Sunday, December 30, 2007

A New Year's Resolution To Be Intolerant When It Counts -- About Our Civic Dysfunction

Memphis is always tough on tolerance, but it’s been an especially bad year for a virtue that’s defining cities looking to succeed in the global economy.

Even if you are uncomfortable talking about a city’s moral values, there’s also a reason anchored in enlightened self-interest: Tolerance is a critical competitive advantage for cities today, particularly as they work to attract and retain college-educated young workers.

That’s because two out of three of these people – the gold standard for the knowledge-based economy – pick where they live before they pick where they work, and they say that they want to live in a city where each can “live the life that I want to lead.”

The Pot Boils Over

Incidentally, the percentage of women who say they want to live in this kind of city is slightly larger than the percentage of men, a fact made more important by the fact that women are now 20 percent more likely to be college-educated than men. In that regard, economic growth today is powered by the 25-34 year-old college-educated demographic, but cities getting on the front of the wave also have are figuring out ways to attract women in particular.

But we digress. The point of this year to us is that if had set out to send the most negative messages to the rest of the country and to the target demographic, chalk 2007 up as a total success. It was a year when Memphis’ toxic displays of intolerance – now a regular staple of our civic and political life – burst in the national media time after time.

The Kwanzaa tempest in the Memphis teapot that closed the year seemed almost the perfect punctuation for a year in which intolerance was a overpowering theme. Unfortunately, the conflict over the African-American cultural celebration attracted more national attention to what appears to be Memphis’ flirtation with self-destruction.


Of course, publicity of this kind was in great supply in the past 12 months, particularly during the venomous election for city mayor, a race that featured the most overtly racial pandering in modern times. Meanwhile, in City Council meetings, some members repeatedly poisoned the atmosphere with racial invectives against people appearing before them, to the point that one council member called the head of a city-county agency a bigot, despite the person’s lifetime of work for civil rights.

Not to be outdone, on the county side of the street, a couple of equally belligerent commissioners tossed around racial epithets, oblivious to the corrosive atmosphere they were creating for reasoned discussed. Then, there was troubling undercurrent of anti-Semitism that has existed since the election of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and that fed the anti-gay screed by some scripturally-deprived Baptist preachers opposed to his support for hate crime legislation.

All in all, it’s a troubling commentary on Memphis’ inability to come to grips with the simplest of principles – live and let live. Rather, we are capable of jumping on the mildest of disagreements to launch into the kind of vitriol that undermines any sense of civility in our community. (The media’s codependency with this culture of crassness is a constant indictment of their leadership for a better city.)


A few days ago, we were talking with a psychiatrist friend about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that its members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fear – and fight – any change to things.

The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable albeit it hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications is raw and attacks are common, and communications has been used as a weapon so long that family members can no longer interpret each other’s dispassionately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement, escalating every issue into a controversy that bursts the family at its seams.

Resisting Change

As he talked, we forgot for a moment that he was describing dysfunctional families. We thought he was describing Memphis.

But we didn’t tell him. Instead, we asked: What does someone do to change things?

He said that it’s no easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. We thought of some old guard political leaders.

What To Do

If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life, and every one has the right to make their own choices free of attack;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners, because every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They simply refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the old combative ways of communicating.

Paying Attention

Most of all, for change to happen, it requires constant attention to positive behaviors and improvements in relationships, until the people who try to perpetuate the dysfunction find no reward or power in it.

Perhaps, there’s no better New Year’s resolution for Memphis than for each of us to pledge to find our own ways to change our dysfunctional civic family.

Maybe, before it’s over, we can actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing behavior that attracts national attention.

Competing In A New World

As we said, it’s much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect - or compete - in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers - that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

That’s why we think if Memphis is going to adopt a new bumper sticker slogan as part of our latest economic growth plan, it’s this: Tolerance: our most important competitive advantage.

Friday, December 28, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Meeting People's Needs

Chip Conley is celebrating his 20th anniversary as founder and CEO of California's largest boutique hotel company, Joie de Vivre Hospitality. But his is not a business story about uninterrupted success. Instead, at a low point, Chip turned to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to guide him and he is sharing what he learned in his book, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.

Also with us is Alan Crogan, Chief Probation Officer with the Riverside County, California, Probation Department. We will talk to Alan about how to reduce the number of men and women in our prisons and still keep our streets safe. He has a long career in community corrections in California, having served 17 years as Chief Probation Officer in San Diego County and Santa Barbara County before coming to Riverside.

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

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Question Of The Week: Fishing For Ideas

We’re continuing our discussion about the future of The Pyramid, which began last Thursday. We hope you’ll join in.

Questions of the week:

What should Memphis do to put The Pyramid to its best use? What objective should city government have in mind as it considers options for the arena? If the choices are Bass Pro Shop and Pyramid Adventure, do you have a preference? Or do you vote “none of the above?”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Our Christmas Wish: No More Cooked-up Kwanzaa Complaints

We bet you never thought you’d hear us say this: Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks is right.

Nonetheless, it is true, and in the current manufactured controversy about Kwanzaa, Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas is either being intentionally obtuse or being driven by the irresistible opportunity for political advantage that comes with his racially-veiled comments.

Pray For Peace

The clerk seems almost orgasmic with his opportunity to use words like “discrimination” and “discrimination against Christians” in his fiery opposition to a Kwanzaa event in the Shelby County Board of Commissioners chambers of the county administration building.

His first email response, sent after an emailed invitation to the Kwanzaa event was sent to county employees, asked: “WHY ARE WE SPONSORING A RELIGIOUS CEREMONY FOR ONE GROUP NOT CHRISTMAS AND HANNUKAH? I DO NOT THINK THIS IS APPROPRIATE!!!!!"

Mr. Thomas’s position is that Kwanzaa is a religiously-oriented event and therefore, he says that Christian and Jewish religious celebrations should also be allowed in the public space. His proof is pretty thin: he bases his comment on the fact that Kwanzaa uses terms like “spiritual,” “creator” and “faith.”

Seven Days

We’re not sure what he’s using for reference, but the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa don’t include any of those words, or anything about religion for that matter. At its essence, the 31-year-old celebration is about seven days of black pride, black culture and black tradition. If and when it refers to creator and spiritual, it’s more in a cultural framework than religious references.

In the interest of complete honesty, we’ve never gotten Kwanzaa, but then again, we suspect that most African-Americans are equally baffled by St. Patrick’s Day and the celebration by many of us of a feast day in honor of the Christian patron saint of Ireland.

In its way, Kwanzaa bears about as much resemblance to a religious event as St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, its tone is more serious and the purpose is more introspective, intended to create cultural anchors and a current of self-reliance for African-Americans.

Talking To The Base

According to most polls, it’s observed by a small minority of African-Americans, but that’s really beside the point. After all, not all Caucasians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day either.

We hate to be cynical, but we suspect that Mr. Thomas’s motivation is as much about playing to his political base as it is to defending Judeo-Christian religious traditions in county buildings. He’s undoubtedly read some of the writings of some Religious Right commentators whose relentless attack against Kwanzaa treat it as it if Western civilization hangs in the balance.

Then again, the founder of the Pan-African celebration didn’t make it particularly hard for Kwanzaa’s critics. When he invented Kwanzaa in 1966, his criticisms of Christians and Christ were nothing short of inflammatory, but it’s worth remembering that it was a time of heightened black pride and black nationalism. It’s also worth remembering that freedom of speech isn’t just restricted to those who say things we agree with.


There are times when even friends of Commissioner Brooks suggest that she’s stuck in 1968 and can’t escape. Then again, that’s her right, and it’s clear that she has constituents who support her points of view, which are formed by her long-time interest in black nationalism.

All of this is beside the point. At the end of the day, it’s just hard to make the case that a Kwanzaa event should be prohibited in a public building.

After Mr. Thomas appealed his complaints to Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton – who took no action to revoke the Kwanzaa event in the county administration building – he filed a lawsuit Friday in Chancery Court to block it. Of course, although Mayor Wharton sets policy for use of public buildings, that power has traditionally not extended to the commissioners’ chamber, since it is the province of the legislative body, which would likely back Commissioner Brooks’ request for the use of the facilities.

Playing To The Kleig Lights

It’s widely expected that Mr. Thomas’s lawsuit will go nowhere, but at this point, he seems intent on playing to the TV cameras, using any opportunity to position himself as a combatant in the war against Christianity, that fiction espoused loudly about this time each year to rally Religious Right voters and pander to the hysteria that lies at the heart of this voting bloc.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thomas continues to pander to his base with his emotional concerns about discrimination against Christianity. But if you want to talk to him about this, don’t call Monday or Tuesday.

