Friday, September 29, 2006

The Mid-South Fair Can't Just Be Fair Any More

With the impending approval by the board of directors to hire former county mayor Jim Rout as head of the Mid-South Fair, the organization seems to see a future more shaped by politics than event management.

It’s a shift in direction, because traditionally, the board has hired people with experience in running these kinds of yearly regional fairs; however, this time around, with the future of the Fair unclear at best and threatened at worst, the board appears to set political experience as the top job skill for its new general manager.

With the make-or-break options looming in the Fair’s future, the board’s emphasis on politics may be well-placed, but then again, if the Fair is anything, it is the ultimate good old boys political organization, and within this lens, the hiring also makes good sense.

Its Former Glory

There was a time when the Fair board was one of Memphis’ most powerful political groups, but that was long ago. The influence of the Fair took a hit and never recovered from the decline and death of its patron saint, Democratic Party political king maker Bill Farris.

In those glory days, it was a political rite of passage to be invited to serve on the board, and board membership was synonymous on being recognized as someone who can make things happen in Memphis. These days, it’s reflected glory, because the board makeup is largely the power structure of Memphis about 15 years ago.

The Mid-South Fair has always been a curious organization, what with its “certificate holders” class of members who are the real power for the organization and about as transparent as the College of Cardinals.

Chairman Farris

There was one thing that was always a certainty in the past. Every Fair president, much less every certificate holder, would come from the Farris political circle, and even today, the progenitor for the organization remains one of the smartest political minds ever created in this city. During his hey day, no one could out-think “Chairman Farris” in local or state politics, no one was better connected (the pilot on his ill-fated campaign for governor was none other than a young guy named Fred Smith) and no one got on the Fair board without his personal blessing.

Even years after his death, board membership still seems to have a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon feeling to it, because every one can be linked back in some way to Mr. Farris. The organizational structure of the Fair itself was an inscrutably clever way to keep its operations closed while portraying itself almost as a public entity.

In fairness (excuse the pun), the Liberty Bowl also benefits from preferential access to public land and buildings, and like the Fair, there’s little transparency in its operations. Former presidents of the association have even complained about being unable to see the books, but it’s clearly a profitable project. In 2005, it logged about $6.5 million in revenues and $4.5 million in expenditures, including about $560,000 for management fees.

Killing Off Libertyland

Meanwhile, at the Fair, its budgets are about $4.5 million a year, and have been trending in the wrong direction for years. It’s hoped that by jettisoning Libertyland, the Fair can save itself by eliminating the annual transfusion of cash to cover operating losses for the theme park, taking the definition of that term to its virtual breaking point.

Even with Libertyland out of the way, the Mid-South Fair still finds itself at a particularly tenuous point in its 150-year history. There is no compelling argument to be made that its present location makes sense any longer. The deteriorating buildings and the desert of asphalt say volumes about the impact that the Fair has on the area and are telling symbols of declining interest in the yearly event.

If the future of the Fair should include a new location, and that seems obvious at this point because plans for higher and better uses of the Fairgrounds are gaining momentum under the direction of City of Memphis’ leading staff member Robert Lipscomb, the political clout of the Fair probably peaked about 15 years ago. It would be a political miracle for the organization’s current board and management to be successful in convincing today’s new breed of politicians that the Fair should continue to be a prime tenant for an area that is now more eyesore than eye candy.

A New Location

Discussions about the Fair’s future seem inevitably to turn to Agricenter International. After all, both organizations have missions rooted in agriculture, and Agricenter has cut its event teeth on the Great Outdoors Festival (although the Fair is about three times larger than that event).

And yet, there are some people thinking outside the box to the point that they envision a future for the Fair that’s not even in Memphis. (We’d be glad to resurrect our proposal to tear down The Pyramid and build a festival grounds there, but we can’t seem to generate much momentum behind that suggestion.)

Regardless of where it puts up its tents, one thing about its future is certain. It badly needs reinvention. It is about as stale as it smells on the eight day of its yearly run. Its attendance is sluggish. If you knew where the Pronto Pup stand was 10 years ago, you can walk right to it today. It’s as if the entire event is trapped in a time warp.

Speaking Today’s Language

But, the biggest disconnect is that it seems to speak the language of row crops in a world of biofuels. At a time when Memphis’ agricultural future needs to point toward research in fields like biogenetics, perhaps there’s ways for the Fair to feel more relevant, because in the absence of this, it's just a pleasing anachronism that's enjoyed every few years or so by most of us.

As for us, we’ve always enjoyed the Fair, and we go about every 5-7 years. We even like the swine barn and the cattle judging, but if the Fair is to be a genuine success and survive, it needs to get more of us to come out every year. There’s just not any reason for us to do that now.

Most of all, there has to be a reason that Memphis' version of this historic agricultural invention is different than the Missouri State Fair or the Illinois State Fair. That will only happen if it is retooled, reinvented and reimagined so that it speaks to our aspirations as a region and not to a time gone by. That will only happen when business as usual ends, because this time around, this isn’t a problem that has a political solution.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

This Week's Smart City: Looking to the Future

What happens when a dying town's civic leaders decide they have to change the way their citizens think about the future? If you're Linz, Austria, you create Ars Electronica. Its artistic director, Gerfried Stocker, is here to tell us the amazing story of the impact the festival and the projects it has spawned have had on the city of Linz. Gerfried is a media artist who has worked on installations and performance projects in the field of interaction, robotics and telecommunications.

Also with us is Ann Daley, an arts consultant based in Austin, Texas, who has advice on where new audiences for the arts can be found. Ann Daly Consulting provides strategic advice on making, funding, and serving the arts. Ann is the author of three books on performing and visual arts and has served as cultural commentator for the New York Times, Village Voice and Chronicle of Higher Education.

And we'll have part two of our interview with Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Changing how citizens think about the future, this week on Smart City.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

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.

You can also sign up for a weekly newsletter on the program website.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Changing The Conversation About The Economy Is First Step In Changing the Economy Itself

Memphis doesn’t have to look outside its own city limits to find one of the nation’s leading economic development strategies.

It’s taking shape at Union and Dudley in the form of the UT-Baptist Research Park, according to Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council.

Memphis Bioworks Foundation – which is building the research park - embodies “a brilliant approach” that gives Memphis the chance to leap ahead of its rivals, Mr. Bergstrom said in comments to Leadership Memphis. The best ideas are “organic rather than institutional and build on existing capabilities.” “When I look for a ‘best practice,’ I look at what’s been done in Memphis with biotech. More often than not, in approaches like this, it’s entrepreneurs convening themselves.”

Mr. Bergstrom heads one of the U.S.’s most inventive economic development organizations. Composed of members of business, labor, higher education and government, the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council provides objective analysis of the strategic challenges facing the state's economy. Co-chaired by Rhode Island Governor Donald L. Carcieri, the Policy Council develops new strategies and conducts critical research that allows the state to seize key economic opportunities.

Finding The Mountains

“Succeeding in today’s economy is about finding out what you’re good at and understanding what others are doing,” he said. “It’s about identifying mountain peaks of capability, and asking the question, what are we going to differently that raises the elevation of our mountain peak? What does it mean to succeed in the innovation economy? What do we do to play the game, but then, what do we do to win?”

Memphis has a more entrepreneurial environment than the Northeastern U.S. and the attitude should translate to government innovation, he said. “Up here, we still have lots of work just to make government transparent and efficient,” he said. “We need to be thinking about how we can make it innovative. We need to think of government in a design sense rather than as a product of the industrial age overly invested in legacy systems. We need to look for government departments that are creative and entrepreneurial and work with them to find opportunities for them to become agents for change.”

As part of this different approach to public programs, he says schools need to compete for public investments. In Providence, “The Met” (The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center) is a national model with six small campuses across the city. “It’s a phenomenal personalized approach to education,” he said, noting that its program centers on workplace internships and independent projects tailored to each student’s interests.

An Urgent Sense of Urgency

“Providence and Memphis are like most cities,” he said. “We need a sense of urgency. Do we have to suffer a major catastrophe before we make the investments that we need in math, engineering and science?”

It’s the need to emphasize these subjects that makes the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) such an important part of the work of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, he said. MASE is a charter school that was opened by the Foundation in 2003 and eventually will have 900 students concentrating on science-related subjects.

