Thursday, April 30, 2009

Refusing To Shrink From The Facts About Memphis

Here’s the hypothesis:

Tennessee’s liberal annexation law means that Memphis – unlike many similarly-sized cities across the U.S. – is not landlocked by small towns, and because of it, its population has been growing or relatively stable for several decades.

However, if we use the 1970 Memphis city limits as the definition of the “core city,” Memphis is losing population, and annexation creates a false sense of security while older neighborhoods deteriorate and their problems intensify.

The Hard Facts

Here’s the fact that we mentioned in our last post: within the 1970 city limits of Memphis, population is 28% less now than then. In the meantime, Memphis has cut its density in half as it annexed about 150 more square miles of land.

The lure was new property taxes for a city – like every local government in Tennessee – strapped by the most regressive tax structure in the United States. In other words, the less you make in Memphis, the more you pay as a percentage of your income, and as the city hollowed out and middle income families moved out of the city limits, there seemed to be little alternative but to chase new revenues wherever they could be found.

But it’s time to step back and look at it all again. It’s time for a reality check. If the price for that new revenue is more responsibility over a larger area and no more to spend on core neighborhoods that are the heart of Memphis, the entire transaction may have been built on a false economy. Now, as the Memphis City Council has courageously forced a new look at the old way of doing things here, perhaps it’s also time to conduct a comprehensive return on investment analysis – one that tells us more than how much property tax is being produced in the new annexed area and the cost of the new public services. More to the point, the analysis needs to determine the cost to the neighborhoods left behind as the city searches for the green pastures of additional money for its coffers.

It’s A Simpler Place

This isn’t intended to criticize an annexation policy that was unfortunately about the only arrow in the city’s financial quiver. The truth is that we are lucky to have the current state law on annexation, because it does not produce a county more balkanized and where decisions are made even more difficult. For example, every time the St. Louis airport has to enter into new agreements about its facilities, it must deal with a dozen different cities. Louisville is surrounded in Jefferson County by about 90 governmental units (even after consolidation), and Cleveland, just in Cuyahoga County, is smothered by 36 cities.

In some ways, we perhaps were whip-sawed by the fact that our government structure is so much smaller than other cities. In those places, it’s often harder to give away taxes when it requires so much complicated cooperation between cities, villages and townships.

But back to the subject, Memphis is a shrinking city, so it’s no surprise that we’re showing many of the symptoms that perplex other cities. More to the point, we need to get into the serious discussions about the futures of shrinking cities and what they can learn from each other.

Changing Vocabulary

It won’t be easy. Elected officials and economic development officials prefer understandably to talk about population growth, but we need to remember that shrinking isn’t necessarily the same as sinking. Perhaps, just perhaps, when it comes to cities, size doesn’t matter or at least it doesn’t matter as much we have traditionally thought. Now, thinking about cities like our does require a new way of thinking, looking for assets that can be leveraged and competitive advantage to be maximized.

In Memphis, more than anything, it requires our city to change its way of conducting business. Now, it feels more like we’re playing not to lose, rather than we’re playing to change the game so we have a chance to win.

At CEOs for Cities, our colleague Carol Coletta’s research has already shown that “cities that measure success by population growth have an outdated view of what success is all about.” She pointed out that arguing that there is a correlation between population growth and economic growth and per capita income growth is wrong as much as it’s right. For example, Las Vegas topped the list in population growth while coming in 38th in income growth.

The Right Size

Pretending that it doesn’t exist is sort of like being in the ER but refusing to acknowledge that you are hemorrhaging. In cities, it results in massive public infrastructure that a smaller number of taxpayers have to pay for. As part of the shrinking city discussion here, we also need to consider how we right size the relationship between who needs and who pays for these kinds of expensive services.

The shrinking cities movement began in Germany following the fall of Communism and the historic shift in populations from East to West. As part of its research, it looked to Halle/Leipzig in Germany, Detroit, Ivanovo in Russia and Liverpool/Manchester in England.

The city that has embraced its shrinkage is Youngstown, Ohio, and it came face-to-face with its realities when it elected a planner as its mayor, Jay Williams. He was elected after shaping a broad-based blueprint based on a simple fact: Youngstown would be smaller.

Straight Talk

He talked bluntly and embraced the philosophy that his city had to act radically and quickly. He’s not taken anything off the table, including de-annexations and digging up utilities and roads. It was a gutsy move for a mayor, but he refused to gloss over the problems and the reality of the future they would create if nothing was done.

Youngstown was always a “mill town,” and that’s why the shutdowns of the mills that began 30 years ago turned the city upside down – financially, civically and culturally. It took 30 years for the dose of reality that would lead to the election of Mayor Williams, and today, he and his city are now recognized for Youngstown 2010, which advocates strategies ranging from increasing density, removing streets from the traffic grid, tough changes in the delivery of public services, plans to remove large areas of abandoned houses and programs to lure people to areas where city services can make financial sense. That last one is particularly tough politically. If it were not so, residents of the Lower Ninth Ward is New Orleans would not be building new houses.

We’re not saying that the shrinking city movement has all the answers. We’re just saying that we need to start the discussion. We’ll be in good company, or should we say, we’ll be in company. More than 450 cities with populations more than 100,000 have lost 10% of their populations since 1950, including 59 in the U.S. For every two cities gaining population, three are losing population.