Mr. Thomas and Shelby County’s 6,000 employees will have two days off to observe the most Christian of holidays - Christmas. Last time we checked, no day on the Jewish, Muslim or Kwanzaa calendar manages such preferential treatment.

In other words, if there's a war, it's pretty clear who's winning. By the way, just for the record, Commissioner Brooks is a member of the board of trustees of Greater Imani Church and Christian Center.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fishing For Answers To Questions Of The Week

O.K., you’ve heard from us once again about The Pyramid. Now it’s your turn.

Questions of the week:

What should Memphis do to put The Pyramid to its best use? What objective should city government have in mind as it considers options for the arena? If the choices are Bass Pro Shop and Pyramid Adventure, do you have a preference? Or do you vote “none of the above?”

In other words, we’re interested in anything you have to say about proposed uses for The Pyramid and what you think Memphis should be trying to accomplish in the first place.

Who knows? As long as non-binding letters of intent are being passed out, maybe your idea could get you one, too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tomb Of Tomb Beckons More Projects

Memphis’ biggest stocking – which has always promised more than it delivered – remains to be stuffed – The Pyramid.

We’ve never been fans of the Bass Pro Shop proposal, a disdain made visceral with the prospects of a fish logo on the side of our signature building on the riverfront. But then again, even if we were fans of the outdoor store, we’d still be baffled by city government’s single-minded pursuit of it as if it’s the only game in town.

While there are many questions to be answered on the theme park concept pushed by Memphian Greg Ericsson and now gaining traction, there’s really no logic in not giving him the same non-binding letter of intent given three times already to Bass Pro Shop despite its failures to hit any of the previously announced deadlines.

Promises, Promises

This should all feel so familiar. After all, it’s almost been 20 years since John Tigrett and Sidney Shlenker promised a “state-of-the-art arena” and a “365-day a year tourist attraction.” Of course, we got neither, and before the debacle was over, city and county governments had to step in to get the building open, albeit it only partially since more than 150,000 square feet of space remained undeveloped.

Over the years, except for the time when the Memphis Wonders exhibitions were a tenant, there’s never been an attraction in the so-called private tenant space on the north side of The Pyramid, and certainly nothing close to a year-round tenant.

That doesn’t mean that local government didn’t try.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Several times, it started the process to find a developer for an attraction and once, it got within in 24 hours of an announcement before Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton – in a move still shrouded in mystery – pulled the plug and backed out of the deal to give the talented Marius Penczner of Memphis the opportunity to put in an ecologically-oriented tourist attraction that was clearly ahead of its time.

In the aftermath, Mr. Penczner left a hometown in disgust, taking his place as one of the nation’s leading political consultants and videographers and Memphis was left with yet another squandered opportunity to put something in The Pyramid.

That was 1993. An opposing proposal for the building at the time was presented by Mr. Ericsson, and ultimately he and Mr. Penczner joined forces. For the 14 years, Mr. Ericsson’s been begging for city government to listen to his ideas.

It's About One Thing

Finally, there appears to be progress from his point of view. The patience of county commissioners, who had remained silent as city government handled the point on the Bass Pro Shop deal, finally reached its breaking point and called for an end to the retailer’s exclusive position in the negotiations.

Under new pressure, city government finally acts as if it will at least give Mr. Ericsson a fair shot and it will conduct due diligence on his proposal. Buoyed by the new attention, the Ericsson group runs the risk of overplaying its hand, already unveiling a revamped proposal that seemed to be too much of a good thing and called for new development at Mud Island.

It all conjured up images of the Shlenker days, when he could have successfully finished his original plans for The Pyramid if he’d just stayed focused. Instead, his appetite grew larger and larger as he rolled out his much derided plans for Rakapolis on Mud Island.

Needed: Answers

As he begins to persuade Memphis that his project is best, Mr. Ericsson needs to remember a primary lesson from those days, chiefly, the logic of doing one thing at a time, and after proving that you can develop The Pyramid, then moving on to other things.

There are clearly many questions to be answered about the Ericsson proposal, and googling the names of his major investors does nothing to quieten them. Questions about financial stability also harken back to the Tigrett/Shlenker days when big promises of major financing became monthly events.

If Mr. Ericsson is to get the serious consideration he seeks, he needs to put to rest – quickly - any questions about his investors and their promised financing for his Pyramid Adventure project. If the past should teach him anything, it’s how easy it is to go from hero to goat when reality never matches up with the promises. (Remember the halcyon days of Mr. Shlenker when he was voted “Memphian of the Year.”)

Ignore Six Flags' Problems

Meanwhile, the promise of a $250 million investment in a themed attraction runs counter to all trends in the entertainment industry. Also, he needs to put to rest speculation that the project is all about getting control of The Pyramid in hopes of the Tennessee Legislature legalizing gambling. In other words, the sooner the questions get answered, the better off we’ll all be, particularly Mr. Ericsson.

After all, the “Tomb of Doom” lived up to its name every time University of Memphis took the basketball court, but it also came to characterize the big ideas, bold announcements and politically-driven pursuits of something, almost anything, to fill the building.

Once politicians have gotten out in front of a project like the one involving Bass Pro Shop, the advantage decidedly shifts to the business side of the table. Threatened by political embarrassment and loss of face, city staffers become under increasing pressure to cut a deal to make something happen.

Manipulating Local Government

That’s why it sometimes looks like city government has the equivalent to “new car fever,” feverishly grasping at anything to make the project look like its substantial and imminent. Bass Pro Shop’s experience in manipulating governments like ours puts it firmly in the driver’s seat. It routinely wrings $25-40 million out of local governments across the U.S. for its stores.

As we’ve frequently reported in our updates, Buffalo, New York, is in its sixth year of trying to convert Bass Pro Shop’s promises for a downtown megastore on the waterfront into reality. So far, the company has reneged on its pledge to convert an abandoned arena into a giant store, it’s changed location, it’s changed its financial plan and it’s changed the timeline.

Regardless of what the final decision is at The Pyramid, we just hope that it won’t be made in an action of political desperation. At the end of the day, there are worse things than an empty arena.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Three Pair Of Big Shoes To Fill

'Tis the season of transitions, and three deserve special mention -- Andy Dolich, Judith Drescher and Carissa Hussong.

All are about to step down from their jobs, but they share more than the coincidence of their announced resignations. More to the point, they are all class acts, principled people who have shown unusual dedication to making Memphis better and to doing it in the most challenging situations.

When Grizzlies majority owner Michael Heisley hired Mr. Dolich in 2000 as president of basketball operations, it was the first indication that he was serious about running a first-class organization. After all, Mr. Dolich was highly respected in his profession, forever associated with the success of “Billyball” in the glory days of the Oakland A’s.

During his 14 years there, he hosted an All-Star game and six post-season appearances, including three World Series. He increased season ticket holders 40-fold and quadrupled attendance, building a reputation for running a quality operation and for an unswerving customer-focused approach.

No Prisoners

He took the Memphis job with no misconceptions about the “take no prisoners” management style favored by the majority owner, but we suspect that the difficult – if not demanding – work environment finally just wore down his enthusiasm for his job.

Lesser men would have left years ago. Typically, in announcing his departure, he was the consummate professional, refusing to utter even a hint of criticism against the Heisley regime.

Grizzlies games are a tough sell -- the NBA’s smallest market and one where about 20 percent of the population can’t afford tickets under the best of circumstances. Add to that the trade of the team’s most popular player, Shane Battier, the team’s chronic losing streaks and Mr. Heisley’s bungling on-off love affair with Memphis – alternating between “I’m going to make the investments necessary for a winning team” and “won’t somebody, anybody, buy this team” - and it would be hard for P. T. Barnum to put butts in seats. (At least the Grizzlies aren’t last in average attendance, beating out Indianapolis, New Orleans and Philadelphia.)

While Mr. Dolich’s marketing acumen was beyond dispute, his insights into the Memphis psyche were even more impressive. Few people in this city were more thoughtful and more on target in dissecting Memphis’ chronic lack of self-worth and engrained negativism, proving that his American University degree in government wasn’t wasted.

Unappreciated Pros

The exits of Jerry West and now Mr. Dolich are troubling omens for the future, because it’s seems possible that we will someday recall the days when the Grizzlies had the best in the business. The team appears to be headed in an entirely different direction now as the Heisley group tightens the screws on an operation that’s thwarted his ambitions to “flip” the team and move on to his next investment.

Strangely, The Commercial Appeal hasn’t reported on Mr. Dolich’s next job, completing his trifecta of major league sports. Next, he’ll set up shop as chief operating officer for the San Francisco 49ers.

Staying on the subject of often underappreciated professionals, Ms. Drescher steps down as director of the Memphis library system at the end of the month after 23 years of exemplary service.

