Saturday, August 30, 2008

Maybe Herenton Was Overqualified As McCain Running Mate

Maybe Republican presidential candidate John McCain should have selected Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton as his running mate.

After all, he has as many constituents and 14 more years of executive experience than Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

It seems to us that this time around, even the Republican spin doctors know how thin their case is, explaining the frantic, over-the-top efforts to glorify the “executive experience” that apparently impressed Senator McCain so much that he just had to have her on his ticket.

If you know anything about Alaskan state government, you’ve got to find all of this hilarious. There’s just no question that state affairs in Juneau require less skill and knowledge than those found with most big city mayors.

After all, if the population of Alaska was a metro area, it would rank between #73 Sarasota and #74 Springfield, Massachusetts.

Well, to give Governor Palin her due when compared to Mayor Herenton, she does actually have about 9,450 more constituents.

Of course, Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton tops the number of Governor Palin’s constituents by slightly more than 26,000, so in truth, we guess he would make the ultimate vice-presidential candidate, but then again, maybe he’s overqualified for the job, using the McCain yardstick for executive experience.

Meanwhile, as for Governor Palin’s much-vaunted foreign policy experience – complete with video of her with National Guard members – it’s worth noting that Alaska has less about 1,600 troops. Tennessee has 14,000.

Amazingly, so far, the talking heads for the Democratic Party and the incessant chatter by cable political reporters haven’t managed to put all this experience into the context that it deserves.

This Week On Smart City: Cities - Past and Present

This week, Smart City will examine cities in history and how their past shapes their future.

Ed Glaeser is the first guest, and he is always asking the question, "What makes cities work?" He is a prolific researcher at Harvard University's Department of Economics, and he has challenged the wisdom of the ambitions of shrinking cities to get bigger.

Also appearing is Randy Gragg, former Architecture and Urban design critic for Portland's daily newspaper, The Oregonian. He has been a close observer of that city's evolution to what is widely considered to be one of the nation's most successful cities. He is collaborating on a fantastic mash-up of art, architecture and urban design called City Dance in downtown Portland's public fountains designed by Lawrence Halprin.

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, August 28, 2008

School Should Be Out On Politics As Usual

There’s the widely-held belief in corporate American that in times of great financial stress, an effective manager can cut as much as 15 percent of the budget at any time without doing serious damage to the company.

It’s hard to argue on some days that it can’t apply to the public sector as well, but over the years, while other public entities have cut budgets and scaled back some programs, the school systems have always been sacred cows.

In those days, it was hardly possible to question what the school funding was producing in the way of student performance, and any hint that budgets could be cut was met with outcries and uproars.

More Mature

There’s little question that we’ve finally turned that corner. For the first time in 30 years, tough questions about funding, accountability and student performance are being asked, and this attention to public education is not just overdue, but healthy.

It’s a rare event when most people in a city concentrate on a single issue and engage in a debate about the pros and cons of a top funding priority. As a result, the current wide-ranging discussion about our schools seems to us to be a positive step in the maturity of Memphis.

Hopefully, political games will be held to a minimum and facts and information will be maximized. On the surface, the $42 million cut announced by Memphis City Schools feels more like the former.

Keeping Perspective

We hope we’re wrong, but the district cuts seem as intended to stir up emotions as to achieve the necessary budgetary reductions in a thoughtful and serious way. It just seems strange that the cuts in the number of counselors, mental health professionals (social workers and psychologists) and English as second language mentors as well as textbooks (which we heard weren’t ordered in a timely way anyway) push some buttons that are intended to fire up opposition to the Memphis City Council’s $66 million cut in funding for Memphis City Schools.

To put the $42 million of announced cuts by Memphis City Schools in perspective, it’s worth remembering that it amounts to about a 4% of the district budget (not counting capital funding). Perhaps, respected former FedEx executive Karl Birkholz, who was booted out unceremoniously only two days after being hired to straighten out the controversy-plagued Central Nutrition Center, could have handled this for the district. In the private sector world from which he came, paring 4% from a budget is often considered low-hanging fruit.

Put another way, Memphis City Schools spends almost $114,000 an hour, 24/7/365. The cuts amount to $4,800. With average daily spending of about $2.7 million, the cuts require a reduction of about $115,000.

Swatting Mosquitoes

Perhaps, the reality of the size of the district’s massive budget was the reason that new superintendent Kriner Cash was for making the cuts before he was against it. As a result, in addition to announcing cuts, Memphis City Schools needs to make a case that convinces us that the district is not merely substituting highly visible and volatile budget targets for the more pragmatic ones that could easily be made in a bureaucracy of this size.

We confess to being too suspicious about these cuts. That’s because we’ve all seen for too many years the “political” budget cuts made by government agencies whose real purpose is not so much to reduce expenditures but to preserve their money. The real purpose is to trigger people into to complaining loudly to their elected officials, namely City Council members.

It’s what was called the “mosquito spraying” strategy in the halls of local government. Every time, local legislative bodies cut the budget of the health department, officials there in turn announced that the cuts would require the end of mosquito spraying and rat control programs in Memphis neighborhoods.

Hope Springs Eternal

At the same time, the administrative bureaucracy was untouched by any cuts in the budget, but the health department won more than it lost from these political exercises.

We hope these cuts are not the educational equivalent of “mosquito spraying.” That’s why we also hope that Memphis City Schools will give taxpayers more information about how they arrived at these specific cuts.

As part of this, it would be useful to show the alternate scenarios for budget cuts to the taxpayers who pay the bills for public education. We also hope that the district will reach out to get advice from other people – including business leaders and researchers – as it weighs these kinds of decisions

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why We Should Get Behind A Bold Vision For UM

University of Akron President Luis M. Proenza could have been talking to us.

Speaking to the convocation of Florida International University late last year, he talked about “how urban universities create a competitive advantage,” and it seems a perfect follow-up to our last post about the importance of maximizing the University of Memphis’ economic impact.

Concerned that other countries are building world-class research and educational institutions and that only 10% of U.S. students are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math while it is 60% in China and India, he urged that higher education become “academic venture capitalists.”

Academic V.C.

To begin, this new breed of academic venture capitalists must answer questions like how to advance the science of education to spur reform; how to apply the keys of competitive strategies, focus and differentiation; and how to sort out the academic equivalent of mergers and acquisitions.

The answers to these questions, he said, are key to development of an “innovation ecosystem, that system of loosely interrelating elements, of which universities are a part, that has enabled us to make new discoveries, capture their value in the marketplace, enhance productivity and thereby increase our standard of living…Where we once optimized our organizations around efficiency and quality, today, we must optimize our society around innovation.”

It’s a call to action for Memphis to conceive of a future that is more than just an extension of the present. More to the point, the future must have an ecosystem for creativity and innovation, and it’s inescapable that it requires greater collaboration between educators and business leaders.

Goal: Leap Frogging Innovation

“Since universities are arguably are barely getting into the efficiency and quality bandwagons now, how can we leap frog into the innovation agenda?” Dr. Proenza asked. “University innovation will not occur in a vacuum. It requires a close and deep collaboration between universities and industry, and it requires a willingness to experiment with new models and new alliances.”

In particular, the symbiotic relationships between urban universities and the cities they serve are especially important, he said, emphasizing that 83% of all students are attending colleges and universities in the urban core and fringe areas.

“There are thousands of universities employing hundreds of thousands of people, educating millions of students and spending billions of dollars, all in the urban core and fringe.”

UM As Anchor

More to the point, urban universities give cities competitive advantage by:

• Creating new knowledge and economic value through research and tech transfer

• Developing highly skilled talent

• Creating environments on and near campus that help attract and retain highly skilled talent

Citing a white paper by CEOs for Cities, he said that universities are an “anchor institution” that represents “sticky capital,” because they cannot easily pick up and move out of the city. “So they have special importance to the re-making of the city and its future, and they have special reason to want to be instrumental in shaping their city’s future,” he said.

No Substitute For Talent

There is no greater priority than talent development, and he urged urban universities like ours to develop an academic approach to the concept of talent supply chain management.

In addition, an urban university should adopt “a new version of the three R’s to describe the activities of the new metropolitan university – revitalization, relevance and regionalism.” The good news is that University of Memphis is already addressing the first “R” with plans to create a new front door on Highland and an active partner in revitalizing Highland between Central and Southern.

In Akron, The University Park Alliance has garnered more than $200 million from investors with a goal of $500 million to $1 billion in five years to execute place-based strategies that make the area around the university a place that attracts and keeps innovative talent that Akron needs.

