Friday, February 27, 2009

What I Love About Memphis…More

From Steve Steffens:

Well, I might as well get in on this, I've only lived here 36 years.
1. Memphis Music & Heritage Festival
2. Center for Southern Folklore (full disclosure - I'm on the board, but I would say it anyway
3. The gazebo in back of the Ornamental Metal Museum - there's not a better place to watch the River.
5. The greatest ribs on earth at Central BBQ
6. The remarkable people
7. The Folk Alliance Conference each February
8. Great food of every cuisine you can imagine and a few you can't.
9. Riverside Drive - day or night
10. The skyline as you enter from the west over the Desoto Bridge.

From Joe Spake:

At least 10 Things I like about Memphis:

  • Payne's Barbecue
  • Memphis Roller Derby
  • Center for Southern Folklore
  • Memphis Music and Heritage Festival
  • Fino's
  • The Riverwalk
  • Otherlands
  • Huey's Midtown
  • Overton Park
  • Local Music
  • Cooper-Young

From Amy Fortenberry:

I am not a native Memphian, but I am proud to call it home. And while I admit that there are times I get scared, angry, discouraged, critical and even embarrassed about what goes on in this city – it is still my home, it is where I voluntarily chose to move and to live, and therefore it is my duty (and right) to defend it and do what I can to make it a better place for all. So, for my list:
1) The sheer number of churches - there's something for everyone, regardless of who/what/why you choose to worship (or not worship). AND the open mindedness of most people, which makes this possible.

2) The Mississippi River in all its majesty. I'm lucky enough to see it almost every day because I work downtown, and it never ceases to take my breath away. (Speaking of the river, I have to include the fireworks show on the 4th of July.)

3) Trees, trees, trees, and more trees. In all seasons, they are beautiful, from first buds in spring to the starkness of the bare branches in winter. I'm excited now for all the green to start poking through - but I love being able to actually see all of the bird nests tucked away in the branches right now, before the leaves hide them.

4) The fact that you can get anywhere - be it Millington to Southaven, downtown to Collierville - in about thirty minutes. For that matter, the fact that you could actually hit three STATES in less than thirty minutes.

5) The Farmer's Markets - both the one downtown at the train station, and the one out east at the Agri-center.

6) All the open, green areas, right in the middle of urban development. Shelby Farms, Audubon Park, Overton Park, etc.

7) The fact that I-40 doesn't go straight through Memphis, but around - because of the zoo! (Some people might not think this is a good thing, but I do - the beauty of the zoo and the surrounding area more than makes up for the minor inconvenience of having to switch to 240 temporarily. I once heard that this is the only place in the nation where I-40 doesn't go straight through. I don't know if that is actually true or not, but I get a kick out of it anyway.)

8) The medical facilities, such as the Med, Baptist East, Le Bonheur, and St. Jude's. While I pray that neither my family or yours will ever need them - I'm thankful to know they are here and available for those inevitable times when we do.

9) The opportunity to further your education at any number of institutions, from Crichton to Southwest to Memphis to Rhodes.

10) Fed-Ex and AutoZone! Two world class organizations that make their home here, and do great things for the community.

From Donald Anthony:

A few things I like about Memphis –

1. The people. Cliche as it may be, I've lived in many other places, and I've never met such friendly people.

2. The spirit. Memphis rallies -- be it around the Tigers or the riverfront or the old growth forest or distressed friends in faraway places. I will never forget venturing to the Wal-Mart on Germantown Parkway late one night in September 2005 and seeing a line of people as far as I could see waiting to place bags of goods--bought with their own hard-earned money--in the back of a truck for delivery to people they had never met. I was compelled to do the same.

3. The Zoo. My family held a membership there for three years and visited well over 100 times. It never gets old.

4. The Brooks Gallery. Same as above.

5. The University of Memphis, which has decided to be a trend-setter in university-neighborhood relations.

6. All of the colleges and universities in Memphis, which bring diversity and keep Memphis interesting.

7. Community-engaged faculty of above-cited universities and colleges. I live in a college town now, and I have yet to meet another Phyllis Betts, Richard Janikowski, or David Ciscel.

8. The food. I miss Central and Cozy Corner and Leonard's. I even miss Tops.

9. The Pink Palace and The Children's Museum. Both supply endless hours of fun.

10. On a personal note, St. Mary's Cathedral. Besides being my church home, it has some of the most fascinating architecture (inside and out) of any structure in the area.

These are the first ten that come to mind.

And from anonymous:

  • Common Ground
  • Lakes in Raleigh
  • Stax
  • MS River Front
  • Memphis Zoo
  • Ballet Memphis
  • Flowers along the Parkways
  • Food!
  • The ways Memphians can laugh and tell it like it is!
  • Trees in Memphis!
  • Our history of non violent protest
  • Tiger Basketball
  • High Point Grocery
  • Dr. Cash
  • GREAT sanitation workers in my neighborhood!!! THANK YOU!
  • How easy it is to get anywhere
  • National Civil Rights Museum
  • Peabody Ducks

Thursday, February 26, 2009

10 Things I Like About Memphis…Continued

This post continues the discussion that began with our last one.

To recap, following a recent post about thoughts for the new year, someone challenged Charlie Santo to name 10 things he liked about Memphis. He replied with more than three times that many, and he said he was just getting started. We said that we'd post our 10 things today, but we'd rather post yours. They're a lot better.

Thanks, and we hope you'll keep them coming in.

Here they are:

From antisocialist:

  • Payne's BBQ
  • Pink Palace
  • MEM Terminal exterior
  • FedEx planes flying overhead at night
  • Tom Lee Park
  • Playhouse on the Square
  • Young Avenue Deli's Fries
  • Cooper-Young Development Corporation
  • Silky's goats (are they still there?)
  • Pirtle's
  • Top's BBQ sauce

From Michael Hughes

  • The culture of food in this city. From the wealth of independent restaurants to the hordes of individuals who enjoy dining out, cooking at home or simply just discussing food. This is a great city for those who like to eat.
  • Many factors contribute to the ability to "find" oneself or at least a good career path. I moved here almost 9 years ago & held a number of jobs in different industries until I found what I was truly passionate about. The cost of living & connectedness of the city (everyone knows everyone else) allowed me to afford to find what I was not only good at but loved doing. If I would have stayed in San Francisco I don't think that would have been possible or affordable.
  • People love to give back here. We've held two benefit parties at our house alone in the past 9 months that were very well attended & everyone opened their checkbooks.
  • The arts community is so vibrant & varied. It's amazing to me that we have such an incredible talent pool of creative, artistic individuals here.
  • Most people that I have come across here are eco-conscious in some way. There seems to be an overall desire to "green" this city.
  • Project Greenfork. With the abundance of restaurants comes an abundance of waste. PG is helping restaurants do something about that.
  • The enormous immigrant population. There is nothing more fantastic than walking into the Vietnamese market on Cleveland. It's as if I've gone to a foreign country.
  • Everyone has a story. People come here from all over & bring with them many stories to tell. All you have to do is listen, most of the time its pretty interesting.
  • This is a city for independent businesses. We love to support the small guy, the start-up, the passionate believer. Our small businesses are our soul & personality. They speak volumes about us.
  • Filmmakers. According to MovieMaker magazine, we are the #8 best city for filmmaking. That's something to be proud of.

