Impact Studies

The announcements about these giant retailers are announced with fanfare by governors and mayors who cite economic impact studies about as rooted in reality as those used for professional sports. One such announcement suggested that four million visitors would come to a store in Buda, Texas, (between San Antonio and Austin), which agreed to provide $40 million in bonds and $21 million from state government in the form of highway improvements.

In a moment of unusual candor, an official of Cabela’s, #2 to Bass Pro Shop’s #1, said that the company is most adept at wringing concession out of smaller cities anxious for answers to reignite their economies. One of these tactics may be playing out here, because once the announcement is made, the greatest pressure to cut a deal is on the public sector, not on the retailer, because elected officials don’t want to look like they failed, particularly when the symbol of that failure is 320 feet tall on the riverfront.

If there has ever been a poster child for corporate welfare, it should be the public incentives given in so many places to retailers and retail developments. And once more, it’s another supposed economic development strategy that does nothing to create the high-skill, high value-added jobs that every city is competing for.

Take A Gander

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough companies like Gander Mountain, #3 fishing and hunting retailer. It has taken a stand opposing taxpayer subsidies, saying they are “anti-competitive and fundamentally inappropriate.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that logic, and in support of it, Gander Mountain has launched a national campaign against government subsidies for retail companies.

Meanwhile, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s continue to wring public subsidies out of cities on the basis that they are not retail stores, but “destinations.” Whether they are a retail novelty that will fade in the coming years remains to be seen. But whether they are or not, it’s next to impossible to imagine a situation where its true economic impact in Memphis and elsewhere will ever be known.

In the meantime, though, we think we’ll be buying our Guide Series TEC Hunter Extreme bow, with its 31 3/8" axle to axle length, 302 fps IBO speed, 7 3/4" brace height, 3.7 lbs. mass weight, 26"-30" draw lengths, from Gander Mountain.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Closed Meeting May Only Produce More Questions About Legal Standing For The County To File Suit

There may be another reason that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ discussion about suing the builder of the FedExForum was closed other than the reasons given at the time: lawyer-client privilege. It may have been also to eliminate public embarrassment about the basis of the county attorney office’s opinion that Shelby County had “no standing” to file a lawsuit – the county has already given that right away.

The revelation, as one county commissioner termed it, came in response to Commissioner John Willingham’s call for a lawsuit to be filed against general contractor M.A. Mortenson and architectural firm Ellerbe Becket, both of Minneapolis, as a way to get answers to questions that continue to trouble the $250 million project – which, second only to airport runways, is the most expensive construction project undertaken by the public sector here.

With the clock counting down the last days of his term before he and other FedExForum critics Walter Bailey and Julian Bolton leave office, Commissioner Willingham continues his dogged demands to get answers that have eluded him for four years. There is a deep feeling at the Board of Commissioners that extends far beyond the project’s critics that the New Arena Public Building Authority has stonewalled questions, provided information that was tangential or marginally responsive, and played the political card when it would been simpler just to answer the questions put to them.

Most notable was the time when the PBA sent former State Senator John Ford – also vice-president of the PBA – to answer questions when the board of commissioners summoned PBA Chairman Arnold Perl. It resulted in oft-repeated stories in the county government as staffers recount the senator’s “trust me” assurances that everything with the arena project was as it should be.

Signs of Trouble

The first sign of serious trouble hit the news media with the filing of a multi-million lawsuit seeking payment by Memphis firm Morgan & Thornburg Inc., a mechanical subcontractor at FedExForum. The lawsuit was not only a threat to the PBA’s “on time, on budget” mantra, but it posed some political risks, too, in an election cycle for county government.

In mid-January, representatives of Morgan & Thornburg, the PBA, Shelby County, City of Memphis, Mortenson Co. and Ellerbe Becket met in Nashville in a mediation session in hopes of resolving the legal claim. At that time, Mortenson officials said the problem was caused by the design drawings of Ellerbe Beckett, and about midday, the representatives of the architectural firm walked out, saying that there were no design flaws in their work.

Mediation continued without the firm until later in the day when Morgan & Thornburg walked out, complaining that the mediation was not producing any progress on settlement. While eating in a nearby restaurant, Morgan & Thornburg officials were called by the representatives of city, county and Mortenson, and the major points of the settlement were essentially hammered out over the phone.

The agreement: Morgan & Thornburg would be paid $1 million - $350,000 from Shelby County, $350,000 from City of Memphis, $200,000 from Mortenson and $100,000 from the PBA.

Settlement Approval

Because approval by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was required, the settlement was placed on its agenda in early February to resolve “all…construction claims relative to FedExForum.” The agreement was approved by the commissioners on February 6.

This was pre-garage controversy, so most of the news media dismissed suggestions by complaining commissioners that there were remaining questions that needed to be answered, even with Commissioner Bolton specifically mentioning the garage. With the new realities of the Memphis media – short staffs, emphasis on the sensational and little investment in serious investigating reporting – a number of outlets seemed to join in a celebration that all the loose ends had been tied up (“Cheers For FedExForum, CA editorial, 2/13/06). A notable exception was Jeni DiPrizio of Eyewitness News, whose suggestions that all was not well with the garage elicited mainly dismissive comments from her peers.

Once the agreement was approved by the county board of commissioners, the attorney’s office was instructed to prepare the primary agreement. As part of that process, it appears that Memphis and Shelby County agree to sign away any rights to sue M. A. Mortenson.

Typically, since the administration is charged with complying with county resolutions, the final settlement document is prepared after approval by the commissioners and does not go back for their review. Knowing that Commissioners Bolton, Bailey and Willingham raised no questions at the time, it seems a safe bet that they never saw the waiver of litigation, or all of us would have heard about it.

