Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reeled In, Addendum

John Branston, as usual, has written a provocative article, this time with insight on Bass Pro Shop. Here's the link.

Bass Pro or a theme park - both feel once again like Memphis is chasing yesterday's big idea. When you get in on the tail end of a trend, well, you are on the tail end.

What if we actually concentrated on inventing our own next big idea?

Part of our problem with all of this is that we began with the wrong question. It shouldn't have been: how do we fill up The Pyramid with a tenant, but rather, what should we do with the building and/or the site that makes the most sense for a city that desperately needs more vibrancy, more ambition, more talent, more innovation and more entrepreneurship?

When you ask the wrong question, you inevitably come up with the wrong answer. And that's what Bass Pro Shop feels like to us.

Reeled In

It looks like Bass Pro Shop is coming to The Pyramid.

We just wish we could be excited.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Bunker Mentality On County Finances

It must be easy being Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker.

He never really has to be for anything or offer any real solutions. Instead, he just engages in his dependable political pandering: No tax increases, cut the fat, reduce the size of government.

So, it came as no surprise that in the wake of Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s announcement that he was abandoning his privilege tax proposal and setting up a task force to search for ways to broaden tax options for county government, Commissioner Bunker returned to his favorite refrain:

“We heard the old tired message once again that we’ve done all we can – that we can’t cut our way out of it…And then we go beyond that, like it’s a favor to our citizens and say we’re going to Nashville. We’re going to create a new tax for you to pay.”

Old Tired Message

It was but the latest verse in his favorite song – that the Wharton Administration can slash the county budget to eliminate the need for more revenues and just won’t do it.

Contrary to his opinion, the “old tired message” is actually his blind “no taxes, no time” vow, the same one that other right-wing legislators have been taking for years in their continued pursuit of suburban votes. In fact, it was this blood oath taken by former county mayor Jim Rout and the Republican majority of the board of commissioners that plunged county government into financial crisis in the first place.

Rather than deal with needs in an incremental way with small tax increases that were manageable, the no tax mentality dug a hole so deep that all of county government fell into it, making the inevitable tax increases onerous and making the county debt soar.

The irony of this has always been that the commissioners so consumed by this brand of political expediency often represented the suburbs, whose insatiable appetite for roads and schools was the chief factor in fueling the county’s soaring debt.

Charge And Spend

As a result, the suburban commissioners were chief beneficiaries of the “charge and spend” philosophy, the unmanageable county school district’s vacuous decisions on school locations, the passion for highways that shredded any sense of place and the hypocritical county policies that underwrote the services and major road construction of smaller municipalities while denying Memphis similar consideration.

Needless to say, all of this leaves us with little patience when we are confronted with the rhetoric of someone like Commissioner Bunker.

But here’s the thing. Ultimate responsibility for the Shelby County budget is not the mayor’s or any other fulltime elected officials. To the contrary, it is the board of commissioners that is charged with two overriding responsibilities – passing the budget and setting the tax rate.

Put Up Or Shut Up

In other words, it’s easy for Commissioner Bunker to mouth the lyrics to his favorite verse, but in the end, he’s the commissioner. If he thinks there’s a way to cut the county budget, let him lay out his plan.

But first, he needs to come to grips with a simple fact of life in county government: schools, jails/justice, and health care take up all of the county’s property taxes. Because of it, they are the prime targets for his slash and burn budgeting.

It’s always easy to put your loyalty behind your own political ambition. It removes any responsibility to be part of the team trying to find ways to deliver the services of county government without cutting the safety net that’s often the only threads holding together the lives of too many of our people.

One thing we have noticed over the years about the call by politicians like Mr. Bunker for government to act more like a business. Every one is for it as long it doesn’t touch them and their constituents. If Commissioner Bunker is really desperate to slice the costs of government, let him cut all subsidies to the county towns that he represents. If he's serious, let's refuse funding for any more new schools for the county school district. If he’s really serious, let him cut the budget of the board of commissioners, which has increased almost 60 percent in six years, or cut the commissioners’ $3.5 million contingency budget.

Gory Details

In other words, politics is nothing so much as who’s ox is being gored, and Memphis taxpayers have been gored for 15 years with the costs of unsustainable sprawl and the millions of dollars deposited into the pockets of politically-connected developers.

But the biggest hypocrisy of all is that in fighting against any tax reform plan that ever raises its head, Commissioner Bunker defends one of the most regressive tax structures in the United States. As we’ve written before, in a survey of the largest cities in each state and the District of Columbia, we have the third most regressive tax system.

The average tax burden for a family of four that owns a home inside the city limits for the 51 U.S. cities was 7.3 percent for families earning $25,000; 8.3 percent for families earning $50,000; 9.1 percent earning $75,000; and 9.2 percent at the $100,000 and $150,000 levels.

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

The Rich Get Richer

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

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

That’s why we welcome Mayor Wharton’s call for a task force to develop what we hope will be a comprehensive tax reform program for Shelby County. Our regressive tax system's overreliance on property taxes and sales taxes cannot take care of the long-term needs in local government. Nothing less than total reform of the system can address the shameless tax structure that punishes those who can least afford it.

We are certain that Commissioner Bunker will rise in opposition to it. Perhaps, that is the greatest testament to its need.

Blues Blogging

As a show of support for the International Blues Challenge that we spotlighted last week, Chuck Porter of WEVL fame is posting updates here from the IBC, one of this city's signature music events.

Here's the latest as the Blues Challenge is poised to begin in earnest:

Jan. 30, 8:30 p.m.

The Blues Foundation office was successfully relocated. We have taken over a big suite in the Doubletree Hotel in preparation for the big day tomorrow.

More volunteers arrived today from Eureka Springs, Chicago, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga. Speaking with the out-of-towners, they all said that the Doubletree had sold out of rooms in two hours when they were released last fall.

It seems the major work for the contest itself has been taken care of. We had a lot of people folding shirts today. This was the first year that I can remember that we all had time to take lunch and grab a burger.

I have to admit that with any of these events, the stories that are told in a circle are the most fun. Everyone either runs a festival or volunteers at the festivals in their area. Today the talk focused on the various people that had been in past International Blues Competitions and where they were today.

Then THE question was mentioned: What is blues? The table got quiet and everybody asked for the tab. We don’t talk religion, politics or “What is blues.”

Tonight, the Grizzlies hosted sets with Aunt Kizzy’z Boyz playing in the arena. Matt Wigler (13 years old) and Matt Aubin played the Lexus Lounge and Ben Prestage’s one man band played in the lobby.

We received incredible feedback from the FedExForum staff and the staff of the Grizzlies. If these artist are any indication of what’s in store, WOW!

On my walk back to the parking garage, I stopped in a few places on Beale. Several clubs were featuring various blues showcases but other than that a fairly slow night on the street.

By this time tomorrow night, there will be more blues on Beale Street than anytime in its history. There’s only been mention of a couple of ‘no shows’ so we’re talking 158 bands.

We, the blues people, are ready. I hope that we get as much respect from the “Home of the Blues” as we are getting from the world of blues. Stay tuned!

Blues Blogging

As a show of support for the International Blues Challenge that we spotlighted last week, Chuck Porter of WEVL fame is posting updates here from the IBC, one of this city's signature music events.

Here's the latest as the Blues Challenge is poised to begin in earnest:

January 29, 7:30 p.m.

Today the atmosphere around the Blues Foundation offices at 49 Union Avenue began to take on a lot more action as the International Blues Challenge ramps up.

The volunteer side of the event is nothing more than taking the puzzle pieces and placing them where they belong. If any of the hundreds of pieces are out of place, there’s a big problem.

Executive Director Jay Sieleman and International Blues Challenge Producer Joe Whitmer have been working on this year’s event since the middle of last summer. Jenn Ocken from Baton Rouge arrived yesterday and began taking over the Silent Auction that Jay had been organizing prior to this week. One of the Blues Foundations part-time employees, Glenda Mace, began to wrap up the online ticket sales before lunch this morning and printing any checks that Jay will need to take care of business before the weekend is over.

In other words, today is like the day before you go on vacation. You’re trying to remember things you’ll need while you’re away and know there are things you’re going to forget. Today is also the day that Joe begins to get a little more nervous about things, not to mention his new wife, Sarah Negri–Whitmer who received her credentials(green card) to begin her journey as an American citizen this morning.

Sarah is from a blues family in Italy that is very familiar with the workings of world blues festivals and the world blues community. She stepped in the office today and immediately began working the graphics program needed to make signs and badges and anything else Joe needed.