Acknowledging that in addition to educating our students, Memphis has to attract 25-34 year-old professionals, he suggests that successful cities are those that allow them to have an impact. “That’s what these young professionals want,” he said. “But they often feel that it’s a closed circle. You need to reach out to the group, open the loop and let them have input. They want to live their values. They want to live in a place with leadership that’s bold and taking risks. They want to be part of something that’s not done yet, so they can help to complete the city.”

In looking for the keys to the future, Mr. Bergstrom offers this advice: “Whoever learns to turn immigrants and low-wage earners into knowledge workers wins the game. Is there any reason that can’t be Memphis?”

Shifting The Focus

He advised that changes in the global economy demand changes in Memphis’ approach to economic development. In shifting its focus from what it “needs to play” to what it “needs to win,” his advice is:

• Rather than focusing on developable sites, focus on distinctive places.

• Rather than focusing on skilled workers, focus on lateral thinkers.

• Rather than focusing on research institutions, focus on world-class research teams in specific areas.

• Rather than focusing on serial entrepreneurs, focus on a ubiquitous entrepreneurial culture.

• Rather than focusing on transparent and efficient government, focus on innovative government.

• Rather than focusing on high-wage jobs, focus on networks of firms with synergistic capabilities that create individual and collective added value.

In the end, cities that succeed in the innovations economy, Mr. Bergstrom said, are those that identify “game changers” and catapult their economy to another level of competitive advantage. The Bioworks Foundation looks like our best bet.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

How To Reform Zoning And Government In One Fell Swoop


It’s one of those words used so often by politicians that it’s almost lost all meaning. It’s right up there with world-class, state-of-the-art, public-private partnership, new paradigm, and summit. For once, reform is precisely the right word to describe the new development code now being written for Memphis and Shelby County.

That's because the new Unified Development Code is about more than good land use. More to the point, it is about good government.

That’s precisely why the next six months will see hard-fought resistance from the entrenched special interests who have all but owned the local zoning apparatus for more than a decade. They control the process to the point that one boasted that on any given day, he could deliver seven votes (a majority) in either local legislative body, another has co-signed car loans and given rides on his private jet to elected officials, and both have been involved in real estate dealings with the same politicians who vote on their zoning cases.

The Catch

Therein lies the Catch-22. This new way making land use decisions requires the approval of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Sometime in the middle of next year, these 26 legislators will be asked to pass the new Unified Development Code ( being written by nationally respected planners Lee Einswiler and Colin Scaff of Austin for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. The new Code would reform what is most wrong with the present system, replacing the current politicized process with one where politicians set policy and professional planners decide on zoning requests.

The subverting of the present system stems largely from the misuse of PUD’s (Planned Use Development) and the takeover of the Land Use Control Board by developers. Designed to replace existing zoning districts with innovative development, PUD’s were intended to be rare and allowed because of important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment.

Instead, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, PUD’s are the rule, not the exception, and normally, the underlying zoning isn’t even changed, so there is land with agricultural zoning that is covered with cookie cutter development.

Subverting The System

To make matters worse, local PUD applications are treated as special exemptions, because that section of the law has weaker requirements for notifying the public and neighborhood groups. Their clout was weakened even more in the mid-1990’s when the Mayors Herenton and Rout - ignoring pleas by neighborhoods for more representation - oaded up the public board that votes first on zoning applications, the Land Use Control Board, with employees, friends and even relatives of developers, to the point where today, of the 12 board members and alternates, only one reprseents neighborhoods.

With this dominance by developers, within a year, the percentage of times the board overturned its own professional staff's recommendations about PUDs climbed to 70 percent.

Creations of Memphis and Shelby County’s fatally flawed zoning process is all around us. The sewer extension to the Gray’s Creek basin was driven by politics and built without a plan in place. The plan for Germantown Parkway was never adopted as official government policy and amendments began before the ink was dry, giving birth to seemingly endless succession of derivative strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. Future Hickory Hills cover the landscape of the unincorporated areas of Shelby County, where they are testament to politically-based zoning that allows a quality of housing so poor that it requires reinvestment before mortgages are paid.

Meanwhile, construction of Highway 385 on the eastern fringe of Shelby County nears completion, and incredibly, once again, there is no plan for schools, commercial development or neighborhoods.

The Difference

So, what difference could the new Unified Development Code make?

* It would correct the questionable governance issues in the system now.

* It would throw out cookie cutter rules that tend to urbanize the suburbs and suburbanize the city.

* It would give incentives for mixed income, mixed age and mixed use neighborhoods so people can age in place.

* It would remove disincentives for investing in the urban core.

* It would create more open space and preserves trees. It would give incentives for higher densities that support retail, churches, and services.

* It would encourage development that is less auto-oriented and more walkable.

A Reform Vote

In other words, it is a revolutionary idea for Memphis and Shelby County, ending an era of “slash and burn” profiteering and swinging the pendulum strongly toward smart growth and good government.

It may be hard for some City Council and Board of Commissioners to reform local system and wean themselves from the steady stream of campaign contributions that flows from the development industry, but it's a vote for reform that every neighborhood group will be watching.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Now Let's Get Honest About The Music Commission

We appreciate the tendencies of people to defend the efforts of the Music Commission aka Music Foundation for the past few years, but let's be honest, the results are meager at best.

Today, The Commercial Appeal reported the worst-kept secret in Memphis - Commission president Rey Flemings has resigned. So, can we direct your attention back to our post of Wednesday asking for a new day for the organization supposedly entrusted with the leadership of our music business?

We'd like to suggest that rather than Commission members getting defensive (and claiming Court Square concerts as their grand contribution to the Memphis Music scene) and musicians attacking the every initiative of recent years, perhaps now's the time to acknowledge that we have been largely adrift in the past 36 months or chasing supposed magic answers that tended to never materialize, and that now is the time for every one to join hands and together - this time - develop serious, musician-centered plans for the future.

We have a choice. We can engage in rancor, or we can take Mr. Flemings' departure as the chance for a new beginning and the chance to create a new consensus for the future. Will the Music Commission step up to the plate and accept this responsibility?

How A City Can Be Hip In Six Easy Lessons

A commentary by Otis White - weekly regular on Smart City - for Governing magazine:

You know hip when you see it in Coconut Grove in Miami, Buckhead in Atlanta or LoDo in Denver. But what does hip look like in Harrisburg, Pa.? OK, probably not South Beach cool, but some of the elements that make entertainment districts click in big cities are at work in Harrisburg's surprisingly successful Restaurant Row.

We know about Restaurant Row thanks to a nice piece of analysis by the Harrisburg newspaper, the Patriot-News. As the newspaper points out, nobody dreamed up Harrisburg's lively street of bars and restaurants. It just happened. But a number of things came together to make these establishments pop up in what had been a pretty lifeless part of town.

"It was the perfect storm," one restaurateur said. "Everything happened at the right time, and it fed off itself. It was just place after place after place, and people knew there was something interesting and exciting going on."

Cool Congregations

So Lesson No. 1 in the handbook of hipness: Cool places congregate, just like the cool kids in high school. And rather than proximity hurting, it helps the restaurants and bars.

This leads to Lesson No. 2: It's not the bars and restaurants that draw people, it's the people themselves. The establishments provide the setting. "People like to watch people," one restaurant owner told the Patriot-News. "A crowd draws a crowd," another said.

Added a third, "It's the energy. You need to have that energy. You go out to be with other people and be in an environment that's energizing." How big are the crowds along Restaurant Row? On summer evenings as many as 7,000 people hang out there, the newspaper reported, which would be a lot even in big cities.

But the setting does matter, which is Lesson No. 3. Clearly there was something about North Second Street that caught the eye of restaurant owners in 2001, as the district was taking shape. One owner looked at the corner of Locust and Second and saw, surprisingly, soft breezes.

Open The Blinds

"I was just looking out the window on the corner, and I just thought, 'We need to put in really big windows,'" he told the paper. "I knew this was the corner to watch Harrisburg." So he named his restaurant Fisaga (for the god of breezes in Polynesian mythology)and installed large rollout windows that opened to the street.

Others noted how patrons enjoyed sitting inside but being part of the street scene and installed their own rollout windows. Said one of the early adopters, the windows were "no great invention. You can go to any large city and see it. But here, it tripped a wire in people's heads. We jumped right behind (Fisaga) and did it." This is Lesson No. 4: Districts like these encourage a kind of hipness competition and that's good.