No Standing

As a result of the settlement, it seems that the county doesn’t have standing in court because it (along with the city) has already given away that right, thus producing the county attorney’s opinion on Commissioner Willingham’s request for a lawsuit.

Despite the meeting closed on the grounds of attorney-client privilege, it seems certain that this question is anything but dead. Clearly, more information about the waiver is needed to explain who made the decision, why the commissioners weren't notified and the ramifications of the limits on the county’s ability to seek damages, such as in a catastrophic event, such as something falling off the ceiling and killing a concert-goer at the arena or a serious building deficiency caused by obvious negligence.

With 13 more days left for this commission, more questions are guaranteed to be in the offing, and depending on the response by the public, it’s an issue that may continue into the term of the new commissioners taking office September 1 desperately hoping that all FedExForum questions will be put to bed once and for all so they won’t have to deal with them.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Smart City: Living The Good Life

This week on Smart City, the topic is about living the good life:

What is the good life? That's a question an upcoming exhibition organized by the Van Alen Institute will explore. Its curator Zoe Ryan is with us to talk about The Good Life: New Public Spaces for Recreation and what cities can learn from the 70 architectural projects it showcases.

Pop City Pittsburgh and Model D showcase the good life each week in Pittsburgh and Detroit. They are online products from Issue Media Group and its founder Brian Boyle, who will tell us why urban America needs a new narrative.

Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How About Toning Down The Apocalyptic Rhetoric And Amping Up Reforms Of Tax Freezes?

Surely, Memphis Councilman Jack Sammons kicked himself this morning when he read his comments in The Commercial Appeal justifying the way tax freezes are handed out by Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

If he didn't, there’s probably plenty of economic development officials who’d be glad to do it for him. His comments were the exactly the kind that make the backs of their necks tingle, because by now, the newspaper article has been posted on bulletin boards at all the chambers of commerce competing against this community for new jobs and new investment.

It’s hard to believe that he really said it, but here it is: “I’m one of those guys out there operating a small business without a PILOT and I don’t have any trouble with those that are getting them. We don’t have the mountains, we don’t have the beach, we don’t have MIT or Stanford or some institute of higher learning spitting out a surplus of highly educated folks, and the crime rate here is higher than in other places.”

Lord, protect us from our friends; we can handle our enemies.

The Real Questions

But more to the point, his comments beg the questions: if all of those things are true, how does throwing tax money away with unnecessary PILOTs (Payment-in-lieu-of taxes) solve the core problems? Wouldn’t we be better off targeting tax freezes more wisely and strategically so we have more tax money to spend on improving our natural assets, investing in higher education and fighting crime.

As one of those small businesses for whom he seems to be speaking, we want to make our position exceedingly clear. We do have trouble with tax freezes giving out indiscriminately by the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board to any living, breathing person who can manage to complete the forms.

It’s amazing – and mostly discouraging – that nine months after Memphis and Shelby County Government received the definitive, common sense recommendations contained in the best consultant’s report ever commissioned by local government, none of the recommendations for improving the PILOT program has been enacted.

Memphis City Council now says it will finally getting around to doing something on September 19, but don’t hold your breath. Developers and real estate interests – long the heart of the political contributors’ system – continue to lobby against any major changes from being enacted.

It’s About The Real Estate, Stupid

Speaking at the same meeting and on behalf of the major real estate firms, Al Andrews, the head of the local Panattoni Development Company, pleaded for the Council to move carefully or risk the city’s warehousing and distribution jobs. In truth, if Memphis and Shelby County are placing their economic futures on the altar of low-paying, low-skills jobs that are so often the beneficiaries of these generous public tax waivers, we’re already in more trouble that we think.

In the increasingly interrelated world of the global economy, there’s little long-term chance of competing and winning for these kinds of job with Third World markets that can always undercut us. It’s a reality that is slowly unfolding, but its pace will only quicken in coming years.

As successful cities are already proving, the economies that are winning are those investing and offering high quality workers, an entrepreneurial environment, a healthy research climate, quality higher education and a satisfying quality of life. Instead, you would think that we should place all of our economic development bets on warehouses and distribution, or God forbid, DeSoto County will get them.

Keeping Perspective

As we have said before, the past decade has been a boom time for real estate developers, and the waiver of $60 million in taxes through the PILOT program is a large reason that has been so. It was no mere coincidence, because our economic development programs are too often real estate development disguised as serious strategy.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and comments like Councilman Sammons, to this day, no one has explained why Memphis and Shelby County have approved more than half of the state’s tax freezes – 809 of them in a 10-year period – when Nashville has approved only five. Yes, five. In fact, our local governments approved more tax freezes than Nashville, Chattanooga, Jackson and Knoxville combined.

Sometimes, in the midst of the rhetoric, it’s hard to remember that no one is suggesting that tax freezes be eliminated. Surely, however, we can all agree that their number needs to be drastically reduced, targeted and only given after a company proves a real need for the incentives.

Unfortunately, even with the changes, our tax incentives still won’t address the real sources of economic growth – small businesses and entrepreneurs. As a small businessman, surely Councilman Sammons can agree to this. After all, more than 80 percent of all new jobs in Shelby County come from small businesses like his.

Basing The Future The Cheap

Memphis and Shelby County will only succeed in the long run if we abandon tired strategies based on “out-cheaping” other cities and instead create talent strategies and incentives for entrepreneurship. That’s where the economy is going while we’re still debating incentives for warehouse workers.