It hasn’t been easy heading up an operation that regularly received more lip service than public service from city government. She’s suffered through city chief administrative officers who thought libraries were becoming obsolete and rarely funded the system at a level that ensured that it fully responded to the public’s needs.

Book Lover

Meanwhile, her greatest disappointment likely is the dismantling of the city/county library system that resulted from Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s unfortunate decision to eliminate county funding for libraries.

Despite these problems, through sheer force of personality and commitment to her cause, year after year, she put together a budget – often with string and baling wire – that maintained library services and prevented cutbacks in services, especially to inner city neighborhoods.

A passionate believer in the power of books – and the Bill of Rights - her vision, not to mention her persistence, resulted in the construction of the new central library, and her defense of its public art – notably the Marx quotations in the sidewalks out front – in the face of the withering right-wing criticism from elected officials like former county commissioner Marilyn Loeffel (now incredulously, a Commercial Appeal columnist) was a reminder of how rare it is in Memphis for political demagoguery to be met with the courageous resistance by appointed officials. To that end, she also fought any attempts by the same right wing cabal to block websites on library computers that offended its sensibilities or to use libraries as the stages for manger scenes and other Christian iconography.

In other words, Ms. Drescher was one of the rarest kinds of public servants. She actually believed so strongly in what she was doing that she refused to make the kind of political concessions that would have made her professional life easier. It’s possible that city government can find a library director with her strong professional qualifications. Harder to find will be a civil libertarian who can continue Ms. Drescher’s special brand of public sector leadership.

Old Pros And Young Turks

It’s worth noting that two other old pros of the Memphis library system are also retiring – deputy director Sallie Johnson and head of human resources Val Crook. They, too, represented the best that public service has to give.

Ms. Drescher fought the public art wars at the new library HQs with Ms. Hussong, who is leaving her job as founding executive director of the UrbanArt Commission in January to become executive director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum.

When she took the helm of the modest new public arts organization, there were big ideas but no real plan to achieve them. The UrbanArt Commission, like so many positive initiatives of those days, resulted from the vision and tenacity of the seriously missed Kristi Jernigan.

The secret to success of public arts in other cities was obvious: percent for art funding that provided a reliable source of revenue. Conventional wisdom at the time was that our city would never pass a similar program here, but in December, 2001, Memphis City Schools passed a policy that set aside money for public art in all new schools, and three months later, Memphis city government followed suit with its capital projects.

No Substitute For Youth

While the most visible examples of public art include the central Memphis library, Cannon Center and Tom Lee Memorial, the impact of Ms. Hussong and her agency is seen dramatically in city schools, community centers, county schools and more.

If there’s a testament to the way that she’s changed expectations in Memphis, now, when people talk about the riverfront, the conversation includes how to integrate public art. When people talk about the master plan for Shelby Farms Park, the role of public art is addressed. When people talk about a skatepark on Mud Island, public art is also discussed as a way to make it even more dramatic.

When Ms. Hussong took the job at UrbanArt Commission, there were some who thought her youth could be a handicap. As is often the case, it was just the opposite, and while impatient for progress, she possessed a durable determination to make things happen, often acting a lot like water dripping on the stone until it’s eroded away.

Best of all, she brought to her work a cerebral idealism anchored in the belief that arts and culture can be transformative forces in Memphis, and that in the end, it’s about creating a vibrant and dynamic community. She also believed that every neighborhood of Memphis deserves the kind of public art that enlivens their every day lives and speaks to their distinctive character.

So what’s the lesson from Mr. Dolich, Ms. Drescher and Ms. Hussong. To us, it’s pretty obvious: There’s simply no substitute for passionate leadership. In the end, that’s the toughest job requirement of all to find.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

MPO Takes Road Less Traveled

There are public agencies buried so deep in local government that they would make Tony Soprano envious, and their unassuming names give no hint of their impact.

Poster child for these agencies is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the federally-mandated regional conduit for hundreds of millions of transportation dollars.

On paper, the organization was created to broaden priorities, encourage public participation, and most revolutionary of all, balance environmental and transportation needs. In reality, though, if sprawl is a smoking gun, prominent fingerprints on it are the MPO.

Business As Usual

That’s because for decades, its decisions skewed toward asphalt at the expense of alternatives. Its policies treated public transit and park/ride lots as afterthoughts, and bike lanes and walking trails as mere ornaments. This highway-centric focus led to environmental advocates being seen as pariahs, if not kooks. It also led to ideas like light rail getting bogged down in process while massive suburban highways were treated as indispensable.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (only the federal government could dream up such a name, complete with inevitable acronym, ISTEA) was supposed to be a renaissance for the more than 300 MPO’s, ushering in equal time for cleaner air, energy conservation, and social equity.

Here, it was business as usual, which wasn’t surprising considering the MPO’s strong loyalties to development.

Tail Wagging The Dog

Central cities are routinely underrepresented in the voting of the largest 50 MPO’s, but only one city is more weighted toward the suburbs than Memphis. According to the Brookings Institution, the Memphis population accounts for more than 60 percent of the total MPO population, but only 16 per cent of its members represent Memphis. Meanwhile, 84 percent of the members are white in a region that is on the verge of being majority African-American.

Sixteen cities have shifted to weighted voting, so the central city, with more population, gets more votes. (Portland, Oregon, even elects its members, who operate the convention center, performing arts center, stadium parks, land use, and transportation for a three-county, 24-city region.)

Here, the vote by the mayor of Memphis can be cancelled out by the vote of the mayor of Olive Branch, and when all of the suburban mayors of DeSoto County, Fayette County, and Shelby County band together, they can swamp the votes cast by Memphis interests.

Higher Ambition

Despite this, the MPO continues to be an impact player for Memphis, albeit one with little visibility to the broader community. Finally, the MPO is beginning to show signs of a new sensitivity to environmental issues and to bike paths, which are considered as integral to the transportation infrastructure as roadways in other cities.

This new philosophy stakes out a direction that could move the agency to the front page, or at least to the front page for other than embarrassing stories like when it flirted with losing its federal funds for failure to follow policy and for its role in the $6.5 million misuse of federal funds in construction of the FedEx Forum garage.

Sleight Of Hand

These problems were made even more striking in contrast to the Nashville MPO, which was leading development of the $40 million Music City Star commuter train from Nashville to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, in Memphis, there could be no federal funds for the FedEx Forum garage without the MPO. Its chairman, then County Mayor Jim Rout, called a special meeting to amend a transportation plan approved only 10 months earlier, but MPO approval was needed for $20 million in federal funds to be spent to “construct parking and an intermodal transfer facility near the intersection of Third and Linden.”

The MPO resolution promising the money for the garage shifted it from projects lowering auto emissions, increasing the use of mass transit, and decreasing traffic congestion. The resolution was mailed to federal highway officials, and attached to it was a letter setting out the fine and imprisonment that could result from failure to comply with it. A few days later, Rout and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton signed an agreement that promised the garage and its profits to the Grizzlies.

New Direction

All in all, it was a black eye for the MPO, because accountability was supposed to be key to its work when it was created by the federal government.

These days, the MPO – under the chairmanship of another county mayor, A C Wharton - is developing the transportation plan required by law. It has one of those high-sounding names the public sector loves – Destination 2030 – but if nothing else, it promises to reverse development trends the MPO has helped to fuel for the past 25 years.

*This post was previously published as Memphis magazine's City Journal column.

Friday, December 14, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Connecting Through Technology

New technologies are combining to change the way we influence our communities. In her book, Momentum, Allison Fine writes about these new technologies and how they are igniting social change in our connected age. Allison is a senior fellow on the Democracy Team at Demos: A Network for Change and Action in New York, and was the founder and Executive Director of Innovation Network.

Also with us are Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield, coordinators of This Is Not A Gateway, a thoroughly modern, self-organizing festival of ideas planned for London next October. Unlike organizers of recent big-name U.S. "think" festivals, Deepa and Trenton are more curious than curatorial. Deepa's work has focused on cross-cultural contemporary art practice and community activism. She has recently worked as an artist and educator with Public Works and Art for Change. Trenton is coordinator of the Thames Strategy - Kew to Chelsea and he was project manager of Cityside Regeneration.

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

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Council Stripped Of Power Over Clubs

There’s the axiom in the public sector that the organizational chart shouldn’t be based on personalities.

There’s also an axiom that the fundamental principles of local government shouldn’t be abandoned in pursuit of political expediency.

Of course, both of these rules at times succumb to the realities of city and county governments, but the zeal to put the brakes on our out of control strip clubs shouldn’t be the justification to abandon one of those fundamental principles – that City Hall is the appropriate government to set standards and laws for citizens within the city limits.