Lesson No. 5: While they can't create hip districts, city governments can do things to encourage them once they're started. The big thing Harrisburg did was to build a parking deck nearby. "The parking garage, that's the No. 1 factor, no doubt in my mind," one restaurant investor said. "They built that garage right in the middle of where things were just starting to explode." Why was this so important? Because it removed an objection people had to visiting the area, the difficulty of parking.

Focus On Restaurants

Lesson No. 6: Recognizing Restaurant Row as an asset, the city didn't do anything stupid. A less alert city administration might have panicked as crowds milled about Second Street, with the usual byproducts of noise and litter. To the contrary, the city did smart things. Example: It took over noise control from the state liquor commission. Entertainment districts are noisy places, and the city didn't want the state to shut down bars that exceeded state standards, so it established its own, more tolerant regulations.

The city did other smart things: It licensed restaurants for sidewalk dining, creating even more energy up and down Second Street. And it put cops on horseback to keep crowds under control and patrons feeling safe. "This (city) administration has worked with us from Day One," one restaurateur said. "They could have shut us down. Instead, they created the atmosphere."

Footnote: Restaurant Row is changing, as the newspaper reported. As it ages, it's losing some of its novelty. Prices are declining in bars and restaurants. "As many new places as there are, it brings price competition," one owner said. "It's like Wal-Mart." But if Second Street is losing some of its appeal for hipsters, it's gaining a new audience, families. One owner pointed to a restaurant that has started drawing married couples and their children. "There are kids all over that place," he said.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Talking About Top City Destinations and Making Cities Good Places To Live: This Week on Smart City

Keith Bellows may have the best job in America. He's editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler and this week he'll tell us about the must see cities on his list of top destinations. And we'll talk about the land use policies that make cities good places to live with Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute and Brad Lander at the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Keith Schneider, an environmental writer and former national correspondent for the New York Times, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a research and advocacy organization he cofounded in 1995.

Brad Lander directs the Pratt Center for Community Development in New York. During Brad's tenure, the Pratt Center has helped to shape a new inclusionary zoning policy to create affordable housing in New York City and to protect the tenure of public housing residents in Staten Island.

Amsterdam, Dubai, Detroit, New York....all those cities and more, this week on Smart City.

em>Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

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.

You can also sign up for a weekly newsletter on the program website.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

An Opportune Time To Relaunch The Music Commission

Whether the president of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission and its shadow group, the Memphis Music Foundation, has resigned or not seems to depend largely to whom you are talking.

Then again, regardless of who’s at the helm of the music organizations, it’s time to relaunch them, and that work begins by building on the candor contained in last week’s Memphis Flyer, as president of the bodies, Rey Flemings, admitted that the major ideas for Memphis music had failed.

In light of this admission, perhaps it’s a good time for the Commission and Foundation to clear the air, regroup, and move toward a Memphis musician-centric plan of action.

To give the Commission its due, if it’s struck out, it’s because it always seemed to be swinging for the bleachers. Bold ambitions is always welcome in Memphis, but perhaps, now, what we need is the steady progress that comes from a hitting streak. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any home runs for the Music Commission, and to continue this sports analogy to its breaking point, it’s lost key backing of its main fan base – local musicians.

Focusing On Musicians

Now would be the perfect time to refocus the work of the organization on the people we should all care most about – our musicians. Rather than seeing music purely as an economic development strategy, let’s also treat it as a creative force that is an innate part of the Memphis psyche and can contribute to making us the vibrant, creative city that in turn makes us attractive to highly-educated workers and to entrepreneurs.

In other words, music can benefit our economic growth, but it’s not by treating it as an industry cluster that can be created by a top-down insistence on a mandated course of action. It may contribute most by creating a vibe and a music scene that is a competitive advantage in talent recruitment strategies.

In its early days, the Commission surveyed and interviewed musicians, and that was commendable, but over time, there’s been as gnawing feeling by some that it allowed the Commission to check the “get musician’s input” box. That’s not fair to proponents for a renewed focus on music, because it is impossible to question the sincerity that led these key business leaders to pursue such a strategy.

And yet, musicians have often say they feel like they have been outside looking in on projects that they should have been at the center of. Others say they made tactical errors in sharing their aspirations and ideas in the first place, because they felt they were claimed by the Commission and included in its strategic plans.

White Boys

As a result, there is a widespread feeling that the Memphis Music initiatives aren’t about Memphis musicians at all, but about an isolated agenda thrust upon the music business as if it doesn’t have the capacity to contribute to it.

The depth of the credibility problem now drags down attempts to create some progress. In response to the widely-circulated plans for a Justin Timberlake-owned Stax label, one rapper said: “History does repeat itself. It’s just like when they had to find a white guy to sing black music, and they got hold of Elvis. Well, they can’t figure out what to do with rap music in Memphis, so they’re bringing in another white guy who sings our music.”

Fair or not, it’s speaks to lost opportunity that existed to pull together the music industry behind a concerted effort to serve their broader interests. One musician describes it as the “Oz approach to music.” “When you pull back the curtain, there’s nothing but smoke.”

As a result, the world confronted by the Music Commission and the Music Foundation isn’t a pretty one, but in the end, it still seems that our musicians long for someone to give a damn.

A New Day

It begins by opening up the work of the music organizations. The lack of transparency in funding and expenditures gives rise to well-traveled stories about spending. The lack of transparency in agenda-setting results in conspiracies and allegations that true or not have become reality to a large number of Memphis musicians.

It begins by listening. There are times when musicians say that feel that they are seen as distractions and irritants. God knows, there’s nobody more opinionated than musicians, but then again, their abilities to earn a living in this city gives them equity to say whatever they like. We need to develop a way to harness this energy and passion, rather than treating people who disagree with us as the enemy.

It begins by exploiting existing connections. There are some people in Memphis with impressive national connections. One of them says he tried to tell the Commission that MTV had no intention of hosting its Video Music Awards show in Memphis, but was using Memphis to drive up its price elsewhere. He was never able to deliver his warnings, but every action that he predicted did in fact take place.

At the same time, people in Memphis with their finger on the pulse of national promotions and with deep experience in selling tickets tried to warn that the Voodoo Festival was going to fail, but again, they felt that no one would listen to them.

No Magic Answers

There’s no question that the work of a public board is hard. You have many masters, you juggle many agendas and you balance the demands of many important constituents, but in the end, there’s nothing more important than listening and establishing the connections with the local music scene that inform and support your work.

There are no magic answers. It’s organic and resists the templates of various business models. (See Chips Moman file in the Memphis Room of the Memphis central library.)

Nobody is more supportive than we are of Memphis Music, but as we’ve said before, the old music business models are dying right before our eyes, and any efforts that try to cling to them are high-risk on their best days. To repeat our recent post, we hope that Stax isn’t about pursuing the old worldview of labels, but about becoming the leader in defining what the brave new world of digital music will be.

It’s coming fast. About six years ago, Christopher Reyes of livefrommemphis fame said that ultimately, all music would be free. Last month, a new online music service announced that it had reached an agreement with a music company to offer free downloads of its songs.

Just as Mr. Reyes had predicted, the company says that rather than the pay-per-song model of iTunes, its new business model is for a music service funded by advertising. It could indeed be the harbinger of a future in which the music industry bears little resemblance to what we have known.

Monday, September 18, 2006

It's Business As Usual For "One Of The Best School Systems In The World"

Shelby County Schools Board chairman David Pickler must have graduated from the George Bush school of self-awareness. He too has a formidable talent for leveling criticisms of others that so clearly apply to himself.

It’s a remarkable gift to have as a politician - the ability to look right into someone’s eyes and engage in misinformation that the Politburo would have admired.

We thought of this as we read the Memphis Flyer article about school construction decisions, and as Mr. Pickler tarred the professional Office of Planning and Development evaluation of potential sites for the Southeast Shelby high school as reeking of a political agenda.

The Eye Of The Beholder

“Our numbers are not written with any political bias and the numbers simply demonstrate that it needed to be built,” he was quoted as saying by the always reliable Flyer writer Mary Cashiola. Left unsaid was the fact that county schools had no evaluation that reflected anything as much as blind justification for the political position already staked out by its board.