Talking The Talk

One conclusion that has received consensus already: traditional urban planning tools don’t work. That’s been proven by the slum and blight removal programs, followed by the urban renewal projects, followed by the economic development initiatives. Now, some cities are appealing to the young creatives who are not scared off by urban challenges but often find the funky environment and cheap digs that are so often lacking in boomtowns, and they are important.

However, they certainly won’t create solutions at the scale needed by cities like Detroit, where city housing is now going for $7,500 or for Memphis whose number of vacant properties has doubled since 2000 to about 43,288 (14.6%). But what it just might do is tap into the creativity and new thinking that creative workers and young talent offer for real solutions for Memphis. We have some now who need to be part – if not leading – this new discussion about the future.

In other words, this isn’t about creating a throwback to the past, but injecting new vibrancy and activity into nodes that together can stitch together the torn fabric of a shrinking city.

But first, we have to decide to begin. Too often, dealing with urban problems in Memphis is like the stages of grief. Just this once, maybe we can move past denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and unabashedly move to acceptance and develop the kinds of bold plans that can truly make a difference in the trajectory of our city.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No Reason To Shrink From The Facts

Memphis is a shrinking city.

We’re not talking about the slight decrease in the raw population numbers since 2000. Rather, we’re talking about the practical impact of significant population losses in the traditional city – represented by the 1970 Memphis boundaries. It’s these areas whose neighborhoods need to be healthy and whose success is crucial to the future of Memphis.

Because (thankfully) we’re not like most similarly sized cities that are land locked and surrounded by dozens of small towns, it’s easy at times to think that our relatively stable population indicates a city that is doing well.

We’ve masked the fact that we are in truth a shrinking city by annexations that prop up our population numbers and grant us a false sense of security. As a result, we’ve side-stepped the serious discussion that is needed about whether annexation today is actually a boon to the budgets of Memphis city government and whether stretching already faltering public services over a larger area is the sound public policy for our city.

Genesis Of The Exodus

Here’s what we are talking about: the population within the 1970 city limits of Memphis is now 20.2% less than it was then. In other words, 124,348 people within the 217.4 square miles 1970 Memphis borders are no longer there.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the largest exodus took place between 1970 and 1980 when 57,987 people left our city.

No amount of annexation is cosmetic enough to prevent the inescapable conclusion that in our pursuit of new taxes, we may actually have escalated the decline of the urban center. Operating on the theory that annexation areas are the sources of much-needed new property taxes, city government has taken a decidedly optimistic viewpoint of the overall net fiscal effect.

Perhaps, it’s not enough to calculate the costs of the new services to the new area. More to the point, the analysis needs to evaluate carefully and thoroughly what the impact is on services and neighborhoods in the former city limits.

We Need To Be Denser

When the 20th century dawned, Memphis covered an area of 18.5 square miles with a density of 7,125. No one would have expected that Memphis should have stayed that small, but even by 1970, it was only at 217.4 square miles (a doubling of the size of the city in about 20 years since 1950).

Today, the size of Memphis is bigger than the size of New York City – 346 square miles to 305 square miles. The overlay of public services over such a massive area stretches already underfunded services even more, and to us, it suggests to us that our city needs a serious debate over the relationship between the size of the city and the effectiveness and economy of its public services.

Maybe, just maybe, the optimal size for highly efficient public services and the best quality of life is smaller, and if it is, we need to decide that now before Memphis expands to almost 500 square miles under the existing annexation reserve agreements with the other Shelby County towns.

When “annexed out,” Memphis will be the size of Los Angeles.

A New Perspective

Already, the density of Memphis is down to just over 2,000 persons per square mile. That’s down from about 4,000 in 1960, about 3,000 in 1970, and about 2,500 in 1980. Not only are cities more sustainable when they are denser, but public services are easier to deliver economically.

Perhaps, a comprehensive return on investment analysis will show that annexation is the best course of action for city government, but we need to be sure. We need to see the evidence.

And, the evidence must be more than an accounting exercise. More to the point, it must reach conclusions about what the older parts of our city are likely to look like as a result of more annexation, including the needs of these area and the ability of the city to respond to them. Most of all, the analysis should consider investments that would improve Memphis’ ability to compete for 25-34 year-old college-educated workers and middle class families back into Memphis.

Before we begin, we need to set aside the obsession by cities in growing population. Growth at the expense of quality of life means nothing. Growth at the fringe that consumes funds that should be invested in the “old” city is not really growth in its broadest sense.

Getting The Conversation Right

That’s why we believe that Memphis needs to get involved in the shrinking cities discussions under way by several cities. It’s a field of study just now getting attention, but it will become more and more important in coming years. After all, for every two cities that are growing, three are shrinking.

We may not like the company we will be keeping – Detroit, Dayton, Cleveland and Youngstown, to name but four – but we need to consider that success may not be in celebrating 40 units of housing in a badly deteriorated section of Memphis but in considering how we move people around so our city operates more economically and efficiently.

Cities like Cleveland seem to be failing fast; 115,000 people have left that city in this decade alone, and cities like St. Louis have half the population it had 50 years ago. So, while we need to look at Memphis in new ways, the dimensions of the problems here have not reached the levels of these Rust Belt cities, and that’s why we need to start this conversation now.

We admit that the prospects of a downsized city may be bruising to our civic ego, but it is nonetheless essential. Just as the slow food movement started in Europe, so did the slow city movement. Its singular message is that a smaller city does not necessarily mean that it is a failing city. Most are victims of forces beyond their control.

