Friday, November 30, 2007

A Reply To Joel Kotkin

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Joel Kotkin once again seemed like a man with an opinion in search of a statistic. We normally disregard his trenchant complaints – although we have decided that Richard Florida must have poisoned his dog – but since he seemed to refer to our “Young and Restless” research and to Memphis as a place that has “danced to the tune of the hip and the cool, yet largely remain wallflowers in terms of economic and demographic growth,” it’s hard to stay quiet.

First off, if we’ve been in a dance, it’s been an awfully strange one. More often than not, Memphis barely acknowledges the factors that can attract and retain young professionals, much less try to get out on the floor with strategies to address what they want and need.

As we’ve often noted, it didn’t have to be this way, since Memphis was the pioneer in the talent issue that is now on every city’s agenda. It’s ironic that five years from the time that we applied Richard Florida’s research to Memphis – pre-publication of his incredibly popular book, Rise of the Creative Class – to produce the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, he’ll be back in town next week to talk to the Regional Chamber’s annual meeting.

The year after the Talent Magnet Report, Mr. Florida was back in Memphis to co-host with Carol Coletta the Memphis Manifesto Summit that she developed. More than 125 “creatives” from across the U.S. were involved in crafting a manifesto for cities wanting to attract them. The document has been widely used and is included in the paperback copies of Mr. Florida’s book.

The bad news is that we’re still listening to speeches and too little has been done, but the good news is that there is a heightened understanding of the importance of this issue, and better still, there’s a expanding cadre of young, active leaders who are anxious to have a say in shaping our city’s destiny.

While it’s tempting to wring our hands over five lost years which could have been used to put Memphis firmly on the forefront of this issue, it’s more productive for us to use Mr. Florida’s speech as a wake-up call for what we’ve now known for five years – to be competitive in the global economy, we have to produce, recruit and retain young talent.

But, back to Mr. Kotkin’s column in the Wall Street Journal this week, he was customarily dismissive of this emphasis on young professionals. Settling more and more intohis role as the Ozzie Nelson of urban commentators, he says that cities’ attention to young urban single professionals is misplaced, and success is about about families and the suburbs. Actually, we’re not aware of a city that’s checking marriage licenses at the door before clearing singles to enter, but he missed the point, as Carol Coletta points out in her blog at CEOs for Cities:

In his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, "The Rise of Family-Friendly Cities," Joel Kotkin sets up an either/or set of economic development and lifestyle choices that simply doesn't exist.

Where, exactly, does Kotkin think these married couples he extols come from?

Hint: The median age of first marriage among all U.S. women is now 26, older for college-educated women. A typical young woman today spends at least five years after college, usually pursuing a career, before a first marriage. By the time she's in her late 20s or early 30s she -- and her partner--have typically put down roots in a particular metropolitan area.

The reason Raleigh and Charlotte score so well in gaining families is that they are the biggest gainers of younger, well-educated adults, particularly singles.
It is plainly a lot easier to hang on to the young adults who live in your city rather than recruiting them from other places. That's why cities should pay particular attention to young singles when they are at their most mobile and also build on their family friendliness as a way of retaining these talented and energetic people.

But does being family friendly require a fundamentally different set of urban attributes? Not really.

Schools certainly move up on the priority list. But in a national survey of college-educated 25 to 34 year-olds for CEOs for Cities, we found that the top five attributes they seek in cities are these: clean and attractive; opportunity to live the life I want to lead; safe; green; and availability of the type of housing I want at an affordable price. That sounds pretty family-friendly to me.

And does anyone really believe that one loses one's taste for latte when one starts pushing a stroller?

We can do a lot more to advance the discussion about the kind of community attributes that we all value - singles and married couples alike - without creating phony and divisive distinctions.

Family-friendly cities are not terribly different from other cities. Ask business and civic leaders around the nation what’s driving their concern about whether their city appeals to young people, and they will first tell you they are needed for the labor force. But what really worries many of them hits much closer to home. They worry their own kids won't return after college. Being family-friendly has a lot of surprising dimensions.

This Week On Smart City: Quality Places

The quality of places results from many factors. This week we're going to talk to two experts in very different fields, both of whom are deeply engaged in making better places.

Maria Hibbs directs The Partnership for New Communities, the Chicago brain trust that is working alongside the Chicago Housing Authority to transform the city's neighborhoods that formerly housed towers of public housing residents. Maria joined The Partnership after more than 20 years managing the public and governmental affairs and corporate communications functions of major Fortune 500 companies in the Chicagoland area.

Paul Lukez is focused on remaking suburbs. He is using his Adaptive Design Process to uncover local idiosyncrasies and reintroduce them into the planning and development of suburban monocultures. Paul is principal with Paul Lukez Architecture and Transform X and is also the author of Suburban Transformations from Princeton Architectural Press.

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Greening Development: A Forum

To continue the “green” theme, there’s a forum Saturday morning on a subject way overdue for Memphis – how design and environmental sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The speakers for the session are David Yocca and Gerould Wilhelm from the Conservation Design Forum, experts at integrating environmentally and culturally sustaining land planning, design and development techniques. They see “green development” as the linchpin between environmental stewardship and economic growth.

They’ll be at the Brooks Museum of Art from 10:30 until noon, Saturday, December 1 in a meeting sponsored by The Mississippi River Corridor-Tennessee and Shelby County Government.

It’s the first of several programs being planned to spotlight successful sustainable design projects, according to spokesperson Amie Vanderford. She said that its overriding purpose is to explore what’s being done across the U.S. and promote new ideas in the Memphis region. Also, they hope people will be inspired to get out and visit natural and historical places along the Mississippi River in West Tennessee.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Green: The Color Of A Quality City

Previously published as Memphis magazine's City Journal column:

The first stirrings of a green ethos in Memphis are taking place in the unlikeliest of places – Shelby County Government.

It would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. After all, county government was largely responsible for the unchecked sprawl that gobbled up land and taxes until county government threatened to collapse under the weight of its $1.7 billion debt.

Seven-lane roads proliferated, school sites chosen by developers also just happened to make them millions, ordinances to protect trees and environment were killed, parks weren’t built because money went to roads and schools, comprehensive plans for Germantown Parkway weren’t given a chance to work, and the “anything goes” development attitude in unincorporated Shelby County was mirrored in county government.

Engineering A Different Future

County officials never met a development they didn’t like, although its own analysis showed that every new $175,000 house cost $4,000 a year in public services for 20 years before it would generate tax revenue. Unfortunately, by then, many of the houses already needed reinvestment by their owners, and county government didn’t get the anticipated revenues as the demand for schools and roads gave way to social services, crime prevention and neighborhood redevelopment.

These days, the Wharton Administration seems to be working hard to change things. Perhaps it is fitting - albeit surprising - that the first breaks from the past took place in the county engineer’s, which had been at the heart of so many of the decisions that fueled sprawl.

It is a peculiar reality here that traffic engineers have traditionally done more to determine quality of life and urban design than any of the officials elected to make key decisions about the future. It was the engineering offices that gave birth to the philosophy that produced an overabundance of expansive roads and a scarcity of bike lanes, while most communities were doing just the opposite.

The Road Less Travelled

But, all that changed when Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes was given new marching orders by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, and he struck out as a leader of “smart growth” highway design and construction.

It began with a modest first step – a three and a half mile, two-lane section of Houston Levee Road. Only a few years ago, it seemed a certainty that Houston Levee would become another incarnation of Germantown Parkway. But instead of duplicating that highway’s miles of strip malls and expansive traffic lanes, county government instead realigned and rebuilt the Houston Levee from Wolf River to Macon Road with bike lanes, tree plantings, and curving design.

The county intends for the road to never be wider than a four-lane boulevard – a reprise of the design that county government adopted for the long controversial Kirby-Whitten Road through Shelby Farms Park. In that road project, the Wharton Administration introduced “context sensitive design” for the first time to the Memphis area.

Complete Streets

Although it’s widely used across the U.S., context sensitive design never took root here. In essence, it’s a process for designing roads that responds to where they are located and to their impact on the environment. It also assumes that transportation arteries are also for biking and walking, not just for cars.

Context sensitive design is now the norm for all county public works projects, and engineers could almost pass for Sierra Club members. In explaining its new policies, the engineers wrote that “sustainable infrastructure is safer, and pedestrian friendly streets and boulevards these enhancements run in the neighborhood of five percent of total project cost, which yields substantial quality of life and economic development improvements.”

To prove just how serious it is, Shelby County now has its own “signature bridge” – forest green, use of stone enhancements, antique lighting standards, and red brick approaches. The engineers say that roads and bridges are now more visually appealing, but more to the point, they complement the county’s other “green projects” - greenbelt system, Wolf River Environment Restoration Project, CSX Rail Corridor, and a study aimed at protecting the Memphis Sands Aquifer.

Happy Trails

In addition, county government recently opened the 30-acre trailhead for Nonconnah Greenbelt, a long-held dream of Public Works Director Ted Fox; Planning and Development Director Richard Copeland served notice that developers will be required to follow through with landscaping promises; and Kelly Rayne, chief adviser to the mayor, is now negotiating contracts for tax incentives to include “green buildings.”

