Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Willingham Campaigns On With Passionate Causes

Former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham is a gadfly, a nag, a maverick, a loose cannon and a pain in the neck.

We need more people like him.

Last week, he was back in the news again, talking about the federal investigation into the misapplication of $20 million in federal funds in the construction of the now infamous multi-modal garage at FedEx Forum. It must have been a heartening validation of his six-year obsession with the project, an obsession that led to the critical review by the Tennessee Comptroller about lack of oversight of the funds and compliance with contracts.

The primary issue for Mr. Willingham is that just days before city and county governments assured state officials that the garage would be a public, nonprofit facility, the same governments had agree to give the Memphis Grizzlies full control and all revenues over the facility.

Obstacles And Barriers

Remarkable, he has pursued this issue despite formidable barriers that would have discouraged lesser men to throw in the towel. There were the regular misdirections by county attorneys during his term as county commissioner, causing him to chase rabbits or to wander in the weeds while “on time, on budget” was mantra for the project.

There were the 800 pages of documents released by attorneys that were billed as the seminal documents, letters and agreements dealing with the garage. Coincidentally, there were missing letters from city and county government to state highway officials and the governor as they reached the political agreement that led to the bait and switch on the $20 million in state funding for the arena project.

There were the key documents held in the Nashville offices by the Tennessee Department of Transportation that illuminated the fine details of the deal, but as Mr. Willingham prepared to drive to Nashville to review them, he was notified that they had been sealed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as part of its investigation. No details about the investigation have been released since then.


There were the drawings of the garage that Mr. Willingham reviewed at city-county construction codes enforcement department and that showed plans for a different building, but when he returned to look at them, they were missing.

Through all of this, he has soldiered on, missing from media coverage until he confirmed late last week that he has been interviewed by the FBI about the garage. Along the way, he was essentially dismissed by the news media - at least until the FBI came calling.

We are unsure what he told the investigators, but what is clear to us is that the whole house of cards was created when former Governor Don Sundquist reneged on his pledge to give the arena project $20 million in state funds, no strings attached. Once he said that state government would instead use federal funds, he set in motion a process whose goal was to say whatever it took to meet federal highway regulations while doing something totally different with the money.

This dogged determination would be reason enough for us to admire Mr. Willingham, but he’s also been fighting another perceived lost cause -- his battle for lower taxes for Memphians.

Republican With A Small “r”

He left the board of commissioners in 2006 to campaign for Memphis mayor with the stated intention of getting more attention for his tax plan. However, it received scant media coverage, and what little it got evaporated along with his prospects for victory as he campaigned for Shelby County mayor, a second time for Memphis mayor, and then, last year, for City Council.

Over the years, he has been called a loose cannon who sees conspiracies and intrigues on all sides, and not even his experience as a former official in the administration of President Richard Nixon and his more than a dozen patents have been enough to get an endorsement from the Republican Party.

Perhaps, the Republican he most resembles is Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell whose late-night calls to the media about Watergate and the Nixon Administration’s “dirty tricks” were considered incoherent alcohol-fueled ramblings until she was proven right by history.

As for his so-called Memphis Tax Fairness Program, it calls for a 10-year “privilege payroll tax” on every one working in Shelby County, but in truth, its ultimate targets are the about 85,000 people earning $2.9 billion who drive in from outside Shelby County to work here every day.

Fixing The Taxes

The plan, vetted by county finance officials and University of Memphis economists, would end the wheel tax, reduce the city property tax by 50-80 percent, eliminate the local option sales tax (reducing the city rate from 9.25 percent to 7 percent), and paying off Memphis climbing debt.

There’s little disagreement that the Shelby County tax structure is broken. State government’s leading think tank – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations – issued a report called, “Who Pays More?” and the answer was no surprise to local taxpayers: Memphians’ taxes are the highest and the most unfair.

The report said: "The highest effective property tax is found in Shelby County, reflecting the impact of an extremely high property tax rate in Memphis. Memphis has the highest combined county and city nominal tax rate in the state…Total local taxes are regressive, since each of the three taxes (property tax, sales tax and wheel tax) is separately regressive. Regressivity refers to lower income persons paying a higher percent of their income for taxes than do higher income persons."

The tale of the tape tells it all: the cumulative city-county property tax rate in Memphis is $7.4732 per $100 of assessment; in Knoxville, it's $5.50; in Chattanooga, it's $5.356; and in Nashville/Davidson County, it's only $4.69.

Asking The Right Question

That in a nutshell is the challenge facing Memphis. Its high cumulative tax rate drives the middle class out of the city, leaving the regressive tax burden to fall even more heavily on lower income Memphians, and in time, forcing the rate even higher.

For 15 years, there have been frequent attempts to put band-aids on our current tax system, but there’s been little appetite – because of the perceived political risk - for the determined, bipartisan effort that’s needed to develop a comprehensive plan that answers one central question: How can Memphis correct the structural tax problem that is a drag on the local economy and places an unfair burden on most local taxpayers?

So far, the Willingham plan has been the only attempt to answer it in the past 10 years.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

TEA Well-Schooled In Rhetorical Excess

We can only hope that the president of Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is more concerned about the facts in the classroom than in the halls of the state capitol.

After all, he regularly skewers them in his quest to become the educational version of the N.R.A., working to block any proposed legislation in the Tennessee Legislature that might inject more accountability into public education or more innovation into a pedagogy developed for the Industrial Age.

The reason for his latest act of “shoot first and get the facts straight later” was a bill pending in Nashville that would loosen the state’s restrictive law defining who can attend charter schools. To hear Earl Wiman, it would seem that the whole of Western public education hangs in the balance, and perhaps, it was because of the stress from this responsibility that he made four errors of fact in a two-sentence response.

“Overall, you’re reducing resources public schools have in order to serve a select group of students,” he said. “That’s not what public schools and public policy should be about.”

Get It Right

One, Mr. Wiman said that charter schools are reducing public school resources. If he believes it, he needs to sign up for remedial math. If there are about 3,000 charter schools students in Memphis City Schools, that means there are 3,000 fewer students in traditional schools. According to state law, a student in a charter school is to have the same amount spent on his education as in a traditional school. If this were true then, there’s no reduction in resources, because it’s a wash.

More to the point, as we wrote 18 months ago, Memphis City Schools does not comply with state law, so about $3,000 less is spent per charter school student than a traditional school student, or about $9 million a year for 3,000 students. So, actually, right now, “public schools” have more money, not less.

Two, Mr. Wiman said that charter schools are hurting public schools. Here’s the thing: in Tennessee, charter schools are public schools. For example, the charter schools in Memphis are part of Memphis City Schools. In return for its contract, or charter, it has more autonomy than traditional schools, and because it is allowed more flexibility, it can experiment with changes that can be applied to the entire district (that is if the district would quit treating charter schools like the enemy), but along the way, it must also comply with many rules and regulations of the city schools district.

Selective Memory

Third, Mr. Wiman said charter schools serve a “select” group, apparently wanting to imply that charter schools are “creaming” the best students from Memphis City Schools. He surely knows that he’s not telling the truth, because the only thing select about charter schools students is that they are the most poorly-performing students or from the most poorly-performing schools.

You see, the only students in Tennessee who can attend charter schools are those who are failing students, who attend failing schools or who already attend a charter school. It was just one of several barriers set in the way of charter schools’ success in Tennessee, but which they still managed to scale to prove that public education should encourage more innovation, not less.

Fourth, Mr. Wiman said charter schools are poor public policy. We are hard-pressed to understand how anything that gives parents more choices – something they clearly want, according to polling – for their children’s education is bad. It just indicates how out of touch TEA is with the people who entrust them to do what is best for their children.

High Stakes

The sad thing is that in the halls of the legislature, this issue will likely be decided on the basis of the lobbying by either those in favor of the change to state law or those opposing it. Unfortunately, as usual, no one will take the time to determine what the parents want, and once more, students will be treated as pawns in a game of high-stakes politics.

And it’s high stakes, most of all, because it’s their lives that hang in the balance.

Large bureaucracies often act like organisms that see innovations as viruses they must attack. That's why so many promising ideas are suffocated in their infancies, and why after 30 years of talking about it, city and county governments still are trying to consolidate their engineers' offices.

The most telling example of this bureaucratic antipathy is found in Memphis City Schools' attitude toward charter schools. A district beset by controversies, federal and state investigations, and academic inertia, and with 78 percent of parents giving the schools a grade of C or lower, should claim charter schools as a much-needed success story.

History Lesson

After all, every charter school in Memphis is part of the city school district. It's just hard to tell it by the way those schools are treated. It began when the Tennessee Legislature passed the charter school law in 2002, but after intense lobbying from educators, lawmakers capped the number of charter schools in Memphis at 20 and refused to allow every student the opportunity to attend.

