Friday, June 29, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Learning From Our Past

Since the opening of Millennium Park in Chicago, parks have become the hottest urban amenity. But Char Miller, director of urban studies at Trinity University reminds us that this is the second golden age of parks. Bold civic visions in the 19th century gave us the great parks we enjoy today. We'll find out what we can learn from that earlier era that can lead to better parks for cities today.

And we'll talk to Ben Shields who is tracking the elusive sports fan and how urban entertainment marketers can find their audience. Ben is co-author of The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace and he is a frequent media commentator and speaker on the sports marketing industry.

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, June 27, 2007

Walnut Grove Road Project: The Monument To Developer Influence In Local Government

Every day, I have the same thought.

Sitting in the line of traffic in the construction chaos at Walnut Grove between I-240 and Shelby Farms Park, I look at the enormity of thus roadbuilding project and I say to myself: “I don’t know who he is, but clearly, this guy was one monster of a political contributor.”

That’s because road projects like this don’t just happen. They regularly result from a convergence of politically connected developers, campaign financial needs of elected officials and bureaucratic processes driven to a foregone conclusion.

This $36 million project is a classic case study. Watching the doggedness that has characterized its progress through the system for a decade, it’s a testament to the relentless way that some projects push their way through the system while others – often affordable, small-scale and focused on urban neighborhoods – are abandoned at the first sign of an obstacle.

Mastering The Minutiae

That’s rarely the case for projects like Walnut Grove Road. They exist because of arcane processes and little-known approval points that are known only to those who most profit from the knowledge.

Remarkably, for many years, including the years when this project was born, road priorities for local government were essentially set by the Major Roads Committee, a pro-business advisory group that had no official power but still debated projects and forwarded a list of priorities to city and county governments. Routinely, the list then became the official roads list for local government and generally became the priorities for Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

The final list was as much a process of lobbying and negotiation as it ever was a discussion of traffic projections and transportation needs. With the backing of the Major Roads Committee, powerful business interests – most with connections to the development industry – lined up behind the projects and local governments weren’t too far behind.

Owning The Process

With gallows humor, it was once joked in the county mayor’s office that if you took each road project and turned the end of it into an arrow, it would point directly at the developer’s property where millions would be made.

On another occasion, planners prepared a map that showed all the property owned by one local developer with unparalleled success for obtaining government help. They then connected all the property in a highway route named for him and it wound all over Shelby County, but as a planner said: “We should just go ahead and build it and be done with it.”

It’s hard to argue with the cynicism that sets in at an early stage of so many planners’ careers over the past 25 years. For decades, they have seen developers move mountains – and get miles and miles of asphalt laid – to the point that Memphis is a leader (#6) in the ranking of cities with the most highway lanes per capita.

Clear Cosequences

Most of the time, all of this may seem like a local political curiosity, if not a fact of life, but with the federal government breathing down the neck of local governments to improve air quality, it’s now finally center stage and hopefully, for the first time, serious thought will be given to overhauling the entire road building process in Memphis and Shelby County.

The tough talk from EPA is the latest evidence in an overwhelming case against local governments’ diffidence while the negative impacts of sprawl became more and more evident – climbing county debt, social costs of sprawl and the almost cultlike devotion to roadbuilding that mirrored the increasing power of developers.

Amazingly, the unsustainable nature of sprawl was largely ignored until the whopping “payment due” bill was delivered to Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton along with his certificate of election.

The Gift

For the previous 20 years, development interests owned the process, and at times, it was as if county government had never met a road it wasn’t willing to build. (It even paid as much as 75 percent of the costs of highways within the smaller towns - although the same offer wasn’t made to Memphis.) While public schools are often the poster child for the suffocating county bond debt, the costs of roads make up a significant part of the total.

Always a gift to the most favored developers, the overabundance of six-lane roads now criss-crossing Shelby County are costly reminders of the time when the development industry owned most of the government processes that could have put the brakes on sprawl. Any staff member – particularly professional planners – would quickly get a target on their backs if they had the audacity to question any part of a project, and they were demoted or ostracized. It was an object lesson that had a chilling effect on the non-appointed employees who spend their lives discerning which way the political winds are blowing.

An aside: it would be a stroke of masterful urban design if city and county governments would now come up with a reclamation project in which the excess lanes of roads all over the county are removed, returning hundreds of acres of land back to green space, and maybe even using them for biking and hiking trails that are considered necessities in cities across the U.S. except in the Memphis traffic engineer’s office.

Unpaid Debts

It’s the fundamental nature of the news media that the remaining debt on The Pyramid is treated like it’s reason enough to chase a poor idea like the Bass Pro Shop megastore, but there’s little thought given to the remaining debt on hundreds of miles of roads that thread their ways through once-bustling parts of Memphis and Shelby County but are now largely abandoned.

Interesting, in recent years, there has been no serious coverage by the daily news media of the intricacies of the process for setting road priorities, and except for wizened Commercial Appeal veteran Jimmie Covington and Memphis Flyer's old pro John Branston, there’s no one who seems to know that it exists, much less understand it. They were the first - and the only - reporters who have seen the news value of writing about the straight line between developer, politician and road project, and Mr. Branston in particular has been a voice in the wilderness about it for years.

For decades, developers owned local government, but most of the time these days, it’s more of a lease.

The Brontosaurus

The shift hasn’t come as much from heightened concerns by elected officials about government integrity as much from the realities of the tightening public budgets and the deepening debt of city and county governments. These have all but killed the spirit of largesse that typified decisions for so many years.

Perhaps, if we are lucky, the Walnut Grove Road project will come to be a dinosaur from a past time – one of the last gifts to developers. But even with budget realities staring elected officials in their faces, it will take serious diligence to change things because developers show a Dick Cheney-like skill at manipulating obscure public processes and interpreting policies to their benefit.

Such is politics, some would say, but the fact is that the public’s voice has been so systematically excluded from these conversations that it lends credence to the conclusion that it’s more like special political access to the favored few.

The Bias

All of this occurs to me as I wait for the slow lanes of traffic to inch along Walnut Grove Road, dodging orange barrels, construction debris, cranes and rubber neckers. It also occurs to me that ultimately, developers will try to use the expanded road and massive bridge as justification for plowing ahead into Shelby Farms, as traffic engineers perpetuate their bias that parkland is a prime road site because it’s free.

This bias was most powerfully proven by the 24-27 new lanes of traffic aimed directly at the 4,500 acres of Shelby Farms Park. This doesn’t include the new lanes that the engineers would like to add to “improve” Walnut Grove Road.

Looking at the wish list for road projects, it’s clear that engineers haven’t yet abandoned their tendency to propose and pursue designs that are based on three hours of traffic a day – rush hour.

Baffling The Opposition

And get ready for the justifications. If statistics can be said to justify any point of view, that’s particularly true of traffic projections. Because they are only understood by a few, engineers intimidate lay legislators whose votes are needed with explanations that sound like expositions on the Torah. And if it’s true that 10 rabbis can give 10 different interpretations on a Torah passage, it’s equally true that 10 traffic engineers can reach 10 different conclusions – it that’s the results wanted by their clients.

Primarily because of the county engineer’s more enlightened views on road design, Shelby County is outpacing City of Memphis in making decisions that make more sense, that are more sustainable and create communities that are more livable. If, in fact, Mayor Wharton in time decides to enter the mayor’s race for Memphis, one of his prime motivations is to transform transportation and urban design (translation: the city traffic engineer would need to get his resume updated).

There is an encouraging awakening that’s taking place – reflected in context sensitive highway design processes, an interest in bike paths and other alterative transportation, more appreciation for “green assets,” the connection between sprawl and health and an emphasis on good design.

It’s just a beginning. But it’s a start. Finally.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Suggestion Of The Week: Branding Memphis For Social Equity

We continue to solicit contributions from readers who have ideas for improving Memphis. This post is the latest in that series, and it comes from Dr. Aaron Shafer, a postdoctoral fellow conducting research at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. You may remember that we previously wrote about him and his colleagues who are championing a skatepark to attract young professionals and to build a sense of community.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the need for Memphis to develop a city brand. As we said then, it's not about taglines and slogans, but about the higher purpose of our city.

Dr. Shafer offered a comment to that post and we asked him to expand upon it for this "Suggestion of the Week" feature.

Here's his idea to brand Memphis as the center of social equity:

The Brand

I've been thinking about what Memphis represents for awhile now, especially in the context of globalization. Perhaps the “brand” is nothing more making a vision for a city synonymous with an image or short phrase.

