Thursday, May 31, 2007

This Week On Smart City: What Makes Cities Successful

What makes cities successful? It's a question we ask every week here on Smart City. And this week we have two authorities from the University of Chicago to address that topic - one with a very local view and the other with a global outlook.

Sean Safford has studied the decline of Rust Belt cities and found that particular kinds of social networks were key to a city's ability to renew.

Saskia Sassen has studied global cities and concluded that corporate headquarters are less important to a city than are globe-trotting consultants.

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

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Consolidation Should Begin Inside County Government

Previously published in Memphis magazine's City Journal column:

Finally, Shelby County has the chance to have a "strong mayor" form of government.

Through sheer force of personality, county mayors have created the perception that they are equals to their Memphis counterparts. But, perched atop a government littered with the fiefdoms of assorted elected officials and powerful public boards, the truth is that the county mayor has direct control over less than 20 percent of the county budget.

The irony is obvious: while everyone talks about consolidating city and county governments, things aren’t even consolidated inside Shelby County Government.

Cracking The Door

That could soon change. Unexpectedly, the Tennessee Supreme Court has opened the door to the potential of reducing the number of elected officials – like the register whose main job is recording documents, the trustee who collects taxes, the clerk who sells marriage and auto licenses, the assessor who appraises property, the sheriff who primarily operates the county jail, and a covey of clerks for probate, criminal, circuit, general sessions, and juvenile courts.

This kind of streamlining of county government was unimaginable just months ago. Seemingly given special status as “constitutional officers,” it was thought that these officials were as much a part of county government as the costs of sprawl. Regardless of who’s been behind the mayor’s desk in the past 31 years, he’s thought wistfully of folding some of these largely functional duties into his operations.

As one mayor described it, the county’s organizational structure is tantamount to holding Fred Smith accountable for FedEx’s performance, but without giving him control over FedEx Ground.

Killing The Hydra

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When county government was restructured in 1974, the lumbering three-headed administration was scrapped in favor of a single county chief executive to be called a mayor, an appellation that allowed him to elbow his way into a spotlight previously reserved for the Memphis mayor.

But the rhetoric far outstripped reality. Even when home rule was approved a decade later, it did not stop Shelby County Government’s repeated forays to the Tennessee Legislature to plead for powers automatically given to cities and their mayors.

In the past 20 years, there’s been no serious study of how the county structure could be changed to improve its operations and deal with an entrenched culture that repulses innovation. Unfortunately, with the opportunity now to reduce the inefficiency that comes from the county’s Hydra-like structure, county commissioners are just as likely to blink as to seize the chance to consider what county government could be.

Impact Or Not?

If they take the path of least resistance, they will ratify all of the elected offices and move on. If they have the courage, they will take the time to have serious debate about ways to make county government more businesslike - how to make public boards like the Agricenter Commission more accountable for its use of public land, how to have more oversight of powerful boards like the Airport Authority, how to align resources in a dozen economic development boards, and how to reinvent bureaucracies like the finance department so they are lean and customer-oriented.

Within county government, the costs of inconsistent policies are legend. Only the mayor is required to comply with personnel policies, purchasing rules, financial procedures, and technology guidelines. That’s why one elected official bought a multi-million dollar computer system that couldn’t “talk” to the county mainframe, another refused to put her GIS information online for public use, another paid premium prices for equipment purchased more cheaply by the mayor’s administration, and most contribute to the stupefying, fragmented online experience at county websites.

In a few years, the landmark agreements establishing Urban Growth Boundaries will virtually eliminate many of the county’s most prominent services – zoning, planning, fire department, ambulances, road construction, and more.

It's The Beginning

If the question today about reducing the number of elected officials is seen as a beginning, rather than an end, it could actually be used to plan for that new day and to transform county government into the more entrepreneurial environment envisioned by Mayor A C Wharton.

Across the U.S., urban governments are engaged in bursts of innovation unseen in decades, and in places, a strong mayor form of government is pursued as the answer to their problems. Shelby County could join them if commissioners think beyond the immediate politics of the problem before them.

It would seem to be the perfect time to consider the kind of “smarter government” being pursued in states like New York, where there’s a call for economies of scale, efficiency, cooperation, and consolidation between governments. Before Shelby County can get to that point, it first has to do it within its government.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Joint City-County Action Needed For Best Assault On Sexually-Oriented Businesses

We live in a political time when legal traditions are regularly ignored in pursuit of political agendas, and each time, our system of government is diminished by it.

That’s why we hope the Shelby County Board of Commissioners tread lightly in voting on an ordinance that would set regulations for businesses within Memphis, albeit the worst of Memphis’ businesses - its out of control strip clubs.

Although we sympathize with their intentions to do something to control the lawless strip club culture that’s legendary even in the word of mouth of the rough and tumble industry, the county board of commissioners should resist the temptation to abandon 30 years of legal discretion in their zeal to control the clubs.

It Takes Two

We’ve written several times before about the “anything goes” environments that shocked even the hardened adult-oriented business expert, Eric Kelly, who was brought in by the Office of Planning and Development to develop ways for local governments (emphasize plural) to eliminate the drug, prostitution and health hazards that are prevalent at the strip clubs.

There’s never any greater wake-up call for county commissioners than coming face-to-face with the political realities of their offices. After being elected on substantial campaign promises, they take their oaths of offices and learn quickly that their direct impact within the City of Memphis is limited on its best days and nonexistent on most. As a result, there’s never a deep understanding among city residents of what county commissioners do and how it affects them.

Reality Check

As a result, over the years, commissioners have always welcomed ways to amplify their roles. Unfortunately, ribbon-cuttings for the openings of new health clinics are few and far between, and with the county’s abandonment of the library system, they aren’t involved in those any more.

So, when commissioners are presented with the opportunity to extend their reach in a politically opportune area like strip clubs, it’s easy to appreciate how hard it is for them to resist the chance to pass an ordinance that would mandate business rules within Memphis.

While we question the ultimate legality of such an action, whether it’s legal or not, it’s just bad governance.

That’s Why They’re Cities

Memphians elect City Council members to set rules and regulations for the businesses within their city limits, and normally, this is done through joint actions in areas like zoning, construction codes and health codes. While it is a cumbersome and frustrating structure, it is the one set up by our state constitution.

Once citizens incorporate a city and its citizens elect their representatives, they then have the primary responsibility for determining – hopefully in response to the public’s needs – what rules should be established for businesses operating within that city, whether that city is Collierville or Memphis.

Even if there is a legal basis for arguing that Shelby County Government has the power to impose its will within Memphis, it should resist the Siren’s call of political expediency, because it flies in the face of legal advice to county officials for four decades.

That said, as for the board of commissioners, we feel their pain.

But Who’s Laughing

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.

That’s why there’s the widespread opinion in the community that a cozy relationship exists between strip club owners and city elected officials. If a majority of City Council members are serious about ethics reform – and it’s increasingly looking like they’re not – they should start with stronger regulations for sexually-oriented businesses.

And if Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is serious about running for reelection, he should once and for all show the kind of leadership that responds to the concerns of neighborhood leaders who have to deal with the fallout from these clubs.

Putting It On Record

At this point, rather than pass a questionable ordinance, we think the Shelby County Board of Commissioners should make sure this is a key issue in the upcoming city elections. They can do this by making City Council put up or shut up, and we think they do it by amending existing joint codes and put Memphis City Council members on the spot.

With passage by the county of a joint ordinance or amendment to a joint ordinance, the county commissioners force the Council members out into the open, especially those who behind the scenes protect strip club owners and take their money.

We are willing to bet that if the county commissioners take such action and send it across to City Hall, City Council Chairman Tom Marshall will happily add it to the agenda. And in this way, City Council members will have to take a public stand, and if they vote against it, we will finally know if the rumors about club owners owning council members are true.

Here's our post from a year ago on these clubs:

Full Frontal Assault On SOB's Is Called For If Change Is Going To Come
Yesterday, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners had one of their infrequent joint meetings to discuss a bothersome issue for Memphis – the S-O-B’s.

The news they got was B-A-D.

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

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

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

Three-time Loser

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer Board

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

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

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

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

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

National Consultants

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Kids In Cities

With 25-34 year-olds 30 percent more likely than other Americans to live in central cities, there's a big opportunity for cities to capture new people and new money. But what happens when these young adults begin to couple and have children. Will they remain in cities? Or will they make the traditional trek to the suburbs to raise their kids?

