Sunday, February 11, 2007

If You Don't Stand For Something, You'll Fall For Anything: Downtown And Marion

Sometimes, it just seems that Memphis is too timid for its own good.

Too often, the people we expect to articulate and fight for a defining principle or a critical issue seem to go along to get along.

We thought of this in light of two recent displays of self-loathing – Memphis’ neutral position on the Toyota plant being considered for Marion and the shrugging acceptance of SunTrust Bank’s move to East Memphis.

It’s inexplicable why this is such a core part of our civic DNA. It’s as if there is never anything important enough for some leaders to drive a stake in the ground and tell it like it is - whether it is ruffling the feathers of the governor with the Toyota plant or SunTrust bankers about their move.

Soft Soap

Instead, we soft peddle the overwhelmingly negative impacts and perpetuate the myth that the local economy is strong and positioned for the future. It’s a curious attitude of laissez faire, because any honest reading of key economic indicators puts Memphis in the middle to bottom of the city rankings.

And yet, we herald the state of downtown Memphis by pushing the definition of renaissance to its breaking point and as if we never get of town and see what vibrant, competitive downtowns look like in so many other places. Meanwhile, we acquiescence to state demands, sitting on our hands and holding our tongues while Marion competes with Chattanooga for a coveted auto plant.

Unfortunately, in the case of the bank move eastward, The Commercial Appeal becomes a co-conspirator in misleading the public with the headline, “SunTrust move’s no death blow.” Contrary to the editorial, it is indeed time to panic, or to display some emotion of urgency. We’ve watched anchor business after anchor business exit downtown without as much as a word of protest from elected officials and downtown development leaders.


Somehow, back when the downtown development agency was formed 30 years ago, it developed a culture in which it avoids ruffling feathers or, in the parlance of rural West Tennessee, “telling how the cow ate the cabbage.”

Upon the announcement by SunTrust, a Center City Commission official gave the customary response: “Of course I’m sorry to see SunTrust leave, but it is hardly the death knell for the Downtown renaissance.” When Storage USA left downtown a few years ago, the Center City Commission said: “Times change. It’s not a reflection on downtown.” It made similar comments when Union Planters Bank left, when Goldsmith’s exited, when Ellers Oakley Chester and Rike moved, when Shelby County Government moved hundreds of employees out of downtown, and when other important employers closed their downtown offices. It’s anybody’s guess what downtown has to look like for someone at the CCC to understand that we have a serious crisis that needs strong, decisive leadership to correct.

Today, successful downtowns are known for their overall vibrancy, not an isolated node of activity like Beale Street. They are also known for getting the basics right, especially cleanliness and safety.


If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance, it’s hard to tell it at what was once called the hottest corner in downtown - Union at Main - where all four corners are vacant. If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance, it’s hard to tell it by the Peabody Place development on Main Street, where not one original tenant is left on the block and where vacant storefronts are now fixtures.

We don’t want to belabor the point, but suffice it to say, if downtown Memphis is in a renaissance, we sure don’t want to see it struggle. Too often, we are seduced by our own hyperbole and lulled to sleep by our compulsion to define success by comparing Memphis against itself, rather than other downtowns. In such a comparison, our progress would be defined at best as modest.

After the SunTrust decision, the Center City Commission said: “What downtown once was, it will never be again.” That’s certainly the case, but surely, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put up a fight or make a compelling public case for why it’s in our city’s best interest for these companies to remain downtown. It also begs the question: if downtown will never again be what it once was, then what does our downtown development agency plan for it to be? What is the plan to make it competitive, vibrant and the site of a real renaissance.

Mature Criticism

A future built on a residential, government and entertainment base will in the end be a shallow definition of success. And despite The Commercial Appeal’s delusion, wishing that Toyota opens its headquarters downtown isn’t a plan and neither is acting like Autozone’s decision to locate downtown a decade ago is a trend.

If you don’t understand the importance of all this, just talk to some of the young researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who say the absence of a “real downtown” is a reason they don’t stay when their contracts expire. To a very real extent, our city’s ability to compete for talent – especially smart talent like these researchers – will determine whether we can compete for jobs and economic growth in the knowledge economy.

It would be a sign of our civic maturity if in the face of a decision by another business to abandon downtown, someone in a key position of leadership would tell it like it is – it is indeed a serious blow not only to downtown but to the entire city by eroding our tax base, attacking the vibrancy so desperately needed and removing an important magnet for young talent. And when’s the last time that you heard of any city’s economic health and its success being judged by its suburbs?


During the recent new media conference at Memphis Cook Convention Center, a national columnist revisited Memphis after an absence of 10 years or so. His reaction: Downtown Memphis is in real trouble, and I’m not sure it’s going to make it.

That’s why we begin by being honest. We owe it to ourselves. The real question is who has the courage to do it?

While we’re on the subject of telling the truth, it’s been discouraging to see our local elected leaders struck mute when it comes to the subject of the heated competition between Marion and Chattanooga for a new Toyota plant. The Commercial Appeal’s industrious business reporter Amos Maki reported on the pressure from the Bredesen Administration on Memphis economic development officials to keep their mouths shut when it’s abundantly clear to anyone with a modest understanding of our local economy that we should be doing all that we can to get the plant in our region.

Political Blackmail

While the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development is understandably putting all of his department’s energy into the Chattanooga bid for Toyota, it’s simply wrong-headed for him to tell us that we should prefer a Tennessee location 300 miles away rather than Northeastern Arkansas, whose lethargic economy could be supercharged by the plant.

