Sunday, September 30, 2007

Super Regions Bring Super-sized Challenges For Memphis

It’s a given that regions are the competitive units for the global economy, but while Memphis still struggles to come to grips with what this really means, a new reality is unfolding to complicate our competitiveness even more.

It’s the age of the megapolitans -- super-regions strung together by economies, commuting patterns, culture and demographic trends, giving birth to what are becoming the super-novas of economic units.

More than two-thirds of the country’s population already live in 10 megapolitans, which are growing at a faster rate than the U.S. as a whole, according to Robert Lang, the Virginia Tech University professor who’s become the nation’s expert on this statistical phenomenon. He predicts that the population of the megapolitans will grow by 85 million people and see $33 trillion in construction spending in the next 35 years.

History In The Making

While these super-regions would command attention in their own right, the fact that they are emerging as a new brand of federalism is taking root across the U.S. makes this a moment in time when history may be in the process of being fundamentally reshaped.

On this weekend’s Smart City interview with Jonathan Taplin, the University of Southern California professor discussed the abdication of federal responsibilities that has led to cities taking action on issues such as global warming, stem cell research and fuel standards. He made the point that these demands for changes in policy come as a result of the digital age and the size of states like California which is a leader for the movement.

Another trend giving momentum for this shift is the emergence of 10 nation-states that will exist in our midst – economic and political centers of power that can drive change at the national level because the alternative is that they will create it for themselves.

In the Backwater

The problem for Memphis is that when the age of megapolitans dawns, we’ll be in its backwater, no closer than about 200 miles to the nearest one – the Piedmont megapolitan, which embraces 19 million people in an area that stretches from Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta and Birmingham. Its western edge teases the Nashville metro.

The largest of the megapolitans is the gigantic Northeast, stretching from New England to Northern Virginia and holding 50 million people and a $3 trillion economy.

The Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago corridor holds 40 million people in the Midwest; Southland embraces Southern California and Las Vegas with its 22 million people; the I-35 megapolitan runs from San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City with 15 million people; and the Peninsula is essentially all of Florida south of the mainland and holds 14 million people.

Small Is Big

The smaller megapolitans include NorCal, which has San Francisco and Central Valley’s 12 million people; the Gulf Coast, running from Houston through New Orleans to Pensacola, also holds 12 million people; the seven million people in Cascadia live in the western third of Washington and the upper quarter of Oregion; and the bottom half of Arizona with its five million people makes up the Valley of the Sun.

As the fluid shape of these megapolitans begins to emerge, the imperative for them now is to find ways integrate them into the global economy, as Europe has been doing – and across country borders no less – for decades. For example, the self-named Alpine Diamond region has been collaborating, cooperating and marketing an area for more than 20 years that includes Lyon, France; Torino, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland. The strongest evidence of the success of this approach is the light rail system that was constructed as a result of the tri-country clout.

For Professor Lang, the criteria for the megapolitan are:
* It combines at least two, but may include dozens of existing metro areas
* has more than 10 million in population projected by 2040
* It constitutes an organic cultural region with a distinct history and identity
* It has roughly similar physical environment
* It links large centers through major transportation infrastructure
* It forms a functional urban network via goods and service
* It creates a usable geography that is suitable for large-scale regional planning

Edge(less) Cities

These edgeless super-regions defy the traditional notion of a central city surrounded by an urban core and a suburban ring. Instead, megapolitans are amorphous, irregular, unpredictable and seemingly alive in the way that their borders undulate and shift.

In the face of such growth in the megapolitans, issues like sustainability, equity, rational government structure and global competitiveness will only be amplified and take on new importance, some observers predict. It also will produce more burbtowns with new versions of center cities and greater density.

The gravitational pull produced by these megapolitans will escalate trends that are already evident today. For example, these 10 super-regions will be the major magnets for talent in the U.S., and it’s no wonder: The dozen or so cities that today are attracting the bulk of 25-34 year-old workers today fall within a megapolitan.

The Pressing Questions

As we now know, companies will move to the cities where the talent lives, and as a result, these workers will attract more and more companies to these super-regions, and because talent is key to the innovation economy, it’s likely that these megapolitans will also be the seedbeds for the innovative breakthroughs that determine economic success today.

In other words, it’s likely that these 10 megapolitans will dominate the American economic and political landscapes like nothing seen in a century. So, the question that Memphis needs to answer is “How do we become part or make a connection with a megapolitan?” or more likely, “What does Memphis need to do to become more strongly competitive in the age of the megapolitan?”

As for the first questions, projections suggest that it’s unlikely that Memphis will become part of a super-regions. We’re just too far off the growth corridors, and it seems unlikely that I-69 – which on most days feels more like a real estate scheme than a transportation plan - can produce the kind of growth that could attach Memphis to the Midwest megapolitan, and it seems even more unlikely that the Piedmont super-region will ever ooze this far west.

Low-Wage, Low-Skill, Low Expectations

So, the more pertinent question for Memphis is deciding what strategies can make it more competitive. Our top-of-mind answer is that Memphis needs to concentrate on quality – as in quality government, quality of life, high-quality transportation and quality community.

If Memphis is willing to continue to sell itself at a discount, it will continue to pick up the crumbs from the knowledge economy table, and worst of all, it will seal the fate of our region, because we will forever be on the lower rungs of economic life in the U.S. In a knowledge economy where talented workers are looking for high quality of life and high quality cities, it seems obvious, but we’ve made a history of chasing warehouse/distribution/logistics jobs to the detriment of a comprehensive, healthy economy plan.

Our reliance on low-wage, low-skill jobs will continue, and our future is preordained if nothing happens to shake things up. To this end, the Memphis region needs to act against type.

Walking The Walk

We need to be known for experimenting with some of the most innovative programs in the South. While it would be a good strategy for most cities, it would have extra impact here because no one would expect it from us.

We need to walk the walk of a region, because God knows, we’ve talked the talk for 15 years. We need to start acting like a region, developing joint plans in areas where agreement should be motivated by mutual enlightened self-interest, such as transportation and water and air quality. We need the MPO to demonstrate the same sort of innovative thinking that characterizes the agency in other cities, where it’s taken on strategic regional planning (actually linking transportation planning to land use and economic development) and in a few cases has even morphed into a form of regional government.

As we have said repeatedly, we need to bring rationality to our tax structure, which is one of the most regressive in the U.S. and results in lower incomes paying larger percentages of their salaries in taxes than the wealthy. But more broadly, we need a regional tax for amenities that would serve as a venture capital fund for cultural and historical facilities.

Agenda Items

In addition, we need to be defined by our commitment to sustainability. We need a greenprint to make the most out of the riverfront, Shelby Farms Park, Wolf River greenway and Memphis Greenline, but there are projects in other cities in the region that are just as important.

But we need much more. We need incentives and codes that encourage density and urban reinvestment and redevelopment. We need government fleets of hybrid cars and LEED-certified public buildings. We need greenways, walkable neighborhoods and bike paths.

And we need create a city where people with choices elect to live, particularly families with children, and that means not only improving neighborhoods but improving schools, the toughest job of all.

A Choice

Some say that none of this can be done. And the harsh truth is that some key indicators for Memphis paint a discouraging picture for the future.

In other words, it may take a citizen revolt to make it happen, to make sure we’ve got the most progressive agenda, to make sure we’re having the right conversations, to increase the intellectual capital brought to issues and to spark new thinking.

And, we shouldn’t have to wait until 2040 to get it started.

Friday, September 28, 2007

This Week On Smart City: A City In The Clouds

Two new reports are out from CEOs for Cities, and their authors are with us this week to discuss their findings.

Charles Leadbeater, who consults worldwide on innovation strategy, suggests that cities now face problems more like clouds than clocks that cannot be solved with traditional, top-down approaches. Charles has advised companies, cities and governments around the world on innovation strategy and drawn on that experience in writing his forthcoming book We-think: The Power of Mass Creativity, which charts the rise of mass, participative approaches to innovation from science and open source software, to computer games and political campaigning.

Joe Cortright claims cities have advantages that are going unrecognized. They offer more variety, convenience, discovery and opportunity, and these advantages are the source of economic advantage. Joe is an economist and principal with Impresa Consulting based in Portland, Oregon, specializing in regional economic analysis, innovation and industry clusters.

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.

Continuing The Discussion About Economic Advantage

The conversation about what small advantages in Memphis can become major economic advantages is continuing, and so we want to post recent comments here to make sure you're keeping up (and can contribute):

Jon said...

Memphis also has a great radio station --

Gregg said...