From Jenny Sharpe:

1. The countless opportunities to do something meaningful in a big way that impacts the entire community.
2. We're not too small for a project to be insignificant and not too large to have too many barriers or red tape to get it done.
3. The ability to feel a great sense of community due to having so many groups with every interest possible.
4. We're real. We're honest. We're authentic. We got soul.
5. We know how to have a good time!! We're not as stodgy or snooty as other cities.
6. There's a major upsurge of organizations starting to work on elevating and cultivating Memphis' amazing cultural assets.
7. We're gritty and resilient. We've been through hell and back numerous times - from the Yellow Fever Epidemic to the MLK assassination - and we rise up to fight our way back up every time.
8. You can get around the greater Memphis area so easily! People who complain about the distance from "out east" to "all the way downtown" are so spoiled.
9. Our many talented entrepreneurs, as we have always had.
10. Being a part of the community during its upswing is a thrill.

From Louise:

  • Overton Park West Redevelopment Corridor
  • Broad Avenue Arts District
  • Wolf River Trail System
  • Memphis Heritage
  • Stewart Brothers and Gate City Hardware Stores
  • South Main
  • Shelby Forest
  • Shelby Farms before being discovered
  • The Parkway System and Overton Park
  • Memphis Botanic Gardens
  • Snowden Elementary School
  • Belvedere Boulevard
  • Highpoint Grocery
  • The Urban Arts Commission
  • Methodist/Le Bonheur Medical Center-Memphis Bio-works Redevelopment including St. Jude and Uptown
  • Collierville Town Square
  • Humphreys Boulevard
  • Neon

From Courtney:

A few things that weren't on Charlie's list ...

  • New Ballet Ensemble
  • The dental school and eye school that bring hundreds of students into the area ... now only if we could convince more of them to stay.
  • Lots of places for a lazy runner to stretch her legs ... especially if you start at my front door.
  • Downtown Elementary
  • The community of writers living here and Memphis Magazine for running an annual fiction contest
  • Stacey Greenberg--basically everything she does, but most especially dining with monkeys.
  • Autozone
  • Shelby Forest
  • The Mississippi River
  • University of Memphis--for employing my husband and letting me go back to school.
    I know sort of a personal list, but it's mine. (Note: That's o.k., Courtney. That's what Memphis is – personal.)

From Zippy:

1. Central BBQ when they cut the meat right.
2. Peabody Hotel
3. The People
4. Shelby Buffaloes
5. The Zoo
6. Sun Studio Shakes (and tour)
7. HiTone
8. Music Foundation
9. Common Ground Memphis
10. The new effort to curb crime, Blue Crush and all it's ancillaries, Cyberwatch
11. Town Hall Meetings
12. MidTown North Community Assoc.
13. Tomeka Hart
14. Dr. Kriner Cash
15. Bridges and Tarrin McGhee
16. Pink Palace
17. Independent Filmmakers and Theaters
18. Staxx/Soulsville and the school
19. Police and Fire Department
20. Sanitation workers do a great job
21. The Landscaping, Stringer's
22. Mud Island Park
23. The Flea Markets and antique shops
24. Summer Ave from Knox East
25. Cooper Young Burke's Books
26. Golden Palace Indian Food
27. Memphis Drum Shop
28. Church Health Cntr
29. Bangkok Alley
30. Coach Cal and the boys!
31. Smart City blog!
32. City Champs Band
33. Opera Memphis,
34. Symphony
I could go on all day!

From Michelle Shafer:

  • The Memphis Zoo
  • Beautiful Rhodes College Campus
  • Downtown YMCA - diverse and full of people how are trying to live healthy lives
  • Ms. Cordelia's Deli
  • Harbor Town green belt
  • Snowden school
  • Central BBQ on Central
  • Trolley rides
  • Not having to wait in line to ride the trolleys!
  • Our beautiful antique midtown bungalow
  • All the antique and beautiful buildings in Memphis
  • The Orpheum
  • Being able to actually drive my car down town
  • Walking to Cafe Eclectic
  • Memphis Tigers
  • Springtime in Memphis

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Name 10 Things You Like About Memphis

There is a clear line between self-analysis and self-loathing.

Often, in Memphis, we don't just step over it, but we run past it.

We were reminded of this a few ago when a guest post of this blog urged us to think about what we like most about Memphis and to build a community on our shared values. It became the springboard for a screed in response that blamed Memphis for everything short of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

Such is the energy that we will put into trashing our city – no, in trashing ourselves. We often are like the guys who spend their energies thinking up viruses to corrupt our computers. Every one of us has at one time or another said, "What if they would put all that expertise and energy into doing something productive?" The same goes for us.

Yes, we have serious challenges. Formidable challenges.

But that doesn't mean that we don't look for the distinctive assets and shared values so that we can join hands to tackle these tough challenges.

That was what our friend Charlie Santo was doing in his post about Live Where You Live whose central objective is to encourage us to be advocates willing to fight for our city's future. As Live Where You Live says, there is "strength in numbers" and "if we expect anyone to work hard enough to come up with lasting solutions, we need to let people know that Memphis is worth fighting for."

To that, our immediate response was, "Amen."

And yet, Mr. Santo was pilloried for taking this attitude and challenged to name 10 things that give you hope for or that you like about Memphis. To follow up, we asked him for his list, and he gave us 33 things in a matter of minutes. We are printing it here, but we are asking that you take the time to name your 10.

We'd enjoying hearing them here if you're willing to share.

Here's Mr. Santo's list (we'll post ours tomorrow):

* Current Memphis music, including the long list of artists who will be representing Memphis at Austin's South by Southwest festival (Lucero, Jack O & the Tearjerkers, River City Tanlines, Lord T and Eloise, Eightball & MJG, Al Kapone, Free Sol, Amy Lavere, etc.)

* Cost of living

* Memphis Zoo (one of only 4 in the nation with pandas)

* Civil rights heritage that when understood can inspire our future. (e.g., Robert Church Park)

* AutoZone Park – a world class stadium built in the right place with almost entirely private money (how many of those can you name?)

* Memphis Tigers – not just the team, but the way the city rallied around them together

* Harbor town – one of the best examples of new urbanist development in the nation

* V&E Greenline

* Greenbelt Park

* Greening Greater Memphis / the Greater Memphis Greenline / Sustainable Shelby

* SkateLife Memphis

* Memphis Arts Park

* Brooks Museum

* Central Library

* Campus School (an MCS/UofM collaboration and the best elementary school in the state)

* St. Jude

* Le Bonheur

* Church Health Center

* Streets ministries

* Bridges

* Goner Records

* The Big Scoop ice cream festival

* Cooper Young Parents Network

* Cooper Young festival

* Caritas Village

* Indie Memphis

* Halloween in High Point Terrace

* Peabody-Vance Christmas tree lighting

* Soulsville underpass murals on Bellevue

* The Shell at Overton Park

* Memphis Rock-n-Romp

* Willingness to be different

* The fact that my kids don't know the terms "black people" and "white people"

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hard Ball Vote Makes It Tough To Play Ball

Matt Kuhn deserves better.