Despite the hurdles, interest in Memphis was immediate. The state's first charter school opened in 2003, eight more followed, and four new ones are now in the works. The rest of Tennessee has only three, all in Nashville.

On the best days, city school officials gave charter schools lip service, and on the worst, they treated them like pariahs, a disdain most vividly on display when Yo! Academy was closed with a speed thought impossible in the school district.

In recommending the closing, Interim Superintendent Dan Ward said he would not condemn students to attend a school that's not working. Left unspoken was the fact that 100 regular city schools clearly fell into the same category. Also, Yo! Academy was shut down after being on the state's high-priority list for one year while more than 20 regular schools had been on the list for six straight years.

No Helping Hands

Charter schools have received little help and support from the central office. Lines of communications have been fragile, if not nonexistent, most of the time.

Sometimes, it seems that district officials — and the teachers union in particular — fear that the autonomy given to charters to hire their own teachers and principals and the accountability built into the schools could infect the established educational order of things even though only about 3,000 of the district's 105,000 students attend charter schools.

Meanwhile, charter school students are doing significantly better on state tests than comparable students in regular city schools, according to the annual analysis of the University of Memphis Center for Research in Education Policy. In addition, researchers report that parents and teachers are much more satisfied with the charter schools' environments than regular city schools.

These results are even more impressive considering that the charter schools are being shortchanged. State law says students in charter schools will get the same amount of public money spent on them as other students; however, calculations by Memphis City Schools result in payments that are about 25 percent less.

Compounding Disinterest

To compound the financial stress, charter schools, in keeping with state law, don't get any county government bond money for construction and renovation. As a result, their organizers spend considerable time raising the missing funds.

All of this benign neglect makes little sense to outsiders, particularly in the midst of the controversies rocking Memphis City Schools.

Over at one charter school — Circles of Success Learning Academy (COSLA) — elementary students regularly recite a creed that says in part: "I am capable of meeting every challenge that I must face. I will use my physical, mental, and spiritual capacities to reach my destiny. I will not try to make anyone feel less than me nor allow anyone to make me feel less than the person I am. I will never bring reproach on myself or my school. I am responsible for my own success."

It's a creed that speaks to the central philosophy of charter schools, where its advocates see themselves as part of a movement rather than just as operators of a few schools. As uplifting as it is to hear young students repeat the creed, it would be even more uplifting if it was coming from Memphis City Schools.

Friday, March 27, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Making The Most Of The Century Of The City

A century ago, only one in 10 people lived in an urban environment.  Now, a majority of us calls a city home.  Darren Walker brings us a fascinating global perspective on the Century of the City, the title of the new book from the Rockefeller Foundation that details strategies for creating livable cities in developing nations and the U.S.

Fundamental to any city is its infrastructure. Our guests Michael Singer and Nancy Rutledge Connery spotlight their recent publication: "Infrastructure and Community:  How we can live with what sustains us."   Michael is a noted artist whose designs for big complicated works projects are as beautiful as they are functional.

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I-269: Road To Hell Without The Good Intentions

Here’s something we don’t get to say too much: city and county governments were absolutely, completely right.

We thought this as we listened to the Saturday morning discussion at the “Inbound for Memphis: Speeding Toward I-269” forum organized and hosted by the Coalition for Livable Communities with support from Community Development Council, Urban Land Institute, Federal Reserve Bank and Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

In the end, it’s unmistakable that our challenge is for our city to get prepared for an interstate that has no serious transportation value, but exists only because of the political gamesmanship by Mississippi politicos driven by an intensity to enrich the development industry.


Back when I-269 was proposed, it was almost universally opposed in Shelby County, most notably by both Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout. Both said that the interstate looping around the edge of Shelby County spelled nothing but problems for Memphis.

Eventually, some Memphis Chamber of Commerce officials flipped and supported I-269, ostensibly to keep some prominent developers happy, including some interested in the proposed rail yard in Fayette County and others more interested in opening up development of their land in North Mississippi.

Their most compelling argument, in their opinion, was that I-269 would divert truck traffic that would otherwise travel on I-69 through Memphis. There was only one problem: our trucking companies said they would never take a 45-mile detour when they can drive straight through town.

A Lott Of Manipulation

While the mayors thought they had blocked I-269, former Republican U.S. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi - in league with former Republican House of Representative Whip Tom DeLay of Texas – trumped Tennessee officials when Mr. Lott passed legislation that limited Tennessee’s control over I-269’s routing.

Meanwhile, Mr. DeLay suggested that the I-69 Coalition should hire a well-connected lobbyist to represent them in the halls of Congress. That highly-qualified person just happened to be his brother, who would eventually get paid just under $1 million for his services.

Left with little option, our mayors relented, and Senator Lott was extolled at the ribbon-cutting for the project, saying “This is a ribbon-cutting for the beginning of a project. This is just the first leg.” Actually, the needless interstate highway is more like an arm and a leg, adding millions of dollars in construction costs to the federal interstate budget and an equal number of miles to our community’s unsustainable lifestyle.

Talking The Talk

If a picture says a thousand words, the map of I-269 says tens of thousands. It’s so obviously blatant that it’s slicing its way through North Mississippi solely to open up development opportunities for the privileged few. And despite assurances by some highly competent city and county planners in the area, if the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s clear that politics will win out and little is preordained except more and more sprawl.

Wrapping I-269 in a shroud of terms like smart growth, knowledge economy jobs, New Urbanism and open space protection, supporters of the interstate suggest with straight faces that Memphis will benefit from new economic growth and development as a result of the new interstate. Our past teaches us that it is more likely that the highway will be characterized by unwalkable, car-centric sameness.

Someone from North Mississippi said in an article in The Commercial Appeal that the task now is to apply smart growth principles to I-269. We’re not sure when we’ve heard such a contradiction of terms. It reminds us of the story on NPR about the developer proudly boasting of the region’s most sustainable residential development – green energy, walking trails, etc. The only problem was that it was an hour commute to New York and an hour and half commute to Philadelphia.

Co-opting The Words

As the always wise Kip Bergstrom said on Smart City: “There’s a very high risk that folks will launch projects that are meant to really preserve the dead ideas. We call that managed decline or managed adaptive decline. It takes on some of the words and phrases of a different way of thinking about stuff, but it’s just aimed at preserving the status quo.”

I-269 is the physical embodiment of it, using some of the magic words – smart growth, efficient transportation and air quality attainment - to preserve the status quo for the development industry. “Building a highway bridge across the Columbia River in a time that calls for investment in transit is a clear failure to understand the emerging conditions of oil scarcity, global warming, of the potential of transit to make much bigger labor markets than could ever be made by auto,” said Mr. Bergstrom in a comparison that could have just as easily been I-269.

According to an interesting presentation by John Lawrence, our metro has 27 square feet in retail for each person, which is higher than the U.S. average and eight times more than the United Kingdom. I-269 will undoubtedly produce miles of strip malls, fast food restaurants and gas stations as each jurisdiction along the route fights for the biggest share of sales taxes.

Bad News

Let us say this clearly and unequivocably: there is no economic or social benefit to Memphis as a result of I-269. Don’t believe the propaganda or the breathless media headlines.

Here’s the thing: Memphis’ ability to compete in the new economy is undercut by the hollowing out of the middle class, by the worst economic segregation of the 50 largest metros, by the quickening loss of college-educated 25-34 year-olds, a 15% house vacancy rate that’s doubled since 2000 and 20% of Memphis families living on less than $8,700 a year.

These are the forces driving Memphis’ trajectory. There is nothing in I-269 that does anything to improve these trends that are threatening the future of our city. But, more to the point and despite the denials of our suburban cities, the trends of Memphis also will in fact determine the future of the entire region.

It’s About Policies

If Memphis must live with the reality of the problems that are exacerbated by I-269, we must do more than all pledge our commitment to regional planning. More to the point, we must change policies so that the interstate does in fact mitigate its negative impact.

For example, we’re said previously that I-269 and Tennessee 385 should be toll roads. They would produce more than $100 million a year that could be invested in strategies to strengthen our core city and to make Memphis a city of choice.

There are other innovations like a higher sales tax along the route to establish a tax-sharing program that could direct money into programs to improve Memphis neighborhoods. Or perhaps there’s a way to pass impact fees and sustainability guidelines for development along the interstate route, to set up land trusts and to require equal investments in public transit.

Three Strikes

A recent CEOs for Cities briefing paper set it out in compelling terms:

1) When metropolitan areas are economically segregated, every problem becomes harder to address.