I meant to post this and time got away. I agree with all that's been mentioned about the arts and the parks. That's what makes people happy once they get to Memphis.Clearly from a purely economic standpoint (i.e. GETTING people to Memphis), our location is a huge advantage for logistics and distribution. FedEx knows this. All the rail companies know this. We HAVE to leverage that by thinking long-term about making it easy to ship goods to and from Memphis.

Heavy freight is boring, the pay scales are relatively poor and you don't need a "creative class" type of employee. However, the speed at which we can get lighter goods to global destinations is a huge advantage with FedEx. The head of the regional chamber touched on this today as it relates to medical devices . The fact we can get a replacement knee to Mumbai in under 24 hours is a huge competitve advantage. Obvious initiatives would be to get a 2nd rail line into Pidgeon Industrial Park to break the CN monopoly on rail there.

Another would be the super terminal to get the BN out of the Poplar corridor (and move people on that...not freight).

Anonymous said...

If anything, our location, which is an advantage for logistics businesses, is a decided DISADVANTAGE in another way; to wit, we are isolated from the synergies that being close to other cities would bring.

2 hours from Little Rock
3 hours from Nashville3 hours from Jackson, MS
5 hours from St. Louis
4 hours from Birmingham

We're kind of stuck out here in a Delta sea of cotton fields with every other city of consequence half a day’s drive away.As an example of synergies, Atlanta is planning for high speed rail to Chattanooga. Now if I'm recruiting for Chattanooga, I'm pushing that concept mightily and telling everyone who'll listen that they can live in Chattanooga or that area and be in Atlanta in 1 hour to work. That's just an example.

Santo said...

Your blog is required reading for my students, so hopefully they’ll see and respond to the gentle prod. (Or maybe I’ll just make your question of the week an essay on the midterm!)

We did have one nod toward the Aerotropolis idea, and a bit of discussion about music and art. By the way, the CA had a similar question for readers in the Sep. 16 viewpoints section: What is Memphis’ single greatest asset? 15 of the 17 responses printed on Sep. 23 mentioned arts and/or music.

Does that mean it’s true? (I’m considering exploring the potential relationship between art/music and neighborhood level revitalization in a course this spring. Stay tuned.)

Smart City Consulting said...

Dr. Santo: Thanks for the compliment. We look forward to any insights from your students, and in line with the arts/music/creativity, we think our next question of the week will be about whether readers believe that Memphis is more innately creative than other cities.

In the wake of the comments about creativity, we had one person suggest that all of our talk about creativity in present-day Memphis is an exercise in myth-making. It raises an interesting question, particularly if we want to make sure that great music isn't just in our rear view window (although it's hard to think that with folks like Amy LaVere still around).

gatesofmemphis said...

Myth-making in what way? If they meant it pejoratively, let me say that making myths is ipso facto proof of our creativity.

A stagnant-to-destructive parallel anti-culture has also thrived throughout Memphis history. Creative Memphis' evil and abusive fraternal twin. We should be honest about its existence, but it has always been on the wrong side of world history and maybe, one day soon, Memphis history.great thread. I'm looking forward to the next question

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Leasing City Assets Fills Chicago Coffers

Cities – including Memphis – are sitting on assets that can be leased to pay for crumbling infrastructure, to improve maintenance and to improve bond ratings.

At least that’s the opinion of Dana Levenson, former Chief Financial Officer for the City of Chicago and architect of the leases of the Chicago Skyway and the city-owned parking garages that brought $2.5 billion into his city’s coffers.

Speaking to this week’s CEOs for Cities meeting in Chicago, Mr. Levenson said the leases not only infused much-needed money into the city budget, but they improved service and operations. “There’s no question that they are better run than when they were under city control,” he said. “In other words, users are getting more value and taxpayers are getting more help.”

Chicago Fire

Borrowing a leasing concept popular in Europe for years, Levenson spearheaded what was called by some critics a “fire sale” of city assets. Except for one thing: there was no sale. Instead, Chicago entered into a long-term leases, retaining ownership and setting our terms for future operations.

For the Skyway - about eight miles of elevated highway - Chicago entered into a 99-year lease for $1.83 billion. Five groups vied for the Skyway concession contract, and the winning amount was paid by a consortium of Australian and Spanish investors.

When the parking garages came up for lease, 13 companies fought for the right to manage them, and eventually, Chicago signed a contract with Morgan Stanley for $563 million.

Public Policy Innovation

It didn’t take long for some governors to join the new movement. Indiana signed a 75-year lease with the same group that leased the Chicago Skyway and it paid $3.85 billion to manage the Indiana Toll Highway. Virginia inked a 99-year contract for Pocahontas Parkways for $603 million, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has the Pennsylvania Turnpike out to bid.

Back in Chicago, although Mr. Levenson left to work for the Royal Bank of Scotland, the momentum continues with Mayor Richard Daley’s interest in leasing Midway Airport.

The big question is whether this interest in leasing public assets is just an momentary aberration in public policy or whether it signals things to come. Regardless, cities looking to get on board should do it now, Mr. Levenson advised.

Asphalt Jewels

“The beauty is that cities can unlock capital from dead assets, and we’re not talking about the ‘crown jewels’ unless your idea of ‘crown jewels’ is asphalt. Best of all, the asset stays in place, because no one is going to move the Chicago Skyway or the garages to Australia,” he said. “In other words, the assets remain here, they are better run and future risk is transferred to the private sector.”

Pension funds – like the powerful one for California teachers - are driving the interest in the leases, because private management of public assets can generate 10-12 percent yearly gains. So far, only about $7.4 billion has been spent on these infrastructure leases, a small fraction of the $175 billion of funds in the global marketplace for them. When this amount is leveraged, Mr. Levenson said that the buying power is $700 billion.

While the former banker was motivated by the financial infusion, he said better operations was almost an equal draw. City officials simply aren’t equipped to manage operations like garages and toll roads.

Bean Counters

“Garage management by city government consisted of compiling numbers each month,” he said. “We didn’t do anything if the number went up or down. We just kept statistics. In the private sector, they act if the capacity goes down and they base payment on maximizing capacity. For the city, the garages just sit there as profits dip.”

He said the lesson was reinforced by the least of the toll road. “In three months from the time of the contract, the private sector had installed electronic tollways,” he said. “City government would still be thinking about it.”

In Chicago, the money from the leases wasn’t used to balance the operating budget. “You don’t use a windfall to plug a budget hole,” he said. Rather, the Daley Administration used the money to created a long-term reserve fund, paid off bond debt, created a mid-term annuity and used five percent of the total to fund 20 social programs in Chicago.


Most of the opposition to the leasing of infrastructure is more philosophical than practical – complaints about paying tolls to a foreign company and a fear of escalating fees and tolls.

That’s why he said the contracts between City of Chicago and the lessees are so critical. It sets out strict conditions for the lease, including limits for the number and size of fee and toll increases, setting the standard for service and nailing down the fine print that in the end spells the difference between wise public policy and exploitation by the private sector.

And what are the kinds of public assets that should be considered for lease? Mr. Levenson’s list includes convention centers/stadiums, hospitals, prisons, harbors and waterways/ports. “It’s at least worth looking at the possibility,” he said. “It’s sure better than the options – asking the federal government for help, begging for state funds or increasing local taxes.”

Lease, Not Sell

While the terms of the leases in Chicago seem daunting, Mr. Levenson defends them against critics concerned that lawyers cannot now hammer out a contract that foresees all the changes that can take place over a century. And yet, if Chicago can close on the Midway Airport deal, what has largely been a curiosity in public policy may become a stampede.

Interestingly, no one in Chicago is suggesting a lease of the water system. “It’s the ultimate political landmine,” said Mr. Levinson, a conclusion already proven here when Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton laid out a proposal to sell Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.

The public’s reaction to that idea was explosive and immediate, and while it probably created reticence in City Hall for similar proposals, it might be worth taking a thoughtful look at some of our undervalued infrastructure assets as sources for new revenue. And most of all, talk about leases, not sales.

Our Toll Road Candidate

Unfortunately, we’ve already missed the boat on the best opportunity that we had for a lease. From our point of view, we would have started with Tennessee Highway 385 that circles the outer borders of Shelby County – a $500 million gift to developers.

Now, there’s a road we’d have loved to put toll booths on.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Question Of The Week: Memphis' Small Advantages

Little more than a week ago, we submitted a “question of the week” based on Harvard University economist Edward L. Glaeser’s 43-page paper, “Urban Colossus: Why Is New York America’s Largest City.”