Despite the lethargy exhibited by city and county governments on fixing a badly broken system, there is some good news. The recent tax freeze for a badly needed major project at Main and Jefferson was exactly what they were created for. The CCRFC has always seemed more diligent about its stewardship, and hopefully, soon, it will reexamine the lengths of the tax freezes to see if they can be reduced.

If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance - the operative word these days - then surely 15-year tax freezes should be scaled back. It’s a little disconcerting to think that this year’s second graders will be graduating from college just in time for some of these projects to begin paying their shares of property taxes.

Meanwhile, Carol Hardy, manager for the Molson Coors Brewing Company plant planning shut down in the near future, gets our award for IDB recipient of the year. Although she’s a political insider and even serves as a member of the IDB, her request for a tax freeze was for seven years, although clearly, she could have used her behind-the-scenes influence to hike it.

Good News

We don’t want it to sound like there’s no good news from the City Council. It is finally adopting the position that PILOTs are public investments being made by Memphis taxpayers, and if companies expect to get them, they have to show benefits to the people paying the tab, either in a living wage and medical benefits, or 75 percent of the employees living in Shelby County or other clear public policy objectives.

We know old habits die hard, as Councilman Sammons proved yesterday, but it’s time to kill a message that if we can’t be cheap, we might as well forget it. It’s the sort of attitude that guarantees we will win a race in the competition for economic growth – the race to the bottom.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Tennessee's Unequal Rights Amendment

So, I’m sitting on the couch at home minding my own business when my wife of 36 years complains that I’m not pulling my weight around the house. There’s no reason, she says, that I can’t be more help in cleaning up, washing the clothes, and vacuuming.

Wisely, I apologize but offer a defense. “It's not my fault," I sputter. 'It’s those damn gays. they’re undermining marriage, and it's hurting our relationship.”

Seriously, the campaign for same-sex marriage is a boon to husbands everywhere.

Not giving enough attention to your wife? You’re just too distracted about the devastation of the gay agenda.

Derelict in changing the kitty litter? It’s a too painful reminder of the crumbling state of American marriage.

Forgot to put the clothes in the washer? They were just too soiled, reminding you of what our moral fabric will become if gays marry.

Spending too much time with your friends? The perfidious gay influence in the movies and media had me unthinkingly wanting to spend more time with the guys.

I’m Know I'm Right. Far right.

I know I must be right.

After all, Tennessee ranks in the bottom third in the U.S. in per capita income, economic growth, state and local revenue, spending on police protection, and spending on parks and recreation.

It is dead last in K-12 education spending per capita, dead last in environmental spending, third from the bottom in higher education spending, fifth from the bottom in per pupil spending, and in the top ten in toxic releases and punitive sales tax rates.

If that’s not enough, to add insult to injury, we’re ranked # 3 in the ranking of states whose residents have the fewest number of teeth, beaten out by Kentucky and West Virginia.

And yet, all of these pale by comparison to the threat imposed by the notion of two gays saying wedding vows. I know that’s a fact, because in the face of all of these pressing, serious problems, Tennessee is gearing up to do something much more important - voting on a definition of marriage that would reserve it just for heteros like us.

Bizarro World

Thank God, because if gays can undermine marriage even more than we straights already have, they may truly deserve this omnipotent image as the force shaping the culture decisions in this country.

I just think the television commentator was right who said: “Why shouldn’t they get married? They deserve to be as unhappy as the rest of us.”

There are times when these issues do seem to exist in a kind of Bizarro world where everything is done contrary to logic and reason. But, apparently Superman wasn’t the only person exposed to the strange gravitational pull of this alternate world. After all, our president and the far right religious fringe put forth an argument that goes something like this: gays live in a culture of promiscuity, gays serving in the military would undermine morale, gay rights is different than civil rights, and gays can’t raise children because they’ll all be gay (strange, since straight parents aren't just raising straight children).

It’s almost too much for the mind to take in at times. Once, gays and lesbians were attacked as promiscuous and unable to form lasting relationships, and they confused things by asking for the right to marry. It was bad enough when they were just asking for the right to serve in the military, but now they want on all of our battlegrounds.

The Constitution as a Club

But on November 7, we Tennesseeans can take a stand for moral decency by voting for a state constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage in our special bastion of moral certitude. It’s always reassuring to the cynics among us when people are so anxious to appeal to the basest aspects of human nature – the urge to marginalize those who are different, to dehumanize other people’s basic humanity and to use the Tennessee Constitution as a club to beat up some of the state’s own citizens.

Hopefully, if the amendment passes, Republican State Senator David Fowler of Signal Mountain, who conveniently also heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee, can finally rid those tormenting dreams in the showers on Capitol Hill. It’s just all too confusing for us, because we thought he was against big government intrusion into the private lives of Tennessee, but apparently, the chance to expand Signal Mountain morals to the vast swampland that makes up the rest of Tennessee is just too tempting to him. We thought he was against activist judges, but he certainly relied on them to get his pet cause on the ballot.

In his pleas for the referendum, Sen. Fowler frequently echoed some of our president’s statements about marriage being the fundamental building block of civilization for 2,000 years. (Apparently, they aren’t so sure about Jewish civilization before Christ.) Of course, it’s not worth mentioning that women were essentially chattel during most of those 20 centuries, but no matter, we’re supposed to be listening to the red meat rhetoric, not choking on the lapses in logic.

The last refuge of the scoundrel is to argue that the majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. That is true, but the tide over time is definitely running in favor of equal rights for gays, and at least civil unions. Of course, if public opinion is the standard for deciding our rights, interracial marriage would be illegal. Even as the law was being changed back in the day, the majority of Americans opposed it.

