Friday, December 29, 2006

Development and Land: This Week On Smart City

The way we live is influenced by factors we are often only barely aware of. Take land use, for instance. Few of us think about us. Fewer still understand how it works and how it is influenced.

But that's not the case with our guests this week. Robert Puentes is a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, specializing in policy options for older suburban America and transportation and infrastructure. Prior to joining Brookings, Rob was the director of infrastructure programs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

Katherine Perez is Vice President of Development at Forest City Development, where her focus is on transit oriented development and development in emerging communities. Katherine is a professional transportation planner with experience in national transportation policy, regional planning and local government. Previously she worked as Deputy to the Mayor of Pasadena, California.

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.

In Memphis, 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. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Golden Age Of Great City Mayors

In light of all the media and political pundits' speculation about Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton's plans (or non-plans) to run for another term, we post this commentary about great mayors. The U.S. is in an era of great city mayors, and often, they have come from nontraditional backgrounds. Names bandied about here are largely political, but perhaps, if Mayor Herenton decides to step aside, some people whose names would never surface in the speculation game may step forward to run. That might be the most healthy political development of all.

Here's the post from July 5:

This is the golden age of great city mayors.

In Chicago, Richard Daley transformed “Beirut on the Lake” into one of the world’s great cities - sophisticated, vibrant, seedbed for an astonishing array of enlightened “green” programs.

In Denver and San Francisco, two restaurateurs – respectively John Hickenlooper and Gavin Newsom – transplanted their customer service credo into city services and designed revolutionary programs for the homeless. Also, Hickenlooper’s determined regional fence-mending produced a 70 percent approval rating in the metro area, and he in turn used this reservoir of good will to lead seven counties and 31 cities to pass a sales tax increase to pay for 119 miles of new light rail and commuter trains costing $5 billion.

In Atlanta, Shirley Franklin slashed 1,000 jobs as well as her own salary, convinced 75 companies to analyze city government at no cost and began a 22-mile linear park connecting 45 neighborhoods. Through force of personality, Jerry Abramson convinced Louisville citizens to approve the largest government consolidation in 40 years; New York’s Michael Bloomberg turned a projected $6.5 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus; Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley developed a unique computerized complaint system making city departments more accountable; Miami’s Manny Diaz moved the city bond rating from junk to A+ while rolling out a six-year program to rebuild the infrastructure; and Washington Mayor Anthony Williams delivered something thought impossible – stability.


In other words, cities are in an epic period of rebirth, and great mayors are the reason. Memphis has had great managers, great motivators and great speakers. But there’s no argument that Memphis has had a mayor who measures up to the standards of today’s great mayors.

Mayor Willie W. Herenton, contrary to critics who tend to blame him for everything from the economic downturn to global warming, flirted with a “Nixon to China” brand of greatness, but in the end, it was not to be and now seems as elusive as his being cheered at halfcourt at FedExForum.

In truth, the concept of Willie Herenton has always been more compelling than the reality of Willie Herenton. To his political base, he has special status as the city’s first African-American mayor, and the voter loyalty attached to that milestone will not be replicated again. To civic leaders, explanations for support have frequently begun with the sentence, “He’s better than….”

Outstripping Reality

When a political brand outstrips personal reality, it’s often a good thing for the politician. The formidable image silences critics, drives public opinion and overwhelms public discussions. In Herenton’s case though, it’s no longer fair to him, and it’s not now fair to the city, because it has mutated into a mythology that polarizes every issue he touches.

The seminal example took place just over year ago when he convened a meeting to consider his innovative proposal for merger of the two local school systems. On that day, he made the best researched and most detailed analysis by a public official of the $1 billion spent locally each year for schools, and he did it all without mentioning once that Memphis is the only major metro area in Tennessee where schools aren’t already consolidated.

And yet, none of the statistics, none of the projections and none of the historical trends were reported. Instead, the media fixated on the fact that the chairs of the city and county school boards – respectively, Wanda Halbert and David Pickler - were petulant no-shows at the meeting.

Losing The Pulpit

It was a defining moment in the Herenton Era, because it was at that moment that it became unambiguously obvious that his personality, not his positions or programs, would be the overriding factor defining the news from then on. In this way, it no longer mattered if he was right, because he was robbed of his bully pulpit.

The sad truth of Memphis politics – and it is sad whether you like Herenton or not – is that the mayor no longer has the potential to be great, because the ultimate prisoner of the Herenton myth is now Willie Herenton himself. Because of it, he’s denied the chance to emulate great U.S. mayors who are creating bigger dreams for their cities that every one sees themselves being part of, reaching across political and racial boundaries and inspiring all of their citizens with the confidence to move ahead together.

It is a truism that every city is only one great mayor away from being a great city. No one knows this better than Herenton, and that’s why the question that only he can answer is so tough.

Like the talented boxer that he once was, he knows that he can keep winning, but he also knows that sometimes, the skill is not just in being able to win, but in knowing when it is no longer necessary to be in the ring.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

As Older Cities Shrink, Some Reinvent Themselves

In the current issue, USA Today reports on an encouraging trend in some cities who don't see population decline as reasons for panic, and instead, treat it as a chance to redefine themselves. As we've mentioned, Tennessee's liberal annexation law allows Memphis to mask the hollowing out that is taking place here and leave the impression that because our population is not declining (as a result of adding people through annexation), things are better than they actually are. Carol Coletta, president/CEO of CEOs For Cities and founder of our company, says in the article: "Cities that measure success by population growth have an outdated view of what success is all about." Memphis should take note of this kind of new thinking and take lessons from the cities featured in today's article:

By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

RICHMOND, Va. — A triangular island at the intersection of 23rd and Q streets is paved with bricks and landscaped with dogwood and liriope. The carefully designed patch of green replaced an abandoned house. As modest as it is, the tiny Q Street Park is a powerful symbol of change in the blighted Church Hill neighborhood.
It's not simply a physical transformation but a dramatic switch in mindset. Richmond's population has lost 56,000 since its peak in 1970, when it had 250,000 residents, and the city is finally coming to terms with it. Green space is replacing boarded-up houses. Small single-family homes are rising where crowded cinderblock apartment buildings once stood. Singles and couples are moving into rehabilitated homes that once housed families of eight.

Slowly, old American cities that have been in a downward population spiral for a half-century or more are reinventing themselves as, well, smaller cities. They're starting to adopt — many, like Richmond, do it unknowingly — tenets of the burgeoning, European-born "Shrinking Cities" movement. The idea: If cities can grow in a smart way, they can also shrink smartly.

"Everybody's talking about smart growth, but nobody is talking about smart decline," says Terry Schwarz, senior planner at Kent State University's Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. The center runs the Shrinking Cities Institute in Cleveland, a city that has lost more than half its population since 1950. "There's nothing that says that a city that has fewer people in it has to be a bad place."

It's a startling admission in a nation that has always equated growth with success. Cities are downsizing by returning abandoned neighborhoods to nature and pulling the plug on expensive services to unpopulated areas. Some have stopped pumping water, running sewer lines and repaving roads in depopulated neighborhoods. They're turning decimated areas into parks, wildlife refuges or bike trails. They're tearing down homes no one is living in and concentrating development where people want to move.

Richmond's acclaimed Neighborhoods in Bloom program targets six areas. Public funds are pouring in and private money has started to follow. The city wants to grow, but it's not waiting for a population boom, says Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., an economic development marketing group. "We don't as a region aspire to be the next Atlanta or the next Charlotte," he says. "It's about quality. It's not about growing for the sake of growing."

Boom misses many cities

The USA's population hit 300 million this year and is expected to keep booming, reaching 400 million in about 35 years. Despite this phenomenal growth, many of the nation's older cities have shrunk. More than half of the 100 most populous cities in 1950 have fewer residents today. About 6 million fewer people live in 16 of the 20 cities that were largest in 1950. Eleven of the 100 largest cities 50 years ago have fewer than 100,000 people today.

Suburbia may be the biggest reason for this downturn. The automobile and the lure of affordable homes with yards drew millions from urban centers. School desegregation sparked flight to new, all-white suburbs starting in the 1950s. In the 1970s, old, labor-intensive industries began to decline. Steel mills and auto plants closed, and Rust Belt cities, from Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Detroit and St. Louis, shrank.

