Sunday, March 30, 2008

1968 Events Bear Marks Of The Invaders

If the Memphis Invaders hadn’t existed, the Memphis civil rights movement would have had to invent them.

They were the militant yin to the mainstream movement’s yang. They were the tough talk to the leaders’ persuasive rhetoric. They were the grassroots organizers to the movement’s community mobilizers.

But, most of all, they created a palpable fear in Memphis at large that kept white power brokers at the table talking to civil rights that were seen as more reasonable and more powerful.

Power To The People

Because the vocabulary and the actions of the Invaders was Black Power, the demands of civil rights leaders seemed moderate and reasonable in comparison.

The Invaders – officially named the Black Organizing Project - were a youth movement, and while they are often a footnote to the 1968 historic events in Memphis, they were in truth key players to what took place here.

In February, 1968, their grassroots group – named for the popular television program, The Invaders, in which aliens passed as humans by day but remained totally different when together at night - was a year old when the sanitation strike began, and already, they were a force to be reckoned with in the neighborhoods.

The Cast

The early leaders were Coby Smith, honors student and one of the first two black students at Rhodes College; Charles Cabbage, a Morehouse College political science graduate; John Smith, military veteran and intellectual; and Calvin Taylor, University of Memphis journalism graduate. They debated political philosophies and quoted with ease the Bible, Gandhi, Cleaver, Mao, and the U.S. Constitution.

To the news media and the white power structure, they were hoodlums and thugs. It was a time when anyone who was pro-black was immediately seen as anti-white.

Now, wearing 40 years of world-weary experience, they exude a “we’ve seen it all” attitude as they reflect quietly on those volatile days when Memphis seemed to be coming apart at its seams. They are reflective and philosophical, and only occasionally does something spark the old fire in the belly that characterized their student and neighborhood organizing back in the day.


And yet, they are like World War II veterans, who are transported immediately to the moments when history-making events transformed their lives. They recall events in vivid details and can lapse into the old arguments as if it’s April, 1968.

It’s hard to see them today in their 60’s and imagine them in a time when the revolution was at hand and that guns were carried in the wake of waves of rumors about planned white attacks and violence.

Listening to them now and seeing their clear recalling of the forces that converged in Memphis to take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, it’s hard to fathom a time when their names prompted fear and anger, a time when they were blamed for everything that happened in the black community – from school walkouts to bank robberies.

Strangers In Their Own Land

Such were their characterizations by the news media, because if the overwhelmingly white reporters’ corps could vilify Maxine Smith, Benjamin Hooks and others, the Invaders were domestic terrorists, intent on blowing up Memphis and upending the social order.

It was a fact made even more interesting by the fact that Mr. Taylor worked as a reporter at The Commercial Appeal, the embodiment of the alien who worked by day in white-dominated society and toiled by night to change all that it stood for.

It’s hard to imagine, but it’s even harder to imagine that 40 years ago, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce could say: “You can’t take these Negro people and make the kind of citizens out of them you’d like. It’s going to take maybe 40 years before we can make any real progress.”

Racial Consciousness

Like much of the Memphis establishment, the Chamber stood foursquare against sanitation workers going out on strike and backed Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb’s rigid stand against negotiation with the men who occupied the lowest rungs of city employment.

While mainstream civil rights leaders concentrated on settling the strike, the Invaders called for more self-determination by African-Americans, for more disruption of the status quo and for a new racial consciousness and pride. As a result, their military jackets and their berets became symbols of grassroots anarchy, and they were rejected by African-American leadership.

That all changed March 28, 1968. Because of Dr. King, they became a force to be reckoned with. It was on that day that the much-anticipated march led by Dr. King in support of the sanitation workers burst into violence 20 minutes after it started. Store windows were broken, tear gas and nightsticks were thrown by police, a 16-year-old was fatally wounded by police and 64 people were injured.

Blame Game

It badly damaged Dr. King’s non-violent reputation, and his hasty retreat from the march inspired a newspaper cartoon with the caption: “Chicken ala King.” A day later, armed National Guardsmen in armored personnel carriers rolled on the streets of Memphis.

As usual, when it came time to assess blame, it came to rest on the Invaders, who had dramatically refused to be part of the march. They were nonetheless blamed for sabotaging it. By that point, any young black man in Memphis with an Afro and wearing a beret was called a member of the Invaders.

In the wake of that nationally-publicized failure, Dr. King and the Invaders had a quiet meeting with Mr. Cabbage and Mr. Taylor, and when Dr. King returned for a follow-up march, it was the grassroots radicals that were to act as marshals in charge of security for the march. One, Mr. Taylor, would always be absent on these days of history-making events, because he was working as a double agent at The Commercial Appeal.

Conspiracies Begin

Upon Dr. King’s return on April for a follow-up march five days later, he moved from the former Holiday Inn-Rivermont to the black-owned Lorraine Motel. He moved the Invaders in with him, a decision that infuriated some of his colleagues. Whether Dr. King recognized the value of grassroots involvement or whether he wanted the Invaders where he could watch them, he had the innate ability to bring disparate contingents into the fold.

On April 4, only a couple of hours before a bullet killed Dr. King and the Memphis that he had come to know, the Invaders were asked to leave the Lorraine Motel following an argument with leaders of Dr. King’s camp.

Shortly after arriving at their South Memphis apartments, they would learn that Dr. King had been shot. Mr. Taylor would learn it from the teletype machine clattering at The Commercial Appeal.

Connecting The Dots

Later, they would also learn that the APB that went out from Memphis Police Department was for a Mustang driven by the shooter fleeing the scene. The leaders of the Invaders also drive a Mustang, and they remain convinced that they were being set up for the assassination.

When they today connect the dots of conspiracy, a line runs from the Mustang to the removal of Ed Redditt from the fire station overlooking the Lorraine Motel where he was handling surveillance of the civil rights leader. It also connects to the undercover FBI agent who was building a file on The Invaders – files they have still not seen today – and who, following Dr. King’s murder, moved on to the CIA.

Following the murder of Dr. King, most of the Invaders left Memphis for a time, disenchanted by the events, harassed by the police, maligned by the media and fatigued by the speed in which history overtook and destroyed them.

** Invaders' Mr. Cabbage and Mr. Smith - will participate in a forum at University of Memphis at 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 2, in the Rose Theater. Other panelists include former Memphis Police Department detective Ed Reddit, former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran, former AFSCME field representative Jesse Epps, COME leader Harold Middlebrook and strike leader Joe Warren. Moderator will be Dr. Michael Honey, University of Washington professor and author of Down The Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, the Last Campaign of Martin Luther King Jr.

Friday, March 28, 2008

This Week on Smart City: The Power of Art

The power of art to change people and communities can be breathtaking. This week we talk with Johann Zietsman who has orchestrated powerful art experiences internationally from South Africa to Mesa, Arizona. Johann is executive director of the Mesa Arts Center.

We also find out which cities are best prepared for $4 a gallon gas and which are not when we visit with Warren Karlenzig of Common Current. Warren is author of How Green Is Your City. Warren has worked with national governments, the State of California, major cities, and the world's largest corporations developing policy and strategy for 20 years.

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, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, 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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Efficiency Study Offers Mixed Mesage

Government efficiency studies are all the rage.

Across the U.S., cities, counties and states are paying for studies ostensibly aimed at increasing efficiency and decreasing costs. In our community alone, more than $1.2 million has been spent by city and county governments. The $700,000 version that Memphis city government commissioned has finally broken into the news a year after it was first delivered to city officials.

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton leaned hard on the study to justify his recommended closings of libraries and community centers, and The Commercial Appeal reporter Amos Maki mined its conclusions for an article today.