In it, he made a seminal point about the economy of cities -- urban economies are shaped by small advantages that over time become huge advantages.

So the question that we asked was:

Knowing that small advantages can become huge economic advantage, what should Memphis be keying on?

We got the kind of insights and comments that we always get here - the kinds that make us hopeful about the future of our city. (By the way, Santo, we're still waiting for your students' answers, which we're sure we'd find instructive.)

Here’s what you said --

Anonymous said...

* clean up Wolf River and make it usable -- boating, swimming, fishing, and plain old watching.

* expand and emphasize Shelby Farms, and Shelby Forest.

* another Musicfest in the fall.

* turn Memphis into the medical capital of the South. You already have UT MED, U of M has a good nursing program (make it better). We have St. Jude & Lebonheur.

* More magnet city schools like White Station.

* Put term limits on political seats.

* Don' t annex areas the city can’t support.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does it seem like the state of Tennessee doesn't care much about investing in UTCHS? I mean, go to other cities and look at state med schools and associated hospital/research areas. Ours doesn't seem to measure up.

Anonymous said...

You wrote, "Recently, Memphis Fast Forward unveiled the latest economic development plan for our city, naming its priorities as logistics, music/film, biomedical and tourism."

Is that a plan? Or merely a recognition of facts?

And if we are in sorry shape in spite of those facts, what's the plan to bring new industry?Or maybe you're talking about a new shuffling of existing priorities. I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Or shuffling of the deck chairs?

Anonymous said...

Can we leverage our trees? They are one, uncomplicated-ly good thing about the city. I'd like to see new vitality to City Beautiful.

Are there enough qualified students to fill another school like White Station High School? And whose parents are broad-minded enough to send them to public school? The multicultural education I got there was certainly a small, wonderful thing about the city for me.

gates of Memphis said...

Perhaps a key advantage is Memphis' special combination of low-cost of living, and creativity. We could use this combination to develop a major creative subculture based on personal dreams rather than personal wealth. So many other creative cities, due to their high costs of living, end up pushing out the artists and dreamers. Memphis could encourage them to live here.

1. creating place and density to help foster creative energy.
2. cultural institutions that promote creation rather than consumption.
3. economic and social system which supports artists and dreamers, either directly through their earning a living through their art and creativity, or indirectly through free health care and access to jobs.

1. Memphis' monied, institutional and political classes' general lack of curiosity about anything outside their class and social circles.
2. our absolute reliance on for profit developers to create/shape/destroy our urban landscape and its energy and beauty;
3. economic system that punishes creative risk with poverty and health care loss.

Anonymous said...

We're always bragging about the city's history of entrepreneurs. We need to invest in that ability rather than concentrating on industries. It's about aptitudes, not industry sectors.

Anonymous said...

You're always talking on this blog about the future being determined by innovation and entrepreneurship. It's hard to see how logistics and tourism got on that list. I think that Memphis needs to concentrate on seeding creativity with a special venture fund.

If the Arts Council really wants to do something - besides just change its name and little else - it would put up the money for a fund that treats our musicians, our filmmakers, and our artists as worthy of investment. That's where the greatest progress can come, particularly if the Arts Council and others would set up a way that business and the arts collide and produce new ideas and innovation.

It's the silo thinking that's killing Memphis, and there's no bigger silo than the Arts Council and the private sector, who can't figure out that all these quirky, strange people aren't pains in the butt but people who can help create Memphis, not just their art.

Santo said...

One of my classes just read Glaeser’s “Urban Colossus” last week. I’ll see if they come up with any ideas. As for me, I think there’s reason to believe that we must have some small advantage in some subcategory of the broad term “music.”

Maybe it’s a combination of musical heritage, music industry infrastructure, musically inspiring urban decay (in a good way?), and general affordability. (That would make a great Chamber of Commerce Slogan.)

I’m not sure what the exact advantage is, or how Memphis might capitalize on it, but consider this piece about how Portland has become America’s Indie rock Mecca:

Portlander Taylor Clark shares his thoughts on why a growing number of successful musicians who got their start in other places have chosen to settle in the Rose City. Read it if you have the time, but I’ve tried to distill his theories to four mains reasons here:

1. Indie rockers come to Portland because they want “to live in a place where they could walk like gods among mortals.”

2. For Indie rockers, Portland is a comfortable place to live. It has “laid-back weirdness,” which, in part means “you can venture into public dressed like a convicted sex offender or a homeless person, and no one looks at you askew.” Other related reason include “the people are nice,” “the food is good,” and “creativity is the highest law.”

3. “Housing is affordable, especially compared with Seattle or San Francisco.”

4. Indie rockers love Portland because “the city produces very enthusiastic rock crowds.”Nothing earth shattering there. Maybe this kind of success needs to happen “organically,” but if it is possible to create it, why not here? Laid back weirdness? Well, we’ve got laid back, and we’ve got weirdness, so why not “laid back weirdness?”

Housing is affordable in Portland? No, it’s not. I spent four years there not too long ago. Housing is affordable in Memphis. And we’ve got plenty of mortals for gods to walk among. Better still, here they can walk among mortals along streets that some of their gods walked back in the day.

As for the enthusiastic rock crowds, I haven’t been in a real rock crowd since my daughter was born 4 years ago, but I’d imagine Memphis could muster up a mosh pit with the best of them, right?

Going back to my earlier point about the musical inspiration of life in a gritty city, consider this comment on Taylor piece by Slate reader “Anse”:

“I remember Tom Waits once said the reason he preferred to stay in cheap hotels when he was on tour wasn't just because he could save money; lower-class neighborhoods had more stories. Luxury was an obstacle to getting to the root of things.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

IRV Gives Election Results ASAP

It’s not often that Memphis has the chance to be a trend setter, but one of the least understood proposals before the Memphis Charter Commission would give us just such a chance.

It’s Instant Runoff Voting, a proposal submitted to the Commission by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, whose solidly liberal credentials should allay concerns that IRV is a plot to give white voters more clout at the polls.

He’d be hard-pressed to have more graphic examples of the wisdom of IRV than this year’s city elections. After all, it’s likely that a number of City Council races will require costly runoff elections, where voters will back into selecting a winner rather than voting for their hopes and dreams for the future.

Eliminating Spoilers

Sadly, there’s no runoff for the Memphis mayor and Council super-districts, meaning that there’s the real prospect that some elected officials – notably the mayor – will take office with more people voting against the winner than in favor of him or her.

For the sake of example, consider the race for District 6 Council race where yet another Ford progeny, Edmund Ford Jr., is running for the seat left open by his father in the wake of his federal indictment. His major opponents are Reginald Milton, Ed Vaughn, James Catchings and a few assorted others.

It’s likely that no candidate will get a majority of the vote, and as a result, a follow-up runoff costing Memphis taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars will be held. There’s also the prospect that the turnout will be much smaller.

Cheaper And Immediate

It could be different. It could be cheaper, more efficient and the results could be immediate.

That’s the beauty of Instant Runoff Voting. Memphis voters would no longer have to vote twice to get a winner, because on election night, a majority winner would be proclaimed.

Here’s how it works:

When voters go to the polls, they vote for candidates in order of their preference. The pick their first choice, their second choice, their third choice, and so on.

Simple Math

If a candidate wins a majority, that person obviously is the winner. If there is no candidate with a majority, the rankings of the other candidates are used to declare a winner.

All ballots are recounted, and the candidate receiving the least number of first place votes is eliminated. The ballots are counted again, and voters who chose the eliminated candidate now have their votes counted for the second-ranked candidate. The weakest candidates are progressively eliminated and votes redistributed until a single candidate has a majority of the votes.

In this way, IRV offers the chance for better voter choice and wider voter participation in selecting the winner. According to proponents like Commissioner Mulroy, IRV allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without the fear that they are helping to elect their least favorite candidate. Best of all, the ultimate winner actually has the real support of a majority of voters.

No Longer A Novelty

For four years, San Francisco has been using IRV, and the response from the public has been highly supportive. Soon, Oakland and Minneapolis will add the instant runoff to its election process after voters overwhelmingly approved it at referendum.

North Carolina is beginning to use it in certain judicial races, and Arkansas, South Carolina and Louisiana use the ranked ballot for overseas and military voters. Meanwhile, Ireland uses it in its president’s election, London in its mayor’s election and Australia for its House of Representatives.

Support of IRV has also come from one of the most unexpected places – political parties. With instant runoffs, parties can choose to nominate multiple candidates without worrying about watering down their voter support.