It’s easy enough to change a policy or a program, but the real test always lies in changing the culture. There’s growing evidence that this is exactly what county government is doing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Questioning Creativity In Memphis

In following up a post about ArtsMemphis, Harvey asked if creativity can in fact be nurtured, which inspired our recent question of the week:

Do you think that a city can do anything to encourage creativity? If it can, what should Memphis be doing?

Here’s a recap of Harvey’s comments, and they are followed by the other comments from readers:

“Nurturing a creative mindset and community sounds like an excellent idea, but I wonder if such a mindset can be nurtured. My qualm comes from looking back on the unstructured history of Memphis innovation. First, with innovations such as the supermarket (Clarence Saunders), modern hotel (Kemmons Wilson), and profit sharing (Hull Dobbs), I see capitalism (with all its warts) as the main driver of innovation in the history of the city.

“Second, for sure, much of the art that has come out of our city has been groundbreaking and barrier crossing, but it seems to me that the greatest of the art innovators have grown organically. In fact, many of them grew up in a culture that did not bat an eye at, lend a hand to, or give a care about their innovation. They were not present in a nurturing society, yet their artistic output and its effect in Memphis will probably never be rivaled.

“I am not saying that art and creativity are totally at the will of the winds, but am I wrong in saying that great art movements in societies by their nature don't lend themselves to structure and calculation. Perhaps not, as the Renaissance attests with its patrons and prolific and excellent art output. But still, it seems odd to me to create ‘creativity.’”

gatesofmemphis said...
ArtsMemphis and other leaders can help create a climate of creativity. We're suckers to wait around for them or anyone else to do it for us, or empower (what a crappy word) us to do it, but they can help. For instance, with their resources, they can provide or broker lots and lots of inexpensive creative tools, classes, collaborators, studios, meeting places, critique, venues, events, connections between all of the above and a pulpit to evangelize a movement of mass creativity.

To me, creativity is the thing, not innovation, not greatness. It's fun. Creativity will make Memphis a better place, even if no one recognizes it but Memphians. I hope innovation and greatness happen -- and they're dramatically less likely to happen if we're not creative -- but they're icing on the cake. If they don't happen, we will still have lots of cake.

Mass creativity may mean 99% of us painting all Pissarro, all bad, all the time. That's okay. It's still funner than a small percentage just looking at Pissarro and the rest watching TV. And the 1% not painting Pissarro might be driven into a mad creative frenzy by the sight of the Pissarro knockoffs -- they could change everything.

Anonymous said...
We can do it in any number of ways. Chicago had the cow painting competition, a city in South American taught every one the samba, a place in Europe had every one come out one night and dance in the street. It's about an attitude, not a program. It's about having fun and being part of something bigger than yourself.

We've done so much to change the culture of the world, but we still don't have the right attitude to sustain it. I say amen to gatesofmemphis, because he's so right -- it's about fun. It's about all sorts of things - outdoor things, arts things, music things, silly things.

It's about doing something to show there is life in Memphis. It works in other places so why not here? Austin exudes creativity, and because it does, it solves its city problems differently. San Francisco exudes tolerance and it invites every one to get in the game of making a great city. Boston exudes intellectualism and talks about totally different things than we do. Miami exudes energy and cultural diversity and becomes a pot boiling with music, arts. There's no one road to creativity, but you can't get there if you never start.

We just sit and wait. And we end up with a city with that kind of lethargic attitude and hang dog behavior.

b said...
Make sure the arts aren't abandoned in our schools. Every child should be exposed to music and art on a weekly, if not daily basis.

AL said...
Creativity requires inspiration and cultivation. Memphis needs to emphazize structuring the city, county, and community in such a way that an amiable atmosphere is obtained for creativity. Right now fear and pessimism stymie any progress that can be made. It all starts with the public and private leadership in the city. We need bold leaders to take tough stands and to make these stands publically. We need inspirational leaders to cultivate the creativity that is suggested. I am convinced that Memphis and its infastructure and culture are primed for our own sort of "renaissance" and that it is simply a matter of convincing people that the problems we face are not from a lack of creativity but rather from a lack of boldness. The ideas are there, so encourage peers and leaders to take hold of their own ideas and step forward.

Jeff said...
I hope ArtsMemphis will rethink its requirements for funding organizations. The current ones are a horrible Catch-22.

I tried a couple of years ago to get a grant to fund the creation of a fiction anthology through my 501(c)3 literary non-profit and my e-zine Southern Gothic. I learned that to that get funding from the Arts Council, I must first get donations. Until I could prove that I didn't actually need money, I couldn't qualify for a grant. The Arts Council only provides MATCHING funds. They specifically DO NOT provide seed money to help NEW creative projects get off the ground.

This being my only experience with an Arts Council, I assumed this was normal and began asking editors in other cities how they raised donations. Donations? Sure, donations were nice, but no one had ever heard of this kind of funding structure. If they had to rely on donations, they'd be out of business. They weren't required to prove their artistic worth by their ability to solicit charitable donations.

Because of this, I have considered, on more than one occassion, moving to another city. I hear that the arts funding opportunities in Mississippi are more geared to artists than professional fundraisers.

I hope that ArtsMemphis will change this. People with a proven creative history (including the literary arts!) should be encouraged to create, not told to hire a fundraiser. I don't mind competing with other artists and other arts organizations for a slice of our very small pie. I'm confident my project could win such a competition. What I object to is having to compete with well-connected non-artistic, professional fundraisers who show, by their ability to raise $5,000 in charitable contributions, that they don't need $5,000. If I could do that, I could self-fund and wouldn't need the help of an Arts Council. The Arts Council should help the poorly-connected and poorly-recognized artists of the community gain the recognition they deserve so they can begin raising their own funds and move aside to allow new organizations and new artists a chance.

To continue my thought on this matter, the NEA has time restrictions on individual fiction and poetry grants. If you win an NEA grant fiction, you aren't allowed to submit for another fiction grant for ten years.

If ArtsMemphis had a similar policy, it would certainly change the way arts are funded in Memphis. I think it would be a good policy to say that after three consecutive years, or $X dollars, of funding, that organization could not apply for ArtsMemphis funding for, say, three years.

This would free up a bunch of money that could be used to provide seed funds for new projects.

Anonymous said…
Memphis begins by rewarding creative people. Five years too late, the Chamber of Commerce is bringing Richard Florida to Memphis to talk about what talented workers want. We know what they want, but we'd rather talk about it than do something to make it happen.

How about the Arts Council doing something that turns the spotlight each year on the most creative people that live here - in the arts, at the grassroots, in nonprofit groups.

We don't suffer from a lack of creativity. We suffer from a lack of appreciation that any one gives a damn.

Smart City Memphis said...
It's worth noting that we worked with Richard Florida when we developed the Memphis Talent Magnet report in 2002 and became the first city that applied his research to develop specific recommendations. He hadn't even written his book at that point, so we were in on the ground floor.

Then, in 2003, Carol Coletta developed and co-hosted the Memphis Manifesto Summit with Richard, and it produced the manifesto for cities looking to attract young professionals. The manifesto is printed in the back of his book.

The recommendations from both efforts were executed - unfortunately, it was in other cities. As a result, we lost a chance to get ahead of every one else and today, we still don't have a talent strategy for Memphis.

Anonymous said...
So what did the Memphis manifesto say? (SCM Note: We’re writing about it in the coming days, so look for it to be posted soon.)

Anonymous said...
How about support for cutting edge arts and culture, embracing the hip hop scene, sponsoring the work of young Memphis artists, funding Live from Memphis, encouraging performances in unexpected places, seeding digital and alternative arts, and building a website that promotes them?

How about tax incentives for musicians and artists like the ones given away to corporations and developers, a venture capital fund for contemporary, edgy work, and "real" money given to grassroots groups by ArtsMemphis rather than the pocket change they throw at us like we're street performers.

Anonymous said...
Our public TV station could be a major player in doing this, but first, it'd have to decide that its job is not to censor what we see. It's a dark day for Memphis if WKNO now sides with the idiocy of intelligent design. Creativity happens in cities where there is an intellectual life, the kind WKNO is helping to stamp out.

Anonymous said...
ArtMemphis and WKNO are crap - they don't encourage new projects, new artists, nothing - all they do is reflect on the past and do a whole lot of talking. They both SUCK!!!!!

In addition, these posts in response to the Grist magazine blog seem on point:

Amie said...
I have only lived in Memphis since 2004, but I love it here. The main draw to my moving here was family, but now that I am here, I do find plenty to keep me interested. I have lived all over the world, and I will say that every city has its good and bad points, Memphis included. The key here is that if there are things you don't like about our city, work to change it, moving to middle TN (or wherever) does not solve anything.

Anonymous said...
I've been here since 1986. as a technical professional as well as a musician.
I can honestly say its a dangerous and very poisonously racist city. When my time expires at my current position at a large research / health care institution, I shall be moving on.