But the absence of self-awareness doesn’t stop there. “If we could coordinate where schools need to be constructed, based on population trends, based on developments that have been approved I think it would allow for a far more efficient situation,” he said. Of course that’s exactly what the OPD study did, and if he really wants that level of coordination, why doesn’t he just delegate site evaluation to that joint city-county office? We’re confident that the Memphis City Schools would agree to OPD as a third-party arbiter.

It’s all a curious obfuscation since the OPD report was ordered by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, hardly a political enemy of the county schools, as the first rational study of potential school sites for a county school. While the report didn’t say it this way, our reading of the report led to our opinion that the high school in Southeast Shelby County is the wrong size at the wrong place at the wrong price.

Inconvenient Facts

But inconvenient facts like these have never deterred Mr. Pickler and the Shelby County School Board. That’s why in the coming weeks, you should look for a reprise of the rush to judgment by the board for its latest largess to developers with a mad push to buy property at Shelby Drive and Forest Hill-Irene Road for a new K-8 school.

It will of course have all the trappings of every decision about a county school site. There will be the sense of urgency, the lack of facts, a bogus deadline for action, and indignation that anyone should question its decision. All the while, it will engage in a round of self-important backslapping about its excellent management of the county schools, begging the question that if the management is so good, why can’t we make a decision on a school site that is conducted in an orderly, depoliticized environment?

Here’s our prediction. Shelby County Schools will mandate the site, impose a deadline for buying the property, resist any independent evaluation of whether the site is the right one, reject any questions as political attacks, and fight any attempt by Memphis City Schools – which will inherit the school in a few years – to inject reason into the process.


In the end, it is destined to be a reprise of the Southeast Shelby high school and the Schnucks grocery store school. And as a usual, the reliable thread that ties all of this together will be the board’s cozy relationship with developers.

It’s no secret that Shelby County Schools has been in bed with developers for decades, but the pillow talk these days seems to be coming from the firm, Terry & Terry. The firm quadrupled its investment with the purchase of its land for part of the southeast Shelby high school footprint. Interestingly, the addition of that land helped make the 62-acre site about 50 percent larger than the national standard for a high school – 40 acres (that includes a football field).

Shelby County Schools will probably now recommend the same firm’s land at Forest Hill-Irene and Shelby Drive for its latest school. More important than selling the land, the development firm can then charge a premium for its residential development snuggled up to the school site.

Amazing Coincidences

But such is the way of the world at Shelby County Schools. For as long as any one can remember, developers have picked school sites, and what a surprise, they’ve always been right next to the developer’s own planned residential developments.

So, Mr. Pickler can criticize the 43-page analysis conducted by OPD of the last school site, but it will be interesting to see if the county district can produce the same kind of thorough analysis to show that it has explored all the options carefully and objectively. Or is its analysis limited to an email from the “developer of the month” recommending what the county’s real estate manager should buy?

It’s hard to think of a governmental entity in Shelby County that is less transparent than the Shelby County Board of Education. Thin-skinned and resistant to any ideas that it doesn’t originate, it sees itself as pure of heart and guardian of its political turf. Every one else is misguided and deserves no credit for caring as much about the education of our children as they do.

Back to the question of self-awareness, Mr. Pickler feigns indignation about suggestions that an African-American should be appointed to the all-white school board, which manages a district whose student population approaches 40 percent African-American.

Shades of Adolph Rupp

"Having a litmus test about someone's credentials to serve on the Shelby County Board of Education because of their skin pigmentation is, quite frankly, offensive," he said to The Commercial Appeal and added that the board's decision-making as "color-blind.” Of course, racial politics is the overriding reason for building the Southeast Shelby high school in the first place, but no matter.

He’s not through yet and stretches hyperbole to its breaking point: "I don't care if they are black, white, red or green if they will share that passion and that commitment to helping ensure that this school system continues to be one of the best in the world." It’s the norm in Shelby County Schools to make the case that it’s a superior school system by comparing it with Memphis City Schools, a specious comparison for more reason than we can name, when in fact, the county schools on its best days are average.

It’s all back to that incredible lack of self-awareness. And it’s the main reason that we should all get ready for yet one more divisive fight on this new school site.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pondering A Few Unrelated Questions

We’ve never visited a city such a penchant for the electrical/mechanical “tombstones” that dot the landscape as Memphis. They mar Tom Lee Park, they clutter up downtown corners and they create a bit of visual pollution that seems ever-present.

Wouldn’t it improve things if they are used in a creative public art project that treats them as canvasses?


Pope Benedict XVI, in a lapse of judgment, quoted a 14th century criticism of Muhammad for “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Benedicto, can you say “crusades” and “inquisition?”


It’s always a revelation into someone’s character when they want something so bad they will do anything to get it. We admired Bob Corker’s leadership as Chattanooga mayor, and because of it, his recent foray into the world of fiction for his commercials against Representative Harold Ford are particularly disappointing.

Does he really want to be senator that bad?


While Tennessee Senator Steve Cohen is a shoo-in for U.S. Congress this year, some leading African-American Democrats seem to have regained their math skills, and already, they are working to winnow down the number of candidates for the 2008 election.

Only with another stampede of African-American candidates into the ’08 election does Senator Cohen have a realistic chance of being more than a “one-hit wonder,” in the parlance of the Beltway.

Is it possible for him to put together a record as congressman that could be strong enough that it could get him reelected two years from now without multiple Democratic opponents to split the black vote?


Germantown buys a $184,000 BearCat bullet-deflected armored truck with Homeland Security funds. Not to be outdone, Memphis has now ordered a similar, but larger, vehicle.

Aren’t Homeland Security grants becoming the equivalent of FEMA funds spent on strip clubs and prostitutes by Katrina families?


In presenting a key to the city to Justin Timberlake on national television, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton was greeted with a chorus of boos reminiscent of his half court rebuke at the FedExForum when he was paying tribute to University of Memphis All-American DeAngelo Williams.

Aren’t those who persist in embarrassing our city in front of national audiences the kind of self-indulgent jackasses that they claim the mayor is?


There’s been filming going on in South Main again lately. It’s always been impressive how many movies are recruited to Memphis by Memphis and Shelby County film commissioner Linn Sitler and her staff, operating on a meager budget and with little fanfare.

Can you imagine what could be done if film production could get the same kind of attention and civic weight behind it that the Music Commission has gotten in recent years?


Memphis City Councilman Dederick Brittenum has proposed that the Memphis tax rate should be reduced as part of a program that eliminates the PILOT program. It’s a provocative idea, and largely unrealistic, but it’s being propelled along by real estate developers whose interests always seem paramount in local policy.

If the Brittenum plan was passed, would City Council be willing to freeze the tax rate at the reduced level until 2013?

Friday, September 15, 2006

This Week On Smart City: Design Is Ascendant

Design is ascendant, and today we will celebrate it by talking with Dr. Larry Thompson, president of Ringling School of Art and Design. Larry is staging the Sarasota International Design Summit October 9-11. Prior to coming to Ringling, Larry was the first president and CEO of the Flint Cultural Center located in Flint, Michigan, and served as the director and CEO for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Also with us is Dilip Soman, marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, who is using his skills to influence better public behavior. A world-renowned researcher in behavioral economics and marketing, Dilip joined Rotman in 2003 after teaching at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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, September 13, 2006

Casting For A Better Future In Economic Development Depends On Casting Off The Past

We subscribe to a John Calipari theory of economic development – it’s all about talent - and a Fred Smith model of public investment – it’s all about entrepreneurship.

Everything else is pretty much a distraction.

Memphis needs a new strategy for economic growth, and we begin by casting off our traditional economic development thinking, the thinking that seems rooted in the belief that our city’s future can be found in the old economy and that creating a low-skill, low-wage workforce in the age of a knowledge-based economy makes sense. In other words, we need to resist the temptation to fight for jobs that are no longer competitive, because Memphis’ long-standing precepts about the economy are now our biggest obstacles to success.

Cities are sometimes like members of a dysfunctional family. Even when they realize things are bad, it’s hard to change, because it all feels so familiar. That’s always been a problem in Memphis, because although it’s becomes clear at times that we are ill-prepared to compete in the new creative economy, we just can’t make a clean break from the past. As a result, Memphis has been slow to adapt and compete in a global economy transformed by the dual mega drivers – technology and globalization.