Many such cities are starting to capitalize on what they still have rather than what they've lost — whether it's historic neighborhoods, cultural amenities or waterfronts. "Their aspirations should be to build on their strengths and to assume that they're not going to be as big," says Eugenie Birch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has documented the resurgence of downtowns.

"Cities that measure success by population growth have an outdated view of what success is all about," says Carol Coletta, head of CEOs for Cities, a non-profit alliance of mayors, executives and other urban leaders based in Chicago.

That group's research has shown that population growth doesn't always bring cities wealth. Bakersfield, Calif., grew 35% in the 1990s, the second-fastest gainer; per capita income, however, declined 7%. Las Vegas was No. 1 in population growth but 38th in income growth last decade.

When a city's growth is buoyed by a boom in construction and service jobs, many of its new residents are lower-income families including immigrants.

"Urban leaders are getting very clear-eyed about these things," Coletta says. "But they do it in the face of a world that judges them by population growth."

No mayor brags about his city shrinking. No council member wants to hear that her ward no longer exists. "For a lot of communities, it's more about denial than resistance," Schwarz says. "It's like admitting defeat, and who wants to do that?"

Denying it, however, costs money, says Karina Pallagst, program director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California-Berkeley. "You have to deal with a huge water system that's serving less people. Same with buildings. You still have to supply them with power, water, sewage."

What occurred in U.S. cities over a half-century happened almost overnight in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Eastern Germany suffered a net loss of almost 1 million people to western Germany from 1991 to 2004, according to Pallagst, who is German. In 2002, more than 1 million housing units were vacant.

The rapid decline inspired Germany's Federal Cultural Foundation to launch the Shrinking Cities project. It analyzed Halle/Leipzig in Germany, Manchester/Liverpool in England, Ivanovo in Russia and Detroit. The goal was to develop strategies for eastern Germany, but it unleashed broad interest throughout Europe and parts of Asia, where fertility rates are dropping and populations aging. The discussion went global.

A Shrinking Cities exhibit shown in Europe now is on display in New York. It will head to Detroit in February. Pallagst's institute is hosting a symposium on the subject in February.

"Every sixth city in the world is shrinking," Pallagst says, from Australian mining towns to Korean industrial centers. "Even a city that's prospering today can be a shrinking city tomorrow."

"European cities are grappling with how you deal with shrinking cities more forthrightly than we are," says John Accordino, urban and regional planning professor at Virginia Commonwealth University here. "(U.S. cities) are still trying to figure out how do we get our piece of the metro growth."

Youngstown, Ohio, is an exception. It has fully embraced its shrinkage. The population, now about 83,000, is less than half what it was when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s.

"You look at the facts and come up with solutions," chief planner Anthony Kobak says. "The first step the city has come to terms with is being a small city."

Youngstown approved a 2010 plan. The goal: "A safe, clean, enjoyable, sustainable, attractive city," Kobak says.

The city long was better known for gritty steel mills than green space. Now that the mills are gone, there is plenty of space. With the help of a grant, Youngstown preserved 260 acres. It's targeting neighborhoods and redesigning them with the help of residents who stayed.

The city may let homeowners buy abandoned lots next door to create gardens. It's considering relaxing zoning rules to allow small horse farms or apple orchards. It's offering incentives for people to move out of abandoned areas.

"If you had three or four square blocks that at one time had 40 homes per block and now have maybe five homes total, we could relocate those people across the street and convert the vacant area into a large city park," Kobak says.Residents would live be living across from a park rather than being surrounded by decrepit homes and lots overgrown with weeds.

"If we're looking to preserve an area for green space, we may offer that person relocation money rather than rehab money," Kobak says.

Other cities may be less enthusiastic about shrinking but they're adjusting, nevertheless:

•St. Louis is reviewing abandoned commercial areas to determine if they're still needed. "We had a lot more people here," says Rollin Stanley, director of St. Louis' planning and urban design agency. "We had a lot more need for commercial strips. That need isn't here today."

The historic Gaslight Square area once teemed with nightclubs, theaters, bistros and art galleries. It was abandoned for more than 20 years. The city recently converted some parts to row houses and single-family homes.

"We have to rethink where we house people," Stanley says.Converting declining commercial areas to trendy residential housing has helped. Family incomes citywide increased 13.7% from 2004 to 2005, he says."We're rethinking land use allocation to meet the needs of the population we're going to see," he says. We're not shrinking. We're rethinking."

•Detroit spreads across 139 square miles and has almost a million fewer people than it did in 1950. Until now, revitalization efforts have focused on the 3-square-mile downtown.

This month, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced an initiative in partnership with philanthropies, business, civic leaders and faith-based organizations that will target six neighborhoods that make up less than 10% of the city. "Some neighborhoods don't need to be addressed right away," says Matt Allen, the mayor's press secretary.

In February, the city will focus on parks and recreational facilities, most of them developed from 1920 to 1958, when the city boomed. When people left, many facilities were barely used. "People don't walk five miles to go swim in an 80-year-old pool," Allen says. "It costs a heck of a lot of money to run an 80-year-old boiler."

The city already has closed 14 recreational facilities and built state-of-the-art centers in the northeast, where there is the highest concentration of families with children, and in the southwest, where the Hispanic population exploded.

Reviving old Richmond

Only faint traces remain of the old glamour of Richmond's Jackson Ward district. The marquee is fading on the Hippodrome Theater, where Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced, Ella Fitzgerald sang and Duke Ellington played. There are few businesses in the 40-square-block neighborhood once called the Wall Street of Black America because of its many banks.

Today, however, there are signs of a rebound. Historic row houses have been refurbished. Restaurants are opening. New homes are going up near a statue of "Bojangles." Shells of Greek and Georgian Revival, Queen Anne and Italianate houses, many adorned with elaborate ironwork and cast-iron porches, could be had for $30,000 to $40,000 10 years ago. They're selling for more than $250,000 today.

Ronald Stallings, a native, is a star player in the revival. His father amassed 140 pieces of real estate before the area declined. His company, Walker Row Partnership Inc., is converting an old insurance company building into lofts, building homes and rehabilitating historic structures. He has renovated 47 properties. Jackson Ward's population jumped 70% in less than five years, he says. One of his most ambitious goals: Bring the Hippodrome back as an entertainment venue.

"Either older people or younger people are choosing a lifestyle other than cutting grass every Friday evening," he says. "There are way more housing units. Your population is going down but units are going up. Dual income, no kids isn't a bad thing."

Similar revitalization efforts are playing out on Richmond's Tobacco Row. Old warehouses and factories now house sound studios and lofts. Warehouses on the banks of the James River have been turned into modern apartments. The River Lofts still have old brick walls, arched windows and wooden beams. Fountainhead Development, formed by a New York lawyer and an architect, is turning the Manchester industrial area into an arts and design district. Sound studios have moved in. About 150 artists now are based in a two-city block area. High rises may be next.

"We were the ugly stepchild, now we're the next Chelsea," says Bill Chapman, Fountainhead president, referring to Manhattan's artsy neighborhood.

Much of the revival has been fueled by tax credits and abatements. Mayor Douglas Wilder, a former Virginia governor, is betting on the region's economic boom to attract private investment. Richmond is well positioned as the state capital and the home of Virginia Commonwealth University, which just opened a biotech research park. Philip Morris is building a research and technology center. MeadWestvaco Corp., a paper company, is moving from Stamford, Conn., to new headquarters here.

Another plus for Richmond: It's about 100 miles from the thriving Washington, D.C. Fear of terrorist attacks on the nation's capital is are encouraging companies to set up some sensitive operations well 100 miles outside the city. Richmond could benefit.

How does Richmond get people to live in the city? "You make things look better. You stop blight," Wilder says. The city is reviewing which of 3,200 vacant properties to tear down or convert. Some vacant land could become open space.

The Better Housing Coalition, a non-profit group, builds affordable housing to revive neighborhoods. It built about 75 houses in Church Hill. Through grants and various incentives, working-class families can afford to own them.

Mary Thompson grew up in a family of eight and moved here as a teenager 54 years ago. She raised five children and thought about moving many times as family homes around her became drug houses and bordellos. "One day you look up and there's a lot of blight," Thompson says. "It can happen overnight."

She hung in there. Now, the dilapidated eyesore at the intersection is gone, the quaint Q Street Park in its place. That prompted the homeowner across the street to repaint his house. Teachers and police officers are moving into the neighborhood. There are more singles and one-child families.