2) Suburban sprawl has been an engine of economic segregation.

3) Infill development increases the possibility for stable integrated neighborhood.

It’s The Metro, Stupid

If we must invest our taxes in a boondoggle like I-269, it is not unreasonable for us to demand that infill development and public transit should receive equal attention. Our suburbs don’t think this is their problem, but as the briefing paper points out, 37% of suburbs lost population in the Nineties and the percentage of residents in “poor” neighborhoods has doubled.

In a perfect world, our local and state officials would simply turn down the federal money for I-269, calling Mississippi's bluff as it is faced with the interstate version of an oxbow lake. Perhaps, it's not too late to call on our leaders to say enough is enough and make the most important decision facing them - doing what's right for Memphis.

After all, I-269 exists because of politics. That's why we think the answer needs to be found in the same place.

These are difficult times for the Memphis metro – let’s say it again, metro. Unlike most other metro areas, the cancerous problems that threaten our economic health are regional and not just the problems of the city. Unless we start to figure out how to avoid self-indulgent projects like I-269 and make the investments that strengthen our entire region so that it is prepared for the fundamental restructuring of the economy that is well under way, we will prove that the road to hell is indeed paved with intentions that aren’t always good.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Putting People First In Overton Park's Greensward

What we need up here might be an engineer from down under.

Or at least that’s what we thought when we read about Sydney, Australia’s impressive water harvesting system.

Its efforts to create water retention facilities for water are actually under the heading of “environment” rather than “engineering” on the Sydney city government website. That starting point alone seems to engender totally different solutions – innovative, green ones that protect the city's sense of place and its natural resources – of which the Australian city is justifiably proud.

Think Different

Is it possible that if our city engineers could quit seeing parkland as “free” land for their projects and instead look for new technology and innovation like Sydney, there just might be a better way to design water detention facilities in our city in the first place?

Our engineers are seemingly transfixed by a project mentality that seemingly puts everything ahead of people and place. That’s why we have a larger number of highway lanes than most cities our size, why we have a massive bridge into Shelby Farms Park that doesn’t even have bike and pedestrian lanes and why our city government has an aversion to bike lanes that almost cries out for therapeutic intervention.

Now, the same attitude and approach threatens the greensward in Overton Park as city engineering advances the idea that one of the most special public realms in Memphis will be desecrated so water can accumulate there. (Keep up with events on the new greensward blog.)

Revere Public Realm

If there was ever any doubt about what city engineering puts first, it can be seen in the plans to convert the greensward into a detention basin. It appears that the only accommodation that was made at this special public space was to ensure that there would be overflow parking for the zoo.

In fact, it seems that the only organization or people who had any voice in the development of these plans was the zoo. We can find no other organization that was consulted, including Memphis College of Art, whose students revere the patch of green across from their classrooms and studios.

But back to water detention facilities, closer to home, in Conroe, Texas, engineers are also designing a water detention system to ease rain overflow. Their answer: build it underground.


“These (underground water detention systems) are going to become more and more common in areas where land is valuable enough that developers cannot afford to put the land to use as a pond,” said a spokesman.

We only wish that we had to protect ourselves from developers trying to use our public land as an occasional pond. Here, we’re forced to protect our own public land from our own public officials.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cops In School Are Risky Unless They Help At-Risk Kids

While the jury is still out on whether school districts’ police forces are worth the investments, Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash is moving on with his foregone verdict that his district needs one.

It’s hard to point to any definitive research that suggests that districts creating their own police departments are magically better, but there’s no denying that boys like their toys.

The infatuation with a Memphis City Schools Police Department predates Mr. Cash and extends back to a blatantly perfunctory report that was essentially a conclusion in search of a justification when the city schools first raised the possibility of school police. The report painted a positive portrait of the school police (mainly by only surveying districts that had their own police) and was aimed at propping up a bill in the Tennessee Legislature to allow districts to create their own cops.

True Believer

It was no secret when Superintendent Cash was hired that he was a devout believer in school police. One of his first hires was controversial former Miami-Dade Public Schools security chief Gerald Darling, who was given the charge to come up with a plan for a school district police force to replace the current hybrid system that includes City of Memphis policemen and school security officers.

We assume that before anyone approves the $10 million police force (there’s always money for pet projects), there will be the release of a comprehensive, coordinated security plan. More than a decade ago, a former Shelby County mayor also wanted his own police force. Then too county government had a hybrid of security guards and deputies, but the mayor then just could not resist the temptation to play sheriff.

So, the county administration created its own police force, complete with its own police cars and powers. It was of course suggested to the public that it was a more economical way of ensuring the public’s safety, but quickly, the costs of the police department ballooned and by the time they were under control again, it was clear that the original idea wasn’t really researched or thought out.

Educated Guess

We’re hoping that’s not the case at Memphis City Schools because running a police force seems a long way from the core skills there.

That said, here’s why we think it’s worth a try. Superintendent Cash said that his intention is that the district police force is part of a plan to set up a process that will prevent students – at least the non-violent ones – from being referred to Juvenile Court.

If that can only take place by Memphis City Schools creating its own policemen, we need to know it as the virtues of school cops are evaluated. If that’s the case, it’s pretty much a done deal from our perspective.

Criminalizing Kids

The truth is that the behavior of students in Memphis City Schools – because they are poor and African-American – is criminalized much more often than say, students at Houston High School in the Shelby County Schools district. Remember back when every elected official in Memphis was outraged to learn that juveniles arrested in Germantown were not automatically transported to Juvenile Court. The answer by the elected officials was to call for the “rich kids” to be treated the same as the “poor kids.”

We always wondered why the cry that went up wasn’t for Memphis kids to have the same options for interventions as the Germantown students. The truth is that Germantown was doing precisely what it should have, because the decision to place a young person in the juvenile justice system is often tantamount to foreclosing his options for the future.

Any chance that we have to prevent Memphis students involved in non-violent incidents from going to Juvenile Court is an idea worth pursuing, because if you want to see something that is life-altering, it is found in the justice system that turns at-risk students into risky adults, as research has proven

To us, it seems that if Memphis City Schools is going to create its own cops, it needs at the same time to create its own case workers to make sure these students receive the wrap-around social services that can serve as the interventions that can open up real options for their futures.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Memphis Mandate: Just Do It

It’s easy to understand the general frustration that exists about one more plan being undertaken downtown, this one about the future of Mud Island.

We often seem so obsessed in Memphis with studying and planning and less committed to implementing and executing. And an idea like the skate park on the south tip of Mud Island – a source of animation, a magnet for families, a repositioning of the park as a vibrant, dynamic hub of activity and a use that can bring all sides of the controversy over the future of our riverfront together – just seems too good to pass up.

As for our addiction to plans, in roughly the past decade, our public and quasi-public sectors have conducted roughly 175 plans. If they averaged just one-fourth of the current Mud Island plan, that would add up to $17,500,000, and we think that’s an exceedingly conservative number.

Equally consistent with our seeming belief that master planning something is the same as doing something, most studies have been conducted in the customary silos and most recommendations remain unaddressed. We're not suggesting that this is the case with the current plan about Mud Island, or that any of our opinions applies to it, but if you're looking for an applause line in a speech, just mention our multitude of plans.

Plenty Of Plans

The truth is that the purpose of too many studies is to give the appearance of leadership without the threat of having to make a tough decision, to build a foundation for a preconceived “answer” or agenda or to short-circuit a controversy by promising to study it in hopes that the public’s short attention span would shift to something else.

Unfortunately, Memphis doesn’t have time for studies any more. We have to change our city’s trajectory now. We have to shake up things. We have to start taking dramatic actions. We have to act differently.

That’s why we would welcome some leaders and organizations starting something, taking action, moving ahead. We can self-correct as we go, but at least we’ll be under way. We just don’t have months and months to contemplate our navel.

We have about 175 studies and plans. Maybe moving ahead could be as simple as synthesizing them into a compelling vision, a community narrative and a plan that we can act on now. Best of all, it would require us to abandon our lack of self-worth, to kick to the curb our personality conflicts and political pettiness and to adopt a new, get-out-the-way brand of activism that is needed.

Changing The Wiring

If other cities can do it, we just don’t know why we can’t. In many other cities, there’s such a predilection for action. They are simply hard-wired to action and to doing something.

We think that Memphis may save a great deal of time by emphasizing data-driven decisions more and master plans less, because they consume so much of our time. And in today’s highly competitive global economy and with our dire economic indicators, time is the only thing we don’t have enough of.

Let’s decide on three things we need to do and go do them. When we’re done, we’ll pick three more and work on them.