It's a question Steve Babitch and Clint Barth have been wrestling with and they'll tell us what they've learned. Both gentlemen just earned Master of Design degrees from the Institute of Design in Chicago. Steve's area of focus is innovation strategy and planning, and his work includes a stint at Doblin, Inc. Clint is a designer who has worked with small start-ups, nonprofits and Fortune 100 companies and is currently a consultant for Gensler.

Also with us is Dr. Heather Weiss who founded the Harvard Family Research Project to support the successful development of children from birth to adulthood. Heather is also Senior Research Associate and Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Industrial Cities Study Offers Advice For An Industrious Memphis

While Memphis has never been categorized as an older industrial city, we’ve always thought that it had similarities – challenges, grittiness and demographics – that give us more in common with these cities than Sunbelt cities.

We thought this again as we read this week’s report by The Brookings Institution about the revitalization of older industrial cities, especially those in the Rust Belt. Truth be told, Memphis has always gotten a pass - and even favorable commentary - in these studies from Brookings because of its misunderstanding of the dynamics of our city’s population growth.

Most large urban cities like ours are landlocked, surrounded by suburban cities and bedroom towns, and as a result, their borders are fixed and permanent. While Mayor Willie W. Herenton doesn’t get praised for much these days, he does deserve credit for defeating the “tiny towns” movement that would have done the same to Memphis.

Down and Down

As a result of being surrounded, many cities spiral downward. Declining population leads to a weakened tax base that leads to deterioration of city services that leads to declining population. St. Louis, for example, once had a population within its city limits 500,000 larger than today, and Cleveland was once larger by 420,000 people.

Often, in looking at the raw population numbers, researchers are inclined to see Memphis as being in a positive growth cycle, but they assume that it is like other cities and its borders are fixed. As a result of Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws, however, Memphis is able to maintain and increase its populations by taking in new land and new residents.

As a result, The Brookings Institution doesn’t include Memphis in many of its studies about cities on the bubble, and it didn’t Memphis in its latest report, but regardless of that, we thought many of its conclusions should have meaning for Memphis.

On The Rebound

By the way, the best news of all is that “on the whole, America’s central cities are coming back,” according to the Washington, D.C., think tank. “Employment is up, populations are growing, and many urban real estate markets are hotter than ever; with increasing numbers of young people, empty nesters, and others choosing city life over the suburbs.”

The report examined 302 U.S. cities and found that 65 are lagging behind their peers on eight indicators of well-being, notably Providence, Richmond, Shreveport, Rochester, Birmingham, St. Louis, Buffalo, Newark, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Miami, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Much of the problems in these cities stem from economies dominated by low-wage employment; entrenched, multi-generational poverty; high unemployment and unemployables, and low incomes and diminishing tax income. As a result, the report says public policy has to be reinvented. “Government leaders – working in partnership with a range of for-profit and nonprofit stakeholders – need to design and implement a new urban agenda, one aimed not at managing these cities’ economic decline, but at stimulating their economic revival.”

Eye On The Ball

In particular, state government has a pivotal role to play through its policies and investments in these cities – from school funding to regional economic growth to tax policy and public incentives to the geography of governance to the fiscal playing field.

If these cities are to rebound, they have to keep their eye on the ball. They have lost the high-paying jobs of an industrial economy that has long since vanished, replaced by lower-wage jobs. Most damaging of all, the dominance of older established industries actually thwarts entrepreneurialism and new business creation.

Accompanying the heavy reliance on these industries is lower educational levels. In these 65 cities, less than 17 percent of their residents over 25 years of age have bachelor’s degrees. (In Memphis, it’s 21 percent.) These lower educational levels in turn contribute to lower per capita income levels, creating a cycle that can be devastating in its self-reinforcing nature.


With problems compounded by white flight and a declining industrial base, cities find themselves hyper-segregated, increasingly poor and fiscally in crisis. In words that sound especially compelling for modern Memphis, the report quotes William Frey:

“City residents…are being asked to pay higher taxes…than their contemporaries in the suburbs. In return, they are not likely to receive proportionally better services and, in fact, can be virtually assured of lower quality schools and higher rates of crime…It is likely, therefore, that the increased out-of-pocket costs and deteriorating environmental conditions associated with residence in financially plagued cities will provide additional impetus for suburbanward movement.”
What To Do

So, what should cities do - with state support - to revitalize themselves?

* Fix the basics. It sounds simple and it will take decades, because it includes fixing broken educational systems, making cities safe and making cities cost-effective for companies.

Brookings recommends that states examine and update their funding formulas to respond to the need for more funding for high-poverty, high-minority student bodies; they should add money to attract better teachers to urban districts, and they need to fund longer school days in struggling districts. All of this should be supported by capital investments in the aging inner city.

Lack of safety in a city is proof positive that a city government is failing, because it’s unable to deliver on its most fundamental obligation – to protect its citizens. It calls for better coordination of criminal justice resources and innovative programs to reduce recidivism such as prisoner re-entry. To create a climate conducive for business investment, city government must control its costs, streamline services and innovate, and state government should look at requiring hospitals, universities and other nonprofits to pay payment-in-lieu-of-taxes to support public services that they use but don’t now pay for.

* Build on economic strengths. Cities need to identify and nurture their own unique economic assets, and in support of this, they need to invest in downtown revitalization. “While a strong downtown doesn’t necessarily assure a strong citywide economy, it’s certainly a prerequisite for success,” the report said.

In addition, states should enhance the connectivity between regions through state transportation spending and incentives to create cooperation between cities with similar economies and assets.

* Transform the physical landscape. Cities need to pay attention to crumbling infrastructure, particularly those that connect them to the global economy. These catalytic development projects include waterfront development and public parks.

* Grow the middle class. Progress for these challenges will not come without paying particular attention to reducing poverty and increasing the middle class. In particular, cities and states need programs that give residents the skills – including soft skills like problem-solving and customer service and hard skills for jobs in growing sectors - to compete in today’s economy.

For people to move out of poverty, they have to keep more of what they earn during a transition period. The old welfare office approach is more out of date than ever, the report says, because states need more flexible policies for the working poor and the supportive structure to move them from dependency to self-sufficiency.

A study two years ago showed that low-income families pay higher than average for their mortgages, and the state needs to crack down on unscrupulous practices while capping interest rates and fees of payday lenders and limiting mortgage prepayment penalties and predatory refinancing practices.

* Create neighborhoods of choice. To succeed, cities need neighborhoods where strong families with a range of incomes want to live. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are isolated, children perform worse in school and families have more health problems. In other words, these neighborhoods cost government a lot, and in turn, government should encourage mixed-income housing, grow inner-city markets, invest in preservation and rehabilitation.

All in all, it makes for provocative reading, and although The Brookings Institution report didn’t include Memphis as one of the threatened older industrial cities, the report should be required reading for anyone interested in positioning Memphis more strongly to compete for new residents, for new families, new businesses and new hope.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Suggestion Of The Week: International Design Competition Blending Authenticity And Aspiration

A few months ago, Melissa Anderson Sweazy emailed us with an interesting idea, which gave birth to the weekly "suggestion box" feature that we've added to our blog. It's the weekly discussion topic and your opinions and ideas for new thinking about Memphis.

As a result of her email, we asked Melissa to elaborate on her idea - which is a great one - and to send it to us as the prototype for this feature. In the interim, she's given birth, which definitely changes your perspective on the city's challenges, but she's been kind enough to follow through with the post that we requested from her.

Here it is, and we welcome yours:

Keeping And Attracting Creatives
One of the best blogs about Memphis is written by a Californian (well, “Fearless VK” was a West Coaster until nearly a year ago when she made the decision to leave one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world for a place still struggling to fit its big city classification).

And since her move, she’s been a surprisingly passionate and eloquent defender of a city plagued by a seemingly endless litany of troubles. I’ve been a close watcher of her blog as a Memphian-turned-Californian who also moved back nearly a year ago., and I’ve been impressed by her take on our city as the Little Engine That Could. Because, I suspect like her, I want to believe I made the right decision to come back.

