Its attitude was about as surprising as finding a photograph of Arnold Perl in a Memphis International Airport publication.
Although DeSoto County officials like to use the words of regionalism, it’s been more about improving their vocabulary than changing their behavior. As a result, no one on our side of the state line should ever make the mistake of thinking that we’re all in this together, because when push comes to shove, its often our neighbors’ hands that we feel on our backs doing the shoving.
It all started when Shelby County officials made the common sense – not to mention scientific – request for DeSoto County to be included with Shelby and Crittenden Counties in the attainment calculations of federal air quality standards. The Mississippians had been included prior to 2004, and it’s been widely speculated that the state’s Republican U.S. senators overpowered EPA regulators to have DeSoto County removed.
In a letter to the EPA, Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton wrote that the agency erred when it removed DeSoto County from the nonattainment area in violation of ozone-pollution standards. That’s why it was no surprise when – miracle of miracles – Mississippi regulators said DeSoto County was doing just fine.
It was but the latest in a series of actions that are dependable reminders that our region acts largely on an “every man for himself” attitude toward the issues that should make up the regional agenda – air and water quality, public transit, transportation infrastructure and economic climate.
While refusing to take the serious anti-pollution steps needed to improve the region’s air quality, DeSoto County Board of Supervisors did proudly point out that it had passed a new policy that prohibits county employees from idling in county vehicles. Apparently, that’s DeSoto County’s idea of bold action.
Keep in mind that half of the workforce in the Mississippi county commute to Shelby County to work each day.
The county’s “me first” attitude should be no surprise to observers who watched it ram through its I-269 project despite Memphis and Shelby County Government’s opposition to a circumferential interstate that is largely unnecessary and extravagantly expensive.
But, political interests in North Mississippi were determined to build the outer loop, not for any rational transportation reason but to reward politically-connected developers who wanted to increase the value of their land and open it up to development.
That manipulation of the process not only bore the fingerprints of Senator Trent Lott, but his DNA as well. In the end, local officials were powerless to stop a political payback masquerading as a transportation necessity. As one local trucking executive put it: “The suggestion that truckers are going to swing more than 40 miles out of the way, rather than driving directly north and south through Memphis, is nothing short of ridiculous. There is no rational reason for I-269 that I can think of.”
There’s also no rational reason that real regionalism hasn’t taken root here. But the truth is that regionalism across the U.S. is often more outward-focused than inward-directed. As a result, programs supported by the primary city that focus on a stronger region are rarely reciprocated by the region’s suburban cities.
Racism With A New Face
For example, it’s not unusual to hear Memphis and Shelby County officials call for regional progress and to urge regional strategies that embraces the best interest of area’s cities. And yet, there’s little of that kind of commitment flowing from the fringes back into the center.
That’s why in some regions, there have been complaints that regionalism is really racism with a new face. And while we’re unprepared to accept this – as are our African-American city and county mayors – we are prepared to join in complaints that too little of regionalism is aimed at strengthening the urban core. That’s been seen most prominently here in the slow acceptance of sprawl as a negative force on our financial and social health.
Surely, we can get serious about regional cooperation and coordination. If the nations of Europe can somehow overlook national borders across the continent, our obsession with county lines looks increasingly ludicrous.
In Nashville, Cumberland Region Tomorrow is urging leaders there to set aside long-standing competition for tax revenues and jobs to work together to grow jobs, economy and population.
Most of all, the nonprofit regional organization makes sure that the area keeps regionalism high on the radar there. It organizes workshops and brainstorming meetings where people tell where they want their region to go on issues like density, historic preservation and housing. Then, officials develop a plan with particular attention to public works infrastructure.
The organization has been backed by Tennessee Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation, and several foundations and charities.
An earlier study concluded that the region’s population would top two million people by 2020 and cost $7 billion in road construction alone. In response, emphasis has been put on downtown development – not just the downtown of Nashville, but smaller regional cities who need a sense of place, a sense of identity, more vibrant downtowns and walkable communities.
According to Nashville’s regional leaders, Atlanta failed in this regard because of a lack of centralized planning and development that left the future of the region up to developers and parochial decisions. Only after the problems had become massive did the State of Georgia try to help Atlanta with regional frameworks for transportation and water.
Cumberland Region Tomorrow wants to make sure it doesn’t happen in Nashville. The most impressive thing about regionalism in Nashville isn’t this group, but the leadership given to regional issues by the news media, particularly the Tennessean. Last month, the daily newspaper ran a series of articles that emphasized the importance of regional issues and the lessons to be learned from Atlanta.
That validation and attention by the major media can’t be underestimated in building momentum and inspiring action, and it’s the Nashville newspaper’s understanding of its civic role that’s created the progress and set Nashville apart over the years.
If there’s anything that differentiates Nashville from Memphis, it’s the palpable ambition that’s central to the civic character and decisions. Much of it flows directly from the editorial offices of the Tennessean.
Cities today are paying millions of dollars for consultants to assess regional strengths and weaknesses, to create broader understanding of the issues that are critical for the future and to survey leaders for their priorities. There's nothing quite as exciting or meaningful for a city as when its daily newspaper performs these roles for it.
Back in Memphis, we can’t seem to grasp the most important thing about the regional future: We can’t compete based on low cost labor, low cost land and tax incentives. Rather, our prosperity depends upon our capacity to develop firms, institutions and people known for their innovation.
As the Council on Competitiveness recently wrote:
“There are fewer and fewer industries in which U.S. firms can compete globally using a low-cost strategy. On the high end, U.S.-based firms can and do win. In many industries, firms operating in the U.S. have been able to adjust to new global business conditions and develop international leadership.
“From an economic development perspective, however, many communities are still pursuing the old, incentive-based strategies. These don’t work in a world in which firm success depends ever more on the quality of ideas and talent, and ever less on traditional infrastructure.”
That’s worth every one in the region memorizing.