To have a vision for the future, one must delve both into the past and look how certain economic models and traditions (good and bad), such as our lovely capitalism, have shaped our current economic climate. When we see how these forces play with our economies, we can formulate a vision that proactively responds to how these economic forces and cultural habits (e.g. consumerism) will continue to degrade our job growth and economic strength.

So, how did we lose the jobs in the first place?

Into The Void

When manufacturing was shipped overseas to China and Japan and now India, places like Memphis took a huge blow, and I would argue they have yet to recover from that loss. Welfare replaced the void. Why? All in the name of profits and consumers wanting the lowest price.

Was freedom to choose from dirt cheap goods worth the trade for jobs? Shareholders and we consumers enjoyed unheard of profits and choices and so our standard of living went up and the concept of the sustainable living wage disappeared. So now, we have a very large population of poor who have multitudes of consumables to choose from, but no jobs that could actually sustain them.

From this type of analysis, I would propose, that Memphis stands to position itself as the future leader in demonstrating how to successfully implement a socially and environmentally equitable economic model.

Nonprofit Models Of Business

In this type of model, businesses will be tightly integrated with the non-profit sector so that business serves to empower the low-income worker in housing and to empower its non-profit operations that directly serve the community. The idea is to create self-sustaining nonprofit entities that engage both in business activities and local outreach.

The two arms are tightly linked in that the at-risk and lower-income participants that utilize the non-profit services such as life skills training, mentoring, daycare, transitional housing will then be funneled into the corporate arm where they obtain a job. We need jobs to go hand-in-hand with the services that train the people for them.

In this scenario, the community center is the corporation. Ideally, this would naturally happen with the existing businesses in Memphis, it does if you are in the “network” but largely the jobs just are not there.

Why Memphis?

So what type of jobs are we talking about? And why would Memphis poised for this new type of type of approach? Memphis and the U.S. stand to recapture the manufacturing market. Memphis is rich in non-profits and organizations that exist to serve and raise up the community.

If these nonprofits and future nonprofits start to incorporate self-sustainability and job creation as their major goals, I think that philanthropic foundations will be quick to fund these type of approaches because these type of new “companies” are not merely draining cash but are aiming to train and create jobs with the mission of creating long term job stability with low-income jobs that can actually sustain their workforce.

By sustain, I mean that workers could actually buy a house with their wage. How? The company profits or an initial start-up capital from a foundation subsidizes mortgage at a cost that is scaled according to the wage of the worker. In the long-run this type of subsidization will allow for competitive pricing. I would argue this type of subsidization is a far better incentive then the welfare which provides a major incentive NOT to work.


Why go to all this trouble to re-invent manufacturing? One could argue that we merely need to educate and modernize our workforce. That's a part of the solution but - here's the problem - we are losing our workforce at all levels to globalization. As a scientist in the high-tech biotech sector, I can personally say that the competition is fierce.

Memphis can demonstrate that it can re-engage its workforce in a business that exists to make low-wage jobs once again a sustainable effort in that profits are poured into the employees and the community. Let's be the first ones to re-figure this out, but this time using a more socially and ecologically minded approach.

The great news is that this is already happening.


Memphis Bioworks represents the beginning of this new era. With the formation of Tennessee’s first charter school, the establishment of a biotech program at Southwest Community college and the partnering with some key foundations, Memphis Bioworks will be a key component to this new type of socially equitable economy.

Another local visionary is Detric Golden who has started an after school program called, Goldenchildministries. He has started a real estate business that solely exists to sustain his outreach program. He is a father figure/mentor for 35 kids that are in his program. He also is training the kids in his program how to assess, buy and sell real estate.
He’s a role model, a teacher and a potential employer all wrapped into one.
That’s amazing.

So, the major challenge will be how to empower low-wage workers with affordable housing while maintaining a competitive edge price-wise. Or will the “brand” or reputation or the “good-will” of the company out compete the profit driven competitor? History would say good-luck buddy!

Do It Or Have It Done To Us

Can we be proactive before globalization forces us to do this in a far less friendly fashion? With the assistance of foundations, I believe we can make sustainable competitive companies, because in the end, we are replacing welfare and re-infusing pride and jobs into a community that has been marginalized for far too many years.

If the government can subsidize a major sector of society (which it is currently) so that the current economic climate can continue to “flourish,” why can’t we subsidize companies so that people can make a sustainable living and eventually reach the point where the company no longer needs to be subsidized?

What’s the catch? Will this be easy? No.

Socially Equitable Capitalism

There will be a lot of personal sacrifice to execute this model. We will need to re-define and downsize our standard of living to make it work. Companies do this all the time for profit margins at the expense of jobs. We can either downsize now by choice or…one day this standard will be forcefully re-imposed on us (via globalized consumerism) as we continue to consume at a rate that is not ecologically sustainable.

Socially equitable capitalism: this is the brand that will work for Memphis. We are a distribution center. We have a huge working class that can be retrained and are proud to make a living-wage that is sustainable for fair living. If we don’t adopt this brand, Uncle Sam will continue to be a major "employer" to many Memphians. Let’s not leave the branding up to him.

Ultimately, we can pour millions into every imaginable type of facility or amenity, but if in the end, we have a no jobs and hope for the economically disadvantaged then is lost to acts of desperation - to crime. Crime is merely the result of society and corporations failing to mentor, train and provide opportunities to the poor. Prisons and welfare will continue to be the standard “hands off” approach for dealing societal burdens, but let’s not let this happen because one day we could be that societal burden as our global neighbors pier down at us with casual indifference.

Memphis can make a brand for itself as being the first city in the U.S. to refuse to let the status quo be the norm.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

New Law On Regional Cooperation First Needs New Attitude By Tennessee Officials

Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Matt Kisber acts these days like a new state law is the answer to the state’s dismal showing in the competition for the $1.3 billion Toyota plant earlier this year.

More to the point, before he starts implementing a new law, he should first send a memo to himself and his boss, Governor Phil Bredesen, reminding them to keep their politics out of it next time.

Commissioner Kisber’s cheerleading for this new law is only the latest example of a regular feature of political theater these days – the ability of someone to look straight in your eyes and claim that he didn’t do what you just saw him do.


If there’s one clear legacy of the Bush Administration, this is it. However, it’s a talent not just confined to the White House, as Commissioner Kisber proves when he extols the positive impact of the new bill encouraging regional cooperation on large economic development projects.

Unfortunately, it didn’t include a rider prohibiting the Bredesen Administration from strong-arming Memphis economic development officials like they did with the Toyota project.

While Commissioner Kisber may champion the virtues of regional collaboration now, he and the governor’s office stood directly in the way of it last time. Back then, Crittenden County was a finalist in the manufacturing plant sweepstakes, and it was clearly in Memphis’ interest to support it in any way possible.

Running In Place

Meanwhile, Chattanooga was also in the running, and state officials were putting all their eggs in the East Tennessee basket. So, rather than comprehend that Tennessee would also benefit if the plant located in the Memphis region, the Bredesen Administration told local officials that if they helped our adjacent county, it would be at our own peril.

In other words, Memphis officials could support Marion’s bid for the plant, but it could pay for it during the session of the Tennessee Legislature or in a lack of interest in requests for funding for our local economic development programs.

It was the political equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face.


Meanwhile, the Tupelo region surprised everyone and moved to the top of Toyota’s list, largely on the strength of the regional cooperation that it demonstrated. While state government in Tennessee was pretending like Arkansas doesn’t exist, Mississippi officials put together a three-county collaboration and even reached out to Alabama officials.

It said volumes to the Japanese car manufacturer, which, like most Japanese companies, think that understanding government in the U.S. is harder than People’s Republic of China. As a result, they treat pledges of intergovernmental cooperation as the Rosetta Stone, because it eliminates confusion and the need to sort out various government’s roles.

About one thing, Commissioner Kisber was right. It is a definite competitive advantage for regions to be given extra power under the law to work more efficiently in site assembly and infrastructure development.

Losing Traction

That said, state government needs to increase its sophistication enough to understand that regions that cross state lines need even more help.

Sadly, as it has done several times, Memphis was ahead of the curve in this regard, but in the end, it failed to capitalize on its early work on regionalism. Most impressive was the fact that the Memphis program – called the Governors’ Alliance of Regional Excellence – had the vocal support of the governors of Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

They were titular heads of the process (staffed by the Memphis Regional Chamber) that created a regional master plan for the three-state Memphis metro region. Sadly, little was done to implement the numerous recommendations of the final report, and the building momentum was lost at the moment when it would have vaulted Memphis ahead of other metropolitan areas of the country.