There seems to be a pervasive common sense understanding of what we need to be doing. You could hear it at the UrbanNexus event at Stax on Thursday that focused on civic engagement and you could hear it Saturday at the Coalition for Livable Communities’ program at Shelby Farms Park about the impact of I-269 on our region (more on this later this week).

The Truth Is Out There

You hear it from the public. You hear it from the planners. You hear it from the grassroots organizations where so much wisdom resides. However, there are barriers that routinely block these common sense answers and the shared sense of urgency from percolating into the halls of government and the boardrooms of major organizations that make up the “power structure” of Memphis.

A symptom of this is seen in the fact that although we have just short of 200 studies completed in the last decade, only a handful are available on-line. It’s enough to raise suspicions that the largely dysfunctional websites of city and county governments are intentionally aimed at thwarting public interest and information.

Surely, that’s not the case, but it’s time to quit talking about making decision-making more transparent and do something about it. It’s time to quit talking about making government more accountable and demand it. It’s time to quit talking about studying issues and do something about them.

For example, for 20 years, we’ve doled out tax freezes on the basis that our workforce has too few skills to compete on a level playing field. And yet, in those two decades, the entire country of China transformed itself from a third-world nation to a global economic powerhouse.

Tapping Into The Energy

Surely, we can move on the strategies that can increase the number of college-educated people, that can move people out of poverty and into the economic mainstream, that can reform our unsustainable transportation system, that can treat 104,000 students in Memphis City Schools as assets rather than problems and that can revive our moribund civic spirit.

It is obvious to us that the answers are out there. The challenge is to channel them into processes where strategies are being formed and funded. For that to happen, the public and quasi-public organizations need to lower the walls that separate them from the people who are seeking information, input and a voice.

There’s little question that the energy in Memphis is coming from our neighborhoods and at our grassroots. The new thinking is coming from the same places. The problem is that all of these bright people are too often talking to each other, because the public sector still looks like a byzantine empire on the other side of the moat.

Perhaps, it’s not only time to drain the swamp, but to begin by draining the moat between the people and the government and agencies that they pay for.

The Case In Favor

As for the idea of a skatepark for Mud Island, here’s the reasonable justification advanced by its proponents:

1) A skatepark has a high repeat participant base
2) Poor access does not deter participants or visitors from getting to skateparks
3) Skaters are a large and diverse demographic
4) A Mud Island skatepark fills a large recreation void in Memphis. While other cities (see Louisville’s skate park above) are investing in these low-cost solutions to lethargic locations, Memphis still as not even one.

Skateboarding is among the top four outdoor activities of Americans with 64 outings per participant, according to information gathered by Skatelife Memphis. Meanwhile, they are willing to travel 10 or more miles to their favorite skate parks, and it’s hard to imagine one more favorite than one on the banks of the America’s greatest river.

Low Cost, High Impact

By number of participants, skateboarding has now passed baseball, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers, and Sports Illustrated has called it “the great influence on American youth culture in the 20th century.”

In other words, the $3 million cost of an 80,000 square foot skatepark feels like a low-cost way to reactivate the park with several hundred thousand of skate boarding families. One of our major competitors, Louisville, is doing so much right these days, and one of the things they tout the most is that it is ranked as the top city for skateboarding families in the U.S., and the skatepark is a frequent stop for the mayor in tours showing off his city.

So far, the Mud Island study is notable in its lack of context and framework, and hopefully, that will change soon. It would be useful to know before the hearings begin things like whether commercial options are an option, if they are limited to a specific area and if the tip of the island will be retained for public use.

We suspect that the tip of the park – the physical equivalent of the city’s toes in the water – is to be set aside for a public purpose, and it’s hard for us to think of a better one than the skate park.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Random Thoughts On Black Wednesday At The CA

For seven years, I walked out to my driveway each morning with a knot in the pit of my stomach.

The morning bout of angst may have been bad for me, but it was good for Memphis.

I was a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and the competition between the afternoon newspaper and The Commercial Appeal was fierce. All of us opened our competitors’ papers with trepidation. Often, we didn’t even get the chance to open the newspaper, because the metro editor was already on the phone yelling about some the story we missed. It was an age when “scoop” really meant something; when we called ourselves reporters, not journalists; and when colorful characters filled the newsrooms.

There was the reporter who called in drunk from Dyersburg to report that no protests were taking place there. The only problem was that he was supposed to be in Forrest City. There was the reporter in the cop shop who got so mad at an editor that he threw his phone out the window into Second Street. There was the old-timer who regularly called in an insert to a story that was longer than his original copy. There was the guy who slept for months and months on a table at the Press Club. There was the reporter ordered to investigate the repairs of personal cars in the county auto shop but first had to get his car out. There was the shoving match between reporters from the CA and the Press-Scimitar in City Hall about who had broken a story first.

Bad Day At 495

Conversely, there was the reporter followed by the FBI because she was “too close” to civil rights workers. There was the series of articles about Memphis’ most powerful people that created a new understanding of how Memphis worked. There were daily stories that regularly shone light into backrooms, some based on purloined papers from the grand jury garbage and others from hiding in the Courthouse law library to overhear judicial ethics hearings. There was coverage that brought to live the panoply of people who made Memphis work, made it fail, and made it endlessly fascinating.

It was the post-Watergate era, and J-schools across the U.S. were jammed with young people looking to meet Deep Throat in shadowy garages to bring down the president. Back then, it seems that America was on the verge of a journalistic golden age, an era when the Fourth Estate would be the leveling force that would make democracy work.

Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have all known it could not last. It was just too good and too much fun, but then again, we also thought that we lived in a country of readers who admired the nobility of our profession. Surely, if there was anything that had special value to Americans, it was their newspapers. And yet, slowly, the world changed. People shifted to television news until today, 88% of people in Shelby County get their local news from television (which in truth has less and less news), compared to only 41% for The Commercial Appeal.

All of these memories come bubbling to the surface after hearing about “Black Wednesday” at our daily newspaper, as even more reporters were cut from the payroll. It’s all feels so much like a race to the bottom by an industry trapped in an Internet world with an offset press mind. It’s also strangely reminiscent of the grasping at straws behavior that typified the Press-Scimitar’s slow decline before it sank out of existence.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

There was the added irony that the firing of reporters came at the same time that the CA’s website proclaimed: “Poll finds some Tennesseans happier than others.” There was no question that this was the case in The Commercial Appeal newsroom, and perhaps the uninspired headline writing reflected the pall that hung over 495 Union.

It seemed that in a final act of surrender, the newspaper slashed even more institutional memory with the layoff of the venerable Jimmie Covington, who has forgotten more about Memphis than the rest of the staff knows, and editorial cartoonist Bill Day, whose exit brings to a close the long tradition (rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize) of locally produced cartoons. One insider said that perhaps the CA will rely more on free content from “new Marilyn Loeffels and their blazing insights.” (The joke in the newsroom: Marilyn Loeffel’s column is free and the paper is still overpaying.) Meanwhile, another person said that if you want to see the reason for the newspaper’s decline, it can be seen in the editor’s column every Sunday. “Besides finding out who he met at a party this week, it demonstrates the absolute lack of understanding about what makes Memphis tick. It’s a weekly advertisement of how clueless management is.”

It may have been bitterness talking but seemed to reflect the general lack of confidence in the paper's management. After all, The Commercial Appeal is certainly not alone in its crisis mode, a condition deepened by things like its suburban strategy – which dotted the landscape with offices but did nothing to attract subscribers (and in fact, might have resulted in a decline inside the loop). Circulation of the paper continued to slide until it fell below the magical 100,000. Advertising revenues fell off a cliff (across the U.S., they are down 25% from three years ago). No longer did the CA’s big story of the day dominate the conversation around the water cooler. There was no turning back.

Then the recession hit, and the industry was sent to the mat. What looked like a slow death for a number of papers was made quicker. A few died and several seem headed for the morgue. Some major newspapers have become on-line only or and some have begun to experiment with publishing a few days a week.

Part Of The City Infrastructure

A couple of years ago, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who normally used his blog to spotlight problems in this city and to occasionally complain about media bias, wrote: “The paper’s (Post-Dispatch) current struggling fiscal health and demoralized voice are drags on our own civic renaissance.” He’s right, but the fact that city mayors recognize the importance of their newspapers says volumes about the impact of smaller reporting staffs and fewer pages.

Before the Press-Scimitar called it quits on Halloween, 1983, there were nine reporters covering government and courts in downtown Memphis. Now there are three. Because of the aggressive competition between the newspapers, and more importantly, between the reporters themselves, there was regular behind-the-scenes coverage back then of the wheeling and dealing in government, there were the outtakes and anecdotes, there were stories connecting the dots and there was the in-depth articles that too rarely appear today.