Required Reading

Interestingly, it seemed from the reactions that few people read it when the 185-page report by Deloitte Consulting Inc. was first issued March 16, 2007. The news media had given it cursory attention until Mr. Maki brought his energetic reporting style from business to City Hall.

It’s been a curious phenomenon, especially considering how damning much of the report is about the general disarray of city operations. “The city does not have a well-documented set of strategies and objectives to guide its future plans and ongoing operations,” it said in an opening salvo on page 3. “This situation results in a lack of direction and clear priorities to guide management and align services with operational and financial goals.”

Then, there’s this one about the Park Division’s plan to close community centers: “We reviewed the plan and discussed it with divisional management and other key internal stakeholders. While the plan seems reasonable, we could not determine how it relates to any documented strategy within the city. In summary, we were unable to reach a conclusion as to how it related to providing services to citizens, containing costs or other objectives.”

It’s an especially telling assessment in light of Mayor Herenton’s citation of the study for his planned closings.

Down For The Count

The report also issues its equivalent of a four-count indictment of city management. The lack of clear strategies and objectives produces these results:

• Management decisions may not be guided by consistent city-wide objectives

• Services levels may not be based on clear priorities and financial capabilities

• Budgeting decisions may not be strategic in nature and lead to cost reductions in high priority operations

• A lack of consensus may exist between City Council and city management related to the objectives and priorities that guide city policy and operations.

The report also criticized the city budgeting process as “a compliance exercise where more emphasis is placed on inputting information into the city’s budget development application than analyzing the information that is submitted.”

Selective Memory

All in all, in reading the barrage of criticism of city operations, it’s almost defies logic that Mayor Herenton managed to pull out the paragraphs that talked about closing community centers and libraries.

But here’s the truth about these efficiency studies: Most of the time, they come up short in their impact, largely because they generally take a distinctly accounting and financial approach to analyzing public services. That’s no surprise since firms with backgrounds in accounting have dominated the field.

Unfortunately, the consultants often forget that public budgets aren’t just about rows of numbers. They aren’t just accounting documents, or an inventory of programs or line item after line item of incomprehensible headings for revenues and expenditures.

People Will Perish

More to the point, public budgets are the financial embodiment of the government’s vision for the future. They should capture the city’s aspirations and invest in the success of its people and their neighborhoods.

The Harvard Business Review was right when it concluded years ago that despite political rhetoric calling for government to be more businesslike or for government to be run like a business, there’s this simple fact of life – governments are not businesses and cannot run like them.

That’s because government at its heart is intentionally inefficient. The framers of the Constitution made it that way with the checks and balances built into the system to discourage political fiefdoms and to set up systems with an ornate set of oversight and sign-offs.

Middle Ground

It is a culture that is suffocating for entrepreneurial public managers whose talents are eroded until most of them leave or fall into lock step with the general mediocrity. But, efficiency studies are rarely about unleashing the innovative change agents trapped in the machinery of government.

Instead, they are a compendium of recommendations largely based on financial computations and sometimes simplistic notions of the role of public services in a city with needs as deep as our own. For example, is it really enough to recommend the closure of the White Station library based on the fact that it’s four miles from the main library, as opposed to weighing the significant role that it plays in anchoring a critical East Memphis area?

Another prevalent weakness of these efficiency studies is that they largely rely on the opinions and observations of the usual suspects. In this way, it often ends up with a stilted understanding of issues like library services.

Getting The Facts Right

For example, the efficiency report says that the library system never implemented the conclusions of a 1989 analysis that concluded that many branches were inadequate. Its analysts seem to miss the fact that the library system tried to implement the recommendations but its regular requests for more money were spurned by city officials.

We shouldn’t be too critical of Deloitte officials for getting the facts wrong. After all, Mayor Herenton managed to do the same. In one of his interviews justifying the closing of libraries, he talked about the failure of the former library director to improve some generally deplorable conditions of some branches. He seemed to be unaware that it was his administration that eliminated the library CIP requests from the budget process more than three years ago.

In fact, if you wanted to hear someone talk about the unequal quality of the branches and what was needed to correct it, they only needed to ask former library director Judith Drescher, who was an eloquent advocate for better conditions.

Deaf Ears

Ms. Drescher was also a proponent of regional library branches, a fact that was unnoted by the consultants when they wrote: “We encourage the City to consider moving toward a library system operating model that would provide for regional branches in accessible and highly visible locations.”

Actually, that’s exactly what Ms. Drescher did for about a decade, but there was never the political will to get it done in the city and county buildings.

All in all, efficiency reports are interesting reading for policy wonks like us. It’s just worth keeping in mind that they’re partial snapshots of public services, because the simplified approach to weighing the worth of programs in terms that are only dollars and sense routinely ignores the social costs and the social importance of certain programs to certain neighborhoods.

That may not make any sense to an accountant, but they make all the sense in the world to people interested in building a city.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Back To The Future: Superintendent Herenton

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton reminds me of an absurdist friend who told his wife that he was having an affair, but he wasn’t sure where it was headed, and he might be back to her in the end.

Her response: “What makes you think I want you if she doesn’t?”

It’s a feeling familiar to many of the voters who just a few months ago cast their ballots to put Mayor Herenton back in City Hall. To most of them, it’s time for the mayor to be make up his mind - choose where he wants to be most, and if it’s Memphis City Schools, resign and go after the superintendent’s job.

Chaos Theory

If there’s ever been a disciple of chaos theory, it must be Mayor Herenton. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re not as comfortable with the idea that logical decisions can be regularly made in the midst of illogical confusion. The current chaos is such that it almost appears that Mayor Herenton is looking for the public to make a Faustian bargain – wanting him out of City Hall so badly that they pressure the school board to hire him as superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

All in all, his latest foray into political chaos was based on a faulty legal opinion that led him to believe that he could bequeath the mayor’s office to his chief administrative officer Keith McGee. Based on these legal miscalculations, our current mayor thought Mayor McGee would give him a continued voice in City Hall operations, but more to the point, he would protect his loyalists – especially former bodyguards – who would remain undisturbed as their pensions soared, because retirement checks would be based on their higher current salaries.

It was the latest example of the poor personnel decisions that the mayor has a propensity to make. While Mr. McGee is a genuinely fine person, he’s about the last person that City Hall insiders would have targeted as future mayoral material. In an unofficial survey, he was rated at the bottom of the list of city CAO’s for the past 20 years, and on his watch, the city administration has become disjointed on its best days and dysfunctional on its worst.

Hiring Weakness

We mention this because it’s also pertinent in examining Mayor Herenton’s 13 years as superintendent of Memphis City Schools. As superintendent, Mr. Herenton came into those jobs with a competent staff that was responsible for a well-run operation, and he had the wisdom to leave them in place. At Memphis City Schools, those people included Ray Holt who ran business operations with a skill unseen since.

Like his tenure in City Hall, as these people left, the integrity of operations deteriorated along with any dependable connection between vision, policy and operations. In their places, he often selected key staff members who were noticeably unprepared for their critical positions.

The challenge for Mayor Herenton, if selected to be superintendent, is that there is not now a cadre of high-performing senior managers at the district. That’s why right about now, the mayor needs to be looking up Mr. Holt’s phone number.

In addition to the immediate need to recruit and appoint a staff with national credentials to run an urban district, if Mayor Herenton becomes superintendent again, he will find it a brave new world shaped largely by the zest to test culture ushered in by No Child Left Behind, the federal law aimed at bringing higher standards to American schools but now seems to be eroding the educational system it purports to serve.