Most recently she tackled the idea of “authenticity,” a label used by those seeking to describe what Memphis has that other cities lack. While I won’t delve into the semantics of her argument – but you should – it got me thinking. To me, Memphis’ “authenticity” – its music cred, smoky divebars and fried soul food are representative of what I feel could be Memphis’s unofficial slogan: “It’s great for a weekend, but you wouldn’t want to live here.”

Quality, Not Just Family and Affordability

I want people to want to live here.

I want the Fearless Vks of the world who are looking for an affordable, fun and progressive place to live to be able to realistically consider Memphis beyond just the "affordable." (I'll be honest - "affordable" and "family in town" were the only two reasons I agreed to move back.)

And how can we coax those slippery subjects of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class to flock here? I’d like the city to invite them to tell us how.

The Suggestion

My idea for the suggestion box of the week?

I think the city should sponsor an international design competition that combines Memphis’s "authenticity" with the city it has the potential to become. It would be like the innovative Paducah Artist Relocation program, except the living/work spaces would be the target.

Take a stretch of urban blight, or the Brewery, the Harahan Bridge - the sky’s the limit when you are daydreaming out loud – and invite those willing to create a space that combines Memphis’ strengths with the city it aspires to be.

Integrated Working and Living

For example: a live/work space that includes a cooking school with a restaurant staffed entirely by students. With a nod to green/non-impact design, the building would feature a rooftop vegetable/herb garden that would provide local ingredients for the restaurant in addition to making it energy efficient. The cooking school would offer classes for children, the restaurant a heart-healthy spin on southern classics.

Another example: The Brewery would house a smoke-free concert venue/production facility that would feature local artists and broadcast a weekly series a la Austin City Limits.

I'm not suggesting that Memphis needs to become a San Francisco or Los Angeles to succeed. But cherry picking and applying what makes those cities attractive - access to top notch entertainment, advances in environmentally-friendly technology, outdoor greenways - ahem, not a $50 million stadium overhaul - could be the first step toward keeping our "creative class" close to home.

Catching Up With Our Digital Corner Of The World

The great thing about our digital age is that we are able to create a community of interesting people who share our passions for new thinking and debate. We’ve been reminded of it this week with some emails from some citizens of our community, and we want to pass them along.

The Remix Tour: Blogging From The Road

Our firm’s founder Carol Coletta is co-hosting conversations in Portland (OR), Chicago, Providence and Columbus (OH) with one of the world’s smartest thinkers, Charles Leadbeater.

She’s blogging from the road with photos and videos, as they talk about ways to help cities co-create their economic futures by unlocking their talent and creativity in surprising and often overlooked places. In Carol’s role as president of CEOs for Cities, she and Mr. Leadbeater are engaging urban leaders in discussions about how they can work with city residents, rather than for them, to tackle intractable social and economic challenges.

Mr. Leadbeater is a leading authority on innovation and creativity, and his book, We-think, will be published later this year, adding to the insights found in his three previous books. He’s advised governments, including 10 Downing Street and the European Commission, as well as major corporations. On the tour, he and Carol are talking about how cities, with the right tools and a platform that capitalizes on distributed resources, can engage citizens’ talents into a mass, self-organizing, collaborative engine for opportunity.

If you’re like us and find all of this fascinating, you’re invited to check out the blog at CEOs for Cities.

Whitehaven Blog

Meanwhile, Second Strangeness – who has contributed some helpful strategies for revitalizing Whitehaven on our blog – has a new one of his own new blog that you will find interesting in light of our recent discussion about the future of Whitehaven, a critical area of Memphis.

Skate Park

Dr. Aaron Shafer, a postdoc fellows at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, continues to work with his colleagues, Steve Zatechka and Zachary Baquet, on the vision of a big-league skate park for Memphis. The skate park website now has been supplemented by a blog, where they weigh in on their project and other issues such as Beale Street Landing. Surely this is the kind of project that every one can get behind.

Bass Pro Shop

From Buffalo, Tim Tielman notifies us of his blog about the damage that the proposed Bass Pro Shop megastore will have on the historic district where the chain wants to locate in his hometown. The new site is the latest choice for the retailer, which earlier walked away from its proposal to convert an abandoned arena into what the store called a “tourist destination.” Because of the similarities to Bass Pro Shop’s negotiations in Memphis, we’ve written about the big box retailer’s shifting positions in Buffalo, and Mr. Tielman says the project now requires “an upfront public subsidy of $130 million before Bass Pro and a local developer have to spend a dime.”

Bass Pro Shop Petition

Speaking of Bass Pro Shop, we received an email alerting us to a petition opposing the use of The Pyramid for the Bass Pro Shop. The petition asks local overnment “to rescind the non-binding agreement and move forward with other plans, in the best interest of our city’s landmark and taxpayers.”

Give East Memphis Its Due

Last and clearly not least, we also received an email from the always interesting Elizabeth that came in too late to be considered in the Best Streets and Neighborhoods discussion, but she asked an interesting question: why do we never hear about East Memphis in these kinds of conversations?

But she says it best in her own words:

“I have to give east Memphis its due on this one. We have relatives on Mason in the White Station area. Without a doubt, the school district is excellent. So are the parks, like that adjacent to Richland Elementary. The neighborhoods are filled with families taking walks, kids riding bikes and skating, and groups of neighbors getting together for cookouts. I was admittedly surprised at the number of people who brought food (like some amazing homemade brownies!) to our family as they moved in, just to welcome them to the neighborhood. It is definitely a beautiful, family friendly area deserving of recognition.

“I want folks to appreciate Memphis as much as I do, and would love to see us retain talent as well as attract the best and brightest. But all folks are looking for something a little different. Some of those bright stars may love a good Saturday night out in a hip, urban environment, but will choose safe, quiet, ‘family’ neighborhoods in good school districts for the rest of their time. (And cool as it may be, the Snowden area is not for everyone.) I think that for the city to succeed in its recruitment and PR efforts, we must promote ALL that is good.”

Sunday, May 20, 2007

County Powers Relief Act Gives Shelby County Neither Power Nor Relief

We don’t find many occasions when we agree with Tennessee Representative Brian Kelsey.

On his worse days, he comes across as an inveterate publicity hound, and on his best days, he comes across as youthfully doctrinaire. But in the current flare-up resulting from his temerity to call pork barrel by its proper name in the Tennessee Legislature, he is nothing short of being precisely correct.

Pending legislation sets aside $100,000 for each state representative and $300,000 for each state senator in what is tantamount to setting up state-sanctioned slush funds to pay back the politically faithful in their districts. In the wake of the heightened attention to ethics that followed the Tennessee Waltz indictments, it’s hard to fathom the logic of establishing state government as a co-conspirator in a system of political favoritism.

Truth In Advertising

But what got our attention as much as the willingness by our legislators to use our public money as personal political currency was the typically misleading, and high-flown, title of the bill – the Community Enhancement Grant program. If there was a Truth in Advertising rule in the Tennessee Legislature, nothing would ever get to a vote.

In this vein, we think of last year’s grossly misnamed law – the County Powers Relief Act.

It was one of those votes that legislators love. It had the ring of importance, it eliminated a highly contentious issue (real estate transfer tax, local real estate transfer taxes and impact fees), and it set up a new program that appeared to help urban counties cope with growth, while at the same time, it did absolutely nothing to help counties like ours.

The Rites Of Spring

If you’ve wondered why there was an interruption this year in the annual ritual of the Shelby County mayor pleading with state legislators to lessen his government’s dependency on property taxes, it was because of the passage of the County Powers Relief Act.

It was classic Tennessee Legislature. It gave all appearances of being responsive, while in truth, it did nothing to respond to the persuasive arguments by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton who has made a compelling case for granting county government more control over its own fiscal future.

In theory, the bill’s purpose seemed so much on point. It said: “The purpose of this part is to authorize counties to levy a privilege tax on persons and entities engaged in the residential development of property in order to provide a county with an additional source of funding to defray the cost of providing school facilities to meet the needs of the citizens of the county as a result of population growth.”

It’s A Privilege, Not A Right

In exchange for the privilege of development, residential construction could be taxed up to $1 per square foot based on the tax liability for schools. It even sets out the process for adding a new tax – by a two-thirds vote of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners at two consecutive meetings.