Normally, the usurping of one government’s prerogatives by another is normally seen in the state legislature’s mandates on Memphians. While the county board of commissioners doesn’t create an equal specter of outside interference, it nonetheless should not try to subsume the appanage of the Memphis City Council.

While we were the first to write about the report being prepared about SOB’s (sexually-oriented businesses) and the need to get our lawless strip club culture under control, the legislation by the county board of commissioners feels less like an attempt to regulate as to vitiate.

The latter is not government’s role. If the business is legal, however, government has the right to issue and enforce regulations within its jurisdiction. The county’s rules apparently started with the aim of regulating, but along the way seems to have been captured by the morality police.

Baking Up New Ordinance

Actually, the Memphis City Council had this political hot potato tossed into its lap by the Herenton Administration, notably City Attorney Elbert Jefferson, who proposed the new strip club ordinance and left the Council to take the heat. In light of the numerous questions remaining to be answered and the research needed on this ordinance, the current Council wisely punted this issue to the next Council.

While it might have been possible for the current Council to resolve this issue before the term and the calendar came to a close, the perception that the ordinance was being rammed through the legislative process was reason enough to put it off until a time when there was ample time for all public questions to be answered.

While some county officials, notably Attorney General Bill Gibbons, were quick to protest the Council’s intentions to take up the issue (instead of acquiescing to the county law), the Council had every right to insist that their questions were answered and to pass its own strip club ordinance. Some of the prosecutor’s efforts to get out in front of this parade may be the result of criticism in the city/county consultant’s report that criticized the office’s lax enforcement of existing laws.

Pleading His Case

Then, too, while the attorney general’s office was complaining about being left out of the city government meetings that led up to the presentation of the proposed ordinance, there are some who said it was ironic since the prosecutors never responded to invitations to participate in the consultant’s report a couple of years ago.

Whatever the case, in response to General Gibbon’s criticisms, the Council asked the Memphis city attorney to meet with his office to obtain its opinions about the law. Central to the Council’s deliberations is the answer to this question: What regulation has more impact on the clubs – the county law that makes violations a Class A and Class B misdemeanor or the city ordinance which has the power to shut down offending clubs.

Primary differences between the laws are that the city law allows topless dancing and beer drinking and the county law bans beer and requires pasties.

City Standards For City Residents

Ultimately, many of us may like the proposed changes in the county law, but at the same time, it just feels like bad governance. Once citizens incorporate a city and its citizens elect their representatives, they then should be given primary responsibility for determining – hopefully in response to the public’s needs, standards and values – what rules should be established for businesses operating within that city, whether that city is Collierville or Memphis.

But while we believe Memphis elected officials are best equipped to set the standards for Memphis, that isn’t to say that the Memphis City Council doesn’t have a lot to prove. For years, enforcement over the strip clubs – vested largely with the Memphis Beer Board – has been a joke. On occasion after occasion, Beer Board members acted more like investors in the clubs than citizens protecting the quality of life in their city’s neighborhoods.

The county’s lack of confidence in City Council’s sincerity in bringing order to these clubs isn’t exactly a thing of fiction. After all, the national consultants said that Memphis is one of three U.S. cities where strip clubs were out of control. In the clubs here, sex was ever present and ever available -- any kind, any way, any cost.

The Problem

If you wanted food in some, you went to the kitchen and ordered it from the cook, because the woman serving your table was also delivering services, but it wasn’t food. There was “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 took place in these clubs, let your imagination run wild. You’re probably not imaginative enough to compile the list of activities that took place there. That’s why there’s the widespread suspicion in Memphis that a cozy relationship exists between strip club owners and city elected officials.

That said, the task is to control illegal activities – prostitution and drug sales – and behavior that produced health risks. It’s not about trying to put the clubs out of business, as tempting as that would be, but to act within the legal framework of court rulings.

Getting Legal

After all, when Memphis City Council a decade ago took this approach to a city ordinance, members ended up in front of a federal judge who asked for their legal justifications for trying to put the clubs out of business.

Within this complex legislative territory, if a majority of City Council members are serious about passage of a strip club ordinance, they need to go the extra step to prove that they are acting in the public’s interest rather than to protect club owners from serious enforcement.

If nothing else, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners has forced this issue out into the open. Now it’s up to the incoming City Council to put it to rest in a way that sends the message that things have changed in city government.

Perhaps, then, we could even dream that a strip club ordinance is just the beginning of a new day in City Hall.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

HBCU Lessons For Lemoyne-Owen College

While all institutions of higher education struggle with the problems of reaffirming their accreditation on a cyclical basis, the unique problems facing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) have been pernicious in recent years.

The recent problems at Lemoyne Owen, while well known to those of us in Memphis, are not the only ones for this group of institutions.

Everyone jumped for joy when Lemoyne Owen came off probation on this week. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “LeMoyne-Owen College … had been put on probation for financial troubles. The college was able to raise money from its surrounding community, including $3 million from the City of Memphis, to get out of debt and become financially solvent…(Interim President) Johnnie B. Watson, interim president of the college, said the money raised help turn $1.5 million in debt into $2.3 million in surplus. ‘The community really got involved to save this historically black college,’ he said, ‘the only one in the area.’”

The Commercial Appeal reported it this way: “The college had been on probation primarily due to budget trouble and lack of resources for its library. SACS determined that those problems had been remedied.”

The CA then went on to quote Mr. Watson as saying: “When I came on board a year or so ago, I was charged with creating stability at the college and making sure we were reaffirmed by SACS…With that goal achieved, my mandate is to continue building the organization’s foundation as the groundwork for future reinvention which includes strengthening fiscal controls, shoring up fundraising and enrollment management and securing major academic and program grants.”

Two days later the CA accurately reported in a headline: “Relieved LeMoyne isn't out of the woods; College still needs more money, students and plan to transform.”

The Recent Track Record

In recent years, 10 historically black colleges have closed, merged with other institutions, or lost accreditation. When institutions — historically black or not — lose their accreditation, the most common reason is that they got into a financial hole they cannot dig themselves out of.

Ms. Belle Wheelan, President of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said that historically black colleges have sometimes gotten into hot water "because they were trying to live beyond their means." For example, some colleges have opened programs in expensive specialties for which there was too little student demand. She pushes colleges to step back from such budget-breaking commitments, holding up as an example institutions like Clark Atlanta University. In 2003, the historically black institution announced that it was closing its 10-year-old engineering department. Clark Atlanta students are still enrolling in engineering programs through collaboration agreements with several other institutions.

Desegregation vs. Competition

From 1976 to 2005, enrollments in postsecondary degree-granting institutions rose by 57 percent overall and gains in minority-student enrollment accounted for roughly half of that increase. Minority enrollments increased by 269 percent in graduate programs and by 331 percent in professional programs during this period. While the enrollment of students at HBCU’s has grown since 1975, the percentage of minority students receiving degrees from HBCU’s has declined over 33%. The impact of affirmative action and the admission of minority students at previously majority institutions have contributed significantly to this shift.

The shift in enrollment has occasionally led to charges by HBCU’s of unfair competition by majority institutions. Several states have passed administrative rules and legislation restricting universities from offering programs which may cut in to the enrollments of HBCU’s. This has been the case in Maryland where, in a recent interview the president of an HBCU, Morgan State University, Earl S. Richardson, said his institution needed more power to challenge plans by other colleges to duplicate its efforts because the state still has not eliminated the vestiges of its past segregation and put its historically black public colleges on an equal footing. He called the bill passed by his state's Senate "a monumental step in the right direction, toward achieving comparability and parity."

But at another Maryland institution, Towson University, a majority institution, President Robert L. Caret argued in an interview that Morgan State had proven unable to offer an M.B.A. program that would attract large numbers of students. "I fully support our HBCU's," Mr. Caret said, "but they have to realize that they are in a capitalistic society, and at some point they need to be working with these programs to make them competitive."

Similar problems have plagued other HBCUs. In Louisiana, Grambling State University is under a consent decree to increase enrollments of non-minority students. In response, it identified several programs targeted to increase the number of non-minority students (tactics have included scholarships and graduate assistantships targeting white students).

These strategies have not resulted in the intended outcomes. The quality of the programs is frequently cited by students in responses to questions about why they are unwilling to make the move. A graduate nursing program at Grambling has proven to be high quality and has attracted large numbers of majority students; this has lead to some faculty and students on campus referring to the building which houses the program as “the White House.”

In Texas, historically black Prairie View A&M University fought last year to block the University of Houston from establishing a new satellite campus in the northwest suburbs of Houston, where it was likely to compete for students with Prairie View. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted last September to allow the new campus, but it placed enough restrictions on it — stipulating, for example, that Prairie View could have a say in which programs were offered there — that the University of Houston abandoned its plans.