Back To The Future

If the past is any indication of the future, the once and future superintendent would be expected to act on some of the core beliefs that guided him in the 1980’s:

Decentralized management. He said back then that his philosophy was for a district where decisions were shifted down from the Avery Avenue mother ship into sub-district leaders.

Deregulated school management. He removed regulations and policies handcuffing the leadership of targeted schools in return for greater accountability.

School-based decision-making. When he was elected mayor, he had just begun to implement policies to give more power to principals to run their own schools, free of district interference.

Teacher-focused reform plans. As a Rockefeller Fellow, he studied the programs in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and said the experience contributed to his advocacy for innovative programs that put teachers at the center of learning.

Early student intervention. He called for programs that aimed at improving student readiness and early reading skills.


Many of these were his priorities as he shifted his attention from the district to City Hall, and they would likely be his priorities again. Critics from his days as superintendent complain that he had a “program du jour” approach that made it difficult to measure improvements before something new was announced.

The world of public education has dramatically changed in the 16 years since he left Memphis City Schools, but it’s nothing compared to changes in district politics. Back then, the city’s first African-American superintendent worked for a majority Caucasian, liberal-leaning board that regularly backed away from confrontation and acquiesced to him. Those days are gone forever, and the now predominantly African-American makes racial politics irrelevant.

In the end, however, the greatest threat to his appointment may be his temperament, not his 16-year absence from education. It’s worth remembering that the adjectives used often to describe him as superintendent – arrogant and confrontational – were the same ones used over the past 16 years to describe him as mayor.

The Right Focus

In other words, Memphis City Schools isn’t your father’s district any more, but that said, it ran better under Superintendent Herenton than it has under anyone since. If he was given a grade for those days, it would probably be a B, and right now, that would be an upgrade for the district.

In this regard, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioner deserves the opportunity to complete the national search that we all urged it to undertake – and it should be a straight up, honest process. In that process, Mayor Herenton deserves the opportunity and whatever time he needs to present the comprehensive plan that he’s been developing for the future of Memphis City Schools.

At the end of the day, only one thing matters: Memphis City Schools is in crisis. The ultimate question to be answered now is who is best equipped to be the agent for change that is so desperately needed. And, nothing about that answer should be preordained.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Memphis' Race To The Finish Starts With Honesty

Here’s what we learned from the recent controversy regarding Barack Obama’s minister: too few white Americans have close black friends.

Otherwise, they would have heard it all before. And more.

Even if they don’t rachet up to the level of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric, it’s always clear that there is an emotional platform that every African-American shares. It gives birth to a range of feelings from a persistent sense of uneasiness to a palpable sense of pain.

Preaching The Gospel

If too few white Americans have interracial friendships, it’s obvious from the recent debate about Rev. Wright’s comments that even fewer whites have ever attended an African-American church. It’s impossible to claim an understanding of the black experience in the U.S. without doing this.

Frankly, in the context of this experience, it’s hard for us to argue that the sometimes incendiary, frequently angry and always therapeutic rhetoric of the African-American church isn’t justified. In a world where many African-Americans feel powerless to control their own lives, their ministers give voice to their frustrations and worries as well as give them the hope to deal with the hopelessness and despair that are frequently persistent their neighborhoods.

More often than not, the black church is home to a social gospel that calls on its members to serve others, to fight for their neighborhoods, to inspire youths with dreams for the future and to offer explanations that give an understanding of the realities faced by them. The ministers give meaning, they give hope and they are often the tenuous link between surviving and living.

No Mind Meld

It’s in this context that Sen. Obama’s membership in a United Church of Christ that has Rev. Wright in the pulpit makes perfect sense. It’s not just about scriptural interpretation or religious doctrine. Actually, it’s much more about social outreach, servant ministry and personal relationships.

With Sen. Obama’s background as a community organizer, it seems only natural that he was drawn to a minister and a church with a tradition of community outreach and neighborhood activism. Some of us here have done the same thing, joining a church for its social activism rather than a word-for-word agreement with the minister.

We think back to the days when United Methodist minister, Frank McRae, was well-known and outspoken in his liberal beliefs and grassroots programs at St. John’s United Methodist Church. In 1968, he was active in the movement of ministers who called for respect and dignity for city sanitation workers when they went out on strike.

Broadened Experiences

Sitting in a pew in his church Sunday after Sunday was Bob James, the right-wing former City Council member who believed the strike was part of a worldwide Communist conspiracy and was the only Council member to vote against a memorandum of understanding with the workers. To him, his church membership wasn’t about any disagreements with Rev. McRae. It was all about the personal relationship with his minister that reassured and strengthened him.

Only in the rarified world of political commentators are ministers and every member of their congregations supposed to walk in lock step through perhaps the world’s most varied religion, Christianity. This diversity is also a fact of life of the black church, and the recent attempt by the national media to understand it through the lens of politics is misguided and results in the distortion and simplistic conclusions that are so rampant in media commentary these days.

Here’s what to do if you really want a better understanding of the African-American church – attend one. You’ll understand how the church is equal parts sanctification and explanation. It’s not just about salvation, but it’s also bringing coherence to a society seen largely as incoherent when it comes to them.

The Magic Moment

Meanwhile, at a personal level, here’s how you know if you as a Caucasian have an honest, serious friendship across the racial divide. You’ve experienced “the moment,” the time when the level of trust has reached the point when your African-American friend reveals his deepest feelings and a vastly different view of the same world in which you both live.

It’s at that moment that you come to grips with the fact that it’s impossible to intellectualize, to empathize or to abstract the black experience. It’s hard to appreciate the fact that African-Americans, who, despite all the trappings of upper middle class success, still have moments when they feel like strangers in a strange land, when they feel like they are walking on eggshells or when they feel that they are playing a role in their business lives. Most of all, they feel adept at walking the tightrope that stretches between the two cultures in which they exist.

Many live with something approaching survivor’s guilt. It’s impossible for them to understand how they escaped from the suffocating urban conditions that trapped thousands of others. It’s equally difficult to find opportunities to talk about the challenging conditions facing too many African-Americans without alienating business associates and without being labeled in some negative way.

Race To The Finish

We’ve wrestled with issues of race since the founding of our city. After all, African-Americans defined our culture, our cuisine, our traditions and our civic character. Coupled with the fact that almost one out of every two people in this metro area – something not found in any other city with more than one million people – are now African-American, there’s no argument that anything characterizes our community more than its constant attention to black-white relations.

Now, it’s the nation’s time. Rev. Wright’s shocking comments and Sen. Obama’s eloquent exploration of the role of race in the U.S. have been a wake-up call for a nation that, unlike Memphis, seems unused to a conversation about our most difficult subject.

The hardest thing to do is to listen – really listen. As we learned in the reaction to Rev. Wright’s comments, too many people rush to shout and condemn, shutting off the prospects for serious discussion. While we weren’t shocked that a black minister in American would channel his anger at the inequities and unfairness inherent in our society into comments that might seem outrageous, we were shocked that there was so little interest in trying to understand their cause.


It’s a reminder of how unwelcome genuine honesty is in the “gotcha” media environment that exists today. It’s also a reminder of how much courage the founders of the recently announced Common Ground project in Memphis will need to succeed in their ambitious goals. As they begin, one thing is obvious: without a total commitment to honesty, this new process is destined to fall short.

But, if it’s done right, it can be a model for the rest of the nation. It’s hard to think of an American region where that would be more appropriate, and in our mind, unlike most of the U.S., the blunt racial conversation that we have had here for years could actually end up being a strength rather than a weakness.

Of course, the challenge to Common Ground is to get beyond the usual suspects, because too often, the same few hundred people who gather regularly to talk about race. Most of all, it has to explain how racial understanding is in our enlightened self-interest.