Bipolar Behavior

In this way, the shrinking city movement is about holding two opposing ideas at the same time – hope and despair. It is in embracing contradictory forces that success may be found, and if any city is to do it well, there’s little reason that it shouldn’t be Memphis, because we’ve built a history on our conflicting character – Beale Street in the Bible Belt, flourishing African-American culture in the segregated South, outsiders changing world culture in the midst of hide-bound conservatism.

And yet, the driving force in our history is passion, and that’s why the shrinking city discussion isn’t about despair. It’s not about an academic exercise. It’s about passion, and a belief that we can reimagine a future for Memphis that captures national attention but captures the attention of the toughest audience of all - Memphians.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Party Down: Pack Your Picnic And Your Pistol

We’re planning a big party to celebrate the victory in the Tennessee Legislature for all of us who hold our guns as close as our families.

It will be held upon the close of the legislative session, and we hope you will bring your pistols with you as we are finally relieved of the unrighteous burden forced on us by an unfair state that prevented us from packing heat in our local parks.

Finally, our campaign to subvert the plans of Barack Obama to seize our AK-47’s is picking up momentum. Our prayers have been answered by the decision by our state legislature to allow us to take our handguns into parks.

Yes, we’re disappointed that we still can’t carry our assault weapons into our local parks, but we are confident that the wisdom and faithful leadership of our right-thinking legislators will right that wrong in next year’s session.

Do Unto Others

With God’s help, by next year at this time, we will have removed these unconstitutional hurdles to gun ownership, and by then, we can begin to put shooting galleries in our parks (or we could just turn our parks into shooting galleries, whichever comes first).

It seems clear to us that if we can return prayer to our schools and guns to our playgrounds, we can return to the traditional family values of God and guns that have made our nation what it is today.

Our “Party in the Park” gives all of us who revere the Second Amendment at all costs (It’s a gun, not a choice.) to pay tribute to the leadership of our two special God-fearing, gun-toting legislators – Senator Paul Stanley of Germantown and Rep. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet.

Pack Your Picnic Basket With Bullets

So pack your picnic basket and your handguns and come out for this special celebration. We’ll announce the exact day as soon as the Tennessee Legislature ends, but we already know the locations:

* Our West Tennessee party will be held in Riverdale Park in Germantown, a couple of blocks from Sen. Stanley’s home on 7511 Neshoba, and we hope he’ll send his two children over early for the special kids’ activities.

* Meanwhile, we’ll hold our special Middle Tennessee party at Whalen Park across from Rep. Beavers’ house on Hunters Place, and we look forward to welcoming her two sons for the children’s morning activities.

A Religious Experience

We look forward to demonstrating to our legislators the impact of their leadership, so gather up your firearms and come on down to join our party to thank them for their leadership in making sure that guns are as welcome in our parks as people are.

In case of rain, we’ll gather in a nearby restaurant, and thanks to the same legislators, you won’t have to leave your guns in your car.

Praise Jesus.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Memphis School Funding Flunks Tax Fairness Test

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton sent a stern note last week to the Memphis City Council that said its members need to restore full funding for Memphis City Schools.

It prompted memories here of the late Jesse Turner Sr., the civil rights leader and former long-time chairman of the budget committee for Shelby County’s legislative body. When presented once with a directive about the budget by a county mayor, he responded calmly: “I appreciate your opinion. That’s what you have – an opinion. What I have is a vote.”

It’s a fact of life that’s always been lost to some extent on the news media, which hang on every word of mayors and their budget recommendations as if it’s the administrative branch that determines public budgets.

The truth is that it’s the 13 members of Memphis City Council who will make the final decision. They have the responsibility, not to mention the authority, to set the final budget and the tax rate.

Dollars And Sense

We respect the mayor’s opinion about school funding. As the former superintendent of Memphis City Schools, Mayor Herenton, according to a political adviser, is too passionate about schools to remain silent on the issue of school funding. They said that it was a personal motivation that led him to chastise the Council in a letter to City Council Myron Lowery.

It seems likely that the Memphis City Council will return the favor, asking the mayor for his administration’s recommendations on how to include the school funding in the city budget – are cuts in other city departmental budgets recommended to offset the increase for schools or is the recommendation for a tax increase to produce money for schools.

More than a couple of City Council members think that the mayor may have been trying to paint them into a corner, but think that he instead shot himself in the foot (to mix metaphors). They said that if he were serious about funding schools, he would have put the money in the proposed budget that he presented to Council last week along with the bombshell that he’s planning to run for Congress.

In the words of one Councilman, “he didn’t present a balanced budget at all if he truly believes that schools should be funded at previous levels.”

Politics And More Politics

From their side, however, key finance officials assumed that if they had included the school funding, City Council would “grandstand and cut it like they were the only ones who know how to cut budgets.” Regardless of the rationale on each side, some people believe that it’s created a game of political chicken.

And yet, it’s just as likely, based on early reports from the Council, that its members may opt to ignore Mayor Herenton’s letter altogether, recognizing that final decisions on the city budget are theirs, not the administration’s. One Council member also pointed out that the mayor had similar opinions last year, but had no real influence on the City Council budget decisions.

As superintendent, Mayor Herenton was a rising star and highly regarded for top school jobs from Atlanta to New York City. So, it’s no wonder he has a strong feeling about the city’s funding of schools. We just happen to disagree with him.