Also arriving today was Greg Johnson from Portland, Oregon, who worked with Joe on printing passes needed for performers, judges, staff and volunteers. Greg also worked with Sarah and Jenn to get the merchandise in order. Greg will be in charge of any merchandise during this year’s event.

For me, today was making sure the specifics for Wednesday night’s artists, who are performing at the Grizzlies game, had their credentials and that their load-in and necessary equipment was taken care of. I also spent today working on each packet that each Venue Coordinator will receive. As a producer of previous events, preparing packets is not much more than making sure everything is there that may answer questions that have been brought up at past events.

We’re looking good! Tomorrow the bands begin to arrive, more volunteers become involved and things begin to happen. Stay tuned…

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Unconventional Thinking Needed On Convention Center

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton has now taken the new stadium off the front burner, and in its place, he’s now put forth an idea equally vexing - another expansion for the Memphis Cook Convention Center or a new convention center altogether.

Recently, we were talking to a friend in Portland, Oregon, who had taken a prominent public position questioning whether a new publicly-subsidized hotel there would in fact be the magic answer to his city’s convention ambitions. The story that he told has played out in cities across the U.S. as they participate in the arms race of new convention centers, convention hotels and expansion of convention center.

Even today, as think tanks dispute claims that convention centers are wise public investments, cities continue to escalate the competition to see who can spend the most and build the biggest. A new convention center proposed in Nashville is now projected to cost almost half a billion dollars, and city boosters are pushing the new building as if the economy of our capital city hangs in the balance.

Bigger Is Better

In recent years, about 40 cities have built new convention centers or expanded existing ones, totaling about $2.4 billion in public funding a year. It’s no surprise that in just over a 10-year period, convention space increased 51 percent.

Dreams of being a convention destination run deep in cities everywhere, and in pursuit of these dreams, promises and projections are more and more extravagant, like the ones for new hotel room nights in Richmond that ended up being off by two-thirds. Such overstatements are more the rules than the exception when it comes to convention centers.

Most remarkable of all, all these new facilities have come on line despite declines in conventions. Most of all, not even the most vocal supporter would argue that these buildings really do anything to address poverty, loss of middle class families, workforce challenges and population loss.

Cold Reality

We don’t mention this to throw cold water on Mayor Herenton’s announcement or to diminish the importance of the question that he’s raised. However, we do believe that he should take a step back before he begins.

Rather than beginning with the assumption that Memphis does indeed need a new or expanded convention center, what would really be valuable for Memphis is an independent, real market analysis (and not by the cadre of convention center cheerleading consultants who regularly churn out Pollyannish projections) that discerns what the Memphis niche can really be.

In fact, if City Hall officials are looking for the best model for doing this, we recommend that they schedule a meeting immediately with Steve Bares, guru for the Memphis Bioworks Foundation. With city after city throwing money into “feel good” biotechnology programs, he understood that only a handful of cities would succeed and it wouldn’t happen from a “build it and they will come” attitude that was prevalent across the U.S.

Finding The Niche

So, Mr. Bares took a more innovative and strategic approach. He identified Memphis’ unique assets, he evaluated locations with the best synergy and energy and he set up a process known for its accountability and measurements. In the end, because of it, Memphis now has a unique opportunity to succeed.

We’ve seen Mr. Bares’ explanation of the process that he and his colleagues at the Bioworks Foundation followed, and we think City Hall staffers who will conduct due diligence on his convention center idea would do well to use it as their template.

After all, if the past is the best predictor of the future, our convention center will be underperforming and disappointing. Perhaps, with a clear-eyed, skeptical analysis of our realistic opportunities, we can in fact finally find a position in the convention industry that makes sense.

Point Of Agreement

From where we sit, no city in the U.S. can compete with us when it comes to authenticity, attractions and attitude. It just seems reasonable that we can develop a market-based niche that creates the kind of convergence that brings us new success and a new position in the marketplace.

There is one thing on which we can surely all agree: It is hard to find a major convention center that provides an experience that is as dismal and unappealing as ours. Built apparently from German bunker blueprints and with the attendant lack of charm, the convention center cannot create the same kind of ambiance as the striking glass and steel centers that open to the surrounding urban fabric of its city.

It’s the difference in a building that looks outward and one that turns inward. Unfortunately, for us, Memphis Cook Convention Center looks inward with a vengence, and as a result, there is no connectivity with the city that it serves.

Starting Over

Because of this, we were particularly intrigued by Mayor Herenton’s suggestion that perhaps a new convention center makes more sense. He also said that he would appoint a committee to evaluate our city’s options. We suggest that they start by digging out the study that was conducted before the convention center was expanded.

Back then, local government and the board of the convention center wanted to know what their best course of action was to make the aging facility more competitive. After months of looking at the options and weighing alternatives, the consultant came back with a startling conclusion.

His verdict: Close the existing convention center and build a new one in the area of the Peabody Hotel.

Go Where The Market Is

Essentially, the report said that the energy downtown and the real convention anchors were not at Main and Poplar but at Third and Union, and if Memphis wanted to be more successful, it needed to respond to the market and put the facility where the market wanted it.

In the end, the decision made by city and county governments wasn’t based on the analysis but on politics. There was concern by government officials about the negative impact on the Pinch District by the move, the future of the public investments made in the area and the perception of abandoning the north end of downtown.

The report was quietly filed away. The expansion was given the go-ahead. Its cost and schedule would end up being twice construction estimates, and the convention center expansion became the poster child for public waste and incompetence.

Now For The Hard Part

Looking back, it seems clear that the report was right. The Pinch District continued to flounder even with the expanded convention center, and the conventioneers walking from the convention center to where the action is in the Peabody Hotel area are testament to the report’s recommendations.

It’s worth resurrecting that report and reviewing it again. However, regardless of what decision is made about a convention center, that’s the easy part of the analysis. The hard part is figuring out how to pay for it.

The hotel-motel tax is already stretched to the breaking point, and it’s almost certain that new tax sources would be needed to pay the massive price tag that this project would have. In fact, if a new convention center is built, its cost will easily surpass the public building project that was previously the most expensive – FedEx Forum.


There’s already a tourism development zone downtown and it’s hard to imagine how its revenues could support this level of bonded indebtedness. Maybe there’s potential for a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district, but with so many tax sources already tapped to pay for the $92 million expansion of the convention center and the new arena, conventional wisdom is that city government would need to create some new revenue sources (translation: new taxes).

Even with a solution about the financing, the hardest problem remains: Memphis’ need for more first-class rooms in full-service hotels. More than anything else, it’s our city’s inability to supply the required number of contiguous hotel rooms that strangles many convention center bids.

Just think about it. Some major conventions require 1,500 full service hotel rooms, but the Marriott next to the convention center has only 600. That means that people have to be shuttled all over Memphis to the 900 other rooms that are needed.

Just The Facts

Because of this, any analysis undertaken by city government needs to answer the question of how Memphis responds to this long-standing need. A bigger and better convention center means nothing without the rooms that are convenient and attractive for conventioneers.

It’s too early to take sides on the convention center issue, but if Mayor Herenton will undertake the kind of serious, independent analysis that is needed on all aspects of this issue, he will have done all of us a service,

Finally, we could separate fact from fiction on this issue.

Blues Blogging

As a show of support for the International Blues Challenge that we spotlighted last week, Chuck Porter of WEVL fame is posting updates here from the IBC, one of this city's signature music events.

Here's the first, and we hope you'll watch for more in the coming days.

This is the first in a series of behind the scene blogs of this week’s 24th International Blues Challenge that is produced by the Memphis based non-profit Blues Foundation.

The event has grown leaps and bounds in just the few short years from when I was a Foundation employee in 2000 and 2001. Back then, we had 52 bands in 8 clubs, and we thought we were setting records. In comparison, this year’s event has 160 acts (100 full bands and 60 solo or duo acts) and involves 16 venues on Beale Street.

The current staff at the Blues Foundation’s staff consists of two full-time employees and hundreds of the best volunteers in the world. The stats are mind-boggling – More than 500 musicians in 16 clubs in 6-7 hours with an average of nine acts each and each venue stocked with four working volunteers and three volunteer judges. Bands have 25 minutes to perform for the judges and 10 minutes each to get gear on and off stage or be penalized on their scorecard.

On Wednesday, January 30, four of the acts will perform at the Memphis Grizzlies game against Denver Nuggets at FedExForum. Thursday morning begins the arrival of the acts and registration at the event headquarters in the Doubletree Hotel on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis. Throughout the day on Thursday and Friday, there will be panels at the hotel exploring various aspects of the blues business.