It’s unreasonable to expect that the Memphis Regional Chamber should be leading the charge to help Marion. It has a close working relationship with state ECD, which has been a key source of funding over the years. Of course, if someone in Marion wants to demonstrate the Chamber’s support for regional investments like this, he would simply send the report from the Chamber-supported Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence to Toyota decision-makers.

More to the point, this is fundamentally a political battle, and it’s not fair to expect the Chamber to fight a battle on this terrain. Rather, it’s up to our mayors, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners to fight for a position that’s best for our city and county.

Supportive Leadership

At the least, our legislative bodies should pass resolutions in support of the Marion location, and at the most, our mayors should pick up the phone and express their support directly to Toyota. There’s no reason for them to remain silent. The Bredesen Administration needs them as much as they need him. Our elected officials have had disagreements with the governor and his staff before, and politics being politics, they have mended fences and renewed alliances. There’s never been a disagreement more in need of taking place than this one.

As we said earlier, we begin by being honest. We owe it to ourselves. The real question is who has the courage to do it?


gatesofmemphis said...

"why this is such a core part of our civic DNA"? is the real question.

Why are dissent, critique and ruthless self-honesty mostly missing from our official discussions? Or if it exists, why do we concentrate all of the light and anger at elected officials, rather than business leaders who abandon or lay waste the city, or a Regional Chamber of Commerce that silently becomes non-regional when the region's interests conflicts with its funding.

I mean, Memphis' leadership -- political, cultural and business -- talk like a press release for vaporware. No one believes it, except maybe them and the Commercial Appeal.

Anonymous said...

I remember downtown Memphis 10 and 20 years ago and I thank God its not the same place anymore. Get real and stop politicking.

Smart City Consulting said...

Gates: You always hit the nail on the head. You're right about the impact of critical thinking and lively debate about things that are important. Thanks for the response.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: We're not sure what we're politicking, but 20 years ago, we had all the major employers that we mentioned. Are we willing to trade off downtown's traditional strength as a commercial center in pursuit of residential?

Anonymous said...

Right on! It's time for the people who earn the big salaries do something for them. They can start by speaking truth to power.

Anonymous said...

Memphis downtown is in real trouble and has been for years. The local leadership could care less about how the city image looks. I hate looking at our downtown it is in disrepair, vacant buildings and homeless people are rampant all over. Other cities have the same issues, but Memphis is rotten to the core. No one is doing anything about it. They don't care what our city looks like. Memphis is a city where you can build something new and shiny and then after it is built the city and county never take care of it again. With-in 5 years or less the new will now look like it is 20 years old and in need of re-building again. Memphis's problem is image and crime. The leaders of this community could careless about how downtown looks. I have been here 10 years and downtown has made some improvements, but you take a look at what the city looked like 10 years ago and what it looks like today and there really is not that much difference. Fed-Ex forum is nice and a "wow" building but now and empty pyramid. That is Memphis in a nut shell. Out with the semi-old and in with the new and we can't take care of it. I want Memphis to thrive downtown it is our downtown living room and right now somebody needs to pick up the pieces and throw away the trash. The CCC needs to have more of a say in how downtown is going to change and more incentive is going to have to be given to companies to keep them downtown. If not, poplar and I 240 will be the next downtown for Memphis

Anonymous said...

The people bragging about downtown must know in their heart of hearts that it's in trouble. Main Street is dead. Downtown is dirty. The huge jail welcomes people by saying that crime is out of control. Parks are off limits because they are owned by derelicts. Where are the festivals and special events along Main Street to bring people downtown? Peabody Place is built like a fortress and it's slowly dying. Muvico's already shut down half its movie screens. Downtown is missing the boutiques and shops that make downtown come alive. There are no connections between parks and attractions. It's like everything is its own little island, separate and apart, rather than part of the whole. Something's got to be done and quick.

Anonymous said...

You think downtown is rough, check out Frayser, Raliegh, Whitehaven, and Hickory Hill.

Anonymous said...

Who can we count on to present a persuasive argument for why business and the rest of us should care what happens to downtown? We'll never get there with everyone playing cozy with each other.

Anonymous said...

I was shocked to read about the corporate exodus from downtown Memphis. I moved to Dallas 16 years ago, but, Memphis will always be my hometown. I try to keep up with what's happening there every week online. What's funny to me is if you check out online websites that concentrate on the tourism side of Memphis you'll think that downtown is thriving. This is why I was surprised about the companies moving out. Before you know it First Horizon, Auto Zone and Morgan Keegan will be moving East. When I last visited Peabody Place 2 years ago I saw the start of it's decline. Thugs hanging out hitting on slutty dressed girls as they paraded aroung the mall. Most of these kids didn't spend a dime in any store, They cussed and yelled at each other. One guard told one group to keep moving and one girl (dressed like a street hooker) told him that he was racist because they were black. Our family decided never to visit there again. Entertainment and condos are nice, but, without a secured environment and good jobs downtown Memphis will put on a cute face. But, it'll have no substance.

Anonymous said...

With our current leadership vacuum, everyone that has a desire to see a sustainable thriving downtown Memphis must begin a "responsibility revolution." We all must take responsibility to create a ground swell and make change happen.

Memphis needs activists... get in the game, get involved and take action. The buck stops here.