Friday, May 30, 2008

Drawing Up The Economic Development Agenda

We began a conversation Wednesday to develop a list of priorities for Memphis. We hope you will join in and add your comments.

To catch up, here's the original post, "Building An Agenda For Economic Growth," and the follow up comments.

This Week On Smart City: Conversations About Diversity

America is no longer a nation of red states and blue states. We are a nation of red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods. That’s because of The Big Sort described by Bill Bishop in his new book of the same name. Bill says we are dangerously sorting ourselves according to our values, beliefs and lifestyles and while the overall result is that we have more choices than ever, our communities are also becoming significantly more segmented and specialized.

Susanne Justesen believes that the homogeneity Bill writes about threatens innovation and productivity. Her unusual approach to capturing the value of diversity works for major corporations and may just work for cities.

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

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

Thursday, May 29, 2008

National Search Headed Toward Mayor's Office

Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners deserves credit for doing what was right – conducting a national search to find a new superintendent – but it’s becoming obvious that soon, they will be forced to admit that they cannot ignore the person who wants the job more than anyone else – Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton.

Of course, these days, it’s not just about desire. It’s also about the mayor sitting on a pile of political grenades that he’s clearly willing to toss into the board’s process, either to sabotage the search (in the view of the haters) or to shock the board into recognizing his qualifications (in the view of the lovers).

Either way, his motivation at this point is secondary. The primary fact is that the mayor has effectively destroyed the opportunity for Memphis City Schools to hire anyone but him.

Third-rate Behavior

Despite widespread opinions to the contrary, both of the candidates for the vacant superintendent’s job are actually quality possibilities for the job, according to people who keep up with emerging talent in the education field. No, they may not have ever been a superintendent of a large urban district, but they have track records within two similar districts that indicate that they possess the intellectual honesty, the requisite skills and experience that would make their appointment less than a high-risk decision.

In fact, both are as experienced as Mayor Herenton was when he was named superintendent in 1979, and to get where they are in their present positions, they obviously have the ability to get an accurate view of the political landscape. That’s why it’s impossible to see either of them taking a job in a city where the mayor has already labeled them as third-rate candidates for the job.

Calling them third-rate was an unfortunate rhetorical lapse, even for someone famous for them, because surely Mayor Herenton knew, as soon as the adjective escaped from his mouth, that he had stepped over the line. In a more combative political environment, the school board, not to mention the candidates themselves, could have fired back with similar rhetoric about City Hall itself. After all, there are few key indicators for Memphis that have improved in the past decade.

Passionate Politics

That aside, all in all, it demonstrated powerfully yet again how Mayor Herenton commands the political stage whenever he wants to, and because of his unpredictability and rhetorical excesses, there just aren’t too many people who have the guts to respond to him, much less challenge him directly.

Because of it, we predict that the school board may take some twists and turns in its journey to a new superintendent, but the destination nonetheless is fated to end up at the mayor’s door.

Close political allies of Mayor Herenton say that they have not seen him as personally engaged about anything since his finest hour in the late 1990’s when he defeated the “tiny town” legislation that threatened to encircle Memphis with municipalities. Some say that the mayor’s outburst to The Commercial Appeal’s new City Hall reporter Amos Maki – whose stories are almost daily setting the news agenda – stemmed not so much from his disdain for the superintendent candidates as his simmering frustration with the school board for its failure to contact him about the job.

Writing On The Wall

So far, the board, which cumulatively barely has as many years of political experience as Mayor Herenton does singly, has stuck to its mantra: We are conducting a national search, and it must continue to its conclusion. Less obvious to them is that they probably have now reached its conclusion.

Proving his political mettle, Mayor Herenton’s endorsement for superintendent by key Memphis business leaders Henry Turley and Gary Shorb only hints at the broad support that the mayor is generating from the business community. While some are solidly in the Herenton column because they believe he is more qualified for the job than the two current finalists, others seem motivated by the opinion that no one can screw up Memphis City Schools more than it is now. As a result, their reasoning goes like this: What damage can he really do, and at any rate, it opens up City Hall to new leadership (or at least new leadership from county government as Mayor AC Wharton becomes the prohibitive favorite to take the next city mayor’s oath of office)?

Regardless of the reason, the support of the business elite (which we predicted several months ago) also sends a powerful message to the two finalists for the superintendent’s job that they should bow out before things here really get ugly. After all, absent strong support from City Hall and the private sector, any one who would take the job would seem to be interested in resume-building because they can’t intend to stay long without support that is so instrumental to success.

Instant Impact

Supporters of the mayor for the superintendent’s job claim that he would have be an instant impact player, because there would be no learning curve and because he would command attention and support that the district has not been able to garner in years. There is the prevailing belief by friend and foe alike that he could put his clout behind the district in a way that could translate into higher community confidence and greater private financial support.

One thing for sure is that the district’s budget hearings in local government would sure change, and Memphis City Schools’ appearance yesterday before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is a case in point. The current school administration essentially threw its staff under the bus, allowing county commissioners to get away with their political body blows to staffers who could never penetrate their preconceived opinions with the facts.

It is impossible to imagine a scenario in which Superintendent Herenton would have allowed his staff to endure such a beating or sat quietly through it. That alone defines what he would bring to the district’s highest job, according to his advocates.

Needs

A footnote to the county budget committee meeting is the way that a mythology is building up around a consultant’s report for the Needs Assessment Committee who opined that no new schools ever need to be built in Memphis and Shelby County. It’s hard to take an objective view at the population shifts within Memphis and the deplorable conditions of so many city schools and comprehend how such a conclusion could be stated so flatly.

Perhaps, on paper, our community has enough physical structures, but the truth is that many of them are located in the wrong places, and dozens of the city schools are more than 50 years old (about 10 are more than a century old). In other words, students are being educated in the age of the Internet in buildings that were constructed before the invention of the radio.

If there was no need for new schools, it would of course be welcome news to Shelby County’s budgets, and that’s why it sometimes seems that wishful thinking has set in as county officials hope desperately that the consultant is right. That said, it’s not lost on city school officials that as long as the demand for new schools emanated from the white-majority county district, there seemed to be few questions in previous years, but now that the black-majority city district needs funds for better facilities, a hardening resistance surfaces.

A Deal’s A Deal

Because some county commissioners on the education committee went into a closed attorney-client meeting, the public is left to speculate on what decisions were being discussed that involved their tax dollars (not to mention the fact that closing the discussion seemed a stretch under current state law). On the surface, it seems fairly clear that an existing agreement obligates county government to satisfy the last year of its three year, $180 million capital funding agreement with the city and county districts.

County commissioners are right to be frustrated about the districts’ lack of sensitivity to their budgetary woes in the past, but it’s hard to see why they would think that the districts would waive a legally binding contractual agreement that they have with county government.

Whether you are for or against Mayor Herenton as superintendent, it’s provocative to imagine how he would have responded to the combative questioning and withering criticisms from Commissioners Mike Ritz and Wyatt Bunker. Selling tickets to that tug-of-war could be the “alternative revenue source” that’s the only sure-fire way to raise enough money to balance the county’s budget.

Continuing The Conversation: Making Memphis Competitive

We began a conversation yesterday to come up with a list of priorities that we need if Memphis is to compete in the knowledge economy. We hope you will join in.

Here's what fieldguidetomemphis would add to our list:

Investment in Universities: This is a no-brainer. The budget cuts that will affect higher education are truly unfortunate. We should always prioritize investing in education. Moreover, we have tremendous research engines and very smart and capable local talent already living and working here at the universities, and their knowledge and expertise should be sought out for local business growth, feasibility and projections studies. Why we continually outsource when we have the local resources makes no sense.

Redevelopment in the Urban Core: Let's start with Overton Square. I would love to see that big ugly parking lot which is running off businesses turned into a park, with landscaping and grass and a place for people and pets to socialize. I've mentioned this to others who comment that it will attract homeless people. Pshaw. So we shouldn't have public spaces because public people might show up? This makes no sense. Homelessness and public parks are related but separate issues.

Transportation: We must have some MATA schedules and routes that make sense (i.e. not routing people so that they have to spend the night on Lamar).

Understanding our Competitive Context AND Building a 21st Century Workforce AND Eco-Assets: Look soon for a comprehensive FieldGuide plan to the Green Economy in Memphis and Shelby County. It builds on our regional assets and is a viable strategy for getting people to work in jobs that are good for people, communities and the environment. Many of the available jobs in our area can't be filled with the existing workforce because many people - 100,000 or so - have less than or only a high school diploma and the well-paying jobs require more than that. Yet jobs for people with low levels of education need not be exploitative of workers or the environment.