Let me emphasize it again: there are two full time employees at the Blues Foundation. Things like this can only be done with volunteers who believe in what they’re doing and know that their abilities will be utilized and their decisions backed.

If you want to see the world’s largest collection of blues performers, pick a night - Thursday or Friday or both and then join us for the finals at the Orpheum on Saturday where the top band and solo/ duo acts are crowned.

Tickets for the semi-finals in the clubs for Thursday and Friday can be bought at the door of each participating venue. For more information visit

Stay turned for the daily blog that I hope to get out each day as the musicians and volunteers arrive.

Monday, January 28, 2008

MCS: Suspending Blue Ribbon For A Day And Political Games For Six Months

Sometimes, it seems like the board of commissioners for Memphis City Schools finds it hard to take a step in the right direction without first shooting themselves in the foot.

That was certainly the case with its recent decision to launch a national search for a new superintendent that's optimistically supposed to take six months.

There’s no disputing the wisdom of the decision to begin the national search. After all, it seems a given that the 115,000 students in the city schools deserve the best possible leadership the board can find.

Conflicting Messages

Unfortunately, that’s certainly not the message that was sent by some of the board members. Overall, their comments did nothing so much as suggest to possible candidates for superintendent that the whole thing might be little more than a sham.

Commissioner Ken Whalum apparently wants to put up a sign that says only black men need apply.

Commissioner Jeff Warren garbles the purpose of search firms, suggesting that they only recruit people looking for jobs.

Commissioner Sharon Webb seems to think that anybody should be given special points for merely sharing her area code.

A Real Search?

But most disturbing of all, chairman of the search committee itself, Commissioner Martavius Jones actually undermined the integrity of his own process by saying that he favors a Memphis candidate and even went so far as to name him, Alfred Hall, who happens to be chief academic officer for our district, which, at last count, had 100 schools that are not meeting state benchmarks.

Also, that number will jump dramatically in the coming year as the Tennessee Department of Education ratchets up its standards for its tests, and the most important thing that the chief academic officer can do about now is to reveal his strategies for getting city schools in compliance.

All in all, it’s just so frustrating. We want so badly to be supportive of this board as it comes to grips with an array of challenges that are the toughest ever faced by Memphis City Schools. But this overall display of ineptitude was enough to make us throw up our hands.

Wanted: Mediocre Leader

We’ve written before about the board’s apparent lack of ambition, as exemplified by the feeble notion that the solution to superintendent turnover is to select someone from inside the district who will stay for a longer period of time. This seems to presuppose that the person would be so mediocre that no other school district would ever be tempted to hire him/her away.

The truth is that in public education today, any urban district that keeps a superintendent for 7-10 years usually needs to ask what they did wrong. If they had gotten it right, other districts would be knocking at the door trying to lure the superintendent away. It’s sort of like the choice of keeping Wayne Yates at the helm of U of M basketball for a lot of years or hiring John Calipari, even if he only stays for a few years.

So, here’s our modest proposal. Preference should indeed be given to local candidates for superintendent…as long as they have been recruited for the superintendent job at other districts. Otherwise, we’re admitting at the outset that we’ll settle for on-the-job training at the expense of finding someone ready to tackle the demands of the job on their first day.

The Vision Thing

Here’s the thing. Former superintendent Carol Johnson stayed for the length of time that is the norm these days in urban districts – about three and a half years. It’s not her departure that created confusion and chaos. It’s the lack of a clear vision, a set of specific priorities and cohesive strategies at Memphis City Schools, and that is the responsibility of the board of commissioners, not just the superintendent.

When districts like ours wait for superintendents to tell us what we need to be doing – or to come to Memphis with a bag full of their favorite programs - it creates whiplash as the district is jerked this way and that. To keep this from happening, it’s the board’s sense of the district’s ambitions and needs that are the thread that keeps the district on course, regardless of who’s in the superintendent’s office.

It was conventional wisdom about four years ago that we could never attract a superintendent with national credentials to head up our district, and yet, because the board refused to accept that prediction and settled for someone inside the district, they found, recruited and hired Dr. Johnson. It would seem strange in the extreme if the board now believes that it should lower its expectations, and in the process, lower the quality of leadership that will be needed in the challenging coming years.

A “Real” Search

Most of all, contrary to the faulty notion of Commissioner Warren, “real” national searches – and it’s now up to the board to prove that this is what they are embarking on – won’t simply come back to the board with a list of people looking for jobs. Rather, the search directly reflects the seriousness that the board of commissioners brings to it, and if they are serious enough, the search firm will identify the best candidates (those whose experience and skills align with the needs and aspirations of Memphis City Schools).

By the way, if we are capable of figuring out a way to pay the kind of salary that elevated our university basketball program to another level, surely we can figure out a way to pay whatever it takes to bring an agent of change to Memphis City Schools. But first and foremost, our own board of commissioners has to prove to the people who elected them that they understand that they are making the most important hiring decision in this city and prove that we should be confident in their ability to get it done.

Board members do that by sharpening their aim and by making sure that potential candidates for the superintendent’s job know that we are deadly serious about hiring the best person we can find. In other words, they need to be shown convincingly that they should ignore all of the silly rhetoric of the search committee meeting, because the board is determined to hire the best.

Suspend Blue Ribbon

If the board and interim Superintendent Dan Ward get in a corrective mode, we think they should also suspend the controversial Blue Ribbon program that recognizes that beating children is the academic equivalent to water-boarding: you may get a promise of changed behavior, but all you really do is harden resistance and break down the effectiveness of the learning environment.

But, that said, we want a one-day suspension of Blue Ribbon for the sole purpose of someone taking a paddle to Ted Anderson, now Ridgeway Middle School basketball coach and former Hamilton High School basketball coach.

Coach Anderson is a serial child beater. He did it at Hamilton High where he was legendary for paddling boys for everything from missing free throws to missing class. Apparently, he longs for the day when Blue Ribbon ends and he can return to the good old days of pounding on students again.


He told The Commercial Appeal:
“This is the South, man, and young black boys don’t respect nothing but strength…’Sit down before I whip your (butt).’ They respect that…quick, fast and in a hurry, ‘Bend over here, boy, you’ve got three licks.’”

And this was the man that Interim Supt. Ward thought deserved a second chance after being removed from his high school coaching job for paddling and degrading players. Coach Anderson makes Britney Spears look like a fast learner.

Surely, it is unmistakably clear to Superintendent Ward that he made a grievous error allowing this man in a position where he can do further damage to young people, particularly middle school students who are at a point in their schooling where these kinds of experiences can make or break their academic success.


With friends like Coach Anderson, Superintendent Ward needs no enemies.

In the newspaper report, Coach Anderson recounted his dismissal at Hamilton High School about four years ago and called it “degrading.”

Now that’s a term he doesn’t fully understand, but if he needs some help, he can just ask his players. They know exactly what it feels like.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Aerotropolis Is Brand New, But Not The Brand

If we’re not careful, aerotropolis will fall victim to its own hype.

It’s hard to remember a concept that has had as much build up as quickly as the notion that Memphis can be the home of North America’s first true aerotropolis. While it’s difficult to imagine how our version can fully emulate the Asian models that inspired it, we’d never rule out anything that includes Memphis International Airport for a simple reason: our airport arguably has the best staff in the U.S.

That’s certainly a tribute to Larry Cox, president and CEO, who has guided the evolution of the airport from one with national ambitions to one with national prominence - almost 11 million passengers moving through it annually and the largest cargo airport in the world.

Staff As Competitive Advantage

Long gone is the pleasant regional airport and in its place is an airport that now deserves to have the word, international, in its name. Its $1.2 billion in assets and the profound impact that it has on our city (even without the over-amped economic impact numbers) are tribute to the current staff, whose competency is as ubiquitous as the photo of Airport Authority Chairman Arnold Perl on all things airport-related.

That’s why we believe that there’s little danger that the engine of the aerotropolis idea – Memphis International Airport – will not ultimately fire on all cylinders. Of course, these days, several of those cylinders are powered by Northwest Airlines, and although a lot of the reassurances by city leaders that Memphis will not lose its hub are little more than wishful thinking at this point, we do think that if Memphis has a competitive advantage, chief among them is the capable way in which our airport is run.

By the way, while trying to reassure the rest of us that Memphis has little to fear in a merger of Northwest and Delta Airlines, we’re inclined to discount the reading of the tea leaves by the Airport Authority chairman that the Federal Aviation Authority would not be investing $68 million in a new traffic control tower if a change in our hub status was expected.