He’s smart, attractive and has an impeccable pedigree, his mother a long-time Democratic activist and his father the Shelby County attorney on and off for a couple of decades.

However, the decision by the Democratic majority of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to name Mr. Kuhn to a vacant set formerly held by Republican David Lillard does him no favors.

Political Marker Or Marked Man

He is now a marked man in expansive District 4, where he is likely to be a pariah among the people he has been elected to serve.

In this demonstration of hard-ball politics by the “D” side of the board of commissioners, they’ve hardened the lines for compromise – always tenuous these days – and sacrificed fair play on the altar of opportunism.

Sadly, it’s Mr. Kuhn who will now pay the price.

Thrown Into The Well

To give the Democratic commissioners the benefit of a doubt, perhaps they have heard so much for so long about the Shelby County Republican Party reaching out to African-American voters that they decided to try their own twist on the strategy – trying to reach out to the solidly Republican district outside of Memphis in Shelby County by proving that Democrats don’t have horns.

It will make little difference. The Democratic commissioners have sent Mr. Kuhn into a district that is so solidly Republican that normally no Democratic candidates even file for District 4 positions.

Meanwhile, the power in District 4 lies with the five town mayors, who have solidly Republican roots, meaning that they are likely to give him lip service but they aren’t going to give him any results that he can then use sell in a future election.

Post Patterns

While we have indeed entered a post-Republican era in Shelby County, it’s still years before that will be happen in District 4. That’s why someone like Tommy Hart would have made more sense for the district. First, he has been a county commissioner for that district before and there would be no time lost figuring out how things work. Second, he took the oath that he would not run for election when his partial term ended.

We’re not sure if Mr. Kuhn took such a vow, but he might as well have. The chances of his being elected by the voters of District 4 are akin to one of us here hitting the lottery.

In the end, the action by the seven Democratic commissioners suggests that they have not reached the maturity of the former Republican majority, which did in fact appoint Democrats when seats held by Democrats became vacant. In fact, on those occasions, there was never any consideration of doing otherwise.

About Winning Or Governing?

Perhaps, that was in a time when there was a stronger air of civility and stronger emphasis on consensus at the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Ironically, those were the days when Vasco Smith and Jesse Turner Sr., firebrands for the civil rights movement, were members.

They could at times vociferously express their disagreements with the white majority, but because they knew how to skillfully negotiate and compromise in ways in which they could guide the ultimate outcome, the board of commissioners could still maintain the respect between its members that was necessary for the effective governing of Shelby County.

Today, the currency for the commission appears to be all about power and a brand of “stick it to them” political philosophy. Some say that it reflects the same level of understanding by African-Americans of Caucasian voters as is so often the reverse. These observers suggest that a motivating factor was the naivete that just being white is the primary qualification outside of Memphis.

Powerful Temptation

It’s hard for us to embrace such a theory, because of the deep experience possessed by some of the long-time Democratic Party leaders now on the board of commissioners. To us, it seems that they simply could not resist the political temptation to engage in political oneupsmanship.

While it is tempting to say that the Republican push for partisan county elections 15 years or so ago has finally come home to roost, it’s more concerning that Democrats’ years of promising that they would be fairer and more egalitarian than Republicans has quickly fallen prey to the lure of majority power.

Most ironically of all, there is the chance that the vote may in the end be the equivalent of the Democratic members shooting themselves in the foot. There have been plenty of issues in the past couple of years where each member had the power to influence an issue because every vote was necessary for the 7-6 majority.

A Possible Miscalculation

Now, there is a margin for error, and if one Democrat holds out, there is the chance to put the seven votes together without the need for every Democrat to be on board. It will prove interesting to see who’s vote is now devalued as a result of Mr. Kuhn’s election.

In brushing aside Republicans pleas for District 4 to be served by the same party that the voters there have supported in every election for 20 years, the Democrats also sent the message that the environment in county government is likely to be more adversarial and decidedly less civil.

The hard-ball vote may have left members of the majority party smiling at their cleverness, but it was ultimately a shallow victory. The real win would have been if the Democratic majority had demonstrated in a dramatic and powerful way that they are about healing the divisions between us and about proving that they are intent to be a vehicle for a community bound together by a common respect and a mutual commitment to a shared future.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Grand Old Party Can’t Find A Grand New Party

The national Republican Party seems loathe to learn the lessons of the past election.

Because of it, they are caught up in rhetoric that only makes it look either tone-deaf to the last election's message or simply ridiculous. After all, it doesn't seem to have dawned that the same old play book won't create the same old fault lines of race, income and geography that it has perpetuated and deepened for partisan advantage.

National leaders seem to be falling back into their old Rovian comfort zone, where the emphasis is on red herrings, rhetorical excesses and phony controversies aimed solely at getting 51% even it means discouraging people to stay away from the polls. It's not about creating a national vision or consensus. It's always about scorched earth policies that induce fear as a political philosophy.

There's something so cynical about this approach – regardless of which party does it – but the Republican Party went from majority party to minority party as a result of its own cynicism, but its national leadership can't shake free of the wishful thinking that it's all just cyclical.

It's No Joke

As a result, they can with straight faces chide the Obama Administration for the economic stimulus funding, calling it wasteful, expensive and too much spending. It's as if they expect a bout of national amnesia to have set, forgetting that the Republican Administration and the Republican Congress produced the largest deficits in history, presided over the largest expansion of the federal government and blurred the lines between government and capitalism so much that the former was seen as the instrument for the latter.

That said, if the Republican leaders inside the Beltway are tone deaf, Tennessee Republicans are just plain deaf. Here, the Tennessee Republican Party seems oblivious to the changes that the public wants in tone and in acting that compromise (the grease that oiled the democratic machinery in a simpler time) is unacceptable. As a result, they come off more often as dilettantes than elected leaders.

In moments of humorous insight, Democratic strategists joke that Democratic organization is a conflict in terms. They joke that Democrats can always find a way to screw up a two-car funeral, so the best Republican strategy is to stay patient until Democrats implode.

Meanwhile, Republican strategists joke that their party can always find a way to overplay its power and treat their election as a coronation that justifies their imperial thinking and strident policies, so Democrats' best strategy is to make Republicans as powerful as possible.

Wanted: Some Answers

Seemingly oblivious to the risk that they become mere parodies of themselves, Republican members of Congress gravely express their newfound concern about too much federal spending. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republican mayors and governors are looking for ways that their federal taxes can flow back to their states in the form of money for new infrastructure, jobs and innovation.

As expected, the national media rarely ask the follow-up questions. What's their solution to the economic meltdown? If they are now so concerned about the disastrous effect of this nearly trillion dollar program, where was the concern when they blew a hole in the federal budget to send huge tax windfalls to the wealthiest five per cent of Americans and create the largest deficits in history?