It all sounded so good, but there was a catch. This new tax is limited to counties that either had a 20 percent increase in population from 1990 to 2000 or had nine percent growth from 2000-2004.

In other words, Shelby County is 0 for 2. Growth in the decade was 8.6 percent, and in the four-year period, its population growth was less than two percent (in its 2005 estimate, the Census Bureau says Shelby County’s population is down 7,500 since 2000).


All in all, the law – motivated by years of pleas from urban counties for new development taxes – did nothing to help large Tennessee counties. More to the point, the law really served the interest of the bedroom counties adjacent to large urban cores. There, the population baseline was low to begin with, so a period of rapid growth resulted in large increases.

Thirteen counties qualified for the tax under the population growth standards for 2000-2004, but the list didn’t include the largest counties in Tennessee. In our metro, Fayette County’s growth was 18.3 percent, and Tipton County missed the cut by four-tenths of one percent.

Meanwhile, urban counties like ours would have to experience a growth spurt unseen in 50 years to qualify for the new tax. The coup de grace was that the law stated that after its passage in May, 2006, no county can enact an impact fee on development or a local real estate transfer tax.


More than anything, it just proves conclusively how little attention legislators pay to their own experts. After all, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations supported the passage of “general enabling adequate facilities tax legislation, general enabling impact fee legislation” and “general enabling legislation authorizing a local real estate transfer fee.”

The logic of TACIR was simple and contradicts the rhetoric of developers: residential growth does not pay for itself. In its report to the legislature, the state agency said the Home Builders Association of Tennessee claimed that “when all of the benefits of growth are counted, it (development) more than pays for itself. The literature on financing residential growth, however, generally says otherwise.”

As TACIR points out, using indicators more comprehensive than the ones incorporated in the law – such as population, public school enrollment, total wage growth and daily vehicle miles of travel – Shelby County finished in the top third of Tennessee counties qualifying for fiscal relief.

Just The Facts

As the report points out, there is often a correlation between budget pressures and overdependence on property taxes that culminates in higher property tax rates. For example, Shelby County has the highest county property tax in Tennessee, substantially higher than Hamilton or Knox, and edging out Davidson County (although that’s misleading since it is a consolidated government.)

Shelby County’s per capita debt ranks third at $2,309. First is Humphreys County at $4,453, followed by Marshall County’s $2,538. As a point of comparison, the per capita debt for Hamilton is $2,097; and Knox is $1,052. No data was given for Nashville-Davidson.

If legislators had followed the sounder criteria suggested by TACIR, six counties would have been eligible to approve growth taxes – including Shelby. In the end, TACIR – always mindful of which way the political winds are blowing - stopped short of making a formal recommendation. However, for the agency, its report is surprisingly direct.

Deaf Ears

Unfortunately, legislators turned a deaf ear to the TACIR commentary and to the requests from Mayor Wharton and his peers.

As we’ve said before, the spectacle of our county’s mayor traveling to Nashville with hat in hand to beg a bunch of rural legislators to act responsibly on behalf of an urbanized county – not to mention one that’s minority majority – is demeaning and ludicrous.

Surely, we’ve reached the point in this state where large urban counties – with financial expertise that equals or surpasses state government’s – should be given the freedom, in concert with their own people, to set up their own tax structure.

But, that’s not a cause that’s likely to command the support of a majority of our legislators, because the allure of control and power are too great to simply do what’s right.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lemoyne-Owen's Real Test Is More Than Financial

One of the best things about going to college is that we’re asked questions that lead us to see life in new ways and to ask our own provocative questions so we can make the best possible choices for ourselves.

But, while these kinds of questions might be asked in the classrooms of Lemoyne-Owen College, they sure aren’t asked when it comes to the college itself.

Then, we only ask how it can survive. Perhaps it’s time to ask if it should.

Rescue Missions

It may sound callous, but because these regular rescue missions concentrate on the survival of Lemoyne-Owen College and never on its potential for excellence, it’s hard to get excited about the almost $4 million in tax money being funneled into the college by City of Memphis Government and Memphis City Schools.

In a city where African-American powerlessness has been a crippling problem, it’s as if the conversation isn’t ever really about Lemoyne-Owen College at all, but treated as a symbolic vote that proves that times have changed in Memphis. As a result, somehow, Lemoyne-Owen College’s finances are patched up and it lurches along until its next financial crisis occurs.

Regrettably, it always does.

Political Rhetoric

Some of the comments made by its advocates are reminiscent of the days when we were told that it was our civic duty to buy tickets to lure an NFL team, but no one ever bothered to give us a compelling reason why it mattered to us as consumers. Now, we’re not told what benefits we receive from Lemoyne-Owen College, but instead, Memphis City Council is told by Robert Lipscomb – City of Memphis CFO and chairman of the college’s board - that if Lemoyne-Owen College closes, it’s “the worst indictment of our leadership.”

It’s just not true. If the college closes, it is not because of anything that was done wrong by this city or its leaders. After all, none of them made decisions about the college’s finances or its future that led to the latest revenue shortfall.

It seems to us that if the college can’t seem to find a successful niche in the marketplace, much less a marketplace that’s majority African-American, it seems to say more about the college than it does about City Council.

More Questions Than Answers

Of course, all of this begs the most obvious question: why is it the responsibility of Memphis City Council to spend public funds to bail out a private college, not to mention one with connections to the United Church of Christ and Baptist denominations?

But the separation of church and state issue is unlikely to be raised in the rhetorically overheated environment characterized by Councilman Rickey Peete, who quickly played the race card and called for his colleagues to “look beyond race and petty politics.”

Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools is channeling around $750,000 to Lemoyne-Owen College on the implausible premise that it, rather than University of Memphis, the primary source of teachers and educational research in this part of the world, can deliver the kind of special training that will produce higher quality teachers for city schools. In fact, as it appears now, Lemoyne-Owen College will have to raid the University of Memphis College of Education to get participants for the Memphis City Schools-financed program.

Finding A Vision

If taxpayers are already paying to have teachers trained at a public university, it’s hard to grasp the logic of paying twice so a private college can do it too. (In fact, if Memphis City Schools is really motivated by a need to create a new, innovative program rather than just finding a way to funnel money to the college, why not send out a RFP to all the colleges and universities in the region and see what it gets back?) Based on the Memphis City Schools’ funding model for its Lemoyne-Owen College program, it appears that it could almost afford to have the teachers trained at Duke University.

This is not to say that historically black colleges and universities don’t play important roles in higher education. After all, there are more than 100 HBCUs, and about 40 percent of all African-American college graduates come from these schools. What’s disturbing that Lemoyne-Owen College can’t manage to get into the top half of them.

That’s why we say the real question that needs to be answering before our cold, hard public cash is transfused into the college is this: “Does Lemoyne-Owen College have the potential to move into the top tier of HBCUs in the U.S.?”

Serial Financial Woes

If the answer is no, it seems that the market does know best, and that (not lack of civic leadership) is the reason for its serial financial woes. If the answer is yes, someone should unveil a more ambitious vision and what it would cost and how we can get it done. No options for the future should be ruled out, including Lemoyne-Owen College becoming a public institution affiliated with University of Memphis.

To suggest that City Council leadership and Memphis citizens are failing because they refuse to mobilize around the recurring triage for the college just doesn’t hold water. Instead, this should be treated as the moment of truth – and for truth: if the public is being asked for its tax money, it deserves to know what’s being done to make sure this bailout doesn’t happen again and how the college is going to achieve its real potential.

Much has changed in Memphis since 1968 when Owen College and Lemoyne College – two church schools – merged to become its present incarnation. Back then, the number of African-American teachers at University of Memphis could be counted on one hand, and the number of African-American students was shamefully low.

Time Change

It was in this context that historically black colleges and universities – particularly those in the South – came to play such a key role in the education of African-Americans and in the creation of the black middle class. And yet, it’s worth remembering that today, University of Memphis is educating about five times more African-American students than Lemoyne-Owen College.

This is not to suggest that HBCUs do not have important contributions to make. Research has shown that equally important, in addition to education, these colleges and universities have been places for the mentoring, social networks and personal growth that connect graduates with the jobs market. These social networks and personal connections are often key touchstones for white graduates, and in this way, HBCUs replicated this role.