Playing Catch Up

Today, Memphis finds itself playing catch up with a number of rival cities making impressive strides in creating seamless regional development.
In Cleveland, Ohio, the mayor has even appointed the first-ever chief of regional development. This regional czar will be responsible for six city departments, including the airports and the community and economic development departments.
It’s a concept worth considering in Memphis and Shelby County.

Here, despite economic development organizations that run the gamut from the Airport Authority to the Port Commission, from the Music Commission to the Film Commission, from the Center City Commission to the city/county Office of Economic Development, there is little conversation between the agencies, much less coordination.

Regional Cooperation

In Denver, the nine-county regional cooperation includes various counties and dozens of cities and led the construction of Ivesco Field, Coors Field, the arts and culture district and a light rail system.
In Lexington, Kentucky, all the county executives and mayors in a 17-county area meet monthly, and the mayor of the city is a prime mover for a new level of collaboration.

Meanwhile, in Jackson, Mississippi, the success that began with the Toyota win has inspired a new gospel of regionalism that is driving economic growth. The Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership – formerly the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce – is raising money to market an eight-county region, and in words unusual for a Chamber exec, the president of the Jackson Chamber Partnership said: “The area has become recognized as one region. When we get inquiries, it is for a 50-mile radius or 100-mile radius from Jackson.”

Now, when a company submits basic criteria for a project, the Partnership doesn’t just send information for Jackson and its home county. Rather, it sends sites within the entire eight counties.

States Can Help

Other cities around the U.S. are leaping at the opportunity to connect with other cities and regions, both physically and economically. While cities and regions must of course work to sell their own unique assets and strengths, collaborative relationships across county and state lines help cities and counties develop niches that complement and reinforce each other.

As a result, rather than competing, these metro areas work cooperatively to develop stronger marketing programs and to stake out the strongest possible place in the market.

States can do a lot to encourage these kinds of relationships – help regions understand their economies and the competitive positions of other regions. Most of all, state agencies can align their programs and the policies with the realities of an economy whose unit of competition is increasingly regional in nature.

But, first, states like Tennessee need to quit playing politics with the economic future of cities like ours and grasp the full meaning of regionalism, especially when it crosses state lines.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Jumpstarting Innovation

Innovation is now viewed as America's economic salvation. Every urban leader is trying to figure out how to get more of it. And they couldn't find a better adviser than Richard Lester. As founding director of the Industrial Performance Center at MIT, Richard has led major studies of regional innovation performance and he co-authored Innovation - The Missing Dimension on sources of creativity and innovation.

Also with us is innovator and serial entrepreneur Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar. Today, the hourly rental service has 50,000 users in 10 cities. With her latest company, GoLoco, Robin hopes to jumpstart ride sharing in America.

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, June 21, 2007

City Schools Can't Afford To Fail Test To Replace Superintendent

If success is defined as the ability to know when to sell your stock at its highest value, Carol Johnson is public education’s version of Warren Buffett.

Unquestionably, she’s making a change in her job at the exact moment when her stock is peaking. In the next 18 months, her stock could only have gone down – the number of schools on the state’s failing schools list will likely go up, some principal discontent was growing and grumbling at district offices threatened the fragile veneer of success.

In this context, her decision to take the job in Boston was the most masterful career management since Roger Clemens.

It’s Always The Mayor

And yet, proving that our vein of self-loathing is endless, some blame her move on anything but her own career considerations, with Mayor Herenton at the top of the list of reasons why she’s leaving.

Before there’s any more hyperventilation, let’s remember that Dr. Johnson – at 3 years 8 months - has already been in Memphis about seven months longer than the average tenure of urban district superintendents.

The revolving door of urban superintendents is a fact of life in public education today, and it’s not all bad. If nothing else, it infuses new energy and ideas into urban districts badly in need of shaking their normal lethargy.

Preaching The Gospel

At one level, superintendents look like the preacher who comes to town, gets the church to embark on a massive expansion program and leaves town for the next job before the bills come due. However, we prefer to be optimistic about all the cross-pollination that comes from the buzzing from district to district.

The truth is that in public education today, any urban district that has had a superintendent for 10 years usually needs to ask what they did wrong. If they had gotten it right, other districts would be knocking at the door trying to lure her away. It’s sort of like the difference in having John Calipari or Wayne Yates at the helm of U of M basketball.

And that’s why other cities have been sniffing around Memphis City Schools to see if Dr. Johnson was interested in leaving. Boston was hardly the first city, or even the second for that matter, that had come knocking on her door, although in recent months, she clearly was sending out signals that she wouldn’t rule out a move.

Defying Conventional Wisdom

It’s worth remembering that four years ago, conventional wisdom was that Memphis City Schools would never be able to recruit a high-quality superintendent. Instead of accepting the predictions as fact, some leaders from the private and philanthropic sectors, Partners In Public Education (PIPE) and some school board commissioners set the bar higher, looking for an emerging superintendent with potential to become a player on the national stage.

With Dr. Johnson, they did just that, stealing her from the Minneapolis School System where she had worked for 30 years, the last six as superintendent. The fact that she was now recruited by Boston doesn’t indicate failure but a testament to how good we did.

Now, the challenge is to prove that her selection wasn’t a fluke.

Yield Not To Temptation

In the coming days, Memphis City Schools will need to resist the temptation to appoint someone as interim superintendent – and give that person a head-start toward the permanent appointment – who’s already within the city district (there is no one with qualifications for this job) or turn to someone who wouldn’t be considered except for her political connections.

Already, there are names being bandied about, and if anything, it’s a reminder of how helpful succession planning could be for an organization of this size and importance.

There’s little doubt that Dr. Johnson leaves Memphis City Schools stronger than when she found it, and probably the intangible impact – public support and credibility – is actually more important than the tangible results. Today, it’s almost impossible to conjure up the sense of hopelessness that existed four years ago, and if there is one word for Dr. Johnson’s legacy, it is hope.

The Great Communicator

It was in her role as communicator and cheerleader for the district that she fully applied her sizable ability to hypnotize audience after audience throughout Memphis, sometimes without leaving a dry eye in the house.

It is debatable that she was as successful in having the same level of impact to the administration on Memphis City Schools. Surrounded by the so-called Minnesota Mafia, it seemed impossible to transfer the accessibility that she had as a speaker to her accessibility in her district office. Information was often screened, if not blocked, by gatekeepers that came with her from Minneapolis and whose tendencies to be overprotective and insulated often undercut strong decisions.

Most of her inner circle never seemed to “get” Memphis, and as a result, Dr. Johnson encountered problems from a lack of insight into how Memphis works, how to make things happen and how to navigate the political shoals. On several occasions, the conflict that flared up often came as a surprise to the inner circle who couldn’t see it coming, feeding a sense of “us and them” that led to decisions about major initiatives frequently based on very narrow input.

The Epitaph

While there are times when it seems that Dr. Johnson’s tombstone will bear this inscription: “She got 100 Memphis schools off the failing schools list,” in recent months, even she has put some distance between herself and that claim, realizing that student performance wasn’t as responsible as her adroit execution of the arcane rules of No Child Left Behind.

As for us, when it comes to the tangibles, we’re more inclined to praise her for the closing of the achievement gap between African-American and white students, the increase in the graduation rate, the decrease in the dropout rate and the dramatic improvement in the improvement in classroom teachers. Four years ago, we would have settled for just one of these as an indicator of success.

In addition, she started a number of new programs that created a sense of movement at the district, but it’s hard to argue with observers who say that they were a disparate package of disconnected programs rather than aimed at achieving an overall strategic vision.

The Boston Bible

That’s an issue that she won’t have to address in Boston, because already, she’s been given a copy of the city district’s “Whole-School Improvement” vision. It is the Bible of Boston school improvement, and it tells what the goals are, what success will look like and what the expectations are. Few cities have such clear, well-defined direction, and it will be the standard by which she will be measured in her performance reviews as superintendent.

Despite being home to some of the nation’s loftiest educational institutions and the presence of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, Boston will feel similar to Memphis in the racially polarized environment that dates back to the days of school desegregation and busing when the city earned national headlines for the ugliness of its conflicts.

But in one important respect, Boston will be totally different. Here, she benefited from our own low expectations. That certainly won’t be the case in Boston, where media coverage already puts serious pressure on her to deliver…big time.

The Boston Benefits

Despite this, there were a number of reasons that the Boston job slowly pulled her toward accepting it. While she isn’t motivated by money alone, the substantial increase in her salary offers dramatic evidence of how much she’s wanted. In other words, she starts with a two-fer.