Competitive Tolerance

Most of all, tolerance is a competitive advantage in a global economy. It’s been clearly shown that two-thirds of college-educated young professionals pick where they live before they pick where they work, and increasingly, they are looking for a place where they can live the life they want to live.

In other words, they are looking for a place where tolerance is essential to the city’s character – tolerance in race, gender and sexual orientation. Memphis has many serious challenges facing it if it is to succeed in an increasingly complex world economy, but no challenge may prove harder than transforming ourselves into a city known for being tolerant and open.

Hopefully, if we do it right, more of us will be able to listen and understand the reality of the black experience, even when it’s framed in the sometimes disturbing words of Rev. Wright.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Startup Weekend Coming To Memphis

We got the following email from Eric Matthews updating us on the campaign to bring Startup Weekend to Memphis:

Thanks for your coverage of the vote (about Startup Weekend).

We got it .

For three days in late spring, approximately 80-100 people will gather in EmergeMemphis and the Mercury Launchpad to create a new startup business from scratch. Startup Weekend, LLC, has selected Memphis as the latest site to host the unique 52-hour event, which will run from Friday evening, May 30th until Sunday night, June 1st.

It is being organized locally by Mercury Technology Labs and local entrepreneur Harry Brown. The weekend is undertaken with sponsorship and other support from Spencer Dillard Consulting, EmergeMemphis, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, Memphis Technology Council, MBI, and the Center City Commission.

For more information visit:

This Week On Smart City: City Values

Majora Carter surprised everyone when she founded Sustainable South Bronx as a way to reclaim that community's quality of life. She has grown that into a movement, Green for All, that is using the green economy to move people out of poverty with job creation and job training. Born, raised, and continuing to live & work in the South Bronx, Majora travels the world in pursuit of resources to improve her environmentally challenged community.

Robert Litan has a deep understanding of job creation. His work as vice president of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation and has produced a continuing series of studies that urge cities not to overlook the value of business start-ups in their economic development plans. Robert is also director of Economic Studies and holder of Cabot Family Chair in Economics at Brookings.

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, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, 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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Herenton Era Ends...For Now

The signs that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was going to be a short-timer began almost immediately after his reelection.

At his swearing in, he seemed almost detached and the ceremony certainly lacked the fire in the belly passion that characterized the previous times that he had taken the oaths of office.

Always a detached manager, he seemed even less connected and less interested as he launched his five term. On his best days, he seemed bored. On his worst days, he just didn’t seem to care.

Fatigue Factor

He began to hint to close confidantes that he would never serve out his full four years. He began to suggest that other things – such as Memphis City Schools – ignited more passion in him than city government.

The truth was obvious. After 16 years, he’d seen it all and done it all before.

Despite all proud public statements to the contrary, he even tired of being a lightning rod and the constant political turmoil that welcomed most of his positions, regardless of their merit.


More than ever, it was obvious to his friends that he just wasn’t having fun. The gleam in his eye was gone, the joy in igniting political short fuses was gone and the sense that he was accomplishing something profound was long gone.

As he considered a life outside City Hall, his mind repeatedly turned to education once again. At an age when elected officials consider their legacies, he discovered that his greatest pride centered on his years in Memphis City Schools, rising through the ranks to become one of the youngest principals and the first African-American superintendent.

In those days, he was considered as a hot property with various districts romanced him to take their superintendents’ jobs – including Chicago and Atlanta – but each time, his ties to Memphis proved too strong, and he stayed here.

About Attitude

Eventually, his superintendency would be marred somewhat by controversy, notably the sexual harassment complaint that was settled out of court and sealed. It was in the midst of that turbulent, troubling time in his life that he decided on the ultimate “I’ll show you” strategy: He would run for mayor.

Truthfully, he was almost surprised as every one else when he beat popular incumbent Richard Hackett by a razor-thin 142 votes. One early supporter recalled finding him sitting in his office following his oath of office, asking: “Now what do I do?”

It was the same motivation that led him to run for a fifth term last year. It wasn’t because he had a clear political agenda or a pressing political program. It was personal. It was to show certain people that he wouldn’t be pushed around.

Finest Hour

It’s hard now after more than six years of unfocused leadership by Mayor Herenton to understand the sense of excitement that greeted his election. It is equally difficult to remember the good work that he did in those early years and the inspiration that he created among people traditionally disenfranchised in the political process.

Unquestionably, his finest hour was in 1998 when he fought back the incorporation of a ring of suburban towns around Memphis. His battle against “tiny town” legislation pitted him against some powerful political forces and in the end, defeating them was the crowning achievement of his 16 years in office.

He was equally decisive when it came to public facilities and public improvements – such as the riverfront or FedEx Forum – but on other policy fronts, he often laid out bold visions followed by little action, a tendency that followed him from the school district where it was said that each new year brought a new vision for Memphis’ schools.

Love It Or Leave It

While it is impossible to doubt his deep love for his city, his rhetoric on several occasions hastened its decline, particularly when he invited people to love it or leave it. It was a time when we almost thought we could hear the stampede, as Memphis took its place as one of the nation’s most hollowed out cities.

As a result, the Memphis that was created during the Herenton years became one that was largely polarized and populated by the rich who could afford to live anywhere and the poor who have no options but to stay.

It’s left to history to be the ultimate judge about the Herenton years. At this point, it seems probable that he will be cited as a historic figure and a larger-than-life leader whose promise always seem to remain just out of his grasp.

It’s The Schools, Stupid

With his announcement that he will exit the mayor’s office in four months, Mayor Herenton looks to other options, including lobbying to be the next superintendent of Memphis City Schools. It was only a few months ago that he said that he favored a mayor-led school district, which conjured up images for us of the Washington, Chicago and Boston districts where the mayor directs their operations and appoints superintendents.

Apparently, Mayor Herenton had an idea of something totally different. His version of a mayor-led district was for the mayor to quite literally step down to take up the superintendent’s job himself. While there will undoubtedly be some who will oppose such a move, it is worth remembering that there was a time when he was considered one of the U.S. most innovative urban district superintendents, and he pioneered decentralized and site-based management.

Because of it, it’s an idea worth considering, and one that deserves a departure from the normal response to a Herenton idea – lines quickly drawn and sides formed before all the facts are out.

May You Live In Interesting Times

Clearly, the possibility of the superintendent’s job is driving his early exit from the mayor’s office. He was expecting to depart later, but the schedule announced by the city schools’ board of commissioners forced him to step up his timing if he’s serious about the appointment. It’s worth noting that the school board said they want to appoint a superintendent by July, and Mayor Herenton set his last day as July 31.

In the end, as Mayor Herenton looked to his legacy, his attention repeatedly went to Memphis City Schools. It remains to be seen if he is appointed superintendent, but people who know him best said that the topic elicits an enthusiasm in him that they haven’t seen for years.

Cutting The Threads In Memphis Neighborhoods

It was only a few swearing-in ceremonies ago that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton proclaimed that he was ushering in the era of the neighborhood.

Today, with many Memphis neighborhoods hanging by a thread, he often is the man wielding a giant pair of scissors.

There’s always a disconcerting contradiction between what the mayor says are important to him and what his administration does, and the latest example if his plan to close five libraries and four community centers. To many of the neighborhoods served by these public facilities, the libraries and community centers are fragile anchors helping to hold them in place in the face of massive out-migration of people and the deterioration of the urban core.

Two Cents Worth

Now, in the interest of saving between $1.5 million and $2 million – which amounts to a grand total of about two pennies on the city property tax rate – these nine community anchors will be slammed shut, becoming permanent shrines to the decline of public services in a city with the state’s highest tax rate.