Like many of these colleges and universities, Lemoyne-Owen College has a singularly impressive history, and all of us owe them – and it – a debt of gratitude. But if we are to owe Lemoyne-Owen College a debt of our tax money, it can’t be content to rest on its third-rate reputation.

After all, Lemoyne-Owen College has noncompetitive admissions, accepting essentially any one who applies, and most of them with ACT scores similar to Southwest Tennessee Community College. In other words, this conversation about the future of Lemoyne-Owen College should begin with the acknowledgement that it’s no Spelman, no Howard, no Morehouse, no Hampton, no Tuskegee and no Fisk.

Other HBCUs

After all, when was the last time you’ve heard anything like the following said about Lemoyne-Owen College?

• Morehouse men average well over 1000 on their SATs and more than 40 percent of its graduates pursue graduate and professional studies.

• Hampton turns away more than 50 percent of its applicants, and the median SAT is more than 950. Hampton students won an engineering design competition sponsored by Disney.

• Florida A&M has more black National Merit scholars on campus than Harvard University. It turns away about 40 percent of all applicants and has an exchange program with universities in China.

• Bill Cosby gave Fisk $1.3 million. More than 50 percent of Fisk grads continue their education after their graduations.

• At Tuskegee, summer internships are available at IBM and AT&T, and nearly 70 percent of its students get degrees.

• Howard is called the black Harvard, with about 65 percent of graduates going to professional and grad schools.

• Xavier has excellent health-related programs, and 18 percent of its students get into medical and dental schools.

• North Carolina A&T received an $8 million grant to establish an aerospace research center.

The Ebony Tower

We’re not Pollyannish enough to believe that Lemoyne-Owen College can quickly become part of what’s been called the “ebony tower,” the select historically black college and universities that make up the African-American ivy league.

But it can be done. Case in point: Clark Atlanta University.

Created 20 years ago through the merger of two historically black colleges, it shook off a reputation for easy admissions and now accepts about half of the students who apply. With a focus on engineering and science and the aggressive pursuit of federal grants, the university has risen from average to being frequently mentioned as one of the best HBCUs.

It Takes More

All of this is to say that it’s not impossible for Lemoyne-Owen College to become one of the nation’s best, but it’s going to take more than infusions of crisis-related funding and volumes of political rhetoric about failed leadership and petty politics. In fact, if anything, this approach to addressing the college’s future does nothing but devalue it, relegating it to nothing more than a political pawn rather than a center of quality education.

Before City Council votes on what is purported to be the $3 million answer, it ought to at least ask the $64 question: does LeMoyne-Owen College really have a future that deserves our confidence, much less our money?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Great Streets And Neighborhoods Of Memphis

To help out the American Planning Association's Great Places in America campaign to find America's 10 great streets and 10 great neighborhoods, we are looking for the best of Memphis.

Here’s what you suggested, so we’re sending these along to our APA friends for their consideration (including our recommendation of South Belvedere as the street and Vollintine-Evergreen as the neighborhood):


Definitely Vollintine-Evergreen - it features the Greenline, an expanding commercial strip (can't wait for Cafe Eclectic to open), one of the best public schools in the city, Rhodes College, a very active community association, designation as an historic district, and a genuinely diverse population.


Cowden Avenue, within The Joffre Area Civic Association, is a great place to live. Cowden is immediately adjacent to the Pink Palace Museum, IMAX and Planetarium.

On the other side of the Pink Palace is the Chickasaw Garden's neighborhood which, in addition to some of the most expensive and beautiful houses in the region, also boasts a lake and water fowl preserve which are great places to run, walk or observe natural beauty. Directly to the South of Cowden is the Memphis County Club. There will be no development on that land and they have one of the best private 4th of July firework displays in the region.
To the North, there is East High School and park with running track, paved walking trail, baseball diamond, soccer fields and playground. Cowden is a short walk from the main Public Library and the shops of Chickasaw Oaks (La Baguette bakery, etc). A little further down the road, but still a manageable walk is the University of Memphis campus with its endless cultural and educational attractions.

The annual 4th of July parade starts on Cowden and brings together residents and former residents who appreciate the greatness of this neighborhood. On any given night, you will find neighbors talking in their yards or on the sidewalks, kids playing and riding bikes, or an impromptu bar-b-q. Honorary resident Harry Estes is a credit to the neighborhood and humanity. He has dedicated his life to being a friend to everyone on Cowden. What a place.

Left Wing Cracker:

How about Peabody from Bellevue to McLean? That's a gorgeous area on the northern borders of Central Gardens and Idlewild, and lots of interesting houses.


South Main from National Civil Rights Musuem to GE Patterson is a great example of small businesses, restaurants, boutiques and residents (owners and renters) converging on a single street.


Cooper-Young is also a great street/junction for much the same reason. And with the new arts festival on South Main this October, both street/junctions will offer great local festivals.


One vote for Chickasaw Gardens


Overton Park between McLean and Evergreen for having survived the plan to gut that area with an interstate. Fortunately that area is a historic district so the new houses blend in nicely with the old.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cities Take Bass Pro Shop Hook, Line and Sinker

There’s a flyer going round that objects to the Bass Pro Shop agreement in the old arena, calling it a “sweetheart deal” and questioning the tens of millions of dollars of public incentives and the wisdom of using waterfront property for it.

No, the flyer’s not circulating in Memphis. Yet.

Actually, the flyer is circulating in Buffalo, where nagging questions about the superstore continue to dog the project, despite politicians and economic development types chasing the latest “silver bullet” answer to turning around downtown Buffalo.

Flyer Fishing

So far, there’s no flyers like it in Memphis, but then again, Buffalo has been trying since 2004 to get Bass Pro Shop to convert its promises about a megastore into an honest-to-goodness agreement.

The truth is that no retailer does a better job of reeling in big time public incentives than Bass Pro Shop. Its ability to hook hungry cities is legend in its industry, and it’s remarkable how many cities continue to be willing to give away tax dollars for a retail store.

Along the way, the company has become expert in the fine art of political manipulation, as it participates in the initial big announcement that raises expectations and puts politicians on the line to deliver a deal, almost any deal.


Buffalo is a case in point. With great media fanfare, politicians – including the governor of New York and the mayor of Buffalo – Bass Pro Shop announced that a vacant arena (beginning to sound familiar?) would be converted into a huge 250,000 square foot megastore, becoming the dynamic anchor for new downtown development.

After these kinds of high-profile announcements are made – with all their attendant overblown political rhetoric – it becomes all but impossible for politicians to rethink the wisdom of the deal, much less throw in the towel. As a result, the negotiating table is decidedly weighted toward the retailer, because the public sector’s priority is to save face and to do it, it needs to deliver a deal and declare victory.

You can see how it plays out in Buffalo. There, Bass Pro Shop kept the city government on the hook for years with promises that a redevelopment plan for the old arena was just around the corner. And yet, deadline after deadline passed with no progress as the company asked for more concessions. Meanwhile, the proposed project was scaled back 60 percent to 100,000 square feet.

A Fishy Museum

Finally, in the face of a 30-day ultimatum from Buffalo city government, Bass Pro Shop abandoned its grand plans for the vacant arena altogether and said it wanted a prominent location on the waterfront. In truth, it’s a highly questionable use of the prime site, but in hopes of convincing the public that they should be happy about the bait and switch, it was announced that with the new site, the public subsidy would be reduced from $60 million to $25 million.

Shortly afterwards, there was talk of a Bass Pro Museum and parking garages, so public funding may climb again.

Buffalo is not alone in the city equivalent of “new car fever.” However, it’s a reminder of the project mentality so endemic in cities today. Because of it, politicians are so determined to close a deal that they don’t ever take a step back and ask if it’s a deal even worth making. Instead of asking the hard questions, they heap more and more importance on the project, doling out a dizzying array of justifications about the retailer’s impact on downtown and economic impact arguments whose numbers are questionable at best and misleading at worse.

Unlikely Plans

Back here at home, we seem to be in the first phases of the Buffalo two-step. The big box retailer has so far not managed to come close to one of the deadlines set out in its non-binding agreement (we’re not really sure why you even bother to sign one of these since they are not binding in the first place) and a letter of intent with Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

For those keeping score, Bass Pro Shop was first supposed to take possession of The Pyramid no later than June 30, 2006, and then a letter of intent left the question of a deadline wide open, simply saying that the company would take charge of the darkened Tomb of Doom 90 days after signing a binding lease and development agreement. This is a legal equivalent of saying that Bass Pro Shop could take possession of The Pyramid in a year or in a decade.