Next, the per pupil expenditure for Boston students is almost twice that of Memphis.

Another reason was the sheer size of our school district. It’s no secret that superintendents aren’t exactly lining up to tackle the challenges of the nation’s largest urban districts, and the opportunity to lead a school system that is roughly the size of Minneapolis (#92) was appealing.

Size Matters

Boston is about 20 percent larger (#58) than Minneapolis, but it pales in comparison to Memphis (#21), which is two times bigger than Boston.

We hope someone takes the time to conduct a thorough exit interview with Dr. Johnson, because we suspect that after almost four years of running the megalith that is Memphis City Schools, she may believe in Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s proposal for a decentralized four-district school structure.

The last major plus is the fact that in Boston, as a result of Mayor Thomas Menino’s takeover of direct control of the school district, there is now a highly qualified school board appointed by the mayor. Here, she has grown increasingly tired of the constant criticism lobbed her way by Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum.

A New Era Or A Fluke

However, it’s hard to imagine that the actions of one politically ambitious board member are enough to sour her on Memphis, particularly considering some of the tough comments made in Boston by some City Council members who question her credentials and complain that they weren’t consulted about her appointment.

Soon, all of this will be history.

Hopefully, if we’re lucky, history will look back at the Johnson Administration as the beginning of a new era of innovation and progress for Memphis City Schools, but ultimately whether that happens depends on whether the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners can rise to the task and insist on hiring a new superintendent who can be an agent for change and build on the last four years to get even more accomplished.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

State Legislators Zone Out On Amendments For Special Interests

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

Remember them. They were the consultants who produced the 97-page report on the city/county Payment-In-Lieu-of-Tax (PILOT) program that led to its much-needed overhaul.

At the rate things are going, we’ll soon need to get them back to bring some sanity to the use of tax incentives of the Tourism Development Zone (TDZ).

Leave it up to state legislators to take what seemed like a good idea – to pay for convention centers with new taxes generated by the new development around them – and bend it to the breaking point.

Peter To Pay Paul

The TDZ law has been on the books since 1998 and a few have used it to pay for their new or expanded convention centers. Here, we didn’t need it to pay for the convention center, but we did need its revenues so we could move the hotel-motel taxes used for the convention center over to the FedExForum and replace them with the tourism development zone revenue.

Imagine, just a few years ago, that convoluted process was used, because it was deemed easier to amend the state hotel-motel tax law than the TDZ, which was considered untouchable.

Boy, how the times have changed. This year, it was the legislative equivalent of the Gold Rush as a flurry of amendments were introduced in the Tennessee Legislature to broaden the use of the tas to benefit private projects.

Pick A Project

The amendments called for TDZ revenues to be used for everything from Graceland and Opryland Hotel to the Mid-South Fairgrounds and Murfreesboro’s Bible Park U.S.A. Just for good measure, there was also the Pigeon Falls Condos at Pigeon Forge.

To some in local government, it looked like the state legislators had lost their mind. But if they were crazy, they were crazy like a fox.

After all, for them, this is the best of all worlds. They get credit for helping out the politically powerful and to say thanks to special contributors, while shoving the burden back to local government to be the ones who say no or to live without the new revenues.

It’s About Who You Are

It’s maddening to think that Mayor A C Wharton has begged to no avail for years just for a small measure of flexibility in creating new county tax sources. That concept was just too much for the legislators to even consider. Horror of all horrors, they didn’t want to be accused of passing a new tax, and yet, this year, they cavalierly give away the money of local government.

All in all, it just emphasizes the parallel universe that is the Tennessee Legislature, and the ease in which hypocrisy is swallowed whole and without comment, such as when someone like Rep. Curry Todd says no to tax relief year after year, but enthusiastically supports any TDZ amendment that comes his way.

As an observer of the Legislature emailed recently, “It’s enough to undermine what little confidence the public has in the integrity of the state legislative process, but most of all, it sends the irrevocable message there are special rules for special people.”

A Simple Premise

The TDZ legislation was originally passed to allow an East Tennessee city to pay for a new convention center, and the idea was pretty straightforward: the bonds issued by the city would be paid off by the new revenue created by the new convention center and the revitalization of its neighborhood.

The city government would set a baseline for current revenues, and it would continue to get those, but the incremental increases in taxes would go to pay the bonds.

After its passage, cities weren’t exactly lining up to use it for new “qualified public use facilities.” After all, most of them – like Memphis and Shelby County - already had the hotel-motel tax on the hook to pay for their convention centers.

Knocking Over The Dominoes

The TDZ rocked along quietly for almost a decade until some special interests thumbing through state tax policies, looking for new ways to pay for their pet projects, stumbled across the Tourism Development Zone legislation.

It was like knocking over dominoes. Once the first amendment for use of the TDZ taxes came in, they all tumbled in.

In truth, most didn’t have any rhyme or reason. Or at least any details.

Here, we now have the Fairgrounds qualified under the TDZ, and we don’t even know what’s to be built there or what it will cost. But we supposedly know that it’s going to need a public subsidy to make it work.

Calling In The Reserves

This is why we thought of the PILOT consultants.

If it’s clear, as research has now proven, that it is a popular myth that tax breaks are responsible for companies locating or relocating or expanding, it’s also a myth that these proposed projects could not happen without TDZ support.

If that’s the case, let’s allow the private developers to prove it. As the consultants said about PILOTs, the people asking for the public subsidy (and that’s what it is) need to prove they need it.

What If – But For

The consultants called this the “but for” rule. The consultants defined this way: a private investment in Memphis isn’t reasonably expected to happen “but for” the public incentive. This, they said, could be proven by a “gap analysis, a competitive cost analysis, or a combination of the two.”

This puts the emphasis back where it belongs – back on making sure that the best rationale is used for deciding where the public’s scare tax dollars are invested.

Without a “but for” test, the consultants said: “This, for all practical purposes, means that the city/county or other approving bodies may very well have been giving away tax revenue unnecessarily as opposed to gaining taxes…”

Putting Up

We are not saying that none of these are not meritorious projects. What we are saying that if they want public investment, they need to prove that they need it.

To quote the PILOT report again: “The establishment of a ‘but for’ test is the whole premise of any public investment or the need for it from a logical, moral, and legislative standpoint.”

Fortunately, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners agreed with the consultants and tightened up the rules for the tax freezes of the PILOT program. We’re hopeful that they be similarly dutiful when it comes time to approve the TDZ uses.

TIF for Tat

It’s curious that such a flurry of amendments would materialize this year. After all, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is still legal in Tennessee. Of course, it’s proven difficult to get city and county legislative bodies to create TIF districts, because of their concerns about eroding public tax revenues.

Sometimes, it’s as if the TDZ is being pursued because even if it is essentially a mutated TIF by another name, it’s more politically palatable and doesn’t trigger as many questions as a TIF.

Of course, passage of the amendments in Nashville was only the first hurdle. The highest hurdle will have to be cleared before City Council, and they may think that the wiser course is for worthy projects to be included in the normal Capital Improvements Project (CIP) budget and handled like all the others.

Balkanizing Memphis

To some, the creation of all these special taxing districts is nothing more than the balkanization of Memphis, where enclaves of special interests wield special power and get to play by their own rules, eroding the sense of fair play and community that hold a city together.

We don’t blame the people who went to Nashville to get their amendments passed. They were simply using the system to their advantage. The question always is who will use it for the public’s.

Because of this context, when we read the amendments, we were struck by the unintentional irony of the boiler plate language that is included at the end of every state bill: “This act shall take effect upon becoming law, the public welfare requiring it…”

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Controversy Calls For Less Venom And More Wrangling Of The Facts

We hope Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton read the front page of The New York Times yesterday, which bore a headline: “Call Snake Wranglers.”

Apparently, based on the coverage of L.A.’s booming $125 a snake business, he isn’t the only person with snake problems these days, but it seems that he’s the only potential prey that manages to command national attention when he describes his snake problem.

Unfortunately, it’s the rest of us that are feeling snakebit.


That’s because the recent controversy feels like another sorry spectacle that sends a strong message to the rest of the country that we haven’t quite yet managed to reach the level of a banana republic.

That’s not to say that we are taking sides on the merits of the case.

In fact, with this cast of characters, all of us need to resist the rush to judgment that is such a part of today’s reality TV news culture. Instead, we should all take a deep breath – especially the antagonists in this drama – and support the call for an impartial investigation to determine the facts.

By the way, this overriding need for objectivity should immediately eliminate Memphis Police Department as an option for this investigation.


There’s so much that isn’t known, and if anything is clear from what we have seen so far, it’s this:

1) The truth is still out there.