The best thing to add to your already very smart list is investing in a comprehensive Green Collar Jobs and Green Economy strategy. Green Collar Jobs are blue collar jobs in green industries - ones that pay a living wage, have benefits, a career ladder, make use of existing resources and assets, and promote smart growth and good stewardship of the environment.

Unfortunately we have some "framing" work to do on this issue because when people hear the word Green, they think polar bears and global warming - or cursory changes like changing light bulbs or shutting off the tap while brushing your teeth. This is certainly part of the Green picture, but not what is intended for in our local economic strategy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Building An Agenda For Economic Growth

Rather than selling themselves at a discount -- cheap land and cheap labor – cities that are succeeding are investing in better workers, high-quality universities, quality of life and efficient public services.

So, what would should we start doing right now to get ahead?

• Investments in Universities. Universities are seedbeds for the Knowledge Economy. Cities with research universities have a head start in this economy, because they create the innovation and the intellectual capital needed today.

• Redevelopment in the Urban Core. Memphis has significant underdeveloped and vacant land. The infrastructure in these older areas has been paid for and their reuse makes the wisest investment of scarce public funds.

• Balanced Transportation Policy. Memphis should lobby federal and state government to revamp its allocation regulations for urban areas. Too often, federal funding has continued traditional patterns of spending on new roads in suburban areas while neglecting the importance of investing in urban redevelopment and mass transit. Local government should encourage maximum flexibility for the use of these federal funds.

• Technology Clusters. Wise cities develop an area of specialization within the technology field based upon university research, biomedical assets, etc. Clusters provide a competitive edge and a critical mass that are important to economic growth. That’s why when we want to see the future, we need to look toward the Bioworks Foundation.

• Local Innovation. The best answers to the future begin on our own Main Street today. Solutions from another city transplanted or replicated are less successful because they are artificial. Our best answers are our own, answers produced organically from a reservoir of innovation and creativity that is embedded throughout Memphis.

• Understanding Our Competitive Context. Memphis starts by understanding its competitive context, including market and demographic trends in the region and its strengths and liabilities. Most of all, we need to use new measures that matter in the knowledge economy rather than on the indicators from traditional economic development. Memphis can find its distinctive niche to leap frog ahead of other cities, but it must be based on solid research that sparks more imaginative strategies.

• Fixing the Basics. Local government needs to concentrate on fixing the basics, such as safety, taxes, services, land, infrastructure and schools. Governments must look for ways to streamline its structure and improve public services. A foundation of efficient, effective public services is what successful economic growth is built on.

• Acting (As Well As Talking) Regionally. Memphis talks a good game of regionalism, but we’ve never truly engrained regional thinking into our plans and actions. Too often, we lapse into a “we versus them” mentality and a “if you’re winning, we must be losing” attitude when it comes to our neighboring counties. Economic activity and innovation occur in a regional context, and we ignore this at our peril. It is increasingly clear that Memphis and its suburbs are inextricably linked into a single economic unit.

• Vibrant Culture and Entertainment Centers. To compete, Memphis must be an attractive, dynamic place. Vibrant arts and culture are powerful ways of creating the appealing, enjoyable quality of life needed to attract and retain the best and brightest young workers. Too often, we treat our culture as tourist amenities, but in truth, its value is much broader since quality of life is a chief determinant in workforce growth.

• Thinking and Acting Collaboratively. This requires a shift in leadership styles from traditional authoritarian models to a new environment of inclusion, mutual influence and community building. Opening the door wider to all segments of the community and inviting new voices to engage in decision-making is the mark of a mature and competitive city.

• A 21st Century Workforce. For Memphis to win in the race for economic prosperity, it needs smart and skilled workers producing goods and services characterized by innovation, knowledge and quality. If we are content to compete in the global economy by offering cheap wages, cheap land and cheap taxes, we are fighting for the bottom rungs of the economy. What’s needed is a team of public and private sector partners dedicated to building the skills needed for quality knowledge-based jobs, providing lifelong learning opportunities, improving the competitiveness of all workers and employers, connecting workforce development to economic needs and building a stronger education pipeline to produce skilled workers in the global economy.

• Competition on a Global Scale. To succeed, Memphis needs to develop cooperative networks and more sophisticated strategies for the global marketplace. Too often, international business is treated as an extension of traditional domestic economic development, and as a result, they often fail. Memphis needs a strategic plan of action tailored for the new world marketplace, and this includes helping business clusters gain access to global markets, finding opportunities for trade, investment and international partnerships and lobbying for federal policies that protect workers at high-risk for dislocation.

• Developing a Powerful Brand. Cities are no different from business. They need an authentic brand that tells the world who they are and what they stand for. Memphis needs a powerful brand, and it is not a slogan or a bumper sticker. A “real” city brand tells the rest of the country what we singularly stand for.

• High-Quality Eco-Assets. Green assets are a key factor for Memphis to compete successfully for the workers of the Knowledge Economy. Preserved and protected open spaces, safe and attractive public spaces, better quality public sphere, greenbelts, clean air and water and outdoor recreation are not just wonderful public assets. More precisely, they are competitive advantages.

• A Reputation for Tolerance. Today, new workers are recruited just as often from India as Indiana. Memphis is competing as much with the country of Georgia as the state of Georgia. In order to compete, Memphis must have a well-founded reputation for tolerance and respect for various cultures, races and religions. Cities known for their low levels of tolerance will also become known for their low levels of economic growth.

That's the start of our list. What do you think we should add?

Free Workshop To Train Film Crew Members

My nephew was in town from Hollywood for Memorial Day.

He’s working in the movie business -- recent credits include Indiana Jones movie and G.I. Joe – on the financial side of the house. It just proves that there are other avenues into the industry that don’t begin with a casting call.

My nephew made his first movie contacts through the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission, and his first jobs were in Memphis and led to work in New Orleans, Austin and Hollywood.

Now, you can get your chance by attending a special, free June 7-8 workshop, “Breaking Into Film and Getting Your First Job.” Led by producer James Spies and sponsored by the Film Commission, the special crew training covers all aspects of the movie business.

Applications can be downloaded from the Commission’s website at www.memphisfilmcomm.org and faxed to the Commission at 527-8326 along with proof of residency and a letter of reference from a professor, teacher or work supervisor.

Deadline for your applications is June 2. If you have questions, please call 527-8300, Extension 3.

This is the first free workshop of its kind sponsored by Memphis and Shelby County Governments and offers proof of a stepped-up emphasis by local government on the movie industry in our community. In offering the workshop, Memphis joins progressive film states in offering workforce incentives that can lead to film jobs.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's Not Just Schools

While we're spotlighting some special comments by our readers, we don't want to overlook the following which was posted by our fellow blogger fieldguidetomemphis in response to our post about the search for a superintendent of Memphis City Schools:

The future superintendent will have his/her hands full in dealing with the myriad interconnected problems facing children in Memphis who attend public schools. And it is so incredibly important that s/he understand that all of the problems hold hands - schools are microcosms of the community.

There seem to be three interrelated key issues that keep surfacing: test scores, dropout rates and the effects of poverty. Kids in poverty tend to have lower test scores and be at risk for dropping out, and they cost more to educate.

We might consider the idea that test scores in Memphis are actually higher because 1 in 3 students does not graduate from high school. If we were to retain these students who are likely behind their peers in reading, math and science, the test scores that - while on par with the state - are somewhat discouraging might be even more so if the dropouts contributed to the achievement tests.

This is a tremendous quandary. What do we do? If we kept more kids in school, our test scores could drop, jeopardizing AYP and succeeding under NCLB. But what is the alternative? Are we supposed to let kids drop out in droves to be scooped up by the prison system? To be scooped up by social services? To end up with dead-end low-paying jobs with no career ladders? Are we supposed to lower the bar so it's easier to pass the tests, to make the grade and to graduate?

Or do we hold on to higher standards and make everyone accountable and make the processes of determining achievement more transparent and less labyrinth-like? (This gets my vote.)

We all have to acknowledge that every child is worth saving. Every child is worth our investment. The future of children in economically and racially segregated schools is intimately tied to the future of our community. This "underclass" so named by William Julius Wilson does not have to exist in perpetuity. It is possible to envision and create another future where kids thrive, and where opportunities are not a zero-sum game. Some don't have to win, succeed and thrive at the expense of many.

We must have a comprehensive educational plan that starts in the prekindergarten classrooms and extends through early adulthood so we can recapture the dropouts and give them the skills and training (through GED or vocational or on-the-job) to create a successful life that breaks the cycle of poverty.

This is the key: a comprehensive strategy that begins in early childhood and extends to early adulthood, acknowledging the interrelatedness of all the issues facing students and schools.