Proof Positive

We were reminded of the extensive construction that continued at the Memphis Defense Depot even after the vote had been taken to close it down. One thing about the federal government never changes: once something’s in the pipeline, it’s just hard to change direction.

But back to the aerotropolis, it would be a welcome change if the emphasis could be placed on more proof and less hyperbole in the campaign to convince us all that the aerotropolis is the best thing for Memphis since the city was situated on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.

As a result, the concept of an aerotropolis runs the risk of sinking beneath the weight of the relentless campaign to convince us that it deserves the investment of so much of our civic confidence and faith. Right now, we think advocates of the plan should concentrate on proving that it is in fact a plan. Some days, we can’t tell if it’s a strategy to improve Whitehaven or if it will encompass all of Shelby and DeSoto Counties.

America’s Aerotropolis

Meanwhile, the annual report of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority hints that even more marketing may be in the works. “The branding of Memphis as America’s Aerotropolis builds from the logo for the Memphis international Airport itself, establishing a connection, yet allowing a distinct brand,” the annual report said.

Here’s the thing: Aerotropolis may indeed be a great economic development strategy, but there’s no way it should be our city brand.

That, in the end, would be as lame as the “America’s Distribution Center” label bequeathed on us by the development industry and Chamber executives so many years ago, a slogan that did nothing so much as send the message that we are a company town characterized by low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Genie In The Bottle

As for the city brand, we recall the comments by Paul O’Connor, former World Business Chicago executive who headed his hometown’s branding effort. In a speech to the Memphis Tourism Foundation:

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

He and other city branding experts have said that the strongest brand a city has is its name. It’s hard to think of many places in the world where that is more true than here. As a result, it’s awfully hard to add a tagline or a slogan that truly adds value.

It’s Not About Slogans

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

The good news is that aerotropolis is about Memphis thinking differently, being creative and exuding confidence in its future, and perhaps, it’s the attitude rather than aerotropolis that the brand needs to be built on.

With young, college-educated workers as the target for every city looking to succeed in the knowledge economy, the brand particularly needs to speak powerfully to them. After all, two-thirds of 25-34 year-olds decide where to live and then decide where to work and most make this decision on “postcard” kinds of information – what friends say, what’s on the Internet and on a city’s buzz. In other words, a city brand matters more today than ever before.

Memphis Values

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

As for us, we’d prefer to be called “The place where global commerce was invented,” than be called “America’s Aerotropolis.” After all, that says volumes about our role, our entrepreneurial tradition and our place in the global economy. These are facts largely unknown by people around the world – and most Memphians – who have no concept that FedEx was in fact the laboratory for this invention of global commerce.

Most of all, for a city’s brand to succeed, as Mr. O’Connor pointed out, the branding process doesn’t come from a group of elites coming up with a pithy slogan or a marketing hook. Instead, it’s about a process that identifies the real values of the city, the widespread perceptions of the city including its strengths and weaknesses, the single most important benefit the city has to offer, and ultimately, what the city can be.

In this way, neither the aerotropolis or any other noble project has the power to be the brand for the city, and that’s why if we were in charge of figuring out what it should be, the first thing we’d do is put in a call to Mr. O’Connor.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Kids In Cities: A Key To Successful Cities

To follow up yesterday's post about the importance of keeping children in cities, here's a report by CEOs for Cities, which commissioned the Institute of Design to "get beyond the obvious to help us understand what cities can do to retain these workers and their families."

As CEOs for Cities points out, this is a critical issue for cities like Memphis, because 25-34 year-olds - a key to success for cities competing in the knowledge economy - are 30 percent more likely than other Americans to live within a three-mile radius of the CBD and they're an important market that will go missing if they leave when the kids come. Here's the final report.

This Week On Smart City: Protecting People and Place

Protecting our water, our land, and our natural habitat is really about protecting us. It's about protecting people. Dave Ulrich is one such protector. As head of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, it is Dave's job to bring mayors from the U.S. and Canada together to restore and protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. Dave served as deputy regional administrator for the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than a decade, and during his 30 years with EPA, he was also director of the Waste Management Division, acting regional counsel, and chief of Air Enforcement

Michael Mehaffy is an international leader in sustainable planning. Michael guided planning for some of the earliest transit-oriented developments in the U.S. and has used that experience to influence land use and transportation planning at a regional scale. Michael is an author, researcher and consultant in sustainable planning, and president of Structura Naturalis Inc. in Portland, Oregon.

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, January 24, 2008

Indicators Of Success: Kids In Cities

“You can’t have a city without middle-class families and kids,” our colleague Carol Coletta said in a USA Today article about her CEOs for Cities’ study about what cities can do to retain families. “You can’t have a childless city.”

We’ve written about the importance of this issue before, and the dimensions of the problem in Memphis, so let’s summarize it briefly:

* As a result of the “hollowing out” of Memphis, less than 20 percent of families are now middle-income and less than 30 percent of neighborhoods are middle-income.

* Memphis is 88th among the U.S.’s largest 100 cities in the share of middle-income families and 98th in middle-income neighborhoods.

Gotta Move

In a city with formidable challenges, this is one of the toughest. To succeed, Memphis must change the thinking of young people who prefer city living, but assume that once their children are born, they will need to move to the suburbs for 18 years as they rear their children. Memphis must improve its schools to the point that they send the unmistakable message that parents don’t have to pay the hidden costs of city living by paying for their children to attend private schools.

There are some positive signs in Memphis – a county office of children and youth, an award presented to the Memphis library system and a new kids-oriented website, Memphis Loves Kids.

First, the Office of Children and Youth. It’s a promising idea, although the devil is in the details. Local government has plenty of such high-sounding offices that are little more than names on doors in public buildings. There is no real agenda and no real staff to carry one out if there was one.

We’re hoping things will be different in this office. In fact, we think it could be the catalyst to a new look at the functions of Juvenile Court, which is now a confusing mix of judicial, social service and administrative functions.

A Modest Proposal

How about a modest proposal?

Remove every program at Juvenile Court that’s not related to juvenile justice and move all the rest to the new Office of Children and Youth. After all, the judicial function is but the tip of the iceberg, and there’s logic in separating the other functions and incorporating them into an office where all children’s services and programs can be coordinated and overseen.

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

Most of all, there’s no centralized place in county government where the tough questions are asked about city schools, there’s no place where policy analysis is conducted to show which interventions return the biggest dividends and there’s no place where new innovations are encouraged to leverage county investments.


In the absence of an office that performs this function, various services never undergo the kind of rigorous evaluation that can give birth to better ways of doing business.

Hopefully, the office of children and youth will get the chance to fill this gap. The office was supposed to be a joint city-county office, but unfortunately, the city administration refused to participate.

Then, there’s the library system, an often underappreciated asset in Memphis. We have long admired the leadership and commitment of Judith Drescher, the library director who was deposed in December by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton in another of his inexplicable personnel decisions.

While we are confident that Keenon McCloy, who was the capable director of another city division until being drafted for the library job, will do a fine job as head of the library, we’re hard-pressed to understand the rationale for this management change.


Of course, the greatest irony about the mayor’s “disappointment” (the local government name for people who aren’t reappointed) is that about the same time that he was ushering Ms. Drescher to the door, the Memphis library system was announced as recipient of the highest honor bestowed on library sytems – the National Medal of Museum and Library Service.

Memphis was one of only 10 systems that have received it, and one of the reasons our libraries were honored was the special contributions that they make to the lives of children in Memphis.

In an awards ceremony at the White House, Ms. Drescher was noticeably absent, and we can only hope that City Hall showed enough class to invite her to attend. After all, there would have been no award without her.

Loving Kids

Finally, a promising sign for families with children is seen in the initiative shown by two sisters in setting up the family-oriented website,

It appears to be the only website of its kind in Memphis, and Deirdre Oglesby and Aisling Cordon Maki set it up to give Memphis parents a centralized place to find anything you would ever want to know - information about events, educational resources, shopping sales, “kids eat free” restaurants and ways to get families more involved in the community.

The sisters stated purpose is simple: to make Memphis a better place for kids and families. Apparently, they are not alone, because there are thousands of subscribers who’ve signed up on the site.

While we have a tendency in Memphis to look to government for the answers to our problems, it’s actually these kinds of projects that bring smiles to our faces. At the end of the day, it’s citizens like these – passionate about their city, self-reliant and determined to make life here better – that have the greatest impact, because their influence ripples far beyond the prescribed boundaries of a government service area.