The new look in some Richmond neighborhoods is a sign that the city may be finding its niche. "We just pray that we get good families," says Augustine Carter, 78, a retired hospital worker who lives here.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Cure For Cities: This Week On Smart City

Can the very thing that plagues a city also be the solution to its problems? Steven Johnson may have that answer. He is the author of the new book The Ghost Map that details the mystery of the Broad Street cholera outbreak in London in September of 1854. Steven writes The Urban Planet blog for the New York Times where he explores the most interesting questions about cities.

Also with us is Jacky Grimshaw. Jacky works with the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago where she directs the center's transportation and air quality program and is responsible for the center's research efforts, computer modeling programs, and community development activities. Jacky has extensive experience developing consensus in support of less-polluting transportation options and initiating programs that assist the revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods.

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.

In Memphis, 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. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Can Memphis' Future Take Flight As An Aerotropolis?

It was encouraging to see that the Memphis Regional Chamber held a meeting last week that spotlighted Memphis' potential as an aerotropolis. It's a topic that deserves serious attention here for a variety of reasons. If you relied on our daily newspaper to give you a sense of the meeting, pick up this week's Memphis Flyer where Mary Cashiola brings clarity and insight to the subject. And we enthusiastically second her comments about the warehouse that we call Memphis International Airport. If Memphis is to be serious about pursuing an aerotropolis strategy, we should begin now to formulate plans for a new airport more in keeping with modern aviation and customer expectations.

To add to this discussion, we're reposting a June 26 commentary:

Would someone in city or county governments please buy copies of the current issue of Fast Company for members of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board?

While you are at it, mark the article, “Rise of the Aerotropolis,” which tells of the airport-cities that are being created around the globe. It’s an article of special interest to Memphis as world headquarters for FedEx, the corporation that invented global commerce as we know it.

The article makes some compelling points:

· Over the past 30 years, the value of air cargo has risen 1,395 percent, compared to the GDP’s increase of 154 percent and the value of world trade’s increase of 355 percent.

· Today, 40 percent of the total economic value of all goods in the world and 50 percent of American goods are shipped by air.

· Virtually everything associated with the value-added economy – technology, pharmaceuticals, medical devices – is transported by air.


The aerotropolis is a new thrust for urban planning in several world cities, notably Asian ones, where rather than banish airports to the outer reaches of cities, airports are moved to the center where cities are built around them. American cities are seen as falling behind in the development of these centers, because of our NIMBY sensitivity and zoning restrictions.

But perhaps, just as FedEx created world commerce, it can create a new future for the area around Memphis International Airport as a competitor for the aerotropolises developing in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Dubai. Rather than becoming a force driving sprawl like it is in these places, perhaps the distinctive U.S. brand of the airport-city could be invented here in Memphis.

According to the article, Memphis already has a rudimentary version of the aerotropolis along with Dallas and Ontario, California, with Denver and Detroit planning developments right now.

Architect of the aerotropolis concept is John Kasarda, a University of North Carolina business professor, who sees it as the logical evolution of globalization writ within a city context. While parts of his crystal ball forecasting into the future conjures up the unfeeling, robotic, gray world captured in so many apocalyptic films where people become mere dispensable cogs in the unrelenting global economic machinery, a uniquely American version of the aerotropolis is not only possible, but preferable to those in far flung parts of the globe.

Absolutely, Positively

But what does this have with the IDB? Here’s the part that made us think of tax freeze policies.

The article says that “the closest thing to an aerotropolis in America today is Memphis International Airport, home for 25 years to FedEx,” adding that Memphis has led the world for 14 years in a row as the airport with the most air cargo, outdistancing powerhouses like Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Delivering the Memphis Regional Chamber’s sales pitch for it, Fast Company points out the distinct advantages of being located in Memphis where companies have midnight or 1 a.m. drop-off deadlines for FedEx, compared to 9 p.m. on the East Coat and 4 p.m. on the West Coast.

In a nation too often defined by a bi-coastal perspective, Memphis has a competitive advantage unmatched in the world – FedEx’s drop-off deadlines and the extra hours of production given to companies here.

Proximity Matters

Joe Ferreira, FedEx’s managing director of hub-area business development, is quoted in the article as saying that she “routinely juggles the requests of as many as 40 to 50 companies jockeying for space around Memphis and smaller hubs.”

“Proximity matters more and more to them,” she says, and Memphis offers an ideal combination of inexpensive, semiskilled labor, acres of turnkey warehouse space and the junction of three states all fighting for their business.

“But the biggest driver,” Ferreira says,” is the growing urge that when we want something, we want it now. And as soon as one company relocates here or to any of our hubs, the next thing that happens is that three or four of its competitors come calling.”

Fast Company says that “while Memphis might qualify for a proto-aerotropolis, with the FedEx hub providing just enough gravity to keep its customers from spinning out of orbit into Mississippi or Arkansas, few other American cities are even remotely ready to build their own analogues.”

Magnetic FedEx

So, once again, we’re told the obvious: FedEx is the ultimate economic magnet for Memphis. Its gravitational pull attracts smart companies that understand that by locating here, they get a competitive advantage found nowhere else, the competitive advantage of a longer, direct connection with the global economy made possible by the inventors of overnight air cargo delivery.

So, with this unmatchable competitive advantage, the obvious question for the IDB is why is it still handing out tax freezes as if we aren’t good enough to attract business otherwise?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Regional Answers Demand Regional Taxes

It’s a tale of two cities, and only a short drive is needed to come face-to-face with the telling.

In Nashville, the drive takes you to Williamson County, the 11th wealthiest county in the U.S. with a median family income that’s a staggering $95,470. Four nearby counties shatter the $55,000 mark. Outside of Fulton County, Atlanta has five counties with median family incomes of more than $60,000, peaking with Fayette County’s $85,794 and Cobb County’s $77,447. In Indianapolis, Marion County gives way to Hamilton County and its $90,119 median family income. Three others top $55,000.

Here, things are different. The other counties in the Memphis metro do nothing to improve income and education levels, raising a red flag for companies evaluating the region for new operations and investments.

Wake-Up Call

Shelby County is ranked #200 in median family income, and in its MSA, only DeSoto County manages to eke over $50,000. Meanwhile, 19.2 percent of Shelby Countians do not have a high school degree and 25.3 percent have at least 16 years of education. That compares to 26.3 percent and 12.4 percent respectively for the other metro counties.

It’s a troubling reality, particularly in light of a decade’s worth of talk about the importance of the region.

It’s been five years since the Memphis Regional Chamber released the Memphis Region Sourcebook, the product of more than two years of work and costing almost $500,000. Intended to give form to the Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence, the unique tri-state organization cheerleading the report, its 27 oversized pages of gripping graphics, key facts, an inventory of assets, and recommendations are artifacts of a flirtation with regional thinking.

It's About Shared Reponsbilities (And Taxes)

It’s too bad, because the report went to great lengths to identify opportunities for the region to learn how to work together on issues every one should care about – air and water quality, farmland preservation, heritage tourism, transportation, and workforce development. It was always hoped that the experience on these issues would inspire confidence to tackle the really tough ones - think taxes.

More and more, some kind of regional tax pooling makes sense here. Without it, it is inevitable that Memphis and Shelby County will be forced to take unilateral action like a payroll tax on the 88,000 people who commute into Shelby County. Despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary, cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Denver have actually used regional taxes as a way to unify their regions, and here, it could delight commuters by taking the payroll tax off the table as an option for city and county governments’ ailing finances.

The existing tax structure is outdated and unfair, treating each jurisdiction as if it is self-contained and its interests are walled off from its neighbors. There’s no connection between who uses roads, arenas, and museums, and who pays for them.

Fighting Over The Pie

With no rationality and no imperative for regional cooperation, multiple jurisdictions claw for more of a finite tax pie, as Collierville did in pursuing a huge shopping center to get the huge sales taxes that came with it, and in the process, fueling sprawl and commercial zoning designed to create optimal taxes, rather than the optimal community.

In Minneapolis, where the suburbs subsidized the central cities 30 years ago, it reversed when older suburbs were in decline and needed help. Governments put 40 percent of the growth of their commercial and industrial property tax base into a regional pool, and from it, several hundred million dollars a year are redistributed on regionwide priorities like public transit and light rail, parkland, water quality, and smart growth.