As we’ve said before, tax fairness affects every Memphian, and if any one is harboring the delusion that our city can compete for new jobs, new talent and new business investment as higher and higher taxes are paid by fewer and fewer people, they are ignoring reality.


That is exactly what current trends foretell. Unless we are able to bring some sanity to our current tax system – which punishes Memphis tax base, which is losing middle-income families faster and leaving a polarized city to pay for the increasing costs of the vortex of social problems that stem from our high poverty rate.

It’s a vicious cycle. The high rate of poverty begets a high drop-out rate which begets a high level of people out of the job market which begets the high rate of crime which begets the high abandonment of the city which begets higher tax rates which begets higher risk to the entire region.

In that way, a fair tax rate for Memphians isn’t just the city’s concern. It better be all of ours. In the end, all of us are at risk, regardless of where we live and how much we earn and how immune we think we are from the economic repercussions of Memphis’ collapse.

Because of this, Memphis City Council was not only right when it tried to bring some sanity to the local tax burden. They were also courageous.

Council Courage

After all, this community talked 25 years about placing all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base. We’ve been talking for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing changed.

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

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

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

Wanted: Logical Laws

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

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

Meanwhile, those same small cities use their lower tax rates and their schools as lures to pull people out of Memphis, and Memphians are forced to help make it possible.

This Week On Smart City: Cities And Schools Look Ahead

This week on Smart City we're looking ahead for a view of the city in the year 2050. Maureen McAvey of the Urban Land Institute joins us to talk about what the city will look like 40 years from now, and what changes we need to make the future greener, richer, and most importantly, fun.

And we're joined by Dr. Beverly Hall. Dr. Hall has served as the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools for a decade and was recently honored by the American Association of School Administrators as their 2009 National Superintendent of the Year. We'll talk about the innovations that are happening in Atlanta Public Schools and why improving student achievement is no mystery.

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.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Remembering Our Friend Jack Tucker

Somehow, it seemed appropriate that the sadness that enveloped us when the historic First Methodist Church burned down returned and intensified when another downtown landmark, architect Jack Tucker, left us April 5.

No one in downtown Memphis was more saddened than Jack by the loss of the church on the site of Memphis’ first meeting house. Now, all of us who care about downtown are grieving Jack’s loss and extend our sympathies to his wife, Cyndy Grivich Tucker.

He was 70 years old when he died, and he was just as passionate about the art and disciple of his profession in those last weeks as he was when he left University of Arkansas with his degree in 1963.

A New Attitude

He was the friend across the hall for Carol Coletta for 33 years, and became neighbors for all of us who have worked here. Back when he designed the conversion of this old cotton building - one of the oldest buildings in downtown Memphis - into three floors of condos called the Timpani Building, he inspired the imagination that would lead to downtown’s emphasis on transforming neglected historic buildings into unique symbols of our city’s special character.

When Jack, Carol and others moved into the converted cotton warehouse in 1976, they were considered oddities. After all, the number of people living downtown was measured by the handful. Because of Jack’s work and his example, thousands were to follow, and along the way, his ability to see the possibilities of neglected historic buildings became an adaptive reuse philosophy that became part of the downtown DNA.


In that way, it was as if Jack never left the Peace Corps.

As a University of Arkansas student, he took the Peace Corps test – although his date from the previous evening who’d suggested taking it didn’t show up – and he went to Tunisia in the earliest years of the Peace Corps, and there, his commitment to protecting and preserving history through our architecture was deepened. When he left after his years of service, he moved to Memphis, where he continued the teaching, the passion and the advocacy that were at the core of his work in North Africa.

Recognition of his new vision for downtown and his professional respect are seen in numerous positions that he held over the years – president of the Memphis Chapter of American Institute of Architects, chairman of the Memphis Landmarks Commission, founding member and president of Memphis Heritage, a founding member of Friends For Our Riverfront, a founding member and president of Downtown Neighborhood Association, and a founding member and president of Chickasaw Bluffs Conservancy, to name a few.

Preserving Principle

The thread through all that he did was preservation, whether it was the built environment, the natural environment or the civic environment. Almost all of us who knew him first met him at a meeting that was dealing with downtown redevelopment or historic preservation. He was the expert. He was the institutional knowledge. He was an unceasing advocate.

In a city where there’s a tendency to “go along to get along,” Jack was different. He would not sacrifice his personal beliefs or compromise his professional opinions, and there’s little argument that he gave up work because of his refusal to put a price tag on his preservation credentials at a time when developers were gladly willing to pay him for his name so they could claim sensitivity for their re-design of old buildings.

There’s the story of a local government agency that was prepared to hire Jack, but decided against it, saying: “He just won’t do what we tell him.” It showed how little the bureaucrats understood him. He was willing to listen and design based on the client’s opinions, but he wasn’t willing to do anything that violated his principles.


That’s why when Jack talked, everyone listened. It was a common sight to see him standing in the neighborhood around Union and Front or sitting in Front Street Deli, talking to someone seeking him out for some historical perspective, for advice or just to hear what he was thinking.

Over the last year, it was clear that his fight against cancer would be his last, but despite the obvious ravaging that his body was taking, he never complained or even hinted that the disease was taking a toll on him. Even as we saw him walking to his house more and more often and earlier and earlier to rest and recharge, when asked how he was “really” doing, he’d just say that he was doing well and that everything was going to turn out fine.