The blatant curruption, and racial divide by the city leaders is unfathomable.
The lack of an educated populous is simply staggering. I've tried to affect change, and it’s to no avail.

Unfortunately, with such a largely uneducated population as well as the corroption and finger pointing, race card playing, etc, its pretty much hopeless.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Talks About Lawmen Merger Promise Reward

The Jackson, Mississippi, mayor broke the code: Instant law enforcement consolidation.

While long overdue - now in their fourth month - discussions here about merging law enforcement responsibilities of Memphis Police Department and Shelby County Sheriff Department are mired in some turf issues, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton consummated a merger in one fell swoop.

He appointed five-term Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillan to take charge of Jackson’s 409-person police department.

Unduplicating Services

It was an inspired move by the Jackson mayor, who has had very public disputes with the outspoken county law officer but appeared anxious to bring some coherency to area law enforcement. Also, the Jackson police chief’s job has a revolving door reputation that’s anchored in reality, and the mayor’s got little to lose. In roughly the same period of time that Sheriff McMillin has been in office, the capital city has had 13 police chiefs, and many left as a result of controversies that tarred the department.

What makes it especially instructive in light of ongoing negotiations here is that the mayor of Jackson is African-American and Mr. McMillin, a Caucasian, looks like he’s from central casting for a Southern sheriff. And yet, the city mayor – who defeated Jackson’s first black mayor with promises to cut crime rates – has plenty at stake: He has to prove that he is attacking crime aggressively if he’s to reduce the city’s astronomical crime rate (another similarity with Memphis) before his next election.

If there’s any lesson for Memphis from the Jackson announcement a week ago, it is that there is often no substitute for boldness. Of course, the Mississippi Mutation isn’t a permanent answer to duplicative law enforcement functions, because at any time, either of the major elected officials – the mayor or the sheriff – could pull the plug on the experiment.

Step By Step

Hopefully, Memphis and Shelby County law officers can show a similar capacity for such creativity. Here, we seem headed for incremental steps shaped by political factors but nonetheless focused on consolidating city and county law enforcement functions. In this vision of the future, Memphis Police Department is in charge of crime-fighting in Memphis, the unincorporated areas of Shelby County and Lakeland and Arlington. The Sheriff’s Department would remain in charge of the Shelby County Jail, security for the courts and serving warrants.

While we accept the sincerity of the concerns expressed by both sides, there is the potential here for a new focus that can bring higher standards to both city and county agencies. That’s why specific performance measurements have to be part of any interlocal agreement.

Predictably, there already are complaints from the mayors of Shelby County’s smaller towns, whose budgets (and lower tax rates) have long been subsidized by county government. It’s a regular feature of the political theater here, and remarkably, the mayors of these small towns win more than they lose, despite the fact that they have little skin in the game through allocation of their own taxes.

Make An Offer

For example, the mayor of Arlington is concerned about potential enforcement in his city by City of Memphis. Of course, it could be prevented at any time by his town actually forming its own police department, rather than relying on the county sheriff for enforcement (Lakeland also is protected by the sheriff department).

The mayors of municipalities with police departments have said they are concerned by the quality of protection provided by the city officers in the area adjacent to their towns. However, if they are that concerned, their cities could annex the so-called annexation reserve areas formally established as part of the Shelby County Growth Plan – which in truth are annexation agreements masquerading as enlightened growth planning.

In addition to annexation, another option is for the smaller towns to submit their own proposals for providing law enforcement within their reserve areas. As we’ve said before on this blog, if we were Shelby County Government, we’d do whatever we could to accomplish two things: 1) to contract with the towns for services within their reserve areas, and 2) to remove City Council from its involvement in the towns’ reserve areas because of Memphis’ “extraterritorial” power to approve zoning there.

Talk Is Cheap

Since Shelby County Government was “restructured” in 1976, county officials have talked insistently about consolidating services that are duplicated within Memphis and Shelby County Governments, but until the past 18 months, it was little more than sound and fury signifying nothing.

All of a sudden, it signifies an awful lot. There are talks about merging law enforcement. There have been talks about merging fire protection. There have been talks about consolidating engineering functions.

None of them will be easy. Despite compelling logic in support of all of these consolidations, there are legitimate organizational issues that have to be addressed and there is the potential of sabotage by political appointees concerned about their jobs and power.

Wanted: Open Minds

Back to the law enforcement talks, the driving force has been the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, whose ad hoc committees have defied all predictions by creating strong momentum for change in a number of areas. In the talks about consolidating the lawmen, Commissioner Mike Carpenter once again proves his ability to bring the kind of open mind that’s often sadly lacking as partisan loyalty trumps much-needed policy changes.

Then again, Commissioner Carpenter seems intent on taking the threadbare Republican rhetoric about efficiency and economy in county government and putting it into action. The proposal that he laid out 10 days ago responds to the difference between talk about consolidation and truth of consolidation, setting out a series of agreements that can move city and county governments methodically toward a new working relationship.

The centerpiece for the proposal being considered is creation (for no more than five years) of the Memphis and Shelby County Public Safety Commission, which will have no governing power but will be charged with developing the agreements between city and county governments that formalize the new responsibilities. Other cities have reached similar agreements in a matter of months, so a target date of December, 2008 has been set, but it depends on a county charter amendment to modify the sheriff’s duties (although we’re confused as to why this can’t be addressed in the interlocal agreement).

Winding Down

Along the way, there will be bruised feelings, as those exhibited recently by Sheriff Mark Luttrell when Commissioner Carpenter’s proposal was published in The Commercial Appeal prior to a task force meeting, but we predict that cooler heads will prevail and in the end, the sheriff will recognize the wisdom of moving now to define the future, because in time, with the full execution of the Shelby County Growth Plan, there will be no county law enforcement to speak of any way.

When fully executed, Memphis will have 489 square miles; Millington 74 square miles; Collierville 51 square miles; Bartlett 44 square miles; Arlington 34 square miles; Lakeland 24 square miles; and Germantown (which is already built out) 20 square miles.

That leaves a grand total of 49 square miles in Shelby County that are unincorporated, down from 326 square miles at the time the growth plan was signed. And even if Arlington and Lakeland continue to act as step-children of county government, the potential square mileage for sheriff’s law enforcement is 107.

It’s About Results

Most of all, the work of this committee has a significance as symbolically important as its actual results, because it sends a message all too often missing in this community – that its elected officials are planning for the future.

That’s why we think the committee co-chair, City Councilman Jack Sammons, summed it up best: “At the end of the day, the citizens could care less about the organizational structure. They want results.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

River Posts Offer Grist For River Decisions

A few weeks ago, two reporters for Grist magazine, a leader in environmental journalism, were in Memphis as part of a tour of Old Man River from Dubuque to Memphis, and we got the chance to meet with them.

It’s always interesting to see ourselves as others see us, and that certainly goes for Memphis when we are seeing our city through the green-conscious eyes of Sarah van Schagen and Katharine Wroth. We appreciated the opportunity to talk with them about our city and its riverfront, and we found their impressions instructive.

Here’s the posts from their river blog that refer to Memphis:

Along the Mississippi: A developing story

Memphis debates what to do with its riverfront

By Sarah van Schagen

After arriving in Memphis, Tenn., birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Katharine and I headed straight out to Mud Island for a Smashing Pumpkins concert. (Work related, I swear!) The concert was held at the Mud Island Amphitheater, an open-air venue on the long, narr
rrow peninsula created to shelter a small harbor and keep a meandering tributary on course.

While the Pumpkins performed, my attention was focused on the river flowing just behind them. Even in the cold wind and drizzle, the outdoor arena was a great place to reflect and really connect with the river. But then I began to wonder how people interact with the river when they're not watching Billy Corgan rock aquamarine manpris and stripey knee-highs.

This morning, we headed out to meet with John Conroy of the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation, the group that manages Mud Island Park and is working to develop a number of areas in downtown Memphis. Conroy showed us aerial maps of the city as well as drawings and a 3D model of RDC's plans for a major project on the riverfront that includes floating docks to accommodate the changing water levels and a mixed-use promenade that would include stores, restaurants, and residential areas.

You can read the rest of the post by clicking here.

Along the Mississippi: A uniter, not a divider
Memphians hope river can bridge racial divide

I mentioned in my last post that there are a lot of complicating factors involved in decisions about what to do with the riverfront in Memphis, Tenn. Yet another complex issue here, though, is the undeniable racial tension.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Memphis went through a major decline, with many people leaving the downtown area and moving to the suburbs, and downtown businesses crumbling as a result. The current population of the city area is primarily black while the suburbs are mostly white, and the two don't often mix.

But embracing the river could change that.

Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting (and not "It's Not Unusual") told us that Memphis will be in the next few years the first majority African-American metro area -- a fact that, he says, Memphians are slow to embrace.

"Memphis is built on African-American culture and the river culture," Jones said. "Strip everything else away and those are the two things that mattered then and matter now. And somehow we need to focus on both of them and quit pretending like each of those factors is a problem."

To read the rest of the blog post, click here.