Best of all, the sisters send the message that Memphis is kid-friendly and family-supportive. It’s not the answer to our “kids in cities” challenge, but it’s a start.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New City Council Members Hint At Good Things To Come

It’s always interesting to watch new legislative bodies as they develop a collective personality that is as distinctive as the individuals that combine to create it.

That’s taking place now at Memphis City Council, and while it’s still early, there’s reason to hope that this new, improved version may actually have a wiser, more mature personality.

Our hopeful attitude stems from two recent decisions – one about the Ericson proposal for development of The Pyramid and Mud Island and another about better structured committee meetings.

While it is admittedly too early to draw any definite conclusions about the new crew, so far, the collective seems resistant to the overwrought rhetoric and confrontational styles that decimated opportunities for meaningful leadership in the past. That’s a good thing because it had produced the widespread opinion that the old Council was willing to put personal political gain ahead of the best interests of the city.

Signs Of Progress

Sadly, as past Council meetings proved, the reluctance to confront disruptive members undercuts the effectiveness of the entire group, and inevitably, it is the badly behaved members who come to be seen as the public “face” of the Council. In this regard, we guess that the ultimate litmus test for the new Council is whether it can contain the disruptive forces that often emanate from a reliable source like Councilman Joe Brown.

Until then, we want to at least take a moment to relish two recent signs of progress.

The first was the reluctance by the Council to swallow another big plan to develop simultaneously The Pyramid and Mud Island. As we’ve previously pointed out, it was this approach that eventually doomed plans by Sidney Shlenker in 1991. But the truth is that he was aided and abetted in the failure by the greed of the City Council and a city administration that were desperate to get Mud Island off its books.

We’ve been supportive of Greg Ericson’s position that he deserves equal treatment and consideration as the Bass Pro Shop proposal that the city administration seems so blindly enamored with, but new members Reid Hedgepeth and Bill Morrison were right – It’s The Pyramid, stupid.


Somehow, the Ericson group’s concepts for Mud Island – like its forerunner, the Shlenker plan – seem forced and ill-fitting, and if the group wants to prove that it deserves a chance to discuss optional uses of Mud Island, it would do it best by proving that it can get The Pyramid deal done. Along the way, it would be helpful if the group could also release details about its financial partners to give the public confidence that there is the serious financing that the $250 million proposal will require.

Frankly, we were encouraged by the refusal of City Council to root its decision in the civic sense of unworthiness that has been the basis for so many of our poor decisions in the past. Hopefully, this new attitude will be the foundation of the new Council.

Meanwhile, Council Chairman Scott McCormick’s decision to restrict the participation and voting in committees to committee members reflects a new emphasis on operating with more discipline and logic. In the past, any and all members could attend any and all committee meetings and cast votes on any and all items on the agenda.

It made no sense, because it allowed non-committee members (particularly those who don’t have jobs other that their part-time city legislative offices) to show up at committee meetings and derail the agenda in spite of the opinions of the official members of the committee. This tactic often played out in some members coincidentally (and blatantly) showing up to vote any time the committee agenda included an item involving a favored developer.


As a result, Chairman McCormick new policy – his clear prerogative as chair – to limit the voting in committee to members of the committee was necessary for the integrity of the legislative process. It was an encouraging sign that new members in particular seemed to recognize the value of such a clear organizational policy. In fact, the yelps from some hold-over, old-time Council members were the greatest testament to the wisdom of the change.

Complaining members cited as precedent the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ policy that essentially turns every committee into a committee of the whole as members drop into meetings and vote although they are not officially members. Actually, if anything, all of the confusion, the lengthy meetings and the grandstanding that often results in county meetings provide compelling evidence of Chairman McCormick’s sound thinking on this issue.

But more to the point, all of this is reason enough for us to be encouraged about our city legislative body for the first time in years.

A Solution In Search Of A Problem

When you have one of the biggest law firms in Memphis (as Shelby County Government does), the answer to every problem – no matter how insignificant – is based on a belief that every solution is always found in yet another rule or regulation.

That was never as apparent as in the recently announced rules for use of county buildings that were announced this week in the wake of the manufactured Kwanzaa controversy fed by grandstanding Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas.

Instead of simply concluding that it was a mountain made out of a mole hill, the county legal eagles were turned loose to correct a problem that didn’t even exist. As a result, we are unenthusiastic about the recent rules restricting the public’s use of the public buildings that they are in fact paying for.

Hencefore, whereas and therefore, county buildings are to be used exclusively for county purposes, such as meetings, events or gathering hosted or arranged by county employees or government officials to discuss or present government business.

Got it?

While it sounds definitive, it is anything but.

First, there’s little reason that other elected officials in county buildings can’t do whatever they like in their own offices, and that includes Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks, whose Kwanzaa celebration prompted this flurry of unnecessary activity.

Second, the policy just doesn’t pass the common sense test. After all, all Commissioner Brooks has to do now is schedule a purported town hall meeting with her constituents in a county building and observe Kwanzaa in the process.

In the end, if Kwanzaa was a molehill made into a mountain, this new rule is the equivalent of using a nuclear warhead to kill a gnat.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

School Security A Bargain

We’re hoping that the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners keeps the metal detectors and X-ray machines issue in perspective.

Yes, the price tag is $4.5 million sounds like a lot of money.

It’s just worth remembering that the city school district spends more than that every two days.

The amount is also less than one-half of one percent of the entire budget.

That’s why, from where we sit, it’s a small price to pay for parents of Memphis City Schools students to be given peace of mind when their kids enter school each day.

While there are many questions remaining to be answered on a proposed police department within Memphis City Schools, the decision about metal detectors and X-ray machines seems clear.

Despite the hysterical coverage of every school incident by television news, these problems are actually rarities for the city district. But the daily checks provided by this new technology go a long way in making even these few incidents more unlikely.

As for news coverage, it’s interesting how much the preconceived opinions of reporters can factor into coverage of school crime. For example, in the years that Cordova High School was part of the county school district, it was ignored by the media. After it was transferred to the control of Memphis City Schools, overnight, to listen to media reporters, gangs sprang up like mushrooms and crime was commonplace.

And nothing had changed except the name of the district on the school letterhead.

Real Cities Have Property Taxes

The mayor of Lakeland had his feelings bruised recently when Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton didn’t give him the same advance warning as the other town mayors about another push for consolidation.

Based on comments in The Commercial Appeal by Mayor Scott Carmichael, his city definitely suffers from a lack of respect. He speculated that the Lakeland identity crisis stems from reasons as varied as not having its own section in the phone book to its location to confusion about its borders.

However, there just might be another reason Lakeland wasn’t called until after every one else. Maybe, Mayor Wharton was only calling the mayors of real cities.

After all, Lakeland still depends on county government for its fire protection and law enforcement, all while bragging that it doesn’t have a property tax. If the town is looking to get some respect, it might find it if it matured to the point that it paid its own way and didn’t act as if the sales tax revenue from the Belz factory outlet mall is the only possible source of revenues for its meager city services.

Egypt Team Tanks While Basketball Team Soars

The decision to change the name of our alma mater has never looked smarter.

Gone is the limp Memphis State University moniker and in its place is the assertive-sounding University of Memphis.

This week, it’s looked like the smartest decision ever made as thousands of headlines across the country proclaimed our top rated men’s basketball team:

Memphis #1

Memphis Is Best

Memphis Stands Tall

Memphis Tops List

And those are just a few of the smile-evoking headlines that appeared in every paper in the nation this week.

And to think that we chased NBA basketball because of the perceived value of having the name of our city in the league listings every day. Of course, in those days, we weren’t thinking that the name would always bring up the bottom of the list.

Sadly, while the sports side of the house was getting to the top, the academic side of University of Memphis was tanking with its handling of its most highly-publicized Egyptian archeological team. It’s too bad, but at the university the emphasis on teamwork never seems to spread beyond the athletic department.

In the Egyptian dispute, University officials may actually be right, but it sounds so much like its regular emphasis on a control and command management style that it’s hard to simply dismiss complaints from the head of the dig team that discovered a 33-centuries-old chamber in the Valley of the Kings. More to the point, at this point, the University seems to be on the losing end of a public relations disaster that has gone global.

The most disturbing aspect of this controversy was acknowledgement by Provost Ralph Faudree that he never talked to the leader of the archeological team, Dr. Otto Shaden, although it should have been clear that the university was risking an international black eye. On a decision of this magnitude, we’d have a higher comfort level if he had directly gathered information instead of relying on third parties.