In Portland, a three-county, 24-city regional agency makes land use and transportation decisions and helps pay for regional services like the convention center, performing arts center, stadium, exposition center and regional parks. In Denver, seven counties and 31 cities agreed to a regionwide sales tax to pay for light rail.

Acting Differently

The Mid-South has the muscle to get it done. The Sourcebook called for creation of the Regional Congressional Caucus, which would take advantage of the Mid-South’s six U.S. senators and six Congressmen inside the Beltway, and the Mid-South Legislative Caucus to fight for shared priorities in the capitals of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Challenges to the Memphis region are no respecters of state or county lines – an aging workforce, too few 25-34 year-old workers, low educational attainment, racial divisions, and unsustainable sprawl. Sadly, there’s a sense in the region outside Memphis that if the future of the city is about a middle class exodus, entrenched poverty, and hollowed out, deteriorating neighborhoods, that is Memphis’ problem, not theirs.

It’s what psychiatrists call “magical thinking” with little connection to reality. There’s nothing magical about the fact that regions are the competitive units for the new economy, and without a stronger regional platform, any economic growth plans for any part of the region are in jeopardy before they even begin.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

No Holiday Truce In Shelby County Political Wars

‘Tis the season to be jolly and to cherish our children.

However, some Democratic county commissioners and some Republican Shelby County school board members seem intent on using children during this holiday season in ways that make Ebenezer Scrooge look an ambassador for altruism.

It’s enough to kill the spirit of the season. On one side, some elected representatives for Memphis are using youth as political pawns for an ill-conceived plan to add another Juvenile Court judge for a political friend, and on the other, some Shelby County elected officials continue to make decisions that call into question their commitment to children in the first place.

County Commissioners

First, the county commissioners.

Three commissioners profess to be affronted by the fact that Germantown and Bartlett have youth diversion programs that give young people arrested on first-time misdemeanor charges second chances. Apparently, or at least according to the lawyer for Juvenile Court, state law doesn’t give the cities the authority to operate these kinds of model programs, and instead, requires that the youth be sent forthwith to Juvenile Court.

As a result, the lawyer for Juvenile Court notified the cities to cease and desist. The fact that these two suburban cities - with their majority white populations – had diversion programs appalls the county commissioners, who went so far as to call for a federal investigation. At this point, it’s unclear what the federal government would investigate, but it is clear that the protests largely stem from the commissioners’ determination to create an unneeded second Juvenile Court judge for Shelby County.

From where we sit, if the federal government wants to indict Germantown and Bartlett for something, it would be for operating compassionate, enlightened youth offender programs that should be duplicated throughout the region.

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

Commissioner Henri Brooks, while serving in the Tennessee Legislature, was famous for her serial racism allegations and a flair for rhetorical hysteria, qualities in full flourish with the call for a federal investigation. Apparently, her firsthand knowledge of the evils of racial stereotypes doesn’t slow her down in using them whenever it suits her political ends. Her call for an investigation was joined by Commissioners Sidney Chism and Deidre Malone, normally seen as bridge-builders in local politics but apparently blinded by their desire to create another county elected office.

In a statement long on generalities and short on specifics, they garbled the facts so completely that they somehow concluded that Juvenile Court “has been operating separate programs for suburban juveniles at taxpayer expense and in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.” It seemed to matter little that neither of the youth diversion programs had any connection with Juvenile Court and were operated by Germantown and Bartlett.

It’s one thing to want a new judgeship so badly that you think you have to destroy the recently-elected judge to get it, but commissioners degrade themselves when they show a ready willingness to sacrifice youth in diversion programs as political fodder on the partisan battlefield. Although we were not supporters of the winner in the recent Juvenile Court election, the single-minded rush to create another judgeship is becoming a tawdry sideshow with political rallies masquerading as fact-finding hearings, and name-calling cast as political debate.

Hope Springs Eternal

We had high hopes for the “new look” Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Democrats deserved to be the majority on the legislative body a decade earlier, but since taking charge, they have seem to have lost their focus and their way, apparently distracted by old political scores to settle. Unfortunately, their behavior reflects a party too long in the minority and still unaware that it’s ultimate job now is to govern.

For 20 years, Democrats on the county board of commissioners decried the exclusionary politics of the majority and policies that failed to embrace the needs of the entire county. Along the way, Democrats declared that they could govern in a way that would unite the community and heal these old wounds. Finally, they have the chance to prove it.

So far, there’s been little to suggest that the past rhetoric can be transformed into a future vision for a unified county. But hope springs eternal here, and that’s why we hope the Juvenile Court fracas is just a misstep and not the first step of a journey toward a more combative, more fractious and more ineffective Shelby County Board of Commissioners that is willing to sow the seeds of divisiveness in order to achieve their own personal political objectives.

County School Board

We hold out no such hope for the Shelby County Board of Education. As proof that using children as political pawns isn’t the province of some Democrats, the Republican county school board continues its boorish political behavior by holding 2,500 students as hostages to its political agenda.

Faced with what seems like a reasonable request by Memphis City Schools - for the county district to continue to educate the students affected by the Countrywood and Berryhill annexations until city schools can be built for them - the county board again put politics ahead of pupils.

These days, it seems that if you ask Shelby County Schools anything, they condition their answer on whether you will support their special school district, an idea whose justification remains as questionable as the board’s contention that many of its decisions aren’t racially-motivated.

Watching the antics of Shelby County Schools, a prevailing urge is to put them in “time-out” and laugh about their silliness; however, their “take no prisoners” brand of politics are needlessly disrupting the lives of 2,500 young people in the annexation areas (not to mention thousands of students, primarily African-American, in Southeast Shelby County). Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson says she asked for the county schools to keep the students to prevent them from being moved three times in a few years - from their current county schools to temporary city schools and finally to their permanent city school.

Political Petulance

That seems pretty straightforward to us, but nothing is ever that simple in the Machiavellian parallel university of Shelby County Schools. In fact, county school officials responded to the request by forbidding the city district to set foot on the campus of a school that will ultimately become part of the city system following annexation.

Then, to make matters worse, County Superintendent Bobby Webb, largely a marionette in these situations, feigned indignation, saying that “an accusation that we won’t let them on the property is outlandish.” The truth is that Memphis City School officials asked at least three times to go onto the campus of Chimneyrock Elementary and were each time denied access to survey the property by Shelby County Schools. It was only after days of repeated refusals by the county district that Memphis City Schools sent its letter of complaint.

As we wrote last week, the recalcitrance of Shelby County Schools could be dismissed if it were not ultimately costing us taxpayers more than $12 million. That’s the cost of the additions to city schools that will temporarily house the 2,500 students.

Save The Children

Perhaps, if Shelby County Schools maintains its normal parochial politics and the students can’t stay in their present county schools, Memphis City Schools could find a way for them to attend the higher quality White Station schools. After all, it’s Memphis City Schools that has placed schools on the rankings of the nation’s best schools, not Shelby County Schools.

In the midst of this conflict, a committee of politicians and business leaders issued a draft report on school funding that’s been in the making for two years, and it appears to have arrived if not D.O.A. at least in the ICU. The possibility of the school districts cooperating on its recommendations grows more unlikely by the day, and the report, a compendium of ideas advanced over the past 25 years, doesn’t appear on the surface to be the catalyst to harness the systems behind it.

While we wait to see what happens, we hope the Yuletide spirit will bring a calmer, less incendiary style of politics here. It’s said that some things transcend normal day-to-day political considerations. Surely, the best of interest of our children is one of them.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

"Physician, Heal Thy Self" Motivation Should Prompt City Council Action On Ethics

The Memphis Charter Commission shouldn't draw up the ethics laws for city government that its members have been discussing.

That’s because it needs to be done by Memphis City Council. The Council owes it to its citizens, but it also owes it to itself.

Some prominent Council members have been disturbed for some time by a gut feeling that something just wasn’t right between some of their members and developers. And they aren’t deaf so they heard the persistent whispers about improprieties and cozy relationships. In truth, no criticism uttered by the public in recent weeks can be as blistering as comments made by these Council members over the years because of their concern about the integrity of their body.

Finally, they have a historic opportunity to go public and give voice to the public’s frustration. They begin by doing something dramatic – creating the City of Memphis Office of Public Ethics.