Along the Mississippi: A flood of coverage
A recap of our week on the river

Huckleberry Wroth and I survived our travels down the Mississippi last week, and we've now returned to our respective coasts to reflect on everything we learned. I must say, visiting three cities in seven days is no lazy float down the river -- we covered a lot of ground. Here's a recap:

In Dubuque, we:

· Chatted with the charming mayor, Roy D. Buol.
· Lunched with city leaders at a conference led by the American Institute of Architects' Sustainable Design Assessment Team.
· Found some interesting bathroom reading material.
· Talked with the city's planning services manager about re-embracing the Mississippi.
· Drove the Doris Day up and down the river.
· Got a view of the city from atop the country's shortest, steepest railroad.

To read the rest of the blog post, click here.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shelby County Commissioners Asked To Vote In Support Of Secret Meetings

Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy has developed a reputation during his 13 months in office as someone who acts on his heartfelt belief in American liberalism.

That’s why it’s so hard to fathom his sponsorship of Monday’s resolution urging the Tennessee Legislature to gut the Tennessee Open Meetings Law.

Maybe he’s come under the spell of the Neanderthal thinking of the head of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, David Connor, who surely would have flunked a polygraph test when he insisted that changes in the law aren’t about avoiding public scrutiny.

“It’s more to the fact that there are some circumstances that the public and taxpayers’ interests are better served by meeting in closed session,” he proclaimed.

If he’s so sure of this, would he like to let us taxpayers vote on this? After all, it’s not like these elected officials aren’t conducting personal business or paying the costs of their decisions. We are.

It’s called a public meeting not just because it’s an open meeting, but because it’s the public is paying the freight – for the bills being passed and for the salaries of the people involved.

It seems a contradiction to those who know Commissioner Mulroy that he would devote his considerable talents to saving a rundown theme park while trying to devastate a law that gives the public confidence that they know the reasons and the rationale for the bills passed by their government officials.

After all, not only will the changes in the so-called Sunshine Law allow secret meetings attended by almost all members of a public body, but it will in turn eliminate much of the public discussion that now takes place and gives taxpayers more insight into legislation. In weakening the law, back room deals can be cut in secret so that at the meetings of the public bodies, for example, votes can be taken without any real debate or discussion, denying taxpayers key information into the decisions.

In other words, changes in the Sunshine Law are all about serving the interests of politicians, rather than the public.

It all goes to show how tone deaf some politicians can be. Investigations and convictions are reason enough to think that they would put some of their energy into restoring public confidence, but in addition, there has never been more games played by government in stonewalling requests for public records and delaying responses.

A television reporter has been waiting six months for the public records that she requested from City Hall, and she considers city government the most responsive of the governments she covers. It should come as no surprise that citizens routinely wait even longer, and that when they come, the records are often designed to obfuscate and require follow-up requests aimed at more delay.

But back to the public meetings law, there’s no denying that there are some minor adjustments that could be made to clarify the law, but the amendments being proposed by the ill-named Joint Study Committee on Open Government take a meat ax to a law that has served taxpayers well for decades.

Proponents for taking drastic action on the law have presented no credible evidence of a serious problem that deserves such draconian action. As for Commissioner Mulroy, we want to chalk all of this up to the naivete that comes with a new elected official, but in sponsoring this resolution, he’s doing more than showing inexperience. He’s abandoning some founding principles of liberal political philosophy – the one about open, transparent, citizen-focused government.

It’s almost as if Memphis just can’t shake all the vestiges of the Crump era.

In light of Commissioner Mulroy’s resolution, we reprise our October 24 post:

Legislators Work To Weaken Sunshine Law And Open Government

Giving more evidence of a general lack of sensitivity by some elected officials about the need to restore the public’s confidence in their governments, a committee of the Tennessee Legislature seems intent on gutting the Tennessee Public Meetings law.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s post, violations of the law have become widespread and routine. While there are some minor clarifications that are needed, the state legislative committee yesterday chose to take a meat ax to the heart of the law.

Its proposed changes in the law would allow any number of members of any public elected body, public board, public commission or public agency to meet secretly whenever they like as long as they don’t represent a quorum.

The Dirty Dozen

In fact, the changes in the Sunshine Law recommended by the legislators yesterday in Nashville are so outlandish that it would have been legal for the Knox County Board of Commissioners to secretly select commissioners for eight vacant seats and four fulltime elected officials. As we wrote yesterday, that’s exactly what those commissioners did, and a judge and jury kicked all 12 of the secretly chosen officials out of office.

While we are sensitive to the concerns explained by some ethically-minded officials like Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter in a comment to yesterday’s post and they deserve attention, there’s nothing about the recommended change by the study committee in Nashville that passes the smell test.

If the Sunshine Law is changed, it would mean that six City Council members or six Shelby County commissioners could meet in secret to discuss the public’s business.

The Designated Hitter

And forgive our cynicism, but if six are allowed in the meeting, it would be pretty easy to involve a seventh – which would mean that the group had the majority votes to pass whatever they like. All it would take is for one of the six to leave the room and allow the seventh person to take their place, making sure that there’s only six people in the room at the same time. (Update: this original proposal has now been changed to no more than four members of a public body, but for us, that number remains too large.)

It’s all a bit reminiscent to us of the early days of Shelby County Government. In those pioneer years in this wilderness community, the county legislative body was the law of the land - administration, judicial and legislative. As a result, when a member was arrested for public drunkenness, enough members kept leaving the room to make sure there was never a quorum to convict him.

Somehow, there are days when the notion of drunk members of public bodies would at least make some of their decisions make sense.

Changes in the Sunshine Law would ensure that meetings in an Internet age would become throwbacks to the back-slapping days of local politics, when the meetings of the three-headed administrative branch of county government – the structure of county government before the mayor’s job was created by public referendum in 1974 - actually lasted less than three minutes.

Pray For Wisdom

It happened because the three officials met privately before their public meeting and cut their deals. When the public meeting convened, they would often make a motion to approve the entire agenda, pass it and adjourn before most people had even sat down.

Frequently, the prayer to open the meeting lasted longer than the meeting itself, making the invocation one day especially insightful. With the officials calling on their budget director to open the meeting, he delivered one of the most eloquent prayers ever delivered at the meeting of a public body -- “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do. Amen.”

But back to the present, leading the attack on open government in Tennessee is Memphis Rep. Ulysses Jones, described by the Nashville Tennesseean as a “longtime critic of ethics reform.” Now that’s a mantel that someone should be proud to wear, made even more ironic by the reality that the state legislature already has a incredibly low standard for public debate and discussion. It’s always more than passing strange to us that an African-American politician leads the fight against open meetings, since African-Americans were so systematically excluded from the machinery of government decision-making for so long, and laws like this opened up the public processes for the first time.

Members Only

Already, the Tennessee Legislature regularly shuts out the public when they ascend to Capitol Hill as if it’s Mount Olympus, but apparently, some of its members want to make sure that all levels of government in Tennessee pull in the welcome mat to the public who pays their bills, who funds their programs and suffers the consequences of their actions.

Already, the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government is sounding the alarm about the danger of this change in the Sunshine Law, and all of us ought to be taking up the challenge to defeat this legislation. We hasten to add that there are some public-minded elected officials who will undoubtedly oppose these heavy-handed amendments to the Sunshine Law, and they need to hear from us, too.

The 18-member special study committee had divided into two subcommittees – one for the open records law and one of the open meetings law – and recommendations are expected to be voted on by the General Assembly in 2008.

The Cure

It’s worth remembering that our state’s laws aren’t particularly onerous or strict. While there are some areas that need clarity (so there aren’t 95 county attorneys giving 95 different interpretations of the law), the last ranking that we saw by the Investigative Reporters and Editors ranked Tennessee 45th in the effectiveness of its Sunshine Law.

Actually, if it were as strict as some opponents try to make out, there wouldn’t be such widespread violations. After all, the remedy to “cure” a violation is pretty simple – deliberating and debating the same issue in public session. And what are the draconian consequences for a public body if a newspaper or activist actually wins a lawsuit? The action by the public body is voided, which means that it has to have a “do over” in a public meeting.

To hear some statewide organizations representing public officials tell it, all of this creates some incredibly unbearable hardship on them. In the end, that is more a commentary on who their true master is – their own personal political interests rather than the public they took an oath to serve.

Friday, November 16, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Contrasting Cities

Cities inspire us in so many ways. For architect Teddy Cruz, the contrasts between the sister cities of San Diego and Tijuana have inspired award-winning work that explores border crossings, reuse and adaptation of materials and buildings, and new patterns of mixed income housing. His firm, Estudio Teddy Cruz, has been working along the Mexican border for years. He won the 2004-2005 James Stirling prize for Border Postcard: Chronicles from the Edge, a project exploring new urban strategies for the international border zone spanning the two cities.

Jamie Wallace is a Pittsburgh attorney who found a different calling as owner of Abay, an Ethiopian restaurant in the city's East End. It's the first in a series of conversations with urban entrepreneurs who are changing neighborhoods in America's cities with their passion, their hard work and their investment.