2) Nothing is quite as ugly as when friends fight.
So far, it seems that people’s opinions are dividing along the lines of existing opinions about Mayor Herenton, but more to the point, all of us are owed the unvarnished facts.

Mayor Needs Help

We can’t remember anything quite like this since the days when former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler was going through his “mayor needs help” days.

But unlike those days, this controversy is the perfect storm. It’s not just about sex. It’s also about power, race and money.

Somehow, we have the suspicion that when all the facts finally emerge, this will turn out to be the most overblown piece of political theater in recent history. That’s because when you turn the events and look at them from the various participants’ perspectives, they make sense to a point.

Mining The Facts

The problem is that from that point, the events get obscured by racial factors and personal opinions that make it impossible for us to know what the facts are and make it possible for both sides to interpret the events to support their view of the world.

There’s plenty of reasons to be concerned about all of this, chiefly the negative impact that it has on the city’s already bruised image. It’s hard to imagine how the Chamber of Commerce can successfully sell Memphis in the next couple of months.

On one side, there’s Mayor Herenton, probably the most unpredictable elected official in Memphis’ modern history. Distant, isolated and disconnected, he has the tendency to fall victim more often to his own emotional volatility than he does to any actual plots by others. And, it’s always worth remembering that in the mayor’s world, there is no greater sin you can commit than to disrespect him.

And In This Corner

In the other corner is Richard Fields, former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer and Herenton confidante. Never one to curry favor, he has always tended to say exactly what he thinks, but in recent years, his opinions, especially on some political candidates, have skewed toward extreme, personal assaults.

Back in the day, the two of them shared a foxhole together, fighting the battles for African-American families seeking quality education and equal rights for their children. It was a friendship forged in battle, and for someone like Mayor Herenton, these friendships are inviolable.

In recent years, they have had fights about some issues that chilled the friendship and led to months where they did not speak. It was in this tenuous environment that Mr. Fields scheduled a meeting several months ago to deliver a poll to Mayor Herenton that purported to show that he could not be reelected.

It’s All About Context

In that meeting, Mr. Fields was an emissary for a few local businessmen who are convinced that four more years of the Herenton Administration would be devastating to Memphis. To Mayor Herenton, the meaning was all too clear – it was the ultimate act of disrespect and betrayal.

If someone had set out to create the scenario in which Mayor Herenton would never consider exiting the race, this was it. To add insult to injury, his resolve was strengthened a few weeks later when someone else from the business community came in with a separate poll hostile to the mayor’s reelection’s prospects.

It’s worth adding here that there is hardly any unanimity in the business community about Mayor Herenton’s candidacy. There is a widespread belief that it would be better if Memphis had a new mayor, but there is an equally widespread belief that there is no one in the race who can do any better.

Doing Your Job

As reporters dissect the available facts about this situation, determined to milk the controversy through yet one more news cycle, there is little thought given to the context that sheds light on what could have happened. In particular, it’s worth remembering that Mr. Fields apparently was acting as lawyer for the woman who claims she was recruited to trap Mayor Herenton in a sex scandal (although it’s hard to imagine what that would have to be in this day and time).

Like any experienced lawyer, Mr. Fields knew that there was only one way his client could get her charges reduced – by trading information. This is the time when lawyers set up meetings with FBI agents, and based on his client’s stories – though highly embroidered as they were - about the mayor, drugs and prostitutes, that’s exactly what Mr. Fields did.

One thing is always predictable in these kinds of meetings, and it undoubtedly happened in the one in question. After listening to her story, the agent asked her if she could tape a conversation that would show Mayor Herenton in such a situation, proving that her stories are true.

It’s What They Do

To suggest that the FBI agent was part of a set up is to deny the essential nature of the investigatory agency. Their interest is reflected most dramatically in the dozens and dozens of hours of tapes filed away in U.S. District Court in the cases against local and state elected officials.

How such a meeting ended up in the home of a highly regarded Memphis businessman is another question altogether, but we suspect that all the suspicions are stripped away and the facts are revealed, there is likely to be even a plausible explanation for this.

As for Mayor Herenton, those who ridicule him for his dependable rhetorical flourishes should consider the context for his comparisons of himself to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Life Lessons

It’s worth remembering that the facts of Mayor Herenton’s own life make the comparisons extremely real to him - he attended segregated public schools, he could not attend the University of Memphis because he was black, he was the youngest African-American principal in Memphis, he was the first African-American school superintendent and he was first African-American mayor, entering office to a flood of threats of violence against him.

His feelings about equal rights are just as visceral and life-defining today as when he was a young boy picking cotton to help support his family, and it’s worth remembering that this controversy is being played out against this tableau.

We offer this as explanation, not as justification, for his stultifying news conference last week. Unfortunately, given the chance to act as statesman and to show that Memphis behaves maturely, he managed to do just the opposite.

The Real Risk

Worst of all, he forgot that at the end of the day, this isn’t about him. It’s about our city, and as its mayor, he should not be the instrument of its own ridicule.

What concerns us most is that all of this may in the end reinforce the worst aspects of the mayor’s nature, proving to him that he’s right to trust no one, to isolate himself in City Hall, to limit advice to only a handful of advisers and to suspect that most people are out to undermine his authority.

Right now, it’s our opinion that he’s positioned to be reelected, and if he is, this Elvis-like existence in City Hall will be bad news for all of us and our city.

And yet, we repeat, there is one thing we should all be able to agree on – the need for a thorough, independent investigation. The only proviso we’d add is that it should begin immediately so its results can be released before the city mayor’s elections.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Americans For The Arts

A new study from Americans for the Arts claims that each year in America the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166 billion in economic activity. Our guests this week are leading efforts to make sure their cities get a big piece of that action.

We'll talk to Vincent Kitch about Austin's strategies to promote film and music, Ginger White about Denver's programs to support art and space for artists, and Jair Lynch in Washington about his attempts to develop artist housing. Plus, we'll find out how arts organizations are finding new audiences from Surale Phillips.

Vincent Kitch is Cultural Arts Program Manager for the City of Austin. Ginger White is Senior Economic Development Specialist for the City of Denver's Office of Cultural Affairs. Jair Lynch heads Jair Lynch Companies, a development firm in Washington, D.C. And Surale Phillips is President of Decision Support Partners in Bozeman, Montana.

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, June 14, 2007

Changing The Rules Of The Game For A New Football Stadium

It wasn’t exactly a “Man Bites Dog” news story.

The lead and second graph in The Commercial Appeal said:

“…improvements could cost up to $20 million and mean the loss of 10,000 seats at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium…the findings of the study by local consultants SSR Ellers appear to back the assertion by Memphis Mayor…that the cost of ADA upgrades at the 42-year-old Liberty Bowl is too great, in dollars and in stadium capacity.”

Since the engineering study was paid for by the Herenton Administration, the real news would have been if it had reached any other conclusion.

The $130 Million Question

All in all, even if the $20 million is right, it’s still light years from the estimated $150-175 million that it would cost to build the new stadium coveted by Mayor Herenton.

It’s even hard to get too worried about a loss of seats, since having a 62,380-seat stadium is akin to designing the highways in suburban Shelby County for rush hour traffic (which sadly is exactly what’s done). Capacity crowds are about as frequent in the stadium as winning seasons for University of Memphis and Top 10 ranked teams playing in the Liberty Bowl.

Despite a serious lack of enthusiasm for his proposal by his own staff, it seems clear that the mayor is in for the long haul, despite having only a mild interest in football in the first place.


We’re hard-pressed to understand why Mayor Herenton is so hellbent to get this stadium built, and our confusion is heightened by his failure to articulate a compelling justification for the project.

We look for him to mount an 11th hour push for the stadium, and drawing on past themes for projects like this, we expect him to inevitably cite the economic impact of a new stadium and the need to revitalize the Fairgrounds area.

The problem is that once these big project freight trains start rolling down the tracks, no one ever steps back to ask the more pertinent question:

The Overriding Question

If Memphis is prepared to spend about $160 million as an economic stimulus or community development vehicle, are there strategies that would produce more impact and create more lasting results?
After all, the annual bill for a project costing $160 million is about $10.5 million a year for 20-25 years. Is a football stadium the best use for these scare tax dollars?

Before that question can be pondered too much, we’re expecting the ever dependable economic impact study to be rolled out, complete with whopping numbers drawn from multipliers that defy common sense.

Economic Impact

It’s no surprise, since these economic impact studies are only undertaken by the people pushing for the project, not by an independent third party committed to an objective reading of the facts and a thorough analysis of the options for the public funds.