Based on the lessons in Buffalo, it looks as likely that the Grizzlies will move back into The Pyramid as for a deal with Bass Pro Shop anytime soon, much less what was originally promised - the $105 million construction of an indoor hotel, a marina with on-the-water boat testing, an inclinator ride to the apex, multiple restaurants, an aquarium and a cypress swamp.

No Hurry

There are even murmurings within Bass Pro Shop management that the company is just keeping its options open in Memphis as it evaluates potential locations for the superstores that it’s considered building in a few select places.

It’s hard to imagine why it would be in a hurry. After all, it’s been able to tie up Memphis’ signature building while it sorts out what it wants to do regarding the megastore.

All in all, this is enough to jar loose some recessive memories of Sidney Shlenker – big announcements, bigger plans, expanding budget, increasing demands on local government and big changes to come.

Festival Grounds

Local officials seem prepared to wait it out, and if we’ve seen the results of keeping the pressure on Bass Pro Shop so far, it’s easy to predict what a more laid-back approach will produce. It’s clear that Memphis and Shelby County Governments have no fall-back plan for the 16-year-old abandoned 20,000-seat arena.

Since no one seems to like our suggestion that we tear down a building known for its obsolescence almost from the day its doors opened, here’s another option inspired by the need for festival grounds that can be used by Memphis in May International Festival with less impact on downtown traffic and Tom Lee Park.

Here’s the proposal: leave the parking north of The Pyramid, remove the acres of asphalt used for parking lots on the south side and turn the entire 17-acre footprint into festival grounds for downtown. It invigorates the area of the downtown visitors’ center, bringing activity to the adjacent land and replacing the fields of gray asphalt with new greenspace. In addition, if there’s rain, Memphis in May has an indoor venue for its prime acts.

Kids Count

Finally, we think someone should get over to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and see if it would buy the rights to add the inclinator up the northern spine of The Pyramid, to develop the 10,000 square foot apex of The Pyramid and to keep the proceeds for its life-saving mission. Perhaps, all previous perceptions about the viewing platform at the top of the 320-foot building have looked the wrong way.

Rather than see the apex as an overlook for the river, perhaps, we need to consider it as an overlook for the research hospital, about the only organization in Memphis who has the deep pockets to develop the inclinator out of its petty cash. The St. Jude connection also opens up some interesting possibilities for the theme of the tourist attraction at the top of The Pyramid.

Best of all, this sends the message to Bass Pro Shop that Memphis is willing to control its own destiny. Until the retailer understands this, nothing really is going to change, especially as long as deadlines aren’t really deadlines and as long as cities talk tough for public consumption but give in in private. In this environment, the Bass Pro Shops megastores in Buffalo and Memphis will materialize only when and if the company wants them to.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Memphis' Best Streets And Neighborhoods

This week, we're trying to help out the American Planning Association's Great Places in America campaign to find America's 10 great streets and 10 great neighborhoods.

That's why we're asking you:

Name the great streets and the great neighborhoods of Memphis. And tell us why you think they are.

We'll forward the list on to our APA friends. On May 9, we posted the APA's description of what makes streets and neighborhoods great, but we figure we all know them when we see them.

Friday, May 11, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Urban Redevelopment

Urban redevelopment has been fun to watch over the past decade. Surprising projects are popping up everywhere, and our guests this week are behind some of the most interesting.

Eve Picker is transforming Pittsburgh's long-ignored downtown buildings into stylish residences and offices, setting the stage for future residential development in the heart of that city. Trained as an architect and urban designer, Eve has built an entrepreneurial real estate development business called No Wall Productions in Pittsburgh.

Jeanne Goodman was the very first investor in Boston's Jamaica Plain Cohousing where she now lives. It is an unusual style of shared living with neighbors to fit today's busy lifestyles. Jeanne is a co-housing advocate with Ecodevelopments. Her newest project is EcoVillage.

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

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Whitehaven's Future Sparks Serious Suggestions

The weekly question in our suggestion box generated a lot of interest, not to mention some really perceptive comments. That’s as it should be, because all of us need to be doing whatever it takes to revitalize Whitehaven.

Here’s the question:

If you had the power to take definitive actions to fight the abandonment and decline of Whitehaven, what would you do?

Here’s your answers, beginning with the always insightful Sherman:

You got to fix the zoning 1st as it is anything goes right now. If you can do that(!), then you should focus on the area's strengths:
1) Elvis
2) Music Heritage
3) Southern Food (BBQ & soul food galore)

While Elvis is the easy anchor, you also have Al Green's church, Furry Lewis' grave, Hernando's Hideway, Bad Bob's, a gateway to Jerry Lee's home in Hernando, Bar-Kays hqs, the Executive Inn, the Manhattan Club, etc. Not bad for one neighborhood! In fact, few neighborhoods in the world would have nearly as much of the music history/heritage this neighborhood has and none other has a Graceland. (You even have a satellite radio station broadcasting Memphis music 24/7--talk about an asset! How rare and convenient is that!) So, Elvis is the driver, but you got a lot more than the King going musically...

Then for food, you have A&R bbq, Marlowe's, D'Bos, the original Memphis Krispy Kreme, Grandma's, many tasty hot wings & fried chicken joints, etc. (Not to mention Payne's, Coletta's, Stein's, Ellen's BBQ, & several others in the adjacent neighborhood). Play this angle up: some of the best eating in the South (the whole country?) all at very reasonable prices.

You definitely need to spend some jack on urban design though (maps to locales/signage/historical markers. etc--all easily done, esp. with a visitors center at your main entrance point), because the unencumbered development from the '60s til now has made one unaesthetically pleasing locale for sure.

If (when?) Sillerman makes his amphitheater across from Graceland, a festival (or festivals) celebrating the music (& food) of the neighborhood is a no brainer.

It's a daunting task since the suburb is so massive, and it will take a lot of money to dress up what has taken almost 50 years to screw up, but you gotta go with the strengths. Basically you have an intl. embassy with an almost insatiable demand of national/intl. customers coming to a neighborhood replete with car dealers, industrial/corporate warehouses, mediocre strip malls, and fast food joints. They are coming despite the surroundings! Imagine if the surroundings had decent hotels, nicer streetscapes, & less crime!

No wonder Sillerman saw a bargain at $75 million plus stock.

Then there’s this from Stranger:
You start with two strips. The Elvis Presely Blvd corridor from Graceland up to I-55 with Brooks road being a "gateway" of sorts with the Visitors’ Center being there. The Visitors’ Center needs to expand. The car lots and junk places up and down the street need to be replaced with major hotels and nice restaurants.

The other strip is on Winchester from the Airport leading to Elvis Presley Blvd. To spark growth, both strips need some type of tax incentives as well as an aggressive plan to recruit more hotels and restaurants into that strip.

As a former Whitehaven resident, Dwayne weighs in with this:
I lived in Whitehaven for several years and have a lot of fondness for it. Many former residents like to nostalgically think of the old days and think of newer suburbs as the “new Whitehaven.”

The seeds of blight were there in the old days, however. Much of the Northern part was overbuilt with cheap apartments and there was too much haphazard commercial; and industrial development.

I would concentrate on closing and clearing multihousing and commercial activity that does not meet more stringent standards than exist currently. Current owners should be charged with the demolition costs. Much of this land should be used for large urban parkland in conjunction with a greenway along Nonconnah Creek.

Brooks Road needs to be cleaned up, so does Elvis Presley South to Graceland. You didn’t mention that Whitehaven and vicinity is the economic engine of the Memphis area. On the North end is Smith and Nephew and Medtronics. Of course the airport on the East and the many truck lines along Brooks and nearby plus Johnson Yards (RR) off of Horn Lake.

These businesses need to be organized and motivated to work together for the clean-up of the area.

As you said, Whitehaven has many nice settled neighborhoods. The part that is between EP and the tracks contains older homes, many of them pre WWII, that are ripe for renovation activities similar to that of Cooper Young and North Memphis in recent years. A program like this, with good marketing, can bring back young singles and marrieds and serve as a basis for rejuvenating the area. Also, the affordability should be used by enterprising real estate investors as a draw for young families.