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Same Game For Memphis FBI Head

It’s probably just us, but it seems time for Memphis FBI Special Agent in Charge My Harrison to get back to Quantico for some in-service training.

More and more, her comments at media conferences called in the wake of whomever is indicted this week come across as headline hunting at best and unprofessional at worst.

She’s become the antithesis of the circumspect and carefully modulated approach taken by Memphis U.S. Attorney David Kustoff. Some in Mr. Kustoff’s office have expressed some discomfort, but in a nod to the political theater of these things, they recognize the important value of having an African-American at the podium as indictment after indictment was returned against African-American Democratic political power brokers.

After so much deserved criticism about suspicions of racial profiling in the federal investigations, she seemed almost flippant when the long sought after indictment of a white elected official - any white official - finally came, against former Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson.

“What can I say other than same game, different name,” she said.

Well, what you could say is this: “Those of us at the FBI have conducted a thorough investigation, we are proud of our work, we believe that the charges are warranted and we look forward to the jury’s decision on these matters.”

Her dramatic soliloquy about “cover of darkness,” “back of the room” and public corruption’s “ugly head” may get her the favorable press she seems to want, but they do little to project the façade of professionalism that is the hallmark of the “I.”

It triggers memories when an eager young reporter looking for an inflammatory comment in the wake of an indictment called a former county sheriff. His response: “We did our job. It is to investigate. It’s now up to others to decide if we are right, and we look forward to presenting our case to the jury.”

If a county sheriff can respond with that degree of professionalism, it shouldn’t be too to expect it from the law enforcement agency arguably considered the best in the world.

And in an era where there are so many suspicions about the activities of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, it’s more reassuring to hear comments of calm confidence than the macho remarks by the head of an investigative agency office with tens of millions of dollars to spend and dozens of agents to deploy.

Maybe that’s one quote by Ms. Harrison got our attention for its inadvertent double meaning. In her soundbite for an earlier conference, she said something like: Tap, tap, tap, you never know where we’ll go next.

In light of the Bush Administration’s passion for warrantless wire taps and the Department of Justice’s support for that position, that one hit a little too close to home.

Fox 13 Series TV News At Best

Kudos to Fox 13 reporters Ernie Freeman and Jason Carter - not to mention the management that gave them the green light - for their three-part series, Memphis: In Black and White. It was thoughtful and thought-provoking, powered by the reporters' obvious sincerity in exploring the Memphis racial divide in a way that could encouraging healing and in hearing from more than the usual suspects. It also reminded us of the contributions that the news media can have in shining light in a positive way on the on the toughest problems facing Memphis.

Here's the series if you missed it: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Taxing Times In Shelby County

It may sound counter-intuitive but in order to reduce the tax burden, Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton says we need a new tax.

Recently, Mayor Wharton became the latest elected official to propose a “privilege tax,” AKA payroll tax, to get some tax revenues from commuters coming into Shelby County to work.

While he said that more money is needed for public health and safety, we’re hoping that the privilege tax will become central to the tax reform needed in this city and county, reducing the oppressive tax burden that amounts to a major disincentive to remaining on this side of the county line in the first place.

Paging John Willingham

The county chief executive says that he plans to present his plan to the county board of commissioners in the near future. Where’s John Willingham when he needs him?

After all, it was the maverick Republican lawmaker who called for a payroll tax during his four years on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and during his three ill-fated campaigns for mayor, twice for city and once for county.
At one point, the former commissioner even got a shout-out from Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, but he could never get the county administration and his Republican brethren, then in the majority on the board of commissioners, to give him a fair hearing.

Whether times have changed enough to give the latest call for the payroll tax any better prospects remains to be seen, but as we’ve said now for two and half years, taxing commuters who drive into Shelby County to work – but without paying their fair share of the services that they use and that support their jobs – is fundamental to overall tax reform.

Ballooning Taxes

Previous trial balloons about a payroll tax have been routinely shot down over the years by a variety of opponents, including Memphis Regional Chamber, corporate leaders, notably within FedEx, and anti-tax forces that treat any new tax the same way that the NRA responds to stiffer gun registration.

Angst in the community about the public sector is so widespread these days that it will take a monumental effort to line up the public behind this proposal, but Mayor Wharton has the best chance of doing it if it becomes part of a comprehensive tax reform proposal that reduces county property taxes, eliminates the wheel tax, reduces the local portion of the sales tax, pays down the county’s debt and improves the level of public services.

More money for The Med and for fighting crime are great, but these days, nothing short of a tax reduction will convince Memphians that government feels their pain.

The Justification

As Mayor Wharton rolls out his plan, there’s a few facts that we think deserve repeating:

• Shelby County continues to lose income to neighboring counties – a quarter of a billion dollars in a two-year period.

• The number of people working in Shelby County, but living across the county line, continues to swell – now about 88,000.

• There continues to be a bulge in 5-13 year-olds in this county, foreshadowing a continued need for more money for education and interventions.

• The poverty rate in Shelby County hangs at about 16 percent, creating a large sector of citizens unable to pay taxes.

• The wages paid to people who work in Shelby County continue to grow at a rate of about three per cent a year – now more than $20 billion.

• About 61 percent of DeSoto County workers get their paychecks in Shelby County; 60 percent of Fayette County workers; 52 percent to Tipton County workers; 34 percent of Marshall County workers; and 33 percent of Crittenden County workers.

• 26,000 workers drive into Shelby County every day from beyond the MSA to work here.

• Roughly one in five workers holding jobs in Shelby County doesn’t live here.

• Memphis is #13 in the ranking of cities with the largest percentage of commuters working within them (cities with a population of more than 500,000).

• The 6,000 Shelby Countians who work in DeSoto County aren’t exempted from paying that state’s income tax.

An Unfair Tax System

The relevance of these facts is compounded by a Memphis tax structure that is one of the most regressive in the U.S. Or put in normal English, the poorer you are in Memphis, the greater percentage of your income that you pay in taxes. That’s just the opposite of most places, where the tax burden grows as incomes rise. Here, a family earning $150,000 pays about 5.6 percent in taxes, while a family making $25,000 pays 7 percent.

Local taxes in particular contribute significantly to this regressive tax structure. According to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), a family of three earning $20,000-29,999 pays 5 percent in local taxes, but a family earning $50,000-69,999 pays only 2.8 percent in local taxes.

TACIR also concludes – and it’s no surprise to Memphians – that we pay the highest combined city and county property tax rate in Tennessee. And it’s not even a close call.

Highest Taxes In Tennessee

Shelby County’s effective property tax rate is 35 percent higher than Nashville, 67 percent higher than Chattanooga and 76 percent higher than Knoxville. Or said another way, Shelby County residents have the highest percentage of income being paid as property taxes of any Tennesseans.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that taxes are the price we pay for civilization, but there’s absolutely nothing civil about the combined Memphis-Shelby County tax rate. As we’ve pointed out before, a disproportionate percentage of our public budgets are spent for education because of our demographic anomaly (the unusual, higher percentage of youth), and we also pay the price for entrenched poverty and its byproducts, but it’s awfully hard to understand how Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga can have a combined city-county tax rate that on average are 50 percent less than ours.

All of these reasons should give impetus to the push for a new discussion about the tax structure by Mayor Wharton, and why this “privilege tax” is an idea whose time has come.

We live in a tax adverse society, but it’s clear that there will always be taxes. The charge of elected officials is to pursue ways to make them more equitable, fairer, more coherent and more balanced. That’s the first conversation that we hope county officials will have as they pursue the subject of the privilege tax.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Question Of The Week: Can Memphis Encourage Creativity?

In response to our last post about Arts Memphis and its stated goal of creating a vibrant city, Harvey weighed in with these comments:

“Nurturing a creative mindset and community sounds like an excellent idea, but I wonder if such a mindset can be nurtured. My qualm comes from looking back on the unstructured history of Memphis innovation. First, with innovations such as the supermarket (Clarence Saunders), modern hotel (Kemmons Wilson), and profit sharing (Hull Dobbs), I see capitalism (with all its warts) as the main driver of innovation in the history of the city.

“Second, for sure, much of the art that has come out of our city has been groundbreaking and barrier crossing. But, it seems to me that the greatest of the art innovators (Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG's, W.C. Handy etc...) have grown organically. In fact, many of them grew up in a culture that did not bat an eye at, lend a hand to, or give a care about their innovation. They were not present in a nurturing society, yet their artistic output, and its effect in Memphis will probably never be rivaled.

“The same can be said for the great artists, writers, and musicians of the delta. Itta Bena, MS, does not have an arts council, but it does have one of the best writers in America as its son (Lewis Nordan).

“I am not saying that art and creativity are totally at the will of the winds, but I am wrong in saying that great art movements in societies by their nature don't lend themselves to structure and calculation. Perhaps not as the Renaissance attests with its patrons and prolific and excellent art output. But still, it seems odd to me to create ‘creativity.’ I invite criticisms, comments and suggestions.”

It’s an interesting question. We’re already on the record with our opinions, and Harvey raises interesting points.