More Than Saving Money

Now, the liberal vote can be split between multiple candidates, allowing a conservative candidate to win. But IRV allows voters to rank all of their candidates so that if a district’s dominant political philosophy does not fall victim to spoilers in the race who pull away enough votes from one major candidate to elect the other.

For example, in New Mexico, Green Party and Democratic Party candidates split liberal voters, allowing Republicans to be elected in districts in which they clearly are out of step.

Until Shelby County passes a vote-by-mail system, Instant Runoff Voting is the best idea to come along in years, because not only does it save significant public money, it has actually been credited with reducing negative campaigning. Because candidates aren’t just campaigning for people’s votes, but also for second and third rankings, which means that they are less likely to vilify opponents whose supporters can mean the difference between victory or defeat.

A Blow For Progressive Government

No part of American society is more resistant to change than the public sector, but the Charter Commission has the opportunity to strike a blow for innovation in our election process. One Commission member says IRV is too complicated for Memphis voters, a pretty damning statement considering that all it does it require voters to rank candidates 1-2-3.

So far, some of the Memphis Charter Commission members seem a bit perplexed by IRV, and a couple have said that it’s not easy to explain. Then again, neither is the electoral college.

Here’s hoping that the Commissioner will give Instant Runoff Voting the serious consideration that it deserves. It would be good if Memphis could be known for its commitment to progressive policies for a change.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Herenton Race Equal Parts Emotions And Politics

The reelection of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton moves with an inevitability these days that belies the need that exists for a serious discussion about the future of our city.

If nothing shakes up the campaign for mayor, he will take the oath of office in January for the fifth time as chief elected leader for a city whose dominant characteristic is the chasm that splits it down the middle – with one side considering him the embodiment of all that is wrong with Memphis and with the other treating him as a heroic figure fighting for them.

As a result, the question asked frequently these days is whether his divisive rhetoric is the stuff of campaign strategy or whether it is a persona that will carry over into his fourth term. It appears more and more to be the latter.

Redneck Politics

His campaign strategy is reminiscent of the days when former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler described his success this way: “You give me the rednecks and you take every one else, and I’ll beat you every day of the week.”

To his base, Chandler could do no wrong despite a city economy in freefall and a downtown whose icons, the Peabody Hotel and Beale Street, were boarded up. In the face of some harsh realities, Mayor Chandler displayed a perceptible disdain for those who sounded the alarm about the direction of the city and his administration’s role in its drift.

Underlying his political organization was the largely unspoken – except in code words - covenant with his base that sent the message that he would stand up to the calls by African-Americans for more power and a greater voice in city decisions.

Those People

While the times have certainly changed, the political strategy still works. The covenant with the voters is still about standing up to “those people,” but in demonizing white power brokers, Mayor Herenton taps into an anger that always seems to be percolating just below the surface of Memphis.

But, to many who know him best, Mayor Herenton is doing more than channeling his constituents’ emotions; he is clearly venting his own. In the process, he seems to be doing nothing as much as removing the veneer of politspeak that garnered the support of the white business community over the years, speaking these days with an emotional conviction that is at times frightening in its ferocity but revealing in its sincerity.

Along the way, it’s been an opportunity to come face-to-face with the way that many African-Americans see their places in their city.

Circling Power

The widespread distance that the business community has put between itself and Mayor Herenton gives special emphasis to his comments. While the business community – always pragmatic about the vagaries of the political environment – says it’s concerned about the perceived erratic nature of Mayor Herenton’s behavior, most remain quiet, fearful of being the object of the mayor’s scorn.

On the other hand, Mayor Herenton has embraced a “you need me more than I need you” attitude, defiant in his criticisms of some one-time allies (whose friendships with him were once the source of charges that he was “too close” to the white business community). Despite his service on some prominent local corporate boards and his broad business support in the past, the mayor can’t shake the feeling that he’s always had to play a role to get ahead in these circles.

No longer. When seen through Mayor Herenton’s eyes, his general lack of support from the business community has been liberating. He can say what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. And in doing it, he tells his base that African-Americans are always welcomed into the circles of power as long as they live up to the expectations of the white community and as long as they aren’t completely honest about their opinions and the challenges to black Memphians.

The Ford Difference

It’s this seminal difference in perspective that will make healing so difficult after the coming election. In recent months, emotions have been laid bare and rubbed raw, and it’s unlikely that in its wake, the honesty will become the foundation for more racial understanding.

There have been many factors responsible for the shifts in the Herenton political organization, but nothing has been more important than one: former U.S. Congressman Harold Ford. For years, the close relationship between Mayor Herenton and business leaders was fueled as much by their mutual interest in keeping the former congressman out of the mayor’s office than a clear political agenda.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way, because most of the business elite opposed the former school superintendent in his first race 16 years ago against then-Mayor Dick Hackett.

Coming Full Circle

That’s why Mayor Herenton often feels these days that things have come full circle. Once again, the white business establishment disdains his candidacy, and once again, he is chiefly motivated to run for election to simply prove that he can do it and on his own terms.

With Mr. Ford in self-imposed exile in an upscale Miami suburb, Memphis lost the fulcrum that created the strong relationship between Mayor Herenton and the private sector. Suddenly, Mayor Herenton stood on his own, rather than on the “at least he’s not Harold Ford” grading scale.

Without the former congressman, many powerful Memphians were less inclined to give Mayor Herenton a pass when his rhetoric turned bombastic, his leadership grew disengaged and his behavior turned unpredictable.

Changing Times

From his side, with Mr. Ford out of the way and with demographic trends moving to his benefit, Mayor Herenton was less inclined to “kiss the ring of the white community,” as a close aide put it. He became a frequent no-show at prominent events that he had previously attended, preferring to spend his time in the neighborhoods of his political base.

“The white community thinks that just because they don’t see him, he’s not out in the community,” said the adviser. “Whites thought he dropped out of sight, but the folks in Whitehaven were seeing him all the time, and so were black people in other parts of Memphis.”

There’s no argument that Memphis has not had a more dominating political figure since Boss Crump. The most convincing evidence is the fact that he is able to define the political discourse and to crowd out every one else when he speaks (and to do it while refusing to appear in debates with his opponents, a widely criticized decision but adroit political strategy nonetheless).

Falling Short

Of course, this ability to suck all the political oxygen out of the room is magnified by the inability of his major opponents to elbow their way into the conversation about political controversies of recent months. Offered chance after chance to differentiate themselves from Mayor Herenton, both Herman Morris and Council Member Carol Chumney have fallen short.

The latest example is Mayor Herenton’s charges about voting machine irregularities. In the midst of the controversy, Councilwoman Chumney declined comment and Mr. Morris came up with a weak football metaphor about a “misdirection play.”

With two weeks left in the campaign, it seems axiomatic that they would let no opportunity pass to deliver the message that Mayor Herenton is out of touch and can’t separate his personal and political interests. In other words, neither candidate seems able to turn events in ways that reinforce their primary campaign messages. At a time when the coin of the realm is hammering your campaign message until voters are almost sick of hearing it, both Mr. Morris and Ms. Chumney almost seem off-balance when these opportunities arise.

The Obvious

For example, we wondered why neither of the candidates said the following about the voting machine dust-up:

* City Attorney Elbert Jefferson has no place in this controversy. He’s not the attorney for the Herenton campaign; he’s the attorney for city government. It is not appropriate or proper for him to be speaking with the force of his office about the mayor’s allegations. In fact, as the city attorney, he would actually have the responsibility of defending the city ballot against any voter’s legal complaint, including his boss’s. Doesn’t Mayor Herenton know it’s improper for the city attorney to be acting in ways that are politically motivated?

* The mayor made many complaints about the ballot, such as the font is too small for older voters. Doesn’t he know that each voter has the option of making the font larger on voting machines?

* The mayor complained about the ballot format. Doesn’t he know that it was sent by the Election Commission to City Hall for review and approval?

* The mayor complained that the ballot is confusing, and yet, his campaign was invited to training (and apparently did not attend) on the voting machines so its campaign workers could advise supporters.

Tenth Round

And yet, once again, the questions weren’t just left unanswered. They were left unasked, and a productive debate was avoided.

In the end, the fact that neither candidate could lay a glove on the mayor may be ultimate metaphor for this entire campaign and testament to the larger-than-life political stature that Mayor Herenton still exerts in his city.

Friday, September 21, 2007

This Week On Smart City: A More Perfect Union

The Bear Revolution is upon us. So says Jonathan Taplin, a long-time innovator in the entertainment field and Adjunct Professor at the Annenberg School of Communication where his areas of specialization are in International Communication Management and the field of digital media entertainment. ees cities and states rising in power, with California leading the way, while power diminishes at the center.