In Washington, D.C., in the midst of the argument about a new stadium, that city’s government issued an impact study that said the new facility would create $100 million in new salaries. When you did the math, it meant that the jobs would pay an average of $261,111. And yet, the economic impact numbers stuck, repeated by the media and the mayor in D.C. until they were hammered into the public consciousness.

Multipliers are a central feature of these studies. They quantify the alleged ripple effect for each dollar as it is turned over in the community’s economy – for example, the money for a ticket to the Liberty Bowl goes to that organization, they spend the money to buy equipment from a local store, that store uses the money to pay local suppliers, etc.

Multiplication Tables

As a result, if there is anything dependable about the studies, it is that they regularly overstate the amount of the positive contributions to the economy and confuse gross and net spending. That’s how you end up with a study like the one issued by the Memphis Regional Chamber years ago that claimed that the economic impact of the NBA would be $1 billion. Even city and county governments and Grizzlies ownership put some distance from those conclusions and told Chamber leadership to bury the study as quickly as they could.

But, worst of all, the economic impact studies act as if there’s no alternate uses for the money.

We’ve never seen one that looked at alternate uses of the same amount of public money. It’s as if there are no potential uses other than the stadium, such as health care, schools and parks, or even a tax reduction.

A Different Standard

But it doesn’t stop there. Because it’s a football stadium, there won’t even be the same level of questions asked of other public projects. You would think that at some point, there would be some discussion about investing the public money in a way that has the biggest payoff for the city.

All of this will be accompanied by the normal rhetoric about the stadium raising civic pride and Memphis’ image across the U.S. Sometimes, it almost feels like only cities with great sports facilities can be a first tier city.

Perhaps, $160 million invested in better schools, a more vibrant riverfront, the nation’s best skatepark or a design competition for national artists could actually attract more national attention. After all, these days, who doesn’t have a stadium?

Invest In Neighborhoods

Lost in all of this is a seminal fact: most independent research concludes that sports facilities are not engines of economic growth. On balance, the research indicates that there is no impact at all.

In the end, a new stadium is a direct subsidy in a state university and two privately operated football games.

With the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure – from streets in neighborhoods to potholes in major thoroughfares to crumbling sidewalks to the decline of parks – it seems to make more sense for Memphis to invest in the improvement of its present assets. There’s a lot more chance of them having a major impact on the city’s quality of life and be the strongest weapon against continued flight of Memphians to the suburbs.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What To Do About The Fairgrounds: Question Of The Week

So, here’s the question of the week:

What do you think the future of the Fairgrounds should be? What do you see as the greatest obstacles to it taking place.
We asked the question in light of the movement toward a resolution of the various plans for the area’s future and the risk of it being the last resting place for everyone’s favorite ideas, but without an overall thread for the project.

We are posting the comments to our question, but we received a larger number of emails from people who think that the political context for the decision portends what one calls the “dumbing down” of the options.

Another well-connected public official said he looks for the project to “sink to the lowest common denominator,” while another one asked: “When’s the last time you saw city government do a master plan like this right?”

Finally, someone with a background in urban planning said that early indicators are that the development could end up being hostile, or indifferent, to the neighborhoods and the “texture of the neighborhood.” An indication: the way that the Kroc Center is designed as a free-standing, independent, isolated project with parking lots facing the neighbors, rather than as an anchor for a well-connected, sensitive design.

Here’s the comments to the post:

From Wtaylor:

In all honesty, the fairgrounds were misplaced in the first place and should have been in an open location near the expressway and open for tourists.

The old Mall of Memphis spot (plus some other land) would have been ideal location if you ask me.

Cost is the greatest obstacle to such a plan

From Anonymous:

Since the Fairgrounds and its antecedents go back about 100 years, it's ridiculous to state that it was "misplaced in the first place." When it was started, it WAS in an open area near a main roadway. At that time, the area at 240 Mall of Memphis location would be analogous to building the fairgrounds near Holly Springs, MS.

Another Anonymous observer said:

My hope is that it won't end up a mish-mash of styles. I would love for Fairview Jr. High to be used as the design sample for the rest of the buildings - retail, residential, Kroc buildings, parks etc.

Some cool Art Deco elements - and NO big box retail or other design that looks like Cordova, Collierville or G'town. If Turley can model his designs after Harbortown - parks, pedestrian friendly areas and nice little shops all with a "Fairview" feel, then I think it could be a jewel on the fringes of Midtown.

I also wish, instead of cramming a Target store on the site, they would look at Sears Crosstown for that type of business and leave the Fairgrounds area for more "unique" shops and restaurants.

I know there are rumors of Target going in near Poplar and Watkins/Cleveland. Just wish they would find a use - and the money - to utilize the Sears building, too.


The Fairgrounds will have a mix of uses on it. I think a renovated Liberty Bowl or another stadium will be there and I think the Children's Museum, Kroc Center and the school will remain. After that, there will be some residential and commercial, with at least some big box retail. That's what I think will happen, even if I don't want it to happen.

I think the biggest obstacle will be to get government officials and developers to put aside profit in order to put together a pedestrian-friendly, New Urbanist design that will make it an interesting place. I think it will difficult to talk them into ample greenspaces, including medians with grass and trees.

Anonymous #4 said:

With all the empty retail space and sites crying out for residential redevelopment in Midtown, why add more at the Fairgrounds? Leave it as a park! Or rather, build it into a park.


IT should definitely have ample people magnets, like a skate park, and I'm not including big box retail in that definition.

Anonymous #6 said:

The strip along Central needs to complement the university across the street. Turn it into mixed-use for students. Students can provide a strong consumer base that could drive the whole redevelopment. Plus Central is an important thoroughfare through that part of the city. If you can make it an economic corridor then the rest of the area could be stimulated outwards.

Also, the aspects of Cooper-Young should be incorporated. The East Parkway stretch should be focused on greenspace, housing modeled after the neighborhood, and public facilities.

Further in towards the Liberty Bowl, put in ballparks, areas focused on improving the game day atmosphere for a football game, etc.

Don't keep Libertyland. Don't make this an area for large national retailers.

Mesh the university, cooper-young, and liberty bowl into one area.

Gates of Memphis said:

At the May 31st Fairgrounds Redevelopment meeting in Orange Mound, Frank Ricks presented a very compelling vision: a visual west-east axis that starts at the original and restored East Parkway gates to the Fairgrounds, followed by green/festival/public space leading up to a recreated Shelby County Building and punctuated by the present Liberty Bowl hovering in perfect symmetry behind to the east. It's a strong vision that would create value for the existing neighborhoods and any new developments. A strong counterpoint to the churning caused by the new stadium, TDZs and other development machinations.

At some point I hope Mr. Ricks is willing to make a public pitch for this and other LRK quality ideas for the Fairgrounds, and against piecemeal developments or unpopular civic and commercial distractions, even if it means disagreeing publicly with some of his powerful patrons.

And finally, one last Anonymous comment:

Do not develop the Fairgrounds. 1) No residential, Memphis doesn't have a housing shortage. 2) No commercial. There are too many commercial areas close by that have a long way to go before they have maxed out their re-development potential.

We don't need to further dilute demand with unneeded supply. Make it a PARK! And 30 years from now, let's revisit and hopefully, there is actually demand for something. Right now, politicians and developers are just wanting a project, something they can say they did. They are not looking out for the health of our city. Spend the time and resources to make this city safer and cleaner. Then one day when Memphis actually has healthy demand, let's talk.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A City's Brand Is More Than Meets The Eye

With a seemingly inexhaustible ability to be against things, Memphis City Council Member Carol Chumney recently added yet one more – city branding.

It’s too bad, because the reality is this: Memphis has no brand.

Yes, there’s an abundance of taglines and slogans, but no, Memphis doesn’t have a brand.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Chumney missed a prime opportunity to learn about city branding this week at a speech by Paul O’Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago and someone who knows a lot about the power of a city brand.

What A Brand Really Is

In a speech sponsored by the Memphis Tourism Foundation, he explained what a brand really is, how Memphis could develop one and why cities competing in the global economy need one.

A central theme of Mr. O’Connor’s presentation was that a brand is not the same as a tagline or slogan. In fact, it’s something altogether different. It’s about what a city stands for – that one overriding thing that defines its essential character and how it’s different.

Or put in our words for Memphis, it’s about deciding what Memphis’ higher purpose is.

The Essence

It’s a hard question for cities to answer, and ours is no different. But it’s one that needs to be answered nonetheless. It’s also a timely question for us, and as we seek a stronger economic competitiveness, it needs to be at the top of our city’s agenda.