Because of the national media's predilection to believe that the "inside baseball" of Washington politics matters more to us than the Main Street politics of U.S. cities, we rarely see the Republican leadership in the hinterland that is hailing the importance of the economic stimulus funding - the big city mayors (yes, there are some who are Republicans) who have seen urban issues virtually ignored for a decades.

It's no secret that legislators can make all these grand statements because they don't have to manage the fall-out that comes from their flights of political pandering, such as the ill-conceived ideas as the Tennessee Republican Party's idea to turn parks and bars and public places into potential shooting galleries. Meanwhile, those of us who aren't packing heat apparently don't deserve the right to even know who in the neighborhood or in our sphere of work and play is so in love with their weapons that they carry them with them.

An Air Ball

Frankly, we make it a general practice not to go to places where we need to carry firearms, but amazingly, in the combined couple of centuries of the people here, no one yet has wished for a handgun during an evening out on the town. Maybe, Republican state legislators like Rep. Curry Todd could support a "Dodge City" law. Every one can pack their favorite six-shooter, but they have to check them at the door. They can always pick them up again when they leave to go back out to the big, bad city.

To those who judge Mr. Todd by his regularly inane legislative positions, we hasten to point out that although he was a great basketball player, sometimes sports acumen just isn't the same as leader acumen. Even the small matter of the U.S. Constitution – something a number of Republicans have gotten used to ignoring in recent years – didn't dissuade state legislators from a silly amendment steamrolling through the Tennessee Legislature that would outlaw the posting online of people who have gun permits.

This flurry of activities to pander to the gun lobby was triggered (excuse the pun) by the apparently treacherous decision by The Commercial Appeal to give the public access to public records by posting a searchable database of gun permit holders on its website. There's public information about all of us floating around on public websites and some private websites, but in an age when our privacy is regularly assaulted, the party faithful here decide that its gun owners who deserve all the attention, not any of us who may have had our phones tapped in recent years.

As for Mr. Todd, his response to whether this kind of ill-considered action conflicted with the First Amendment right to freedom of the press suggested too many dunks where his head hit the rim: "It's no concern of mine." As Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck seemed to be trying to point out in one of his Sunday columns, while we have 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, somehow, we're supposed to believe that the Second Amendment trumps all the others.

The Old West (Tennessee)

In this issue, the difference between the pandering of Republican legislators and the responsibilities of Republican officials who are actually managers of public services was stark. To this end, Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy called the Tennessee gun slinger law "ill-advised" and suggested wisely that guns in parks just don't seem like good public policy. "We've worked hard to create an environment that feels safe."

The ways of the Tennessee Legislature are always baffling to us mere mortals, but this obsession with guns sounds like a case of castration anxiety run amok.

Not content to become just one of the minions in the headline-hunting department, East Memphis and Germantown State Representative Brian Kelsey advanced one of his regular outrageous ideas, this time asking his colleagues to urge the governor to turn down federal stimulus money. As one legislator on his side of the aisle said: "Is there nothing that he won't say to get in front of a TV camera? Sometimes, I think he thinks that he's still at Student Council meetings."

That sounds a little too unkind considering the need for fresh young faces in our political system. That's why we keep hoping that Rep. Kelsey will eventually find his way and his balance. He's too smart and too attractive a candidate to squander his opportunity to contribute to the progress of his state, becoming a punch line to many people in Nashville and running the risk of being so marginalized and so strident that he's one of those people who wander the halls of the legislature with little ability to create a voting bloc or to influence serious legislation.

All of these Republican antics might be humorous if they were not occurring in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 60 years. At a time when the unemployment rate is soaring, when foreclosures are climbing and jobs are being eliminated across all sectors, our legislators are actually spending their energy on gun bills and political theater.

All in all, it makes us nostalgic for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.

This Week On Smart City: Getting Resilient And Getting Real In Our Cities

This week, we'll speak with two people with grand ideas for the future of city living.

First,there will be Tim Beatley, co-author of the book Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change. He says it will take intelligent planning and visionary leadership for cities to respond to environmental and economic crises now and in the future.

And we'll speak with architect Bernard Zyscovich. Bernard has designed many buildings all over the U.S. but he's turned his eye to urban design in his new book, Getting Real About Urbanism: Contextual Design for Cities.

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

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

Thursday, February 19, 2009

City Council Still Right On School Funding

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner cash says: “Arguing over who should fund schools is not good for children.”


Editorial writers say Memphis City Council acted rashly and as a result, it left the city schools in a precarious financial position.

Wrong again.

To the superintendent, we can only say that debating who should fund schools is precisely the right argument for this community to be having, because finally, it gets the focus where it belongs – on equitable taxes for Memphians.

To editorial writers, we can only say that City Council acted courageously, and because of them, we are finally, after 30 years of talk, talk, and more talk, having the right discussion. More to the point, precisely because of the gutsy members of the City Council, the first serious, actionable plan for single source funding of schools is taking shape and is likely to yield real results.

Fairness For The Future

Before school supporters narrowly define this as a “children are our future” rhetorical debate, let’s remember that this is about something even more fundamental. It’s about tax fairness and fair play.

No one is suggesting that it’s not in all of our best interests – not to mention our common humanity – to pay for the education of our children. It does in fact take a village and we all need to be villagers in that pursuit.

But the village doesn’t only have children. It has elderly people, especially the significant percentage here who live in poverty, it needs an economy that doesn’t play down to our low skill levels but helps to improve them, and it’s about neighborhoods that are connected, walkable and served by high-quality public transit.

In other words, the village is about more than one special interest or one group of people. It’s about serving the interests and needs of all of them and in ways that keeps one group from disproportionately paying the price for every one else or that provides fair play for all needs of the group.

Lewis Carroll Financing

As for us, we think single source funding of schools would be a major step in eliminating the “we versus they” approach that grips too many issues in our village. In other words, it’s time for our village not to be Memphis or Germantown or Bartlett. It’s time for our village to be all of Shelby County, a place with one future, one voice and one commitment to educating our children (even though 75% of us do not have children in school).

O.K., we’ve belabored the village analogy to the breaking point, but what we are suggesting is that there is no logical argument to justify why Memphians have to pay twice for public education while every one else in Shelby County pays once.

Let’s say it again just to make sure every one gets it. No property tax money from the City of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Millington and Arlington go to fund schools. Meanwhile, Memphians not only pay for schools in their county property tax bill, but they pay for it again with their city taxes. No one else in this county does that – or has ever done that – except Memphians.

Meanwhile, those same small cities use their lower tax rates and their schools as lures to pull people out of Memphis. And Memphians are forced to help make it possible. Or put another way, Memphians not only pay twice for schools, but they are being forced to participate in a tax structure that encourages people to move out of their city, which in turn exacerbates the tax burden on them.

It’s enough to make Alice feel that the Mad Hatter made good sense.

Can You Spell F-A-I-R?

The questions that every one, particularly Superintendent Cash and the ever-naïve School Commissioner Jeff Warren, should answer are these: What is fair about Memphians paying twice for public services that every one else gets with one tax payment? What is fair about those whose median incomes are less to pay twice for public services when those who make more pay once?

Even a sixth grade math student can tell that it doesn’t add up. Even a sixth grade spelling student knows how to spell U-N-F-A-I-R.