Boundary Blurring

“Our vision is to create a vibrant mixed use environment that blurs the boundaries between the university and the community, is pedestrian-friendly and in which everything that happens is somehow about learning and health and wellness,” he said, using a description that could just as easily have been said by University of Memphis President Shirley Raines.

Quoting the ubiquitous Richard Florida, Dr. Proenza said that colleges and universities are today “a basic infrastructure component…and far more important than traditional infrastructures such as canals, railroads and freeway systems of past epochs.”

The end game for urban universities is to “engage in relentless innovation, in education generally and higher education in particular. We must do so because in today’s knowledge-based economy, education is society’s infrastructure. Education unleashes the power of innovation by creating the human capital – the talent supply chain – that shapes our industries and our society. And I think that to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, we must continually redefine the nature of our universities.”

Step By Step

The first step for all of us is about redefining our expectations for University of Memphis and committing ourselves to being part of a plan to move it onto the list of the best universities in the U.S.

It’s also about making noise, noise that is heard 210 miles away, sending the clear, unmistakable message that University of Memphis is too important to the future of our region to leave decisions about its future to the 18-member Tennessee Board of Regents that manages to include a grand total of three Memphians, one being a student representative from University of Memphis.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Making The Grade For University Of Memphis

There’s a certain level of angst that surfaces this time each year because the football team at University of Memphis isn’t in the top 100 in pre-season rankings.

As University of Memphis graduates, all of us here do care about the fortunes of our sports teams, but that’s not the ranking that really got our attention lately.

Instead, it was the ranking of the top 500 universities in the world. University of Memphis didn’t make the cut.


All of us who care about the future of our city should also care about the future of U of M, no matter what their alma maters. As we look for strategies to expand and improve our economy, it’s imperative that we make it a priority to move Memphis’ higher education anchor up that list – or at least the list of the top U.S. universities.

After all, if other public universities can make the list – including University of Tennessee at Knoxville and University of Alabama at Birmingham, both in the top 200 of the world’s best universities; University of Arkansas, in the top 400, and Mississippi State University, in the top 500 – is there any reason that we should assume that University of Memphis can’t make it?

By the way, at a time when some commentators question America’s ability to produce students to compete in the global economy, it’s worth noting that of the top 20 universities in the world, 18 are in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, Harvard University is #1, and the highest ranked public university is University of California – Berkeley at #3.

Predicting Success

In his presentation to Leadership Memphis’ community breakfast last year, our colleague, Portland economist Joe Cortright, said that the single greatest predictor of success for cities today is its percentage of college-educated talent.

That’s because there is a direct line between high educational attainment and high per capita income and jobs growth. However, of the 50 largest U.S. metros, Memphis is 44th in the percentage of 18-24 year-olds in college. It’s no surprise that we are also 45th in per capita income.

As Mr. Cortright pointed out, if Memphis can just move to the median of the top 50 metros, it would create $3 billion in new economic activity. And that’s just to get to average.

It’s Talent, Stupid

That’s why we have said that ultimately, Memphis City Schools is in the talent business, and success is defined as increasing the pipeline of students prepared to attend and graduate from colleges and universities.

It’s likely that the multi-faceted plans of new Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash will produce significant results in the next 12 months, and hopefully, in the end, progress won’t be defined simply by improved teaching to the test but in stimulating an appetite for learning that will inspire more students to enter college.

As for higher education in Tennessee, it’s tragic that the state’s “tobacco money” was used for one-time expenditures rather than to create the kind of endowment for university research that has driven innovation in other more visionary states. It’s equally tragic that at the precise time that State of Tennessee should be increasing its funding for our university, it’s doing just the opposite, forcing some painful decisions upon President Shirley Raines.

There’s Always Hope

Short of more money, there are hopeful signs in Nashville that Governor Phil Bredesen may give University of Memphis something that it’s long sought – independence from the Tennessee Board of Regents. We recognize the difficulty of the political calculus facing the governor, because other universities, such as Middle Tennessee University, might ask for similar treatment.

And yet, this autonomy is crucial to the University of Memphis’ ability to chart its own course, set priorities that align with its greatest impact on our economy and establish and pursue its own unique vision free of the Board of Regents’ balancing act to keep all of its members happy.

Best of all, freed from the Regents’ control, the university would find businesses more likely to contribute to high-impact programs. To that end, there is some consideration on Capitol Hill to challenging university backers to raise the most money in U of M’s history to prove that we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.

Next: Advice From An Urban University President

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Economic Forces Threaten To Ground Economic Development

In the aerotropolis sweepstakes, Detroit is the first city to take flight.

There, the Detroit Region Aerotropolis has used the nation’s latest economic development big idea as a vehicle for regionalism, bringing together politicians and business leaders from two counties, seven cities, and two airports – Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Willow Run Airport.

Quoting the ubiquitous University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, Detroit leaders tout 20 square miles of developable land, supportive community leadership and an infrastructure that puts rail, sea and rail within a one-mile radius. Holding up Amsterdam and Louisville as its model, the Detroit aerotropolis professes to be “creating a global logistics hub that moves people, products and information.”

The Cast Of Characters

As for Mr. Kasarda, he’s suggested that the cities with the greatest opportunities for aerotropolisdom are Detroit, Memphis, Dallas/Fort Worth and possibly Kansas city and Phoenix. He’s also cited the presence of FedEx and Honda Aircraft at the Piedmont Triad International Airport as giving Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, North Carolina a chance for aerotropolis status.

Meanwhile, in Memphis, the Chamber-backed aerotropolis initiative continues to lay the foundation for our city to leverage its considerable resources to set the aerotropolis standard for the U.S. where Memphis International Airport becomes a magnet for economic growth, commercial development and neighborhood redevelopment.

Of course, Memphis begins with a major leg up with the dominating presence of FedEx and the motivating leadership of Tom Schmitt, president and CEO of FedEx Supply Chain Services, and that’s reason enough to be optimistic. After all, it is often unappreciated here that FedEx was in fact the inventor of international commerce.

And yet, it alone is not enough to fulfill dreams of Memphis as aerotropolis.

More And More

After all, in Asia, where the aerotropolis phenomenon were first seen, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport will have shopping malls, office buildings, hotels, hospitals, an international business center, conference and exhibition space, warehouses and even a residential community. Singapore’s Changi Airport has movie theaters, saunas and a swimming pool.

As it’s prone to do these days, Dubai took the concept and went one better. Its World Central International Airport will have office towers, hotels, a casino, golf course and one of the world’s largest malls.

In addition, any U.S. city with aerotropolis aspirations must engage in the thoughtful development planning that includes direct passenger rail connections between the airport and downtown.

Something’s Got To Give

And yet, ultimately, the greatest challenge to the aerotropolis concept may be that as far as airlines are concerned, something’s got to give. As one of the fastest-growing sources for greenhouse gases and with energy prices portending changes that could be as simple as skyrocketing airfare or as dire as industry collapse.

All of this comes in the midst of uncertainty for the airline industry that is unprecedented. Dipping oil prices are encouraging but likely temporary, doing little to mitigate the looming crisis caused by the fact that the business model for many airlines essentially doesn’t work with oil selling for $135 a barrel. Already, the cost of fuel for airlines is up 80% when compared to a year ago, layoffs and fewer flights are becoming a regular occurrence, and we’re hard-pressed to think of a single airline that’s not at risk.

If some doomsday predictions come to pass, like the one made by a respected Canadian bank economist that gas prices will be $7 per gallon in two years, it will not only result in millions of fewer cars on our roads but significant fewer airplanes in the sky.

Fuel’s Up And Opinion Down

Already, in Europe, the high cost of fuel is changing public opinion toward air travel, with protesters shaming airline passengers and a growing feeling that flying is synonymous with ignoring the imperative to reduce greenhouse gases. There are the first signs of legislative support for higher taxes on air travel and opposition to any new runways.

These days, suggestions that U.S. passengers will be cut in half and that there will only be 50 major airports in less than 20 years (roughly 85% fewer than today) are no longer discounted as inconceivable. Such is the seriousness of the crisis facing the airline industry and the cities that depend on it for major economic activity and employment.

In keeping with the general denial that federal agencies have exhibited during the Bush years, the FAA continues to predict that passengers will double in just over 15 years, which is just short of dumbfounding considering that the number of passengers has already dropped by about three million this summer.