“No one connects the dots, but it’s worse than that,” one former Commercial Appeal reporter said. “Now, no one even sees the dots. Most people who ‘got’ it are gone.” And despite watchdogs and on our side reporters, there’s just no way television news will ever fill this void. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has reported that a typical metro newspaper has 70 stories a day, and when sports and style sections are added, it’s more like 100. Meanwhile, a half hour of television news has 10-12 stories (typically with more about crime, fires, traffic tie-ups and weather).

Some people think that blogs can fill the vacuum, but they can’t. Some think newspapers will reinvent themselves into a digital form, but there’s no reason to feel optimistic about it. It’s just too hard for an industry defined by its legacy systems to adjust to the demands of today’s consumers. They want to individualize their own experiences and customize their own communications networks. Here, we receive more than a dozen newspapers a day, we receive a summary report of what the major papers are headlining, we aggregate stories about issues we’re tracking and set up searches for things we are interested in.

Six Bits
It creates a daunting challenge for newspapers to reinvent themselves in such a world. The trend in business, the arts and cities is that it’s the middle getting squeezed out. The large entities are succeeding because of their size. The small ones are finding niches. It’s the ones in the middle that are biting the dust. It’s a trend that doesn’t bode well for most big city newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal.

That’s how far the industry has come since the Watergate journalistic aura when predictions were that newspapers would leave the ambulance-chasing to TV and offer the kind of serious, literary journalism that the public would reward. That dream continues to walk out the door with the layoffs of newspaper veterans this week.
Standing in a Tiger Mart to pay my bill, the man in front of me lays down 50 cents for the newspaper, but the clerk tells him that it now costs 75 cents. “I just wanted to support them since papers are in trouble everywhere. I’ve been reading it online because I didn’t think it was worth 50 cents any more,” he said. “Never mind.” It was telling: a quarter was just more than the perceived value.

Molly Ivins said a short time before she died that newspapers’ answer to their problems is to make its “product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.” Perhaps that partially explains why the average age of a newspaper reader is 55 years old and rising and that only 19 percent of 18-34 year-olds look at a daily paper.

It Is Called The “News” Business For A Reason
Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein shared her opinion: “People are becoming better educated, more sophisticated and more global, not less. The days are long gone when daily newspapers could satisfy readers – particularly the younger and more affluent readers that advertisers crave – by hiring inexperienced young reporters to write desultory stories about city council and planning board meetings or by filling much of the news hole with bowling scores, school lunch menus and bad photographs of high schools sporting events.

“News executives will often try to justify dumbing down their product, or making it more parochial, by explaining that local coverage is their unique competitive advantage and that readers who want more can always get it somewhere else these days, often for free online. I’m aware of no evidence that time-stressed readers would not value having a single, convenient and trusted source for most of their news. It hardly seems like a winning strategy to drive customers to other news sources when, with a little imagination and a modest investment, newspapers and their websites can acquire most of what readers want in the way of national and international news and features from quality news organizations eager to explain their reach.

“If you ask me, the challenge facing our industry is not that readers have lost faith in their newspapers, but that newspapers have lost faith in their readers.”
We hope he’s right, but we think that it’s time for both the left and the right to declare a truce in their wars against newspapers and stand up for the importance of newspapers in the history of this nation. Both ideological sides have benefited from the rhetorical wars based on the premise that journalists aren’t objective and fair, and now, less than 20 percent of people say they believe all or most of reporting. (Of course, the Judith Millers and Jayson Blairs of the world didn’t help any.)

But, first, the newspaper business needs to stabilize and acknowledge that its business model just doesn’t work anymore. Maybe MinnPost.com is a harbinger of the future as reporters join together to put out online newspapers. Maybe it’s the nonprofit model that’s gaining traction (although it seems to presuppose that the managers of a nonprofit newspaper will act nobly and impartially). It does seem, however, that if local business leaders were willing to pay several hundred millions of dollars for a dying professional basketball franchise, they might be willing to do the same for a dying newspaper franchise. It’s easy for us to figure out which is more important to our city’s success.

No Profits, Nonprofit

After all, while readership of newspapers has dropped into the 40 percentile and the average operating profit margin has dropped from 22 to 11.5 percent, that’s still has the potential to be a respectable business within the right business model. And that business model might more logically be a nonprofit one.

In the end, it’s our belief – dream? – that newspapers can still accomplish the goals set out by Walter Lippman so many decades ago. He said the average American is like a deaf spectator in the back row at a sports event. “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” Explaining that world has uniquely been the responsibility of newspapers for 300 years, and it’s difficult now to see anything that can take its place.

The days when owning a newspaper was a permit to print money are long gone, and those who greet the industry’s travails with a shrug should think again. With the decline of newspapers will also come the decline of government accountability. Already, we are seeing the anti-media frenzy of the current Tennessee Legislature – apparently intent on staking a solid claim to being the most dismal group assembled in Nashville in recent history – playing out in the votes to block public records about gun permits from being published and recent attempts to weaken the open meetings laws.

We may have entered the era of what is loosely and oxymoronically called “citizen journalism,” and while we have blogs and commentaries at every turn from every one (including us), they also have no professional standards and transparency. More to the point, they will never have the impact of newspapers in getting the attention of corrupting influences in government and shining a powerful spotlight into the dark corners of political deal-making.

Democracy is stronger because of the Fourth Estate, and it seems that the future of The Commercial Appeal and other metro newspapers will only get more difficult.

We wish we knew the answer. We do know that we’re not reading The Commercial Appeal online tomorrow. We’re buying one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Skating Toward A Better Mud Island

Skateboarding Memphians Kris Gurley wrote this guest post:

I would like to talk to you today about part of our city that I (and many others) think has tremendous potential for our city: Mud Island.

How many times do you go to Mud Island? 3-4 times a year? No? Once a year maybe?

If you are like most Memphians, then you have gone once and that was enough for you. You may go back when friends and family come to town and they haven't been but that's about it. It's just not a place that encourages repeat visits. Even the Amphitheater is lacking in shows that would draw people to the island.

Thinking Big

How would you feel if we could get carloads of Memphians (and many more from around the country) to come to Mud Island each and every week? What if we could build a world-class attraction with minimal cost and maximum impact? Do you want to know what it would be?

A world-class skate park on the island!

This is not as far out there as you may think. Six years ago Louisville did this very thing and it was a rousing success. Last year San Jose one-upped Louisville by opening the largest park in the US (65,000 sq. ft) and attracted families from all over the world.

Major skate parks can be compared to ski resorts in that they are treated as destinations spots for participants from all over the globe. Here’s a news clip on the San Jose park.

#3 With A Bullet

Skateboarding has quietly crept up to become the third most popular activity in America over the last few years. More of America's youth skateboard than play baseball now and they do it with far fewer facilities than any of the other top five sports. In Memphis, baseball parks outnumber skate parks 48 - 0. And yet, skateboarders far outnumber little league and casual ball players. There are skateboarders in every area of this city and from every type of background. These thousands of skateboarders in the city need a safe, economical and family-friendly place for their pastime and Mud Island provides an ideal location.

With the amenities already present, the addition of a skate park would draw families from all over, but it doesn't have to stop there. With the planned renovation of the whole Mud island complex, we could easily add other attractions like a splash park, bike trails with bike rentals, a rock wall, indoor and outdoor fitness areas, even a dog park or a disc golf course to truly make it a destination that everyone can enjoy and enjoy safely. With controlled, limited access and the security presence on the island, you and your family can recreate in safety and security.

The cost of a world-class skate park is minimal. A mere $3 million and we would have the largest skate park in the nation (80,000 sq. ft.). Compare that to the $40 million it would take to renovate the Liberty bowl or the $250 Million that it cost for the FedEx Forum and the value is astounding. A facility of this class would be a global draw and pump needed dollars into our tourist economy.

A Mud Island Magnet

You cannot underestimate the draw of a park like this. Many skateboarders from Memphis have driven up to eight hours just to go to skate parks in cities like Dallas, Jacksonville, Houston, Louisville, Nashville and Little Rock. Lager parks like those in Denver, San Jose and Louisville attract skateboarders from all over the globe. People from those cities and countries would now come to Memphis for a world-class skate park experience.

This type of facility wouldn't just draw tourist; it would draw national televised events. Sports tours and competitions rake in high ratings on ESPN and ABC. Demos, concerts and festivals would have an ideal setting. Memphis has a rare gift in Mud Island and it's time we got it in the national spotlight.

So for the benefit of our citizens, our economy and our national image, I urge all of you to come out to the Mud Island Master Plan meetings and let the Riverfront Development Corporation know that you want to see this project put Memphis on the world stage while simultaneously filling a huge void for our youth.