The good news is that considerably more people will read about our basketball team than the dust-up in the desert, but in the long run, it’s the latter that may say more about our university in the long run.

Photos: What I Love About Memphis

Our friend, Amie Vanderford, has posted some gorgeous photos depicting what she loves about Memphis. As she puts it: "I know that we face problems in Memphis, but when looked at through loving eyes, this is still a wonderful city!"

We thought you'd enjoy looking at her photographs, because it helps give us the proper perspective about this crazy quirky place that we all love. Click here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

DeSoto County Pollutes Regional Attitude

It’s never been clearer that regionalism here is more rhetoric than reality than when DeSoto County acts like an island when it comes to air quality attainment.

Its attitude was about as surprising as finding a photograph of Arnold Perl in a Memphis International Airport publication.

Although DeSoto County officials like to use the words of regionalism, it’s been more about improving their vocabulary than changing their behavior. As a result, no one on our side of the state line should ever make the mistake of thinking that we’re all in this together, because when push comes to shove, its often our neighbors’ hands that we feel on our backs doing the shoving.

Common Sense

It all started when Shelby County officials made the common sense – not to mention scientific – request for DeSoto County to be included with Shelby and Crittenden Counties in the attainment calculations of federal air quality standards. The Mississippians had been included prior to 2004, and it’s been widely speculated that the state’s Republican U.S. senators overpowered EPA regulators to have DeSoto County removed.

In a letter to the EPA, Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton wrote that the agency erred when it removed DeSoto County from the nonattainment area in violation of ozone-pollution standards. That’s why it was no surprise when – miracle of miracles – Mississippi regulators said DeSoto County was doing just fine.

It was but the latest in a series of actions that are dependable reminders that our region acts largely on an “every man for himself” attitude toward the issues that should make up the regional agenda – air and water quality, public transit, transportation infrastructure and economic climate.

Me First

While refusing to take the serious anti-pollution steps needed to improve the region’s air quality, DeSoto County Board of Supervisors did proudly point out that it had passed a new policy that prohibits county employees from idling in county vehicles. Apparently, that’s DeSoto County’s idea of bold action.

Keep in mind that half of the workforce in the Mississippi county commute to Shelby County to work each day.

The county’s “me first” attitude should be no surprise to observers who watched it ram through its I-269 project despite Memphis and Shelby County Government’s opposition to a circumferential interstate that is largely unnecessary and extravagantly expensive.


But, political interests in North Mississippi were determined to build the outer loop, not for any rational transportation reason but to reward politically-connected developers who wanted to increase the value of their land and open it up to development.

That manipulation of the process not only bore the fingerprints of Senator Trent Lott, but his DNA as well. In the end, local officials were powerless to stop a political payback masquerading as a transportation necessity. As one local trucking executive put it: “The suggestion that truckers are going to swing more than 40 miles out of the way, rather than driving directly north and south through Memphis, is nothing short of ridiculous. There is no rational reason for I-269 that I can think of.”

There’s also no rational reason that real regionalism hasn’t taken root here. But the truth is that regionalism across the U.S. is often more outward-focused than inward-directed. As a result, programs supported by the primary city that focus on a stronger region are rarely reciprocated by the region’s suburban cities.

Racism With A New Face

For example, it’s not unusual to hear Memphis and Shelby County officials call for regional progress and to urge regional strategies that embraces the best interest of area’s cities. And yet, there’s little of that kind of commitment flowing from the fringes back into the center.

That’s why in some regions, there have been complaints that regionalism is really racism with a new face. And while we’re unprepared to accept this – as are our African-American city and county mayors – we are prepared to join in complaints that too little of regionalism is aimed at strengthening the urban core. That’s been seen most prominently here in the slow acceptance of sprawl as a negative force on our financial and social health.

Surely, we can get serious about regional cooperation and coordination. If the nations of Europe can somehow overlook national borders across the continent, our obsession with county lines looks increasingly ludicrous.

Nashville Regionalism

In Nashville, Cumberland Region Tomorrow is urging leaders there to set aside long-standing competition for tax revenues and jobs to work together to grow jobs, economy and population.

Most of all, the nonprofit regional organization makes sure that the area keeps regionalism high on the radar there. It organizes workshops and brainstorming meetings where people tell where they want their region to go on issues like density, historic preservation and housing. Then, officials develop a plan with particular attention to public works infrastructure.

The organization has been backed by Tennessee Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation, and several foundations and charities.

No Atlanta

An earlier study concluded that the region’s population would top two million people by 2020 and cost $7 billion in road construction alone. In response, emphasis has been put on downtown development – not just the downtown of Nashville, but smaller regional cities who need a sense of place, a sense of identity, more vibrant downtowns and walkable communities.

According to Nashville’s regional leaders, Atlanta failed in this regard because of a lack of centralized planning and development that left the future of the region up to developers and parochial decisions. Only after the problems had become massive did the State of Georgia try to help Atlanta with regional frameworks for transportation and water.

Cumberland Region Tomorrow wants to make sure it doesn’t happen in Nashville. The most impressive thing about regionalism in Nashville isn’t this group, but the leadership given to regional issues by the news media, particularly the Tennessean. Last month, the daily newspaper ran a series of articles that emphasized the importance of regional issues and the lessons to be learned from Atlanta.

Media Matter

That validation and attention by the major media can’t be underestimated in building momentum and inspiring action, and it’s the Nashville newspaper’s understanding of its civic role that’s created the progress and set Nashville apart over the years.

If there’s anything that differentiates Nashville from Memphis, it’s the palpable ambition that’s central to the civic character and decisions. Much of it flows directly from the editorial offices of the Tennessean.

Cities today are paying millions of dollars for consultants to assess regional strengths and weaknesses, to create broader understanding of the issues that are critical for the future and to survey leaders for their priorities. There's nothing quite as exciting or meaningful for a city as when its daily newspaper performs these roles for it.

Worth Remembering

Back in Memphis, we can’t seem to grasp the most important thing about the regional future: We can’t compete based on low cost labor, low cost land and tax incentives. Rather, our prosperity depends upon our capacity to develop firms, institutions and people known for their innovation.

As the Council on Competitiveness recently wrote:
“There are fewer and fewer industries in which U.S. firms can compete globally using a low-cost strategy. On the high end, U.S.-based firms can and do win. In many industries, firms operating in the U.S. have been able to adjust to new global business conditions and develop international leadership.

“From an economic development perspective, however, many communities are still pursuing the old, incentive-based strategies. These don’t work in a world in which firm success depends ever more on the quality of ideas and talent, and ever less on traditional infrastructure.”

That’s worth every one in the region memorizing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Achievement in Education

There is probably no tougher issue for urban leaders than education. Fads come and go but test scores never quite live up to the promises.

Dr. Ken Wong is a national expert on education accountability and he has found a surprisingly positive correlation between the school systems controlled by mayors and improved education achievement, particularly in elementary grades. His latest book is The Education Mayor: Improving America's Schools. Ken chairs the Education Department at Brown University, where he holds the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair in Education Policy and directs the graduate program in Urban Education Policy.

Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland are also education researchers. In their work for Project Zero at Harvard, they've been uncovering the effect visual arts education has on student achievement. Their research project is called Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. Ellen is professor of psychology at Boston College. Lois is an Associate Professor of Art Education at the Massachusetts College of Art.

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, January 17, 2008

Kids In Cities Growing In Importance

Our colleague Carol Coletta was interviewed by USA Today about the need for cities to pay attention to ways to keep young people in cities after they have started their families. It's a special challenge for Memphis, but one that deserves to be a priority nonetheless.

Here's the link.

Begging For Help With Panhandlers

Out in the hinterlands, calls for consolidation are undercut when Memphis city government can’t even manage to get the basics right, such as enforcing panhandling laws in downtown Memphis.

We’ve not written lately about the ever-present and ever-aggravating panhandling plague in downtown Memphis, because downtown resident and veteran blogger Paul Ryburn has been doing such an impressive job of reporting on the dimensions of this problem and creating a network of people reporting on the most grievous offenders.

Best of all, Mr. Ryburn has demolished the nagging notion that the problems really aren’t that bad and don’t really have any consequences for downtown Memphis.

The Price

As a result of the Ryburn campaign, the examples continue to pile up – parking lot scams where panhandlers pose as attendants to take money, the parking lot attendant who curses and excretes anti-gay screed at passers-by and the convention-goers who’ll take Memphis off their list because of problems including in-your-face, intimidating panhandling and public urination.