HBCU’s Aren’t Alone

Quite a few higher-education institutions are at risk in 2007 and beyond, according to Moody's Investors Service, which gauges colleges' financial health. They include small private colleges with limited geographic draw, colleges with ambitious spending plans to improve their national reputations, regional public universities that face heavy competition from community colleges, and HBCUs.

Terrence MacTaggart, a former chancellor of the University of Maine system and editor of Academic Turnarounds: Restoring Vitality to Challenged American Colleges and Universities (ACE/Praeger, 2007) and his colleagues have examined what it takes to turnaround these institutions. They look at three myths about turnarounds: only money matters, autocratic leadership is best, and faculty members don't play much of a role. The reality turned out to be a contradiction to each of these myths.

Myth 1: Only Money Matters

To be sure, money is important. But restoring financial health is only the initial step in turning around a distressed institution. Such transformations usually have three phases. The first is creating a business model that yields a balanced budget. The second focuses on marketing programs and building or rebuilding the college's reputation or brand. The culminating stage is what is called "academic revitalization." It requires an institution wide effort to redefine the educational mission, to imagine new ways of teaching and learning and to
communicate that renewal of academic energy both on and off the campus.

Myth 2: It Takes a Dictator

Albert J. Dunlap, onetime head of the Scott Paper Company and a legendary takeover artist, earned the nickname "Chainsaw Al" for his slash-and-burn tactics in turning around sluggish companies. He immediately fired 11,000 employees before selling Scott off.

The myth lingers that, especially in the early stages, turnarounds in higher education demand a brand of ruthlessness akin to Chainsaw Al's. This would seem to fit well the leadership model frequently found in HBCU’s. An article on leadership at HBCU’s by a professor at the HBCU in Jackson, MS., Jackson State University, finds that the structure of leadership at these institutions frequently follows, what he calls, the plantation model; referring to the authoritarian model of the southern plantations of the slavery period in US history.

In contrast to the myth, MacTaggart found that while the most effective turnaround leaders in higher education were decisive, to be sure, they were also collaborative. This fits well with his finding regarding the third myth.

Myth 3: Faculty Members Don't Play a Key Role

In fact, professors often sound the alarm that a college is failing, and there are numerous examples of faculty leadership in turnarounds. With their jobs on the line, faculty members at beleaguered institutions are often more sensitive to inadequate presidents and flawed strategies than trustees are. Faculty members are, of course, central to designing and offering new academic programs during the marketing phase of turnarounds.

Few colleges are so distressed that they cannot be turned toward a brighter future. To transform underperforming institutions usually requires new leaders who combine tough-mindedness with collaboration, and who recognize that fixing the balance sheet is only a first step. Successful turnarounds demand that virtually all key groups on a campus, particularly the faculty, contribute to making tough choices, help reposition the institution in the academic marketplace, and find the inspiration to revitalize the teaching and learning experience.

Why We Should Care

African-American men who attended historically black colleges and universities in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s enjoyed higher lifetime earnings than those who attended other four-year colleges and universities, according to a study conducted by two Virginia Tech researchers.

The researchers found that the black men in their study did not reap any benefit from attending a historically black college immediately upon graduating. But over their lifetimes, their wages increased 1.4 percent to 1.6 percent faster per year than did the pay of black men who had attended other colleges.

Noting that other studies have suggested that black men face greater wage disparities relative to white people than black women do, the researchers said the social networks that the black men in their study formed at black colleges may have helped them close the wage gap over time.

The long-term wage benefits that black men derive from graduating from such a college "appear to a large extent to be attributable to the fact that HBCU’s enroll disadvantaged males, in terms of pre-college attributes, who initially earn less than non-HBCU males, but eventually catch up."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Memphis Toasts New Ranking

Now, here’s an interesting ranking for Memphis.

It may surprise all those folks over on Beale Street, but Memphis is in the bottom 20 percent of the least dangerously drunk cities, according to Men's Health.

Leading the pack for the most dangerously drunk cities is Denver (all those brew pubs?) and Anchorage (what else is there to do to cope with the 23 hours of darkness?). The rest of the top 10 are Colorado Springs, Omaha, Fargo, San Antonio, Austin, Fresno, Lubbock, Milwaukee and El Paso. (It sure must be tough to live in Texas.)

The least dangerously drunk city was Durham followed by Miami. The rest of the top 10 for least drunk were Buffalo, Jackson MS, Yonkers, Salt Lake City, Little Rock, New York, Richmond and Jersey City.

Memphis staggered in at #20, finally beating Nashville at something important. The state’s capital was #38.

The magazine looked at annual death rates resulting from alcoholic liver disease, percentage of people who down five or more drinks in a sitting, DUI arrests and fatal accidents involving drinking.

Last time we were mentioned prominently in a ranking by Men’s Health, it was when Memphis was named the nation’s unhealthiest city. At least it’s now clear that we take a sober attitude toward our health problems.

We usually try to add some insight into rankings like this, but we’ll just leave this one to you. Drawn your own conclusions.

Avoiding The Slippery Slope Of Tax Increment Financing

Mike Ritz is fast becoming the Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Like the U.S. Supreme Court justice, Commissioner Ritz these days often delivers a decidedly minority opinion. Sometimes, even his friends appear concerned that he doesn’t pick his battles carefully enough and that he runs the risk of being marginalized as a curmudgeon.

Whether that comes true, like Justice Holmes, he's often the great dissenter, but over time there are some issues where his minority opinion will eventually become policy. The most recent case in point involves his futile attempt to place a moratorium on the passage of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) proposals by the county legislative body.

Who Am I? Where Am I?

In a dramatic demonstration of legislative amnesia, his fellow commissioners decisively rebuffed him on an issue that seemed on its face to be imminently logical (not to mention good business, especially considering that there are more than 10 TIF proposals are now being prepared. His position: To defer any TIF approvals until there are clear guidelines for evaluating requests for the public incentive for development.

If the commissioners needed a wake-up call, it would seem that the lessons of the PILOT (Payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) program would be a valuable cautionary tale.

After all, that program started with the best of intentions, but before the Board of Commissioners (following City Council leadership) put the brakes on it, more than $60million a year in taxes were being waived.

No Big Picture

Toward the end, the PILOT’s were essentially handed out essentially to all comers who filled out the paperwork for the runaway program. Now, those tax freezes for new business and expansions have standards and priorities for the first time, doing more to align the public incentives with public priorities and also to "size" the public incentive to the promised economic benefit.

But in the beginning, just as it is now with the TIF’s, decisions on the incentives will be like shooting in the dark in the absence of the big picture. If the PILOT program teaches the commissioners anything, it is the need to step back, set clear expectations and priorities on the front end for local government and to target incentives to accomplish those priorities.

Where’s URS Corporation and NexGen Advisors when we really need them?

Bring 'Em Back

Remember them. They were the consultants who produced the 97-page report about the PILOT program that led to its much-needed overhaul. They called for the “but for” rule that has now been enacted. Here’s what it means: The private investment isn’t expected to happen “but for” the public incentive.

This puts the emphasis back where it belongs – back on making sure that the best rationale is used for deciding where the public’s scare tax dollars are invested. Without a “but for” test, the consultants said: “This, for all practical purposes, means that the city/county or other approving bodies may very well have been giving away tax revenue unnecessarily as opposed to gaining taxes…”

That, in a sentence, is why Commissioner Ritz’s admonitions about the TIF program will in time be proven true.

Tigers Bowl Over High Expectations

We know we are probably just being curmudgeonly, but it’s just hard to get excited about our alma mater’s upcoming date in the 2007 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

After all, it’s a battle between our #123 Tigers and the favored #86 Florida Atlantic, which oddmakers give a 2½ point edge.

It just makes it awfully hard to keep up a brave front as the local SEC fans talk about games actually played on New Year’s Day.

Quick, answer this: Where is Florida Atlantic located? What’s its mascot? Who’s its big player?

The same questions are of course being asked on its Southern Florida home turf, but at least we have a great advantage over the Southern Florida team. It’s pretty easy to tell where our school is located.

Our consternation about this bowl bid was only deepened when we read in USA Today that Florida Atlantic gets the same results (7-5) as our coach and only has to pay about one-third as much - $331,163 versus $930,650.

There’s never a time quite as painful as football season for those of us who bleed gray and blue. We just hope that the payoff for the New Orleans Bowl is enough to make it all worthwhile.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Road To Better School Operations Could Start With A Joint Board Of Control

There are better ways to run urban school districts than by elected school boards.

That’s an opinion that’s gaining traction in many large U.S. cities and given new energy by the success of buoyant, youthful Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty in taking over his city’s troubled school district.