Back To The Future

In the end, it could well be back to the future, with the options conjuring up memories of the 1960’s when our parents dressed us up in our Sunday best to pick up flyers. In those days, anyone traveling on an airplane was special, because air travel was for the elite (the same folks also owned color televisions and FM radios).

If oil prices climb, it may be so again, and cities like ours whose economies are based on a heavy dependency on cheap oil and airlines could be especially hard-hit.

It’s an ominous warning for Memphis, because the $21 billion economic impact created by the airport could be as much risk as opportunity. It’s also why development of the Memphis aerotropolis could be anything but linear, and why its planners need scenarios for a future that could be far different.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Where We Live And Where We Play

This week on Smart City Richard Florida is our guest. He predicted the rise of the Creative Class, and now he says where you live is the most important decision you'll ever make. His latest book is called: "Who's Your City."

We'll also speak with Meg Cheever. Meg is the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She says parks are more important than ever to the physical and emotional well-being of urban dwellers. The Conservancy is hosting a conference called: Body and Soul, Parks and The Health of Great 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, August 21, 2008

Miami Cautionary Tale Speaks To Urban Superintendents

Being an urban superintendent is a tough job on its best day, but a fundamental fact of life about the public sector makes it even more difficult: style can trump substance, attitude can overshadow achievements and people skills can obscure technical skills.

There’s no greater proof of this than the reversal of fortunes for Miami Superintendent Rudy Crew. In February, he was honored as National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. On August 4, he kept his job as Miami-Dade superintendent by a 5-4 vote of the Miami school board.

While his peers praised him as national superintendent for his “innovative school improvement programs” and gave him credit for making significant changes in his four years at the helm of the Miami district three times larger than Memphis City Schools. Back at home, while there were problems in the district, it seems that the momentum to remove him from his job had more to do with complaints about an “I know all the answers” attitude, an intimidating management style and an air of condescension.

Style Matters

We don’t know enough directly to make a judgment about the Miami conflict, but it is a powerful cautionary tale for urban district superintendents everywhere, including former associate of Mr. Crew, new Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. In fact, Mr. Crew’s endorsement weighed heavily in Superintendent Cash’s appointment, and because of Mr. Crew’s history as a turnaround school leader, we too saw that as positive.

But we were reminded of the importance of style when we heard Superintendent Cash’s back-to-school phone message to parents. It was more reminiscent for many of the commandant at a military school than someone whose job is to create the kind of district that attracts back the middle class families who have abandoned it.

We heard from one such family who, despite warnings from friends, put their children in city schools as a gesture of their commitment to improving their city. After receiving the phone message, they weren’t as sure that they had made the right decision because it seemed to be a failure-as-default-setting message.

Mixed Message

We suspect that Superintendent Cash intended for his welcome and appreciation for “wonderful parents” to be the predominate message, but it came after a warning that students better be dressed appropriately, a warning that the dress code would be strictly enforced and a warning about the use of cell phones.

“It is also important that our students get plenty of rest each night and understand that school is a place of learning and development and that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. Parents, I ask that you have conversations with your child about what is expected of him or her when they are in school, in the community and at home,” the message said.

There’s no question that Superintendent Cash has been sending a strong message about his commitment to rules, but it might have been a chance for a more nuanced and positive delivery. We don’t mean to second guess him. We just think he needs to be sensitive to the fact that the parents of city school students aren’t a monolithic group and shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

Amped-up Rhetoric

But back to the cautionary tale of his former boss, Superintendent Crew. Its ugly racial overtones, pitting black and brown elected officials against each other, led the superintendent to clumsily quote Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and call the vote by the Miami board of education a “high-tech lynching.”

But he wasn’t through. He also said that the board engaged in a “witch hunt,” “a sad chapter of street politics” and “a bad example for our children.” It did nothing to tamp down the strident criticism of the superintendent in Spanish language media outlets.

Managing a major urban district is hard work, but it’s little fun at all when it’s done with a one-vote margin on your board. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a new phenomenon in Miami where Mr. Crew’s predecessor spent most of his administration with the same 5-4 margin.

Tide Turns

And yet, it’s a sad controversy on how tenuous superintendent jobs can be. Only a few years ago, Superintendent Crew was hailed as the savior for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. In the “what have you done lately” environment that often surrounds urban districts, some people don’t even want to give him credit for turning around many Miami schools. For the record, we give him major points though for refusing, while serving as New York City schools chancellor, to lose his job rather than back Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s plan for private school vouchers.

In both New York and Miami, however, he worked to remove independent oversight, and he was even sued by the district’s inspector general for slander and defamation for undermining investigations. Also, others say that he seems reticent to accept different points of view, leaving the impression that “he knows it all,” said a Miami school observer.

Most damaging of all is Superintendent Crew’s tendency to talk about transparency and accountability while stonewalling questions and refusing to release reports critical of his initiatives.

Our point? Style, attitude and tone do matter, and they often need as much attention as programs, plans and initiatives. That’s the main lesson that we take from the destructive drama in Miami.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Engineering A Change In Thinking About Roles

If the Sustainable Shelby project is looking for a symbol for its smart growth agenda, it can find in it in a most unexpected place – the Shelby County Division of Public Works.

After all, conventional wisdom is that government departments responsible for public works are project-oriented, asphalt-laying operations more concerned about responding to the needs of cars than people.

The county public works division is showing that there is another way. There, Public Works Director Ted Fox has engaged in the ultimate recycling project -- putting a historic 1919 Shelby County bridge back into use in a wildlife area north of Collierville.

Changing Times

If there’s any single place that proves that the times indeed are changing, it’s Shelby County Government. There was a time when its agenda was largely driven by politically-connected developers, who used the county’s bank accounts to pay for the infrastructure for sprawl that made them millions of dollars.

These days, county officials are more likely to be talking about the development of smart growth strategies, sustainability agendas and controlled growth.

We’ve written before about the application of some smart growth principles to county road design by county engineer Mike Oakes, about the adoption by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton of the context sensitive design process to resolve the long-simmering dispute about the highway through Shelby Farms Park, and now, Mr. Fox adds his own example of a new ethos in county government.

Never Too Old

That’s because his adaptive reuse of the old bridge not only is the poster child for the importance of recycling, but it also addresses the need for quality natural areas, outdoor recreation, more hiking trails and historic preservation.

All in all, there’s no more peaceful place in Shelby County than the bridge over untroubled waters in the Wolf River Wildlife Area, because the nearby weir produces a soothing sound that could be easily mistaken for rapids.

Ordinarily, the 89-year-old bridge, which was replaced by a box culvert, would have been cut up and sold for scrap, but this time, it’s been reincarnated as the connection for the hiking paths in the scenic green space of more than 2,000 acres north of Collierville between Collierville-Arlington Road and Houston Levee Road.

More To Come

The bridge fits perfectly in its rustic setting, and the best news of all is that Mr. Fox has two more historic bridges destined for reuse, perhaps next on Shelby Farms Park trails.

Much less known than its park neighbor to the west, Shelby Farms Park, the Wolf River Ecosystem Restoration Project is about half the size of the larger park, and while operating on a shoestring budget, it’s creating a spectacular place that will eventually feature 8.4 miles of trails and three boat ramps.

The area is the product of a $12 million partnership between Shelby County Chickasaw Basin Authority (which owns the property), Wolf River Conservancy (which holds the easement), Town of Collierville and the U.S. Corps of Engineers (which is providing the majority of the funding).

Places For People

While we’re excited by the special wildlife area, the project also has stabilized the river and safeguarded the floodway and floodplain, and it will absorb peak flows during heavy storms and reduce potential flood damage downstream in Germantown and Memphis.

In the end, it’s a project that actually deserves the clichéd “win-win” appellation. It also leads us to take back our overly broad comments about engineers, because the Wolf River Wildlife Area proves convincingly that they are capable of creating special places for people rather than cars.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Schooling State Government About Education Funding

Persistence is always a mandatory attitude when dealing with government, and that’s even the case when it’s a county commissioner dealing with state government officials.

It’s taken Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz more than a year to get the approximate data that he requested from state government, but his relentlessness has finally produced results. As a result, county government is poised to file a lawsuit against State of Tennessee for failing to fully and accurately fund local school districts.

Ironically, his basis for the lawsuit is the equal protection clause of the Tennessee Constitution, the same legal argument made by the rural schools when they capsized the state’s entire funding system about 16 years ago.