All of these combined plus other imaginative ideas can bring Whitehaven back.

Another Whitehavener (Whitehavenite?), Renee, has this perspective:
Anyone here have one of those bumper stickers that says, "Whitehaven is my kind of Memphis"?!!

Everyone I've met who has lived in Whitehaven has some pride in it as a community, and those feelings are not necessarily rooted in the popularity of Elvis Presley, although it's not surprising that Elvis chose to live in a soulful area like Whitehaven.

Though I understand the thought behind "bring Whitehaven back" the terminology is mis-oriented. Like other sprawling neighborhoods in Memphis, we will "go back to Whitehaven," not the other way around. Whitehaven has some strength of its own for Memphis to connect to.

Having grown up there, I've always sensed the community there is very strong...and getting stronger. People willingly work together there - which really hints that they are an advanced community in some ways, if not in their physical environs. And Whitehaven is tough, in the sense that toughness is a resilience to breaking while being stressed. How does a 'smart' city connect the successful small pockets of strength within a community, in order to bring a larger community together?

It's so exciting to see discussion about Whitehaven! Several years ago, the Whitehaven Community Development Corporation put strong efforts into the improvement of the 'Elvis Presley Corridor'... is that organization still strong?

What are the current master projects going on in Whitehaven??

Sherman responded:
Elvis chose to live in "Whitehaven" because Graceland was out in the country on a two-lane highway -- before the strip malls, fast food joints, car dealers, and, frankly, Whitehaven arrived.

If the community in current Whitehaven is so strong, how come it continues electing such weak representation that does nothing about the blight?

I agree with both stranger and Dwayne. Fixing the two strips is key. One problem that offers me cognitive dissonance is how do you reconcile two different, conflicting constituents (with a third being the neighborhood folks driving through to and from work each day): the transportation/truck industry tied to Fedex and the national/intl. visitors looking for a great vacation experience. More industry means more traffic & trucking; beautifying the area for more tourism means the trucking industry is less welcome.

I'm afraid that's where you need to spend some money with neighborhood design experts like Frank Ricks, who solve these problems daily all over the city. I'm not sure this or any blog can solve those issues you present, but you do bring up an interesting topic for discussion.

One of our anonymous contributes says:
Use the broken windows theorty by cracking down on the small stuff (grafitti, loitering, panhandling, truancy).

Use eminant domain to penalize people who don't maintain their property.
Offer some incentives to businesses to move to the area. Increase jobs and the population will follow.

Another anonymous reader suggests that the problems lie deeper:
The 3rd commentor has it completely backwards. Jobs follow people (educated, motivated, high quality workforce). Not vice versa. The jobs won't go to Whitehaven, and in a larger sense, Memphis, because the work force is subpar. It's the biggest reason Marion didn't get the Toyota plant.

To improve things, we have to raise the quality of the workforce mainly through better education, and then jobs will come.

But it is a COMPLETE fallacy that people follow jobs. The reality is: jobs follow people.

In response, Dwayne emphasizes his point about the key Whitehaven employment base:
The third and fourth commentators neither realize that the Whitehaven area DOES have jobs now. In fact, it may have more jobs than any other part of Memphis if you include the Airport.

That includes high-tech jobs at Smith & Nephew and Medtronics and other employers. It's also only a few minutes from most other employers in the City and across the State line.

As I stated in the earlier post, the blight needs to be cleaned up and the old but attractive homes and lots should be marketed for rejuvenation by young professionals, both white and black.

Anonymous clarifies:
4th commentator here; allow me the luxury of clarification. Of course Whitehaven has a lot of jobs. It is a huge employment center with Smith & Nephew, fedex, Medtronic, etc. However, I was commenting on the IDEA that creating jobs will bring people. That is patently false. If you want proof, then with all the jobs in Whitehaven (the aforementioned companies pay well above average wages) why aren't people moving into Whitehaven in droves, black and white?

I would say the reason lies in both the areas you have pointed out (blight) as well as the old Memphis bugaboo, racism (I mean let's face it, white flight killed Whitehaven, along with terrible development and zoning decisions). Now white flight and terrible planning decisions have killed HIckory Hill (Cordova's next), although Whitehaven is at an advantage in that it has some great housing stock, which HH most certainly does not.

Bottom line, in most of Memphis, white people flee when black people migrate in.

A final anonymous writer seconded this thought:
I second the white flight theory.

That's one of the reasons midtown has never declined. A lot of midtowners never left and it's a place tolerant of diversity.

I feel sorry for those that had to see there beautiful area become the next victim of white flight suburbanization.

Thanks for the great discussion, and we remind you that we welcome any contributions about strategies for improving Memphis and its competitiveness. They don't have to be on the question of the week, so feel free to send your commentary to

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Charrette Paper To Be Released Monday

A few weeks ago, we praised the Winchester Park/Intown Charrette, and we were asked when the report from the charrette would be released.

Here's the answer: the "post-charrette paper" will be released at 4:30 p.m., Monday, May 14, at St. Mary's Cathedral at 700 Poplar. The UrbanArt Commission promises that you'll "learn what has happened, what is happening now and how you can get involved."

The charrette was held in cooperation with the Knight Program in Community Building. For information, call 901.525.0880.

Question Of The Week: Memphis' Best Streets and Neighborhoods

Our question of the week is inspired by the American Planning Association’s Great Places in America program. This year, it’s looking for 10 great streets and 10 great neighborhoods to be recognized later this year for the way they create lasting value for their residents and their city.

Belvedere Boulevard and Vollintine-Evergreen come instantly to our minds, but in Memphis, we are lucky to have an embarrassment of riches. APA says it’s looking to celebrate special places of character, quality and planning, and the deadline for nominations is May 15.

So, take a minute and give us your nominations and your explanations for why you submitted them. We’ll see what streets and neighborhoods get the strongest support, and we’ll forward them along to local APA leaders to consider as they send in their nominations.

Most of us know a great street and a great neighborhood when we see one, but if you need prompting, here’s some criteria from APA:

Great streets are ones that...

* Balance competing needs of driving, transit, walking, cycling, servicing, parking, drop-offs, etc.

* Are bordered by a variety of interesting activities and uses that create a varied streetscape.

* Have urban design, architectural features or both that may be exemplary in design.
* Encourage human contact and social activities.

* Employ hardscape, landscape, or both, to great effect.

* Promote safety of pedestrians and vehicles and allows for use over the 24-hour day (as appropriate for the setting or location.

* Promote sustainability through minimizing runoff, reusing water, ensuring groundwater quality, minimizing heat islands and responding to climatic demands.

* Have a memorable character and other outstanding qualities that make it stand out among other good streets.

Great Neighborhoods are ones that...

* Have a variety of functional attributes that contribute to a resident's day-to-day living (i.e. residential, commercial, or mixed-uses.

* Accommodate multi-modal transportation (i.e. pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers.

* Have design and architectural features that are visually interesting.

* Encourage human contact and social activities.

* Promote community involvement and maintains a secure environment.

* Promote sustainability and responds to climactic demands.

* Draw you in and make you want to take a closer look.

* Have a memorable character and other outstanding qualities that make it the best of many good neighborhoods.

Monday, May 07, 2007

No Deals 20 Percent Failure Rate

About one in five of the “No Deals” cases of the Shelby County Attorney General’s Office ends up in deals or they are dismissed.

That’s the word from insiders in the prosecutors’ office who say the program is rooted as much in strategies for publicity as strategies for prosecutions. But at the very least, the statistics call into question the program’s dramatic tagline: “Hard Crime Gets All the Time.”

In this way, they say, the firestorm created by the recent Mickey Wright case hints at a smoldering problem that extends beyond the plea bargain reached with the brutal murderer of Mr. Wright, a codes inspector for Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

The Gulf

The disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality in criminal prosecutions appears to be no surprise to African-Americans in Memphis, although The Commercial Appeal editorial department seems mired in deep denial. While we admire the apparent, well-intentioned concern that seems to drive its editorial policy – to reduce the racial volatility of this issue – the paper’s tone seems almost to be the defense of a close friend rather than as an opportunity for the serious discussion of an important public issue.