Never has City Council had such an important role to play as right now, because it will be up to its members to demand the data and the information to determine if these plans snip threads and unravel the fabric of the neighborhoods. So far, this has been like too many of the City Hall announcements – a bombshell dropped with no real philosophical context or policy explanation and in a tone that almost sounds like he’s angry at the city he serves.

We accept the statements of his advisors that this is not the case, but we also understand their frustration at these shoot-from-the-hip style announcements that immediately put them on the defensive to explain them. As a result, they are forced to operate in a world too often defined by adversarial positions and public outcries.


The lack of a coherent communications plan speaks to the largely disconnected nature of City Hall, where there is no dependable chain of command, no effective operational oversight and no translation of mayoral philosophy into policy initiatives. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception that directors and managers learn from the media what the mayor plans for city operations.

In this fragmented – and frequently dysfunctional - environment, managers get little direction, motivated by their own personal commitment to Memphis and their professional priorities. There is little sense of an overall Herenton philosophy of government or a sense of how all of the services fold into a comprehensive operational program.

For example, the announcement about the libraries and community centers triggered more questions than answers. For example, what is the rationale for closing these facilities that serve tens of thousands of Memphians while giving $3 million for 600 students at Lemoyne-Owen College, a private, religious institution.

Taking A Shot

In keeping with a tendency toward personal attacks, Mayor Herenton took a cheap shot at former library director, Judith Drescher, nationally recognized for her record, reputation and abilities.

The mayor said he’s “embarrassed” by the condition of some library branches and placed the blame at Ms. Drescher’s feet. It’s almost as if he forgets that he’s been in charge for 16 years.

If we were him, we’d be embarrassed too, but it would be because of the many times that Ms. Drescher’s requests for additional funding were ignored or vetoed by the Herenton Administration. In fact, in City Hall, Ms. Drescher was criticized for her assertive advocacy and insistent defense of library services and her annual pleas for city government to invest the amount of money in its libraries that would make it competitive with similarly sized cities.

Target On Her Back

Time after time, Ms. Drescher’s requests were brushed aside, and she was attacked for sharing her concern with library supporters and City Council members, leading her to be called disloyal by the administration. Lost in the politicized pressure cooker that is City Hall was the fact that ultimately her loyalty did in fact belong to the public.

The target on her back got even larger when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton pulled county government out of the library system. Prior to the county pull-out, she often found a sympathetic ear for libraries in the Shelby County Administration Building, which placed political pressure on City Hall to at least give lip service and basic operational funding to them.

Most of all, because Mayor Herenton has been head of city government for 16 years, it raises obvious questions: How has he shown his concern for the condition of libraries in each year’s budget hearings? Why didn’t he include additional funding for their neighborhood anchors if he was concerned about their condition?

The Hard Question

Then, there is the most basic question of all: What city service has improved in the past 16 years? Is it an overstatement to say that we have witnessed the greatest deterioration of city services since the Yellow Fever epidemics?

It also calls into question policy decisions, such as why Mayor Herenton has not done more to rein in tax freezes, which now total $49 million a year in city/county revenues. In fact, in this age of naming rights, perhaps the mayor could ask FedEx to pay less than a third of its waived city taxes - $7.3 million a year - to keep open the community centers and libraries.

After all, $2 million amounts to a mere 6/100,000th of one percent of FedEx’s annual revenues. In the absence of that exercise in corporate leadership, it appears to us that the libraries and community centers are worth two cents on the city tax rate, an amount that could be offset by cuts in administrative staff which is by its nature is always top heavy in the public sector.

Up To Council

We can only hope that City Council takes its oversight role seriously and releases the number of people who use the community centers and the circulation numbers for the libraries. We need a voice in this decision, but first we need the facts.

We hope that City Council will exhibit a better understanding about the building blocks provided by city government that create stronger neighborhoods and a stronger community. These closings strike at the heart of some critically at-risk neighborhoods – such as the Levi and Gaston libraries and all four community centers - and at the heart of neighborhoods whose stability is the backbone of city tax revenues – such as the White Station and Highland libraries.

These closed libraries and community centers will send a powerful message about City Hall’s lack of understanding about the importance of these kinds of public anchors. Meanwhile, it’s ironic – if not contradictory – that city government urged the waver of its taxes to spark a Highland Strip redevelopment but at the same time wants to close the library that’s an instrumental part of that neighborhood.

All in all, the recommendation by Mayor Herenton sends a powerful message that Memphis does not have the political will or political plan to fight and shape a new future. Instead, our city government seems intent on sending the incontrovertible message that we are in spiral that this administration cannot pull us out of.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Economic Development As An Art Form

Paul Krutko is our kind of economic development director.

A cornerstone of his program to sell San Jose: cultural development.

In fact, his hometown in the heart of Silicon Valley is so serious about the connection between culture and economy that its Office of Cultural Affairs answers to him as director of the Office of Economic Development.

Global Math

To him, the equation is simple. Successful cities attract talented workers and talented workers go to cities that are attractive, open and diverse and companies go where the workers are. That’s where culture comes in, because San Jose believes that it creates the platform for “how people can interact to a better society.”

It’s his opinion that cities that have the qualities of life that companies and talented workers are seeking today are found in places that are open, embracing and tolerant.

“You talk to many of the executives and they will tell you that they met someone from a completely different part of the world here (in San Jose), can work on an idea together, establish a global business platform working with individuals from all over the world and be successful,” he said.

It’s Culture, Stupid

In an interview a few weeks ago on Smart City, Mr. Krutko said that culture gives a city the intangible qualities that are increasingly important in a world known for its diversity.

“In our overall package, we spend a great deal of time with cultural development,” said Mr. Krutko. “Our office of economic development actually has incorporated our whole cultural program as part of our economic development efforts. We see development of arts, culture, and in particular, digital art, as important to quality of life and attraction.”

A Different Kind of Festival

To this end, San Jose has appropriated part of its hotel-motel tax to cultural development and concentrates on strengthening its arts and cultural organizations. As part of this, he led development – and put up the seed money - for a biannual festival of digital arts modeled after one in Venice.

“The notion with that is that we connect fully to all of the cultures in our community and to all the cultures around the world, positioning ourselves from a tolerance point of view and embracing of new forms of art, new ways of expression using new technologies.”

As part of the festival, Cisco is connecting to communities where it has operations, and there, people are creating content that is being shared back to the festival at San Jose. “That’s an example of how we try to engage our technology companies in a way that’s reflective of what they do but also creating a very tolerant, diverse environment in the arts space,” he said.


What’s impressive about San Jose is how different San Jose approaches arts and culture, because it sees its mission as more than the traditional arts investments found in most cities.

While there’s a tendency to dismiss San Jose’s experience as unrelated to cities like Memphis, it’s worth remembering that when the dot-com bubble exploded, Silicon Valley lost one of every 10 jobs eliminated in the whole U.S.

In the end, the bubble was a wake-up call that resulted in even one of the world’s most successful technology centers re-thinking itself. As a result, it’s concentrating on arts and culture and smart growth, but in a way that creates the brand of tolerance and diversity that fuels its economy.

New Thinking

“Corporations are willing to pay very high salaries to bring people to this location, but they have to have environments conducive to their ability to be productive. The companies are very much going away from the traditional or want us and ask us to change our land use policies to go away from the traditional of what we think of as the technology park form.”

Today, it’s worth remembering that most corporations and most jobs can move anywhere, so more and more, it’s about the flow of talent as much as the flow of capital. As a result, San Jose is working determinedly to create the kind of city where people see it as essentially to connect to innovation and talent.