The Rotten Apples

First, let’s take a deep breath and keep our perspective. Most of our elected officials in Shelby County are generally thoughtful and earnest in fulfilling responsibilities of jobs whose rewards are often visibly dubious. In fact, in Shelby County, we elect a total of 147 people to elected office, and the vast majority of these men and women are untainted by indictment or arrest.

That said, even acknowledging that all of our elected officials aren’t involved in illegal acts, revelations in recent months have severely damaged the public’s confidence in the people they elect to serve their interest.

Fair or not, it demands strong, assertive action similar to what Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin did when she took office in the wake of indictments of her predecessor and other elected officials in her community. “When I was elected, I was determined to raise the bar on ethics in city government, to reclaim the public trust and confidence in city government and to create an environment of openness and integrity,” she said last month in accepting the Ethics Advocate Award from the Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics. “I am honored to be recognized for what I believe is simply working hard to do the right thing.”

The fact that she has turned around perceptions, and more importantly, the reality of a government rife with corruption, should be inspiration for Memphis city officials to drive a stake in the ground on the ethics issue. As recently as July of this year, Mayor Franklin vetoed an Atlanta City Council resolution to loosen up the Code of Ethics that she had pushed through.

Vetoing Weak Ethics

To give you an idea of how serious she is about restoring the public confidence in her government, her veto power was wielded in opposition to a change that would have eased the ban on gifts and gratuities by allowing them if their value was less than $75. In her veto letter, she wrote: “I have been steadfast in my stewardship as chief executive officer to maintain transparent, open, and honest government…This is simply bad public policy, and I will not support it.”

Memphis has often tried to emulate Atlanta, and this one deserves immediate duplication. It would have immediate impact in serving notice to the public that city government is serious about the way it conducts the public’s business.

Public Chapter No. 1 of the Extraordinary Session of the 2006 Tennessee General Assembly requires that every local government in our state adopts a code of ethics by July 1, 2007. Memphis has some regulations in place, but it would be exciting if City Council would use this deadline to do much more - establishing the model ethics legislation and enforcement process in Tennessee and the South.

Hopefully, Memphis City Council will realize that it is only going to have one chance to get this right. The public is watching closely, and the momentum for change is building. They have this chance to make a compelling statement by enacting far-reaching new rules that make government accountable, transparent and accessible.

An Agenda For Change

So, in this context, what should the reforms of the Office of Public Ethics focus on:

· Creating a Public Ethics Officer and an Office of Public Ethics who will enforce new rules and investigate any complaints by the public.

· Prohibiting the acceptance of gifts or gratuities, or setting a low limit on the value of gifts that can be accepted but requiring public disclosure of them.

· Prohibiting a personal business relationship with local government or its agencies.

· Requiring the annual public disclosure of any relationships or actions between family members and local government and its agencies, and prohibiting Council members from voting or participating in any decision involving these agencies.

· Requiring annual public disclosure of any family member who engages in a transaction with city government, whether zoning, a contract, liquor license, or grant of funds.

· Disclosing private employer and prohibiting outside employment that impairs independent judgment as a Council member.

· Prohibiting any travel, meals, or gifts from people lobbying city government for specific action.

· Requiring public disclosure of any loans from anyone who has business before city government.

· Prohibiting former City Council members from representing anyone before his former colleagues or a local government agency for 18 months after leaving office.

· Prohibiting any financial, ownership, or employment interest by the Council members or any member of his family in any business that does business with city government or its agencies.

· Prohibiting the use of any city employees for personal business or political gain, including organizing or participating in political rallies, soliciting contributions, or preparing any campaign material.

· Establishing a process for complaints about violations to be filed and investigated.

· Requiring public disclosure of the purchase of any stocks in a company conducting business with city government.

· Requiring on-line reporting of conflicts of interest and disclosure forms.

· Prohibiting the use of confidential information for the financial benefit of the Council member or his/her family.

· Prohibiting the representation by a Council member of a client before a local governmental body or agency.

· Setting the punishment for violation as automatic removal from office.

No Better Time

We know these may sound draconian to some, particularly in light of the loose rules here, but every one of them is already being enforced in other cities.

Mayor Franklin and the Atlanta City Council proved that you can change things and improve public perception, but it takes bold, determined action.

Politics is nothing if not timing, and the timing couldn’t be better for Memphis City Council to take this kind of bold action. In the end, no one would benefit more from it than they would.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Prosecuting The Art Of The Preemptive News Conference

The recent news conference by Attorney General Bill Gibbons featured his now familiar political bump and grind in announcing that he is cracking down on the nonpolitical version found in Memphis' “anything goes” strip clubs.

To most observers, his newfound interest in doing something about the sexually explicit behavior long found in Memphis clubs stemmed from his interest in diverting the klieg lights from yesterday’s report by nationally known experts on the failure of local law enforcement – including the prosecutor’s office – to control the sex business in Memphis.

More to the point, in their report, the consultants issued an indictment of their own – ineffectual enforcement and ineffective prosecutorial action. Or as the lead consultant put it, "erratic and ineffective enforcement efforts."

The Office of Planning and Development hired the consultants to draft regulations that balance First Amendment rights and public health and safety concerns. From the beginning of the consultants’ work, the prosecutor’s office seemed a reluctant participant, leaving the impression that it was more concerned about being blamed for part of the problem that in doing something to correct it.

Specifically, the report pointed out that prosecutors failed to seek closure of private VIP rooms at several clubs although they violate state law, failed to consider applying to the strip clubs the state law requiring adult entertainment business to close from midnight until 8 a.m, failed to establish effective methods to deal with repeat offenders and problem establishments, engaged in selective enforcement, and more.

All in all, it’s no wonder that the attorney general was in a rush to call his news conference Monday, the day before the consultants’ report was to be made public in a meeting of members of Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners. (It's also worth mentioning that he was likely also motivated by some fine enterprise reporting by The Commercial Appeal's Trevor Aaronson on the tangled web of private clubs and dubious public decisions.) All in all, the opportunism so apparent in the staging of the news conference was in its way almost as unseemly as the behavior in the clubs.

The fact that flagrant sexual acts take place on stage, in backrooms, in the booths, and in the parking lots at Memphis strip clubs is the worst-kept secret in the city. In watching Attorney General Gibbons rush to get the jump on the consultants’ report, it only made us wish that the Office of Planning and Development would hire consultants to study the climbing violent crime rate in this county.

Here’s our blog post from May 19:

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

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

The news they got was B-A-D.

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

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

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

Three-time Loser

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer Board

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

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

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

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

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

National Consultants

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2006

Memphis City Schools Gets Low Marks In Communications 101

As a general rule, governments and public agencies do relatively poor jobs of communicating.

Unfortunately, that’s especially true for Memphis City Schools, and it’s regrettable, because if there’s any public entity who needs to be good at communicating effectively with the public, it should be the one that on average spends about $95,000 an hour, 24/365.

This is on our minds today, because as we lamented yesterday, the city district often finds itself on the losing side in the battle for positive public perceptions when conflict arises with Shelby County Schools.

It’s a shame, because winning the hearts and minds of county taxpayers should be a priority for the city district. And most frustrating of all, there is some good news that deserves to be heard.

The Mantra

Superintendent Carol Johnson’s mantra is Every Day, Every Child, College Bound, and although she gets some pushback from some who think vocational education deserves equal billing, she’s right on target. The skills and knowledge needed to enter college are the same ones that are needed whatever decision students make about their future.

There’s no question that the most powerful weapon that Memphis City Schools has is its superintendent, but so far, she’s been unable to translate her popularity into improved public opinions about city schools. As a result, the prevailing public opinion is largely this: nothing has changed, and worse, there’s really nothing that can be done to improve things.

The opinions are buttressed by the culture of the district, resistance by some administrators and principals to support her ideas, and a lack of confidence that her programs will bear fruit. Regardless of these, Memphis City Schools itself is guilty of failing to be as assertive as it needs to be to send the message to the public that things are changing.

No area of government generates more reports, more statistics, and more measurements than public education, and that’s certainly true for an urban district like Memphis City Schools.

Some Good News For A Change

Here’s just a couple of hopeful statistics that we think should be shared with the public to combat the persistent feeling of helplessness:

· Memphis City Schools does better than the other three metro districts in Tennessee in educating African-American students.

· Memphis City Schools has cut the dropout rate 23 percent in two years.