Déjà vu All Over Again

In fact, some of the defenses against interracial marriage seem oddly familiar today. It was all about tradition, public opinion, morality, erosion of American life, and besides, it just made so many Americans just plain uncomfortable.

And as we learned in the days of the civil rights movement, laws that refuse to allow men and women to connect fully with their own identities in the end only rob all of us, not just members of the minority. In fact, it is in how we treat the minorities among us that we most define who we are and what we believe as the majority.

Unfortunately, November 7 is predicted to be one of those days when the 90 percent of us who are in the majority deny rights to the 10 percent of us in the minority. Hopefully, we can see this referendum for what it is – a serious civil rights issue that defines who we are as a people. For that reason alone, we should vote against the amendment, but most of all, we should send the message that we categorically reject the calculated, gay-bashing agenda that pushes one of these referenda to coincide with each Congressional election to get out the vote for the far right's candidates.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Modest Project That Could Herald A Better Way Of Designing Roads In Memphis And Shelby County

It’s a modest project, but it’s a start. Shelby County Government’s plan to design a limited stretch of Houston Levee Road according to smart growth principles is welcome news to taxpayers who’ve been paying a premium for suburban sprawl.

Few subjects have been as endlessly discussed in this community as smart growth, and at times, we seemed at risk of co-opting the language while doing nothing to change our behavior. However, finally, we’re seeing the first signs of meaningful change in the way that the county engineer’s office designs roads. Now, if only this attitude could reach across Main Street to City Hall where the city engineer’s office often sends the message that it’s his way or the highway (excuse the pun) and that the public is nothing so much as a nuisance in the design process.

In fact, nothing symbolizes the difference in attitude and tone between the county engineer’s office and the city engineer’s office more than the difference between Memphis’ plans for Walnut Grove Road into Shelby Farms Park and Shelby County’s plans for Houston Levee Road between the Wolf River and Macon Road.

The Difference

At Shelby Farms Park, the city engineer’s office seems determined to fight any suggestion that Walnut Grove Road should accommodate bicyclists and walkers. Incredibly, at this point, it even seems possible that the road will be a three-mile barrier to bicyclists interested in actually crossing from one side of the park to the other. As the city engineer’s office seems to be saying, its job is to build roads and sensitivity to the natural setting or other modes of transportation is someone else’s job.

In fact, some say that in the wake of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton’s successful “context sensitive design” process that produced a compromise for the long controversial Kirby Parkway through Shelby Farms Park, the Memphis city engineer’s office seems so irritated by this consensus-building approach to road design that it has taken a harder line on the Walnut Grove Road design.

Meanwhile, at Houston Levee Road, the county engineer’s office essentially is saying that it’s heard what taxpayers have been saying and it’s going to change the way it goes about its business. In announcing the new design, Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes made it clear that he sees the road as our community’s opportunity to prove that it learned the miserable lessons of Germantown Parkway.

3.7 Miles of Hope

The Houston Levee Road project may be a modest first step, but Mr. Oakes suggests that county government is going to raise its aim beyond this 3.7 miles experiment, and hopefully, usher in a better way of building roads and highways in this community.

We know it is too early to get overly excited about the prospects. After all, there was a time when Germantown Parkway – now a concrete tribute to the county’s lack of commitment to sound planning – was heralded as an important opportunity to emphasize some of the same issues now being applied to Houston Levee Road.

Back then, before the ink on the Germantown Parkway Plan had dried, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was making amendments that reversed the plan’s fundamental policies and produced the endless succession of strip malls across the landscape. In the end, the commissioners’ actions to undo the Germantown Parkway Plan did more than damage that highway’s possibilities. It also sent an “anything goes” message to developers and too many among them immediately moved to maximize their profits at the expense of the area’s quality of life.

Sensitive Design

Mr. Oakes pointedly rejected the massive design used for Germantown Parkway in favor of a two-lane road, and to underscore that a new day may be dawning, his plan actually includes bike paths and the planning of trees. He promises that the road will be no wider than two lanes until about 2016 at the earliest and even afterwards, it will be widened to four lanes designed as a boulevard.

The county engineer’s thinking about this road corresponds with a growing belief that supersizing highways actually ends up making them more dangerous. The expansive roadways that exist throughout suburban Shelby County are bleak testament to the “bigger is better” attitude so often adopted by highway engineers.

Thankfully, a change is taking root around the country with a new breed of engineers who design roads that take into consideration once unheard of ideas – slowing down the traffic to move fewer cars and sharing the road with pedestrians and bike riders.

New Engineering Skills

The Memphis city engineer’s office reminds us of how hard it will be for the profession to adapt to this new approach. Strangely, many traffic engineers in the public sector seem blind to the fact that this different philosophy can prevent the fault lines that so often open up between government, neighborhoods and environmentalists. That’s why flexibility and listening are two skills that are becoming as important to highway engineers as skills at the drafting table.

“Context sensitive design” changes the paradigm for the better, as the special committee on Kirby Parkway proved, bringing agreement to a road project characterized by heated controversy for about two decades. In recent years, context sensitive design has evolved into context sensitive solutions. Design seems to imply construction is the answer, and solutions opened up broader possible answers, including not building a road at all.

Coupled with the new Unified Development Code now being written, context sensitive solutions could open up a new emphasis on building a livable, healthier community. More and more, research indicates the strong connection between automobile dependency and land use and declining physical activity.

Walk The Walk

After all, transportation in Shelby County does much more than just move people from place to place. It also shapes the innate character of the community at its most basic. Recent studies show that people with access to sidewalks walk more, people with access to trails jog and walk more, and that walking increases with well-connected streets that are calm, appealing and narrow.