If you want to hear the full interview with Mr. Krutko, click here. It has important implications to Memphis as it seeks more and better jobs for a strong foothold in the global economy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

MATA Loses Race For Buses Of Future

It’s our prediction that Memphis Area Transit Authority can give away rides on excessive ozone pollution days – rather than the 25 cents special fares it’s proposing – and it’s still not going to lure anyone aboard our city buses.

MATA’s intentions are good – part of a broader attack to bring Memphis into compliance with federal air quality standards – but as long as MATA lacks even a hint of a customer service culture, it’s probably all just for show – and special funding.

While other cities are using public transportation as a hook to recruit young, college-educated workers and creative industries, MATA continues with a system built on the premise that all of its customers are people without choices.

So, why really go to any trouble to pursue a top-notch system?

Market Research

Sometimes, we wonder if MATA ever conducts focus groups with potential customers or polls residents to see what they want from their public transit company. As for us, we’d start with cleanliness, timeliness and convenience.

Each year, Leadership Memphis engages in an interesting experiment when it asks its executive class members to take public transit to and from one of its meeting days. It is the first time for many of them, and in a word, their general reaction is incredulous.

They talk about dirty buses, lengthy trips, impractical schedules and empty buses. They talk about the trip planner feature on the website as unreliable and on one occasion, laughable. That was the time when the suggested travel schedule called for a rider traveling from the medical center to Balmoral to wait for a bus at Lamar and Semmes overnight.

And keep in mind, this is the new, improved trip planner function.


It was only about a year ago that selecting trip planner on the MATA site meant sending an email with your personal information, your place and time of departure and place of arrival. Then, the website promised: “One of our customer service representatives will get back to you within 24 hours with a recommendation.”

MATA has improved the website, but nothing shows how far it has to go than the trip planner on Portland, Oregon’s TriMet system, where buses’ locations are given in real time and riders can see the exact time that it will arrive.

For example, Portland uses a GPS system to give riders detailed directions such as “walk 0.19 mile east from bike gallery,” and they are told what bus to board, how long the trip will take and what the fare will cost.

Riders can ask for real-time arrivals by clicking “transit tracker,” which gives reminders of how close the bus or light rail is.

Back To The Future

Every day, about 40,000 people here ride MATA, and we can’t help but wonder what the quality of the rides would be if the ridership wasn’t largely lower income Memphians. All in all, it’s a sad commentary on the importance that we place overall on services aimed largely at low-income Memphians.

While Memphis deals with service that’s considered basic on its best days, other cities are making impressive strides.

Like it did with the improvement to its trip planner function, MATA was equally modest when it bought enough hybrid buses that you can count them on one hand. Meanwhile, Seattle has about 300 hybrid buses and Minneapolis has started with 19 hybrids and expects to increase it tenfold in five years. Meanwhile, New York City opted for 325 hybrid-electric buses.

Back to the kinds of creature comforts that aim for a wider, more representative customer base, other cities have amped up the perks in their buses.


Atlanta, for example, upgraded the comfort of its seats and now loads news, sports scores and weather reports into televisions on its buses when they leave the bus barn. Utah and Colorado have added Wi-fi to longer commuter buses for $5,000 and report that it has resulted in added ridership. Meanwhile, the buses have reclining seats, cup holders and racks for briefcases and backpacks.

A number of cities like Portland, Oregon, now send alerts to passengers’ Blackberries, offering up-to-the-minute information about trouble spots and alternatives in the event of problems on the route.

It seems light years away for Memphis, but meanwhile, you can see the new breed of buses in cities where customer-focused service is now producing some remarkable transformations to public transit of the future.

Friday, March 14, 2008

This Week On Smart City: What's Old Is New Again

Stories of cities and the changes they endure over time always have something to teach us. Our guests this week are at the forefront of change in two American cities in two great neighborhoods.

Bob Eury has for 23 years served as president of Central Houston, leading the redevelopment of the city's downtown. This week he'll share the changes taking place there and tell us about a major new park about to open downtown, Discovery Green.

Sean Thomas is guiding the transition of Old North St. Louis, an urban village just 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis. It's conversion from a dying neighborhood with a decaying pedestrian mall at its center to a vibrant community is a story he'll share 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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Buildings' Best Future Hinges On City And County Involvement

We understand Shelby County Government’s dire need for additional revenue to close a $16 million funding gap, but a fire sale of its interests in local sports facilities – The Pyramid, Mid-South Coliseum and Liberty Bowl - mainly feels like third-degree burns for county taxpayers.

This week, county government proposed to sell all interest in these three facilities for $4.3 million, which represents the county’s remaining debt in The Pyramid. Apparently, county government receives no serious financial consideration for turning over the other two facilities to city government.

While these facilities are of course located within the city limits of Memphis, two of the three were financed in part by Shelby County taxpayers who live outside the city on the basis that the buildings were regional investments.

Give Me Liberty

Actually, we have no quarrel with the county waiving any rights to the Liberty Bowl. Despite media coverage to the contrary, county government has never funded operations of the football stadium. The only reason that Shelby County is involved at all in Liberty Bowl discussions is that one corner of the stadium was built on land owned by county government.

As a result, over the years, approval by county government has been required for various plans for the stadium, and it’s created a cumbersome process that’s impractical in light of the county’s actual lack of a role in stadium operations.

But The Pyramid and the Mid-South Coliseum are something else altogether. Construction and operational costs have been funded for years by all taxpayers of Shelby County Government, and because of it, taxpayers outside of Memphis have equity in the buildings and a right to have a voice in their future.

Trojan Horse

Of course, all of this sounds more like a Trojan Horse strategy than serious public policy discussion. It’s proposed by Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, who is likely motivated by his desire to pave the way for his political protégé in the city mayor’s office to convert The Pyramid into the ill-conceived Bass Pro Shop store.

Already, in support of the proposal, some of the facts regarding The Pyramid are being warped to fit the argument that it’s really a city building more than a county building. It ignores the fact that county government actually was the lead government on the construction of the arena and was responsible for its operations after it opened.

It’s been said that the city owns the land. Actually, the land is titled to the city, because City of Memphis had the condemnation powers that were needed to assemble the site; however, according to documents at the time, there was no confusion that the land was just as much county-owned as city-owned.

Parking The Facts

Also, it’s been said that city government owns the parking lots. Actually, the same fact applies to the portion of the parking lots controlled by city and county governments; however, the greatest portion of the parking is not owned by either city or county government, but by state government. The land is under the interstate and it was subcontracted to local government for use by The Pyramid as long as state employees still had limited rights to park there.

The fact that city government has taken the lead on the future of The Pyramid and Mid-South Coliseum is not the result of the city having greater interest in the arenas, but has more to do with the county’s need to concentrate on its finances.

As for the Mid-South Coliseum, it is owned 60 percent by city government and 40 percent by county government. That split in ownership reflected the fact that the land on which the arena was built was owned by city government.

Better Decisions

But for us, there is an even more pressing reason for county government to stay involved in decisions about the futures of these buildings than the potential disenfranchisement of county taxpayers.

More to the point, we think that county involvement gives the public some hope that they will have some influence over these decisions. The most dramatic difference between city and county governments often is the way that it reaches decisions.

As City Hall has proven with the Bass Pro Shop, it is single-minded in pursuing its opinion of what’s best and seems largely uninterested in the public’s view of things. Meanwhile, Shelby County Government seems more interested in processes that engage the public or at least give them a chance to express their opinions.

Rubber Match

So far, the main hope for a wise decision being made for the future of The Pyramid has been in the unwillingness of county government to act as a rubber stamp for city government’s Bass Pro Shop deal. Over the years, the same thing has taken place at the Mid-South Coliseum as county officials asked questions while city officials charged ahead on an agenda of their own making.