"Every Day, Every Child, College Bound" is a fantastic slogan that should and can be true, but it's presently unrealistic given the massive middle-class opt out from public schools in our community and the public/private chasm that continues to widen. Susan Mayer's work ("How Economic Segregation Affects Children's Educational Attainment," Social Forces; September 2002) should be mandatory reading for our new superintendent.

Response To Sidney Shlenker Post

Sidney Shlenker's daughter posted this comment to a blog post of ours from last summer, and we wanted to highlight it here:

First, I would just like to thank all of you for your truly brilliant analysis of my fathers hard work; he would have been riveted. Secondly, to the columnist, I am deeply touched by the title alone and the honest defense for my father. I plan on following in his footsteps and hopefully I am able to finish all of the projects he poured his heart and soul into. I will bring the "Man of the Year" kind of respect back to the Shlenker legacy in Memphis and to hear your opinions have been very helpful.

If anyone would like to email me for further discussion you my do so.

alanashlenker@gmail.com

Changing Reality Starts With Race

Aaron always offers special insight into the issues of Memphis, and it's particularly instructive since he's one of those highly coveted young professionals who has moved to our city. We thought his comments to our post yesterday deserved to be highlighted here:

It takes time to reverse the momentum that has dragged Memphis in the wrong direction for years. That negative momentum has been fueled and driven by oppression of one culture by another. Although it's not nearly as measurable or tangible as in years past, its aftershocks will be felt for years.

There are two cultures here that don't mix very well.

One culture needs to seek forgiveness and provide tangible evidence of providing a way out for the culture it oppressed. This same culture says to the other, “Move beyond your past and seize the opportunities.” Sure, just tell the lion at the zoo to not let that barrier keep him from realizing his true capacity to roam. There are a lot of socio-economic barriers that have been raised as a result of the residual cultural infrastructure that exists here. You don’t see it if you visit Memphis, but you do if you move here.

It's this rift between two cultures that is absolutely revolting to the outsiders coming to Memphis. And nowhere is it more obvious then when an outsider family goes to a public school and is suddenly transported back to the segregated pre-Civil Rights era.

You can talk about all the great ways that people claim race relations have improved, but the public school system is the reality check. It tells the whole story to a family coming to move to Memphis. There is the change that people desire and preach and then there is their action to back it up. Let’s face it- it’s completely socially acceptable within the churched culture here to segregate your kids. How’s that for a selling point for our city?

THIS IS NOT NORMAL!

Memphis is plagued by hypocrisy - a putrid stench to the prospective working professional and to the Memphian that has smelled it their whole life and is aching to get out of it. This hypocrisy is the running joke with one of my Australian colleagues.

A culture that preaches forgiveness and tolerance and yet continues to promote segregation by placing its children into private schools. How do our children learn racial tolerance and harmony if they don't grow up together? Most of the parents that I have met who do place their kids in Memphis City Schools are non-religious folks. What does that say about what people believe? Does God only live in private schools? Why is it that the “non-Christians” are more Christian in their convictions (or at least actions) than the “true Christians.”

Yes we need more high tech jobs, low tech jobs and such. But for people to sink their roots down and commit to a community we need racial harmony and congruity. The church here needs to live out the principles and actions and align their beliefs with their actions.

On the brighter side, times are changing.

As more outsiders move in, the melting pot is starting to stir again especially in the Midtown areas but it's slow and even slower within the native culture. But it’s happening and I have met Memphians that are equally disturbed with this incongruity. But wait! MCS are terrible and not safe. Right? Not true. That's a smokescreen or code word for the MCS being mostly populated by blacks. There are some great MCS schools out there!!

As you see racial reconciliation continue to unfold, this city will become a beautiful vibrant place - inside and out. It already is a beautiful little city but it's the culture, the tension and the manifestations of this rift that start to wear on those of us who are new to Memphis.

Let’s start with a Forgiveness Garden perhaps on the grounds of Auction and Main.
This is the area visible from the trolley route where slaves were traded and the property has been for sale for along time. H-m-m. Why not get churches to donate money to jointly buy, run and maintain the site? Why not host inter-racial worship services on Mud Island on Sunday nights?

People will stay and not leave as the day-to-day gritty realities around us begin to fade. And they will fade as harmony is restored between the cultures belief system and it’s actions.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Simple Answers Only Complicate Economic Success

Memphis manages somehow to hold two countervailing attitudes.

On one hand, a lack of self-worth leads to a tendency to accept any big idea that rides into town claiming to be the magic answer to turning things around. On the other hand, there’s the widespread notion that our seriously deficient economic indicators are largely caused by image problems.

Both seem to stem from the same place – a civic propensity to grasp at simplistic answers to complex questions.

The Best Policy

Let’s all be brutally honest. Memphis has a reality problem. Not a marketing problem. Not a branding problem. Not a self-image problem.

Yes, we all know about Memphis’ pervasive negative self-image, and we all agree that we need to be more positive and more upbeat about this endlessly fascinating, funky place. But as we do too often, we use our self-image problems as an excuse to stall action and to tackle the toughest problems before us. Other favorite time wasters here are suggestions that we can’t do anything to change things because we have two local governments, we are too poor, we are spread over three states.

Here’s the thing. Most cities have self-image problems, but what makes the successful ones different is that they don’t get bogged down in justifications for non-action. Instead, they are honest about the facts facing their cities, and they are willing to do the hard work of place-making and city-building.

Change Happens

Remember when Chicago was called “Beirut on the Lake,” and today, it’s been praised as one of the world’s great cities by countless publications.

Portland had no reason to become one of the country’s premier cities. In the Sixties, it was called a dump. It had little going for it. It didn’t have any natural assets. It didn’t have any Fortune 500 companies. It didn’t have a great university. Today, it’s on every one’s list of most successful cities.

And, don’t even get us started on Nashville.

In other words, the future does not have to be merely an extension of the present. There are ways that cities have developed strategies that allowed them to leap frog over the competition and move from a regional city to a national and international city.

Turning Around

They all had image problems, and it was in transforming their realities that they transformed their self-image. No, we’re not saying that we shouldn’t be paying attention to creating a more positive vibe about Memphis – and that it necessarily will have to begin inside Memphis.

However, in countless meetings in Memphis, when it comes time to get to the hard, gritty work of turning around our city, people instead talk about how we just need to turn around our image. Even The Commercial Appeal recently opined on how poorly Memphis is doing in attracting foreign-born people and ended up suggesting that we need to improve our image. “It seems a big part of the equation boils down to image,” it said. “Many of us who live in the Memphis metro area share the responsibility for that…We also need advocates who are willing to step into the spotlight and tell the rest of the world how good Memphis is – and how great it can become.”

Nothing But The Truth

The truth is that tomorrow, we can become the masters of happy talk, the nation’s biggest civic braggarts or the world’s most positive thinkers, but that would do nothing to change the fact that our population growth is essentially the number of births over deaths, our lagging educational attainment is a drag on economic growth that is deadly, our failure to attract young professional talent is crippling and the people who have driven economic growth in cities for the past decade – foreign-born immigrants – are scarce here.

More to the point, we are on average in the bottom of the 50 largest U.S. metros in all these categories, and we really need to be doing better in all of these areas if we are to have a chance to drive economic success in today’s knowledge-based economy.

First and foremost is doing something about young and foreign-born talent. They are largely moving to cities where they find more people like themselves. We are in the bottom five of the largest 50 metros in foreign-born residents. We are in the bottom six in the percentage of 18-24 year-olds in college. We are in the bottom two in the percentage of people who have traveled outside the U.S. We are in the bottom two in innovation capacity. We are in the bottom eight in high-tech jobs. We are in the bottom four in degrees granted in science and engineering. We are in the bottom two in venture capital as a share of the gross metropolitan product.

Bottoming Out

All in all, it paints the portrait of an insular metro at a time when young workers are looking for welcoming cities known for their vibrancy, their tolerance, their knowledge-based jobs and a thick labor market for skilled jobs. Most of all, it paints the portrait of a metro that has never had more compelling reasons to act boldly if it is to get out of the bottom rungs of successful cities.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a new bizjournals study said it well: “Youthful spirit and economic vitality go hand in hand. Communities with large concentrations of young adults are more likely to prosper.”

The five top places for job opportunities for young adults were Raleigh, Austin, Washington, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, followed by Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Seattle, Orlando and Houston. At the bottom of the list of 67 cities, the report said the least desirable places for young adults are Memphis, Grand Rapids, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans.

Danger Ahead

It’s just the latest warning shot for our city, but while we at least have put talent attraction on our economic growth agenda, we still have not put together the comprehensive strategy and the concentrated civic muscle to put it at the top of an agenda anchored in innovation, research, entrepreneurship and a culture of creativity.

In this regard, the ultimate challenge is to do more than to identify a batch of big projects but to develop strategies that imbed creativity and vibrancy into the culture itself rather than treating them like something that results from multi-million dollar buildings and projects.