And then we go even more local with D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells who is determined to make our nation's capitol a more walk-able, livable city. Tommy began his Washington, D.C. career in 1985 as a social worker in the District's child protective services agency, eventually becoming director of the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare, an organization of 20 nonprofit agencies that serve the city's children and families.

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, September 20, 2007

Downtown's Legacy Is Built On Neglect

We can only be grateful that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton believes that his legacy is based on downtown Memphis.

With four decades of experience in the downtown core, we’ve never seen it with more trash, more poorly maintained and more in need of desperate attention.

We can only imagine what it would look like if he hadn’t cared so much.

Tonight, the mayor rolls out his anti-blight plan, which includes a strong emphasis on cleaning up Memphis. Unfortunately, while the plan does have some important new policies, the section on cleaning up the city is short on resources and long on platitudes.

While on the face of it, the announcement of the anti-blight plan would seem to have positive political impact for the mayor’s relection, it of course begs the question of where City Hall has been for 16 years as blight spread like a cancer, not to mention the potential role of the mayor in contributing to it in the first place.

And coming as it does at the end of the “decade of the neighborhood” announced so long ago, it serves as a sad punctuation for wasted time and lack of action.

As for downtown, while there is the widespread perception that it gets more than its share of City Hall attention, the truth is that it suffers from the same benign neglect as Memphis neighborhoods. Were it not for the tax incentives for development, the abdication of City Hall responsibilities would be even more stark and apparent.

That’s because the current development masks the fact that city government has essentially treated downtown Memphis like most neighborhoods – with far too little attention and precious few resources.

For example, with downtown infrastructure crumbling, City Hall notified the Center City Commission about six years ago that city government would no longer be responsible for new sidewalks. As a result, the downtown development agency cobbled together some funding that allowed it to issue – and pay for – a fraction of the bonds that are still needed to get downtown to the level of comparable cities.

If that wasn’t enough, city government has all but eliminated clean-up programs downtown and maintenance has become all but nonexistent. If city taxes aren’t supposed to be used for downtown upkeep, we can only imagine the lack of consideration that neighborhoods get.

One thing we do know: The blizzard of overblown rhetoric about downtown isn’t snowing any one who works and lives downtown.

If Mayor Herenton is serious about downtown revitalization, we respectfully suggest that he actually leave City Hall and walk downtown between City Hall and the Peabody and Westin Hotel watering holes.

If City Hall officials would get out and smell the roses – or at least the trash and the panhandlers and cope with the decrepit downtown infrastructure - at least we’d have more respect for them when the talk turns to the “renaissance” of our neighborhood.

Upping The Ante In The Ford Case

Federal officials sent former Tennessee Senator John Ford an emphatic message yesterday, and they postmarked it Anthony, Texas.

That’s where one of the state’s former power brokers will serve his five and half year term for corruption, and while over the past 18 months, the federal government has sent him messages to cooperate, there’s not been one more telling than this one.

Generally, federal prison officials assign prisoners within their “home district,” which is within 500 miles of their residences. In Mr. Ford’s case, the feds not only didn’t do that, but they shipped him more than 1,000 miles away, and at a time when his lawyers need him to prepare for his upcoming trial in federal court in Nashville.

But the message was stronger than the simple mileage involved. There’s the strong indication that Mr. Ford will check into the low security prison at FCI La Tuna rather than the satellite prison camp. In the parlance of the kingdom, this means that he would serve his sentence “behind the fence.”

It’s the difference between night and day. People in the low security prison have their movements strictly choreographed, activities are limited and the view of the world is through a razor wire fence. Meanwhile, at the camp, there is no fence, prisoners largely create their own universe and movement is extremely loose.

But if that’s not enough, in sending Mr. Ford to Anthony, Texas, and ignoring dozens of prisons closer to home, federal prison officials sent him to one of the prisons in Texas with a reputation for hostility between Mexican and African-American gangs.

Based on his sentence, Mr. Ford will be in Texas for about four years and seven months before he’ll be released to a halfway house here, but if he’s willing to plead guilty to the Nashville charges and eliminate the need for the federal government to prepare for trial, we bet that he could suddenly find himself in a prison close to home, where he would have more stature as a former state legislator and where his family members and friends could visit him.

So far, Mr. Ford’s attitude hasn’t helped him in asking for a break from federal officials. With this prison assignment, federal officials definitely upped the ante.

Are Nashville Music Fans Savvier?

I had a heretical thought last night.

After work, I drove to Nashville to attend a Dylan concert at the Ryman. Over the 41 years that I’ve been attending these regular rituals of aging, I’ve learned the one constant is there is no constant. One night is awful and the next night is incredible.

Last night was magical. Amos Lee opened and then Elvis Costello surprised the crowd by contributing a 40-minute set. When Dylan and band finally made it to the stage, they were in a groove, made even more electric when Jack White of the White Stripes strolled on stage to play a blistering guitar and sing an impassioned “Meet Me In The Morning.”

It was about then that I became aware that the packed house was rewarding some impressive guitar licks, cheering slight changes in lyrics and applauding the subtlety of some reworked arrangements. Notably, no one left early, all in stark contrast to a similar concert a year or so ago in the Orpheum here.

It was at that moment that it occurred to me that Nashville audiences are simply more music-savvy. They appreciate the subtleties, they know the players, they are plugged into the performance and they feel the music.

It’s not the first time I’ve been to concerts at the Ryman, but it was the first time that this thought crossed my mind. I just hope someone can talk me out of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Now Let's Do Something About It

How much more confirmation do we need that Memphis is poor and undereducated?

Now, what to do about it?

1) Aggressive availability of birth control - not abstinence lessons which don't work. Focus on women, not men. Focus on long-term contraception, not on condoms or daily pills.

2) Pre-natal care

3) Maternity ward visits

4) Home nurse visits

5) Quality early childhood

6) Improved schools

7) Lots of extra activities - after school, summer, sports, music, art, clubs, field trips, visits with people with different carrers, extracurricular opportunities galore. No idle hands.

What would you add to the list?

The Creative City

Our question of the week (asked last Thursday but still open for your comment), is:

Knowing that small advantages can become huge economic advantage, what should Memphis be keying on?

Several answers so far focus on creativity. In light of this, we found this post on on the CEOs For Cities blog to be especially interesting and a special challenge to the Memphis Arts Council, now rebranded as ArtsMemphis and apparently focused on creating a culture of creativity:

Charles Landry, the father of the Creative City concept, has a great new interview in Spiegel.

The cities Landry favors have, "contradictions, most of all, a balance between chaos and order." They need "neighborhoods vibrating with energy just as much as cozy little corners and parks; well-tended, middle-class sections as well as an alternative scene; technology centers for innovative youth and social facilities for older people.

While creativity cannot be regulated, it can be encouraged. "The redevelopment or revitalization of a city is an art," Charles told Spiegel. "It depends on the individual strengths of a place and the will of the leadership to bring about change. The goal is to establish a cultural infrastructure. Creativity is also needed in the administration. There is no magic formula, no 10-point plan where you can check off items and suddenly be successful."

Oh, but so many urban leaders demand a 10-point plan. That's one reason Landry continually confounds his audiences. They keep waiting for the items to check off, and he never delivers them. Good for him not to humor the lazy and unimaginative. With Charles, you have to catch the spirit of his work, not the specifics.

I recently re-read big chunks of his book "The Creative City" and found it once again to be quite remarkable. If you haven't read it or just skimmed it the first time, go spend some time with it. It is quite rewarding.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Memphians Pay A Surcharge For So Many Students

It could be called the Memphis Surcharge.

It’s the extra taxes Memphians pay as a result of the disproportionate percentage of children who live here.

It’s largely the reason that the tax rate in Memphis and Shelby County is so much higher than Nashville/Davidson County.

The Difference

While it might not look like much of a difference on a comparison of school aged population on a list of Memphis and comparable cities, that demographic bulge of a few percentage points ripples throughout the budgets of Memphis and Shelby County governments, increasing costs, budgets and the tax rate.

In a listing with Birmingham, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Knoxville, Little Rock, Louisville, Nashville and Orlando, Memphis and Shelby County are #1 in the percentage of its school-aged population – 23.2 percent in the city and 23.4 percent in the county.

That percentage is about 10 percent higher than the second place city and roughly 20 percent higher than our regional rival, Nashville. As point of reference, 18.8 percent of the population in Nashville/Davidson is school-aged.