So, here are the questions of the week:

Do you think that a city can do anything to encourage creativity? If it can, what should Memphis be doing?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Defining Memphis Future Is An Art All Its Own

The Memphis Arts Council has handled the easy part.

Now for the hard work. Reborn as ArtsMemphis, it now has to make sure that its rebranding campaign is about more than a new name, look and logo.

After all, brands really are about culture, behavior and ambitions, and apparently, that’s why ArtsMemphis made the point that its new brand is about a change in attitude for the arts organization and about creating a vibrant city with a diversity of cultural arts offerings.

That’s quite a challenge, because it will take a fundamental shift in its traditional role in local arts and cultural development and a shift in its perspective of the city that it serves.

Elvis One More Time

ArtsMemphis showed how difficult all of this is when it stumbled out of the gate with its new brand. While insisting that it is embarking on an exciting new journey, it sent a curious message by putting a 50-year-old photograph of Elvis Presley on the cover of the magazine announcing its change in name and direction.

Rarely has Memphis seemed so fixed in time as when it summons up Elvis to define something taking place today that is supposed to be cutting edge and imaginative. As for us, we vote for a moratorium for all Elvis photos in hopes that we can at least get into this century and get current.

The use of Elvis’ photo also prompted some negative commentary from a group that all of us – including our arts organization – should do more to support – our current musicians. Several of them suggested that perhaps it’s time for Memphis’ power brokers to get acquainted with musicians who are still alive, and one only half-jokingly said that if the next Elvis were on our doorstep today, it’s highly unlikely that any program of ArtsMemphis would be helping him.

Also, the somewhat clumsy attempt by the branding consultant to connect the rebranding to the now obligatory mention of the so-called creative class made famous by Richard Florida was interpreted by some artists and performers as a put-down. More to the point, traditional arts weren’t exactly what Dr. Florida was referring to when he wrote about the kinds of investments that attract the creative class.

Artist-centered Plan

Actually, he suggested that vibrant cities need to focus on the creation of arts scenes, a band culture and a grassroots arts environment known for its creativity and energy. These, too, would be the ultimate proof that ArtsMemphis is intent on changing its old ways and embarking on a new journey, one that nurtures groups that may seem weird, eclectic, irreverent and unorganized to the conventional thinking of the umbrella arts organization.

We certainly hope ArtsMemphis is up to the task, because there is so much more that it can do and so much that needs to be done, things that do more than make sure the symphony plays, things that engender a culture of creativity in Memphis.

On one hand, there are important policies and programs that ArtsMemphis needs to champion. For example, it could develop, lobby and advocate for artist and musician-centered policies and programs. If Paducah can develop an Artist Relocation Program that’s lured more than 70 artists to the Kentucky city to take advantage of special financing for homes and galleries, surely we can do something. Along the way, the Paducah program has sparked redevelopment of a historic district in the river town.

The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo has begun its own program, Live Work Create Toledo, which aims to accomplish in an urban setting what Paducah did there. The Ohio city plans to attract 30 artists a year to the city while raising awareness of native artists and pursuing its goal of creating a community of artist studios that will create vibrancy and economic growth.

If They Can Do It

In Detroit, an arts group is developing the first affordable housing for artists, a 1920’s era, 32-unit apartment building that has been completely refurbished for musicians, painters, poets, sculptors and fashion designers.

The truth is that cities across the U.S. – Houston, Saint Paul, Portland, Minneapolis, Galveston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Duluth, Buffalo, Washington DC, Fort Lauderdale, Monterey, Miami and Santa Cruz - are working on artist lofts and artist work/live spaces, and it’s past time that Memphis joins them.

Memphis, because of our much-vaunted heritage, must include musicians in this mix. In addition, ArtsMemphis could become the leader for creation of a tax-free arts and cultural district modeled after Rhode Island’s Tax-Free Arts Districts. There, artists who live and work in the district don’t pay state sales tax and other taxes on work created and sold in the district, and galleries in the district don’t pay state taxes of any kind for one-of-a-kind artwork. Again, tipping our hat to our music legacy, Memphis should include our music and musicians in these special incentives.

But while these policies would be progress for Memphis, its help is needed even more to develop the kind of creative city described by English author and cultural consultant Charles Landry three years ago to Leadership Memphis’ annual community breakfast.

Creativity As A Civic Virtue

Mr. Landry described a city where creativity is as much an engrained attribute as the river. In this way, arts, culture, creativity and innovation should become the overriding objectives of ArtsMemphis, because they lead to economic growth, creative civic decision-making and a vibrant city. To do this, Memphis must be a place where new ideas flourish and people from all walks of live come together to create a better place to work, live and play.

No sector of our city is more equipped – and more logical – to lead this than the Memphis arts community, and no city needs its impact more than ours. As Steve Tepper, associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, said recently on Smart City, a successful city is one where ideas and creativity are part of the civic DNA, and because of it, “new ideas find their way into the governing of the city, into the social fabric of the city. A creative city is a spontaneous place. It’s a place where the unexpected can happen.”

In these kind of cities, no one is more important than boundary-crossers, and what better description is there of musicians and artists. When traditional boundaries are eliminated, different kinds of people from different parts of the city experience a collective sense of community and a collective effervescence of energy that says that anything is possible here. It’s hard to think of any part of Memphis that should be better, or more involved, in doing this than the arts and cultural community.

It’s this attitude that creates the vibrancy and spontaneity that ArtsMemphis now states as its goals. As Mr. Tepper pointed out, the same goes for festivals, street fairs and street performers, and this is another way that ArtsMemphis’ involvement could be especially productive.

More Than Performances

And circling back to the young creatives, all of this is important because creative cities are receptive to youth and find ways for them to get involved in the development of their cities. In the end, if ArtsMemphis is successful, it will no longer just be about bringing good artworks and performances to the people. More importantly, it will be about enabling the creative capacity of all people.

The good news is that there has never been a more creative time than this. Young people in particular want to be participants and not merely spectators. They are making their own films in record numbers, they make their own music in their own home studios and a majority of them say they want to write and publish a book of their own.

It is in this do-it-yourself participatory environment that Memphis can find its greatest opportunities and most exciting niche. If any part of Memphis should be thinking out of the box, it should be our umbrella arts organization, and that’s why we think it would be helpful if it would start by conducting a complete inventory of all the creative assets in Memphis. This requires a definition of arts and culture that includes poetry slams, garage bands, grassroots arts movements, digital filmmakers and more.

The Road Ahead

With this inventory, we would have a deeper understanding of the sources of creativity in our city, and most of all, ArtsMemphis would have the ingredients to change the destiny of Memphis itself.

Charles Leadbeater, author and European innovation consultant, on Smart City recently, described a world where citizens will demand to “co-create” their own communities. The city that develops this new platform for civic collaborative innovation first is the city that invents the recipe for future success, he says.

All roads to the future start with creativity, and if ArtsMemphis really wants to drive us to the future, it will shift gears and become the vehicle that takes us to our ultimate destination as a creative city.

Friday, November 09, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Rising From The Ashes

Even America's most depressed downtowns are showing vigorous signs of life. It's a surprising development no one predicted in the bleak years of the 1970's and 80's when many so-called experts dismissed the idea of downtown revitalization as wishful thinking in the age of surburbanization.

Dave Feehan, who heads the International Downtown Association, is here to tell us how downtowns have defied predictions and come back strong. David has devoted more than 35 years to rebuilding and revitalizing cities, directing downtown programs in Des Moines, Detroit, and Kalamazoo, and neighborhood development programs in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

Also with us is Dennis Maher, a sculptor working in Buffalo who brings new life to abandoned buildings by using the waste of other restoration projects. Dennis defines his work as "afterlives, the attempt to renew and to give another life to the wasted remains of a city." Dennis is an adjunct professor at the University at Buffalo.

And we'll hear from Nate Berg of Planetizen and Walker Smith of Yankelovich with his commentary on the stress of change, this week on Smart City.

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

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

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lessons Of Mayor Takeover Of Schools Face Stern Test

Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s support today for a city mayoral takeover of Memphis City Schools has a tough road ahead, but it seems to fuel more speculation about his future political ambitions than discussion about the state of Memphis City Schools.

And that’s too bad. It’s a concept that deserves serious debate.

In an interview in the Memphis Daily News, Mayor Wharton says the “timing is perfect” for his city counterpart to emulate his peers in several other major U.S. cities.

That’s certainly true when the only consideration is the current state of Memphis City Schools. Less certain is if the equally important political timing is as perfect in light of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s weakened business support (which is usually needed for these kinds of changes), concerns that layering on the politics of City Hall and the unpredictability of the city mayor would only exacerbate the widening problems at the city school district, and his fractured political support. A driving force in most of these efforts is the popularity and confidence in the incumbent mayor, and in Memphis, that is found with the county mayor whose approval rating is twice that of the city mayor.

The Will To Change

It takes significant political will – beyond city and county governments – to move toward the possibility of a takeover of city school operations by the city mayor. Notably, it would presumably involve the Tennessee Legislature and its Shelby County delegation, a group that has a history of responding to concerns of city school board members, who would surely oppose such a takeover.