Coming Up Short

In those days, the rural schools argued that they were shortchanged in school funding. Today, Commissioner Ritz argues convincingly that Memphis and Shelby County’s students are underfunded by $30 million a year.

He makes his case in perhaps the most complex resolution ever presented to the board of commissioners, containing a blizzard of numbers and calculations that shows, in the words of Mr. Ritz, that “our taxpayers, when our ability to pay is considered, are sacrificing for our kids.”

“Ability to pay” is a telling phrase in the world of Tennessee school funding, because ever since the BEP (Better Education Program) was passed in the early 1990s, each county’s fiscal capacity has been determined to set the amount of state funding and the amount of local funding required by the state.

Causing Ripples

For years, the school funding formula has been as decipherable as Chinese, and as a result, local government and school officials have taken state officials at their word when they said that our community was getting its fair share.

After spending a year just trying to get data, which he then had to manipulate to get the final answer, Commissioner Ritz received another strong message from Nashville: there won’t be a political solution to this problem. Clearly, however, he’s thrown a rock in the school funding pond and the ripples are attracting attention in the Capitol.

Undoubtedly, the ripples will be getting larger following the approval of the board of commissioners of a Ritz-sponsored resolution calling for Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn to “explore, study, and report” on the potential of hiring “outside counsel” to file suit against state government.

Check’s In The Mail

That said, there’s no need to look for a check from state government anytime soon. The lawsuits filed by the rural school alliance took just over a decade to be resolved. The new BEP 2.0 funding law set out a formula that was supposed to address some funding needs, and it did result in several millions of new funds for local schools.

However, even with that additional funding, Memphis and Shelby County schools are falling short of adequate funding. We’ve written before about the additional taxes that Memphis and Shelby County taxpayers pay for education as a result of the bulge in school-age children in our community. When compared to the other 50 largest metros, this bulge is about 20% more than other regions.

The tax implication of that bulge is about $200 million a year in school funding alone, but based on Commissioner Ritz’s research, it’s exacerbated by the $30 million in state funding that never finds its way to our community.

Calculated Opinion

To reach his conclusions, Mr. Ritz calculated school funding for two fiscal years, 2005 and 2006, and found that in both years, state funding for local schools was less than the state average despite our large percentage of at-risk students and special needs students. For example, state funding of all public schools in Tennessee in 2006 amounted to $3,318 per Average Daily Membership (ADM) while local school systems received $3,118 per ADM.

State funding is based on a calculation that includes a county’s property taxes and its sales taxes, and while some state reports suggest that Shelby County has one of the state’s highest fiscal capacities, Commissioner Ritz’s report points out that it’s just not true.

Total property assessment per ADM student in Tennessee is $124,375. For Memphis and Shelby County, it is $107,433. That compares to $221,382 in Nashville/Davidson County.

The Obvious

The sales tax statistics tell a similar story. The sales taxes for Tennessee per ADM were $8,868, but for our community, it is $6,992. For Nashville, that amount is $15,940.

As a result of these comparisons, Commissioner Ritz’s resolution said that it is obvious that Shelby County’s taxpayer wealth (property tax) is less when compared to Tennessee and its taxpayer disposable income (sales tax) is lower when compared to all of Tennessee.

According to the county resolution, some suggested claims for the outside counsel to consider are requiring state funding to never be less than local funding for schools or less than the average state ADM, requiring repayment of the cumulative underpayment amounts, considering damages for the state’s past unfair funding, requiring payments to Shelby County that could be used to pay down its bonded indebtedness, and requiring the state to fairly calculate payments in the future.

Keeping Attention

All in all, this funding issue – while attracting significantly less interest than City Council school funding cuts – deserves greater understanding by the public and firm support from both school systems.

After all, if Commissioner Ritz is right, the school districts would get more funding, because state law doesn’t allow county government to reduce its level of funding no matter how much it might get from Tennessee.

Anyone who knows him can say one thing for sure: there’s no chance that Commissioner Ritz’s persistence will flag.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Praying For A Eulogy To Memphis Intolerance


Apparently, in the minds of many Memphians, He would scream, hurl epithets, demean and bully.

In fact, if we’ve ever seen the antithesis of Christ-like behavior, it was in the reaction by too many Memphians following the death of Memphis music legend Isaac Hayes, who just happened to be a Scientologist.

While a guiding principle of the Gospel supposedly is “love the sinner and hate the sin,” apparently, in Mr. Hayes’ case, his main sin was being different, having the audacity to pick his own religion, one admittedly wide of the mainstream.

The Post

There’s talk that Memphis has entered its post-racial era. We’ve suggested that it’s certainly entered its post-Republican era. Now, if only it could enter a post-religiosity era.

At a time when tolerance is a competitive advantage for cities attracting and retaining talented workers, the headlines across the U.S. about the over-the-top complaints of alleged Christians about Isaac Hayes’ funeral are a damaging blow to our image, once again reinforcing the widespread opinion that we don’t appreciate our music legends and that this is a place where bigotry often knows no bounds.

That’s because the national news about the outcries by many Memphians to the fact that the memorial service for Mr. Hayes, a Scientologist, would take place in a Christian Church, Hope Presbyterian Church, plays into the narrative about Memphis that is too widely held, a narrative that acts as a barrier to our civic maturity, not to mention our economic competitiveness.

Throwing Stones

There’s nothing quite like the spectacle of Christians when they so defiantly act unChristian. If those without sin should cast the first stone, we are blessed in Memphis with an awful lot of people with a firm sense their own perfection. Of course, many of them are emboldened by their own anonymity, too – the main reason that we avoid reading comments posted to articles in The Commercial Appeal.

There are reports that the funeral of Mr. Hayes may even attract the underbelly of Christianity, Frank Phelps, whose Topeka-based Westboro Baptist
Church members stage anti-gay protests at the funerals of Iraq soldiers. Judging from some of the comments made about Mr. Hayes and his chosen faith, there are clearly some Memphians who’d feel right at home.

So far, the pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, Rev. Craig Strickland, has been vilified by people who’ve never met him, nor do they have any conception of the way that his faith is put into action, but they are certain that he is an agent of the devil. Meanwhile, the grieving family and friends of Mr. Hayes have been assaulted with hateful broadsides that must make them question why he ever moved back here from Atlanta.

Get A Life

We’re hard-pressed to understand why anyone should care what Mr. Hayes’ religion was, even one as curious as Scientology. We are even more hard-pressed to understand why we should be outraged that Hope Presbyterian Church is being Christian enough to allow the singer’s many fans to celebrate his life there.

Back to the subject at hand, tolerance, it’s worth remembering that in surveys of young, college-educated workers, they say they want to live in places that are clean, green, and safe, and that allow them to live the life they want to live. In other words, they want a place that is tolerant of others – different lifestyles, sexual orientations, and races and ethnicities. It’s an issue that we seem to struggle with, owing perhaps to our Bible Belt traditions.

Sadly, the venom unleashed at Mr. Hayes’ funeral killed any euphoria from the message that African-American voters sent to the nation by voting overwhelmingly for white Congressman Steve Cohen over his African-American challenger, Nikki Tinker.

The Pot Boils Over

Incidentally, the percentage of women who say they want to live in a tolerant city is slightly larger than the percentage of men, a fact made more important by the fact that women are now 20 percent more likely to be college-educated than men. In that regard, economic growth today is powered by the 25-34 year-old college-educated demographic, but cities getting on the front of the wave also have are figuring out ways to attract women in particular.

All in all, the Isaac Hayes controversy is a troubling commentary on Memphis’ inability to come to grips with the simplest of principles – live and let live. Rather, we are capable of jumping on any disagreement to launch into the kind of vitriol that undermines a sense of civility in our community. (The media’s codependency with this culture of crassness is problematic in this regard.)

A few days ago, we were talking with a psychiatrist friend about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that its members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fear – and fight – any change to things.


The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable albeit it hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications are raw and attacks are common, and communications has been used as a weapon so often that family members can no longer interpret each other’s dispassionately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement, escalating every issue into a controversy that bursts the family at its seams.

As he talked, we forgot for a moment that he was describing dysfunctional families. We thought he was describing Memphis.

Now What?

We asked: What does someone do to change the dysfunction?

He said that it’s no easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. We thought of some old guard political leaders.

If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life, and every one has the right to make their own choices free of attack;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners, because every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They simply refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the old combative ways of communicating.