We may no longer see Jack on the street, but we’ll see him all around us. We’ll see him in the Scimitar Building, Lenox School, The Candy Factory, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Pontotoc Building, Child Advocacy Center, and more. We’ll see him every day when we enter The Timpani Building. In fact, we’ll see Jack at his memorial service Saturday afternoon in the Lord’s Chapel at Elmwood Cemetery. That special place was also designed by him.

What We Call Him

The testimonials have flowed in from the great and the small since Jack’s death – from his peers and his beneficiaries. He’s been called many things, including the man most responsible for the revitalization of downtown, but for us, we’ll always call him friend.

For more than three decades, he was a special one. More to the point, he was a special friend to the people of downtown and Memphis.

That's why we are particularly grateful to Memphis City Councilman Bill Morrison, who's the source for an awful lot of good thinking in our city and who is asking his colleagues to name the cobble-stoned alley that runs behind the buildings, including the Timpani Building and CVB, fronting Union from Wagner Place to Front Street to be named for Jack.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mayor Herenton: Great For A News Cycle

There are those who are dismissive of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s media skills.
From where we’re sitting, he’s the master.

On a day when FedEx founder Fred Smith ventured into the halls of city government, the mayor reminded him whose house it is.

No one knows better how to upstage everyone else than Mayor Herenton and how to produce one of those “second coming” headlines in The Commercial Appeal and “breaking news” bulletins on television.

Déjà vu

This time around, it’s the breathless news that Mayor Herenton is planning to run for U.S. Congress against incumbent Steve Cohen. If there are two realities in local politics, it is that Mayor Herenton can always be counted on for the unexpected and Congressman Cohen can always be counted on for the quotable soundbite. Both were on display yesterday with their point-counterpoint, but make no mistake about it, it was Mayor Herenton who was the center of attention.

It’s the ultimate irony. By alternating between utter disdain and coy pronouncements, Mayor Herenton is able to make the media look like they are on bungee cords. He bounces them at will, causing them to chase every announcement with every reporter on staff despite dependably casting each as a personality conflict or a horse race with the observations by the customary political “experts.”

There’s the pervasive feeling among reporters that the mayor is erratic and uncontrolled, and more than anything else, that opinion shows how little they know him.

In a city where a large part of the population sees him as a bomb thrower, he is anything but. If he’s throwing grenades, it’s only after he’s calibrated them, selected a target, decided on the message he wants to send and how much of a frantic reaction he wants to cause.

Getting Real

So, for us, this isn’t about whether he can beat U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen or not, it’s more about why did he make this announcement now and what motivation is behind it.

There’s the thought that he really wants to campaign for Congress. His alter ego, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, said that he’s dead serious about running, but of course, he also said last year that Mayor Herenton was dead serious about resigning so he could become school board superintendent. (Despite having the memories of the frenzied coverage of that previous announcement, the news media dependably ran down the same trail with the latest about a Congressional campaign.)

Here’s the thing about his potential candidacy. There are many who say that he can’t win, but that’s because they only talk to the “downtown crowd,” reformers, creatives and college-educated young professionals. These don’t represent Mayor Herenton’s base (although some of them once were), and so listening to the echo chamber that reverberates the shared opinion that disparages Mayor Herenton, they think every one agrees with them.

They don’t. The truth is that if you go to New Chicago, South Memphis, Whitehaven and Orange Mound, you’ll find that Mayor Herenton continues to have strong support. They remain faithful, and despite the pronouncements of so many others, they believe that he’s been – and is - a good mayor. They identify with battles and his rhetoric, and they think his travails are a magnified version of those in their own lives.

Getting Out

That said, it’s still hard to imagine Mayor Herenton relishing a move to Washington, D.C. For someone who doesn’t exactly covet the thrill of travel, he would be required to fly back and forth to Memphis almost weekly and while in the nation’s capital, he would be living in relatively Spartan conditions. But if Commissioner Chism is right, the mayor is genuinely committed to this run for another office as a fitting ending to his storied career.

That’s theory #1.

Then, there’s the thought that Mayor Herenton really is ready to resign and move on and running for Congress gives him a dignified “out.” After all, the mayor is a proud man, and people who know him best say that he will be reluctant to resign if it results in a loss of face. But, as Commissioner Chism said, if he’s tired of being mayor and is looking for something that will capture his imagination and engage his energies, this might be it, but most of all, it’s a smooth way to wrap up his record-setting terms as mayor.

Whether he ultimately runs for Congress or simply decides after resigning to retire to his home, it allows him to enter a time of transition without appearing to leave as a result of federal investigations, media criticisms and business frustrations.

That’s theory #2.

Calling Their Bluff
Then, there’s the concept that Mayor Herenton’s announcement sent the ultimate message to federal investigators who seem to be casting from one lead to another in their investigation into the alleged convergence between his political life and his private business interests. Some of it unsurprisingly looks like over-reaching, but federal prosecutors feel that there is enough at its core to move ahead.

The questions in the U.S. Attorney’s office appear to be about timing and lack of consensus about options for action. After the fiasco of the Lee-Ford indictment, prosecutors are loathe to be embarrassed again in a case of this magnitude, especially without a permanent head of the office nominated by President Obama.
However, for some, the Herenton announcement was a way of telling federal investigators to put up or shut up, because he was prepared to not only continue his political career, but continue it with a race for Congress, daring them to indict him then.

That’s theory #3.