Meeting Times

1.Downtown Meeting
Monday March 23rd from 5:45 - 7:15 pm
Location:MIRP Harbor Landing, 101 Island Drive (gate security will give
directions) Basically drive to Mud Island and go through the security gates. It's
on Mud Island.

2.Meeting at Memphis Botanical Gardens meeting
Thursday April 2nd from 5:45 - 7:15 pm
Location: Memphis Botanic Gardens, 750 Cherry Road (near Audubon Park)

For more information, please visit Skate Life Memphis.

Also, please take a few minutes to complete the RDC survey and let them know how you feel about the skate park on Mud Island.

on this page: (make sure you use the "other" and "Comments" section to let them know how you feel about the Skate park)

Monday, March 16, 2009

State Legislators Look To Suffocate Living Wage

One operative in the Tennessee Capitol frequently refers to the Legislature as the Land of Oz, and if that is so, Germantown Senator Paul Stanley is the tin man.

He needs to find a heart.

More to the point, he needs to go on a quest for his core Republican beliefs, because at this point, he has all the earmarks of being a “sound bite Republican” – one of those party apparatchniks who can always parrot the party line while failing to apply it in his legislation.

Flunking Civics 101

For example, we thought Republicans hated mandates, we thought they believed fervently in local self-determination, we thought they hated government interference and we thought they believed that the best government is the government closest to its people.

That’s why we just can’t fathom why Senator Stanley and 17 of his colleagues are trying to force their personal political beliefs on our local city and county governments. Apparently, they are under the impression that a certificate of election endows them with the omniscience to decide from Nashville what our decisions should be here at home.

But that’s precisely what Senator Stanley is doing with his legislation to prevent local government from doing what local government does – make decisions about how our local tax dollars are spent. And in this case, it’s making sure that our taxes are used to require that our fellow citizens are paid a living wage.

Getting Out Of The Cocoon

It may be easy in Senator Stanley’s well-to-do district to think that such things don’t matter. We hope that he’ll take the time to drive out of Germantown and get acquainted with the working poor who have two or three jobs to reach the living wage.

We dare him to look into the faces of poor Memphians – 75% of whom are women and children – and tell them that their local governments shouldn’t have the right to require its vendors and people seeking tax freezes to pay a living wage.

If Senator Stanley does not believe that every person is entitled to a living wage, he should pass legislation that prevents the government he’s part of – State of Tennessee – but his action to force his personal beliefs on the rest of us who are proud of our governments’ action on the living wage is equal parts arrogance and paternalism.

The $10 Outrage

Here’s the outrageous action taken by Memphis and Shelby County Governments that upsets Senator Stanley’s sensibilities: our local legislative bodies agreed to pay their workers and required their contractors to pay employees $10 an hour with benefits or $12 without benefits.

In other words, Senator Stanley’s sensibilities are bruised by the idea that these workers, if working 40 hours a week, are earning the king’s ransom of $20,800. God forbid that those of us in Memphis and Shelby County should aspire to apply the “love thy neighbor” admonition in a way that at least guarantees that we hit this modest threshold.

That’s the greatest irony of all. Senator Stanley proudly proclaims that he’s an evangelical Christian, but he seems to engage in selective reading of the Gospel. After all, the central message of his faith is that it is proven by his service to the least among us.

Living Wage, Living People

Here’s the thing. Fighting poverty is not a Democratic priority or a Republican priority. It requires all of us – from the left and from the right - to act on our values. That’s precisely why we were so proud of the Workers Interfaith Network campaign that led to passage of the living wage by Memphis and Shelby County Government.

It reflected our values as a community, and as the metro area with the highest poverty rate in the U.S., this isn’t about political gamesmanship. It’s about survival. It’s about attacking the problem with every tool that we can find.

Just imagine. At a time when our community needs to compete for the knowledge-based jobs of the global economy, we have legislators that can’t even support $20,800 a year. As Congressman Steve Cohen has aptly pointed out, there is an oligarchy in Memphis that has benefited from the poverty that grips too many of our people.

On The Same Boat

That said, if nothing is done to change the trajectory of our city, it won’t matter if we are in the oligarchy or in the majority. All of us will sink together. There’s no special class of people when a regional economy collapses. We’ve pointed out repeatedly that the indicators for Memphis are headed in the wrong direction, and most of them relate directly to the malignant poverty in our midst.

That’s why the votes on the living wage were so crucial. But equally important, it represented democracy at its best – grassroots groups joining hands to advocate for a change in the way we do business and the way that we treat the working poor. Now, people 210 miles away want to tell us that we don’t have that right.

In its 18-13 vote to prevent any government in Tennessee from passing living wage rules, the Tennessee Senate has written the most shameful chapter in its recent history. Spreading the mythology that higher minimum wage damages the economy and kill jobs, the state senators have majored in demagoguery and minored in fairness.

Long Arm Of The State

In the end, it’s just hard to understand why Senator Stanley believes that he has the right for the long arm of state government to reach down into the affairs of city and county government and erase some small measure of justice for the poor of our community.

If this bill passes the Tennessee Legislature, we urge for an act in kind. We urge Congressman Cohen to propose legislation in the U.S. Congress that prevents state legislatures from mandates that limit the self-determination of local government to set their own wage levels.

By then, the Legislature would not only have proven that in Oz, there are still tin men looking for hearts, but more to the point, there are tin-eared senators who put their personal political opportunism ahead of fundamental democratic values.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Single Source Funding May Follow Single-Minded Dedication

After 20 years of talking about it, it’s likely that there will soon be a single source funding plan for public education.

It’s a landmark moment for two reasons.

It is the first substantive action to inject fairness into a tax structure that punishes Memphians.

Equally important, it is a testament to the benefits of new leadership as exemplified by Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter – who began the discussion about changes in school funding with his one-man crusade – and Chair Deidre Malone – who refused to accept predictions of failure when she convened her process to resolve the school funding question once and for all.

The New Guard

We’ve never embraced term limits for a variety of reasons, but there’s no denying that this breakthrough is fueled by the new energy, the new ideas and the new people on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine that this could have happened with the former board of commissioners, which seemed at the end more focused on longevity than leading edge thinking.

This new group – like the revamped Memphis City Council – demonstrates convincingly that long-time elected officials who so often adopt the attitude that they’ve seen everything before and that nothing can be done to change things sometimes just need to get out of the way.

So often, while the old guard is being nabobs of negativity, our city slowly sinks under the weight of its troubling challenges. In this way, the new momentum for change could not come at a better time, because there’s no question that we have to shake up the status quo or our city will fall off a cliff.

That’s exactly what the special ad hoc committee on school funding has been doing. As it began its work, it was told that it couldn’t be done. After all, there had been repeated efforts to find a solution over the past 20 years and every time the end result was failure.

On The Verge

And yet, today, they stand on the verge of success. It is interesting to note that the past failed efforts were always begun by mayors, but this time around, it was commissioners and City Council members who decided to see if they could do anything about the double taxation that Memphians pay for public education.

This seems more and more to be accepted as a major public policy challenge in our community. When the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was presented with a variety of cost-cutting measures by the Wharton Administration, Commissioner Henri Brooks said they didn’t address the real problem of tax equity.

She was precisely right, and we’re encouraged by the fact that the interest in getting this right crosses all political, racial and geographic lines. In this way, perhaps, the most important outcome of the process may not be single source funding itself.

A draft of the plan said: “Shelby County Government is the logical local funding source for both the Memphis City Schools system and the Shelby County schools system. Having the County as the local single-source equalizes the tax burden, recognizes that every child in Shelby County has equal value and simplifies the local funding model. It can also avoid protracted and counterproductive litigation to determine the funding responsibilities of the City of Memphis.”

The First Cut Is The Hardest

This shift in school funding responsible would be transitioned from city government to county government over a three-year period. Best of all, the proposal contains a provision that ties the cut in funding to a cut in the Memphis property tax rate.

We learned last year that it’s hard to pass up the lure of new money. Although City Council courageously slashed funding for Memphis City Schools, it did not convert the entire amount into the tax cut that is needed if Memphis is to have a level playing field with suburban cities.

In this way, single source funding, or health department funding, or other services in which city taxpayers are paying twice isn’t just about making county government responsible. In truth, the end game has to be a reduction in the city tax rate so that this disincentive for Memphians to stay here is removed.

Several inducements should encourage the two school districts to cooperate in the process, chiefly that school funding will be tied to the property tax rather than being a fixed annual funding amount. To ensure that the school districts do not receive windfalls from surpluses in strong economic times as has taken place in the past.