That Mayor Wharton – whose government funds city schools to a much larger extent than city government – supports the city mayor as the agent of the takeover got the attention of many trying to discern his future political ambitions. To them, his position strongly suggests that he’s looking ahead to a day when he’s in the mayor’s seat in City Hall and can implement the ideas that he and former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. advanced in an op-ed column in The Commercial Appeal two Sundays ago.

The reasoning goes like this: If Mayor Wharton worked to make the county mayor the political person directing the takeover, it would unlikely to take place before he leaves office. But if the city mayor has the authority, it’s something he has the opportunity to execute as the occupant of that office.

His comments about the mayoral takeover of schools also revives and gives momentum to widespread speculation that the two mayors reached an rapprochement in the days when Mayor Wharton was considering a run against Mayor Herenton. As the story goes, the agreement called for the county mayor to forego a run for the city office with the promise that the city mayor would only serve two years and resign to open the way for Mayor Wharton to ascend to that position.

Taking Over

More likely, if it happened at all, it was the stuff of a casual conversation than a political agreement. It’s just hard to see Mayor Herenton entering into an agreement of that kind, but it is equally easy to see him making such a casual comment with a smile on his face.

All of this speculation about Mayor Wharton's future is propelled by the fact that a county mayoral takeover would be a more accurate reflection of the funding sources for education in Memphis. More than 50 percent of every county property tax dollar is spent on schools; however, it’s possible that in weighing the prospect of a county mayoral takeover, there was concern about the possibility of a white Republican county mayor being in charge of the urban district.

At any rate, Mayor Wharton’s call for the other mayor to take over Memphis City Schools – however unlikely it is to take place - puts on the table a strategy that has been used effectively across the U.S. as a way to shake off the lethargy of the school bureaucracy and jump start innovation and better student performance.

There’s a growing trend toward mayoral takeover in large cities these days. Frustrated by lack of progress in student achievement and beset by malignant management problems, it’s not so much the mayor’s involvement that’s the magic answer, but the appointed board appointed to run the district, removing the parochial politicization found in so many districts.

The History

The mayoral takeover movement began in Boston in 1992, followed by Chicago in 1995, Cleveland in 1998 and New York in 2002. In the past couple of years, these cities were joined by Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Albuquerque.

Currently, Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder – supported by powerful allies in the business community are trying to abolish the elected school board in favor of returning to appointed school boards. The changes require the approval of the Virginia General Assembly and its prospects are unclear but promising.

While most of the newfound interest by mayors is spawned by the floundering performance of their city districts, there’s also the overriding political reality: Whether they’re in charge or not, they’ll be blamed for whatever is happening – or not happening – in their schools.

Here’s how it worked in Chicago, often used as a model by other cities: The Illinois Legislature passed a law for an “educational accountability agenda” for Chicago Public Schools, it allowed mayoral control of the district, it gave the mayor the power to appoint a five-member school board and a chief executive officer (who oversees the work of a Chief Education Officer) and it eliminated competing sources of authority over the district. What it did most of all was to spark a sense of hopefulness that something could be done to improve the floundering district and gives its students a better chance for the future.

And The Voters Will Lead Us

In other districts, a referendum by voters opened the door to new governance. In fact, in cities like Boston, when there was a referendum to return to the previous organizational structure, it was convincingly rejected by voters at the polls.

In an authoritative study about the impact of mayoral takeover (state takeover, by the way, doesn’t show similar results) conducted for Memphis' own Partners In Public Education, the following conclusions were reached:

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

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

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

* Financial and administrative operations of the districts were more effective and healthy. The study also showed that in districts run by mayors, more people who are non-teachers are hired for key management jobs.

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

Governance Matters

In addition, the same researcher, in a recent report, “The Education Mayor,” concluded that in a comparison of 14 mayor-led districts to 90 similar districts run by independent schools boards, mayoral control results in one-third of a year in extra learning by the average student.

But what the mayors have done best is pare back the central office bureaucracy and shift the money to classroom instruction. Unsurprisingly, they have not been as successful on altering the academic staffing patterns, because their transferable knowledge is more on the management and operational side of the house.

Another benefit that should be especially instructive here is that the mayors and their administrations become the keepers of the vision for the school districts, buffeting them from changes in superintendents which often result in 180 degree shifts in philosophy and reform programs, giving principals and teachers a permanent case of pedagogical whiplash.

Historically, all of this is a fascinating lesson in how changeable political forces can be. In the first half of the last century, the movement was to get mayors out of all affairs related to school districts, because of their tendency to inject more politics and patronage into their decisions. Now, things have come full circle, as elected school boards themselves are seen as part of the problem, because of the tendency to balkanize the philosophy of the districts.

Don’t Bet The House

In most cities, school board members are elected by district and as a result, they approach decisions with a distinct political sensibility, resulting in most positions being taken for motivations that have to do with their individual constituencies than an overall systemic approach. It’s also why school board members are more focused on schools and programs in their districts than in the reform needed in the central office to empower teachers and principals to make more decisions at their levels.

One thing has not changed over the past century. The changes in the first half of the 20th century were motivated by the desire to “get politics out of schools” and that remains the primary motivation for mayoral takeover today.

There are still long odds facing a successful district takeover in Memphis, but surely, there’s no question that in light of ongoing scandals and the impending, dramatic increase in the number of schools failing to meet state standards, we need to be considering every option, including this one.

** Footnote: If you're not reading veteran reporter Bill Dries' coverage of government in The Daily News, you're missing some of the best reporting being done right now. Under the guidance of another proven veteran, David Yawn, associate publisher of the paper, it is often breaking news and giving the kind of deeper understanding of issues that is missing in more dominant media outlets.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Old Path Of Memphis Politics Makes Case For Young Leadership

Shelby County Commissioners Henri Brooks and Sidney Chism continue their war against reason.

Their latest misguided salvo targeted MPACT Memphis, the organization of young professionals (or in the parlance of the day, emerging leaders) whose sin apparently is to have this simple goal: to improve the city.

To do this, the hundreds of MPACT members are encouraged to get involved in the civic, social and political life of Memphis, they are determined to improve the dismal Memphis self-image and to invest in a social network to make new friends. Its core values are active engagement, connectivity, creativity, diversity, inclusivity and opportunity, hardly qualities that should produce the shrill attack upon them by Commissioners Brooks and Chism.

Incredulity Amok

These kinds of assaults are of course commonplace from them, but this time around, it was even more incredulous than normal, because it was clear that it sprang from a place of political hatred for any one who doesn’t agree with them. All of this was a sideshow that developed from the request for county government to put $1 million in Memphis Fast Forward, which included MPACT Memphis as a key to achieving its economic growth goals.

The mangling of the facts and the predictably strident rhetoric were once again front and center, but this time, it felt more like the political equivalent of being unable to add two plus two and get four.

Here’s the thing: MPACT wasn’t being condemned for anything it had done. It was being attacked because one of its dozens of founding members also just happened to be a founder of that other much-needed grassroots group, the politically-oriented New Path.

Politics Of Destruction

In other words, all of this was yet another model of the slash and burn political style of the commissioners that in the end is nothing so much as personal and misguided. In their zeal to attack three perceived political enemies, they set out to slay MPACT, an organization with hundreds of members and an organization whose nonprofit status prevents it from even getting involved in politics.

Of course, this straightforward fact was of little interest to the commissioners as they vilified MPACT. In the star chamber proceedings that now pass for some meetings of the board of commissioners, MPACT was maligned and condemned, and the sad truth is that Commissioners Brooks and Chism know in their hearts that MPACT isn’t a political organization.

They just happened to be so intent on destroying the founders of New Path – whose younger, more progressive candidates apparently threaten the worldview of these entrenched political interests – in any way that they could. At one point, one person in attendance sarcastically suggested that before it was over, the commissioners would try to revoke the county business licenses for their companies.

A Parallel Universe

Yes, it was just about that preposterous. Several attempts were made to prevent the Memphis Regional Chamber from even having the right to contribute to New Path from money that didn’t originate with county government, and at one point, an amendment was so sweeping that the county attorney had to point out that taken to its logical conclusion, a Memphis corporation receiving a tax freeze wouldn’t be allowed to contribute to MPACT. Faced with the legal opinion suggesting caution, a leader of the attack made an admission against interest - that the real intent was to “destroy” MPACT.

If there was ever a textbook case of what is wrong with our local political scene, this was it – personal agenda over public purpose, attacks based on the past rather than conversations about the future, and single-minded attempts to drive the division in Memphis ever deeper for political gain.

Actually, the commissioners clearly didn’t want to hear it, but the truth is that both MPACT and New Path are national models held up as models for other cities to replicate. At a time when Memphis is bleeding talent to other cities and languishing at the bottom of cities that are successful in attracting talent, the board of commissioners managed to send the message that our city does not welcome young professionals unless they fall in line behind the same old power brokers and become part of the same old political power bases.