At a time when Dr. Johnson is hammering home her message, some supporting documentation would go a long way toward influencing the opinion of the public who foots the bills for schools. Actually, in our minds, there would be value in mounting what would be tantamount to a political campaign, because in truth, Memphis City Schools is fighting for the public’s vote of confidence. And, if Memphis is to reduce the number of people leaving the city, there’s nothing that would be more persuasive than convincing the public that schools are improving.

TCAP Averages

For example, in our reading of the TCAP results, Memphis City Schools’ two-year average of African-American students who are proficient and advanced is higher than the average of Knox, Nashville/Davidson, and Hamilton Counties. Specifically, the Memphis district leads the state in reading for K-8 and 9-12 – 81% and 86% respectively. Meanwhile, the cumulative average of the other three metro areas was 77.7% and 82.3%, and even taken separately, none of the other districts surpassed Memphis. That’s an impressive statistic to us, particularly in light of the fact that the other metro areas have consolidated school systems, so their scores include suburban African-Americans who generally score higher than their urban counterparts.

In math, the average for Memphis City Schools was only marginally better than the average of the three other metros, but it was still better. When the districts were taken separately, Knox County bested Memphis in 9-12 math.

As for the dropout rate, the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card reports that the Memphis City Schools’ cohort dropout rate has declined from 19.8 percent in 2004 to 15 percent this year. When the public costs for students who drop out of school – seen in incarceration, social services, workforce training and more – weighs down budgets of the public sector, there’s nothing more important that Memphis City Schools can do than get more students to their graduation exercises. After all, if every child is to be college bound, first, we have to get them to graduation.

It’s not our intent to be Pollyannish about the challenges facing Memphis City Schools and its students, but it is our intent to argue that the district needs to be more forceful and strategic in painting a more accurate portrait of the learning that’s taking place here today. And it begins by coming to grips with the political context in which all of this plays out.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shelby County Schools Unlikely To Pass Test On Community Leadership

Every one with Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools put on a happy face last week as they emerged from a meeting about an agreement for handling the students in the area to be annexed by Memphis, but the chances of their reaching agreement on a plan are about as good as peace in the Middle East.

That’s because in the end, the county district will undoubtedly once again put its political agenda ahead of children, and in so doing, it will make its cooperation subject to Shelby County Schools becoming a special district.

Over the years, the county district has been persistently tone deaf in these kinds of negotiations, and there’s no reason to expect that this time around, its motivations will be any less grounded in its single-minded self-interest.

The Cost Of Self-Interest

The community cost for the county’s recalcitrance has rarely been as clear. Its refusal to cooperate in an orderly transition of the students from Shelby County Schools to Memphis City Schools will cost taxpayers $12 million to expand some schools and bus children to other city schools.

That’s because there are roughly 2,500 students in the unincorporated area to be annexed into the City of Memphis, and if Shelby County Schools would educate the students while accommodations are made by the city district, it would remove $12 million in unnecessary costs.

Actually, the cost to taxpayers in Shelby County is more like $15.6 million, because of reverse ADA. In the past 15 years, county officials have been outspoken in their criticism of the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) law on the grounds that it has resulted in a windfall to Memphis City Schools.

The ADA Law

Tennessee law requires for school funding to be equally and proportionally distributed. As a result, if Shelby County Schools wanted to build a $30 million high school and the county system has 30 percent of the total students in public classrooms in this community, Shelby County Government would have to produce enough money to give Memphis City Schools a proportionate amount for the 70 percent of the students in its system. In the end, that means that the $30 million for the county district requires Shelby County Government to produce a total of $100 million.

Less known is that it also works in the opposite direction. If Memphis City Schools wants $12 million for school construction, Shelby County Schools is required by law to get roughly $4 million.

Footnote: the cost for the county’s general lack of cooperation should also include $85,000, which is the fee for an out-of-town consultant whose job ultimately is to do little more than validate the facts and statistics of the professional staff of the joint Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. The hiring of the consultant is required because of the county district’s refusal to accept OPD’s projections, because of its tendency to see conspiracies whenever its view of the world is not confirmed.

Rhetoric Over Reason

It’s clear that over the years, the debate about ADA has been more rhetoric than reason, because with much older schools (including about half a dozen 100 years old), Memphis City Schools has always had serious and pervasive needs to upgrade its antiquated facilities.

Unfortunately, no one has done a poorer job of articulating its position and its positives than Memphis City Schools, a perplexing problem for the city district that continues even today. As a result, taxpayers have been left with the opinion that the climbing Shelby County Government debt is caused by the city district, and as we’ve said before, all of this results in a decidedly myopic view of educational needs in this community and in the tail wagging the dog as the county district dominates public debate about public education.

It’s discouraging that Memphis City Schools can’t do better in the court of public opinion, especially considering the political opportunism that has characterized decisions of Shelby County Schools, particularly as voiced by its board chair David Pickler. While we, like many, have bemoaned the inappropriate involvement of the board members of Memphis City Schools in issues better left to Supt. Carol Johnson and her administrative team, it pales in comparison to the way that the county school board injects itself into all things educational – curriculum, pedagogy, operations, and more – and does it in keeping with narrow political, not to mention, racial, considerations.

Wanted: Jimmy Carter

After last week’s meeting, every one was as upbeat as parties leaving a United Nations gathering, engaging in the same kind of vague diplomacy-speak. But even the mediation skills of Jimmy Carter would be unlikely to produce ultimate agreement between them.

The ill will between the boards stems back to the vituperation that erupted last year when Pickler accused city board officials of reneging on an agreement to endorse a bill in the Tennessee Legislature making Shelby County Schools a special school district. The agreement seemed to only exist in the minds of the county district officials, but even The Commercial Appeal stated without attribution that county school officials broke their word. The fact is that if anyone at Shelby County Schools had been listening, they would have known that the special district is a non-starter for their city counterparts and as long as the county district makes decisions on racial factors, the city will never change its position.

Consolidated Districts

For the record, Tennessee has 135 school systems, and only 14 of them are special districts. As we’ve pointed out before, the trend is moving toward consolidation, and financial analyses show that these merged districts are less costly, contrary to the rhetoric of county board members. In fact, Shelby County is the only metro area in Tennessee that has not already consolidated its school districts, and with the potential of this kind of structure to end the conflict and reduce costs, it seems an opportune time to consider it.

Unfortunately, there are no advocates for putting all potential management structures on the table for consideration. When it was the county system needing money and help, county government was a reliable and outspoken defender of it. That’s why it’s curious this time around that county government is so quiet, because in the end, no one has more influence over Shelby County Schools that the government that funds its budget.

With some quiet diplomacy by county officials, there might yet be hope for an agreement that focuses on children rather than politics. For a change.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Living In A Learning City: This Week On Smart City

Imagine a Learning City where everything - literally everything - is turned into an opportunity to teach something new and all day, everyday is considered a teachable moment.

Kevin Crowley is director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments, and he and his team have been working on turning the urban environment into one big classroom. Students at UPCLOSE work closely with community partners, including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The Mattress Factory, The Warhol Museum, and the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh to help them think about how visitors use, talk about, and learn from their exhibitions.

Also with us is Ken Hughes whose Blueprint for Santa Fe's sustainability is becoming a model for cities around the world. Ken is a member of the Sierra Club's Building Healthy Communities Committee and a Knight Fellow in Community Building at the University of Miami. Ken is also chief planner for the state of New Mexico's Department of Finance and Administration.

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.

In Memphis, 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. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

A Message From Detroit Is A Wake-up Call For Memphis

The announcement by Metrotimes' cultural editor that she was leaving Detroit shocked some people there, but here, it feels unsettling, because all of us know someone who has said something like this. The question is: what do we do to keep it from becoming the prevailing sentiment here?

Here's a wake-up call from Detroit's Sarah Klein:

Dear Detroit,

We need to talk. We've had some pretty good times together throughout the years. But lately things have been different — the passion, magic and excitement that I felt when I first fell in love with you have been slowly dying for a long time. Neither of us are the same as when we first met.

But it's not you, it's me — OK, maybe it is you.

We've had a damn good run together, but I think it's time for us to see other people. But I hope we can still be friends.

And so, in a matter of days I will pack up all my earthly possessions and move my life to sunny, shiny California, thus joining the ever-increasing cadre of Motor City expats.