The outrage in the wake of the decision by the attorney general’s office to downgrade the charge against Dale V. Mardis, to enter into a plea bargain, to allow him to plead no contest to second degree murder and to recommend a sentence of 15 years continues to rumble in the African-American community and beyond, and criticism of the attorney general’s office continues unabated.

Often, at times like these, the closeness between mainstream media and prosecutors is never more obvious. With grassroots indignation growing, rather than ask tough questions about the prosecution’s handling of the Mardis case and the effectiveness, not to mention fairness, of the “No Deals” policy, most news media have largely been content to accept the party line of prosecutors as gospel and to treat African-American concerns as coming from a place of racial politics rather than from a place of serious concern about the overall equity of prosecutorial policies.

A Matter Of Degrees

Because of it, there’s been no serious inquiry by reporters to review the investigation files of Mr. Wright or to examine the prosecution’s theory of the case. Clearly, there were mistakes made in the Mardis case. It’s just a matter of degrees.

The list of possible mistakes range from whether there is a tendency to categorize cases as “No Deal” prosecutions to curry headlines, whether it was an error to pursue a hate crime theory of the case when there was little physical evidence to support it, whether there was a lapse in judgment in assembling the case, whether there was an all or nothing approach that doomed the case or whether cases removed from the “No Deals” policy should require an actual guilty plea rather than allow a plea of nolo contendere.

Just A Few

In spite of The Commercial Appeal’s editorial absolution, there are serious questions that remain to be answered. We’ve listed a number of them previously, but a few that come quickly to mind are:

· If the case was so fatally weak, why did Mardis agree to a 15-year prison sentence?

· Why did the prosecutors allow him to enter a no contest plea that keeps a guilty plea off his record?

· When does “No “Deals” really mean no deals?

Talking Points

Instead of answers to these fundamental questions, the public gets countless tortured explanations about the canon of ethics, the fine print of the “no deals” policy and the confusing tangle of legal justifications for the whiplash-causing shift in position.

After all, the attorney general’s bumper stickers had led most Memphians to believe that “No Deals” meant no deals. “If an individual is charged with committing a violent crime, he or she must plead guilty as charged or go to trial,” the attorney general’s office has pronounced.

But we now know to read the fine print: “No plea bargaining will take place unless an exception is granted for legal or ethical reasons.” Some ask why these “legal or ethical reasons” aren’t resolved before these kinds of heavy-duty charges are leveled against defendants, but at a fundamental level, that's not the nature of the beast.

The 20 Percent Solution

According to some in the prosecutors’ office, when you add the percentage of “No Deals” cases that are disposed of when defendants charges are reduced to the charges dismissed by the state, they amount to about 20 percent of the “No Deals” cases and that over the years, that percentage is relatively consistent.

Questions about “No Deals” policies were sparked again a couple of weeks ago when another “No Deals” defendant charged with killing a nine-year-old boy had his charges reduced to second degree murder. Although prosecutors said in 2002 that they would seek the death penalty for the defendant, the murderer entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 23 years in prison, leaving another angry family grappling with the shifting sands of the “No Deals” program.

Ebbs and Flows

The “No Deals” program began in 1997 by new attorney general Bill Gibbons, and in its first year, 1,057 “No Deals” indictments were returned. While the number dramatically declined in the years after his election in 1998 (all the way to 479 in 2000) and began to climb to record highs as reelection approached, we are loathe to accept the premise that the “No Deals” program is affected by the ebbs and flows of political expediency.

But we do believe this: prosecutors have invested a lot of time and money in their tough-talking campaign, but as the controversy over the recent plea bargains indicates, there are deep-seeded questions about the applications of these policies, and prosecutors would be wiser responding to the public’s questions with some recalibrations of the program than appearing before microphones and editorial boards armed with talking points.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Question Of The Week Focuses On Whitehaven

So far, our question of the week isn't inspiring much interest, and in case you're still thinking about it, what are the impact of the aerotropolis concept on Whitehaven?

We hope you'll weigh in, and as a reminder, here's the question:

If you had the power to take definitive actions to fight the abandonment and decline of Whitehaven, what would you do?

This Week On Smart City: Banking On Our Cities

Many cities are banking their future on the promise of logistics - the industry devoted to moving stuff from the maker to the market. While the industry has grown more sophisticated with information and technology, success still depends on transportation. Rob Hoffman, the former director of business development for World Business Chicago and a specialist in trade, is with us to talk about the state of transportation and how it affects a major growth industry in the U.S. Prior to joining World Business Chicago, Rob led the Industrial Marketing and Sales practice at the Chicago Manufacturing Center.

We'll also talk to Sara Rogers about the Urban Academies of Broward County in South Florida, a recent Harvard Innovations in Government Award winner. Sara is a lifetime educator having served as a math teacher, assistant principal and principal for thirty years.

And we hear from Reena Jana of BusinessWeek.

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

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

America's Favorite City Survey Ignores Our Favorite

Our hearts swelled when we saw the ad in this month’s edition of Travel + Leisure.

It exulted: Vote Now! America’s Favorite Cities Survey.

The ad promised that we should log in right now to vote for our “favorite cities for shopping, dining, nightlife, culture, and more.” It even laid out some sample questions that caught our attention:

• What city has the most attractive residents?

• Where is the best place for a romantic escape?

• What is the top city for shopping?

• Which American city has the best barbecue?

• Which city has the friendliest people?

Barbecuing Our City

We logged on to cast our votes with great anticipation, because it seemed to us that we should win at least the last two of the questions. But our burgeoning civic pride was quickly quashed.

With the America’s Favorite Cities Survey, Travel + Leisure and CNN joined hands to preordain the 25 cities that we could select from. Memphis was nowhere to be found.

And they say they really want to find the friendliest people and the best barbecue. Puh-lease.

Some Like It Hot

The website called these “25 of America’s hottest cities.” Haven’t they ever been in Memphis in August?

OK, we admit that the list contains the usual suspects – many of which we frequently spotlight on this blog – Austin, Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Denver, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New Orleans, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Seattle and Washington.

We’ll concede most of them, although we’d argue that as far as great places to visit, Memphis surprisingly whips Denver convincingly. Denver has mountains, but those are miles and miles out of town, and the city itself just leaves us flat.

Bad Taste

Maybe it’s just sour grapes.

But we think, surely, Travel + Leisure and CNN have engaged in exhaustive research to come up with their list of hot cities. However, as far as we can tell, there’s no hint on how they compiled their list.

Without too much civic pride blinding our objectivity, we just can’t see how Memphis isn’t on a list that also manages to include Nashville and Dallas. We’ve never been able to claim any kind of authentic experience there except varying shades of dull. In fact, we’d probably make the same claim about Atlanta, which generally feels like a city made for conventioneers and drained of any hint of authenticity.

Gritty City

Of course, these are only our personal opinions, but then again, that’s what this survey was supposed to let us express. But, how can we give our opinions when the magazine and TV network eliminated our options going in?

The website also features the results of the 2004 American’s Favorite Cities and broke the votes down in categories like on foot, activities, family trips, holidays and seasons, romance, sightseeing, quality of life, people and getting around, and generally the cities hitting the target most often were New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Twin Cities, Orlando, Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, San Antonio and Honolulu.

We admit that we have our concerns about Memphis. They find their way here many days, but it all comes from a deep love for this gritty, frustrating and endlessly interesting city.

May In Memphis

Even the most jaded Memphian can feel a burst of civic pride right now. Downtown is filled with a steady stream of music fans, and soon, the fragrance of barbecue will fill the air.

While we have pointed out that we have the unhealthy habit of being hypnotized by our own hyperbole, it’s easy to get caught up in a bit of overstatement about ourselves right now. There’s nothing like springtime to cast Memphis in a whole new light, and to kick that off with a month-long of Memphis in May International Festival just makes us think that Travel + Leisure and CNN just totally missed the boat on this one.

We admit that Memphis’ regular omission from these kinds of lists gets our goat, and we hope that this problem attracts the attention of the organizations whose missions are to marketing Memphis positively on the national stage.

Fire Back

If things have sunk so low that the options for cities with great barbecue and friendly people don’t include Memphis, we need to get someone’s attention as soon as we can. So, if you want to join us in emailing Travel + Leisure, click here and fire off a message telling the magazine that its list is clearly one city short.