Paying Attention

Most of all, for change to happen, it requires constant attention to positive behaviors and improvements in relationships, until the people who try to perpetuate the dysfunction find no reward or power in it. Perhaps, then, we could actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing behavior that attracts national press.

As we said, it’s much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and a polyglot of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect - or compete - in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Creating Community

Greg Fuson and Sandra Kulli are the people behind The Vine, an annual west coast gathering of creative architects, builders, thinkers and artists. Their topic at this year's Vine Conference is the nature of community.

We'll also speak with Ruth Otte and Clifford Young. Together they've produced an invaluable survey for urban enthusiasts that uncovers what people around the world like and dislike about their cities. Cliff is Senior Vice President for Ipsos Public Affairs and Ruth is the Executive Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Veolia Transportation.

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, August 14, 2008

Trying To Start A "Real" Conversation About School Funding

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter continues his one-man campaign to spark a serious discussion about school funding.

In fact, at a time when the fallout from Memphis City Council’s cut in school funding could conceivably end up affecting the county budget, he’s about the only person there who seems to be talking about this issue.

In fact, on his own and at his own expense, he’s put together a website where he’s trying valiantly to get the community conversation under way that is needed about the funding of public education.

A URL To Remember

You can find his website at, and all of us should take the time to voice our opinions and join in.

To quote Mr. Carpenter’s description of his purpose from his website: “A ‘perfect storm’ has developed around the issue of school funding. It seems every week that a new plan for improving our schools emerges. This site is part of a community wide conversation to create a plan for adequate and equitable funding of our schools.

“We don’t profess to have the answers, but with your help, open-mindedness and creativity, we believe we can find an answer – an answer that guarantees every child in Shelby County a fighting chance at success through a quality education.”

Six Questions Worth Answering

To start the conversation, Commissioner Carpenter is asking for answers on six questions:

1. Which governmental entity or entities should have responsibility for funding schools? Why?

2. What funding streams (i.e. taxes, fees, etc.) are most appropriate for funding our schools? Why?

3. How do you define equitable funding of schools and how do we achieve it?

4. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of a Joint Board of Control? If there were a JBC, to what functions should it be limited, if any?

5. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of establishing special school districts? If new special school districts were established for MCS and SCS, should they have taxing authority? Why or why not?

6. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of the City of Memphis taking over Memphis City Schools and appointing the school board and superintendent? Under this scenario, who should be responsible for funding Memphis City Schools.

Riding The Wave

All of this seems characteristic of Commissioner Carpenter. Since joining the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ wave of new faces, he has defied predictions and has often been a bridge over various divides on the legislative body. In doing so, he often resists the doctrinaire positions that too often consume partisan elected groups and frequently asks the kinds of questions that illuminate issues. Meanwhile, his positions are characterized by their independent thinking, and that’s always welcome on local legislative bodies.

In many respects, the Board of Commissioners seems to be settling down after a year-long shake-out period when Democrats flexed their newfound majority, sometimes on issues of questionable civic importance but of perceived political symbolism (aimed at reminding everyone that they were now in charge).

When Shelby County elections became partisan, county government descended into the pit of partisanship. It came in a government that had been relatively free of it, but the Republican Party at the time saw political advantage and could not resist.

The Tide Turns

At the time, the Republican Party was led by a local plastic surgeon who saw partisan elections as a way to cling to county offices as the wave of African-American voters surged. Appropriately, it took a plastic surgeon to put a pretty face on partisan elections, because in time, they did precisely what so many feared – they institutionalized the racial divide in Shelby County.

In this highly-charged atmosphere of partisan politics, every vote was treated as a test of party purity, diminishing the chances for compromise and weakening the lines of communications between Democrats and Republicans.

That tide seems to be turning. The advantage once perceived by the Republican Party is rapidly becoming a footnote in the local political history. That fact was punctuated by recent county elections which swept Democrats into offices in which no one from their party has served.

Post Racial

In recent days, inspired by the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama, the possibility has been raised that we are now living in a post-racial world. In advance of the stunning victory by Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen in his primary, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton even took up the theme.

We fear that it is largely an exercise in wishful thinking, but it does seen inescapable that the times are a’changing, and we should all do our part to speed up the progress.

As for us, while there may be a question about whether Memphis is now in a post-racial world, one thing is for certain. We are in fact in a post-Republican one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Consolidation Should Start Inside County Government

In the end, there were just too many reasons to vote against Shelby County charter amendment 360.

There was the sizable group of term-limit supporters who resented the fact that commissioners used the imperative to correct a legal fallacy in the county charter to add another term to the two-term limit of the mayor and commissioners.

Then, there were people like us who voted against it because we believe that some of these minor public offices need to be eliminated in the name of efficiency and economy.

In the end, the charter went down in defeat by only six-tenths of one percent. But, the legal imperative remains.

In order to sweeten the pie, the board of commissioners put a charter amendment on the ballot again in November, this time without adding an additional term for the mayor and commissioners. However, they followed the path of least resistance and again called for all of the five offices - sheriff, assessor, register, clerk and trustee - to be reconstituted in the county charter rather than streamline the cumbersome county structure and jettison most of them.

In other words, to put simply, count us as another no vote against the ordinance in November.

Here's a post from late last year:

Finally, Shelby County has the chance to have a "strong mayor" form of government.

Through sheer force of personality, county mayors have created the perception that they are equals to their Memphis counterparts. But, perched atop a government littered with the fiefdoms of assorted elected officials and powerful public boards, the truth is that the county mayor has direct control over less than 20 percent of the county budget.

The irony is obvious: while everyone talks about consolidating city and county governments, things aren’t even consolidated inside Shelby County Government.

Cracking The Door

Hopefully, this could soon change. Unexpectedly, the Tennessee Supreme Court has opened the door to the potential of reducing the number of elected officials – like the register whose main job is recording documents, the trustee who collects taxes, the clerk who sells marriage and auto licenses, the assessor who appraises property, and the sheriff who primarily operates the county jail.

This kind of streamlining of county government was unimaginable just months ago. Seemingly given special status as “constitutional officers,” it was thought that these officials were as much a part of county government as the costs of sprawl. Regardless of who’s been behind the mayor’s desk in the past 31 years, he’s thought wistfully of folding some of these largely functional duties into his operations.

As one former county mayor once described it, the county’s organizational structure is tantamount to holding Fred Smith accountable for FedEx’s performance, but without giving him control over FedEx Ground.

Killing The Hydra

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When county government was restructured in 1974, the lumbering three-headed administration was scrapped in favor of a single county chief executive to be called a mayor, an appellation that allowed him to elbow his way into a spotlight previously reserved for the Memphis mayor.

But the rhetoric far outstripped reality. Even when home rule was approved a decade later, it did not stop Shelby County Government’s repeated forays to the Tennessee Legislature to plead for powers automatically given to cities and their mayors.

In the past 20 years, there’s been no serious study of how the county structure could be changed to improve its operations and deal with an entrenched culture that repulses innovation. Unfortunately, with the opportunity now to reduce the inefficiency that comes from the county’s Hydra-like structure, county commissioners are just as likely to blink as to seize the chance to consider what county government could be.

Impact Or Not?

If they take the path of least resistance, they will ratify all of the elected offices and move on. If they have the courage, they will take the time to have serious debate about ways to make county government more businesslike - how to make public boards like the Agricenter Commission more accountable for its use of public land, how to have more oversight of powerful boards like the Airport Authority, how to align resources in a dozen economic development boards, and how to reinvent bureaucracies like the finance department so they are lean and customer-oriented.

Within county government, the costs of inconsistent policies are legend. Only the mayor is required to comply with personnel policies, purchasing rules, financial procedures, and technology guidelines. That’s why one elected official bought a multi-million dollar computer system that couldn’t “talk” to the county mainframe, another refused to put her GIS information online for public use, another paid premium prices for equipment purchased more cheaply by the mayor’s administration, and most contribute to the stupefying, fragmented online experience at county websites.

In a few years, the landmark agreements establishing Urban Growth Boundaries will virtually eliminate many of the county’s most prominent services – zoning, planning, fire department, ambulances, road construction, and more.

It's The Beginning

If the question today about reducing the number of elected officials is seen as a beginning, rather than an end, it could actually be used to plan for that new day and to transform county government into the more entrepreneurial environment envisioned by Mayor A C Wharton.

Across the U.S., urban governments are engaged in bursts of innovation unseen in decades, and in places, a strong mayor form of government is pursued as the answer to their problems. Shelby County could join them if commissioners think beyond the immediate politics of the problem before them.