A New Way

Fortunately for Memphis, New Path – as a political organization – has pursued a more enlightened attitude, endorsing a slate of men and women who are identified by their new thinking and fresh approaches to the problems of Memphis. Best of all, these young people seem impatient with the replaying the same old tapes, the same recriminations, the same score-settling and the concentration of power that have become a fundamental part of Memphis politics for way too long.

Meanwhile, over at MPACT Memphis, its members just want to live in a city that is progressive and successful. That’s why its executive director, Chris Allen, earlier this year wrote an op-ed article for The Commercial Appeal entitled: “10 Reasons to Cheer,” which had the audacity to point out that Memphians need to have more pride in their city and its uniqueness. Months later, MPACT member Jenny Howard months later wrote a commentary in The CA that was an eloquent plea for understanding and harmony in the city that she loves.

Apparently, these are the kinds of messages that can shake some in Memphis politics to their core – people that actually see beyond differences to join hands to work for a better city. Yes, they probably do see a more progressive Memphis, one where political power – both black and white –isn’t built on the fault lines of race and class, but they do not endorse candidates and they do not operate any political machinery.

Holding Up Our National Models

As our firm works in other cities on strategies to attract and retain young professionals, we often point to MPACT Memphis as the kind of organization that can make an important difference in encouraging the kinds of roots that keep 25-34 year-olds in communities. If one thing is true about this generation, it is their mobility, and it’s creating relationships and reasons to stay that present the greatest opportunity.

Cities like Memphis that seem stuck in a time warp and that operate in a culture of scarcity – the attitude of “if you’re winning, I must be losing, so therefore I’m against you” – are simply being left behind in the fight for the kind of talented workers needed to succeed in today’s economy.

It’s clear from our work that today, Memphis suffers from a perception that it is slow-moving, unambitious and fatally divided, and that’s why the commissioners’ rhetoric is so painful. They have now successfully reenforced those perceptions, taking in the welcome mat, as the word of this rebuff to young leadership is repeated on the Internet and creates the inevitable buzz that defines social networking.

Breaking Free

It’s strange how history does in fact repeat itself. It was about 30 years ago that young white people in Memphis looked at the body politic and concluded that “this generation just needs to die off.” Today, young African-Americans are increasingly saying the same thing.

Hopefully, for some of us older folks, we’ll have the chance to see some progress in our lifetimes, but it sure feels like we’ve been waiting an awfully long time.

Surely, the vast majority of our people can see the value of an involved younger generation, one that’s not inclined or interested in repeating our mistakes and one that’s anxious to prove that the rhetoric about diversity can become a reality in their time.

Contribute Now

If you’re looking to help usher in this new era, remember – even if the county commissioners can’t get it right – to send your contributions to New Path and other political organizations welcoming the involvement of young people who want to change the direction of politics in Memphis.

If you want to support the efforts to keep more young professionals in Memphis, send that contribute to MPACT. Regardless of what you may have heard in the halls of county government, it doesn’t get involved in politics.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Four Steps Toward Sound Footing For City Schools

Well, now we feel better.

Memphis City Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar – as he packs his bags to join former superintendent Carol Johnson in Boston City Schools – assures us that as the Central Nutrition Services’ scandal widens, his other 10 departments are doing fine.

That’s cold comfort. After all, it was Mr. Goar who conducted the first internal review of this problem for the city schools district, and his report back to the interim superintendent led Dan Ward to label it a “glitch,” resulting in public embarrassment that caused a rift between the two.

Four-Step Program

Because of it, we suspect that his diagnosis of his departments will do nothing to dissuade Supt. Ward from taking the offensive in the current blow-up. Rather than allowing his central office staff to hunker down and wait for the next wave of investigators to arrive (both state and federal agents are now working almost on a daily basis), we hope he’ll take four firm steps that could give taxpayers hope that there’s a grown-up in charge at 2597 Avery Avenue.

So far, it’s been hard to tell. The district staff and board of commissioners appear unable to do anything as ably as to take on the role of spectators to the unfolding, widening controversies in their midst. And too often, the impulse has been to try to explain the problem away or to be clever at a time when the public would be more grateful for candor and directness.

Based on his performance so far, Interim Supt. Ward has shown sincerity in his intent to leave the district better than he found it, but of course, he could never imagined the challenges that he now faces. At the time of his appointment, the thinking was that he just needed to keep the district in the middle of the road until a fulltime superintendent could be appointed.

In The Ditch

Even the district’s harshest critics couldn’t envision how quickly it would drive into the ditch. There something else he could never have imagined – the length of time that his interim status would last.

At this point, those early estimates of his staying in the job for 6-9 months should now be doubled, because there’s little reason to launch a national search for a new superintendent while the district is embroiled in its current chaos and turmoil. Of course, there was some resistance by some board members to conducting a legitimate national search, because they cling to the misplaced belief that someone within Memphis City Schools can be mentored into the superintendent’s job.

That, too, should be a fleeting idea now, because never has external involvement in the district been more important or mandatory to restore public confidence.

Sending The Message

That’s why we hope that Superintendent Ward will send a strong message about how serious he is by immediately going outside the district to fill Mr. Goar’s job. We suspect that by now, Mr. Goar has submitted recommendations for his successor, but we suspect that at this point, that may actually work against his nominees.

The first order of business for Superintendent Ward’s new COO should be to launch a complete, thorough, comprehensive, exhaustive review of the central office – every department, every policy, every procedure. And it needs to be done by an independent external review.

At this point, internal audits count for nothing when it comes to convincing the public that the district is serious about clearing the air and getting all the facts out. And the idea that the Council of Great City Schools should do this also falls short of what’s needed. While it’s a fine organization, it’s a membership organization, and once again, its conclusions can’t – and wouldn’t - have the clout of a totally independent review.

Outside Reviews

So, we hope Mr. Ward will first appoint a new COO and second, he will find an independent outside organization to handle the comprehensive review that is needed of central office operations. While there’s some reason to suspect that the academic side of the house may have accountability problems of its own, focusing on operations is enough to get started.

Then, we hope that Superintendent Ward’s third strong action will be to advocate strongly to the board that they hire the kind of impact player needed in the permanent superintendent’s job. Hopefully, if there’s any positive side to the present painful realities, it should be that board members should shed the idea that they should lower their sights, play it safe and find someone who won’t be highly recruited and will stay at MCS for a decade.

Clearly, Memphis City Schools needs someone to shake things up, because it’s now common knowledge that the district culture tends to choke out innovation and accountability and worst of all, the central office sees itself as the center of the Memphis educational universe.

Changing The Culture

Like many bureaucracies its size, motivations at the central office center on status and power and about establishing systems that treat the schools subserviently. Again, there are hopeful signs that Supt. Ward recognizes the dimensions of this problem and that he may take some action to create a philosophy in which the central office becomes the servant for the schools instead of the other way around.

The fourth strong step that should be taken by Supt. Ward should is to convene a special team of researchers similar to the Research Partnership for New York City Schools, one that can analyze the reams of data and decide what’s working and what’s not working in our district. While there are several important reform programs under way in Memphis City Schools and there are dozens of initiatives undertaken by the district itself, we suffer from a lack of measurement and data that inject more accountability into the system.

In New York, the research program is an outgrowth of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s takeover of the management of schools, part of the national movement in which mayoral control has shown encouraging signs of progress. That said, there’s not so much magic about the mayor in charge as there is magic in the elimination of elected boards in favor of appointed ones which bring more expertise and no political motivations to their work.

Mayoral Takeover

It’s time for the Tennessee Legislature to give our state’s major metro areas the option to consider mayor-led school reform. Actually, now that all 95 counties in Tennessee have mayors in charge of county governments which have the constitutional obligation to fund education, the law should allow the mayor here to be the city mayor, county mayor or a partnership between them.

But back to the research team, its creation would send the strongest possible message that the district is transparent, open and honest to the point that it’s in favor of an independent group of researchers who’ll tell it like it is when it comes to all the charts, graphs and data of Memphis City Schools.

The New York group is modeled after the Consortium on Chicago School research formed in 1990 when that school was undergoing its own major changes. There, the researchers have issued dozens of reports that have informed and driven Chicago school reform decisions. In addition, they have helped to shape national thinking on student achievement, such as the link between ninth grade performance and drop-outs.

Changing Expectations

Lack of extensive research led to the decision by the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners and its superintendent to blow up the “whole school” reforms because they thought they weren’t improving test scores. The wholesale abandonment of 50 reform programs is largely responsible for Memphis’ reputation as an educational wasteland.

These four strong actions by Supt. Ward – who appears to have built a strong cadre of support on the board of commissioners – could be the most dramatic steps that he could take toward better schools.

In the end, the single most important thing that’s needed in the city district is to change expectations. It’s a truism that children perform to expectations, and sadly, there’s a prevalent attitude in our schools that many of these kids can’t succeed and that a large failure rate is simply a fact of life for Memphis.

If Superintendent Ward could do one thing while he’s in his interim role, it would be to attack this malignant belief. Before every Memphian can believe that each student should achieve at a high level, every one of our educators must believe it first.