Losing Ground

Now’s the time for new thinking.

Memphis is not only losing ground in today’s economy, but key indicators for the future economy are pointing in the wrong direction. In the Milken Institute rankings, Memphis is now ranked 159th, down 25 places from only a year earlier (Nashville is # 52, Knoxville #54, and Chattanooga #112).

Worst of all, many cities have already embarked on this journey and are already executing “creative city” strategies, the kind that converges art, technology and commerce to create a cauldron of innovativeness that spills over into all that it does.

Creative cities have a strong sense of place, and its people have a shared narrative. It’s the kind of place that develops, attracts and retains the most coveted workers in the new economy – young, highly-educated professionals. The connection between a high percentage of adults with college degrees and success of cities in the knowledge economy couldn’t be clearer, and that’s why we need to get serious about tracking the in-migration and out-migration of these workers, and building policies around them to attract and keep these creative workers.

The Regional Platform

Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that the new platform for economic competitiveness is the region. What is surprising is how little progress Memphis has made in this regard. After all, Memphis has spent a decade talking the talk of regionalism, but little has been done to walk the walk. Today, state economies are all but irrelevant, because they are political entities, and regions are now are economic units of competition.

In other words, the need for a new agenda right now couldn’t be more compelling. And it’s an agenda that has to focus on knowledge-based jobs in an entrepreneurial economy that depend on creative talent. If we haven’t quite figured out yet that we can’t compete with China and India for low-skill jobs (98.73% of workers in transportation, material moving and distribution are below the mean U.S. household income), we surely aren’t prepared for a future when these same countries will compete with U.S. regions for high-skill industries.

That’s why we’re paying the price right now for state government’s cuts in funding for higher education in the past. At the precise time when higher education, and more to the point, higher education research, is the key competitive necessities for creative cities, our universities have cut enrollments, hiked tuitions and reduced courses.

Entrepreneurial Universities

Memphis will never reach its potential as an entrepreneurial city as long as the University of Memphis is mired in the anti-entrepreneurial educational bureaucracy of the state. In this regard, it’s past time for every one in Memphis to tell Governor Bredesen that their support for his reelection hinges directly on his pledge to reinvent our state’s higher educational structure.

More to the point, our state universities should be given the autonomy that allows them to serve their regions more effectively and more entrepreneurially. Our universities have to be as resilient and flexible as the economy in which we compete. Meanwhile, we need to turn loose Superintendent Carol Johnson to innovate in ways that teach the coursework and soft skills needed for success in the interconnected world in which we live and work and produce the principals and teachers uniquely prepared for this mission.

More independent higher education institutions are as vital to our infrastructure as transportation, airports, communications and water. Included with universities in a higher position of importance to Memphis are other elements of infrastructure that have been largely ignored, such as a “green infrastructure,” a network of outdoor recreation, parks, waterways and greenbelts that are pivotal in the successful recruitment of talent.

Qualities Of Place

Quality of place has never been more important. It’s a definitive factor in attracting new jobs and companies. And yet, as important as the tangible quality of life are intangibles like tolerance (a distinct problem for Memphis), and being perceived as welcoming to all religions, ethnic groups and people of all sexual orientations. Because attracting immigrants is more and more a factor in a city’s success, these are more than just admirable characteristics. They are in very real ways economic benefits for cities, and in a world characterized by nothing so much as its diversity, Memphis should trumpet its diversity as an asset for our future, rather than running from its future as the nation’s first majority African-American MSA.

But as successful cities have shown, there is absolutely nothing more important to economic growth as new leadership. That’s because transforming Memphis’ attitude toward economic development demands that every one gets off the sidelines and into the game – politicians, business leaders and nonprofit leaders.

And in keeping with the regional realities of the global economy, the new leadership must be developed on a regional basis, particularly if we are to have the clout to get concessions and funds needed from state governments in Tennessee and Mississippi on regional issues like transportation infrastructure and air and water quality.

Racing To The Finish

The lesson of the Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence – announced with great fanfare about eight years ago and whose report cost almost half a million – is that if there is no strong regional ownership of a regional agenda, its recommendations are destined to become an impressive tome on shelves with little action taken to change things.

Finally, failed policies concerning tax policies and tax freezes are overdue for reforming. They are nothing but vestiges of the old economy thinking that we need to reject. There is little evidence that tax cutting and tax freezes work as an economic growth strategy. If they did, we wouldn’t find that states that have higher taxes also have above average per capita income and more knowledge-based companies.

The race for economic growth in the future will be the hardest competition Memphis has ever been in. But we begin by abandoning the old and embracing the new. It’s a race to the finish, and cities that compete by the same old rules have already lost.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Trying To Make Sense Out Of Federal Court Sentencing

Former County Commissioner Michael Hooks and former State Senator and county mayor’s aide Roscoe Dixon have now entered the Byzantine world of federal sentencing, and the different points of entry into that system – the former by guilty plea and the latter by jury conviction – will now become a major factor in their ultimate sentences.

That’s because, despite public perception to the contrary, a defendant exercising his right to trial actually pays a price for doing so in federal court. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, which are technically advisory as a result of a January, 2005, U.S. Supreme Court ruling but still largely used by local judges, a defendant gets a reduction in his sentence for “acceptance of responsibility.”

In entering his guilty plea, Mr. Hooks did this to perfection, and while his comments were sincere and unvarnished, best of all for him is the fact that they reduced his sentence by about one year.


Meanwhile, Mr. Dixon, by going to trial, is seen under the guidelines as not accepting responsibility, and so he forfeits the benefits that he would have received in accepting responsibility.

But such is the parallel universe where the federal sentencing guidelines have existed since being written about 22 years ago, ostensibly to bring some consistency to the federal courts, but more to the point, transformed federal judges into accountants whose roles were to validate algebraic formulas calculated by probation officers that determine the sentence.

In fact, the sentencing guidelines have been said to approach IRS statutes in their complexity. The summary document for the guidelines is a mere 640 pages, and the complete works of the Federal Sentencing Commission could pass for a small library.

Risk Assessment

In keeping with the statistical tone of the sentencing in federal court, making a decision about whether to go to trial or not is largely an exercise in risk assessment. Going in, every one has to understand that the chance of an acquittal is infinitesimal. Pitted against the massive resources of the federal government, the number of people acquitted out of 10,000 equals a grand total of 150.

Faced with the punitive nature of going to trial and losing the points under the formula for accepting responsibility and pleading guilty before the government has to prepare its case, only 6 percent of criminal cases brought by the federal government go to trial. Then again, by forgoing the trial, a defendant can also decide to cooperate with investigators and under section 5K1 of the guidelines get consideration for “substantial assistance to authorities,” as about 19,000 people do each year.

Two other realities serve as incentives for guilty pleas. There’s no such thing as probation for most crimes in the federal system, and unlike state sentences, 10 years isn’t actually about 5 years in prison. Instead, in the federal system, 10 years is about 8 and a half years. In the federal system, each person gets 54 days a year taken off the sentence if he maintains good behavior.

Using The Guidelines

In the aftermath of last year’s Supreme Court ruling on the sentencing guidelines (rule of thumb: prosecutors loved the guidelines, the judges hated them), the guidelines became discretionary, meaning that judges may consider them but are not required to adhere to their standards in setting the sentences. That said, federal judges almost invariably use the guidelines in sentencing defendants, and that’s especially true in Memphis where most judges are Republican appointees. Only U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald has shown much flexibility to factoring in her own judgment and experience.

Prior even to the Supreme Court ruling, Judge Donald had resisted the rigidity that former Attorney General John Ashcroft had sought in applying the guidelines. Angering even staunchly conservative judges, Ashcroft directed U.S. attorneys to report to the Justice Department any judge who handed out a sentence that was less than called for in the guidelines. It’s almost a certainty that Judge Donald’s name was on that list.

The guidelines were set up in a fit of conservative activism during the Reagan presidency, and a logical argument can be made (especially by the Cato Institute) that in passing the Federal Sentencing Reform Act, the U.S. Congress warped the balance of powers that is supposed to exist between legislative and judicial branches.

Unintended Consequences

It was a time when the intent was to tie the hands of federal judges in imposing sentences, but in the end, it transformed the entire federal court process. It removed from the sentencing equation issues any discretion by the judge for issues such as age, education, mental and emotional condition, health, drug dependence, lack of guidance as a youth, community ties, military service and charitable works.