In this way, Shelby County Chancellor Kenny Armstrong’s ruling that City of Memphis cannot reduce its funding to schools was not only unexpected by most observers, but if allowed to stand, it creates a tax disparity that is nothing less than quicksand for Memphis as it tries to become a city of choice to middle-class families and young families.

Perhaps, Memphians will be forced by the courts to pay twice for schools forever, but let’s make no mistake about what the consequences would be. It will create a future where fewer and fewer taxpayers will pay higher and higher taxes for schools and other services in a city more and more economically polarized.

Appealing For Fairness

Hopefully, appellate courts will give Memphis a ruling that won’t dramatically limit Memphis’ ability to succeed. In point of fact, Chancellor Armstrong’s ruling is likely to accelerate the troubling trajectory of our city. Chancery Court has always been the court where public opinion and local political dynamics seems to hold sway, so a favorable ruling on appeal for City of Memphis is not only justifiable but a necessity.

The irony of all this gnashing of teeth is that the Memphis City Schools’ operating budget is as large – if not larger – than City of Memphis. It’s always strange at the double standard in the intergovernmental family. Every issue involving schools is destined to take on the dimensions of a calamitous disaster, while any other part of government has its services treated as dispensable and always ripe for cuts.

So, it’s no surprise that some predict educational disaster if $57.4 million is cut from Memphis City Schools' almost $1 billion budget.

The notion – legal or logical – that Memphis is mandated to simply continue to pay the money to city schools as its tax base constricts, as consumption taxes dry up and more middle-income families leave is not just absurd public finance. It’s absurd law.

Being Punished Bad For Being Good

It paints a scenario in which Memphians – with their array of social and human service needs – see those programs shrink because of the stranglehold of school funding as a result of a state mandate.

It wasn’t too many years ago that City of Memphis provided significantly less funding for schools. Also, there was a widely held opinion – in both city and county mayors’ offices and in both city and county legal departments – that Memphis’ funding was discretionary. It could stop it whenever it liked, and as a result, City of Memphis increased school funding to higher and higher levels, but rather than getting a thank you note from city schools, they instead get served with a lawsuit.

It makes no sense (and surely there ought to be some layer of good sense in the law) that local taxpayers, through a Memphis City Council courageous enough to tackle this tax equity problem head-on, lose all rights to determine its priorities, its ability to pay for services and to align priorities to funding and ultimately, to have the ultimate flexibility to move around money in its budgets in times of crisis.

Here’s the problem: because of our state’s regressive tax structure and our anomalous bulge in children, all public services are fighting over a pie whose size is fixed and so every agency feels compelled to fight for its share. It’s a system destined to breed conflict and produce political dogfights over the crumbs falling off the table.

Leveling The Playing Field

As a result, we appreciate Memphis City Schools’ feeling that it has to fight for its share, but what could happen if its leaders told state government that it agrees with City of Memphis and that tax fairness to Memphians is of paramount importance. It’s a dream that will never occur, but at the least, school officials should become vehicles for a new understanding that education is not a municipal service. If it were otherwise, all other cities in Shelby County would be paying for schools, too.

It seems to us that rather than complicating the issue of tax equity with testy negotiations and discussions about global issues, couldn’t we just start with a simple premise: City of Memphis should fund the same services that the other towns do. It should not subsidize services outside of Memphis and its taxpayers should never pay twice for the same public service.

The state law that forbids local government from reducing its previous year’s school funding may sound on the surface like a commitment to kids, but in the end, it’s a prescription that erodes the kind of self-determination that every government deserves. After all, the law would require government to keep the same level of funding even as enrollment drops.

Said more precisely, Chancellor Armstrong is saying that despite the declining enrollment at Memphis City Schools, Memphians should never have the option of reducing its funding even if there are fewer students. In the end, perhaps all of us should be paying more for our schools, but neither district has made a convincing case that more money will cure what ails the two districts where students in both underperform.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bredesen Administration Reminds Us Of Our Place

Even paranoiacs have enemies.

And while we fight the birthright to regard Nashville as the evil empire, we can’t summon the same attitude toward State of Tennessee government.

As witnesses for the prosecution, we call on the heads of three state departments – Economic and Community Development, Department of Human Services and Department of Education. Each of them is charged with benign neglect toward our city and possession of a Nashville-centric view of the world.

Distressed Logic

Case in point is the absurdity of the designation by state economic development bureaucrats of Nashville as an economically-distressed county. Meanwhile, we are treated as if there are no similar economic challenges here.

More to the point, this preferential treatment gives Nashville a serious advantage when our cities go head-to-head in recruiting and responding to the same business prospects. In point of fact, this simple designation means that Nashville gets twice as much in economic incentives as Memphis, or put another way, it means that Memphis gets about $2,000 from the state in incentives per job while Nashville gets more than $4,000.

Apparently, state officials think that our math skills are so weak that we can’t crack this simple equation -- when it comes to Nashville, there are rules and then there are rules for the rest of us. When this incentive-based program was created, it was actually aimed at helping out the limping economies of Tennessee’s rural counties.

Different Strokes For Different Folks

But when it comes to Nashville, all things are possible, so when the center of the universe experienced a couple of plant closings, Economic and Community Development acted as if Western Civilization hung n the balanced and classified Nashville as economically disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, this double standard exacerbates local government’s overreliance on tax freezes, which results in large part to the lack of a coherent, effective toolkit of economic incentives by state government. Because of this special treatment for Nashville, even more pressure is put on our economic development officials to cough up even more tax freezes.

A University of Memphis economist tells us that the unemployment rate here is likely to rise to 12% before things improve, and it’s worth remembering that a significant number of people aren’t even counted anymore because they don’t even look for work anymore.

Blowing Up The System

Nashville’s not the only place that’s losing jobs. And yet, somehow, it’s the only big city that seems to deserve the concern of state officials. But that theme has been relatively consistent for a Democratic Administration that acts like the homecoming queen that only speaks to us when it’s time for her election.

Strike One.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Department of Human Services cavalierly ended a 45-year program in which our Juvenile Court collected child support payments. While papering their justification with buzzwords like “performance-based,” “collection goals” and “competitive process,” the decision to cut ties with our local court felt most like the extension of the partisan dispute about whether a second Juvenile Court judgeship should be created.

That Certain Smell

While we’ve agreed with Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person on occasion and agreed with Shelby County Commissioners at other times, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the Bredesen Administration is more intent on weakening the Republican incumbent than on strengthening the collection of child support payments.

There’s several things about this one that has a certain odor rising from it. First, if Juvenile Court was such a failure in hitting the benchmarks set by the state, why wasn’t it eliminated from even submitting a proposal?

Second, Maximus, the Virginia-based company, got the five-year contract, although the out-of-state firm lost its contract in five other West Tennessee counties for inefficiency and customer complaints.

The Lowest Of All

Third, state government touted the fact that Maximus was the lowest bid, while we’d be more interested in knowing that they represented the “lowest and best” bid, because some clear judgment is missing if the evaluation was essentially based on price.