The Ripple Effect

The effect of this difference ripples through the city and county budgets, largely in the money required for education. In Nashville, that’s 28.4 percent of the tax rate. Here, it’s 42.03 percent here.

Put another way, $1.21 of the combined Memphis/Shelby County tax rate is directly caused by this bulge in students, and this is the Memphis Surcharge.

Without this bulge in the number of students, the combined city-county tax rate here would be $5.24 compared to the enviable Nashville/Davidson tax rate of $4.69.

The Bottom Line

Most of us are familiar with the property tax comparisons trotted out by developers and homebuilders every time a tax increase is discussed. It’s purpose is to suggest that local governments here out of control.

One such list, widely circulated in 2005, showed the combined city-county tax rate here as $7.47, compared to $4.69 in Nashville/Davidson, $5.10 in Chattanooga, and $5.50 in Knoxville. The conclusion: Memphis and Shelby County governments are spending like drunken sailors.

While there’s always room for more efficiency in city and county governments, unmentioned in discussions about our tax rates is the real culprit: We have more kids.

The Number Worth Remembering

Here’s the most important number in this barrage of statistics -- $175.3 million. That’s how much additional public costs result here from these additional students.

It’s clear that fewer subjects are as ripe for political posturing and manipulation as our onerous local tax rate, but it’s a shallow explanation that focuses solely on public performance.

All of this is the gospel according to Marlin Mosby, managing director of Public Financial Management and finance director for the City of Memphis from 1975 to 1984. It’s his persuasive contention that the public sector back then were no smarter or more creative than today. His point is that mayors and directors in the “good old days” weren’t trapped beneath a demographic wave of young people, robbing them of options for innovations seen in other cities that have greater flexibility precisely because they have a much percentage of students.

A Taxing Situation

These days, Mr. Mosby is a man on a mission – to clear up the misunderstanding of the nuances of public budgeting, and his always frenetic, ever opinionated and constantly fascinating presentation is a yearly favorite of Leadership Memphis classes.

The students alone would be problem enough for Memphis, but there’s also the fact that we have one of the most regressive tax structures in the U.S.

In a studied 51-city analysis by the Office of Revenue Analysis for the District of Columbia Government, Memphis was among the worst three cities for its regressive tax structure. In the meticulously documented report, the analysts looked at the tax burden for the largest city in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Too Few Options

Our city’s taxes are regressive at their core, meaning that low-income families pay a larger share of their incomes in taxes than high-income families. That’s because local government has an overreliance on property taxes and sales taxes, when compared to other governments across the U.S.

With no real options except the two primary tax sources allowed by state law, city and county governments are left with two inequitable places to go for more revenues – the regressive sales tax or the regressive property tax.

While local efforts to expand tax sources are well-intended, in the end, the current tax structure is so badly flawed that even new sources are just stopgap answers that don’t address the real inequities in the system.

Tale Of The Tape

The study analyzed the tax burden for families with average incomes of $25,000, $50,000, $75,000, $100,000 and $150,000. The assumptions for the study were that each family has four members and owns a single family home within the city limits.

The average tax burden for the 51 cities across the U.S. was 7.3 percent for families earning $25,000; 8.3 percent for families earning $50,000; 9.1 percent earning $75,000; and 9.2 percent at the $100,000 and $150,000 levels.

In other words, most cities have a tax structure that responds to a person’s “ability to pay.” Memphis does just the opposite. The more a family earns, the less it pays. The family earning $25,000 pays 7.0 percent, right in line with the average for the 51 cities.

More Is Less

But, the family earning $50,000 doesn’t pay more; it pays less – 6.2 percent. A family earning $75,000 pays 6.3 percent, one-third less than the national average; and the $100,000 income family pays 5.9 percent and the family earning $150,000 pays 5.6 percent.

O.K., if you know anything about this blog, it is our obsession with statistics. So, let’s boil it down: In the higher income brackets, Memphis taxpayers pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than families making one-fourth as much. In fact, these Memphis high-income families are paying roughly 40 per cent less than the average of 51 cities.

Birth Control = Tax Control

But Mr. Mosby would add one more factor driving out tax rates higher. It’s his contention that the final nail in the local fiscal coffin comes with the Tennessee law that requires rollbacks of the tax rate to offset property values increased from appraisals. As a result, public revenues don’t grow to keep pace with inflation while expenses do.

The more that we look at statistics regarding students, the regressivity of our tax structure and the mandated restrictions put on local governments by state politicians, the clearer it is that they pose a constant challenge for Memphis and Shelby County in the competition for economic growth.

While Memphis Fast Forward may suggest that the answer is greater efficiency in city and county government, the truth is that we can never achieve that goal in its truest sense as long there's the Memphis Surcharge to contend with.

Friday, September 14, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Urban Innovations

Our topic this week is urban innovation but on two very different subjects.

In his forthcoming book, Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life, Steven Tepper calls on urban and arts leaders to make sweeping changes in the way they build cultural vitality for our cities. Steven advocates a shift from art consumption to art making, a move he believes can dramatically change cities. Steven is associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and assistant professor in the department of sociology at Vanderbilt.

And we'll talk to Michael Rempel, an innovator in our court system, particularly when it comes to dealing with drugs and domestic violence. Michael is currently working on a national study of specialized domestic violence courts and a multi-site evaluation testing the impact of adult drug courts across the country. He is co-editor of Documenting Results: Research on Problem-Solving Justice.

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, September 12, 2007

Question Of The Week: Finding Memphis' Key Advantages

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a “question of the week,” and since it’s been awhile, we apologize for giving this exercise such an inaccurate name. Nevertheless, we have enjoyed the conversations and insights that have come from these questions, so we’ve got another one for you.

Recently, Memphis Fast Forward unveiled the latest economic development plan for our city, naming its priorities as logistics, music/film, biomedical and tourism.

The brilliant Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser, in a 43-page paper, “Urban Colossus: Why Is New York America’s Largest City,” made a seminal point about the economy of cities -- urban economies are shaped by small advantages that over time become huge advantages.

For example, New York’s advantage in the early 1800’s was its port, which was better situated than other East Coast ports for trade with Europe. It was closer to the ocean than Philadelphia and more centrally located than Boston, and the small time that New York’s port saved became tremendous economic gain.

This small advantage ended up making New York the center for industries from sugar refining to garment manufacturing. Mr. Glaeser’s most interesting example is publishing.

In the early 19th century, the fledgling United States didn’t recognize foreign copyrights, and as a result, New York became a hotbed for pirated English novels. Again, the advantage of quicker ocean travel made it even more advantageous as the latest novels could be transported to New York for copying. From those humble beginnings grew New York’s dominance in the publishing industry.

Today, the city’s dominance in finance comes from a density that contributes to “chance meetings, regular exchanges of new ideas and the general flow of information.” And on Wall Street, as in many part of the global economy, information is power – and profit.

So the question for you this week is this:

Knowing that small advantages can become huge economic advantage, what should Memphis be keying on?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Blogging For The News

We were reminded last night while we so rarely watch local TV news.

The three leading newscasts in Memphis reported on the City Council endorsements and fundraising by longtime Democratic activist Karl Schledwitz as if it was real news.

To us, it sounds like something we need more of - involved citizens - and it’s what groups all over Memphis are doing right now – some organized, some informal and some ad hoc. It’s precisely what makes democracy work.

Reality TV

And yet, local TV reporters were treating as if it were a “real” news story, and all because they were following up yesterday’s post by Memphis blogger Thaddeus Matthews as if there was any journalistic justification for their coverage.

We’ve known Mr. Matthews for several years and consider him a friend. His blog appears to be extremely popular, and his hubris and hyperbole make for posts like nothing else in this city. Often, he seems to connect dots that aren’t visible to mortal man and to exorcise political demons in outlandish (if not occasionally libelous) assertions.

Sometimes, the posts are so outrageous that there’s the inescapable feeling that Mr. Matthews’ tongue is planted firmly in his cheek and that it’s offered more in the name of entertainment than information.

Blogging 101

We certainly defend Mr. Matthews’ First Amendment right to express his opinions, but the notion that most blog posts meet the basic standards for journalism or that their authors are spokespersons for a constituency feels more like the result of news laziness than anything else.

So, a blogger thinks that Mr. Schledwitz is part of a vast white-wing conspiracy of powerful Memphians trying to “take over” City Council in a diabolically overt display of ah, well, American democracy. Does the fact that a blogger opined on it make it news? What precisely is the “news peg” in this story? And if it’s somehow news, what about the other political activists who are doing the same? Why does this one merit such special attention?