No Need For Diversion

Regardless of what motivated Mayor Herenton, here’s the reality. He’s still able to prove anytime he wants that he’s the dominant political figure – or is it dominant figure, period – in this city, perhaps since the days of Boss Crump.

Some people think that Mayor Herenton made this bombshell announcement to divert attention from his proposed budget. That’s a pretty thin premise. It was a day that hardly needed any diversion. A budget speech is a budget speech. On balance, they are largely irrelevant and are always an exercise in putting the best possible slant on an administration’s financial management.

It’s in the Memphis City Council’s budget committee review of the budget where the details are revealed. For example, more than one Council member wants to see what assumptions were made within the budget – assumptions that could change the level or distribution of services.

One thing’s for sure. With a balanced budget whose tax rate will likely go lower as a result of reappraisal, City Council looks on the surface to be painted in the corner. But with the option to eliminate 3% pay raises for city employees, Council may well have a trick or two up its sleeves.

There’s a strong interest by influential Council members to get the city tax rate under $3.00, so there’s just no reason now to assume that the mayor’s proposed budget will look anything like the final budget approved by City Council.

Monday, April 20, 2009

COGIC Exodus May Hint At Genesis Of Problem

Perhaps, the main lesson from the COGIC move of its convention to St. Louis isn’t that we took the saints for granted.

It just might be that more to the point, we’re guilty of taking our tourism industry for granted.

In recent years, our tourism and convention marketing – funded primarily by city and county governments through a hotel-motel tax that partly goes to the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau – has flattened. As a result, our impact in the marketplace is not only stagnant. We’re losing ground.

It’s a long way from the ambition that gave birth to the so-called Superfund in 1984 that pumped $1.5 million in public-private funding for an amped-up CVB, then an afterthought in our economic development planning. The new vision was one of the milestones of an era when Ron Terry, then-chairman of the board of First Tennessee Bank, was the spark for so many progressive ideas in Memphis.

Impressive ROI

He and his fellow business leaders convinced city and county mayors to support an amendment to the state hotel-motel tax law that added the CVB as a recipient of funding with promised funding increases of 5% a year. According to county finance staff, despite the legal assurances, the CVB in recent years has not received its budget increases in recent years at the request of a county government desperate to ease its budgetary pressures.

Way back in 1984, Memphis had big ambitions about our city staking out a prominent place in the growing tourism industry. Back then, tourism marketing was modest and limited, and the tourism industry employed about 16,700 people and had an economic impact of $745 million.

The vision was to leverage Memphis’ distinctiveness and its heritage to elevate the tourism industry to a new level. It exceeded beyond all expectations. Today, the “hospitality industry” employs about 50,000 people and has an economic impact of more than $2.5 billion annually.

That’s an impressive return on a budget that’s about half of Nashville and Pigeon Forge and one-third of St. Louis, now home at least for one year for the Church of God in Christ convocation that has never met anywhere but Memphis. The move seems the result of a power plan within the denomination and was a foregone conclusion when the committee met to take a vote on the move.

The Fall Of Jerusalem

Sadly, COGIC did not even allow Memphis to make a pitch to keep the convocation, and in fact, when CVB president Kevin Kane learned that the meeting was under way, he rushed to the meeting site, whereupon he was escorted off the property. It was a sad commentary by the church about its respect for its home city, once called Jerusalem by church fathers.

There’s much grumbling among members about the heavy-handed treatment of Memphis, and there are growing suspicions that the decision was made on the basis of promises for special perks in St. Louis for the church hierarchy.

The truth is that Memphis has done about all that it could, short of a government subsidy to the gathering. The CVB was paying the rent on the Memphis Cook Convention Center, which seems strange since the facility also receives hotel-motel taxes and the rent payments essentially moved money from one pocket to another.

According to state law, the county hotel-motel tax originally could only be spent on the operations and bond debt for the convention center and for the annual budget of the CVB. In 1995, The Pyramid was added to the law to get $11.5 million to build out the space on the north side of the facility for The Wonders Cultural Series.

Losing Ground

At the time, tourism and convention officials and hoteliers, whose accommodations produce the special tax in the first place, were assured that the use of these funds for The Pyramid would not result in any future problems in funding the CVB.

That said, there was also $500,000 for renovation of the DeFrank Hall in the convention center, mainly for an acoustic shell that was to improve the sound for the Memphis Symphony. Later, $200,000 more was appropriated to pay the balance of the bill for the acoustic shell and $685,000 was loaned for the video replay board at The Pyramid. In the most complicated financing plan ever conceived in Memphis, hotel-motel tax was funneled to pay for FedExForum while revenues from the Tourism Development Zone were used to offset them, but this was not to affect CVB funds.

Key leaders of the hotel industry believe now that the tourism industry relied too much on assurances from county officials who no longer are around to verify the agreements and promises to make the CVB “whole.” As a result, county finance staffers said that in the past five years, the CVB has essentially operated on a flat budget from the county hotel-motel tax.

Today, the CVB budget is #51 in the U.S.

Other key measurements are rooms within mile of convention center, #40; total hotel/motel rooms, #34; convention center exhibition space, #40; and largest ballroom, #41. We are falling in our ability to compete with most of the other top 50 cities in our ability to attract conventions.

Getting The Questions Right

But the challenge is about more than just a better convention center (and regardless of any investigation, if it is built, it should be in the area of Union and Fourth), Memphis is desperate for full-service hotels within walking distance of the convention center. There are two full-service hotels in downtown Memphis with a total of 1,100 rooms. By way of comparison, there are two hotels in Tunica with more than 1,200 rooms each and three others have 500 rooms apiece. The total number of hotel rooms in the resort area of Tunica is 6,000.