Finally, DHS Commissioner Virginia Lodge’s letters and messages about a possible change have the heavy ring of a decision that was already made and then a justification was developed for it. In her op-ed column in The Commercial Appeal this week, she expressed a lot of opinions, but never offered a single statistic to back them up.

For us, because of the importance of child support payments to a significant number of Memphis mothers and because of the imposing impact of a now fractured system, the state owes Memphis more than political platitudes and justifications. DHS officials owe all of us a detailed, rational explanation of why it nuked a program that really didn’t need fixing.

Strike Two.

Failing All Round

Then, there’s the Tennessee Department of Education, which continues to show a special commitment to the Nashville school district that’s never been shown here although students in the capital’s schools are actually outperforming ours.

The actions of DOE reaffirm one thing that we’ve always suspected: there is no longer any question that Nashville schools receive preferential treatment. It’s been answered conclusively by the DOE’s actions in Nashville and its inaction in Memphis. When Memphis City Schools found itself on the state’s high-priority list, the same as Nashville today, there was the unmistakable feeling that DOE couldn’t wait to get out of here.

It was only a few years ago that the Department of Education, given a chance to force transformative change in our district, accepted the so-called and aptly named “Proposal for Expenditures of Additional State Revenues,” largely a list of everybody’s favorite ideas with no thread of academic philosophy underpinning them.


Compare that to Nashville. There, the DOE mobilized into action and focused its considerable influence and resources on turning things around, taking unprecedented action to change the organizational structure of the Nashville district. State officials even appointed three associate superintendents to oversee instruction, along with new leaders for the district’s federal, gifted and special ed programs.

The state replaced 60 principles and assistant principals who were considered ineffective and the curriculum was changed to emphasize literacy and numeracy. Small learning academies were opened at some high schools along with more career and technical programs.

Strike Three. Unfortunately, it’s Memphis that’s out. In the cold.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Creating A Check List For The Future

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

So, what should we start doing right now to get ahead? We welcome your suggestions.

Investments in Universities. Universities are seedbeds for the Knowledge Economy. Cities with research universities have a head start in this economy, because they create the innovation and the intellectual capital needed today. At the exact time when universities are crucial to success, state government is slashing budgets of higher education, and we must start thinking now about what we will do to elevate and improve our universities.

Redevelopment in the Urban Core. Memphis has significant underdeveloped and vacant land. The infrastructure in these older areas has been paid for and their reuse makes the wisest investment of scarce public funds. If incentives should be given to anybody, it should be for the redevelopment of our neighborhoods, which are, after all, the backbone of our city's health.

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

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

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

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

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

Acting (As Well As Talking) Regionally. Memphis talks a good game of regionalism, but we’ve never truly engrained regional thinking into our plans and actions. Too often, we lapse into “we versus them” and “if you’re winning, we must be losing” attitudes. Economic activity and innovation occur in a regional context, and we ignore this at our peril. It is increasingly clear that Memphis and its suburbs are inextricably linked into a single economic unit, and Memphis shouldn't be the only city in the region saying this.

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

Thinking and Acting Collaboratively. This requires a shift in leadership styles from traditional authoritarian models to a new environment of inclusion, mutual influence and community building. Opening the door wider to all segments of the community and inviting new voices to engage in decision-making is the mark of a mature and competitive city. Most of all, we must rid the halls of government with their "it's not your time yet" responses to any initiative shown by young leaders.

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

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

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

High-Quality Eco-Assets. Preserved and protected open spaces, safe and attractive public spaces, better quality public sphere, greenbelts, clean air and water and outdoor recreation are not just wonderful public assets. More precisely, they are competitive advantages. Most of all, neighborhood parks must be treated as the heart and soul of our green assets.

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

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Way Memphis Is Different

It's a tale of two cities, and only a short drive is needed to come face-to-face with the telling.

In Nashville, the 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.

A Red Flag

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.

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.

More Talk Than Walk

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

Five years have passed 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 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.

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.

Smart Taxes

More and more, some kind of regional tax pooling makes sense here. Without it, Memphis and Shelby County will inevitably be forced to take unilateral action like a payroll tax on the 88,000 people who commute into Shelby County.

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, and here, it could delight commuters by taking the payroll tax off the table as an option for city and county governments' ailing finances.

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.

A Better Way

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 the optimal community.

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.


The Mid-South has the muscle to get it done. The Sourcebook called for creation of the Regional Congressional Caucus, which would take advantage of the Mid-South's six U.S. senators and six congressmen inside the Beltway, and the Mid-South Legislative Caucus to fight for shared priorities in the capitals of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

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's what psychiatrists call "magical thinking" with little connection to reality. There's nothing magical about the fact that regions are the competitive units for the new economy, and without a stronger regional platform, any economic growth plans for any part of the region are in jeopardy before they even begin.

But it's often forgotten here that there is no strong regional platform without an equally strong urban core. Too often, regionalism ends up being an olive branch held out by the largest city to the rest of the region, but sadly, it is often unreciprocated. The region can talk the talk of regionalism, but there's little change in behavior (think North Mississippi's recruitment of Memphis companies across the state line and the sprawl-inducing I-269 interstate).

Future Shock

In other words, it's time to understand that there is no such thing as a bright future for Germantown if Memphis doesn't have one. There is no such thing as DeSoto County's succeeding if Memphis fails.

That's why the economic stimulus package for our region is so important. It needs to be less about the region and much more about the city. It's a historic chance to strengthen the urban engine of our economy and to make sure that the rising tide most of all rises our urban boat.

Connectors Score Big Points For Cities

The New York Times sent a Valentine's card to Michael Heisley today with a cover story in the Sunday magazine based on this premise:

"The N.B.A. (learning from baseball) is discovering the power of new statistics and weird analytics. By these measures, the unsung and undervalued Shane Battier is a true all-star."

The article points out that while he isn't hailed for any gifts that are spectacular on the court, Mr. Battier nonetheless makes every one of his teams better than they were without him. For example, the article says the Grizzlies, the team with the worst won-loss percentage in NBA history, went to the playoffs when he played here and points out how the Houston Rockets' record suffered when he was out with an injury.

In other words, his value on the court seems to be as a connector who elevates every one else's game, creates the teamwork needed for success and brings disparate parts into greater efficiency.

Because Mr. Battier was always a favorite of ours and we thought the inability of the Grizzlies to recognize his value as the "face" of the team was a sign of bad things to come, we were pleased with his much-deserved time in the spotlight.

But as we read the article, we also thought of the value that people like him play in the life of successful cities. There are in fact some unheralded people, sometimes even undervalued, who play the same kind of role as connectors.

In Memphis, Mr. Battier played that role on the court, but he also brought energy to his charitable work while he was in Memphis. Clearly, we need more Shane Battiers in Memphis - people who can bring together disparate people behind a new commitment to change things, who can become the glue that holds together new collaborations and who can produce a new way of working on city challenges and capitalizing on opportunities.

In doing this, connectors elevate every one's game and become engines that spark new ideas and the increased confidence that often lies at the heart of new success.

Friday, February 13, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Learning About A Carless Downtown And Teaching America

Is it possible to design a downtown that boosts the economy and helps people get around without their cars?