Residents of walkable neighborhoods engage in about 70 more minutes a week of physical activity than people living in less walkable neighborhoods. Between 1977 and 1995, trips made by walking have declined by 40 percent for children and adults while driving trips have almost doubled. It’s no wonder that the percentage of young people who are overweight also doubled when compared to 20 years ago.

Some suggested changes to road design, which are probably be considered by Mr. Oakes, include adding more roadways with bike lanes and trails; dampening speeds on arterials and collectors to about 35 miles per hour; offering networks for pedestrians and bike riders that are as accessible as those for cars; bulbing out curbs, improving crosswalks, and installing landscaped medians to slow down traffic and adding to the safety of pedestrians; adding landscaping, especially trees, and installing public art.

With the new thinking displayed by the county engineer’s office, it’s easier to imagine a community focused on highways that create higher quality of life and reduce the cost of construction as well as public health costs. Once, it was a pipe dream. Perhaps, now, it’s a dream we can achieve.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Concerts Achieve Dual Goals - For Downtown and Memphis Music

Tomorrow night, and every Wednesday evening until October 25, we have a chance to do two things that are seriously needed in Memphis – animate Main Street with activity and support Memphis music.

That’s because the second Court Square Concert Series, billed as a celebration of local Memphis music, is back from 6 until 8 p.m. each week, so skip Prayer Meeting (God won’t mind; as Sam Phillips once said, when Jesus returns, He’s coming to Memphis first to soak up some great music for a few days), bring your blanket and even a picnic and join in and prove that great Memphis music is still being made today.

Tomorrow night's concert stars Tennessee Boltsmokers & Friends, and the variety of the lineup over the next two and a half months does indeed celebrate our greatest export – music – and showcases our deep reservoir of talent and genres before wrapping up with the legendary Jim Dickinson and his protégés, The North Mississippi All-Stars, on October 25. Of course, the Court Square Concert Series is free and held in the gazebo of historic Court Square at Main Street and Court.

Getting The Basics Right

While we are passionate about downtown and frequently frustrated by our inability to get the basics right, the Center City Commission and its partners – FaxonGillis, Newby’s of Memphis, Remax on the River, Memphis Flyer, Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, MLG&W, Dr. Kellis Dumas, Memphissound.com, the Spring Hill Suites and Sleep In - are doing exactly what we need more of - events to liven up downtown and create a downtown scene that not only draws tourists but lures back office workers.

In that vein, anyone who cares about the overall economic health of the region should also care about downtown’s new push to increase its office market.

We just need to keep in mind that the answer isn’t about better downtown marketing. It’s about a better downtown reality.
And we’re confident that the strategist developing the marketing campaign didn’t mean to give the impression in The Commercial Appeal that downtown’s future is merely as a branch office for companies located in East Memphis and that there’s nothing that we can do to stop the eastward movement.

Appeal Is A Key

We weighed in on this subject a couple of weeks ago, so we’ll resist flogging that horse one more time, except to say that if downtown is clean, well-maintained, vibrant and appealing, it will go a long way in attracting the companies that we need for our office buildings.

In fact, we ought to aim for an attitude like the one in Chicago, where Fortune 500 companies who moved to the suburbs years ago are returning downtown. In the end, it is the vibe, the vibrancy and the vitality that attracts them, and most of all, it is about getting closer to the kind of knowledge workers that they want in their companies and that are found downtown.

What we like most about Chicago is that city officials and downtown leaders aren’t bashful about standing up and fighting for their downtown. Sadly, when the exodus from downtown Memphis began years ago, political and Center City Commission officials were just too polite, looking the other way and refusing to make the calls insisting that major employers stay downtown (the kind of calls that Chicago Mayor Daley seems to relish [and it shows]).

The Voice In The Wilderness

Back in the day when Jack Belz was sounding the alarm about the impact of the moves, he was a chorus of one. He pleaded with government and downtown development officials to stand up for downtown, but playing it politically safe won out in the end.

Although the day-to-day operations of Shelby County Government were managed by a former head of the Center City Commission, the county administration was in no position to respond to Mr. Belz’s pleas for help, because it also was also moving several departments out east itself, a shift that continues today but in smaller numbers.

This timid reaction meant that no one really lobbied downtown’s case or pointed out the public importance of maintaining downtown’s sizable commercial tax base. Because this timidity existed even before the political takeover of the present Center City Commission, it was good to see that the downtown redevelopment agency signed on as part of the new campaign to attract new occupants for downtown offices, and hopefully, it is prepared to be aggressive and persistent.

Chamber Leadership

It’s even more exciting to see that the Memphis Regional Chamber under its reinvigorated leadership is part of the effort. In the past, the Chamber tended to treat the draining of the downtown pool of office workers as a subject as verboten as weaning itself from tax freezes. But no longer.

In addition to the Center City Commission and the Chamber, CB Richard Ellis, a longtime business advocate for downtown, spearheads the campaign along with other downtown partners.

Perhaps, this program can do even more than fill offices. More to the point, it can usher in a more assertive attitude among downtown proponents and elected officials. Maybe we not only can attract back some offices to downtown, but maybe we could do thinks like luring WKNO-FM/TV to join them. A good example of what can be done is in Louisville, where the public radio station built studios downtown that face a main street, where the station injects activity and energy into the area.

The office initiative can achieve its important target, and and along the way, it might even inspire us to raise our aim.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Statistics Paint A False Picture Of U.S. Engineering Prowess

While Superintendent Bobby Webb’s announced emphasis on science and math seems a worthy goal for Shelby County Schools, his statistics point out the way that bad information has a way of taking on a life of its own these days.