It would seem to be the perfect time to consider the kind of “smarter government” being pursued in states like New York, where there’s a call for economies of scale, efficiency, cooperation, and consolidation between governments. Before Shelby County can get to that point, it first has to do it within its government.

Previously published in Memphis magazine's City Journal column.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Memphis' Most Taxing Problem Deserves Council Attention

Memphis City Council owes no apologies for taking the long view on tax equity when it withheld $66 million funding for Memphis City Schools.

Some may trivialize their motives, others may vilify them as opportunists and a few may even suggest that they personally don’t care about students, but it’s worth remembering that about 75% of Memphians don’t have children in city schools.

For this vast majority of Memphians, it’s taxes, stupid.


It doesn’t mean that Memphis officials don’t care about schools, but it does mean that this new group of Council members finally did something city government should have done a decade ago: They started the process to equalize taxes with other Shelby County cities like Germantown and Collierville.

We’ve pointed out before that we thought the Council members eroded the ultimate impact of their message when they increased the spending of city departments by $40 million, essentially funding it with the cuts to schools. But we are told that this was a temporary aberration, and that a majority of members are still fixed on the goal of bringing the city property tax rate below $3 in the next budget cycle.

This year’s cut in school funding brought down the property tax rate to $3.25, a cut of 18 cents. It’s a start. Without the accompanying increase in city spending, the tax rate could have dropped all the way to $2.95 and real momentum could have been created. (It’s worth mentioning that for a majority of Memphians, taxes is only the first step. The second step is for city government to get the basics right.)

Incentives For Growth

That said, there are signals from the Council that it’s taking a two-step approach: this year, schools, and next year, general government spending. We hope so, because the tax burden, more than schools, has fueled the recent exodus of people out of Memphis.

At a time when federal tax policies have punished middle class families, whose incomes have been essentially flat for way too long, these families can move out of Memphis and give themselves an increase of disposable income with lower city taxes (unless they live in the unincorporated area where they get an even greater bump). Hopefully, rising gas prices and the attendant weakness in suburban home prices will cause some of these former Memphians to take another look at their former hometown.

But first, Memphis City Council must remove the existing financial disincentive that accompanies a city address. There’s really no way that City of Memphis can get its property taxes to a level comparable to other county cities without shifting city-funded services that are more regional in nature to the regional tax base of Shelby County Government.

No Way To Cut Enough

After all, to get the Memphis property tax rate in the same ballpark as Germantown, City Council would have to cut the funding that it gave city departments this year and then cut about $80 million more. That would get the city property tax rate below $2 and it would at least be within shouting distance of Germantown’s $1.54 rate.

It is inarguable that there is no public service more important than public education (although these days a public vote would probably put crime-fighting ahead of it). And yet, the tax system funding public services must be equitable and even-handed. The tax structure in Memphis is just the opposite.

Memphians not only have the highest combined city-county tax burden of any people living in Tennessee, but our tax structure is built on the backs of people who can least afford it. The poorer you are in Memphis, the more you pay in taxes as a percentage of your income.

More Than Band-aids Needed

While local efforts to expand tax sources are well-intended, in the end, the current tax structure is so badly flawed that even new sources are just stopgap answers that don’t address the fundamental flaws in the system. That’s why the Memphis City Council really had no choice but to target services that city government is not mandated to provide (and for decades, city and county governments have agreed that Memphis’ funding of schools was discretionary), but more to the point, it had to look at services that are legally the responsibility of Shelby County Government but are also funded by City of Memphis.

After all, we’ve been talking for 30 years about putting all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base – so that Memphians, like every one outside of Memphis, don’t pay twice for schools. We’ve talked here for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, the city tax rate has moved up and the middle class has moved out.

The Right Conversation

Those who attack the Council for failing to value our children simply miss the point. It’s not city government’s responsibility to fund public education, and any way, it’s pretty hard to argue in a city where schools spend $1 billion a year in operating and capital funding that we’re not serious about our children’s future.

We’ve said here before that often it’s not that we’re coming up with the wrong answers in Memphis. More to the point, we’re not having the right conversations.

With its vote to cut school funding, Memphis City Council served notice that the conversation is definitely shifting to the right one.

No Shell Games

That wasn’t the case with its recently announced compromise to prevent a cut in state funding to Memphis City Schools. The financial sleight of hand to move money from the school fund balance to city budgets where the money would then be sent back to the school district was long on cleverness and short on answers.

Memphis City Schools was right in rejecting this proposal. A city schools official drew on her rural upbringing when she rightly described it as a “trifling” approach. In addition, City Council members would be better served if they didn’t try to use amp up alleged compromises to engage in political upsmanship.

This is a serious issue and discussions should be handled soberly and straightforwardly. At this point, City Council and the School Board of Commissioners should be able to agree that this question about funding responsibilities deserves to be answered once and for all.

Job 1: Tax Equity

In the meantime, both bodies should acknowledge its importance and promise to the public that their commitment is to address the question with the statesmanship that it deserves.

We know that Memphis City Council members are getting heat in some quarters for their votes on school funding, but the best way to address it is honestly and candidly. After all, the vote to bring more equity to the tax system was precisely the right move at the right time for roughly 75% of Memphis families.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Universities Grade Themselves By Surrounding Neighborhoods

It’s encouraging that the University of Memphis has clearly adopted a new attitude toward the future of its adjacent neighborhoods, and hopefully, there will be a time when it shows up on the list of universities who are doing this best.

The “report card” to which we are referring resulted from the 20-year work of the University of Cincinnati to revamp its campus and redefine university community planning and development. The ramifications of UC’s work have been felt across the U.S., and surely, that university’s work is a signpost for our university.

To measure the results of the work of the Uptown Consortium in Cincinnati – which includes UC, city government, the Children’s Hospital Medical Complex, the zoo, the botanical gardens, the Health Alliance and TriHealth – the university identified a couple dozen case studies of leading institutions and graded them on 16 criteria, including community engagement, avoiding the use of eminent domain, economic impact, sustainability, historic preservation, increased housing, leadership, partnership, safety and urban design.

Grading The Graders

For example, University of Cincinnati got A+ for financial commitment, housing, partnerships, leadership and urban design; B in avoiding eminent domain and community development; C in community engagement, safety and impact on wider metro area; D in economic development and sustainability; and F in historic preservation and social capital.

Twenty-one universities were included in the report card because of their work and they include University of Akron, Boston College, Duke University, George Tech University, Johns Hopkins University, LSU, Ohio State University, San Diego State University, UCLA, University of Chicago-Illinois, University of Louisville, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, USC and University of Wisconsin.

No overall grade is given to each school, but judging from the scores in each category, the universities doing the best are University of Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and University of Pennsylvania.

The Obvious

Obviously, all universities should have a vested interest and be involved in their surrounding neighborhoods, but for a university like ours that bills itself as an urban research university, that should be especially true. In fact, one of the most important marching orders given to new director of graduate urban and regional planning Ken Reardon is to lead these efforts.

Fortunately, there’s a growing army of allies willing to get involved as the university repositions its front door from Central to Highland and works to be the catalyst for redevelopment of Highland between Southern and Central. One of these allies is ULI Memphis who earlier brought in the head of UC’s Uptown Consortium to talk about ways major civic anchors can improve quality of life and improve the economy. Certainly, as a major land owner in the area (across the U.S., universities own more than $100 billion in real estate), University of Memphis should be leading this effort.

For decades, our university has wrestled with how it can better connect its considerable intellectual resources and influence more deeply into the community to lead the hunt for solutions to some of Memphis’ most troubling problems. Often, like many similar urban universities, UM seemed like a walled city, and we can only hope that these first steps into community development will expand into even more ambitious projects.

Paying Dividends

The University of Pennsylvania has invested $90 million in its 40th Street commercial corridor, replacing a parking lot with a 300,000 square feet hotel/retail development. In addition, the university has produced more than 150,000 square feet of new retail space, more than 25 new stores opened in four years, a retail vacancy rate of less than 5%, and new streetscapes and landscapes.

If there’s any question that urban universities like ours are important, consider these facts:

• Of the more than 3,600 colleges and universities in the U.S., just over 1,900 of them are in the urban core

• 83% of students are in the urban core and fringe areas

• 87% of economic impact of universities are in the core and fringe areas

It’s All About Talent

Part of these universities’ roles, according to University of Akron President Luis M. Proenza, is to create environments near campus that help attract and retain highly skilled talent.