Memphis is at a significant competitive disadvantage because of the lack of hotels with room blocks capable of accommodating 500 people or more and a downtown committable block of 3,500 rooms (we now havea 1,800 in 10 different hotels) needed for major conventions. In other words, unless we can figure a way to lure a hotel of about 700 rooms, it’s wishful thinking that a larger convention center is going to solve our problems, despite conventioneers’ attractive daily spending of more than $300.

The Memphis convention center expansion – setting aside for the moment the fact that it cost twice its original projection and took twice as long to complete – was the architectural equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig (no political commentary intended). The expansion did little to offset the gloomy interior and the gloomier meeting experience in the convention center, and in truth, the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts – as much of an upgrade as it was from the old auditorium - is equally meager when compared to similar halls in other cities such as Nashville.

But more fundamental questions have to be answered before a new convention center is even considered: What is our niche in the convention industry? Is it realistic to think that we’ll ever be a first-tier convention destination? Can a new convention center really improve our competitive position? What would we have to do to attract a new major full-service hotel?

Taking Care Of Tourism

We are now at best a third-tier convention city, and we have become a skeptical lot. After all, we were told that if we had a convention center hotel, it would make us a successful convention site. Then, we were told that we needed to expand the convention center. Then, we were told that we needed an expanded convention center hotel. Then, we…well, you get the picture.

So, what we really need is to determine what Memphis really needs and what results are realistic. Most of all, we need to consider warnings by the Brookings Institution that the arms race among cities is producing mammoth investments in convention centers that can never pay off.

All of these are important questions, but first, we need to answer the question of how we can set higher ambitions for our tourism industry and what we can do to achieve them. It's normal that when we talk about economic development plans here, we immediately center on the Greater Memphis Chamber and the Memphis Fast Forward plan set out to raise the money so it could be competitive.

It seems like in the wake of the COGIC exit, we now need to show equal attention to making sure our tourism marketing is as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thinking: Fuzzy, Provincial And Convenient

aIt was one of those weeks that just wears on our souls.

That’s why we’re hoping that things will be better this week. It would almost have to be.

There was the expected: approval by the gun nuts in the Tennessee Legislature responding to the burning need for people to carry firearms into restaurants. There was the customary: more pandering by Tennessee Rep. Brian Kelsey, who this time proposed a bill to condemn socialism and to urge Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to turn down economic stimulus funds.

We can only assume that he sent back the economic stimulus payment that he received last year from the Bush Administration, but it’s no surprise that he had no complaints in the days when his party’s president oversaw the largest expansion of the national debt and government employment.


All of a sudden, he’s religiously taking up the right wing talking points, summoning up the specter of socialism although average Americans are in crisis and unbridled capitalism has concentrated wealth among the top five percent of our people and pushed our national economy to the brink of disaster.

It was the same sort of closed mindedness and sloganeering that was on display with the Tea Party in Audubon Park and in the meeting of the town mayors with the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal.

Both had a vein of racial prejudice running through comments by some of the participants. At the tea party, it was on vivid display as some people clearly saw the purpose of the event as attacking Barack Obama for alleged policy differences when the real crime was that he was a black man in the White House.

Surely, no one in their right mind condones photos of President Obama morphed with photos of Adolph Hitler or signs that demonize him as the devil, a terrorist or the anti-Christ. But the fact that tea partiers weren’t offended by such hate-propelled vitriol says volumes about the real intent of the event.

Closing Their Wallets After Closing Their Minds

Clearly, the group lacked historical accuracy – not to mention context. Otherwise, a sign saying “Bring Back Reaganism” would have triggered laughter. These are the people who now react to a term like “distributing the wealth” by an improved tax code as a sin, but they have no qualms about the fact that Saint Ronald oversaw the greatest redistribution of wealth (to the wealthy and very wealthy) in the history of the nation.

We’re still waiting for the trickle down, but that era gave us the “if we don’t regulate business or tax rich people as much, they will take care of the rest of us” government policy that remained in place long after it was shown that the incomes of middle income families were not growing.

Then, last week ended with the town mayors’ Greek chorus about the evils of consolidated government. The cast has changed over the last 30 years, but the words never do. Because of it, the mayors seem unfamiliar with the fact that of all options for the future, there’s not one that says “things will stay the same.”

New Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner is the latest to drink the Kool-aid, asking: “Why would we support it?” Of course, there is no “it” at this point since there is no proposed charter for a new government, but more to the point, if the mayors could clear the rhetorical cobwebs from their minds, they’d see that the question is actually, “Why would we not support a new government?”

Massive Memphis

As we have been saying for two and a half years (and now say to clients), the mayors would do well to set aside the kneejerk reactions that serve their cities so poorly now and consider what the future will be if nothing changes. In the not-too-distant future, government in Memphis and Shelby County will look nothing like it does today. And it will happen with or without city and county governments merging.

Voters outside Memphis who reflexively oppose the merger of Memphis and Shelby County governments haven't grasped the realities of this brave new world. If they had, they might decide they prefer consolidation to the government behemoth that Memphis will become when it's fully annexed out.

When Memphis completes the annexation agreements that they towns signed with it, 65 percent of Shelby County will be inside Memphis. That's almost 50 percent larger than today and about the same land area as the city of Los Angeles.