Once these factors could not be considered, the balance of power swung even more strongly to the prosecution, because the guidelines left only cooperation in a federal investigation as the primary way to reduce a sentence in a substantial way. This led not only to massive plea bargaining, but also, the practice of fact bargaining, because of the wide discretion given in the guidelines to interpreting “relevant conduct.” This section particularly came under stinging rebuke by the Supreme Court ruling.

For example, the FBI could arrest and charge someone with selling cocaine. At the time of the arrest, investigators seized a book of names. While the person was only charged with the single offense, when it came time for sentencing, the equation would include “relevant conduct,” which meant that prosecutors could argue that there were 80 names in the book and if you multiplied each name by the amount of crack confiscated at arrest, it would produce a much larger amount of drugs being distributed, and it was this larger amount that would be the determinant for setting the sentence. That’s how the courts have people serving 15-years in federal prison for selling marijuana.

Examples Only

But back to the example of the sentencing guidelines using the cases of Mr. Hooks and Mr. Dixon as examples. Right now, the U.S. Probation Office is engaged in an in-depth report on each of them. It includes personal history, medical history, state of mind, the level of support from family, bank accounts and liabilities and assets. The report will summarize the details of the crime, tending to rely on the FBI’s opinions of the facts, but if there’s a major disagreement, the question can be presented to the judge.

To arrive at the “guideline range from the sentencing table,” the probation officer first checks the guidelines to determine the offense level. For example, if the charge is receiving a bribe, the offense level is 14. If the offense involved more than one bribe of extortion, 2 points are added. If the offense involved the abuse of office by an elected official, it could add 4 more points.

Then, points will be added based on the amount of money involved in each offense. For the $9,500 involved in Mr. Dixon’s indictment, 2 points will be added. For Mr. Hooks’s $24,200, 4 points will be added.

The Value Of Accepting Responsibility

Here’s where Mr. Hooks guilty plea results in points being deducted. By pleading guilty, accepting responsibility and permitting the government from having to prepare for trial, he’ll have three points subtracted from his total.

Here’s our disclaimer. The sentencing guidelines are so complicated that most criminal lawyers don’t even bother to learn their intricacies. Instead, a couple of Memphis lawyers are recognized as experts in these calculations, and they are hired to compute the sentences. Even then, the projections are not perfect, because the probation office can interpret different facts and factors in different ways. In other words, this exercise is demonstrative only and probably have no relationship to what will finally happen in these cases.

With that proviso, here’s how the probation officer will get to the final sentence guideline. The points will be added (for purposes of this exercise, we’ve presumed there are no criminal histories, obstructions of justice or assistance to the investigation), and the probation officer will then turn to the sentencing table, which is a grid of columns matching points to a sentence.

The Projections

For the purposes of this exercise, and these are not predictions, Mr. Dixon’s points would total 22, which computes to a 41-51 month sentence; Mr. Hooks’s points total to 19, which equates to a sentence of 30-37 months, the lower amount largely produced by the guilty plea.

By way of reference, former Hamilton County Commissioner William Cotton went to trial and was sentenced to 3 years and fined $9,500. Chris Newton, meanwhile, entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to one year.

A prominent local defense attorney has referred to the federal sentencing guidelines as the judicial equivalent of Alice in the Looking Glass. Certainly nothing symbolizes this as much as the federal sentencing guidelines, as the defendants in the Tennessee Waltz will come to understand.

A Fitting Way To Observe 9/11

Memphis College of Art President Jeff Nesin, our dear friend, emailed the following advice, and we wanted to share it with you:

As all of us are acutely aware, today marks the fifth anniversary of the September 11 hijackings and attacks. I have wanted to offer something meaningful to our community, but it's enormously difficult. Though many things have happened to each of us since 2001, in fact, five years provides no distance at all. The wanton destruction is still incomprehensible and, alas, still fresh.

The lower Manhattan of the World Trade Center Towers was my family's home for many happy years, and conjuring that gorgeous autumn morning -- not much different from this morning -- is not hard at all. Here in Overton Park the impact was muffled only slightly and everyone felt like a New Yorker. We had a spontaneous and powerful exhibition of student work and a candlelight meeting on the front steps.
The weeks that followed were literally haunted. We traveled abroad, experiencing empty airports and the kind of security procedures that have since become universal. The sidewalk in front of the US Embassy in Oslo was overwhelmed with bouquets, candles, poems and testimonies of sorrow and fellowship.

In New York people from everywhere worked night after night at the Trade Center site, wore masks around my neighborhood and cried in the street. Every Fire House and Police Station was draped in mourning, covered with flowers . . . and the ubiquitous xeroxed Have You Seen My Husband/Wife/Child posters were everywhere. It remains indelible, but that's simply a fact. There are certain events in a life, precious few of them shared public occurrences, that you will never, ever forget. This is one.

This morning I found an article in the LA Times about a New Yorker and an Angeleno who have created a really useful memorial, a web site where everyone can seek or pledge good deeds: volunteering, giving blood, collecting and distributing needed goods -- as many possibilities as you can create. It's a small thing, but collectively it can be powerful, and I offer it to you today in lingering sadness and continuing hope.

So when you're thinking of September 11, or when you're tired of thinking about it, please go to My Good Deed.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Uncovering The Hidden Value Of Universities On Smart City

Do universities have hidden value to cities? We know about their role as employer, as purchaser of local goods and services, as producer of smart people, and as a source of research. But our guests today are mining their value more deeply and coming up with some surprising results.

Robert Milbourne is president of the Columbus Partnership, a civic-improvement group of central Ohio business and community leaders organized to develop a long-term vision for the city's metropolitan area. Columbus is home to more than 100,000 college students and still, the city suffers a brain drain.

Also with us is Rob Hollister, dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. A specialist in nonprofit organizations and public policy, Rob has been engaged in teaching graduate and undergraduate students, practicing professionals, and citizens for more than 30 years.

Smart City uncovers the hidden value of universities this week.

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.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Better Research = Better Crime Fighting

It is a fundamental characteristic of government that it is reactive in nature. Nothing quite proves it as well as the recent rhetoric about Memphis’ crime rate, replete with press conferences about Operation Safe Community, calls for yet another summit and the vaunted Blue Crush assault on crime.

The mystifying thing is that if anyone in the law enforcement agencies and the DA’s office had been paying attention, they could have seen it coming. After all, most spikes in crime follow a corresponding spike in teenage population.

The tendency toward a fortress mentality by government is strange indeed, especially in light of the excellent research being done at places like Partner In Public Education (PIPE), Urban Child Institute and University of Memphis’ various specialized centers.

Stands To Reason

In fact, the Urban Child Institute’s data book on all things child-related shows that six years ago there was a significant bulge in the number of 10-14 year-olds in Memphis, so it stands to reason that we would now be experiencing a bulge in the number of 16-20 year-olds and with it an increase in crime. It is this demographic group that is the seedbed for the “crime waves” that mesmerize the news media day after day. In truth, because of it, the spike in crime is about as unexpected as the trembling of the New Madrid fault zone.

If that bit of data about teenagers wasn’t enough for an early warning, there’s more. The percent of 5-17 year-olds living in poverty is climbing steadily. In three years, it climbed from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.

And yet, there’s more. A look at crime statistics over the past six years suggests that the current rate of crime is actually a return to normal levels after an unusual decline in 2004. As a wise researcher on these questions has says: “While increasing and improving policing functions in the community is not a bad thing, looking at crime data from one year to the next makes for bad policy.”


Also, comparisons can be misleading because of the drop in Memphis’ population. Regrettably, the people responsible for most of crime aren’t moving to other places, so as the population falls, the number of crimes per 100,000 people is of course trending upward.

A look at crime statistics back to 1999 indicates that despite media hysteria, the most murders in a year took place five years ago. The 136 murders in 2005 followed an unusually low number of murders – 105 - in 2004. Yet, the 2004 number was a clear aberration. That year’s number was 20 percent lower than the previous low since 2000.

Back to the impact of increasing numbers of teenagers, USA Today reports that violent crime is rising after a decade of declining crime rates. Again, if you look at the age distribution charts for Memphis, it’s easy to identify a major cause. There are approximately 8,000 more teenage boys between the ages of 15-19 than there was just six years ago, so the rise in crime shouldn’t be unexpected at all.