Urban designers George Crandall and Don Arambula of the firm Crandall Arambula think so. They join us this week to talk about 21st century retail, re-concentrating a city's downtown and why parking is still important, even when you want people to drive less.

And we'll check in with Donique Nobles. Donique is a Memphis alumnus from Teach For America who now serves as the organization's recruitment director. She'll tell us about completing the program, and how she is now working to bring other bright young college graduates into the teaching profession.

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 so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gritty Cities Like Ours Demand Strong Action

While Memphis has never been categorized as an old industrial city, it's always had similarities – deep urban challenges, grittiness and demographics – that give us more in common with these cities than Sunbelt cities.

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

Most large urban cities like ours are landlocked, surrounded by suburban cities and bedroom towns, and as a result, their borders are fixed and permanent. While Mayor Willie W. Herenton seems to be attacked from all sides these days, he deserves credit for defeating the “tiny towns” movement that would have produced even great divisions here.

Down and Down

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

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

As a result, The Brookings Institution doesn’t include Memphis in many of its studies about cities in trouble, because, as we wrote in posts lately, our annexations masquerade as progress and mask what's really going on in our core city and the problems that are deepenening there. Nevertheless, we think the recommendations apply directly to our city.

On The Rebound

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

Much of the problems in these cities stem from economies dominated by low-wage employment; entrenched, multi-generational poverty; high unemployment and unemployables, and low incomes and diminishing tax income. If these cities are to rebound, they have to keep their eye on the ball. They have lost the high-paying jobs of an industrial economy that has long since vanished, replaced by lower-wage jobs. Most damaging of all, the dominance of older established industries actually thwarts entrepreneurialism and new business creation.

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


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

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

What To Do

So, what should cities like ours do to revitalize themselves?

* Fix the basics. It sounds simple and it will take decades, because it includes fixing broken educational systems, making cities safe and making cities cost-effective for companies. Lack of safety in a city is proof positive that a city government is failing, because it’s unable to deliver on its most fundamental obligation – to protect its citizens.

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

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

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

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

All in all, it made again provocative reading, because if Memphis is to succeed, we have to first recognize that we have no margin for error, and then second, we have to focus on the levers for change that can make a real difference in our future.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New Year's Observations Wrap Up

We apologize to Lori Spicer and Steve Bares for the delay in posting their New Year's thoughts as part of our series of commentaries by notable Memphians last month. We misplaced their submissions and so we post them here today.

Steve Bares: A Wish For The New Year

Steve Bares is President and Executive Director of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation:

For the first several weeks of 2009, a lot of attention has rightfully
been placed on the challenges of creating jobs and reenergizing the economy - locally and nationally. Much of the immediate attention has been on the stimulus packages that will be coming from Washington. In light of all of the discussions, posturing and proposals being surfaced,my dream for Memphis in 2009 is that the stimulus dollars are actually used for long term, economy building and sustainable programs that create jobs and fight capital flight.

The recent economic uncertainty only highlights the long term erosion of the region's ability to attract and compete for sustainable, high-wage jobs. We have the opportunity as a community to come forward with a united voice to attract investments in those programs, infrastructure and activities that strengthen our local economy for the long term, that build upon our community strengths and that will create the kinds of jobs that attract and retain the all important "knowledge workers" that every community is fighting to attract.

While the biosciences do not hold a monopoly on investments that fit the definition of sustainable, high quality, knowledge worker jobs, it is certainly an area with many opportunities. Stimulus areas of immediate need in our community include:

- Infrastructure construction on "shovel ready" projects that can be completed and contributing within 12 to 18 months

- Opportunities with both immediate and long term job creation

- Entrepreneurship support, especially in relationship to technology and bioscience start-up companies

- Health services and strategies to both reduce healthcare costs and improve the quality of care for under-served populations

- Green jobs

2009 will be an economically challenging year. My wish is that we unite to turn those short term challenges into sustainable term opportunities through proper and intelligent investment.

Lori Spicer: Thoughts For A New Year

Lori Spicer is board members of MPACT Memphis:

Memphis is the place I have always called home, even though I left in 2000 to attend undergrad at UTK, to complete graduate school at UF, and work at a nonprofit in DC - and return home in August of 2007 for my current position at the Greater Memphis Chamber. I love this city, I want to see it thrive and I want my fellow citizens to share in these same sentiments.

Memphis is currently faced with its fair share of ills and we need the community to rise and address some of these issues. Our government, education system and crime are the issues at the forefront of our problems. We need dedicated, innovative leaders in our government who are not afraid of change and who bring novel ideals to the table. Our education system needs to truthfully work to have "no child left behind" and develop some consistency in the opportunities, resources and teachers dispersed among all the schools.

There is a noticeable difference in these areas and I would like to see the same exposure and opportunities offered to all students, not those who live in a particular neighborhood or from a particular class. Our children are our future community leaders, business executives, and government officials and we need to ensure they are armed with an adequate education and unique exposure to flourish and reach their goals. Our youth need to be exposed to things that help them become "out-of-the-box thinkers" and that is something they may not see or be introduced to in their home life.

The crime in our city has increased tremendously and I think there are a lot of things that attribute to this. Our youth are becoming more involved with crime because we have stripped them of all of their fun and social outlets: the Mid-South Fair (inner city youth will not be able to reach the fair if it is placed outside "the loop" or city limits), Liberty Land, Adventure River, Celebration Station, now Jillian's, many local skating rinks and community centers. Our youth are bored and their idle time is being given to crime. Also our police force needs to focus on concentrated areas. When housing projects are demolished with the hopes of improving the city, we must consider that the individuals causing the crimes are dispersed amongst the city, but not eliminated.

In addition, we need to place more of an emphasis on attracting young, talented professionals. This is the one demographic that we are lacking the most and we have to ensure that all of the above are improved, but also that we breed a culture of diverse social and cultural outlets, which we are lacking. This weekend I was in DC and I had two individuals identify with the Civil Rights Museum and commented on how great it is as well as our Zoo, but that the prior needs to become more interactive and that the museum itself needs renovations.

I am confident that Memphis can reach this potential that it has sought after for years, but it is going to take our community to make this idea come to fruition.

With that said we need a city-wide campaign that reunites us all and that transforms our media to deliver positive messages to our residents. There are so many great things and some many things to be proud of, but many people are unaware.

I love this city and I will continue to work with individuals who seek positive change and who want Memphis to be great, not good!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Beltway Blues Reprises Familiar Melody

There’s always the day when the government reformer comes face-to-face with the government reality.

That’s happened in short order to President Barack Obama, and unfortunately, part of it seems to be of his own making.

There’s a reason that Sears couldn’t reinvent itself to become Wal-Mart. There’s a reason that Washington insiders can’t be expected to reinvent the government from which their power flows.

That’s why the appointment of so many Washington-first Cabinet members to lead the Obama Administration has in short order stifled the president’s ability to change the tone, culture and results of the federal government. We hope it’s only temporary.