It’s strange. No matter how many new police officers are hired, no matter how many new crime-fighting programs are started and no matter how assertive the political rhetoric is, city government seems incapable of just enforcing the laws on the books that are designed to protect downtown quality of life.

The price of indifference is steep. It produces a downtown made inhospitable to residents, workers and tourists. We tried to be philosophical this year, but it’s just too hard when the problem often takes up residence on our front steps and we have on occasion had the pleasure of even cleaning up human feces.

Illegal Aliens

The FAQ’s on the Center City Commission website clarifies behavior that is illegal -- when profanity or abusive language is used to ask for money or in response to a refusal for money; when begging is done in a group of two or more people; when it is perceived as a threat; when done in a way that is intimidating or obstructs walkers or cars; when someone is touched by a panhandler; and when false or misleading solicitations are used.

There’s nothing mentioned about feces, but we assume that’s at least a health department violation.

To set the record straight, this is not a problem with homeless people. The majority of them, probably less than five percent according to research, panhandle. Rather, it is an attack on behavior of a few who devalue and demean the common space that we collectively share.

Legal Recourse

Other cities are making progress. This week, the Nashville City Council passed a law prohibiting aggressive panhandling. It makes it illegal to panhandle after dark or near ATM’s, sidewalk cafes, business entrances, bus stops or schools.

Of course, as we’ve learned in Memphis, a law on the books means absolutely nothing unless the police department plans to enforce it. Nashville is lucky. There, the police chief has been pushing for the law and promised a crackdown on panhandling as a priority of his department.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati conducted a quarterly census, passed laws against panhandling and removes camp sites; and other cities actively addressing this public nuisance include Little Rock, Atlanta (on which the Nashville law was modeled), Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami Beach and Las Vegas.

Protect And Serve

Because of our apathetic police department, the Center City Commission finally had to step in recently with plans for a pilot program that will hire four security officers who will patrol downtown looking for quality of life violations. We’d hope that MPD would be so ashamed that it finally gets serious, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

As we’ve written before, it’s a serious indictment of city government that an agency like Center City Commission has to step in and provide the kinds of services that would seem to be the normal expectations of downtown citizens who pay their city taxes for what seems like a basic service.

Of course, the Center City Commission is already experienced in standing in for city government and shouldering its responsibilities. A few years ago, it was determined that downtown Memphis needed $100 million in its infrastructure – sidewalks, alleys, streets and streetscape.


So how much was city government willing to invest in the downtown that so often is part of elected officials’ bragging rights? Nothing. And faced with the widening problems, the Center City Commission paid for $5 million in its own bonds to at least get started on the work.

As for the panhandling paradise that is Memphis, the word is out. Our city is widely known as the place to be, because of the lack of enforcement and the anything goes attitude.

In fact, a few weeks ago, we eve made the Dr. Phil television show. The subject was hobos who live along the river. It featured one man who abandoned his family and now lives along the riverbanks, begging for a living. The film showed his solitary figure walking over a bridge – the Auction Street bridge.

Bumming Around

The show spotlighted his festive party with his fellow bums. The location: downtown Memphis. It was hardly the publicity that’ll attract visitors to Memphis.

If all politics is local, then surely it is true that all government is personal. For us, that personal government should start by upgrading the downtown experience by eliminating our ubiquitous panhandlers.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

City Hall Has Chance To Get Music Agenda On Key

He who has the gold makes the rules.

That’s always been especially true when it comes to local musicians.

After all, they’ve watched over the years as big ideas have been chased and big promises have been made while the small matter of helping put money in the pockets of local musicians rarely hit the civic radar.

Off Notes

It’s too bad, because it has sent the unmistakable message to the creators of our most famous export – music – that we are awfully good at talking the talk, but just can’t figure out how to walk the walk.

While our tourism industry and our city brand are built on music, our economic development pitch hits the high notes, music CD’s are handed out to VIP’s and nothing is bragged about more than Memphis Music, we continue to give our musicians the blues.

We thought of all this recently when we read that the members of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission are still waiting for someone in local government to make them a priority.

Off Key

It’s been 10 months since the public music group broke away from the private Memphis Music Foundation and Memphis city government promised to make priorities of the commission’s funding and the hiring of a new executive director.

Of course, it was a priority that would be address in government time, so only now is city government even getting close to starting the selection process for the new head of the agency. Sadly, City Hall officials say that the appointment will be made by the city mayor.

It sounds like an off key decision, because once again, it suggests that the city fathers don’t believe that musicians are capable of controlling their own destiny. We don’t want to be too harsh, because the administrative officials who’ve been heading up this process are unquestionable music fans. We just think they don’t understand how much the confidence in our music industry has been eroded, and how top-down decisions like this are interpreted by musicians.

Blown Deadlines

Besides missing the deadline for the selection process for the executive director, city government has also blown the schedule for re-launching the website of the Music Commission. That’s especially frustrating, because before the Music Foundation was created, the Commission had an interesting, entertaining and perfectly serviceable website that the Foundation blew up during the period that the two organizations were sharing staff and agenda.

That was in the heyday of the big talk and small results. Time and time again, the Music Foundation claimed that a breath-taking project was about to be announced, and time and time again, it just died without another word.

There are encouraging signs from the Music Foundation these days as a result of the much-needed change in leadership. New head of the Foundation Dean Deyo promikses a musician-centric approach in the group’s agenda, and refreshingly, he has sought to build bridges rather than create headlines.

Moody Blues

Hopefully, city government will soon untie the hands of the Music Commission members, and that new Director of Public Service and Neighborhoods Kenneth Moody will put this at the top of his to-do list and see his role as enabling the musicians to set their own agenda rather than City Hall dominating their decisions.

Commission member and blues musician Billy Gibson said it well in an interview with David Williams of The Commercial Appeal: "We are in desperate need of some leadership. I just have to say this, as a Memphis musician. It's a frustration because we're always waiting to move forward. We're always in a 'transition.' I hear that term used. I've been on the board for a year and we've been in transition for a year. It's time to get to work."

That’s a tune we all should be humming, because it’s time for transition to be a wrap and allow the Music Commission to compose a new future.

More Than Elvis

Speaking of music, one of our city’s best events, the International Blues Challenge, was featured yesterday in Crain’s Business of Life under a headline we’d love to see more often: “Memphis beyond Elvis. There’s more to see than Graceland.”

We were reminded last year of just how important this Blues Foundation event is when a city official from Monckton, New Brunswick, dropped by to talk about urban policy. She was in town with her husband to book acts for the city’s yearly music festival.

They try to attend the Blues Challenge every year, and her effusive praise for the event, the special Memphis vibe and the quality of the acts was enough to make the toughest Memphis critic break into a smile.


As Crain’s pointed out, “The most hard-core blues fan will want to snag the all-inclusive $150 package, which includes receptions and a keynote luncheon. For everyone else, the $70 option will get you in to hear the semifinals and finals.”

Other recommendations included a “different music experience” from American Dream Safari, the National Civil Rights Museum, “tiny, eclectic” Talbot Heirs Guesthouses, the ducks at The Peabody, Central BBQ and Circa. All in all, it was a big hit for Memphis and the International Blues Challenge.

This year, the 24th edition of the Blues Challenge runs from January 31 through February 2. It promises to be even better than last year when 90 bands and 60 solo acts and duos filled clubs up and down Beale Street on the first two days, culminating with the finals at the Orpheum Theater on February 2.

World Beat

It’ll be a good time to enjoy some great music from around the world, but more to the point, it’s a good time to support the Blues Foundation, which continues to reflect positively on Memphis by keeping our blues traditions alive and well. There was a time when it seemed inevitable that the Blues Foundation would have to close its door, but under the new management team there, it has not only survived, but it’s organizing outstanding events like this.

Come to think of it, another of its fine programs is Blues in the Schools, which has scheduled programming throughout the week of the Blues Challenge, and it will feature Gary Allegretto, Spencer Bohren and the duo of James Nixon and Shannon Williford.

At least, while we too often give our own musicians the blues, we can take some time to honor the musical tradition that started it all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Grist Magazine Reports On Riverfront

Grist magazine has published its articles on its trip down the river, including its reporting about the Memphis riverfront. It's always interesting to see ourselves as others see us. Here's the link.

School Governance Issue Tests Civic Maturity

There are some things that transcend the day-to-day retail politics of Memphis and the personality-driven coverage of the news media.

Surely 115,000 Memphis City Schools students are at the top of that list.