City Hall regularly criticizes county officials as being indecisive, saying “they’ve never met a committee they didn’t like.” Across Main Street, their county counterparts shake their heads at the political fallout from what they call city government’s “fire, ready, aim” style of decision-making.

When these two operating styles - the city’s press for expediency and the county’s press for consensus - are combined, they often produce the optimal course of action for the public. For this reason, we are pleased that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners doesn’t trade away the rights of county taxpayers in return for a band-aid on its financial challenges.

University Fumbles Stadium Plan

The decision by the University of Memphis to oppose plans for an on-campus stadium felt suspiciously like a well-scripted three-act play.

In the end, the script called for the athletic committee of the Board of Visitors to weigh the merits of the university’s first on-campus stadium and recommend against it. Then, it called for the recommendation to be presented to the university president who accepted and supported it while delivering a speech on academic priorities.

It all felt a little too pat.

Half A Loaf

It was the worst-kept secret on the U of M campus that the administration was lobbying the board of visitors to oppose the stadium proposal, and in the end, the athletic committee of the Board of Visitors unsurprisingly reflected the position of the university administration.

In its final recommendation, the blue-ribbon board of school supporters tried to give all sides half a loaf: Yes, we would love to have an on-campus stadium, but no, not now. In other words, it was a craftily written “no way no how” position.

Unfortunately, we think the feasibility study laid out a practical way to build a stadium, but from the beginning, it appeared that there was nothing that could be done to get administration officials on board with the project.

Holding Pattern

According to athletic director R. C. Johnson, “rather than just say no, there was a feeling of 'Let's just wait for a while and see how things go' and then move forward from now."

It’s the sort of political statement that belies a simple fact of life. If the university gets into a holding pattern, city government will refurbish the Liberty Bowl and the pressure on U of M to support that facility will keep the U of M there for decades.

It’s a familiar position for our university, because for decades, it has set aside its own institutional needs in order to support local governments’ investments in arenas and stadia. By the way, the university has no more obligation to build a stadium that meets city government’s needs than local government had when it added 3,000 more seats in The Pyramid than the U of M wanted or needed.

Extra Effort

Meanwhile, President Shirley Raines said that unmet construction needs for academic buildings should be the university’s priority. We can’t imagine that there’s anybody that would disagree with that, but funds for a stadium and funds for academic buildings come from different sources.

Rather than simply throw up questions about the feasibility of the sponsorship amounts and the feasibility report assumptions, it seems worth the extra effort to really find out if there is the potential to put together a financing plan and potential commitments needed to build a stadium.

On balance, it’s hard to argue with on-campus stadium booster Harold Byrd that this is a golden opportunity that may not come again soon. It really doesn’t seem like a waste of time to see if he and other stadium advocates can put the money together.

More Than Victories

We admit that on some of our most pragmatic days, we are drawn to the idea that our university should simply get out of the football business. Our version of successful seasons are built on victories over no-name teams and comes with inconsequential bowl appearances.

That said, it doesn’t take much to see the benefits in other universities from on-campus stadia. That’s why it’s about more than victories on the field, but also about increased vibrancy for our urban university campus and building bonds with fans by bringing them to the university.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Question Of The Week: What Are Our School District's Priorities?

We’re pleased that Memphis City Schools has finally done what makes sense in finding a new superintendent. It began a national search.

It didn’t come without missteps and personal agendas, but at least it’s finally come. Of course, it remains to be proven that the process headed up by a national search firm isn’t going to be sabotaged by the board of commissioners’ low expectations and preconceived notions about the race, gender and zip code of the next superintendent.

To kick off the search process, the district – apparently at the direction of its search firm - posted a survey on its website to allow us to vote on the 32 qualities that we want in a new superintendent. The qualities range from the inane and irrelevant to the noble and the laudatory, but by and large, concentrating on personal qualities seems the wrong thing to focus on. After all, who really can disagree with any of these qualities?

To The Point

There’s no indication on the website about how the results of the poll will be used. The day after it went live, we learned from The Commercial Appeal that we were supposed to be selecting 10 qualities in the online poll. The website didn’t mention that fact for a couple of days, and even now, you can still vote for all 32 qualities if you like.

That said, at this point, we’re really not interested in whether the new superintendent inspires trust, is a good speaker, is cooperative, is able to delegate authority, possesses excellent people skills, possesses media skills, can develop strong relationships with the business community and has sound management experience.

More to the point, we think we should first be deciding as a community what our priorities are for our district. Then, we can align skills and experience of superintendent candidates to match those priorities.

Talk Priorities

That’s why it seems to us that we don’t need to be talking about qualities, but talking about priorities. It’s always seemed strange to us that in the midst of our current educational crisis – more than 100 schools that don’t meet state benchmarks, the poorest performance of the urban districts in Tennessee and overall declining academic performance – we still have no sense of what the district’s priorities are.

Here’s a couple of ours – decentralizing decision-making so that the central office is all about supporting schools rather than the other way around, and creating a system where schools are teacher-centered and data-driven.

So, here’s our question of the week:

What are the priorities for Memphis City School that should guide the search for a new superintendent?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Memphis' $3 Billion Bonus For Being Average

It didn’t get any headlines, but it was news nonetheless.

In a presentation to 500 people at Leadership Memphis’ annual community breakfast, Portland economist Joe Cortright said that our city gets a $3 billion bonus if it can just get to average in the key indicators of the 50 largest U.S. metros.

That’s why the big idea for Memphis is this: “Get to the middle.”

Those average cities on the list of the top 50 metros now have $3 billion more in economic activity than Memphis, so rather than set unattainable goals right now, Mr. Cortright said that Memphis’ best course of action is to set a goal of being average. That will put $3 billion more money into the pockets of our people and into the economy.


Making a persuasive case that a city’s distinctiveness is its competitive advantage, he said: “Distinctiveness matters more today than decades ago. Competitive strategy is about being different. Think about what makes you distinctive in this global economy. It is the unusual behaviors that lead to economic opportunity and distinctive innovation.”

Punctuating his speech with 75 slides of key factors determining the success of the 50 metros, Memphis was in the bottom ranks in way too many key areas such as creative workers, patents, new business, jobs growth from new firms, venture capital, higher education students, cultural participation, home ownership, travel and foreign-born citizens.

The ones that particularly caught our attention were that the Memphis metro is #50 in the economic integration of its neighborhoods, #47 in creative professionals, #44 in patents, #47 in cultural participation, #48 in restaurant variety, #50 in small businesses, #48 in foreign travel and #49 in library visits.

Battle Of The Bulge

Memphis is younger than most metros, caused by a bulge in student-age children. “In today’s tight labor markets, they could be a significant advantage, but only if they are educated,” he said, pointing out that educational attainment of Mid-Southerners is lower than the average metro.

Among Memphis’ strengths are its connection with FedEx, which has one of the strongest 18 brands in the U.S. “Perhaps only Coca-Cola and Atlanta have a brand as closely associated with a city as Memphis does with FedEx,” he said, adding that it’s no surprise that Memphis has twice as many people working in the logistics sector as the average metro.

He also commended the work of Memphis Bioworks Foundation for finding a unique niche – orthopedics – for its biotech strategy while most cities “have no idea what they are good at.”