In fact, a decade ago, there was an unusual decline in the number of teenage boys, and attendant with it was a decline in crime. While there are other factors that figure into the rate, notably poverty and unemployment rates and decreasing incomes for the working poor, there’s nothing quite as reliable as an early warning as population trends for teenagers.

As Salon reported recently, “in cities across the country, from Oakland, California, to Hartford, Connecticut, to Orlando, Florida, the story of summer 2006 has been one of kids and killing.” Despite this, criminologists urge caution, saying that there is no indication that cities will return to the killing fields of 20 years ago.

Most of all, they caution that a single year’s statistics should never be interpreted as reality. That said, the tinder boxes that are teenage boys do seem to be flaring up more these days, and across the U.S., mid-sized cities like ours are reporting a mystifying tendency for mild arguments to escalate into fatal stabbings.

Summer Jobs

If our problems weren’t bad enough, local government has been ineffective in creating the serious, communitywide summer jobs program that is needed for at-risk youth. Programs in other cities have shown that this can be a potent influence on crime rates and should be launched in tandem with the “get tough on crime” solutions that impress voters but do little to address the underlying causes of crime.

And most of all, it’s no coincidence that this increase in youth crime comes at a time when the U.S. Congress – at the urging of the Bush Administration - has drastically reduced youth-related and social net programs, is now considering drastic cuts to the COPS (Community Oriented Policing) program and continues to see the possession of assault weapons as the right of every red-blooded American boy.

It’s a strange anomaly of American culture that we would rather spend $35,000 to keep someone in prison than to spend a few thousand to keep him out. So on one hand, funding for youth intervention programs get the ax while the number of prison cells mushroom far beyond any commensurate increases in crime.

Perfect Storm

James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston and long involved in analyzing Memphis crime trends thanks to the support by Guardsmark founder Ira Lipman, had warned in advance that the drop in crime rates in recent years was merely the lull before the crime storm. He pointed to the rising number of young adult males (14-25 year-olds) as the reason.

Meanwhile, Princeton University professor John J. DiIulio contends that the problem is compounded by the “poverty of growing up surrounded by deviant, delinquent and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings.” Professor Dilulio claims that his research indicates that a small percentage of teenagers are responsible for nearly half of all crimes.

What is more troubling, he says, is that each successive generation of young offenders is approximately three times more violent and dangerous than the previous one. He says today’s criminals are more frightening because they have no sense of right and wrong and they place no value on the lives of others.

Shark Eyes

A C Wharton, when he was public defender, made the same point about six years ago. He said that when he first began his criminal law career, young offenders in Shelby County Jail were crying and feeling remorseful because they had let down their families and were scared to death. However, he said these young offenders now have the eyes of a shark, deadened and emotionless, as if the part of the brain that weighs the relationship between actions and consequences has been turned off.

Regardless of which research is read, there is one certainty for Memphis. We ignore factors such as poverty, joblessness, inequality and racism at our own peril.

While the D.A., U.S. Attorney and heads of local law enforcement agencies make pronouncements about their solutions for fighting crime, they can make a strong first step by establishing better connections with the researchers who could have told them about this year’s outbreak years before it happened.

Pick The Clear Cutting Builder

Here's the test.

Check out these two photographs.

One shows the construction site for Shelby County Schools.

The other shows a construction site for Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.

Guess which is which. It may surprise you.

Here's the hint: Apparently Shelby County Schools learned how to clear a site from the developers with whom they have such a cozy relationship.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Net Neutrality Campaign Heats Up

From The Nation blog:

Congress is about to return to Washington this week after taking a long summer break for campaigning and before taking a long fall break for campaigning.

During the brief period of governing that will be wedged into the month of September, a lot of damage could be done -- particularly to "The First Amendment of the Internet": the principle known as "Net Neutrality."

Net Neutrality, which has until now been the guiding principle that preserves a free and open Internet, ensures that everyone who logs on can access the content or run the applications and devices of every site on the world wide web. The neutrality principle prevents telephone and cable companies that provide internet service from discriminating against content based on its source or ownership.

As the "Save the Internet" campaign [], a broad coalition of groups fighting to maintain open access to all sites on the web, explains: "Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It's why the Internet has become an unrivaled environment for open communications, civic involvement and free speech."

Telecommunications firms salivate at the prospect of eliminating Net Neutrality requirements and setting up systems where websites that pay for the service will be more easily reached than sites that cannot afford the toll. And U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who has for many years been a dominant figure in communications debates on Capitol Hill, is determined to change the rules so that Internet gatekeepers such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner, can create an "information superhighway" for those who pay and a dirt road for those who fail to do so.

A sweeping overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that is being promited by Stevens does not include Net Neutrality protections and would effectively clear the way for the telecommunications giants to colonize the Internet.

Stevens, the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, wants to see action on the measure before Congress breaks for the remainder of the election season in early October. But rewriting the rules to favor the telecommunications conglomerates may not be as easy this year as it was in 1996. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has placed a hold on the overhaul legislation and says he will not lift it until Net Neutrality protections are written into the measure.

Activists across the country used the August break to urge senators who had not taken a stand to line up in favor of net neutrality. Rallies in late August targeted Congressional offices in 25 cities nationwide, and they had an impact. A number of senators -- including New York's Chuck Schumer, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, Iowa's Tom Harkin and Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- pledged their support for net neutrality.

But Stevens -- and too many of his allies in both parties -- remained unmoved as September started.

As the return of Congress loomed, however, the Alaska senator took a poke from the largest daily newspaper in his state, the Anchorage Daily News, which bluntly declared in a September 4 editoral that: "Net Neutrality is a good idea. Sen. Ted Stevens should support it."

"Sen. Stevens has said he doesn't see an immediate problem that requires regulation. In other words, he's reluctant to have the government set the playing rules until more companies are caught cheating. Apparently he thinks competition can be counted on to prevent any abuses," explained the editorial. "Only problem is, local Internet service is not a fluid, totally free market with a lot of competitors. Many markets are served by only one or two high-speed Internet companies. Switching providers is not as easy as driving to the next gas station or grocery store. Special expertise and special equipment are required to switch. Many consumers may not even be sophisticated enough to know when their Internet service is playing favorites in sending content."

The Anchorage Daily News concluded that, "Net Neutrality is hardly a heavy-handed government intrusion into the free-wheeling world of the Internet. It is a simple antitrust rule that protects consumers by keeping Internet companies from exploiting their control over connections. Congress should get ahead of the curve and ensure net neutrality before abuses begin to spread."

That's the right position. And it is summed up by a measure that the Senate should pass before its members go out and ask Americans for their votes this fall: The Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Sponsored by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan the act would provide meaningful protection for Net Neutrality.

While the machinations in the Senate this month are troubling, they also provide a critical opening for the debate that America should be having on media policy. No incumbent senator or candidate for a senate seat should be allowed to make it to November without addressing the issue of Net Neutrality and the broader question of whether media policy in this country should serve a few telecommunications giants or the the great mass of Americans and the great potential of American democracy.

Monday, September 04, 2006

New Orleans, A Year After

New Orleans has always been a dichotomy.

There’s always been squalor existing alongside luxury, entrenched poverty intermingled with gaudy wealth, decaying shacks just blocks from Garden District palaces, the gentility of Creole society and the “anything goes” attitude of the French Quarter.

The dichotomy is even more striking today. Upper income neighborhoods have never looked better. At times it seems that every house has a fresh coat of paint, and the neighborhoods are alive with crews cleaning up, painting and renovating houses.

St. Charles Avenue is as beautiful as ever, lined with the prettiest houses in the South and dappled in sunlight streaming through the live oaks that line the street. All that’s missing are the historic trolleys rumbling down the median, but the work on the line is promised soon. Students are teeming around Tulane and Loyola Universities, throwing Frisbees and playing touch football in Audubon Park, debating economic theories in coffee houses and giving life to the entire area. It’s testament to the power of universities to bring life to their cities and define their character.


Uptown has never been busier. Whole Foods is filled with the interesting array of people who always seem to be shopping there. New restaurants along Magazine Street have opened with spectacular results, and the boutiques, still mainly locally owned and mirroring the range of curious retail interests of the city, are busy.