Game Changers

An encouraging development in school accountability is that if county government becomes the only source for public education, both school districts must submit to the same budgetary oversight. This has not been the case in the past regarding Memphis City Schools.

As part of the shared agreement, all the parties – city government, county government, city school district and county school district – will pursue a lawsuit against state government about the level of funding for Shelby County. This follows up extensive research by Commissioner Mike Ritz that showed that county government has been shortchanged by almost $20 million a year. Finally, the parties to the agreement will agree to seek an amendment to Tennessee state law that requires for schools to be merged if the governments are.

At this point, we are told that the ad hoc committee on education funding is advancing two options for single source funding, apparently in response for the school districts’ interest in having taxing authority. While there appears to be little support among the public for giving yet another elected group the authority to tax them, all of us should be willing to engage in a public discussion of the idea.

It’s beginning to look like single source funding might actually take form about the 10th anniversary of the process inspired by local business leader Russell Gwatney, who became an expert in the arcania of school funding in his campaign for rational funding for better schools.

Knock On Wood

The ad hoc committee report embraced some of Mr. Gwatney’s concepts, and that’s good news. But the truth is that despite Chamber of Commerce and business support a decade ago, the campaign derailed, chiefly because of the lack of political will needed to change things.

That, most of all, is what makes the current process so impressive. We hope that it is just the first big step in a continuing journey toward tax equity so that finally Memphis will have a fair and logical tax structure.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Majoring In Minors At Shelby County Schools

From the “we’re supposed to believe this is a coincidence” department:

Faced with the pressing business of hiring a new superintendent, with addressing the concerns of a federal judge that it’s engaged in separate but equal decisions and with the glaring priority to improve a very average school district, Shelby County School board is spending its time renaming the February holiday for its students.

Like many public agencies, local governments and state governments, Shelby County Schools has been calling the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” but suddenly less than one month after an African-American Democrat took office, the county school district is obsessed with a newfound passion to call the holiday Washington’s Birthday.

Majoring In Minors

Shelby County Schools Board Chairman David Pickler is of course leading the fight for the honor of the father of our country. It’s just so characteristic of his persistent efforts at political cleverness and self-righteous manipulations that even if his motivations are pure, it’s just so hard to believe it.

That alone says volumes.

Mr. Pickler says that he was surprised to learn that the official name of the holiday isn’t Presidents Day, and after researching the issue, he’s learned that officially, the federal and state governments still call it Washington’s Birthday.

Left unsaid is why he devoted this much effort to this distraction and why it’s not acceptable for Shelby County Schools to call the holiday whatever it desires.

Left unmistakable are the political factors that fuel the change.

Being Inclusive

Over the years, because various states wanted to honor their own favorite sons in the White House and individuals wanted to honor the presidents that meant most to them personally, the widely-used term, Presidents Day, has gained common usage.

Meanwhile, the day was still officially named for the first president, but Presidents Day became so widely used that it’s even listed on the State of Tennessee website as the name of the holiday on the third Monday in February.

In other words, in a big tent country that feels more inclusive now than in recent history, it would seem that Shelby County Schools would want to err on the side of inclusivity. But that’s never been it’s strong suit.

The Beltone Board

There’s one condition that never changes for the county board -- tone deafness.

Once again, given a chance to show that it’s not some weirdly parochial parallel university and that it wants to educate young people who are prepared for a world where diversity is a fact and tolerance is a virtue, it engages in the kind of partisan, my way or the highway posturing that in the end is nothing short of silly.

In an age when public agencies talk a good game about transparency, the only thing transparent in Shelby County Schools is the way that the interests of the kids is always secondary to using them for personal political gain.

So, instead, the games continue, and as usual, the folks playing them aren’t on school basketball courts.

This Week On Smart City: Designing Conversations And Cities

The Urban Omnibus is a multi-media collection of insights from journalists, scholars, architects, artists and citizens on the built environment of New York City. We'll speak with Cassim Shepard, who is the project director, about creating an online conversation that reveals the choices that shape the city.

We'll also speak with Dr. Richard Farson. His book, The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, says that designers can make a whopping impact on social dilemmas including poverty, prison overcrowding and educational failure.

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, March 12, 2009

City Schools: County's Second-Class Citizen

Old myths just won’t die.

There’s the one that says that suburban sprawl is growth.

The one that says that the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) results in windfalls to Memphis City Schools.

That the smaller towns have more efficient governments than Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

Or that annexation is the wisest strategy for Memphis, and that the county wheel tax was only supposed to be for one year.

Finally, there’s the persistent idea that surfaced again this week that Shelby County Schools builds superior schools, especially when compared to Memphis City Schools.

Student Warehouses

“I have a real problem swallowing that we’re spending so much more there,” said Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who seems to more accurately swallow hard anytime city schools ask for anything. Specifically, he was comparing the $151.80 per square foot price of the city’s Douglas High School and the $136.10 per square foot price of the county’s new Southwind High School.

If cost was the overriding factor, we’d agree with him. But judging the value of schools is about more than price, and thankfully, unlike the Shelby County Schools, Memphis City Schools actually builds schools that act as hubs for community, that have a sense of place, that have a sense of arrival and that have public art.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools builds warehouses for students like Southwind High School – the wrong-sized school at the wrong place for the wrong reason – that has all the charm of a prison (see photo).

As Memphis City Schools Commissioner Betty Mallott accurately pointed out, city schools are often located in urban settings where land assembly can be tricky and because they are in neighborhoods, they have the responsibility to be forces for community pride and spirit. In addition, the city district thankfully pays the living wage and benefits package.

At Their Expense

Commissioners say they are concerned about getting school costs under control. Unfortunately, these always seem to come at the expense of Memphis City Schools. As for us, we’d like to know how much of the $480 million in facility renovations and construction needed by Memphis City Schools and documented five years ago remain to be addressed.

These kinds of repetitive conversations over the past 30 years have largely been “tail wagging the dog” attitudes of Shelby County Government, which has the tendency to think that any request for Memphis City Schools is worthy, less well-thought-out and less important.

It’s been evident time and time again over the years whenever the county schools district came in for money for a new school. There was always immediate loud gnashing of teeth and cries of outrage that the ADA law required that every time $1 is given to the county district, about $3 has to be given to the city district.

Listening to it, you would have thought that Memphis City Schools’ classrooms were lavishly decorated, there were computers for every pupil and that the surroundings were gold-plated. Of course, the truth was far different. On one occasion as county government moaned about having to send Memphis City Schools money just because Shelby County Schools needed new schools, one television station was reporting how ceilings in some schools were falling in, paint was chipping and teaching conditions were abysmal.

More Of The Same

But such are the racial undertow that has always characterized school issues in county government. Even after Memphis City Schools had meticulously inventoried about half a billion dollars in needed improvements, it was the county district’s requests for funding that prompted action – and money.

We think that the problems with construction of Manassas and Douglas High Schools aren’t related to square foot costs. More to the point, both schools were built twice as large as needed, and as a result, they will on their best days be operating at 50% capacity. Unfortunately, good old-fashioned politics resulted in the schools being built as tributes to a city council member and to a former school administration, and so it never received the serious planning evaluation that it was needed.

Meanwhile, the poster child for the county district's style of management is the Southwind High School, the hulking warehouse for 2,000 students - predominately African-American and many of them moved out of Germantown schools – that has all the charm of a new state prison.

The $36 million bunker is built on land for which Shelby County Schools paid significantly too much (about 50 percent more than comparable land in the same general area), it's built at the wrong location, and it's the wrong size and it was the wrong price.

Here's the thing about the new county schools. They are the educational equivalent of big box retail, and like the big boxes themselves, these schools have done nothing so much as feed sprawl and fuel our car-dependent society. For 30 years, Shelby County Schools has regularly built schools far from the center of communities, fueling sprawl, traffic and pollution. (Considering that most of them were selected by developers who were enriched by their projects near the schools, we guess this shouldn’t be surprising.)

Fuel For Sprawl

And while Shelby County Government seemed willing to move heaven and earth to pay for these mega-schools, it was content to let urban schools deteriorate into places unfit for their use as centers of learning.

Nationally, between 1995 and 2004, about $253 billion was spent on public school construction and renovation, but the bulk of the funding went for new schools. And make no mistake about it, were it not for the much-maligned ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements of state law, that would surely have been the case here. Some public officials regularly wring their hands about the growing county debt, but left unsaid is the fact that the needs of city schools were every bit as important and critical as new county schools.

The director of town planning for the New Urbanist architecture firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. could have been talking about Shelby County when he said: "Most school systems are building in new growth areas. They're remote and overcrowded, and kids can't walk to them. The mentality is about quantity versus quality."