Some other headlines from his presentation:

• Older residents are moving away
• Memphis is in middle of pack for population growth
• Memphis is among nation’s most diverse metros because of 45% African-American population
• Hispanic population is much lower than average metro
• Asian-American population remains small
• Very few foreign-born residents
• Lower than average new business birth rate
• Weak jobs growth from new firms
• Low venture capital investment
• Below average entrepreneurship among college-educated young adults
• Average in manufacturing
• Below average in creative occupations
• Fewer restaurants per capita
• Low magazine subscriptions
• Drinking problems relatively low
• Low in physical activity
• Weak cultural participation

Behaviors And Beliefs

Mr. Cortright also spotlighted behaviors and interests of the Memphis metro. Most surprising – and defying long-held conventional wisdom - is that Memphis’ religious participation is slightly below average for the 50 top metros.

Apparently, it’s not because we’re at cultural events, because we are next to last in cultural event attendance. We are in the bottom four in art gallery visits, lecture attendance, classical concert attendance, or in book buying. We are dead last in arts establishments. At the same time, we are in the top 10 in hunting and attending sporting events.

At the same time, our “geek factor” is low. We are #1 in agreeing with the statement that “we’d be better off without computers” and we were last in agreeing that “surfing the Internet is more interesting than watching TV.”


As for the neighborhoods in our metro, we lead the 50 metros in neighborhoods with the highest segregation by income. We are in the top third of metros in segregation by race, indicating that class, not race, is the major driver of neighborhood segregation. Jobs sprawl in Memphis is more than the average metro.

Meanwhile, Memphis metro residents are pessimistic and especially concerned about crime. We are in the top five metros in percentage of people who agree that “no matter how fast our income goes up we never seem to get ahead,” “it is hard to get a good job these days” and “saving for the future is a luxury I can’t afford.”

This economic concern is coupled with an equally big concern about crime. Of the 50 largest metros, ours is first in agreeing with the statement, “I am in favor of very strict enforcement of all laws” and “police should use whatever force is necessary to maintain law and order.” We are also in the top three in worrying about family members becoming crime victims and we are in the bottom three in believing that most people are honest.

Good Old Boys

Overall, there is nothing elitist about the Memphis metro. We ranked in the top five in subscriptions for Jet, Ebony, Essence, Soap Opera Digest, Guns & Ammo, Southern Living and Southern Accents. We’re in the bottom five in Martha Steward Living, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Gourmet and Bon Appetit.

Speaking of food, our spending reflects a barbecue culture. Memphis buys 260% more than the average metro in frozen poultry, 235% more corn on the cob, 185% charcoal, 183% more refrigerated dips, 180% more meat, and 133% more in baked beans.

Our To Do List

So after sifting through all of these measurements – and 40 more that he didn’t show at his presentation – what was our colleague’s advice for Memphis?

1) Take care of the basics. “Increase choice in education and make sure you deal with public safety.”

2) Build on your strengths. “You have a young, diverse population at a time when the rest of the country is wrestling with Baby Boomers moving out of the workforce. You have a labor force if you educate them. Take a difference that could be a weakness and make it a strength.”

3) Build on your brand identity. “You have unique industry and cultural assets.”

4) Take risks. “Who’ll be the next Fred Smith and how do you create the environment for world-class ideas?”

5) Don’t play copy cat. “Lots of metros are doing good things, but they may not be what Memphis should and can do. Decide what you can do better than anybody else in the world.”

6) Create neighborhoods that attract 25-34 year old, college-educated workers. “They are the most mobile people in the country, and they are moving to the centers of metro areas, where they are looking for great inner city neighborhoods – walkable, bikable, transit-linked, and green.”

7) Focus on early childhood readiness and higher education investment. “The more educated people you have, the more successful you are. Better education equals better economy. Raising the level of education is the most important thing you can do to improve your standings.”

8) Focus on dropouts. “They are the most expensive problem for your city.”

(Mr. Cortright’s slides will be posted on the Leadership Memphis website shortly at

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Kentucky Ruling Sounds Pertinent For Lemoyne-Owen Funding

A recent Kentucky news article caught our eye because of Memphis and Shelby County Governments’ questionable decisions to fund the chronically financially ailing Lemoyne-Owen College.

In a lawsuit in our neighbor to the north, a judge ruled that a public appropriation to a religious college violated the separation of church and state.

Or put another way, it’s illegal to take public money and give it to a nonpublic religious institution.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

At the time of the Memphis City Council, we raised the question of city funding to a religious college – regardless of whom its alumni include – but the train was already charging down the track, and Council members weren’t listening to any contrary points of view.

The political payback was too tempting and the expediency too obvious to turn back, so church/state issues never received the attention they deserved, nor did the even more pertinent questions of whether this was just one more stop-gap bailout for the college when a real plan for improving its curriculum and finances were what was really needed.

In Kentucky, the lawsuit resulted from a $10 million state appropriation to a Baptist university, University of the Cumberlands, to build a pharmacy school. “This is exactly the ‘entanglement’ between government interests and religious institutions” that the Constitution prevents, the judge ruled.

We couldn’t have said it better when it comes to the money for Lemoyne-Owen College.

This Week On Smart City: Creative Ambition

Every city seems to have at least some ambition linked to creativity. It may be expressed as the creative class, innovation, the creative industries or the creative city. Colin Jackson who runs Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary has been wrestling with these concepts as he considers a major new expansion. We'll talk to Colin about the role a center like his can play as the nexus of creativity for its community.

And we'll catch up with Bill Lennertz about the maturing role charrettes are playing in the planning and design of communities. Bill is co-founder of the National Charrette Institute, where he is also a lead facilitator and trainer.

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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Gritty City Suggestions Perfect Fit For Memphis

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

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

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

Down and Down

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

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

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

On The Rebound

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

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

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

Eye On The Ball

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

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

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


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

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

What To Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vote For A Favorite Son Candidate

Here's your chance to cast a vote with a smile on your face - Derrick Rose for the Cousey Award. Vote here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

It's Time for Arlington And Lakeland To Be Real (Cities)

When we read a recent Commercial Appeal article, we immediately thought of a comment made by a friend of ours: “Apparently, you’ve got me confused with someone that gives a damn.”

The report out of Lakeland and Arlington was that the possibility of a contractual merger of Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department would result in a “pricey problem” for the “fast-growing” towns.

The mayor of Arlington even said that apparently the people considering the merger of the two departments “hadn’t thought about little Arlington and little Lakeland in their plans.” After all, the sheriff’s department provides law enforcement there now.

We pause to wipe a tear from our eyes.

Our first thought is why are the rest of us – the majority of whom are paying city taxes for our own police departments – should be subsidizing these two towns’ protection.

It’s just a basic principle of government that if you want to incorporate as a municipality, you should be prepared to pay for an “urban level” of services, and at the top of that list of critical services is of course law enforcement.

For too long, Shelby County Government subsidized the budgets of these smaller cities, and in recent years, the philosophy of county services has become more equitable for Memphians.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Shelby County Government had a policy that it would pay half of the cost of major roads inside all Shelby County cities – except for one, Memphis. Meanwhile, county government provides all local funding for the towns’ schools – although the county school district genuflects to the town mayors and generally ignores county officials.

In the newspaper article, an Arlington resident said: “We’ve got good patrols and good service from the sheriff’s department, and I would hate to think that would be lost.” Meanwhile, officials in Lakeland - home of the original faux city government – said: “We’ve passed a resolution saying we’re not in favor of it, and we’ve sent those resolutions to every elected official in the county and our state representative.”

We’re not quite sure what state government would have to do with this, but God forbid that Lakeland would become a real city and pass a property tax to fund its own police department. Instead, it prefers of course to rely on the sheriff’s patrols paid for by every taxpayer in Shelby County, including Memphis.

It’s time to wean both of these towns. They worry that it would cost about $1.2 million for a real police department to patrol within their town limits.

To bad, it’s time for them to pay up or turn in their city charters. We’re hard-pressed to understand why those of us who pay for our own police departments should also pay for theirs.