He could be speaking for Memphis when he said: “As you know, talent development in our inner cities is one of the most pressing national problems, and workforce development is the most often cited priority for business and industry. Our vision is to create a vibrant mixed use environment that blurs the boundaries between the university and the community, is pedestrian friendly and in which everything that happens is somehow about learning and health and wellness.

“As urban universities, we must acknowledge that the competitive and comparative advantages of our campuses are inextricably linked to the vitality of their surrounding communities. We must move beyond the traditional land-grant focus toward the necessary application of all disciplinary knowledge for the public good.”

To this end, Mr. Proenza suggests that universities should not be measured by “how many students we exclude but rather by how much value we add in enabling the success of our students; not by barriers between it and its communities but by the “collaborative impact that we create for each other and for our common future; and not by the “isolation of disciplines, but by their integration as applied in solving the problems of today.”

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Creative Communities and Creative Connections

Smart City is talking with people who have discovered new ways of attracting and retaining a creative community.

First we'll speak with Helen Johnson and Josh McManus. They lead a group called CreateHere, which focuses on the artists in their own backyard in Chattanooga, TN. Through an innovative series of grants, programs and projects, CreateHere is helping to build a thriving community for artists, artisans and creative entrepreneurs.

Also, Smart City will interview Aly Khalifa of Gamil Design. He was looking for a way to unite the creative community of the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. Taking inspiration from the world of open-source software, he co-founded Sparkcon.

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, August 07, 2008

Cheap Taxes Fuel Unsustainable Lifestyle

It's widely predicted that climbing gas prices will force suburbanites out of their cars and back to city neighborhoods. Shelby County is likely to be one of the last places where it will happen.

That's because our community's inequitable tax structure and MATA's poor reputation combine to stall changes in lifestyles here. As a result, if and when a change comes, it will apparently be fueled by gas costing more than $6 a gallon.

That's how much Shelby Countians say they would have to pay to consider taking MATA, according to polling taken in connection with Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton's Sustainable Shelby program. In fact, among people who say they prefer a suburban lifestyle, the price was $6.69 per gallon.

Gassed Up

The fact that gas prices will have to increase at least 50 percent for MATA to start looking attractive may say as much about the transit system's reputation as it does about Shelby Countians' concern for their carbon footprints. It also indicates that the record public transit ridership that is occurring across the U.S. won't happen here.

The poll results are backed up anecdotally by Leadership Memphis' annual experiment requiring its 80-member class to travel to a meeting using public transportation. The experience is always an eye-opener, because most of the class members are among the 92 percent of Shelby Countians who travel in their personal cars. In this yearly experiment, trolleys get higher marks than buses, but the experience does little to capture new transit riders.

Comments fall into broad categories like the need for better customer service and cleaner, better-maintained buses. The class is also asked to make their plans on the MATA website, and although it is markedly improved in the past two years, it still falls way short of the industry standard in Portland, Oregon, where the TriMet website gives bus locations in real time.

Riding The Rails

Here, MATA's Trip Planner function at least no longer promises to reply within 48 hours. Trip recommendations are now immediate, although one recommended travel plan called for a rider from the Med-ical Center to Balmoral to spend the night at the Lamar and Barron intersection.

Despite its apathy toward MATA travel, Shelby Countians are enthusiastic about light rail, which is on the transit company's agenda. Almost 80 percent of Shelby County residents said they would likely ride light rail if it were available. Of course, an effective light rail system is light years and more than $1 billion away, meaning that MATA buses will remain the backbone of public transit here for the foreseeable future.

A MATA official acknowledges that the agency must abandon the lethargy that comes from a ridership that is viewed largely as a captive audience with no other options. To expand its customer base, he says that MATA has to improve its rider experience and reliability, or even $6-a- gallon gas may not put more people in its seats.

Taxing Situation

But more than MATA stands in the way of a behavioral shift in Shelby County. In the past 30 years, homebuyers' attitudes were shaped by the disparity of the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians. With a tax structure that pushed the costs of sprawl onto Memphis taxpayers (who paid for the lion's share of sprawl in the form of new roads and new schools while still footing the bill for museums, parks, libraries, and arenas that should have only been on the larger county tax base), suburban residents simply do not face the financial realities that are driving suburbanites back inside other cities.

The difference in taxes here pays for an awful lot of gas. For example, the tax bill for someone living in a $150,000 house in the unincorporated area of Shelby County (or Lakeland) is about $1,300 less than a Memphian's. In other words, even if gas prices rise $2 a gallon, these suburban taxpayers can drive about 12,750 miles, or the equivalent of a 50-mile weekday commute, before the cost of gas is more than the amount they save from "county taxes."

In Germantown, the tax savings from living there instead of Memphis is about $700 a year, enough to pay for about 7,000 miles a year. In other words, the savings pay about half the cost of the additional gas for a 50-mile commute.

As a result of this lifestyle subsidy, non-Memphis residents have little incentive — yet — to move to closer-in Memphis neighborhoods, and the softness in the suburban home market may make it tough to move anyway. While the tax savings may pay for a lot of gas for suburbanites, the fact is that the rising cost of fuel is locking them into place because it's making their homes less attractive to buyers.

Published previously as City Journal column in July edition of Memphis magazine.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Green Here Is Envy

Nashville/Davidson County floats in a sea of green – greenbacks, that is – while Shelby County floats in the stagnating economic backwater of West Tennessee.

It’s the graphic disparity in each city’s region that underscores the difficulty faced by our city as it works to succeed in an extraordinarily competitive economy.

One map said it all in a Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) report on personal and family economic well-being. Of the 95 Tennessee counties, the ones that scored best were in shades of blue, counties that scored in the middle were in shades of green, and the counties that did worse were in yellow and orange.

The only five counties in Tennessee in blue were in the Nashville metro. Meanwhile, Memphis, Fayette and Tipton Counties were in green and ringed by three yellow counties – Lauderdale, Haywood and Hardeman. “Personal and family economic well-being varies widely across the state, and that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future,” the report said.

Being Well

To classify the counties, TACIR identified five measures of personal and family economic well-being and combined them into one indicator of present conditions and another as an indicator for momentum. The two extremes in Tennessee are Williamson (the only county that scored a perfect 10) and Hancock (with the lowest score of 1.1).

Here’s the real wake-up call: 8 of the Top 10 counties were in the Nashville region – Williamson at #1, Wilson at #2, Davidson #3, Sumner #4, Rutherford #5, Robertson #6, Cheatham #7 and Maury #10. (#8 was Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and #9 was Loudon (Lenoir City.)

Shelby County came in at #11 with a score of 6.4 (on a 10-point scale). Fayette County was #14 and Tipton County was #19. The scores dropped drastically one county away: Lauderdale was #80; Haywood County was #68; and Hardeman was #75.

The report concluded that while the economic well-being of county residents varied widely across the state, the rate of change does not. All were progressing at the same rate, except for one, Fayette County, but of course, it’s not hard to show momentum when you start from almost zero.

Incremental Is No Progress At All

Of course, this also points up a serious problem for Memphis. As we have written before, incremental progress is not enough for our city. We remain in the same relative position, and just as we can never catch up with Nashville if we both are moving ahead at the same speed, we will never move up the list of the top 50 metros where we lag in the bottom rungs in most economic well-being indicators.

Here’s the thing: in Nashville, a 30-minute drive takes you to Williamson County, the 11th wealthiest county in the U.S., with a median family income that's a staggering $95,470. Four nearby counties shatter the $55,000 mark.

Outside of Fulton County, Atlanta has five counties with median family incomes of more than $60,000, peaking with Fayette County's $85,794 and Cobb County's $77,447. In Indianapolis, Marion County gives way to Hamilton County and its $90,119 median family income. Three others top $55,000.

Here, things are different. The other counties in the Memphis metro do nothing to improve income and education levels, raising a red flag for companies evaluating the region for new operations and investments.

Down The List

Shelby County is ranked 200th in median family income, and in its Metropolitan Statistical Area, only DeSoto County manages to eke out over $50,000.

Meanwhile, 19.2 percent of Shelby Countians do not have a high-school degree and 25.3 percent have at least 16 years of education. That compares to 26.3 percent and 12.4 percent respectively for the other metro counties.

It's a troubling reality, particularly in light of a decade's worth of talk about the importance of the region and meager results.