This year’s takeover of school operations by Mayor Fenty bookends a 15-year mayoral takeover movement that began in 1992 in Boston, and between them are five other successful changes in school governance -- Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Detroit (1999), Philadelphia (2001), and New York (2002).

When In Doubt, Reorganize

The interest in this different way of operating school districts surfaced here a month ago when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton said that it’s hard to imagine a better time to change the operational structure of Memphis City Schools. Considering the litany of controversies at the city district in recent months, it’s pretty hard to argue with him.

After all, if Albuquerque, Los Angeles and Richmond can move this topic to the top of their list of priorities, it sure seems that Memphis can, too. Here, there’s the ongoing federal investigation, the nutrition services scandal, questions about a no-bid transportation contract, concerns about the contract for temp workers and the rumblings inside the district headquarters show no signs of stopping.

If there’s any indictment of the chaotic culture of the Memphis City Schools and the district’s persistent inability to improve things, it is the latest organizational restructure – it was the fourth in five years.

Better Controls

While Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s recent reorganization (complete with clumsy press release references to his military experience 25 years ago) effectively dismantled the centralized organization that evolved during the Carol Johnson era, the truth is that no org chart has proven to be the antidote to the problems that seem inherent in the lumbering, $1 billion a year bureaucracy.

In fact, the failure to resolve these problems over the years is probably the strongest evidence in support of mayoral control, because research has shown that a chief benefit from this new governance is the improvement in operational functions. As one study put it, financial and administrative operations of the districts are more effective and healthy under mayoral control, and in districts run by mayors, more people who are non-teachers are hired for key management jobs.

While the greatest benefits of a governance change are on the administrative side of the district, it’s hard to argue that a change in organization couldn’t help the academic side. After all, Memphis City Schools has 100 schools that don’t meet state benchmarks for progress. With state standards toughening in the next 12 months, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that the public relations house of cards about improved student performance won’t come crashing down.

Hitting The Books

Here’s the thing about mayoral control. While research indicates that the single vision creates progress, the real magic is in removal of an elected school board. It’s not that board members are bad people or not serious about their duties. It’s just that the presence of an elected board politicizes a district already difficult enough to operate. It’s hard to remain loyal to balkanized districts of constituents and manage to develop an overall vision for the district.

About now, Mayor Wharton is likely poring over lawbooks from the county attorney’s office to find ways to bring a new governance structure to Memphis City Schools. So far, school board commissioners have concentrated their attention on the governor’s powers under No Child Left Behind and the opportunities for takeover of the city district by state government.

While state law endows the governor with considerable powers, he’s shown little appetite for bold action to this point despite the crisis in both Memphis and Nashville districts; however, his support for mayoral takeover could be a key to getting it done.

Unearthed Opportunity

Word filtering out of the county building is that Mayor Wharton has been investigating legal and political options for months and doing much of the research himself. It’s hard to imagine that one major point of investigation isn’t the Joint Board of Control, a mechanism that he unearthed in 2004 in the midst of his campaign to clamp down on the devastating impact that the capital costs of schools were having on the county budget.

In a July 14, 2004, letter to Patrice Robinson, then president of the Memphis Board of Commissioners, Mayor Wharton wrote: “After much research, I believe establishment of a Joint Board of Control is a viable tool that should be considered as we move forward with this process.” He could say the same now about mayoral control.

In media coverage in 2004, he compared his approach as similar to a “joint venture in the private sector” and said school officials had pledged to keep an open mind on the use of the joint board. While capital funding pressures at the time drove the discussion, the description of the Joint Board in Mayor Wharton’s letter suggests that it has the potential to be the vehicle for mayoral takeover.

Pyramid Scheme

The 1957 state law about Joint Board of Control says that city and county school districts can enter into contracts which provide for joint operation of a school or certain services with an eye to increased efficiency. The law is bolstered by the Memphis city charter which allows contracts between the two school districts.

Emulating the kind of legal structures set up for some of local government’s most complicated projects – The Pyramid and FedEx Forum – a possible course of action could be for Memphis City Schools to sign a far-reaching contract with Shelby County Schools for a Joint Board of Control, and the Joint Board of Control in turns contracts with Memphis city government to run the city school district. (It’s not unlike the city and county governments contracting with the Public Building Authority to construct an arena, and the Authority then subcontracts with a third party to build it.)

According to a 2003 opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers, there’s no limit to the powers and control that the joint board could possess, and although the change in the governance of Memphis City Schools would require the approval of its board of commissioners, it’s still possible that it could be quicker than other options. The beauty of the Joint Board of Control is that it doesn’t require any additional legislative action, because the law already exists.

The Catch

Here’s Catch-22: Success will eventually depend on the better angels in board members’ nature, because its members’ support are needed to give Memphis the chance to see if this dramatic change in governance can take place and produce the positive results seen in other cities.

In an authoritative study about the impact of mayoral takeover, the following conclusions were reached:

* In 80 percent of the districts studied, the elementary schools improved their test scores.

* Every district studied showed improved performance by high school students.

* The most significant improvements in performance are seen in the lowest-performing schools.

* More accountability in the system and responsibility held by a single city leader increases public confidence in strategies to turn around the schools.

Chance For Success

In addition, Dr. Ken Wong of Brown University, in a must-read, recent report, “The Education Mayor,” conducted a comparison of 14 mayor-led districts to 90 similar districts run by independent schools boards and concluded that mayoral control results in one-third of a year in extra learning by the average student.

In the end, pursuit of a Joint Board of Control rests on two premises – one, that Memphis City School board will do what is best for the children in its classrooms, and two, that a unified front of Governor Phil Bredesen, Mayor Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton can wield the political influence to make a Joint Board of Control happen.

It’s clear that a unified political front stands the best chance of coming up with a combination of carrots and sticks that convinces school board commissioners to give a new governance structure an opportunity. With public confidence in the school district bottoming out and with more of the same promising the same disturbing results, there’s little doubt that the public is willing to try something different.

Friday, December 07, 2007

This Week On Smart City: The Quality Of Place

This week's classic Smart City is a repeat of a show that first aired on April 26, 2003.

Brussels-based consultant Robert Palmer works on city change and cultural planning in more than 20 countries. He's learned what it takes to transform cities all over the world from also-rans to stand-outs. He'll share his lessons for cities on the next Smart City.

We'll also talk to Robert Atkinson. He is Vice-President and Director of the Technology and New Economy Project at The Progressive Policy Institute and was one of the earliest to advance the idea of a "new economy." We'll ask Rob whether there was ever anything "new" about the economy, or if "new" was simply an illusion.

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

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Memphis Should Make Other Cities Green With Envy

We always welcome guest posts on this blog, and recently, we asked Amie Vanderford, who notified us last week about the presentation, "Design for Sustainable Systems," if she would expand on some points in her email.

We are grateful that she agreed, and the following is her commentary, which is coincidentally complementary with the theme of the week:

Why Sustainability and “Green” Development are Important to Memphis

By Amie Vanderford

This Saturday I attended a Mississippi River Corridor ( organized lecture on “Design for Sustainable Systems” presented by David Yocca, RLA, AICP, LEED AP and Gerould Wilhelm, Ph.D from the Conservation Design Forum ( based out of Illinois. I was inspired to think about what Memphis needs when Dr. Wilhelm began the presentation with a list of the doctrines they base their work upon:

* We believe that rain is a resource, not a waste product.
* Our opportunity for the future is born again with each new child.
* Each child should grow up with the freedom to choose what is best for themselves and their children.
* That which is loved is beautiful; that which is beautiful is loved, and therefore sustained.
* All places under heaven are unique to the earth and must be cared for.

Best And Brightest

Memphis is a city that faces major problems with crime, education, healthcare and bankruptcy, and while it has the potential to become a great city, we need to develop our creative resources to take us to the next level. We live in a world where regardless of technological advances, our natural global resources are still limited, and as such there is greater competition for those resources.

We need to focus on working together as a community to define our ‘doctrines’ and then begin to identify what our local strengths and local resources are in order to develop them in a way that allows us to sustain ourselves. I believe that as a community we already possess some of the best and the brightest, but if we ignore the ideas of our best and brightest, and ignore the development of our future best and brightest, they will move away to cities where their idealism is heralded rather than ignored, and we will be stuck in the mire of the past.

Let’s begin with education. With the “No Child Left Behind Act,” the quite obvious idea that we need to better educate our children came into focus. Yet the result of this act was a focus on standardized test scores because we need our children to pass these tests in order to obtain federal funding for our schools. Passing tests does not equal a good education.