There is no one who would disagree that there’s anything more important to Memphis than the futures of these students, and because of it, the current discussion about the governance of the city schools district is more than a much-needed conversation. Ultimately, it’s a test of our community’s maturity.

Give Light, Not Heat

Already, an editorial policy that never seems to give Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton a fair hearing has produced a dismissive opinion piece. Meanwhile, media coverage seems to focus more on whose idea this is than what the merits or demerits of the idea might be.

Hopefully, on this issue, the news media can set their civic purpose ahead of their ratings and recognize the value to Memphis of a calm, measured discussion about this issue. Perhaps, it’s a time to fall back on the oldest journalistic notion of all – an emphasis on illumination rather than fulmination.

The question that deserves to be answered is this: What is the optimal organizational structure for Memphis City Schools to improve student academic performance?


Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton are influential advocates for a change that would add Memphis to the 16 cities that have shifted to a mayor-led district (normally accompanied by an appointed school board). They are taking their case to Capitol Hill, where they will discuss their ideas with Governor Phil Bredesen, who has already said the meeting is about discussion, not about decisions.

Education has always placed high on the governor’s list of priorities, but it now is receiving renewed attention. Not only are both of our mayors discussing their concerns with him, but new Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is calling for dramatic action in the wake of his city’s district being placed on the high-priority list by the state Department of Education. Already, some City Hall insiders in Nashville have suggested that a change to a mayor-led district might be an option being investigated by the new administration.

With the mayors on one side of the issue, the news media immediately assumed that the Memphis City School Board of Commissioners would be against them. Actually, it’s too early to put the board in that category, and so far, about the only official action that they’ve taken is to authorize board president Tomeka Hart to draft a proposed official statement on the matter.

It’s About Facts First

Board members are anything but a monolithic group, and on balance, we suspect that they are likely to take a wait and see attitude. At a political level, there’s really no value in doing otherwise, because the board doesn’t want to be perceived as more committed to retaining power than exploring options for change. At a personal level, it appears that a majority of the board are tempermentally inclined to learn more about the issue before expressing opinions.

In this way, it’s clear that this is not your parents’ board of commissioners. The outbursts that were such staples of the previous board are largely gone. The tendency to get immediately defensive over even the mildest criticism is vanishing. The micro-management that ran so amok with the previous board is coming more into balance.

Here’s the thing: the truth is that many of us gave former superintendent Carol Johnson a pass. Because of her popularity and her personal persuasiveness, anything good that happened in Memphis City Schools was credited to her, and everything bad was blamed on the elected board.


Things are far from perfect at Memphis City Schools, and we have written often about the reasons for our deep concern. But it’s worth remembering that whatever problems exist, it is not because board members are bad people. And neither are the city and county mayors.

Hopefully, all sides will simply refuse to allow this to degenerate into politics as usual, sending a welcome sign of a new willingness to talk, to debate and to seek consensus. After all, the mayors are sincere in their motivation to do something to improve the future of city students. It is a sincerity shared by board members.

It is because of this mutual motivation that all sides should pledge now to refrain from volatile rhetoric and divisiveness actions. Of course, the greatest challenge to this is being alert to the persistent media traps that will be set in hopes of creating and reporting conflict and controversy and in terms of personality and power.

On The Merits

Here’s the thing about this decision. The personalities shouldn’t matter.

That’s because fundamental issues like management structure, governance and accountability shouldn’t be based on who’s in office and whether you like them or not. The mayors and commissioners won’t be in office forever, and because of it, this decision should be made on the merits of the case, rather than on the basis on who each of us support politically.

In previous posts, we have written favorably about mayor-led districts and the positive impact of appointed school boards. And yet, we may change our opinion in the face of convincing research. We suspect that most of the players in this matter are willing to listen to the other side, to examine the research and to listen objectively to the other side.

Run Silent, Run Deep

The problems of Memphis City Schools run deep and challenge our best efforts to find new ways to address them. We’ve written often about the indicators that alarm us and cry out for change. We’ll not repeat them here, because at this point, all of us need to set aside our own opinions in pursuit of a community conversation about our schools.

If there is a testament to any city’s maturity, it is found in its ability to set aside differences of opinion, to discuss various options and to decide the best course of action on a critical public policy question. The question of a different governance structure for Memphis City Schools offers us just such an opportunity, and perhaps, we can prove something to ourselves – that we can rise above normal political behavior to join hands to discuss and deliberate on the options for change.

There are arguments to be made in favor of mayor-led districts. There are questions to be answered about alternative organizational structures. There are positions to be explained and decisions to be made.

Breaking Away

But we are in no position to make them now. Our people deserve the chance to learn more about this issue and to have a voice in the process.

Because of it, there’s no rush to judgment on this question. There’s only the rush that comes from proving that we have the kind of maturity that is needed to consider one of our city’s most important issues.

Who knows? Maybe we can even break out of the civic dysfunction that keeps us from a shared purpose and a civic ambition to control our own destiny.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Quiz On Consolidation

Consolidation is equal parts fact and fiction.

Remarkably, more than 35 years of spasmodic attention has done little to illuminate consolidation. For that reason, our past week’s posts have been dedicated to the issue that confounds, confuses and confronts us.

To wrap up the weeklong series, we offer a quiz to test your knowledge about consolidation.

1 – What percentage of consolidation votes in U.S. pass?

a) 50% b) 75% c) 15% d) 5%

2 – If Memphis and Shelby County Governments are consolidated, would the governments of the smaller towns be affected?

Yes No

3 – If Memphis and Shelby County Governments are consolidated, would every one’s tax rate be the same?

Yes No

4 – What percentage of U.S. counties are consolidated?

a) 35% b) 1% c) 20% d) 45%

5 - When’s the last time a county with the population of Shelby County was consolidated?
a) 110 years ago b) 6 years ago c) 42 years ago d) 60 years ago

6 – What city in Tennessee has had more failed consolidation votes?

a) Chattanooga b) Memphis c) Knoxville d) Clarksville

7- Research shows that city-county consolidation saves money?

Yes No

8 – How many of the largest 100 cities in the U.S. have consolidated since 1900?

a) 35 b) 23 c) 9 d) 45

9 – What percentage of all consolidated governments are comparable in size to Memphis and Shelby County?

a) 75% b) 28% c) 42% d) 6%

10 – Pick the consolidated governments:

a) None b) Atlanta c) Dallas d) St. Louis e) Indianapolis f) New Orleans g) All

11 – What was the first city to consolidate?

a) New York b) Honolulu c) Chicago d) New Orleans

12 – Pick the cities where consolidation failed:

a) None b) Charlotte c) Portland d) Albuquerque e) Miami f) Pittsburgh g) All

13 – How many Tennessee counties are consolidated?

a) 1 b) 3 c) 5 d) 9

14 – How many consolidated counties in Tennessee have a population of more than 50,000?

a) 1 b) 3 c) 5 d) 9

15 - What percentage of consolidation votes in Tennessee have been approved since Nashville/Davidson County merged?

a) 10% b) 16% c) 30%

16 – How many times has Memphis voted on consolidation?

a) 2 b) 4 c) 6

17 – What percentage of voters in the last gubernatorial election can sign a petition and require the creation of a consolidation charter commission?

a) 10 b) 15 c) 20 d) 25

18 – How many members are on Nashville’s consolidated government's Council?

a) 15 b) 25 c) 33 d) 40

19 – Of all the consolidated governments in the U.S., how many minor municipalities have remained within the merged government?

a) 0 b) 5 c) 15 d) 22

20 – How much was spent in Louisville by pro-consolidation forces?

a) $500,000 b) $1.25 million c) $2 million d) $3 million

21 – When was Tennessee constitution amended to allow consolidated government?

a) 1925 b) 1947 c) 1953 c) 1959

22 – In Tennessee’s four major cities, how many times has consolidation failed?

a) 4 b) 6 c) 8 d) 10

23 – What is not one of the most frequently used arguments in favor of consolidation?

a) Eliminate duplication b) Improve economy c) Lower taxes d) Efficiency

24 – What percentage of the total land area of Shelby County would be totally under the control of a new consolidated government?

a) 45% b) 55% c) 71% d) 80%

25 – What percentage of the total land area of Shelby County will Memphis control when annexation agreements are fully executed?

a) 45% b) 55% c) 65% d) 75%


1. c.
2. No
3. No
4. b
5. a
6. c
7. No
8. c
9. b
10. e and f
11. d
12. g
13. b
14. a
15. b
16. a
17. a
18. d
19. a
20. c
21. c
22. c
23. c
24. c
25. c