Nuke It

It’s no secret that one of the toughest challenges of an organization is to change its culture and to find people who are able to work outside of their comfort zones to do it. When the organization has an annual budget of more than $3 trillion and a workforce of 15 million, it’s hard to change things with a nuclear warhead. But it’s next to impossible when those in charge of the warhead are part and parcel of the organization they have been chosen to blow up.

It’s reminiscent of the story about Sam Walton, who was asked why Sears didn’t evolve into Wal-Mart. His reply was that Sears was too invested in its own legacy systems, so every idea of change began with those systems as its context and with the presumption that those systems would remain.

And so it is inside the Beltway. People who have risen to power within the current government structure can hardly be expected to suddenly don the mantle as agents of change. Too often, political appointees act on the understanding that their time is limited and so the emphasis is on consolidating power and establishing a platform for the next job.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy simply marks time. They know that they only need to adopt the new language of the new administration, but nothing requires them to change their behavior. As a result, much of it acts on the presumption that it can wait it out. There will always be a new administration – remember Al Gore’s campaign to reinvent the federal government.

Real Change

To them, it’s always easier, not to mention safer, to say no than to say yes. It’s easier to mark time and stay there forever than take a risk at innovation and lose their jobs if it doesn’t work. So, they give lip service to change, but in the end, they are prisoners of the bureaucratic rules and regulations they created.

As a result, there may be much talk about an innovative economic stimulus package, but in the end, the nearly trillion dollars will be sent to long-time federal employees who’ll plug the money into the existing bureaucratic pipeline. For example, the grand ambitions for housing will be funneled into HUD whose byzantine processes are likely to drain all imagination from cities’ proposals.

Stanford University economist Paul Romer famously said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It can create the conditions in which it clarifies priorities, it aligns resources, it mobilizes change, it morphs rigidity into innovation, and it fuels change that comes more quickly and is more far-reaching.

In this way, the current crisis can be and must ultimately be the catalyst for a new way of conducting the public’s business. In the best of times, decisions made today would be crucial, but gripped in a national economic crisis, there is no margin for error.

Breaking Away

To compete and win in the race for good-paying jobs in the knowledge economy and for economic success, American cities must have strong, healthy neighborhoods; pathways from welfare dependency to self-sufficiency; a vibrant, active downtown; and hubs of vitality that anchor areas of the city and bind together to expand our economy, sense of purpose and a clear plan of action.

President Obama has shown that he has not lost his way. Already, he’s taken action on several fronts that are overdue – stem cells, environment, Guantanamo, family planning, and much more. As significant as any of these is something that we have not seen for 20 years – an admission that he made a mistake in appointments of two key Administration nominees who had to resign on the same day for failure to pay their full taxes.

And yet, the admission wasn’t broad enough. He’s got to be realizing that it was a mistake to put so much confidence on people plugged into the revolving door of Washington influence and power. If the great unwashed public was shocked by the recent withdrawals, it wasn’t so much because the nominees didn’t pay their taxes, but because the circumstances surrounding that failure spoke volumes about the privilege and the entitlements of the Washington elite.

The president pledged to break the rules in the Capital to change the way that Washington works – petty, partisan and personal agendas. He needs every member of his cabinet to take on the profile of organizational change agents. Otherwise, his promises will be even harder to keep.

Beltway Blues

It’s just hard to serve the interests of cities when there’s no one who’s served in elected office of a city or who has had to make the daily decisions that face city mayors and affect the lives of average Americans. It’s hard to serve the interests of small businesses – the source of most new jobs – when you’ve never met a payroll or been forced to call your friends and family for operating capital.

The election of President Obama was, if nothing else, a repudiation of the K Street culture characterized by influence, special privilege, relationships for profit and a chauffeured view of urban problems. Already, the news media are overstating the problems and sensationalizing every disagreement.

Clearly, it will be difficult to build bipartisan coalitions, particularly when any stumble becomes an occasion for partisan piling on. In the end, however, we think that the president and his men will come closer to success if they keep their fingers on the pulse of middle American rather than Beltway big shots.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Visit Us At Live Where You Live

We're blogging today over at the Live Where You Live blog . We're talking about what makes Memphis special and the value, economic and otherwise, of being proud of our city.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Local Decisions Are Best Made Locally

There’s such a fine line in politics between populism and pandering.

In his political career, Shelby County’s top prosecutor Bill Gibbons has had his share of the latter and his attempts at the former have generally seemed forced and artificial.

We were reminded of that again this week with more evidence of an insatiable appetite for mandatory sentencing. Apparently, in time, we can eliminate all judges and put a calculator on the bench to dispense justice as mere calculations.

Prosecutorial Leadership

It’s too bad, because in a number of cities, prosecutors are leading campaigns to educate the public about the root causes of crime and to mobilize support for programs to attack them. Also, in other places, there is a growing realization that the growing “corrections-industrial complex” is aimed at keeping more and more people in prison because they in essence are the profit centers for politically-connected vendors such as Corrections Corporation of America.

It is of course politically expedient to propose mandatory sentencing, so voters rarely hear the other side of the issue. For that reason, we admired Cardell Orrin, local political reformer and strategist, for asking the right questions about what is most successful in finding the proper balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

In a city plagued by crime like ours, it’s hard to ask such questions, but they nevertheless are the ones that deserve serious consideration. The U.S. is already the West’s leading prisoner nation, and if Memphis is intent on becoming the leading prisoner city, we cannot in time support the growing costs of such a system.

State Mandates

Meanwhile, this week, Attorney General Gibbons – a member of a party that espouses less government intrusion in local affairs and in the value of the best government being closest to the people – said that he would support state legislation to win a police residency argument that he couldn’t win locally.

This act of political overkill was put forth by yet another Republican, Tennessee Rep. Brian Kelsey, whose naivete is only matched by his self-righteous rigidity, and whose obsessive headline-hunting led him to proposal a state bill to outlaw the ability of cities to make their own decisions about the residency requirements of their police force.

It’s always fascinating to watch these hide-bound conservatives rail against liberals who try to dictate their agenda through government regulations, but when given a chance, can’t seem to resist the chance to do exactly what they criticize.

State Interference

After all, it seems better and more responsive government for such decision to be made by each city based on its own needs and policies. While we too advocated for the relaxing of the police residency requirements, we nonetheless abhor the interference of state government into a decision that is best left to local officials.

The Memphis City Council majority that had won the vote on policy residency should be commended for their willingness to reopen the issue and pursue a compromise on the politically divisive issue. After all, they had the votes and didn’t have to do anything, but in the end, cooler heads prevailed on both sides of this issue and the compromise allows for applicants to come from within 20 miles of Memphis.

And yet, the attorney general was unwilling to let go of the issue regardless of the divisiveness. He told the Memphis Flyer’s Jackson Baker that “it is possible” to pass a state law that would dictate and force Memphis and every other local government in Tennessee to eliminate any residency requirements that they had passed.

Talking The Walk

While he may think that this position will play well in Memphis, it’s less clear about whether cities across Tennessee believe that edicts from state government should trump local self-determination.

It’s uncertain about the ultimate political impact of Mr. Gibbons’ position. It is certain, however, that this will be a long campaign for governor.