I've been writing about the cultural underground of Detroit for Metro Times for nearly seven years. In that time, I've seen a lot: the good, the bad, the beyond ugly, the touching, the profound, and the tragic. I've ridden shotgun with designer kidnappers in vinyl catsuits, dived into the Detroit River in the middle of December, and crawled around in the woods with a bunch of geeks hitting each other with foam rubber swords. I've knocked around the dive bars, soaked up live music, crawled through urban ruins, met the people and shared their stories.

And now I need to move on. It's time.

While most Detroiters have a love-hate relationship with the city, in the past few years, mine has devolved into a hate-hate one. There comes a time in everyone's life when they need to break free of their own self-designed containments, but I'll spare you all the Hallmarkian bullshit and get straight to the point: People are leaving Detroit — in droves.

When telling my friends of my impending departure, the common response was, "You too?" Perhaps it's simply that I'm at the age when people make major moves and life decisions, but I see it all around me. People are fed up. Our state economy sucks. For every step Detroit takes forward, it never seems enough. Those I considered dyed-in-the-wool Detroiters have packed their bags.

There is something wrong with Detroit. That we all know.

Yet, there's also something glorious about this city, something that you can't find anywhere else in the world. This city's people have a tremendous spirit, a driven sense of self, a grittiness and determination that comes only from having to haul your ass up from the bootstraps every day. Detroiters are tough, but they are true, genuine and passionate.

But the incredible people who fill this city aren't enough to keep me, or my fellow expats, here. You need things like, oh, basic city services. Roads that don't crumble. Being able to walk out to your car in the morning without wondering if the windows will be broken this time. That all wears down on you after a while, and eventually it can become a weight too great to bear any longer.

I surveyed a few of my friends who've left, asking what prompted their decision. Not surprisingly, many left because of the economy. My close friend moved when her husband, a highly intelligent, capable and hardworking man, was laid off and couldn't find work for three months. They moved to North Carolina, where he found a great job in a matter of weeks. And there's no snow.

Writer and performer Kari Jones, who recently moved to Oregon to get her MFA in creative writing: "As a creative person, it can be extremely depressing trying to get by there. I tried so hard for so long to search out, squeeze out and hold on to every ounce of creative opportunity. And most of the projects that I worked on just crumbled. Sadly, I think some of it has to do with money. People couldn't afford to come see things, no one could afford to pay me or the other artists a decent wage, and because the money situation was bleak, half the time it was hard to get people I was working with to take the project seriously."

Thus far, she's thrilled with her new locale.

"I was here for about three weeks when I realized, 'Wow, I'm not pissed off anymore!' Just like that. And I was pissed off for like 10 straight years in Detroit. I was depressed. It was affecting my health, my relationships, my general well-being. And in a few weeks, I suddenly felt un-stuck."

And it's people like Jones that our state's much-ballyhooed "Cool Cities" program wants to keep. The program is based on flashy economist Richard Florida's conceit, the "Creative Class." Florida claims that in order for cities to prosper they must attract young, creative people who will contribute to the city's vitality.

There's also a mentality here that people should just "suck it up" and deal; that programs like Create Detroit (the Motor City's version of Cool Cities) are a waste of city dollars and effort. Why should we spend money getting creative people to live in designer lofts downtown when our public school system is decaying, basic city services are practically nonexistent and you can't even walk down the street without being accosted by homeless people?

It's a sound question — but there needs to be some kind of balance. I used to think Richard Florida was full of shit, but I have to admit, he has a point. The problem with Detroit is that it has so many needs; when it seems like half the city is abandoned, any money that goes to "the arts" is going to be seen as a waste. How do we fix this? I wish I could tell you.

I really do love this city with all of my hardened little heart, and I am truly sad to go. It's an indelible part of who I am, and I will always consider myself a Detroit girl. I really hope Detroit pulls through in the long run — but in my heart I knew long ago that I wouldn't be sticking around to see it.

I just can't hold out any longer. I'm tired of struggling, and I'm exhausted — emotionally and physically. I'm ready to go.

And to those who think that makes me a whiny, pussy little girl who just can't hang anymore:

You know what?

Fuck that.

The Detroiter in me knows better.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

City Vitals Report Is The Wake-up Call And The Case For Weirdness That Memphis Needs

It’s official. Memphis is weird.

For those of us who decided to spend our lives here, that’s one of the things we like most about this place, but a recent report by Chicago-based CEOs For Cities (headed up by Memphian and founder of our firm Carol Coletta) confirmed our opinion.

The 26-city organization nurtures the competitiveness of cities by focusing on four dimensions of success -- innovation, talent, distinctiveness, and connections. In support of its work, CEOs For Cities recently issued its fascinating City Vitals, a detailed set of indicators about the largest 50 MSA’s in each of these areas.

Memphis tended to rank in the lower middle in most of the rankings, but in the category of distinctiveness, we recorded our strong marks One of these was the Weirdness Index where we were 19th among the 50 metro areas.

Keep Memphis Weird

Weirdness was based on 75 different behaviors and activities, and using this information, the report looked at behaviors for each city that varied most from the national average, and places that differed most were deemed to be the weirdest.

This is good news for Memphis. In an economy that producing homogenized experiences and derivative cities, it’s difference that can be a pivotal competitive advantage. As Joe Cortright, Portland economist who authored the report, told Leadership Memphis a few weeks ago, it is precisely in recognizing their differentiation that cities have their greatest opportunities for success.

That’s because, he says, it gives a city the opportunity to do something and be something that its competitors can’t replicate. In addition, it is often in this differentiation that cities build new businesses, and he cites the example of Eugene, Oregon, whose passion for outdoor recreation gave birth to Nike.

It is in its difference that Memphis can stake its claim in the global economy, but first, we need every one to accept weirdness as a virtue in all of its funkiness and strangeness, because strategies can be anchored in it. In fact, in the CEOs For Cities’ rankings, Memphis’ weirdness rating was only two down from Austin, Texas, a city famous for its “Keep Austin Weird” movement that has helped build its international persona as a distinctively different place.

Exploiting Distinctiveness

For those of you keeping score, Nashville was six spots lower than Memphis on the Weirdness Index, and St. Louis was dead last at #50. The top ranking was claimed by San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose.

In another measurement in the distinctiveness category, Memphis achieved its highest ranking - #4 in the category of “Movie Variety.” For this, cities were ranked according to their variances between local movie attendance and national movie attendance for the top 60 motion pictures nationally. Perhaps, here, we could call this the Craig Brewer Factor, because clearly, Memphians are drawn to off-beat, indie productions, which should be a pretty obvious hint to the competitive beachhead we could establish in that industry, but also, it speaks to the fact that Memphis is an African-American city and movie viewing once again demonstrates it.

Unfortunately, Memphis’ overall ranking in the distinctiveness category was dragged down by the other two measurements – variety of restaurants, where we ranked #48, and the culture to cable tv ratio, where we ranked #47. (Nashville ranked dead last in the culture to cable ratio, which is based on the ratio of persons attending cultural events to those regularly watching cable television.)

In the end, Memphis came in 29th in the distinctiveness category, our highest ranking by far.

Talent, Innovation and Connections

In the measurements about talent, Memphis finished 39th.

In innovation, we finished 44th, and in connectedness, we finished 37th.

Overall, we finished in the # 37 position.

Actually, in some respects, it was at least encouraging that Memphis wasn’t bringing up the rear as it often does in measurements of economic vitality.


Besides faring best in its distinctiveness, Memphis fared best in the rankings related to connections in all of its permutations. There’s the physical connections of airports and ports. There’s the personal connections through travel to foreign capitals and the number of foreign students locating to each metro area. There’s also technological connections, such as broadband Internet access. Finally, there are the connections within a city, measured by civic participation behaviors like voting and volunteering.

There were seven indicators that made up the connections category, and it was a mixed bag for Memphis. On one hand, we hit some of our highest marks – 27th in voter participation, 29th in number of wi-fi hot spots, and 34th in the number of foreign students enrolled institutions of higher education per 1,000 population. Sadly, however, Memphis was dead last - #50 - in economic integration and next to last in percent of the population who have taken a trip outside the U.S.

Memphis also finished dead last in one of the innovation measurements – the number of firms with fewer than 20 employees per 1,000 population. In the same innovations category, our city finished 48th in percent of adult population who are self-employed. Memphis did marginally better in patents - #44 – and venture capital - #37.