In the article in today’s The Commercial Appeal reporting on his concern about qualified workers to fill high-tech jobs, the newspaper said he was worried about “some numbers he’s been seeing lately…in any given year, 352,000 engineering graduates will emerge from Indian; 600,000 from China…and in America? 70,000…tops.”

These are numbers that have tossed around by every one from national publications to academicians who should know better.

About eight months ago, Duke University conducted a study as a result of the widespread repeating of these dire statistics as evidence of declining American prowess in the world. The conclusions were simple enough: they are misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.

First of all, when considered in terms of population, the U.S. is producing about 750 engineering graduates for every one million people; in China, it’s 500; and in Indian, it’s 200.

In addition, when China and India report graduates in engineering, they don’t limit them to people with four-year degrees, and they include computer technology specialists and technicians. In fact, only about half of these countries’ annual engineering graduates are capable of competing in an environment known for its outsourcing. To compound the flimsiness of the statistics cited by Mr. Webb, there is even evidence that China includes motor mechanics in its number.

If you look at the kinds of jobs filled by engineers in India and China – low-paid engineering jobs at that – they are those that can be filled by transactional engineers, according to the study. In the area of high-level engineering, it’s a field that is dominated by U.S. engineers, and there’s no reason to predict that it will not remain that way.

Unfortunately, the news media devote much less attention to fact-checking these days, and these statistics have been widely spread by people with their own special interests in creating the impression of a crisis in need of their own specialized cure, whether it is more money for education or more tax breaks for corporations.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hopeful Signs For The New County Board Of Commissioners

As soon as new Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy takes his oath of office, he seems destined to be under the microscope. He takes office September 1 with high hopes for his ability to maneuver the partisan and racial shoals of county government and act as a mediating influence on the legislative body.

His election swings the 7-6 majority from Republican to Democrat, but on top of it, he becomes the first white Democrat on the body (although a couple of Republicans have had some sketchy credentials to run as R's).

Perhaps the expectations aren't realistic. The county commission is in desperate need of stronger leadership that can be a bridge between its factions, and perhaps, he can perform that role.

Some observers have suggested that Mr. Mulroy's election will shift the focus of county government from suburban incentives for sprawl to urban redevelopment, but that's probably wishful thinking..

In truth, Democrats on the Board of Commissioners have been just as complicit in encouraging sprawl as the Republicans, who have frequently voted to build new roads and new schools and rubber stamped requests for Planned Unit Developments (PUD’s) and zoning changes in hopes of stemming the out-migration of their base outside of Shelby County. Meanwhile, Democrats have bent to the will of developers as if they were not making a choice between investing in sprawl or in the urban core. In the end, there’s enough shame to go around.

Mr. Mulroy seems to have a different view of things, and although we’ve not been excited by his campaign to preserve a theme park that has no real market niche, he appears on the surface to be up for the demands of his new position. Then, there's all the other new faces as a majority of the board of commissioners are replaced. Perhaps, in the honeymoon period for the new body, some new alliances and new working relationships can be forged for the future.

However, it's worth remembering that what has kept the Board of Commissioners in conflict over the years has not been the 7-6 division along party lines, but the lack of a floor leader to put the votes together and exert the influence to make things happen. It's been 12 years since someone played this role, which became increasingly more difficult with the overlay of partisan elections.

Some suggest that the Wharton Administration has failed in this role, and while its efforts at the commission meeting haven't been commanding, it’s really not the role of administrators to be the commission's floor leader. Only someone on the County Commission can play that role, because if you’re going to make it work, you’ve got to have a vote in your pocket to negotiate with.

Some Post-Election Footnotes

While the 11th hour victory by Republican candidates brought back memories of the days of Boss Crump (How many votes did you deliver? Just enough to win.), it does show how tenuous is the Republican hold on the county offices. It sure appears that the Democratic tide will sweep most of them out of office in the next two elections.

That said, an atypical group of African-American leaders is meeting to consider their next steps. At the most, they may give support to calls for recounts, but at the least, they are concerned about the widespread lack of confidence in the election process and want to discuss ways to correct it.

Mayor A C Wharton flexed his political muscle as the top vote-getter on election day, reinforcing his reputation as the most popular office-holding in Shelby County.

When he takes office on September 1, he will make history. He will be the first county mayor who is a lame duck on the day he takes office. That's because he's the first mayor affected by terms limits.
Look for him to be more forceful in his agenda and his determination, not just because he only has four more years to get them done, but because he'll need to be more assertive as the political insiders and big contributors will almost immediately be looking ahead to the next candidate for county mayor.

Despite the Wharton mandate, Commissioner John Willingham shouldn’t be hanging his head too much. True, he only got 25 percent of the vote, but considering that he had no money, no organization and no real party help, it’s a respectable showing and points to the mayor’s wisdom in reaching out to the Republican leaders to the point that they had no enthusiasm in looking for a contender that could have gotten full party backing. More to the point, Commissioner Willingham's message about the dysfunctional local tax structure was right on target, and it is likely to be proven again as early as next year with another county property tax hike.

Although they were unopposed, it was also good to see the votes of confidence – as reflected in their receiving more than 100,000 votes – for Judges James Beasley and Larry Potter. Apparently, their fairness and their diligence have not gone unnoticed. Sadly, Probate Court Judge Donn Southern lost his seat. He’s one of the best judges on the bench in this county, and his successor can’t begin to live up to his credentials or his judicial temperament. But, such is politics.

In the election for U.S. Congresman, State Senator Steve Cohen faces a major hurdle in the latest model of the the Ford family, this time, Jake Ford, who at this point appears to be the perceived favorite. If he is to win, Senator Cohen will need to mend some fences quickly and allay some widely-held notions in the black community that he had no serious interest in their votes. That perception could only have been strengthened by interviews on election night that showed him surrounded by white faces at his headquarters.

