Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Getting The State Out Of Downtown Decisions

What do you call a bill in the Legislature that would cut the number of state legislators on the Center City Commission in half?

A start.

Reducing the number from four to two legislators would take place with passage of a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature to reverse a 10-year amendment that required twice as many members from the legislature here as any other downtown development agency in Tennessee.(Kudos to Councilman Bill Boyd for his behind-the-scenes work to reduce the politicians on the downtown redevelopment agency.)

Senator Paul Stanley – under the heading of “even a blind hog finds an acorn once in awhile” – submitted his own bill calling for the removal of all legislators. It’s a sensible change, because it’s just plain hard to figure out why these state politicians bring any value to the work of the Memphis and Shelby County Center City Commission.


But we’ll take half a loaf any day, and we can only hope that the logic spreads to Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners who also have two members each on the downtown agency. Then there are two members appointed by the city and county mayors, bringing the number of public employees to 10.

At the point that the state legislature doubled its members, an arms race with city and county began, capsizing the founding philosophy of the Center City Commission and running counter to the examples of successful downtown redevelopment agencies across the U.S.

Those that work best are business-driven and have a strong private sector majority. That was once the case for the Center City Commission when it was created 30 years ago.

As its success grew, there grew the sense by some politicians that there was a pot of gold hidden at the Center City Commission and they just had to get closer to it. As a result, the number of elected officials swelled, and they tried to use the programs of the agency to reward their friends, to hire supporters and to get special perks for themselves.

Politicized Policy

The swelling number of politicians did nothing so much as to undermine any vestiges of entrepreneurship that were crucial to the success of the agency. In time, the politicizing of the Center City Commission created a high hurdle that it had to clear every time that it wanted to adopt a priority, make a business incentive and close a deal.

In other words, Center City Commission became the antithesis of the kind of agency that downtown needed, one that is decisive, bold and innovative. More and more, the 10 brave souls who represented the private sector were shouted down or forced to play uncomfortably in a political world as foreign to them as the Alba Patera Quadrangle of Mars.

In the end, the overbearing influence of political interests dumbed down the work of the Center City Commission as well as limited its ambitions in the interest of being politically palatable. As a result, downtown Memphis is a decade behind most cities in design standards, vibrant public realm, and quality of life improvements.

While we engage in regular hyperbole when we talk about downtown with words like “renaissance” and “transformation,” the truth is that we are adept at defining success by comparing our present to our past rather than to other cities. The truth is that we have lagged behind our peer cities.

Getting The Sector Right

It didn’t have to be this way if only city and county mayors had listened to downtown developer Henry Turley about 20 years ago.

Thirty years ago, when the Center City Commission was being created, the concept was that the public sector would create the agency in concert with the private sector, because it was wisely thought that for it to be successful, it needed to have the entrepreneurial culture more in keeping with business.

Unfortunately, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, which spawned the downtown redevelopment idea, closed its doors and was essentially bankrupt. Shelby County Government then was reluctant to support the agency, and in the end, only Memphis City Government moved ahead with its creation.

Later, county government joined in, but it would take time before the Chamber was reinvented, and by then, the moment for real change had passed. Ever since, hopes that the agency would reflect a business orientation have been, well, hopes.

Just Do It

Enter Mr. Turley, who inspired a new discussion about returning to the founding vision of the Center City Commission, but the effort faltered for lack of political will to get it done. Sadly, the current of change ran in precisely the opposite direction.

The private sector orientation almost disappeared as more and more politicians added themselves to the group. It was difficult enough to act entrepreneurially before, but with the addition of state senators and representative, and more local politicians, entrepreneurship has become the exception, not the rule.

There’s no question that members of the Center City Commission are good people. It’s just that the public sector doesn’t possess the skills most needed for the agency to be most successful in its work.

Often, when the conversation turns to downtown development, we think of the words of Mr. Turley: “We need to quit planning and do something. Let’s pick two or three things and go do them, and when we’re done, we’ll pick two or three more, and we’ll do them too.”

It sounded like wise advice back then, and it seems absolutely prescient now.

Tickets To Ride

The political machination to add more elected officials to the Center City Commission was reminiscent of the way former Senator John Ford ended up with free tickets in a private suite at The Pyramid for all University of Memphis events.

During construction of The Pyramid, University of Memphis needed state approval to execute the provisions of its agreement with city and county governments. When they went to Nashville to get legislative approval, they ran head-long into Mr. Ford, the most effective operative for this city in Nashville, and he said that in return for passage, he would have to be given free tickets to all events and assigned one of the private suites.

Memphis and Shelby County Governments refused, but as a state institution, U of M had little choice, and Mr. Ford did in fact get the use of the private suite and 24 free tickets for all basketball games. He wielded the tickets as rewards to friends and left the suite dark rather than give tickets to colleagues who had earned his disfavor.

The same happened when contracts were being negotiated with the Memphis Grizzlies. Again, legislative approval was needed for city and county governments to have the power they needed to consummate the agreement. The price: Mr. Ford wanted a place on the Public Building Authority headed up by Arnold Perl.


In addition, he wanted to be vice-chairman of the building authority. City and county negotiators were adamantly against giving in to the senator, but eventually, the mayors did, and the rest is history.

However, when it came time to name Mr. Ford as vice-chair, he was chagrined to know learn that he’d been outsmarted, because the PBA would have multiple vice-chairmen; however, as vice-chairman in charge of minority business development, he wielded considerable power and influenced a portion of the construction budget. His role and the process for selecting minority businesses continue to be a focus of the investigation into the FedEx Forum.

Meanwhile, back at the Center City Commission, there are signs of progress in the reduction in politicians. Perhaps, it’s even possible to create something downtown that is often the hardest thing of all – momentum.


gatesofmemphis said...

I disagree with the private sector == enlightened/disinterested/entrepeneurial while public sector == corrupt/scheming/hidebound. Sometimes it works out like that, (John Ford will one day have his own Goodwin's Law corollary) but substantial public representation to a taxing, tax-freeing and policing organization is not a nuisance but essential.

The case can probably be made for better board composition (for instance, "a 20 person board has antecedents in the clown car") without pulling out Randian cartoons of businessmen and politicians.

Smart City Consulting said...


It's not about enlightenment. We should have made that clear. It's about skill sets and ultimate motivation. It's the private sector that has both. And what you find at CCC meetings is an awful lot of political overlay that just drags down bold decision-making and complicates an already difficult job of reviving downtown. We're not suggesting either that the members are corrupt. As we said, they are good people, but the three layers of government agendas are anything but helpful.

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