Real Learning

We need to cultivate our children’s critical thinking skills and natural curiosity rather than their memorization skills. While it takes skill to memorize, imagine what we could accomplish if our focus was on developing critical thinking skills. If we develop our children’s, and our own, critical thinking skills we can perhaps begin to focus on creative solutions to what matters to us the most in our own community.

A variety of studies have shown that children who participate in outdoor education show improved psychological well-being, increased problem-solving skills, and an increased ability to overcome challenges (one such study can be found at: I suggest that if local politicians and tax dollars are more focused on test scores and obtaining (needed) federal funding, that we work with local non-profit organizations to get our kids involved in outdoor programs and enhance the overall education received including the development of critical thinking skills.

In regards to economic development, I think we can all agree that the world is quickly moving into a global economy, regardless of how we might feel about it. How we spend our scarce dollars is a huge issue, and not just in Memphis.

Up On The Roof

Creativity and innovation amongst entrepreneurs is not celebrated, but saving money is. Cheaper has become better, and a profit today has become more important than a sustainable way of living for years to come. At Saturday’s public lecture, the Conservation Design Forum discussed the green roofs in places such as Germany and Chicago. The general idea behind green roofs is that heating and cooling bills can be reduced by 25 percent, the life of the roof can be doubled, and we can reduce storm water runoff, help clean the air, create urban wildlife habitats, and make our buildings more beautiful.

They went on to explain that if new buildings were constructed with an entire philosophy of green development (not just the roofs) with a specific budget in mind instead of just contracting out work to the lowest bidder, green ideas could be creatively imagined within the confines of a budget and perhaps save money in initial construction and not just future maintenance costs. The additional resources utilized would be the creativity of a team of people seeking solutions rather than empty costs. This in turn could lead to local job creation that aligns with the national trend, and even higher paid and more fulfilling jobs at that.

According to a November 12 article in The Commercial Appeal, “the green economy is a $341 billion industry and creates 5.3 million jobs, according to a study by Management Information Systems Inc., rivaling the chemical industry, the apparel industry and the pharmaceutical industry.” It further states that numerous cities are initiating green-jobs initiatives, and the U.S. House of Representatives has passed an energy bill which includes a provision for $125 million towards training a green work force. Regardless of whether the federal money passes Senate approval, we need to look at these types of solutions for our city and we need to do it now.

Hit The Door

Now what about healthcare? We all know that insurance rates and medical costs are astronomical and as it does not appear that we are getting much closer to more affordable healthcare, so how can we creatively find a solution to this problem, and how does this tie in to the green movement? I would say health & wellness.

Let’s get outside more! Why don’t we ride our bikes in our local parks and along our majestic Mississippi River? And for the more adventurous folks, how about some kayaking and/or canoeing on our local rivers like the Wolf and the Mississippi? We can hike through our natural areas and try things like bird watching, especially since the Mississippi River is such an incredible asset with hundreds of migrating birds coming through our fine city.

So, what do we say, Memphis? Let’s start to work together at solving what we think ails us. Let’s focus on being self-sufficient and implementing sustainable practices and working together to make our city the great place it can be. What can it hurt to dream big?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Manifesto Summit Put Memphis In National Spotlight

Four years ago in early May, the Creative 100 – a group of creative thinkers nominated from across the U.S. and that swelled to 150 with the addition of Memphians – came together in Memphis to develop their call to action for cities wanting to attract and retain them.

It was called the Memphis Manifesto.

In the intervening years, the Memphis Manifesto has been cited in the work of the guru of the creative class, Richard Florida and became the framework for downtown development agencies, cultural and arts groups and economic development organizations across the U.S. Ironically, Memphis wasn’t one of them, and in the end, the Memphis Manifesto Summit was treated as a way to get some positive national publicity rather than as the beginning of a movement to make our city competitive.

Back then, the goals of the Summit were ambitious but essential: to acquaint an influential group of thinkers with Memphis, to attract widespread traditional and nontraditional media coverage, to link Memphis’ name to a milestone action on creativity, to establish our city as a center for creativity and innovative thinking, to inspire a group of Memphians to carry out the principles and leverage the Manifesto in their recruitment of creative workers and development of public policy. These are goals that remain just as relevant today, largely because little was done to achieve them.

Five Years And Counting

It’s hard to believe that the fifth anniversary comes next month of when Professor Florida announced the Memphis Manifesto Summit to the January meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. He returns to Memphis yet again on Thursday to talk about opportunities for our city to get into the fight for creative workers – six years after his first interview, five years after his first video conference and four years after the Memphis Manifesto Summit.

A few months after Professor Florida’s announcement to the mayors – on May 1-2 – delegates convened in Memphis for the Summit - youthful entrepreneurs, web designers, community activists of all ages, museum and cultural officials, economic development experts, digital film directors and college students. They came from 48 cities in the U.S. and Canada, with delegations from Cincinnati, St. Louis, Tampa, Milwaukee and Puerto Rico.

The two days kicked off with presentations by the Summit’s co-hosts, Professor Florida and Carol Coletta, host/producer of Smart City and then president of this company. Other speakers included Kip Bergstrom, executive director of Rhode Island Economic Policy Council; Bill Bishop, reporter on special projects team at Austin American-Statesman; Joe Cortright, economist and author of “Economics of Being Different”; Kristy Edmunds, artistic director for Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; Radhika K. Fox, senior associate at PolicyLink; Adam Gordon, editor-in-chief of The Next American City; Colin Jackson, president and CEO of Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary; Andrew Medd, executive director of Canada25; Seth Mnookin, Newsweek senior writer; Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Partners; Mary Jo Waits, associate director of Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University; and Mara Walker, vice-president of Americans for the Arts.

Staking Out Territory For Memphis

Presentations and discussions dealt with ambitious themes and spotlighted specific programs in cities across the U.S. while workshops hammered out consensus, but after considering ways to create “cities of ideas,” attractors for creative workers and the leverage points for creativity, the delegates opted for overriding principles rather than the programmatic.

As national columnist Neal Peirce wrote: “The Memphis conferees weren’t just feathering their own nest, calling in their manifesto for cities, for example, to favor a ‘creative ecosystem’ featuring arts and culture, nightlife, the music scene, artists and designers, lively neighborhoods, vibrant downtowns, open and green space, density, and quality public spaces. To the sponsors’ surprise, they also added spirituality as part of their creative ecosystem. And quickly they voted to ‘embrace diversity’ – the idea that a mix of people of different ethnicities, races, and backgrounds creates an especially creative mix of ideas, expressions, and talents that enrich communities.”

And speaking to the importance of the Summit, he added: “The vision of young creatives assuming responsibility is of immense relevance in American communities at this moment of our history. And at the Memphis sessions, a constant theme was that any community can put together a progressive, youth-oriented strategy for growth.”

The Memphis Manifesto

So what did the Memphis Manifesto say?

The Memphis Manifesto: Building a Community of Ideas


Creativity is fundamental to being human and is a critical resource to individual, community and economic life. Creative communities are vibrant, humanizing places, nurturing personal growth, sparking cultural and technological breakthroughs, producing jobs and wealth, and accepting a variety of life styles and culture.

The Creative 100 are committed to the growth, prosperity and excellence of communities, and all who live and work there.

The Creative 100 believe in the vision and the opportunities of a future driven by the power of ideas. Ideas are the growth engines of tomorrow, so the nurturing of the communities where ideas can flourish is the key to success. Ideas take root where creativity is cultivated and creativity thrives where communities are committed to ideas.

Creativity resides in everyone everywhere so building a community of ideas means empowering all people with the ability to express and use the genius of their own creativity and bring it to bear as responsible citizens.

This manifesto is our call to action.


The Creative 100 are dedicated to helping communities realize the full potential of creative ideas by encouraging these principles:

1) Cultivate and reward creativity. Everyone is part of the value chain of creativity. Creativity can happen at anytime, anywhere, and it’s happening in your community right now. Pay attention.

2) Invest in the creative ecosystem. The creative ecosystem can include arts and culture, nightlife, the music scene, restaurants, artists and designers, innovators, entrepreneurs, affordable spaces, lively neighborhoods, spirituality, education, density, public spaces and third places.

3) Embrace diversity. It gives birth to creativity, innovation and positive economic impact. People of different backgrounds and experiences contribute a diversity of ideas, expressions, talents and perspectives that enrich communities. This is how ideas flourish and build vital communities.

4) Nurture the creatives. Support the connectors. Collaborate to compete in a new way and get everyone in the game.

5) Value risk-taking. Convert a “no” climate into a “yes” climate. Invest in opportunity-making, not just problem-solving. Tap into the creative talent, technology and energy for your community. Challenge conventional wisdom.

6) Be authentic. Identify the value you add and focus on those assets where you can be unique. Dare to be different, not simply the look-alike of another community. Resist monoculture and homogeneity. Every community can be the right community.