As Mr. O’Connor described it, the branding process isn’t about a group of advertising gurus getting in room to come up with a pithy slogan or a marketing hook. Instead, it’s about a process that identifies the real values of the city, the widespread perceptions of the city including its strengths and weaknesses, the single most important benefit the city has to offer, and ultimately, what the city can be.

“Stereotypes come face-to-face with perceptions,” he said. “Branding is hard for a product, and for a city, it’s very, very yard. We see our warts and our problems and we think everyone sees them. Locals are too critical of themselves.”

It’s A Process

He said this lack of strong self-image was a major problem in Chicago, so cultural anthropologists went to the city’s customers and gave them cameras to photograph their images of Chicago. “What they saw was totally different than what Chicagoans saw,” he said, adding that the images were positive and eye openers for the city.

The cultural anthropologists were followed by interviews, free association exercises, discussions and debates. Through it all, the emphasis was on being honest. “The most dangerous politics are those dealing with identity,” Mr. O’Connor said. “You need the truth to set priorities, to get into your own souls and your own history and what you are carrying for the future.

“But you have to walk in the fire to come out whole on the other side.”

The Genie

It’s not easy, because for “the Genie of branding to work, you only get one wish – choosing the single most important benefit that you offer – and this one thing is the hardest part.” “But if you don’t get there and settle for mediocrity, it’s not worthy to build your future on,” he said.

“The biggest challenge is getting to what matters and getting to Memphis’ DNA. By connecting the dots between the truth of today and the aspirations for tomorrow, the branding gives you your strategic direction.”

Most of all, the branding process is about the future, and the brand is the “guidance system for the future.” “That’s why the ‘behind the scenes’ branding is hardest stuff,” Mr. O’Connor said. “It’s about reaching consensus on aspirations, so that branding can become the vehicle that moves your city from today’s perception to tomorrow’s reality.”


It’s about “positioning the city in a competitive context and answering the question: ‘How do you find a spot where Memphis fits into the game?’ The key is differentiation, because it needs to be something you can own and defend. In other words, it says: ‘This is what Memphis really is.’ The stronger the difference, the more unique it is, and that’s where your real power lies.”

Too often, cities don’t engage in the kind of research and deliberations that are needed for a strong brand, and as a result, they end up with “nothing but feeble taglines that end up biting them,” Mr. O’Connor said, adding that he prefers to use the city name as the brand and “float” a tagline in the text. “The strongest brand that you have is the name of your city. You don’t want to attach anything with anything unless it makes it stronger. And that’s really hard to do.”

That’s why a branding process must be persistent to succeed. “The greatest danger is to give up too soon and you end up with something that’s just OK. It ties the most precious thing you own – the name, Memphis – and connects it to something that’s just an OK message,” he said.

#1 Mistake

“The #1 mistake is thinking that logos and taglines are the product. The brand is about a shared vision and shared positioning. It becomes Oz behind the curtain. There are different messages for different audiences and different uses, but behind the curtain, they all tie back to the same thing.” In this way, the brand helps to eliminate fragmentation and mixed signals.

More important is the impact that a brand can have on a city’s own people. “There’s only one Memphis, it’s about what you believe,” he said. “You keep telling each other the truth about Memphis and then you share Memphis with the outside world.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher, because in the global economy, every city is competing with every other city for a bigger share of attention, talent and economic growth. This competitive environment is a reality of our times, and how Memphis stakes out its distinctive place will have a major impact on our success.

Brand Promise

With young professionals in particular, the branding algebra is compelling: two-thirds of 25-34 year-olds decide where to live and then decide where to work and most make this decision on “postcard” kinds of information – what friends say, what’s on the Internet and on a city’s buzz. In other words, a city brand matters more today than ever before.

And that’s why it’s not simply a communications strategy, a tagline or a visual identity. As Mr. O’Connor said, it’s a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for Memphis that’s relevant and compelling. That’s because the brand is extending a promise – the brand promise, if you will – which is the pledge of what key audiences can expect from Memphis.

It’s in this clear, compelling and unique brand that Memphis has its best chance to explain why it’s a desirable place for business, for visitors and for talent and investment. When done right, the brand improves poor perceptions, creates a common vision for the future, provides a consistent representation of Memphis, enhances our national and global positioning and awareness and sheds negative stereotypes associated with our city.

And in our view, that’s reason enough for every Council member to learn more about the importance of city branding and its emphasis on the positive. That’s particularly true for Councilwoman Chumney, who needs to be for something to have a chance in the upcoming mayor’s election.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Reconnecting Cities

Religion has become a sort of battleground in America for some of the nation's most divisive issues. Buzz Thomas is attempting to cool the heat and shed light on what keeps us at odds in his new book from St. Martin's Press, Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs His Job). As head of the Niswonger Foundation, Buzz is also deeply involved in turning around schools in some of Tennessee's rural and most poverty stricken counties.

We will also talk about reconnecting Massachusetts' gateway cities with Brookings policy director Mark Muro and MASS, Inc. president John Schneider. Prior to joining Brookings, Mark was a senior policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, staff writer for Boston Globe, and editorial writer for the Arizona Daily Star. Before joining MASS Inc. John directed a regional planning and economic development partnership in the state's high tech corridor which facilitated public-private collaborations on sustainable development issues.

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, June 06, 2007

City Council Antics Lose Their Humor When Consequences Are No Laughing Matter

It is an aphorism – though none the less true – that the most segregated hour in Memphis is at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Surely it’s equally true that the most racially-corrosive time in Memphis is any time City Council meets.

Its members proved it again last night.

The Time Machine

It’s as if our city’s leaders are trapped in a time warp where only an H.G. Wells plot line could get them into the present, a present where their racial rhetoric is more and more revealed for its fossilized underpinnings, where their obsession with all things racial is seen for its antediluvian view of our city and where their role models of irrelevancy on race relations is exposed for the burlesque that it is.

It’s as if most Council members have no concept of the responsibilities that come with the gift of public leadership. At a time when we should be celebrating the power of ideas, most members cling to the power of prejudice.

Lost in this mélange of Tuesday buffoonery is the reality that their words and actions are in fact poisoning the civic culture of the city.

If racial polarization is a malignancy in Memphis, it seems clear that the place to lance the boil is Memphis City Council.

The World In Black And White

It is there that anything – absolutely anything – can get cast in shades of black and white. It wasn’t too long ago that one of the Council members, in the midst of his regular rants, referred to lessons learned from the slave masters. If these lessons included the use of racial invective, insulting epithets and demeaning posturing, there’s no question that he was a star pupil.

In this respect, yesterday’s Council meeting was classic.

Whether it was the Riverfront Development Corporation’s Beale Street Landing project, the request by Lemoyne-Owen College for a $3 million bailout or consideration of new ethics rules, Council members were capable of dragging it down to the lowest common denominator in public debate.

Liberal Guilt

We admit that we’ve often explained away the rhetoric of African-American Council members like this: after years of being frozen out of the political system in any meaningful way, they had no real choice but to become adept at using the kind of language that gives them the only power they could muster – the power to shut down public debate by injecting charges of racism. As more than one sociologist has pointed out, it was in this victimization that African-Americans enjoyed one of the few times when they could shift the balance of power and control the conversation.

But these days, we have less patience. Rather than take the experiences of discrimination and use them to create an open, diverse system of thought and participation, some Council members seem almost intent on reinventing the malignant environment of the past.

At times, it’s as if the fact that we live in a city with an African-American city mayor, an African-American county mayor, an African-American City Council majority and an African-American majority in our state legislative delegation means nothing.

Code Of Conduct

If Memphis City Council really wants to demonstrate its maturity, it would tone down the racial rants and adopt a general code of conduct. Most of all, Council members would stop their reflexive charges of racism against anyone with whom they disagree or who represents a project they oppose.

This trend reached its zenith a few weeks ago when yet another person appearing before the Council was accused of being a bigot. Apparently, the fact that he was an active and impassioned champion of the civil rights movement was lost to the fogs of history.

It was a charge that struck the person at his moral core, because he had tried to make racial equality a central theme of his life. And yet, it was a charge tossed about cavalierly by a Council member who disagreed with his position. To the Council member, it was just an instrument of political theater, but to the citizen, it was the same as questioning his personal integrity and character.

The Virus

Clearly, this kind of rhetoric is infectious. While many of the comments at last night’s Council meeting would leave all but the simple-minded shaking their heads, most alarming were the rallying cries from old lions like Rev. James Netters. In his comments, he recounted how he was denied admission to Memphis State University in 1948.