Innovation is largely about change and culture. Already, we’ve seen that the old adage that trends start on the coasts is being upended by a new digital world where they can begin anywhere. Most important is the fact that these days, we know what works – strong regional assets and knowledge-based networks that include research universities, cultures that encourage risk-taking, incubators, civic appreciation of diversity and informal connections between people engaged in creativity on the edges of our economy.

Counterintuitive

Sadly, state government is now hacking away again at the budgets of our universities, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. Colleges and universities are keys to competitiveness in today’s economy, and it’s no coincidence that dynamic economic growth is occurring in cities where fine research universities are located.

It’s also no coincidence that while some states have acted on this fact, making major investments in the future of their workers and their own communities, Tennessee has failed to follow suit and the economic indicators offer proof of the short-sightedness of this decision. While this is troubling for all of Tennessee, it has special negative impact in our city where the state is a co-conspirator to our economic failures.

It’s a long, hard journey to a more successful future, but it begins with all of us telling the truth about the cold, hard facts about the challenges in front of us. That’s something we can all be positive about.

Friday, May 23, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Eyes Open and Diversity

Seeing the world through new eyes can uncover a whole new set of possibilities. In his new books on London and New York, Fred Dust attempts to teach his readers how to look at the world with “eyes open” by showing them the intimacies of those cities that can easy to miss. Fred is partner and practice lead for IDEO, a global design and innovation firm.

Greg Zachary is a journalist who has covered the world for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is certain that there is advantage in diversity and that, among the supersized nations, the U.S. will profit from its ability to embrace waves of immigrants.

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

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

News Reports Conjure Up Memories Of Kennedy Encounter

We were standing in an anteroom in the Hart Senate Office Building some years back when Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy walked in.

Instantly, there was a surge of energy in the room, and although the room was filled with Republican senators waiting for the start of a hearing in the adjacent committee room, all eyes turned toward him.

He took a quick scan of the room, ignored his colleagues and walked toward us, sticking out his hand: “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

Foote Loose

We said we were from Memphis and were waiting for one of our state’s senators to join us.

“You’re from Memphis?” he said, without allowing enough hesitation for an answer. “Do you know my old friend, Shelby Foote? He’s spent time with us in the summer.”

Then, shifting easily into an uncanny impersonation of the Memphis author’s distinctive drawl and quirky speaking style, he said: “Can you give me a glass of branch water with two fingers of bourbon?”

Imitative

The impersonation brought down the house (or the Senate, as the case may be), because Foote’s highly personalized speaking style had by then become almost as well-known as his remarkable three-volume of the Civil War, thanks to his starring role in Ken Burn’s PBS series.

After a few pleasantries, he was gone, stepping into the meeting room where he was immediately surrounded by admirers and seekers of favors.

We’d never seen him before, and we’ve never seen him since, but we can still hear that Shelby Foote imitation as clearly as the day he delivered it.

God’s Will (Not)

We’ve thought of it often this week as we heard that Senator Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Despite uplifting, optimistic statements from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, his prognosis is grim. And he no doubt knows it.

As television news crews fought to fill the airtime, they almost seemed willing to put on any talking head who was available. One of them, in an attempt to explain the inexplicable, referred to it as “God’s will,” conjuring up memories of pastor cum politician Hubon Sandridge referring to God’s purpose in the aftermath of the horrific murders on Lester Street.

Divine Sadism

Maybe, if nothing else, Senator Kennedy’s disease could inspire a moratorium on the obscene use of God’s name to justify all manner of tragedies. In this vein, there’s no better time to be reminded of the eulogy by Rev. William Sloane Coffin upon the death of his son, Alex:

“Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths, and Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.

“Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths. I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist, yes, even an Eternal Vivisector.

“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over his sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

There’s little question that it broke again this week.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Snapshot Of Memphians Given In Yearly Poll

The 15th incarnation of the Memphis Poll came out a few days ago, and although it always seems to have something for everyone, it just left us worried.

The percentage of the public satisfied with Memphis’ quality of life has dropped to 66%. That’s down 12% since 2005.

The percentage of citizens satisfied with city services is down to 74%. It was 82% in 2003.

Deflation

It’s hard to read the results of the yearly polling begun in 1993 by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and not feel largely deflated about the state of the public's opinion about city services. After all, the Memphis Poll is our public sector equivalent of the consumer price index, and it showed that the market is clearly soft.

For critics of the Herenton Administration, the poll is a clear indictment of failed leadership. To supporters, there are enough glimmers of hope to argue – perhaps meekly – that things are getting better.

Although the tone of the report sometimes feels like it’s working hard to say something positive, the poll did show some improvements, notably in the perception of crime and some physical conditions in their neighborhoods.

Positives

Concern about violent crime dropped from 37 to 30% in a year, concern about gangs fell from 39 to 29 %, and the perception that crime is increasing in their neighborhoods dropped from 44 to 40% (although it’s worth remembering that is was only 19% five years ago).

Downtown and midtown had the most positive perceptions of their neighborhoods at 96% and 92% respectively. Northeast Memphis and Southcentral Memphis were most positive about service quality – 82% and 80% respectively. The Southside reported the most positive perception of Memphis’ quality of life – 81%.

The top three service priorities of Memphians are no surprise – police protection (86%), fire protection (79%) and public schools (75%); however, the rest of the list is illuminating. Coming in fourth is disasters/disease planning (72%) and the fifth is solid waste collection (68%).

The Rest

Rounding out the top 10 were communicate with citizen, public libraries, clean public areas, repair streets and environmental quality. These were bunched between 65-68%.

Bringing up the bottom were revitalize neighborhoods (60%), parks and recreation (58%), job training (58%), public learning groups (51%), PILOTs (41%) and build roads (33%). In the last two places with little support were riverfront development (19%) and Liberty Bowl/Pyramid (15%).

Two positive trends are converging in the police department. Along with the reduction in concern about crime is an accompanying increase in citizens’ positive perceptions about police officers’ respectfulness and prevention. Blue Crush in particular is getting good reviews with 72% of the public aware of it and 74% thinking that it’s reduced crime.

Mixed Bag

Positive perceptions of the fire department continue and remain a fixture in the annual polls. Meanwhile, the parks division got high marks with high-profile offerings like Pink Palace, Botanic Garden and the Zoo, all with 96-97%. Large parks came in at 87%, community centers at 76 %, tennis courts at 75% and neighborhood parks got 73%, continuing a troubling slide in the approval rates for the parks nearest to most Memphians.

In 2001, the positive perception of neighborhood parks peaked at 86% and has slightly rebounded from 69% in 2004. Large parks have been more steady than neighborhood parks, making the point that Memphians are not unaware of the lack of maintenance and investment in their local parks. At the bottom of the list were swimming pools with only 41% positive, down from 70% in 2002.

The yearly rankings for riverfront development have been volatile and this poll was no different – 61% said the Riverfront Development Corporation was doing a good job of delivering services, down 10 points from only a year earlier. Only 19% of the public supports the riverfront improvements, and the ranking of Mud Island Park dropped 10 points to 61%. The RDC’s roller coaster ride declined from 71% to 53% in its early years, but climbing back to 71% in 2007 before it fell again this year.

Neighborhoods

On balance, Memphians are optimistic about their neighborhoods, but that’s especially true in downtown and midtown. Northwest Memphis and Frayser were the least optimistic. In particular, neighborhoods are concerned about the responsiveness from city government about problems like vacant lots.

Ratings have declined precipitously to this year when it recorded the lowest ratings ever. For example, when the poll began, only 14% were concerned about litter on neighborhood streets, but that concern has now climbed 44%, closely paralleling cutbacks in these services.

Health Department ratings remained relatively stable. MLG&W receives some of the highest praise in the poll for providing quality drinking water and the courtesy of its field workers; however, citizens give it an exceptionally low ranking for the cost of utilities.

Topping Out


When asked how well city government is doing in communicating with them, 59% said it was being done well, down from 70% in 2004.

One of the most intriguing features of the annual poll is the ranking of services in order of citizens’ approval. Heading up the list with 99 % approval are the respectful attitude of the fire department and the operations of the main library. Branch libraries are at 91% and still make the upper echelon of the ranking.

In fact, in the eyes of the public, here’s the ranking of the best divisions – fire (97%); libraries (94%), public works (80%); parks (78%); executive division (77%); police (77%); MLGW (74%); Health (73%); Housing and Community Development (64%) and Community Enhancement (62%).

Book It

“The public libraries have been consistently rated among the very highest services provided by the City of Memphis,” the report said. “These ratings place the public libraries among the elite of city services.”

Looking at these rankings, we remain absolutely incredulous that Mayor Herenton reached the opinion that he needed to change things at the libraries because of his concerns about declining services.