To us, it’s simply an indictment of how far journalism has fallen. It’s just hard for us to understand how this particular conspiracy theory – among all of the dozens circulating in Memphis every day – possessed enough gravitas to make it fodder for the evening newscasts.

It’s Not Journalism

It reminds me of a panel discussion a few weeks ago sponsored by Main Street Journal about the impact of blogging, and there was consensus that none of us are acting as reporters. At best, we are columnists sharing our commentaries with the public, and although blogs give off the appearance of being authoritative, they should be approached with the same degree of wariness reserved for Wikipedia.

But, back to the criticism of Mr. Schledwitz, we totally share his belief that we need Council members who “do not depend on politics for a living, are fair-minded, are open to doing things differently, will not let race dominate decisions, will challenge the status quo and will act as agents for change.” In fact, we think that an overwhelming majority of Memphians would sign on to this manifesto right now.

In addition, Mr. Schledwitz says he’s supporting candidates who are “independent, moderate, responsible, unifying and committed to a spirit of community.” We say “amen.”

“Taking Over” City Council’s Nine Vacancies

Specifically, Mr. Schledwitz – longtime activist, strategist to innumerable candidates, and confidante to many elected officials, notably U.S. Senator Jim Sasser, a relationship that resulted in the pandas coming to the Memphis Zoo – endorsed six candidates, one white and five African-Americans. And anyone remotely familiar with Mr. Schledwitz’s political history knows that he was supporting and funding campaigns for African-Americans long before anyone else in the white community.

And like he has done for decades, he always puts his money where his mouth is – contributing and raising funds for campaigns. If this somehow is the stuff of political skullduggery, we need more of it.

The headline for the blog in question calls this “a plot to take over City Council.” Of course, when we do it, it’s called reform, but in truth, isn’t this what all of us who are politically active are trying to do? And if this is a spurious attempt to take over City Council, what about the efforts by political parties, New Path, AFL-CIO, the police union, Coalition for a Better Memphis, The Commercial Appeal and so many other highly-respected organizations?

More Fire Than Light

One of the virtues of blogging is the ability to assert our own interpretation of a situation, and unlike reporters, we’re not held to any generally accepted standards of behavior. That’s why so often, many bloggers end up being the written equivalent of talk radio. While it may be interesting to tap into the angst found in Memphis, we’re more drawn to proposed solutions to challenges than rants (even when we agree with them).

And because every one is entitled to their own version of the facts, we offer ours:

* There has been no presentation of the Schledwitz proposal to Memphis Tomorrow nor is Memphis Tomorrow funding it.

* Memphis Tomorrow’s purpose is not to select who’s elected to office. In fact, the CEO-led organization doesn’t make – and has never made - political endorsements or contributions.

* New Path, an admirable and respected group of reform-minded young leaders, did not prepare nor has it endorsed the Schledwitz proposal.

* David Upton did not prepare the proposal nor is he involved in its execution.

* J.R. (Pitt) Hyde III was not involved in the development of the proposal and has played no role in its execution.

Signing On

If Mr. Matthews’ blog accomplished anything, it led us to look closely at the proposal by Mr. Schledwitz, and in so doing, we are persuaded by the philosophy of government that he espouses and hard-pressed to disagree with his endorsed slate of candidates.

Most of all, at a time when so many of us are frustrated by the tenor of City Council meetings and the quality of its decisions, Mr. Schledwitz is willing to work to improve our city’s government and is willing to work to make it happen. We need more of it, not less.

Now that would really be news.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Juvenile Court Fracas Blocks "Real" Answers

The continuing schoolyard bickering between the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person would make for a mildly interesting sitcom except for the fact that tens of thousands of children hang in the balance.

So far, however, neither side has done much to earn the respect of the public who pays the bills for this sad political theater.

On one side, there’s the board of commissioners with its apparent belief that county elected officials forfeit their First Amendment rights to disagree with them and whose new Democratic majority – with one Republican – has bafflingly invested so much of their equity in pursuit of what feels more like a political vendetta than productive public debate.

It's About The Kids

On the other side is the new Juvenile Court judge – a former state senator with the affected air that comes from too many years in the rarified air of the State Capitol and whose chameleon-like shifts between judge and administrator are ploys to keep him from doing precisely what he expected officials to do when he was a senator - respond directly to legislative inquiry.

Caught in the middle are tens of thousands of at-risk children who deserve better.

Maybe, just maybe, both sides are so fixated on political one-upmanship that they aren’t even seeing the ultimate target – how to best serve the young people of Shelby County.

Aiming Too Low

There’s little question that the commissioners have aimed too low, motivated too much by politics and too little by policy. Perhaps, there’s an answer that puts the emphasis where it belongs – on the children – and it is done by creation of a new division of county government – the Division of Children’s Advocacy.

Just a few statistics underscore the obvious and urgent need:

* 60 percent of children in Memphis live low-income or poverty

* Only 14 percent of children in poverty live with two parents

* 71 percent of students in Memphis City Schools are on free or reduced lunch

* 13 percent of all 16-19 year-olds in Memphis – almost 5,000 young people - are “on the street,” neither in school nor working, and this is the highest percentage of our peer cities

* About 20,000 cases a year are handled by Juvenile Court

Creating A Hub Of Services

Juvenile Court – with its $32.3 million annual budget and 437 employees – merely hints at the depth of county government’s stake in children. Besides the Court, Shelby County is the regional leader – and a major funding source - for early childhood programs, health department programs to fight infant mortality, the newborn center at The Med, Head Start and Memphis City Schools.

In seeking new answers to old problem at Juvenile Court, perhaps the place to start is in ending the Court’s neither fish nor fowl existence. After all, the judicial function is only the tip of the Juvenile Court iceberg, and there’s logic in separating it from its other functions and including them with the other children’s programs funded by county government.

Now, these programs rarely intersect with each other, and as a result, the opportunity for a cohesive, comprehensive strategy for improving the lives of at-risk children is squandered. Also, because of the fragmentation, there’s no overriding sense of accountability that monitors the performance of each and reports to taxpayers about the return on their investments.

A Better Way

For example, there’s no centralized place in county government where the tough questions are asked about city schools, there’s no place where policy analysis is conducted to show where funding returns the biggest dividends and there’s no place where new innovations in leveraging the county investments and in delivering services are developed. As a result, year to year, the various services never undergo the kind of rigorous evaluation that can give birth to better ways of doing business.

Three studies of Juvenile Court later, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners seem stuck so firmly in the past that it’s not yet considered this option. Three reports written for the commissioners – National Center for State Courts, Memphis Bar Association and Juvenile Court Ad Hoc Committee of the Board of Commissioners – all accept the present structure as a given for the future.

It needn’t be.

Division Of Labor

While the Bar Association report is instructive, it largely takes on the tone of a special interest lobby who wants its professional life made easier. Meanwhile, the Ad Hoc Committee report feels more like a star chamber proceeding in light of the commissioners’ previously stated insistence on a second judgeship, and many of its broad brush criticisms could just as easily apply to any county department.

But, the report of the National Center for State Courts issued June 8 is something else altogether. The self-titled “brief assessment” runs for 51 pages, and includes numerous recommendations that can be seen as a mandate for total reform of the system rather than just procedure improvements.

For example, it seems only reasonable that the same person – the Juvenile Court Judge - shouldn’t be in charge of the court system, the correctional system, the social services programs and the public defenders assigned to young defendants.

Checks And Balances

With the principle of checks and balances at the heart of government, it feels like an awful lot of checks and very little balance. After all, the judge supervises seven referees who handle legal proceedings and hearings, he runs detention facilities, he oversees the services received by the juveniles, he operates protective services and in his spare time, he acts as manager of building maintenance, HR, purchasing, information technology, volunteer services and more.

It doesn’t sound so much like a judge as divinity.

It’s clear from the recommendations by the nonpartisan national group that there’s a number of judicial changes that should be made to improve the administration of justice, such as “one judge/one family” concept that ensures that one person handles all matters related to one family (similar to Nashville/Davidson County).

True To Its Name

Overall, the report’s verdict on Juvenile Court was positive, but several recommendations supported the creation of a new division of children’s advocacy where services could be maximized. For example, the report says that “the juvenile detention center lacks a meaningful education program.” Surely, a government that invests $361 million this year in education could make that happen.

All in all, the 24 recommendations in the National Center for State Courts’ Brief Assessment of the Juvenile Court System in Shelby County are well-documented and logical, and hopefully, Juvenile Court officials will take them to heart and implement them. In fact, just putting in place the recommendations affecting the judicial function is a fulltime job in themselves.