No one of good will would argue that this wasn’t a shameful era in the history of this city, nor would they argue that it is fortunate for all of us that Lemoyne-Owen College was there to provide a college education for a generation of African-American professionals.

But he didn’t stop there. He then suggested that a duplicitous double standard was being applied to the college, noting that city funding had been given to private institutions with no requirement of matching funds. The implication to listeners was that there are different rules for other institutions, apparently white ones, but as far as we can tell, the only private institution that has received city money previously was in fact Lemoyne-Owen College (although we’re sure Rhodes College and Christian Brothers University will be glad to send in their requests for $3 million).


Then, there was Yolanda Spinks, a communications student at Lemoyne-Owen, who opined a common theme: “It saddens me that everything always comes down to race.” The irony was seemingly lost on her that she said it in a meeting where Lemoyne-Owen supporters were making sure that the discussion was all about race in the first place.

Also lost was the chance to have a serious discussion about any financial plans to prevent a future request for emergency funding from city taxpayers, about separation of church and state issues that arise from public money being funneled to a private religious college, about other options for its governance such as affiliation with the Tennessee Board of Regents or about any aspirations for the college not just to survive but to elevate itself into the top tier of historically black colleges and universities.

Instead of being the place where this kind of substantive discussion takes place, City Council ultimately fails in its first job – to create the common ground where citizens are encouraged to debate, discuss and engage in the substantive issues facing Memphis.

To the contrary, Council Chambers – with its trappings of past glories and present neglect – has become an environment hostile to most managers of city government, much less average citizens.

New Voices

Standing outside the Council chambers during much of the meeting, an African-American woman in her early 20’s, working as an intern in City Hall, said she couldn’t bear to listen.

“It’s the kind of arguing we (people her age) don’t care about,” she said. “The folks in there are always looking for the chance to march and to demonstrate or to talk about the old days and how bad they were treated. But they’re not representing us. They don’t even ask us. We can live anywhere we want, we can have any friends we want, we can live in any city we want and we just want the chance to succeed. We’re not interesting in fighting these old battles. They’re just a waste of time.”

And that’s the saddest thing of all. Council members most prone to lapse into this kind of destructive rhetoric have no concept that to many young African-Americans, all they are proving is how out of touch they really are.

A Chill In The Air

More to the point, all this does nothing so effectively as having a chilling effect on the development of new public leadership at the time when it is needed most.

Next time you think there’s a lack of smart, savvy, young, potential leaders in Memphis, visit FedEx World Headquarters’ cafeteria at lunch time.

It’s a visit that is striking in its effect, because it’s clear that Memphis has thousands of African-American professionals calling the shots in one of the world’s most admired corporations, taking the slings and arrows that come every day in their highly pressurized industry. And yet, they refuse to get involved in the mean streets of public life in Memphis, considering it laughable at best and an indictment of the city at worst.

Reality Check

About 12 hours after the City Council session, we were in a meeting with some people who work every day to solve some of Memphis’ worst problems. They aren’t elected. They avoid City Council meetings like the plague. They work at the grassroots. They work to engage community organizations in the hard work of community-building.

They unanimously agree that the racial chasm amplified in the news media exists primarily in the halls of government, where ritualized racial posturing defines the culture there. They tell of a different Memphis, one where community and neighborhood organizations all over the city are working on the grittiest issues and doing it with little regard to the fact that there are two races at the table.

Instead, they recognize the differences that come from their experiences, and they use them to unify them and strengthen their plans of action. When they talk about race, they talk calmly as friends exploring the boundaries of understanding and tolerance.

The Real Memphis

It was a well-timed reality check.

We can read about Council meetings, we can listen to the verbal bombasts that take place there and we can shake our heads over the wasted energy and time when so much in Memphis needs our leaders’ attention.

But, we should never make the mistake that Memphis City Council reflects what’s really going on in Memphis.

That’s because the real progress is being made at the grassroots, and that’s also where the Council could learn an awful lot about deliberation, decision-making and consensus-building.

There’s no time like the present.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Bond Costs Add Millions To County Financial Stress

Recently, we received information from a staff member of the Shelby County Finance Department about the costs of the county’s bond transactions, including new bond issues, bond refunding and swaps.

The information was not annotated, so we’re not sure what conclusion we are supposed to reach from it, but as I read them, the words of my stepfather rang in my ears:

“Why does government pay so much to people who don’t actually create a product? They don’t make anything – not food, clothing, convenience or something we can actually hold in our hands. They move paper and more paper and created a process where they are indispensable, all to justify their ridiculous fees.”
Rows And Rows

While our view isn’t necessarily that pessimistic, it is impossible to read the rows and rows of fees charged in connection with bonds and not wonder what’s actually done to earn them.

It’s also easy to see why these advisors and consultants consider contributions to political campaigns to be absolutely imperative, whether it’s federal, state, county or city governments. With the kinds of payments being made to these firms, they certainly can afford it.

We don’t intend to pick on county government. It just happens that it’s the government for which we were sent information, and it’s had a period of active bond transactions.

Bad News/Good News

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Wharton Administration put an end to the partying in the Big Apple that was innocently called “bond signing trips” and attended by almost 20 people on some occasions.

They reached such a level of extravagance that the FBI investigated the expenses, particularly for private charges for family members of elected officials paid by county government, charges that ranged from private hotel rooms for various family members to private limos for wives shopping at New Jersey malls and from nightly Broadway plays to dining in New York’s finest restaurants for officials – elected and appointed- and their spouses and even their children.

It’s no wonder that invitations from the mayor and the board of commissioners’ chairman were treated as highly as papal dispensation. In the end, federal investigators were disappointed that the statue of limitation had run out on the most egregious bond trips, but they were openly pleased when the Wharton Administration ended the practice.

Party Down

In those years of costly bond closings, county elected officials were practiced at saying that the partying didn’t cost county government anything, because the bond companies were footing the bill. Left unsaid was the fact that the expenses were folded into the bond issuance costs that were billed to and paid by county government.

In fact, at one point, one key player in the bond issuance process cautioned the mayor’s office that expenses were “getting out of hand” and county officials were running the risk of attracting media attention. To keep the expenses out of the public record, the bills for the New York parties were buried in the records of bond firms, which were of course not open to the media.

At one point, The Commercial Appeal pursued the whispers within county government about the extravagant spending, but when reporters asked for records of the trips, they were told that they were paid by the bond companies. Of course, that was true. The expenses were actually paid by the bond companies. They just forwarded later to the county as part of the amorphous category, “bond issuance costs.”

Days Gone By

We emphasize that from all appearances, these days are long gone. Since taking control of the financial system, the Wharton Administration ended the junkets, instead sending a single finance officer to New York for the closing or actually having the closing in Memphis. After all, in this digital age, there’s no reason why everyone has to gather in New York any more to sign and exchange documents.

But back to the point of this post – the cost of bond transactions.

The packet sent to us included information about 24 transactions over a period of about three years.


The total amount of the fees paid to various consultants, bond companies, advisors and bond lawyers totaled $11,072,748.88.

The single largest amount was for the 2005 refinancing which cost $3.4 million in fees.

The Breakdown

Of the total of $11 million, the largest cumulative amounts went to the following:

• $2,431,383.40 – Morgan-Keegan, underwriting

• $1,386,972.60 – Edwards & Angell, the West Palm Beach law firm that has been county’s bond attorney for about two decades.

• $580,365.01 – Merrill Lynch, underwriting

• $570,085.00 – PFM, bond and financial advisors

• $446,660.12 – Goldman Sachs, underwriters advisor

• $423,805.00 – Community Capital, financial advisor

• $259,568.00 – Moody’s, rating agency

• $245,024.50 – Standard and Poor’s, rating agency

• $126,314.10 – J.P. Morgan, remarketing

• $187,000.00 – Fitch, rating agency

• $57,944.89 – First Tennessee Bank, financial advisor

Talk, Talk, Talk

Because it’s common practice for bond issuance expenses to be paid from the bond proceeds themselves, it ultimately means that the total amount paid by taxpayers over the life of the bonds – when interest is included - is roughly twice the actual amount of the feeds.

These days, CEO salaries are coming under closer scrutiny, and discussions include salary caps, tighter rules on corporate deductions and closer board oversight of executive pay. There’s also talk in Washington about toughening up the rules for Wall Street financiers.

This level of fees for county bonds is standard in the industry, but at the least, it would prove fascinating to see an explanation of what these firms precisely do for their money.

My stepfather's voice, in my head, has never sounded louder.