If only all his divisions were as problematic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dancing To The Right Notes At School

Interim Superintendent Dan Ward was right.

It was just hard to hear him over the “don’t confuse me with the facts” approach of Bill O’Reilly. Mr. Ward said on Mr. O’Reilly’s cable network program that the Mitchell High School students who were caught on tape simulating rape as part of a dance should not become the faces of the 113,000 students of Memphis City Schools.

We thought of that Friday night as we watched 20 young people dance at the “open house performance” at Dance Works in the Southwest Tennessee Community College Theater.

Art Works

They danced to the music of Bartok played by the strings of the Germantown Symphony Orchestra; to Mingus played by long-time Memphis talents, keyboardist Tony Thomas and alto saxophonist Gary Topper and to an original jazz composition by Jeremy Shrader played by the composer on trumpet and Gerald Stephens on piano.

It was a 90-minute reminder about the profound impact that arts can have on students, but more precisely, it was a reminder that students are searching for – and responding to - positive and creative ways to express themselves. Friday night, they found expression in pirouettes and tendus.

It was light years from the message conveyed by the Mitchell High School video, and although the Dance Works performance was taped, it’ll never make the evening news. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be, because the performance offered timely reminders about students on so many levels.

Credit Where Credit’s Due

It also was a lesson that should be reinforced by Memphis City Schools, which, unlike many similar districts, does not give these students class credits for the hours of practice, discipline and commitment that precedes a recital like this one. That is equally true for the young ballerina who will spend her summer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and School in New York, but can’t get high school credits for her success.

It’s an egregious oversight by our city schools. If students can be earning credits during a day that includes a “rape dance” and can be earning credits for bowling, we can only hope that someone at the district will investigate ways in which students like these – and others engaged in artistic pursuits all over Memphis – can be rewarded for their extra effort.

For us, what we watched Friday night wasn’t so much students who had learned to dance as students who had a positive vision for their lives and had taken the steps – sometimes difficult and courageous - to make it happen. If public education can’t find a way to recognize them and encourage them, it is myopic and rule-bound to a degree that it suggests that its culture is incapable of change.

Positive Reinforcement

We know that most of the members of the board of commissioners are strongly supportive of these kinds of after-school artistic programs. We also know that most of them are unaware that other districts give credit to students engaged in similar programs. In the wake of the Mitchell High School controversy, it’s hard to imagine a better time for them to send a message about who better represents Memphis City Schools.

Our friend, George Lord, recently reminded us recently about how important the arts are, and why actions that deemphasize them are short-sighted if we are truly interested and committed to the development of fully-formed young people.

He pointed out that young people who regularly participate in comprehensive, sequential and rigorous arts programs are four times more likely to be recognized for academic performance, three times more likely to be elected to class office, four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair, three times more like to win an award for school attendance and four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem.

Life Lessons

The arts provide children with different ways to process information and express their knowledge, the ability to think creatively in areas like math and science and the ability to be independent and collaborative.

The arts also teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships, to celebrate multiple perspectives showing students that there are many ways to see and interpret the world, make it clear that the limits of our language do not define the limits of cognition and help children learn to say what cannot be said.

Yes, it’s true that we only saw about 20 students at Dance Works. But it is equally true that we can change the future of this city 20 students at a time.

Real Heroes

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote:

“Like so many unsung people in our city, she worked with the simple nobility that seems to characterize the real heroes of Memphis – the people without titles and without celebrity – who, without regard for recognition or for headlines, day in and day out simply try to make this a better place.”

We were reminded of that kind of simple nobility at Dance Works as well.

For 21 years – 16 of them at Southwest Tennessee Community College – it has been working in the trenches of arts education to provide an accredited ballet program that has a Canadian cultural exchange program. Supported by grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and ArtsMemphis, it is directed by Karen J. Zissoff who is assisted by Sondra Brooks Whitfield, who also qualify to be called heroes.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Superintendent Search Defies Predictable Script

And then there were three.

Would the last person standing please run Memphis City Schools for us?

If superintendent-wannabe Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton had written a script to move him toward the helm of the district, he couldn’t have done it any better.

All of a sudden, it seems a real possibility.

The Factors

First, there’s the oft-stated opinion that the next superintendent should be an African-American man. There’s only one candidate left who fits that profile – Kriner Cash, chief of accountability and systemwide performance for Miami-Dade Public Schools. The other African-American man in the final five was Buffalo Superintendent James Williams who bowed out after his baggage there became too much for a trip to Memphis for an interview.

Second, the Florida candidate is said to be most interested in the vacant Cincinnati superintendent’s job, but the finalists for the June interviews for that position haven’t been announced yet. The conventional wisdom is that if given a shot at the Ohio job in his hometown, Mr. Cash is likely to bow out of the Memphis hunt.

Third, that would leave only one African-American man with a stated interest in the Memphis City Schools job and the educational credentials that could finally put him at the front ranks of people to run the schools – Mayor Herenton. And, is there any city in the U.S. with a track record for conducting “national searches” and then picking an insider from Memphis?

The Favorite

While he has repeatedly said that he’s not interested in the job, Mayor Herenton’s closest advisers continue to say that if given the chance, he would snap up the chance to have the superintendent’s job book end his terms as mayor. In fact, he reportedly continues to fine tune his strategies for turning around the district.

At this point, however, Mr. Cash seems to be the prohibitive favorite for the Memphis superintendency. Most board members were impressed by his answers to their questions, albeit mostly softball ones, during his recent interview – equal parts assertive, philosophical, inspirational and confident. Of course, the fact that he’s been an understudy to school reformer and 2008 National Superintendent of the Year Rudy Crew also gets him major points (although we wonder what would happen if a Calipari-style proposal was put to Mr. Crew himself).

Mr. Crew – well-connected in political and educational circles across the U.S. and who lost his job as head of New York City Schools for the best of all reasons, opposing private school vouchers – speaks glowingly of Mr. Cash, who has worked for him for three years at the nation’s fourth largest school district.

Casting A Shadow

We predict that the board, in response to concerns about Mayor Herenton’s shadow casting a large shadow over their process, will step up the process as much as possible to find a superintendent as quickly as possible. This may effectively force a decision from Mr. Cash who may be unable to wait until the smoke clears in Cincinnati to weigh his options.

Already, Memphis City Schools’ chief of staff is collecting money to buy Interim Superintendent Dan Ward his good-bye gift, and although she suggested that his last day may be at the end of May, Mr. Ward appears to have a mid-June date in mind. At any rate, all of this puts even more urgency behind a process that was already moving at a quickened pace.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati superintendent search has the potential for delays as a result of its board’s wise decision to create a 20-member search committee that includes grassroots leaders and organizational representatives. Already, some members are saying that the mid-June deadline for identifying finalists is too ambitious.

Detouring

It seems highly possible that both candidates who have withdrawn – Mr. Williams and Montgomery County (Virginia) Superintendent Tiffany Anderson – were well-aware of Mayor Herenton’s specter over the process, and if they are media savvy at all, they knew of his television interviews about the kind of superintendent needed here as the interviews began.

Mr. Cash seemed especially savvy about such things as a result of his experience in the political cauldron that is the Miami school district. We’ll know just how smart he is if, by the time he returns for his follow-up interview, he has talked directly with Mayor Herenton, because it is well within the realm of possibilities that the mayor would be impressed and endorse him.

As the process takes a detour caused by the candidates’ withdrawals and that creates a sense of discomfort among some board members, it’s worth saluting them for launching a national search in the first place and for sticking with it. In the beginning, there was widespread suspicion that the fix was in and that a majority was determined to drive the process to select their favorite son candidate, academic director Alfred Hall.

Educational Balkans

Apparently, there will be several weeks between the departure of Mr. Ward and the arrival of the new superintendent, and if there are any hopes still harbored for Mr. Hall, they may surface in the appointment of Mr. Hall as the interim interim superintendent.

As the board determines what it wants from the next superintendent, the board will also have the opportunity to determine what it wants from itself. Perhaps, the board – as city and county governments are in the process of doing – will consider much-needed changes that can improve decisions of Memphis City Schools.

Chief among them should be a shift from district-based elections that create a balkanized board preoccupied by patronage issues. While we believe that a mayor-appointed board would be preferable to the present structure, citywide elections would be preferable to the current arrangement.

Getting The Focus Right

Other reforms are equally needed, because as Richard Elmore, education professor at Harvard University, has said, “it would be difficult to invent a more dysfunctional organization for a performance-based accountability system” than today’s public education system.

To that point, elections of members by district distract the board from the overall vision for the district as they address and respond to school loyalties and constituent services from a small part of the city, fragmenting the focus of the board, dividing its effectiveness for overall district policy-setting and injecting them into issues from teacher assignment to principal appointment to school facilities that rest more appropriately with the school administration.