It’s been about seven years since the Memphis Regional Chamber released the Memphis Region Sourcebook, the product of more than two years of work and costing almost $500,000. Intended to give form to the Tennessee/Arkansas/Mississippi Governors' Alliance on Regional Excellence, the unique tri-state organization cheerleading the report, its 27 oversized pages of gripping graphics, key facts, an inventory of assets, and recommendations are artifacts of a flirtation with regional thinking.

It’s Taxes, Stupid

That's too bad, because the report went to great lengths to identify opportunities for the region to learn how to work together on issues every one should care about: air and water quality, farmland preservation, heritage tourism, transportation, and workforce development. It was always hoped that the experience on these issues would inspire confidence to tackle the really tough ones -- think taxes.

More and more, some kind of regional tax pooling makes sense here. Despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary, cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Denver have actually used regional taxes as a way to unify their regions.

The existing tax structure is outdated and unfair, treating each jurisdiction as if it's self-contained and its interests are walled off from its neighbors. There's no connection between who uses roads, arenas, and museums, and who pays for them.

With no rationality and no imperative for regional cooperation, multiple jurisdictions claw for more of a finite tax pie, as Collierville did in pursuing a huge shopping center to get the huge sales taxes that came with it, and in the process, fueling sprawl and commercial zoning designed to create optimal taxes, rather than creation of the optimal community.

Sharing Taxes And A Future

In Minneapolis, where the suburbs subsidized the central cities 30 years ago, that situation was reversed when older suburbs were in decline and needed help. Governments put 40 percent of the growth of their commercial and industrial property tax base into a regional pool, and from it, several hundred million dollars a year are redistributed on regionwide priorities like public transit and light rail, parkland, water quality, and smart growth.

In Portland, a three-county, 24-city regional agency makes land use and trans-portation decisions and helps pay for regional services like the convention center, performing arts center, stadium, exposition center, and regional parks. In Denver, seven counties and 31 cities agreed to a regionwide sales tax to pay for light rail.

Challenges to the Memphis region are no respecters of state or county lines -- an aging workforce, too few 25- to 34-year-old workers, low educational attainment, racial divisions and unsustainable sprawl. Sadly, there's a sense in the region outside Memphis that if the future of the city is about a middle-class exodus, entrenched poverty, and hollowed out, deteriorating neighborhoods, that is Memphis' problem, not theirs.

It is of course a total break in reality. Without a better and stronger regional platform, any economic growth plans for any part of the region are in jeopardy before they even begin.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Shelby Farms Park Vote Is Deja Vu All Over Again

In light of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimous vote for the master plan for Shelby Farms Park, it seems an appropriate time to reprise a post from March 27, 2007, because Monday’s vote was an exercise in déjà vu:

There is the political axiom that when the right people and the right timing align, they can change the world.

This week, they did in fact change the world of Shelby Farms Park.

The right people were Laura Adams, AC Wharton and Mike Carpenter.

The right timing was ushered in when the radically revamped Shelby County Board of Commissioners was sworn in, removing Walter Bailey and Julian Bolton from office and removing their predictable “fight to the death” attitudes toward any suggestion that operations of the park should be turned over to a private, nonprofit organization.

Light Years

And yet, even with this alignment, it’s hard to grasp how much has been accomplished in a place where seven months is considered the governmental equivalent of moving at light speed.

On Monday, commissioners voted unanimously to give Shelby County Mayor Wharton the power to enter into an agreement with a nonprofit group to manage the park and implement a master plan that turns the promise of the 4,500 acres into the reality of a world-class park.

Combined with the commissioners’ previous approval of a 50-year conservation easement and the Mayor Wharton’s appointment of a special committee to hire the firm to develop a master plan for the 4,500 acres, county government has adopted a green ethos unimaginable just a year ago.

Taking Bows

Success has many parents, so there will be plenty of people lining up to take a bow, but before history is rewritten, Mrs. Adams, Mayor Wharton and Commissioner Carpenter deserve special footnotes. Without any of the three, it’s hard to imagine that Shelby Farms Park would be on the cusp of a new era.

Mrs. Adams’ involvement began at the moment of Shelby Farms Park’s greatest setback, the failed attempt to create a conservancy in 2001 by Memphis business leader Ron Terry. Despite the presence of $20 million as an inducement and unprecedented community interest in realizing the full potential of the park, commissioners voted down the proposal after Commissioner Bailey led a hysterical political stampede that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mr. Terry – who single-handedly elevated Shelby Farms Park to the top of the civic agenda – recommended Mrs. Adams as a member of his proposed conservancy, giving birth to a renewed passion for the park that led her to accept the presidency of Friends of Shelby Farms in 2002.

New Friends

Her leadership brought dramatic changes to the group – moving it from a marginalized anti-everything organization to one known for its political savvy and its willingness to find common ground where long-standing controversies could be resolved and support for the park could be expanded. Through an unrelenting attention to details and the seeming ability to be everywhere at the same time, she brought new focus to the agenda of Friends of Shelby County and a new respect for its work.

Along the way, she opened up lines of communications with government that had all but disappeared over the previous decade as Friends leaders seemingly assailed county officials for every problem of the park and questioned their integrity and their stewardship.

Within a couple of years under Mrs. Adams’ leadership, Friends of Shelby Farms Park had morphed from a disorganized grassroots group into the disciplined Shelby Farms Park Alliance and its blue-ribbon board.


Conversations between Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton eventually created the mutual respect that produced momentum for resurrecting Mr. Terry’s general concept for dramatically upgrading the park and empowering the private management to manage it.

(While The Commercial Appeal headline writer erroneously referred to the change as “privatizing” Shelby Farms, it’s a careless use of the term, because it is more akin to the Memphis Zoological Society’s role at the Memphis Zoo than Servicemaster’s management of the county’s senior citizens centers. Of course, the most obvious and notable difference is that the organization managing the zoo and the one that will manage Shelby Farms Park isn’t out to make a profit for a private business.)

Along the way, Mrs. Adams provided Mayor Wharton with information about the context sensitive design process, and he appointed a broad-based committee to use the process to end the 25-year-old controversy about the planned highway through Shelby Farms Park. In the end, the committee succeeded in reaching a breakthrough agreement for a new design and alignment for the highway, and it was not lost on the mayor that Mrs. Adams was instrumental to reaching the consensus that accrued to his political benefit.

Expanding The Vision

Encouraged by the prospects of achieving a vision that could turn Shelby Farms Park from a popular regional park to a park with national importance, not to mention the chance to cut county funding by moving responsibility for park operations to a nonprofit organization, Mayor Wharton took up the cause of the master plan and appointed a committee to write an RFP and select the national planner to develop a park master plan.

But, in the end, Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton needed a champion on the board of commissioners who could be an effective advocate for the park and act as floor leader for the resolutions for a conservation easement and private management. Commissioner Carpenter, whose inexperience in public office and youth were perceived as barriers to his ability to be an impact player, proved all predictions about his impact wrong.

He not only served as a good salesman, but remarkably, he managed a 12-0 vote on Monday, positioning himself as an emerging leader on the body. While he’s been widely criticized by Republican Party members for voting with the Democratic majority in support of a second Juvenile Court judge, it’s beginning to look like a sage maneuver that’s positioned him to deliver up the votes to pass resolutions popular to his East Memphis base, including cuts in government budgets for non-essential services like parks and shifting operational responsibility to non-public management.


All in all, it’s a momentous time for Shelby Farms Park. No, those of us who support a plan to develop it into the eastern anchor for a Greening Greater Memphis network didn’t get everything we wanted. Despite passage of the new governance model by the board of commissioners, it seems like Agricenter International is being rewarded despite its consistent arrogance in deliberations about the future of the 4,500 acres and for treating the 1,000 acres under its control as a private preserve for which the public deserves no accounting.

That’s why it’s hard to understand why Agricenter has two members on the board. Under the resolution approved Monday, the Agricenter International board – a nonprofit private organization - will remain in place as well as the public Agricenter Commission that’s supposed to be providing oversight. Why give Agricenter a place at the table when it consistently refuses to cooperate and coordinate with park operations and whose only consistent talent is at disrupting any meaningful discussion about the best future for the entire park footprint?

It’s almost as perplexing as to why the commissioners required that someone from the Shelby County Conservation Board must be on the new park management board, since it’s an increasingly irrelevant group.

But, this isn’t the point to nit pick the details. The vote this week was a long time coming, and it proves again that all good things are worth waiting for.