Music Posts

In light of the changes at the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, we direct your attention to our post earlier this week on the future of labels and to Sherman Willmott’s July 29 responses to our earlier post.

Memphis TVA Board Member Is Breakthrough

Finally, Memphis gets a member on the Tennessee Valley Authority board, a lucrative and powerful position, but with Memphis’ historic ties to TVA, it's amazing how long it took to do something so logical.

TVA has been dominated by East Tennessee influence, and its decisions and direction have largely been made within that context. We would make progress if we just get some of the change invested over there. TVA is the kind of national agency that can make things happen, so hopefully, the new Memphis appointee, Bishop William Graves, can attract more of its attention to its role in the future of this city.

A tip of the hat goes to Memphian Karl Schledwitz, who leveraged his deep political skills and contacts, to campaign to make this happen. When he first started talking about the lack of fairness in the make-up of the TVA board, few people were listening, but before it was over, he had moved it to the top of the agenda, and Memphis is the beneficiary.

Friday, August 04, 2006

A Frustrating Night For Following Election Returns

Based on last night’s election performance, The Commercial Appeal needs to reassess its partnership with WREG-TV.

Those of us who logged on to the CA’s website, assuming that it would offer the most accurate, up-to-the-minute election returns, were proudly informed that its collaboration with Channel 3 would give us the best coverage of the election.

That’s why it was a shock to realize about 90 minutes later that the returns on the website weren’t keeping up with the tallies being shown on WMC and WPTY. In fact, some of the results that we were watching online were not even updated after the early returns. In addition, even when we got returns, we had no idea what percentage of the vote had been counted.

Even this morning, the results on the WREG-TV link were not the final ones and didn’t even agree with the vote totals in the CA’s own articles. But then again, with the dwindling, meager staffing that Scripps-Howard headquarters has mandated, the newspaper gave indications of struggling to keep up with the down-to-the wire races.

With the final count coming after midnight, the CA was likely a chaotic scene, as reflected in this morning’s on-line edition. If you click the headline, “Wharton coasts to victory,” the body of the story is actually about Steve Cohen’s victory in the Democratic primary for Congress.

It was a frustrating evening for those of us who care about local politics, and we can only hope that someone finally decides to get serious about online election returns.

Old Habits and New Realities

This week on Smart City, the topic is how to respond to new realities and re-think future possibilities:

It's always difficult to leave old ways behind and embrace the new. But our guests this week, working in very different fields, are dedicated to getting us to do just that.

Louis Glazer is urging policymakers in Michigan to let go of that state's industrial past and move into a future based on knowledge and technology where success depends on people becoming more resourceful, life-long learners. Lou is president of Michigan Future, Inc. and he is currently involved in launching a high school designed to connect students to good-paying careers in the automotive industry.

Mickey McManus is working alongside public officials to re-think the world of libraries. It is typical of the kind of radical reconsideration of user needs that his firm MAYA performs routinely for its clients in many fields. MAYA is a design consultancy and technology research lab headquartered in Pittsburgh.

Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Setting E-Government As A Priority For Local Government

While many local governments are working to solve the problem of the Internet’s “last mile,” Memphis and Shelby County Governments – despite spending about $25 million a year on computer technology – can't seem to begin the journey.

As a result, few websites are as frustrating as those of Memphis and Shelby County Governments. They stand as digital representations of the governments themselves – almost impossible to navigate, confusing and cumbersome, and the most useful information out of reach. Most of all, the websites reflect an egocentric view of the world where citizens apparently are thought to be craving to read welcome messages from elected officials, biographies of politicians and press release puffery.

If a camel is a horse created by a government committee, the websites give the impression that the committees in charge of them don’t even know what kind of animal they’re aiming for. Unfortunately, government has a tradition of staying several generations behind in technology, but its websites paint the picture of a community trapped in the Internet backwater.


Nothing shows it more clearly than public transit. In Portland, riders of the TriMet system can go online to “trip planner,” where they get detailed directions such as “walk .19 mile east from bike gallery,” what bus to board, how long the trip will take and what the fare will cost. Riders can ask for real-time arrivals by clicking “transit tracker,” which gives reminders of how close the bus or light rail is.

Meanwhile, here at home, “trip planner” at MATA means sending an email with your personal information, your place and time of departure and place of arrival. Then, the website promises: “One of our customer service representatives will get back to you within 24 hours with a recommendation.”

Mostly, the websites focus on what they want from us – money – as opposed to what we’d like from them. There are ways to pay taxes and traffic tickets, but there’s also a “convenience fee” for the privilege, although it would seem that paying on line is most convenient to government itself.

It’s a general rule that the public information that we most want is rarely found online, and when it is, it’s rarely in a format that makes it more easily understood or useful. On county government’s home page, a visitor interested in a specific department needs to know what division it’s in. (Who knew D11-DHS was part of the division of public works?) Of course, City of Memphis expects its citizens to possess this arcane knowledge about governmental structure just to find a telephone number in the phone book. There’s no listing of members of public boards and commission, no list of tax freezes approved or contracts awarded for services.


Dozens of governments are developing broadband networks, but Memphis isn’t one of them. New York’s Central Park is becoming wireless. Philadelphia, Portland and Milwaukee have launched programs to become citywide “hot spots” in the next 18 months. Suffolk County, New York, has kicked off a wireless system over an area larger than Shelby County – more than 900 square miles.