Finally, under the heading of talent, Memphis ranked # 36 in the percentage of highly-coveted 25-34 year-old, college-educated workers. However, in the other measures, we ranked 47th in creative professionals (mathematicians, scientists, artists, engineers, architects, and designers); 34th in the percentage of metro workers who have a college degree and employed in businesses excluding health care and education; 40th in international talent; and 37th in college attainment.

Average Isn’t Good Enough

Mr. Cortright said cities ranked in the middle should consider that they are doing average, so clearly, Memphis has considerable ground to make up since overall, it ranked # 37. And yet, he cautions that cities don’t have to do well in all of the categories. Instead, a city needs to identify its strongest couple of areas and build on them.

In other words, it makes less sense for cities to expend precious energy and time trying to correct areas of weakness. Future success is based much more on exploiting strengths, and as a result, this provocative report suggests that Memphis should invest its energies and its resources in its distinctiveness and its connectedness, areas where we rank highest.

As Mr. Cortright said, Memphis should use the City Vitals to understand the impact of the four dimensions of city vitality; to use the indicators as a diagnostic first step; to benchmark our city against its peers; to identify strengths, weaknesses and positioning; to assess our core vitality, and to customize the city vitals for Memphis.

As a point of reference, we compared Memphis’ 39th overall ranking for all four dimensions with some cities that are frequently mentioned as our rivals – Austin, Nashville, St. Louis, Louisville, Raleigh, Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas City, and Richmond.

Our Regional Rivals

The bad news is that every one of them ranks higher in City Vitals than our city:

# 13 – Raleigh
# 15 – Austin
# 21 - Atlanta
# 27 – Richmond
# 29 – Charlotte
# 30 – Nashville and St. Louis
# 31 – Kansas City
# 37 – Louisville

These days, too many of our leaders are inclined to tell us what we want to hear. What we really need is a wake-up call and complete honesty. That in the end is the greatest service that City Vitals can do for us. Hopefully, after waking up, we can develop the powerful strategies that we need to capitalize on our unique strengths.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Call For Tax Freeze Changes Waits For Action...A Year Later

It’s that special time of the year when we celebrate the past and commemorate important things in our lives. In that vein, it’s time to pause and observe the first anniversary of an important event in our community’s life – issuance of the consultants’ report calling for a dramatic overhaul of our local tax freeze policies.

And in keeping with the anticipation that is such a fundamental part of this season, we’re still waiting for implementation of the sound recommendations in the December 1, 2005, 97-page report prepared by URS Corporation and NexGen Advisors.

Yes, it’s been a whole year since our community got the wake-up call about our tax freezes’ policies, but little has changed. It’s too bad, because the report deserves better, not to mention the fact that the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County do, too. After all, they’re the ones who stuff the stockings of the companies who get $60 million in waived taxes each year.

If there was any question that the consultants acted impulsively and recklessly, there’s been nothing during the past year to suggest it.

Supporting Evidence

First, two George Mason University professors studied the IDB program and concluded that it was characterized by fatal flaws, such as erroneous calculations, fallacious assumptions and errors in fact.

Then, Forbes magazine held up the local PILOT program as the poster child for tax incentives gone amok: “Targeted tax cuts aimed at attracting particular employers are bad policy. For decades now targeted tax incentives have been a favorite elixir of state and local politicans in depressed communities. But targeted tax incentives don’t spur real growth. Quite the contrary…tax incentives are inevitably financed at the expense of established businesses. Today’s winner of a targeted tax break is tomorrow’s victim of a broad increase in business taxes.”

So, we’re perplexed by the delay in taking final action to implement the recommendations of the city and county governments’ own consultants. It isn’t as if they recommended something revolutionary like blowing up the program. To the contrary, they simply want to strengthen it by making sure that tax freezes are absolutely necessary. Then again, perhaps that passes for revolutionary in the halls of government where the tax freezes long ago became entitlements.

The delay comes because the consultants’ recommendations have to be executed by both city and county governments, where a pledge to do something immediately apparently means, we’ll get to it someday. So far, Memphis City Council, after ruminating about the recommendations for months, took action to put some controls on the tax freezes. However, because the tax freezes are handed out by joint city/county agencies, most notably the Memphis/Shelby County Center City Revenue Finance Corporation and the Memphis/Shelby County Industrial Development Board, county action was also required.

Dragging Feet

There, a committee dominated by developers contemplated their navel for months and forwarded its report, but no one seems in any rush to act, and in the interim, more tax freezes are being approved.

As county government considers what it's going to do, we recommend that officials listen to the Smart City interview with Greg LeRoy, author of The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation. He said: “There’s a popular myth that’s promulgated by companies and their consultants and their public relations machines suggesting that tax breaks are responsible for companies locating or relocating or expanding. I think that’s just not true because all state and local taxes combined has a cost of doing business for the average company in this country of less than one percent of their cost structure.

“Tax breaks, therefore, comprising some fraction of less than one percent of a company’s costs can’t create markets, can’t drive innovation, can’t drive skilled labor. It’s really become a way for elected officials to take credit for things that are already going to happen in the market. And by letting these programs become so loose and allowing them to become pro-sprawl, we’ve also allowed these incentive programs to turn into things that are really harming our land use, undermining our public schools, forcing people away from transit…”

Mr. LeRoy suggests that programs like ours are in truth real estate development masquerading as economic development. “We hope elected officials look at the broader policy issues about how policies affect everybody paying taxes to the city, to the county, to the state, and what’s really going on is a burden shift in which companies that are foot loose, or threaten to be foot loose, are getting lots of other people to pay for their public services, because when a company doesn’t pay its fair share of the cost of public services it uses, everybody else either has to pay higher taxes or get lousier public services.”

Making Citizens Winners

He told of the economic development director in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region who sends a standard email to any one who asks for a tax break:
“He says, you know, we think everybody wins if we provide the best public services possible for the lowest possible tax rate. We want to have great public services, but we’re going to treat everybody fairly and equally so we’ll be sure. We’d love to have you here, we’re going to treat you just like everybody else, but we’re not going to…cut special deals for a few people…and short change everybody else.”

It’s an attitude best exemplified in our state by Nashville. In a 10-year period, it approved five tax freezes. During the same time, our community approved 415 waivers.

Decades ago, Nashville decided to send a message about quality government, quality of life, and quality of public investments. It set out to execute “quality strategies” that makes them a magnet for young college-educated workers and skilled jobs. It identified key public investments to make this happen. It rejected the notion that they had to give away taxes to get people to move there.

Even Dell Computers didn’t get a property tax freeze there. Instead, the company gets $500 for every worker in the city, a business incentive that is transparent and easily understood by the public.

The Road Less Traveled

Memphis, meanwhile, took another road. It was rooted in the economic development programs of the 1980’s when our city was sold on the basis of cheap land, cheap labor and cheap taxes. Ultimately, what we’ve learned is that throwing money at companies to convince them to love us is not only poor public policy, it is also counterproductive, stimulating higher tax rates that choke off the small businesses and the entrepreneurs who create most of the new jobs in the first place.

So, on the first anniversary of a compelling report indicting business as usual, we await final action to balance the public good and economic development. What we have now is nothing less than an entitlement, and as Tom Jurkovich, director of Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell’s office of economic and community development, put it: “Incentives should incentivize. Once it becomes an entitlement, it’s no longer an incentive.”

Now that’s a sentiment worth printing on our holiday cards.

Friday, December 01, 2006

This Week On Smart City: Lessons In Innovation

Cities have always been hotbeds of innovation. This week, our guests offer perspectives on innovation both from the past and the future.

Steel Cities were once the very embodiment of innovation. Dr. Kenneth Thompson, associate professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Pittsburgh, is part of an international consortium of scholars and civic leaders who are attempting to understand the shared histories of Steel Cities and how they can draw on their histories to make a new future.

Larry Keeley is helping urban leaders invent their cities' futures. In a series of Urban Innovation Workshops staged earlier this year with CEOs for Cities, Larry taught the methods of innovation to leaders in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus and Memphis/Shelby County. Larry is a frequent lecturer and teacher about frontiers of innovation and strategy and he has worked with such companies as Aetna, Apple, Citigroup, ExxonMobil, Hallmark, McDonald's, Motorola, and Pfizer. Larry is co-founder, president and Thought Leader at Doblin.

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.

In Memphis, 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. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.