In other words, elections by these districts create political connections that run into the district bureaucracy and often cloud the clear decision-making of the board itself. This is not an indictment of the current board or administration, because it is has existed for years as the nature of the structure itself.

The Right Focus

Of course, there are other board responsibilities even more important – such as a laser-like focus on performance-based, data-driven accountability measured by graduation rates, increased enrollment in college, ability to obtain and keep good jobs and not just merely by test scores.

Most of all, it is the board’s responsibility above all others to make sure that jobs are held by people based on what they know, not who they know. In this regard, in pursuit of greater transparency, the board should insist that the nepotism forms required by district policy are actually being filed.

No one should need reminders that this is a history-altering moment for Memphis City Schools, and by extension, for Memphis. But history doesn’t just happen. It requires leaders who step forward to set in motion new thinking that can define a new destiny. Every decision made in Memphis City Schools – particularly selection of a superintendent – should be made on this basis.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Transportation, Capital Punishment and Chattanooga

Why is it that we typically separate planning for highways, transit, and trains in the U.S.? Worse, why do we plan for transportation and land use as if they don’t relate to one another? Those are subjects we’ll explore this week with Shelley Porticia, president and CEO of Reconnecting America. She’s working to integrate transportation systems and the communities they serve.

We’ll also talk with Dr. Scott Phillips about some disturbing disparities he’s found in the way we apply capital punishment to blacks and whites in America.

And Dr. John Schaerer of the Enterprise Center will tell us about a novel system Chattanooga has adopted to keep community organizations working together.

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

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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Trafficking In The Answers For A Better Downtown

It seems the perfect time to revisit two ideas about downtown streets that deserve new life.

One deals with Fourth Street from Union to Beale and the second is Main Street, which is neither main nor a street.

During the design of FedEx Forum, it was suggested by Looney Ricks Kiss – probably our most nationally known architectural firm and well-known for its place-making – that Fourth Street should be realigned from Union Avenue to Beale Street.

Sense Of Arrival


The firm’s charge was to design a downtown arena that was unsurpassed in the U.S., and as part of that work, the firm recommended that the intersection of Fourth Street be moved about 150 feet east of the current intersection at Union. The concept was for Fourth Street to become an attractive boulevard that would move pleasantly at a southwesterly angle toward Beale Street.

The new Fourth would have given not only FedEx Forum a sense of arrival, but it would have done the same for the east end of Beale Street. While the idea may have been driven by esthetics, there was also the thought that the new alignment could give new prominence to the Fourth and Beale intersection, which has been the death knell for so many business ventures.

Conventional wisdom on Beale Street is that the Fourth Street end of the street is just seen as being too far removed from the activity on the street, and the floundering businesses on that end of the street give weight to that opinion.

Bonus Points

However, the real bonus of the new alignment was that it would eliminate several eyesores - including the dingy hotel and the deteriorating, frequently empty building - across from Autozone Park. There also was the potential for removing the abandoned bus station that stands on the southwest corner of Fourth and Beale today.

Unfortunately, some powerful downtown interests had other ideas, and the idea died. Some opposed the plans because they had plans of their own for the bus station, and others seemed intent on making as much traffic as possible go by Peabody Place. In the end, it was a lost opportunity that would have linked the baseball stadium and the arena in an attractive and resourceful way.

Another reason for the realignment was that Union Avenue was seen as a major connection point for MATA and this would encourage basketball fans taking the bus to their college and pro games. Of course, no one knew then that the Forum allegedly would have its very own multi-modal transfer center.

Modest Proposal

As for Main Street, former design director for the National Endowment for the Arts Jeff Speck said in his recent presentation about 12 modest proposals to improve Memphis design and connectivity that for $50,000, we could put traffic back on our moribund pedestrian mall.

It may sound like too little too late. After all, the mall has already strangled the life out of what Main Street used to be and turned the teeming street into modest pockets of activity in an area begging for vibrancy and animation. Is it only a pipe dream that traffic would inject some renewed economic life into a street whose only retail store between Union and Poplar is the beloved peanut shop?

We didn’t come to share Mr. Speck’s opinion easily, but at this point, it just seems like it’s worth a try. After all, it’s not like he proposed turning Main Street into the autobahn or even turning it back like it used to be. Rather, he recommended two lanes of slow-moving traffic.

Failing To See Failure

Also, as co-author of Suburban Nation and a founding adherent to New Urbanism, it’s not as if he is hostile to walkable, dense downtowns and a high quality public sphere. If there is a monument to faddish planning trends, our Mid-American Mall is the poster child.

While some editorial writers opine that 30 years may not be enough to consider the pedestrian mall a failure, it’s long enough for us. We’d like to think that we’ll actually have the chance to see signs of life on Main Street before we have to use a walker to get up there.

Maybe we are just too old. We remember when Main Street bustled. There’s no question that it would have in time been transformed by the shift in consumer loyalty to suburban malls, but like subsequent trolley construction, mall construction and reconstruction often killed off the very businesses that it was designed to support.

All About Convenience

Shoppers abandoned downtown pedestrian malls across the U.S. as inconvenient and inaccessible, and Memphis was no exception. In our defense, we were not the only city that chased the pedestrian mall as the answer to our downtown’s ability to compete with suburban malls. About 200 cities flirted with malls for a few blocks and some like us consummated the relationship with our entire main downtown shopping district.

While a few pedestrian malls remain and are thriving, they seem to be largely located in college towns. In big cities like ours, the trend is much more to returning some traffic to the malls.

In a study of malls built in the 1960s and 1970s in Santa Monica, Eugene, Oak Park, Sioux Falls, Vicksburg, Baltimore, Ithaca, Memphis, Miami Beach and St. Joseph, it was found that 70 percent of them were successful for a few years but then business declined. By 1989, half of them had either totally or partially opened up their pedestrian malls to traffic and two more were thinking about it.

Real City Center

It’s worth remembering that the trolley system itself was a recognition of the fact that our pedestrian mall just wasn’t working. Of the cities that reopened their malls, all reported gains in business.

We’re not Pollyannish about this. The return of downtown to a real city center with retail stores and boutiques will be slow and arduous, but it seems worth a try to return cars to the street and see what happens.

The most we’d be out, according to Mr. Speck, is $50,000, and we’ll spend a heckuva lot more than studying what our next magic answer will be.

Worth A Try

We don’t have to make a final decision today. We can return traffic to Main Street for six months and just see what happens. Right now, we all have our own opinions, but if we are willing to experiment, we can actually see what will happen.

Here’s the thing. Mr. Speck is just the latest urban expert to recommend the return of cars to Main Street. In fact, a couple of weeks before he spoke here, the Center City Commission’s retail consultants arrived at the same opinion. And there were others before them.

We know that we Memphians don’t handle change well, but we owe it to ourselves to find out if this idea can really work. It’s not as if much is at risk anyway since Main Street is now largely abandoned storefronts punctuated by an occasional restaurant, and on non-baseball nights, the inactive streets cause safety concerns that keep many visitors from walking even a couple of blocks up the mall.

Getting At The Answer

It’s been about a decade since Chicago ripped up the pedestrian mall that was strangling State Street to death. Without cars, the street had a deadened fell like a ghost town, city officials said.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley rode one of the jackhammers in a pavement-breaking ceremony and said the pedestrian mall was so unpopular no one would even take credit for its invention.

That same fact may tell us all we need to know about our own pedestrian mall.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Music Plays On In Lightly Regarded River Town

What do you do with a gritty city lagging in economic growth and with a decades-old music heritage as its main claim to fame?

No, not that one.

We’re talking about Liverpool, England.

If we were in charge of putting together a delegation to visit cities with important lessons for Memphis, that’s a place we’d want to go. And not just because we’re Beatles fans.

Culture Capital

It’s this year’s European Capital of Culture, and for the past five years, it’s been getting ready for the celebration. Smartly, Liverpool is defining culture in the broadest possible terms to embrace traditional arts and high culture, but also sports, street music and the character of its people.

The European Capital of Culture program began 23 years ago when Athens was designated as the first city and there have been three dozen since then. Conceived by the European Union as a way to increase the bonds of community between its countries, it has become the catalyst to major investments in public space, public facilities and public engagement.

That’s where Liverpool comes in. For decades, the waterfront city has been denigrated and derided, often used as the punch line for way too many jokes. Dingy, deteriorating and far out of the mainstream, most observers assumed that its fate was sealed.

No Laughing Now

But there was always something different about Liverpool. Its people – who call themselves Scousers after a popular local stew - like their city because it wasn’t homogenized like so many other cities. They like their city precisely because it was out of touch with the times and seemed to have its own quirky personality and rhythm. They even like their city’s generally grim weather.