And 10 More Reasons

From Chris Johnston:

1. Greater Memphis Greenline, 13 miles of Rails to trails project work in progress!!!! Can't wait.

2. The fact that Memphis is NOT on everyones got to Live there List. WE have lots of room for improvement, but the original soul and decaying original edginess are nice, like a fine ole patina on a beautiful work of art.

3. Harbor Town/Riverwalk/Greenbelt park

4. The Pyramid, what a jewel, for a place called MEMPHIS, any other city would be falling over itsel. With great ideas for repurposing it, and not trying to PAY some corporation/group to take if off its hands!

5. High Point Terrace and Hedgemoor neighborhoods.

6. Overton Park, Save the Greensward!

7. Goldsmith Botanical Gardens and The Pink Palace. Have you been there lately?

8. Central Ave between Buntyn and Highland St. in the Spring/Summer, Gotta love our TREES!

9. Memphis Heritage Association, Helping to preserve our originality.

10. Shelby Farms Park and all the great things in the works there.

Thanks for a great Memphis website.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Another 10 Reasons Why I Love Memphis

Here's the latest in our continuing conversation about the things we love most about Memphis. Send in any lists that you have and we'll post them here. Eventually, we'll post a master list of everyone's favorites. Here's Jeff Cozzens' list:

1. Approaching Memphis from the Arkansas side late at night and seeing the beautifully lit "M" bridge.

2. Being a proud graduate of a division one University, the University of Memphis.

3. Overton Park.

4. The beautiful old oak trees, how our city fathers from long ago decided not to cut down the trees to build an interstate through Overton Park.

5. Real "soul food."

6. Real BBQ, often imitated but never duplicated.

7. My integrated church.

8. Our rich civil rights heritage.

9. If you need it, high-quality medical care.

10. A sense that Memphis can always improve and become a better place to live and work.

Tonight: A Chance To Speak Out About Overton Park

Here's part of a message from Park Friends regarding City Engineering's plan to scar Overton Park:

The city plans to destroy the Greensward in Overton Park, and we need your voices to speak up to defend it.

The city engineers want to improve drainage in the nearby creek by digging out the entire field by Rainbow Lake and making it a bowl 18' deep (as deep as a two story building sunk into the field). This the ONLY field in the park that is not part of the golf course, zoo, or other organized, paid-for activity. We need this gathering place for picnics, kite-flying, dog walking, game playing, and general hanging out. That's what parks are for, and this one is constantly in use by the people.

The engineering maps and more information are posted at overtonparkforever.com. This project is typical of the way that the some city agencies look at irreplacible park land as targets of opportunity for projects which they would not consider worthwhile if park land were not available.

Since there is no organized lobby for the park, we need the citizens to speak up to protect it. The Vollentine-Evergreen Community Association will host a public meeting at their headquarters, 1680 Jackson Avenue, at 6:30pm Wednesday, March 11, to discuss the issue of Lick Creek flood control. Representatives from the City of Memphis will be on hand to answer questions.

Whether you can attend the meeting or not, your written comments may be sent to Hugh Teaford at the City of Memphis Engineering division. His email is hugh.Teaford@memphistn.gov and his address is 125 N. Main, Room 644, Memphis TN 38103.

Please copy:

Mayor Willie W. Herenton mayor@memphistn.gov

Director Wain Gaskins City of Memphis Engineering 125 N. Main St. Room 644 Memphis, TN 38103 Email: wain.gaskins@memphistn.gov 901-576-6700

Director Cindy Buchanan City of Memphis Park Services 2599 Avery Avenue Memphis, TN 38112 Email: cindy.buchanan@memphistn.gov

Councilman Jim Strickland Memphis City Council, District 5 125 N. Main, Room 514
Memphis, TN 38103 Email: jim.strickland@memphistn.gov

Email and addresses for other City Council Members are on line at http://www.cityofmemphis.org/framework.aspx?page=689*

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No Greenprint Bruises Our Image Black And Blue

This commentary was posted in October, 2005, and we post it again in light of the controversy of the mistreatment of Overton Park's Greensward. In a time of economic crisis and fiscal stresses in local government, it would seem that it would be the perfect time to protect what we have:

There is an aphorism in local government that goes like this: “There’s always money for anything the mayor wants to do.”

It doesn’t matter if the deficit is growing, it doesn’t matter if the budget is out of balance and it doesn’t matter which way the winds of controversy are blowing. If a mayor wants money for a special interest or a personal priority, it’s always found.

That’s why it’s unfortunate that parkland remains a low priority in local government.

Greening Cities

Never mind that 5,387 acres of parkland in Memphis is meager when compared to our so-called peer cities.

Never mind that the Research Triangle area is launching a GreenPrint program to increase green space by 158,000 acres in the next 25 years.

Never mind that Nashville is embarking on a $151 million park expansion program.

Never mind that Atlanta is beginning development of a spectacular 22-mile linear park.

Never mind that Memphis is in a race with these cities for jobs, workers and economic growth. And never mind that parkland is one of the wisest investments that can be made by a community.

Doing Better

At a time when Memphis should be pulling out all the stops to lure people back to city neighborhoods, we send the message that we place little value on green spaces and their connection with healthy neighborhoods.

Just for the record, let’s do the numbers: Memphis spends about $32 per citizen on parks. It’s hard to find a major city that does less, and we are topped by cities ranging from Seattle to Oakland, Denver to Oklahoma City, Cincinnati to Virginia Beach. In fact, most of these spend from two to seven times more per resident.

As for parkland per 1,000 residents, Memphis is in a race to the bottom. As for parkland as a percentage of the city total area, Memphis (including Shelby Farms Park’s 4,500 acres) rate is 6 percent. By the way, the plan for the Research Triangle will raise its percentage from 8 percent to 15 percent.

While politicians look for quick fixes to budget problems, citizens are looking for long-range commitment to park improvements. And they’re willing to pay for it. In the most recent reporting year, voters in 23 states approved three-fourths of the referenda for parks – to the tune of about $1.8 billion. Since 1995, more than $25 billion in new capital funding for parks has been approved by voters.

Just The Facts

There's no reason that we can't do the same here. The Division of Parks operates on essentially the same budget that it had 30 years ago, and the public needs to create a mandate for our parks, and as we do, let's remember a few things:

• Some people are concerned that parks foster crime.

Actually, the reverse is true. According to scientists at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, parks create neighborhoods with fewer violent and property crimes and where neighbors watch out and support one another. Research found that residents near parks expressed feelings of safety more than residents lacking parkland. That’s because parks are places where the social bonds of the neighborhood are forged and a spirit of community is incubated through the social contacts on common ground. In addition, researchers compared the crime rates for apartment buildings with little or no vegetation to buildings that had just the opposite. The buildings with vegetation had roughly half as many crimes. These findings were consistent with prior studies that indicate fewer quality of life crimes occur in neighborhoods near parkland.

• Parks increase property values and produce more taxes for local government.

Chattanooga saw property values grow by 128 percent when it embarked on a parks and open space plan, producing an increase of 99 per cent in city and county property taxes. Similar increases were reported in Atlanta, Boulder, San Antonio and Philadelphia.

Quality of life is a major factor in the decisions of Knowledge Workers on where to live and work.

A survey of 1,200 technology workers showed that a high quality of life increased the attractiveness of a city by 33 percent. Other surveys, including this firm’s Memphis Talent Magnet Report and the Young and Restless Series on the movement of 25-34 year-old workers (which can be read on our website, www.smartcityconsulting.com), show that these young professional workers prefer places with diverse outdoor recreational options.

Parks are lures to homebuyers, and Memphis needs all the weapons in its arsenal to attract people back to its neighborhoods.

A survey by the National Association of Realtors reported that 65 percent of home shoppers felt that parks would seriously influence them to move to a community; 57 percent would choose a home close to a park and open space over one that is not; and homebuyers would pay 10 percent more for the privilege of living near parkland.

• Families living near parks are fitter and healthier.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an epidemic in obesity. Access to parks increases the percentage of people exercising on three or more days per week by 26 percent, the CDC says, adding that 15 percent of children are overweight. That percentage is much higher in Memphis. Children need parks now more than ever -- as alternatives to video games, television and computers.

What is the main lesson Memphis can learn from cities with excellent park systems? Leadership matters.

Visionary elected officials understand that the green infrastructure is just as important as the public works infrastructure. They understand that the natural ecosystem is critical to the health and well-being of their citizens. They insist on “green plans” that create an interconnected system of parks that produce all of the economic, quality of life, environmental and sense of community benefits that are found in vibrant cities.

Here’s hoping someone will take out a civics book that reminds them how Memphis’ once dynamic system of parks was not only a source of pride but a selling point during the city’s growth years. It can be again.