In the meantime, someone should take an entirely new look at youth services in Shelby County, setting aside any loyalty to the traditional system and any motivations that stem from political grudges.

From our perspective, the place to start is the one that makes Juvenile Court true to its name. It is a court system and it leaves all the other services to a division focused on the network of resources that can be applied to every at-risk child in Shelby County.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Live From Memphis Starts Newsletter

We've made no secret of the fact that we are big fans of Christopher Reyes and Sarah Fleming at Live From Memphis, and how they have been our city's outpost in the digital world, largely unappreciated but nevertheless setting the standard for Memphis.

So, we were pleased this week to get Volume 1 of the Live From Memphis Newsletter, featuring information on its latest projects and plugging some always special local events like Gonerfest 4.

To sign up for the newsletter, look for the Newsletter: Join on the left side of every page on the website.

This Week On Smart City: Mapping The Smart City

Rarely do we get a good news story about teenagers. But this week is different. Teens in Memphis, many living in public housing, spent the summer mapping their neighborhood and its assets. And even they were surprised by what they learned.

We'll talk to Dr. Charlie Santo from the University of Memphis who designed and directed the project. Dr. Santo is Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning in the School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy.

Also with us is Wayne Senville who spent his summer traveling Route 50 from Maryland to California, talking to citizens and planning commissioners in towns along the way. Wayne is editor of the Planning Commissioners Journal and

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, September 06, 2007

Young And Restless Report Gets New York Times Attention...Again

We were proud to see our colleague and friend, Carol Coletta, quoted again today in the New York Times in its coverage of what young jobseekers want.

In answering the question – you’ve already read it here frequently: they are motivated in where to live than what they do, the newspaper relied on the “Young and Restless” reports that we’ve written about so often.

Always a Memphis booster, Carol even managed to get in a plug for Mpact Memphis.

The study spotlighted in the article was the Yankelovich report: “Attracting College-Educated Young Adults to Cities” that Carol spearheaded as president of CEOs For Cities in Chicago.

In the words of the report, young workers are looking for cities that are “clean, safe and green,” and without these, a city is out of the running.

That’s why these are the first things that need to be addressed if Memphis wants to join the 14 urban areas in the U.S. that have seen more workers move in than move out – Austin, Atlanta, Nashville, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Greensboro-Winston Salem, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, Denver, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, and Portland, Oregon.

Our firm –in collaboration with Portland economist Joe Cortright – has written our own talent strategy reports for Atlanta, Richmond, Tampa, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Memphis and Providence. If you’d like to read these "Young and Restless" reports, you can find them here on our website.

Taking The Mystery Out Of Public Customer Service

Here’s a city department that immediately attracted our attention – Office of Strategic Customer Services.

Unfortunately, it’s in the city government for Dallas and not our City Hall, but it manages a program that seems like an idea whose time has come - mystery shoppers for city services.

In the Texas city, volunteers are recruited and trained to evaluate the customer service of city departments, the most recent being a survey of Dallas’ 311 program. Of course, there’s another more basic reason why we won’t be doing that here – we still don’t have a 311 system.

Without Peer

Today, there are 60 cities with 311 programs, including some of the cities that we often cite as our “peer cities” – Charlotte, Louisville, Indianapolis and Birmingham. Nashville recently joined the ranks of cities that allow citizens to call one number for information and access to city services, and although its program is modest when compared to the standard for 311 – New York City – at least it’s a start.

While the Nashville version presently looks like a glorified information service, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set up a 311 structure where its calls are used to analyze department efficiency and evaluate employee performance.

In the Big Apple, all calls are answered by a live operator and the service is available 24 hours a day. In addition, translations are available in more than 170 languages, and the information being given to callers is the most up-to-date, real-time data base in the city.

Nerve Centers

In the midst of crisis, the 311 program is the nerve center for citizens in the midst of a crisis. That’s why more and more, 311 is considered as a basic service for government. Here, it’s not even on the radar.

Back to the mystery shopper program in Dallas, the city government there uses these specially trained citizens to rank services and the performance of specific employees. The mystery shoppers rating 311 – a program receiving about 33,000 calls a month - are just the latest way that Dallas has used them. Previously, they rated operations of the city’s park department, and their reports are regularly used by city officials to evaluate services.

In Dallas, mystery shoppers not only evaluated how the calls were handled, but how well specific departments resolved the calls for services. The reports from the mystery shoppers are given to the Dallas City Council quarterly and are posted on-line.

Meanwhile, mystery shoppers are instrumental to Chicago's performance management system, and Miami and Richmond are already planning similar mystery shopper programs.

Losing Streak

As we’ve said, it’s unfortunate that Memphis is 0 for 2 on both mystery shoppers and 311, but more to the point, City Hall shows little interest in customer relations. It’s too bad, because there’s so much room for improved service, and so many of the answers aren’t really that complicated.

We were thinking about simple solutions to better customer service recently as we stood in line in City Hall for 40 minutes to pay city taxes. All we needed was a receipt that the tax bill had been paid, and there were only six people ahead of us when we got in line.

But with computers failing and with clerks’ windows opening and closing with no apparent logic, you didn’t need a degree in hospitality from the Wilson School at University of Memphis to devise ways to improve things. In fact, that was a favorite pastime of the people queued up in the tax line.

A Different View

A mystery shopper program would go a long way to developing actionable recommendations for improving things, but a start would be if city employees actually stood in line in various departments.

It would be illuminating for them to see city services from our side of the counter.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Finding The Majority Attitude To Go With The Majority Votes

It is understandable that African-Americans frequently feel more like prisoners of history than participants in it.

After all, for more than a century, they were denied a voice – not to mention a vote – in public decisions that shaped their lives and determined their futures.

Because of it, they discovered the lesson always learned by minorities in America: Solidarity at the ballot box commands attention to the issues that are important to them.

Majority Rule

This solidarity remains just as important today on national issues as it always has, because it keeps equal rights and economic justice on the national agenda. And yet, something remarkable has taken place here at home.

African-Americans are no longer a minority and no longer are they required to approach issues in the same way that they did when they were. From electing the first African-American to a citywide office less than two decades ago, there are now African-Americans in the mayors’ office, a majority on Memphis City Council, a majority on Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, and a majority on Shelby County delegation of the Tennessee Legislature.

Most of all, Memphis is the first majority African-American metropolitan area in the entire country, and this single statistic convinces some national commentators to predict that Memphis cannot succeed.

Proving Them Wrong

As a result, we have a historic opportunity in Memphis – to prove them wrong, that being a majority African-American region is not the prescription for failure.

This is a test for our city that we cannot ignore. It also is one we cannot afford to fail.

It calls on us to have serious discussions and honest debates about the future. It calls on us to consider new ideas, new directions, and new thinking.

Debate Is Good

Elections perform this crucial role, giving us the opportunity to hear different plans for Memphis’ future and to inspire actions that set our city on a positive direction.

And yet, there are some in Memphis who suggest that once an African-American is elected to high office, it should be treated as his until he gets tired of it. It is patronizing at its best and self-destructive at its worst.

It perpetuates the myth that African-Americans are monolithic and rigid and diminishes their impact on the development of policies affecting economic growth, our safety, and our neighborhoods.

The “Real” Deal

Key to Memphis’ future is making the right choices, but we’ll never know what they are if the malignant notion is accepted that African-Americans should not oppose each other for the city’s highest offices and they should simply acquiesce to the road chosen for them.

It’s as if some people believe that now that African-Americans are the majority, they can’t really be trusted with the full responsibilities of democracy, they can’t have “real” campaigns with opposing views and alternative positions, and they can’t handle the choices that are our rights as Memphians.

The truth is choices are what make a democracy great. It’s also what can make Memphis great again.

Healthy Attitudes

But first, it requires African-Americans to adopt the attitude of the majority, an attitude that doesn’t fear choices or options, an attitude that welcomes debate, dialogue, and discussion. It requires them to broaden perspectives beyond the political realities of the past and to give birth to a healthy confidence in their abilities to control their own destiny.

We were reminded of how hard it is to shake off the traditions of history when Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton considered an entry into the Memphis mayor’s race. Old ways of thinking immediately surfaced with charges that Mayor Wharton’s candidacy would create division and divisiveness.

It makes about as much sense as when Dr. King was accused of bringing hate to Selma. The division in Memphis is already there, deep and troubling. The answer is not to pretend like it doesn’t exist, but to lance the boil with the most power medicine at our disposal – the ballot box.

Memphis is on a historic journey toward the future. No longer are African-Americans mere spectators to history. Now, they have the chance to write it for themselves.