That civic attitude is just as much of a fundamental part of the culture being honored as the museums and the Victorian mansions. Maybe even more so.
When Liverpool was selected as the Capital of Culture for 2008 – its 800th anniversary – some commentators laughed it off. But it’s hard to laugh at Liverpool now.

Music To Our Ears

It’s shed any hints of civic lethargy and embarked on an agenda that’s honoring its heritage while building some impressive new assets for the future and billions of dollars of new development – a former airport terminal is now a new Marriott and a former match factory now is now upscale office space. There’s even a fancy new cruise ship terminal that’s a long way from the city’s “ferry across the Mersey” days. Of course, anytime your city can trot out the remaining two Beatles to punctuate the importance of a celebration, it sure doesn’t hurt.

Long disregarded as a tourist attraction, Liverpool is suddenly pulling in visitors by the droves, and with no Disneyfication of the glory days of the Beatles in sight. Most of the places immortalized in Beatles’ song have no neon to mark them or hawkers selling souvenirs. They are merely there, some the worse for the wear after the almost four decades that have passed since the Fab Four sang about Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

And yet, the strange, tough cauldron that was Liverpool did more than breed one mammoth rock group. There were also Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer, Badfinger, Elvis Costello, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Merseybeats, Searchers, Billy Fury, Echo and the Bunnymen. They just were overshadowed by the four-man group that changed the course of music.

The Music Plays On

But, in the intervening years from the British Invasion until today, Liverpool has regularly reminded England that it’s a hub for indie rock, and the best news is that the local music scene still thrives.

All in all, it’s an impressive reminder about how a city can build its revitalization and future on heritage and culture. Liverpool is hoping this year to see results like those recorded in Cork, Ireland, the 2005 European City of Culture, which saw dramatic investments in redevelopment, the facelift of commercial districts and an increase in tourism.

To be chosen as the City of Culture, cities must first submit applications to their own governments and the winner is decided by a 13-member panel. The selected city gets 1.5 million Euros and can apply for other grants. That’s one thing we’ve always loved about European countries – they are serious about funding think tanks, policy papers, research and urban design.

Events Calendar

So far, Glasgow seems to have set the standard for these celebrations. It had 3,539 events with performers and artists from two dozen countries, 656 theatrical productions, 3,122 musical performances (including Frank Sinatra and Luciana Pavarotti), 1,091 exhibitions and 157 sporting events. It even hosted the Bolshoi Ballet for its first UK visit in a theater built for it.

Liverpool’s schedule of events may not be that ambitious, but its list of concerts, plays, poetry readings, dance, art exhibits, sports competitions and 50 festivals, offering a menu of events every week. As it continues its activities, Liverpool’s City Council set six objectives:

• To create and present the best local, national and international art and events in all genres

• To build community enthusiasm, creativity and participation

• To maintain, enhance and grow the cultural infrastructure of the city

• To increase the levels of visitors and inward investment of the city

• To reposition Liverpool as a world-class city by 2008

• To provide efficient and effective management of the Liverpool Culture company (the organization set up to organize and deliver the program)

Cultural Cachet

All in all, it’s not too bad for a former tired, unsophisticated river town. It’s also a source of inspiration for Memphis as we consider ways for our culture to become a competitive advantage for the future.

Memphis: American Capital of Culture has a wonderful ring to it. There is an organization that awards that designation in the Americas, but so far, it’s never selected a city in the U.S. or Canada. It’s also never managed to have quite the cachet of the European program after which it’s modeled, but it’s worth exploring.

Regardless, we know one international company in Memphis that invented international commerce that would be the perfect sponsor for such a designation, or for the creation of a more vibrant program to be a catalyst for progress, for showcasing our city and for building on our distinctive character and culture.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

District Faces Opportunity To Dance To New Tune

Poor Dan Ward.

Surely the suggestion that the interim Memphis City Schools superintendent should appear on Bill O’Reilly’s national cable show was groupthink gone terribly awry.

Surely, nobody in the Memphis City Schools communications office or on its leadership team really thought this was a chance for the district to shine. After all, the subject was the “rape dance” video that was taken at Mitchell High Schools and that’s been so widely played on WREG-TV.

More Than Image Problems

The irony didn’t escape us that a few hours before Mr. Ward’s appearance, Memphis City Council was killing off Memphis Police Department’s appearances on A&E’s “The First 48” because of concerns that the series cast our city in a bad light. It’s always interesting how one city – say, Baltimore – can be the location for some of the most disturbing crime dramas on television, and another one like ours thinks that controlling the image is the same as controlling the problems depicted in them.

City Council Member Wanda Halbert was quoted as saying Memphis isn’t much different from other large cities in the amount of violence here. First, we need someone to send her the data, because she is badly misinformed. That said, we actually think the A&E show painted a positive portrait of MPD and the homicide officers that spend so much of their lives in the underbelly of our city seeking justice for murder victims. Based on the program, our opinion of MPD actually rose.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Halbert seemed to suggest that it’s all just an image problem. She was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying, “Right now, I think Memphis needs to focus on cleaning up the image of our city.”

Actually, we’d be smarter to focus on changing the reality. The image will follow.

Positive Thinking

While we believe that Memphis needs to have a more positive self-image and about what makes it distinctive, we are admittedly troubled by the notion it’s all just a marketing problem that we need to solve. All the bumperstickers and slogans in the world will count for nought unless we accompany it with measurable improvement in some troubling indicators, and that’s why we are encouraged by the city’s high-tech Real Time Crime Center (if city government can walk the thin line between crime prevention and Big Brother).

But back to Mr. Ward. Actually, we feel for him. He’s much too old school, mannerly and measured in his approach to have a chance with cable television’s biggest blowhard, Mr. O’Reilly. Not that anyone trying to explain the outrageous conduct at Mitchell High School would have done any better. In the end, Mr. Ward looked like a man taking a beating for the good of the team.

The Spin

The O’Reilly website summed up his appearance this way:

“Students at a Memphis high school dance simulated various sex acts as teacher ‘chaperones’ stood by and did nothing. Memphis Superintendent of Schools Dan Ward entered the No Spin Zone and gave his reaction: ‘We have 112,000 kids and this activity is certainly not indicative of what they do. But it is a disaster and I'm not making excuses for anyone. We're dealing with it, and we expecting the principal to get the situation to where that never happens again.’ The Factor urged Ward to mete out appropriate punishment to school officials. ‘Teachers and administrators were watching overt displays of sexuality, and it looks like there is no discipline at this school whatsoever. There is something fundamentally wrong in the school.’"

This incident is despicable on so many levels, but we have no real grievance with Mr. Ward’s official statement on it: “To say that we are troubled…would be an understatement. We are shocked and disappointed by the behavior of students shown in the video clip. These images demonstrate a serious issue that educators, parents, and community stakeholders alike must focus on – the need for a more productive partnership between schools and homes to ensure children understand how to act as responsible, mature young adults with a sense of self-respect.”

Losing Ground

The district didn’t do as well with a second official response: “Pop culture, the Internet, and mainstream media greatly influence the activity and behavior of today’s youth. We trust that our partners in education – parents, guardians, and school families will continue to reinforce to children the appropriate way to conduct themselves before, during, and after school hours.”

The good done by Mr. Ward's outrage was eroded in a party line that seemed determined to point the finger at everybody but the principal and administrators of Mitchell High School. However, this was an issue that wasn’t going away, especially at this ratings-conscious time for our TV news teams, so in time, the Mitchell HS principal, John Ware, issued a statement accepting “full responsibility for inappropriate content in one of the acts in a talent show, and understand we should have taken immediate action and ended that performance.”

For now, however, it appears that the district’s communications strategy is to weather the storm and stonewall the media, but we predict that this storm is headed to hurricane status until and unless administrators are held as accountable as the students who were disciplined as a result of the “rape dance.” Mr. Ware has acted professionally in accepting “full responsibility,” and now, he has to accept the discipline that goes with it.

Paying The Piper

We loathe the fact that this places us on the same side of an issue as Mr. O’Reilly, but surely this is one that knows no political differences or partisan positioning. It was simply wrong, and if no action is taken against administrators who saw the “dance,” it is tantamount to sending the message to the 16,000 employees of the district that no one is ever really held accountable for their actions in Memphis City Schools.

We don’t believe that is the intent of Mr. Ward or the Board of Commissioners, but in the end, they have to prove it if this controversy has the chance of ending in an instructive way for the district.

Otherwise, it only validates Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton's contention that the district can only turn itself around with a Joe Clark-style tough guy who is willing to make the tough decisions that are needed right now.

Traumatizing The Public Records And Public Meetings Laws

State Rep. Ulysses Jones must have been frightened by sunshine while he was in his crib.