Down in the French Quarter, venerable Galatoire’s – the traditional weekend lunch destination for families for generations – is half-full at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Around the corner, Acme’s, the legendary oyster palace, has a waiting line that snakes up the block. There’s even less reason to walk down Bourbon Street than usual, with the addition of new strip clubs and sex toy shops.

The antique store owners are putting on a brave face, counting down the days until the first major convention in October, 14 months after Katrina, 14 months in which the owners have dipped into savings and hung onto the prospects of a better day. In an antique store on Chartres, the owner said his total sales for July was $27, and he’s wondering how long he can hang on.

Southern Decadence

Even the 35th Southern Decadence event – the annual Labor Day event that attracts gays from across the U.S. – seems to lack the energy of previous years. The strongest barometers of the soft tourism market are seen in two places – the string of mule-drawn carriages touring the history-laden district is down to only a few, the street performers are missing and palm and tarot card readers are few and far between.

“We’re reasonably busy,” one store owner says, “but we’re not busy with the right kind of people. We’ve got the partiers, but we’re dying without the conventions and so far the people that regularly came down to shop haven’t come back.”

Some stores are hedging their bets. Lucullus, a culinary antiques store, has opened a store in Breaux Bridge and even with the reopening of the long-time French Quarter store, there are no plans to close the other one.

Many locals complain about the stores on Canal Street that remain closed and empty, but in truth, the street looks better than Main Street in Memphis. Some businesses, like the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Sak’s, made a business decision to re-open after the normal summer doldrums as conventions return.

The Constants

There are some constants in New Orleans these days.

One year after Katrina, the city has a survivor’s pride of someone who has taken the worst that life has to offer and lived to tell the tale. And yet, it is impossible to go anywhere in the city and feel the energy that once characterized the place. In its place is a newfound seriousness born from the hard work of the past work and the reality of what remains.

Sadly, Mayor Ray Nagin is not a person who can rally the civic will and unify his people. He’s become the Hillary Clinton of Louisiana; people either love him or hate him. Whatever they think, they offer their opinions readily. That said, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t fault him for failing public services – whether it’s the weak water pressure caused by breaks in the pipes which are still spilling millions of gallons every day to the paucity of plans for the future development of the city.

And yet, improvements in New Orleans since March are striking. The French Quarter is cleaner than downtown Memphis, tons of trash and debris that were all over the city are gone, the tens of thousands of abandoned cars have been towed off and hundreds of collapsed buildings have been hauled away and the gray frost left by the levee mud has been replaced by grass.

Right-sizing New Orleans

It’s hard to escape the feeling that perhaps New Orleans is in truth becoming more manageable, and that it’s been right-sized, albeit against its will. The Lower 9th Ward was always squalid, and now it’s squalid and devastated. If it was impossible before to imagine why people should have to live in such conditions, it’s even harder to imagine now why the area should be rebuilt and replicate the problems that incubated there.

But it may be hard for New Orleans to summon the political will to make these hard decisions. Already, FEMA trailers dot the area, as families work hard to reinvent a bearable form of family life. The families in the trailers are a politically potent symbol that defies politicians to tell them to move or to refuse the investments to revive the neighborhood.

Sitting under an umbrella in a lawn chair outside of her trailer, one elderly woman makes her case: “Why can’t we have our homes rebuilt? No one is telling rich folks on the (Gulf) Coast that they can’t put their houses there again. No, only poor folks get told things like that. What sense is that?”

Tear Downs

Meanwhile, in the most affluent neighborhood in Jefferson Parish, a woman stands outside of the FEMA trailer parked in her front yard. The first floor of her house is being rebuilt, but at least a third of her neighbors’ houses are marked as “tear downs.” The owners are leveling their houses and selling the lots.

Her neighborhood was flooded by the 17th Street Canal, and she and her neighbors have been told that it cannot happen again. Many are unwilling to accept the assurances. “They are taking their insurance money and moving, some to higher ground and some to other cities,” she says. “This was always a highly desirable neighborhood, so we expect the lots to sell and new homes to be built. But right now, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. It’s more of an exercise in faith than anything else.”

She says there is no one in the public sector to trust. Although her income and neighborhood would indicate support for Bush, she has nothing good to say about him. Asked what the president had to say to her in his visit a few days earlier, she said: “Nothing. Just the same old B.S. I can’t imagine how he has the gall to come down here and tell us to be optimistic. Optimism is not a plan. Where’s he been for a year? We’ve been here trying to salvage our lives.”


Bush has come to personalize all that is wrong with the federal government for her. Her anger flares as she faults the federal government for its failure to hold the U.S. Corps of Engineers accountable for the flooding of the city, a sentiment shared by neighbors who have posted “Hold The Corps Accountable” signs in their yards to publicize the website,

She segues into what she calls the “lunacy” of the FEMA trailers. According to her, the average trailer costs about $80,000 and the contractor is paid $50,000 to hook it up to electricity, water and sewer. “For $130,000, they could rebuild or repair most of the houses,” she said. “It’s just typical.”

The lack of confidence in the future and governments’ ability to influence it are seen in the “For Sales” signs that are found on every block and in every neighborhood. But all in all, drawing on three visits over the past 12 months, it’s inescapable that things are moving in the right direction.

Of course, the truth is that cities are always more resilient than anyone expects or predicts. These days, New Orleans is a city with something to prove, and little by little, it’s doing just that.

Anyone who cares about cities and how they work would find it fascinating case study. Then again, even if you don’t care about urban issues, the food and architecture are still reason enough to go.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Potential Of Creative Industries: This Week On Smart City

Is the desire to become a creative city at risk of becoming the latest brand of wishful economic thinking by city leaders?

Our guests this week are exploring the potential of creative industries as viable economic development engines. Jasmin Aber is an architect leading a group of international scholars, the Shrinking Cities Group at UC-Berkeley, who are exploring regeneration options for the world's shrinking cities. Jasmin's architectural experience includes design competitions, design and planning mixed-use development, housing and commercial buildings in London and Frankfurt, and participatory planning projects in San Jose, California.

Beth Siegel is president of Mt. Auburn Associates where she has led creative sector strategies for Louisiana, New England and New York City. Beth headed evaluations for the U.S. Economic Development Administration and for the past five years has directed the firm's evaluation work with The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh and a consortium of national and local foundations involved in workforce development in Boston.

We'll talk about the pursuit to become a creative city this week on Smart City

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.

A Bill Of Rights For A Livable City

From CEOs For Cities blog comes a proposed bill of rights that would be a welcome aspiration for Memphis:

Berkeley resident Sharon Hudson has proposed an urban bill of rights for the city as a reaction to what she sees as excessive development and a "race to the bottom." She bills it as "The NIMBY Manifesto, which is enough to make most urban leaders quake.

(The irony of NIMBYs is that they likely would not be occupying their own home if the neighbors who got there before them had had any say in the matter.)

Nonetheless, Ms. Hudson offers the following for community debate:

1. The right to see significant greenery, the sky, and the sun from within one’s home.

2. The right to natural cross ventilation in one’s home.

3. The right to enjoy peace and quiet within one’s home with windows open.

4. The right to sleep at night without excessive artificial ambient light.

5. The right to be free in one’s neighborhood from pollution of air, water, soil, and plant life.

6. The right to be free from undesirable local environmental change caused by poor urban design, such as wind, shadow and noise canyons, excess heat caused by overpaving, etc.

7. The right to adequate space for storage, hobbies, and other personal activities in and around each dwelling unit, including play space for children in family housing.

8. The right to mobility, regardless of income. If automobile use is discouraged by prohibitive pricing, public transit must be adequate and low cost.

9. The right to parking space for each household.

10. The right of convenient access, on foot if possible, to basic daily needs, such as good quality food at reasonable prices, daily household and medical supplies, laundry facilities, etc.

11. The right of convenient access, by foot, private vehicle, or transit, to places of employment.

12. The right of equal access to the commons and to taxpayer-funded and other public facilities, such as government buildings, libraries, museums, bridges, and roadways.

13. The right of access within walking distance to nature, recreation, outdoor exercise, and discovery, including parks, open space, and areas inhabited by wildlife.

14. The right to equal and adequate police, fire, and emergency services, which shall not be infringed on the basis of income or neighborhood character.

15. The right to participate in and guide, through equitable, representative, democratic processes, land use decisions that affect oneself, one’s neighborhood, and one’s community.