7) Invest in and build on quality of place. While inherited features such as climate, natural resources and population are important, other critical features such as arts and culture, open and green spaces, vibrant downtowns, and centers of learning can be built and strengthened. This will make communities more competitive than ever because it will create more opportunities than ever for ideas to have an impact.

8) Remove barriers to creativity, such as mediocrity, intolerance, disconnectedness, sprawl, poverty, bad schools, exclusivity, and social and environmental degradation.

9) Take responsibility for change in your community. Improvise. Make things happen. Development is a “do it yourself” enterprise.

Ensure that every person, especially children, has the right to creativity. The highest quality lifelong education is critical to developing and retaining creative individuals as a resource for communities.

We accept the responsibility to be the stewards of creativity in our communities. We understand the ideas and principles in this document may be adapted to reflect our community’s unique needs and assets.

The undersigned commit to our communities and each other that we will go back to our communities to infuse these ideas into our social lives and public policies and share the accomplishments with each other so that we all can move forward and succeed together in a more creative existence.

It’s Not Just About Talk

These then were the beliefs of the creative thinkers that they thought would converge to create a community that attracts creative workers. More to the point, they were clear that there’s not a magic answer or a silver bullet to making it happen. Rather, it’s about mounting a range of actions that interlock to create a city that becomes a magnet for talent. It's not about big projects, but a big shift in the community mindset.

Coupled with the Memphis Talent Magnet of the previous year, Memphis at that time had both the philosophical framework and the specific strategies to become a city that attracts young talent, particularly in accentuating its authenticity and creating authentic sense of place (Memphis was in fact the buzz of the Summit).

But the truth is there is no lack of ideas. There is only the lack of action. What’s still missing in Memphis is the kind of action that show that we are not afraid to do things differently. After all, what we really want is for Memphis to be Memphis and not a pale imitation of some other place.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Developing Memphis' Magnetic Personality

On February 4, 2001, the first broadcast of Smart City featured a young Pittsburgh economist who was about to turn traditional economic development theory on its head.

His name was Richard Florida, whose research on the so-called creative class, had attracted the attention of the radio program’s host/producer Carol Coletta, who’s always had an uncanny knack (in our clearly biased opinions) for anticipating trends and recognizing seminal research.

Shortly after the broadcast, she proposed to local government and the Memphis Regional Chamber that Memphis should be the first city to apply Mr. Florida’s theories to its economic development. They agreed, and the Memphis Talent Magnet project was born.

Talent matters in today’s economy because “the cities that win will be the cities that are abundant in ideas and talent, rather than those abundant in raw materials or inexpensive labor,” her proposal said. “As a result, attracting and retaining educated young people who make up the most mobile segment of the talent pool are the keys to a healthy, dynamic economy.”

Power Of Promise

Over about six months, Ms. Coletta and David Williams of The Williams Company (who now head Leadership Memphis) – with the help and support of Prof. Florida - conducted peer city research, one-on-one interviews and focus groups with young, urban knowledge workers and corporate recruiters.

Their goal: to identify high-leverage actions that Memphis could take to become a compelling place for the young talent that underpins today’s economy.

To do this, Memphis strengths and weaknesses were assessed, the factors that motivate mobile knowledge workers to choose Memphis were identified and successful programs in similar cities were examined.

Primary themes of the final report were the power of perceptions, the power of peak experiences, the power of the Web and the power of brand identity.

The "Real" Memphis

“Research suggests that smart young knowledge workers are demanding consumers of experience, preferring nationally competitive or authentic ‘peak experiences’ to a variety of average or mediocre options,” the report said. “When asked to identify unique Memphis experiences that could compete with cities anywhere, they responded with examples of peak experiences in four broad areas: arts and culture, active outdoor recreation, culinary and intellectual life.”

As for brand identity, the report said Memphis should start by updating themes, images and packaging to communicate the “real” Memphis. “One could make the case that Memphis is a brand that is ‘dead,’ if one considers how often images of the deceased are used,” it said. “A concerted effort is needed to convey a more powerful, compelling, consistent message…(with) distinctive audio cues based on our music” and to replace old, distorted images with vibrant Memphis scenes.

In addition, the branding recommendations called for:

* Spreading the word that Memphis music didn’t die with Elvis
* Using as a showcase for current bands and using the “Live from Memphis” tagline in the Flyer and Playbook to spotlight stand-out events
* Honoring and updating civil rights images to include the Freedom Awards
* Replacing riverboat images with kayaking on the river and updating images of moonlight and magnolias with authentic “roots” experiences and outdoor recreation

Outdoor Peak Experiences

As for outdoor experiences, the report called for emphasis on:

* Kayaking in the Mississippi River and canoeing on the Wolf River
* Cycling on the Mississippi River Trail, hiking and cycling at Shelby Farms Park, and cycling on paths linking university campuses and major outdoor attractions (Shelby Farms Park, Mississippi River, Shelby Forest and T. O. Fuller State Park)
* Special events like Outdoors Inc.’s Canoe and Kayak Race on the Mississippi River
* Making Memphis more bike and roller blade-friendly and developing several high profile bike and pedestrian paths
* Eliminating restrictions like the prohibition against rollerblading on Main Street and making downtown more dog-friendly with relaxed sidewalk café rules and dog parks

Artful Recommendations

On the arts front, recommendations included:

* Supporting for its strong audio cues for the Memphis brand
* Supporting cutting edge, nationally-acknowleged arts and culture that projects a city of vitality and creativity
* Spotlighting vibrant hip-hop and house scenes
* Sponsoring the creation and performance of new works by young Memphis artists
* Encouraging the presentation and performance of art in casual, unexpected settings, literally moving it “outside the box,” making it “more present” and animating downtown with events such as “Art Apart,” “Art Space” in Washington, D.C., and “Making a Scene” in Pittsburgh
* Encouraging comedy, film, digital and other alternative arts showcases and aspire to national competitiveness, such as spin-offs of affiliations with top brands like Sundance or HBO Comedy Arts Fest
* Creating a culture of inclusion by supporting an Emerging Artists Collaborative, Mayor’s Award for the Arts, and MacArthur-type grants
* Building a unified website and mailing list for promoting and reporting on arts and cultural events

The Three T's

Under the heading of technology, tolerance and talent, the report called for:

* Championing university initiatives to develop nationally competitive technology programs
* Supporting Emerge Memphis as the city’s technology incubator
* Supporting Memphis Bioworks Foundation to spawn new businesses
* Supporting local organizations such as Lick the Toad and Entrepreneurs Roundtable
* Developing visible celebrations of diversity
* Supporting and promoting Mpact and Hands on Memphis
* Sponsoring events like Austin’s “biobashes” to encourage artists, entrepreneurs and technology workers to get acquainted
* Creating a series of videoconferences with “great innovators” at FedEx Institute
* Initiating a movement similar to Pittsburgh’s “Ground Zero,” an open network of creatives
* Developing online social networking opportunities for talented people.


Other recommendations included the packaging and promotion of intellectual events in Memphis by emulating the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday page devoted to lectures, classes and book signings, and building a unified website and mailing list for promoting intellectual events to help smart people find smart people through online networking.

Meanwhile, local government and businesses were urged to help give more neighborhoods the opportunity to be like Cooper Young and South Main, offering their own neighborhood gathering places, their own festivals and their own ethos.

Finally, the report recommended the creation of a Memphis News Bureau that would execute media relations strategies to support the Talent Magnet Report recommendations.

Noting that promising initiative were already under way, the Talent Magnet Report was based on the understanding that there are no projects or programs that are the magic answer to attracting talent. Rather, success comes from multiple actions on multiple fronts to create a city whose environment is creative and vibrant at its heart.

Back To The Future

It’s been five years since the Memphis Talent Magnet Report was issued, but most of its recommendations remain to be implemented. Professor Florida this week becomes the bookend for our flirtation with talent strategies since he jump started our city's conversation in 2001 and brings it up-to-date this week at the Chamber’s Annual Chairman’s Meeting.

For us, the most encouraging development of the past six years is inarguable. It is the growing group of active young knowledge workers who are demanding a voice in the decisions of their city and who are shaking up the conventional wisdom about everything from the arts and music to politics and public policy. They are often met with resistance and even hostility (as shown by the recent anti-Mpact Memphis vote by the county board of commissioners), but at the end of the day, the real test about whether Memphis is serious about talent is whether we will give them anything more than lip service.

Yes, the Memphis Talent Magnet Report changed our vocabulary. But the real challenge has always been for it to change our behavior, and we do that by opening up the halls of power to a new generation whose energy and new ideas have never been more needed.

Tomorrow: Memphis Manifesto Summit