Only a childhood trauma could have given him such an obsession in eroding the transparency and openness of government with his amendments to weaken Tennessee’s open meetings (Sunshine Law) and public records laws.

Every Tennessean should be up in arms. This isn’t about journalists having a harder time to report on the inner workings of government. More to the point, it’s about erecting obstacles to the public’s right to know.

With the state’s urban schools in turmoil, health care in chaos and economic growth flat-lining, we’re pleased that Rep. Jones can keep his eyes on what’s really important – making it as hard as possible to get public information.

It’s not just “public” information because it’s held by a public agency, but because it’s the public that pays for it.

In a state version of Beltway Fever, Rep. Jones seems to forget on a regular basis that he works for us, not the other way around. Hopefully, there will be a time when the public rises up to oppose the cult of secrecy that is taking hold in both our federal and state governments.

In the end, there’s a better course of action for Rep. Jones if he’s discomforted by public records and public meetings requirements – don’t run for office.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Beale Street Needs Signs Of The Times



It’s always interesting compare the hyperbole about Beale Street with the reality of Beale Street.

In a recent article in The Commercial Appeal about new security on the street, this statement jumped off the page. It was made by the head of the private company that manages the legendary music street as he talked about how important it is to make sure “we’re doing things the way a world-class entertainment district should.”

Every time we see a Beale Street official use these high-flown phrases, we immediately think about the barricades that block the street to traffic. They look like someone’s first shop class project in high school. If they are world-class, it is in the category of the most amateurish signage in a famous tourism area.

The Beale Street street barricades look like something that was slapped up temporarily and were never replaced. After 26 years, it’s not too much to think that the management company could come up with something that actually speaks to the quality of the experience on the street.

We guess we’ve grown accustomed to the hodgepodge of newspaper vending machines and trashy looking garbage cans that seem to send the message that too little attention is being given to the overall appearance and atmosphere of the street, but these barricades need to go.

City Employment Numbers Just Don't Add Up

In time, we suspect that the controversy over the growing payroll in City Hall will be tempest in a teapot.

A week ago, Memphis City Council members cross-examined Memphis Chief Administrative Officer Keith McGee about a budget document that showed that the number of employees growing from 5,162 in 2006 to a requested payroll of 6,573 in the coming fiscal year.

It makes absolutely no sense, and when the smoke clears, we predict that a miscalculation by a clerk in personnel is responsible for this political dust-up.

For example, we suspect that one number might be employees paid by the general fund, and the second might be total employees – general fund and grant-funded.

After all, the number of employees at City of Memphis has been listed at more than 6,000 for about a decade, and in 2004, researchers at the Memphis Regional Chamber said that city government had 6,680 employees.

It’s impossible for us to imagine that by 2006, the payroll had dropped by about 1,500 employees, much less that the proposed budget would add 1,500 new employees to city government.

This is one time when City Hall’s lack of interest in the media is taking its toll, because this confusion should have been explained and cleared up within hours.

Putting A Price On The Suburban Commute

The Tennessee Legislature is flirting with the idea of toll roads to fill the gap in road funding.

We cast our vote for Highway 385.

It’s the most expensive gift ever given in this county to developers and to sprawl, and it’s time to make them pay a fair share of the costs associated with it.

The opening of the 54-mile suburban loop (if your version of suburbs includes the southwestern fringe of Fayette County) will be $450 million of fuel that will power sprawl ever eastward. Just as its gravitational pull will extend development, it will also erode the core city and increase the pricetag that the public pays for government services.

The existence of 385 speaks to the curious nature of government and its love affair with asphalt. There’s always a seeming urgency to satisfy the needs of the development industry and to enable the flight of citizens away from areas where public investments are already paid for.

There’s almost a blind obedience to the car. Somewhere along the way, because of the power campaign contributors and road builders wield, an overriding purpose of government morphed into making people mobile at the expense of neighborhood, the urban core and the public pocketbook.

Why was Highway 385 needed? It’s hard to say with precision, because its genesis lay in the Tennessee Department of Transportation where the building industry has long driven the agenda.

For 385, there was the obligatory traffic engineering study which inevitably shows that the growth of development demands this new road looping way out east and then up to Arlington and around to Millington. Of course, the problem is that there is no counter-balancing study of the economic cost on the core city or the neighborhoods that are being hollowed out. There is no fiscal note that tells the cost of abandoning existing infrastructure or the social costs of declining neighborhoods and the problems incubated there.

As for 385, already, the daily traffic count is about 250,000 vehicles. In the future, with much of Highway 385 serving as I-269 - the unjustifiable circumferential interstate for I-69 – that number will only skyrocket. For years, city and county governments advocated strongly for an I-69 route that followed the interstate through the heart of Memphis, but like water dripping on a stone, slowly but surely, development interests had the eastern I-269 route added, primarily as justification for it extending through DeSoto County and certain real estate interests.

This future combination of Highway 385/I-269 can be lethal unless Memphis and Shelby County turn their attention now to preventing more unbridled sprawl. There’s not much time left.

In an article in The Commercial Appeal, an Arlington landowner hailed the coming highway: “As every piece comes together, pretty soon, you will have something with 385 like the loop around Atlanta…Now you go up there (the Atlanta beltway), and there are hotels everywhere and apartments and office complexes by the thousands. It’s just another layer of city out there.”

Of course, that’s the problem. The layer of city out there is not the result of population growth, but population movement, and as we’ve seen, the cost of that to the public sector is financially unsustainable.

Right now, with a $1 toll, the Highway 385 toll road would generate $87 million a year, and in a perfect world, it would be split between state government to pay for alternative transportation, between Shelby County Government which foots most of the bill for sprawl, and Memphis City Government which is left to contend with the problems of neighborhood decline.

Council Member Offers Winning Funding Idea

Finally, a City Council member suggested the obvious: tenants for Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium should help pay for the $7.6 million in upgrades that they will benefit from.

Savvy Council member Jim Strickland, after listening to labored justifications for a new home locker room, moving the visitor’s locker room, a new room for officials and some ADA improvements, sent an encouraging signal that business as usual is dying a quick death with the new Council.

He suggested that the two organizations who accrue the benefits of the new, improved arena should consider helping pay for them.

Here’s the magic number: $500,000 a year. That’s the amount that’s needed to pay the yearly bond payment for the improvements.

After all, the University of Memphis’ athletic department budget is north of $25 million a year. The Liberty Bowl Festival Association regularly rings up $6 million in revenues, and we’re told that it recorded a $2 million fund balance in 2007, all while paying about $1.7 million a year in “management fees.”

The Liberty Bowl Festival Association reports to the IRS that its purpose is “to promote the social and economic welfare of the Mid-South and its citizens.” We think it could do precisely that if it helped pay for these improvements and took the burden off taxpayers.

Getting The Comparables Right

Some opponents of the Beale Street Landing project – which is vitally needed to reinvigorate a riverfront ready for embalming – have recently taken to asking how Memphis City Council can justify spending $29 million on the project while considering the closing of libraries and community centers.

It sounds like a no-brainer. After all, $29 million is about 15 times the amount needed to keep those facilities open.

Unfortunately, it’s misleading, because the $29 million for Beale Street Landing is in capital funding and the $2 million needed for libraries and community centers is in general funds.

As a result, while $29 million may be the total cost, the bond payments are about $1.2 million a year.

More to the point, great cities don’t make choices between quality of life and libraries and community centers, because they recognize that to be successful, they have to invest in both.

Aiming Higher For Our HBCU

We’d feel better about our public tax money being funneled to a private college – Lemoyne-Owen College - if we were getting some signals that it’s making the kinds of strides that will set it on a new financial and academic foundation.

One such indication would be that Lemoyne-Owen College was included in the significant funding of the United Negro College Fund. A few weeks ago, it provided about $6 million in grants, and regrettably, our HBCU wasn’t on the list.

The regular rescue missions for the college have focused on getting it out of another financial ditch when the primary attention should be focused on considering how to make it part of the so-called “ebony tower,” the select historically black college and universities that make up the African-American ivy league.

But it can be done. Case in point: Clark Atlanta University.

Created 20 years ago through the merger of two historically black colleges, it shook off a reputation for easy admissions and now accepts about half of the students who apply. With a focus on engineering and science and the aggressive pursuit of federal grants, the university has risen from average to being frequently mentioned as one of the best HBCUs.

All of this is to say that it’s not impossible for Lemoyne-Owen College to become one of the nation’s best, but it’s going to take more than infusions of crisis-related funding and volumes of political rhetoric about failed leadership and petty politics. In fact, if anything, this approach to addressing the college’s future does nothing but devalue it, relegating it to nothing more than a political pawn rather than a center of quality education.