In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin has introduced the “Atlanta Dashboard.” Based on corporate dashboards, it keeps city government managers focused on goals and indicators of success. Most of all, it opens a window for citizens to judge how city operations are performing.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is equipping all city vehicles to be “digital street assessment tools,” so they can measure vibrations created by rough roads and potholes and send the data to a computer that maps locations using GPS. Shanghai, China, is doing much the same thing, but the perpetually updated map is also used by private companies who pay so they know which routes are best for their deliveries on a given day.

Wireless Cities

In an Intel survey of wireless cities, Memphis ranked 68th, behind Nashville, Knoxville, Little Rock, Omaha and Tulsa; University of Memphis didn’t make the top 100 wireless college campuses; Memphis International Airport isn’t listed in the top 25 wireless airports; and unsurprisingly, neither local government ever makes the annual winners’ lists for digital cities or counties.

This about much more than bragging rights. It’s about better government -- e-government.

At its most basic, it applies technology to improve administrative functions and a greater sharing of information within government. More to the point, it’s about transforming the relationship between government and the people it serves.

It’s about creating government that’s open for business when we need it, 24/7/365. It’s about citizen-centric government that flattens the public bureaucracy, and it’s about increasing government efficiency and productivity, promoting transparency and accountability, and inviting the public into discussions and decisions.

And all it takes is for the mayors to order it to be done. There are few things they can do that can have more impact on our attitude and power as taxpayers.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The New Stax Label Can Reinvent The Role Of Labels In The Digital Age

The world of pop culture was abuzz last week with Justin Timberlake’s overly candid comments about his drug use. We hope he was stone cold sober when he decided to resurrect the Stax label in Memphis, because with the dizzying changes in the music industry, it will require all of his faculties for success.

As New Yorker wrote a few weeks ago: “Radiohead no longer has a contract with EMI and says that it has no plans to sign with a label…Labels spend a lot of time and money worrying about illegal downloading and file-sharing. What they should be worried about is more bands like Radiohead, which could make major labels a relic of the twentieth century.”

Betting on Stax

It’s these kind of sentiments, which are the conventional wisdom these days, that are on the minds of every one in the music business, but particularly should be on the mind of someone like Timberlake who is expected to announce in September that he’s going to relaunch the mythic Stax label.

Labels were the lords of the pre-digital music world, perching atop a food chain with the artists and customers dependent on them in a business model not too different than the company store and the sharecroppers who never seemed to get out of debt.

The world as the labels knew it has been turned upside down, and these days, they are playing Sears to the Internet’s Wal-Mart. As Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton once observed, it was Sears who should have morphed into the world’s largest retailer, but it couldn’t innovate because it was too invested in its own traditional infrastructure and cumbersome inventory system.

The same can be said of the music industry. It’s so invested in labels and its retail business model that it’s failing to grasp that the world as it knew it is all but gone. Where once music retailers had to spend millions to open a store and set up the distribution system, e-tailers today can connect with customers anywhere in the world.

The Fading Labels

If labels as we have known them do not disappear entirely, their place in the music industry will be significantly reduced in the face of the next wave of the digital revolution. Perhaps, Memphis can be the place where the label is reinvented. It certainly would be a chapter of Memphis entrepreneurship that would rank up there with the FedEx phenomenon, and it would position Memphis at the front of the next wave of change for the music industry.

It’s a high-stakes, high-risk proposition, but it begins with artists moving to the center of the new power structure. That’s why more and more musicians – following the lead of the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Widespread Panic, Ani DeFranco, Aimee Mann and Radiohead - will remain independent, connecting directly with their fans and customers and eliminating the labels that once controlled their destinies, but now seem to throttle their artistic vision and limit their profits.

These musicians have dynamited the traditional supply chain, some making their music free to the public and others recording on their own labels, all of which is good news for music consumers. The changes in the industry are driven by the digital revolution, but another factor seems to be a large number of consumers’ fatigue with the lack of creativity and variety that the labels have ushered in as they pursue music that often feels formulaic and derivative.

Changes in the industry are good news for new artists and for the revival of out-of-favor bands. Interestingly, the momentum for change was fueled by a segment of the industry with which Memphis has a love-hate relationship – rap music. With labels steering clear of rap artists and with groups like Three 6 Mafia selling tens of thousands of cd’s out of their car trunks, more than three-fourths of all rap music was sold independently, a reality that triggered innovation and the groups’ quick move into the digital environment.

New Business Models

It seems that in the future, music portals will fill the space once occupied by labels, distributors and retailers, and as it becomes harder and harder to fight and win battles over intellectual property rights, the music business will be transformed. Labels that cling to old business models are unlikely to survive.

This is the world that the new Stax label will enter, and why it must act decisively to survive, much less reinvent, the role of labels in the digital universe. It will require a rethinking of the business model and the supply chain, but most of all, it will require the creation of an artist-centric future.

If Memphis can get there first, it could become a dominant force in music again, understanding that in the future, it’s about creating the experience, the community and the content as much as marketing music. It’s a tall order and will require nothing less than the same kind of imagination and brilliance that characterized Stax music in the first place.


The lessons of myspace.com, youtube.com, garage band.com are powerful, and recording by new local producers like Electric Room, which, using PC’s, the Internet and these new community-creating websites, understands that there is a better way.

Best of all, the real story of the music business today is the story of how the Internet and the individual are democratizing music. Who would have imagined only a few years ago that Apple would become the world’s largest digital music company? Who can imagine today that Stax can become the prototype label for the age of digital music, staking out new territory that puts Memphis again on the musical frontier? Who’s to say it’s not possible? After all, this city revolutionized the music industry before, and here’s hoping that the new Stax label can do it again.