The fixed order will be transformed, and smaller cities will find that their future is no longer defined by their relationship with Shelby County, but with Memphis. It will overshadow and drive the futures of all the other cities. Meanwhile, Shelby County government will morph from a major force in our community to a government more like rural counties that deliver little more than schools, jails and justice, and public health.

The First Casualty: Facts

In that future world of massive Memphis, the town mayors will be spectators on the outside looking in. That’s what makes all the mayors’ comments so off the mark, such as the notion that if there is a new metropolitan government, the towns would have less representation and the cost of some services would be shifted to their citizens.

We hope that Lakeland City Manager Robert Wherry’s math is better when he’s drawing up his town’s budget. He said that if a new government is created, the area outside Memphis would only have one representative on the new government’s legislative body.

First off, the towns are legally assured of proportional representation, and if the structure of a new county legislative body goes the way that they have in most places where the major city and county governments unified, the legislative body here will be expanded, which would in fact allow for most of the towns to have their own individual legislators.

As for so-called city services being moved to the county tax base, that is more likely now, and it can be done now with the agreement of the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Fuzzy Math

Here’s the math: there’s 26 elected local legislators and the area outside Memphis has three of them. A new government would probably give the towns more than twice that many, which gives them the opportunity to fashion coalitions that don’t exist today.

It is curiously ironic - not to mention revealing – that the mayors seem to base their concerns about shifting the tax burden on the understanding that Memphians are paying more than their fair share as a result of paying twice for a variety of services.

Rather than urging an honest discussion about what is a municipal service and what is a county service, so all citizens are treated fairly, they simply want to make sure that this unfair burden and unlevel playing field continue.

It’s another Chicken Little impersonation by mayors who appear to have unthinkingly inherited this anti-consolidation fever from their predecessors (one of whom was related to one of us, by the way). What they should be doing now is stepping back, getting some facts and most important of all, creating some realistic scenarios of what the future could look like.

That’s what real leadership looks like. You just wouldn’t know it by the events of last week.

Friday, April 17, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Greenways And Smart Ways

How do you create green space in one of the most industrial states in the U.S.? Tom Woiwode knows. As director of the Greenways Initiative, he's raised more than $125 million to build and maintain trails, orchards and beautiful greenery throughout Southeastern Michigan. He'll tell us how greening a city can help build community and civic engagement.

And Mary Sue Barrett of the Metropolitan Planning Organization tells us where she'd like to see the stimulus money go, and how spending regionally and not just state-by-state can pay bigger dividends.

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, April 15, 2009

Getting Memphis On The Competitive Grid

Sometimes, it seems that Memphis simply runs the risk of falling off the grid in the future.

We admit to these thoughts when we look at maps showing critical plans for the new economy infrastructure and the platform from which cities like ours will compete in the coming decades.

There’s the map of the high speed rail corridors.

There’s the map of LambdaRail optical network infrastructure.

There’s the map of Internet2 hybrid optical and packet network.

There’s the map of the U.S. megalopolises, the super-regions that will inevitably become the economic units for the U.S. in the global economy.

Sewing Up Old Jobs

As a result, there’s the uneasy feeling that we are so busy in Memphis hanging on to the threads of the past economy that we aren’t paying attention to the fabric of the coming economy.

Because Memphis operates from an attitude of scarcity, which begets the “if you’re winning, I must be losing” approach, we tenaciously hang on to the low-wage, low-skill jobs that are too much at the center of our economic development strategies.

We continue to sell our region for its cheapness. Unfortunately, we aren’t aware of a city that is succeeding or positioning itself for the future on the basis of cheapness. The currency of success is quality, and most often, it’s the high-cost cities that have expanding economies.

Here’s the thing: smart people are congregating with smart people, and the trend is accelerating. Today, 16 cities are attracting most 25-34 year-olds, and it probably unnecessary to mention that Memphis isn’t among them. In the first seven years of this decade, our city’s percentage of this age group fell from 25.6% to 21.8%, or a loss of just over 5 people a week for seven years.

Cheap’s Really Expensive

In other words, Memphis isn’t on the positive side of today’s trends, and as they step up their speed, we’re not just running in place. We’re losing ground. Business as usual will not change our relative position, so let us say it again: it is hard to find any data that shows that cheap is a successful strategy.

The problem is that there’s really not much market for cheap, and there’s absolutely not one in a knowledge economy characterized by and dependent on innovation and creativity. That’s why we have to be more intentional about our economic growth strategies and why we need to be creating a plan to compete 10-20 years from now.

It would be encouraging if our economic development officials could show as much passion about planning for the future as they do hanging on the tax freezes for jobs in the old economy. We have to think differently, because the Memphis region is heavily reliant on energy-dependent industries and we are are essentially betting all of our chips on their future.

Even if they find ways to become more sustainable and energy efficient, it is unlikely that they will ever be the high-value jobs that we need, meaning that our region will continue to be in the bottom rungs in income and college attainment.

Getting It Right

It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our economic development officials say that we have to give tax freezes to low-wage companies because we have low-skill workers. More and more of these jobs increase their impact on our job market and perpetuate the national reputation of Memphis as a city with a poorly trained and educated workforce.

Maybe we break out of this race to the bottom by sending the message that we are setting bolder and more ambitious goals for ourselves by aggressively working to put our city on the map for the major projects of an economy built on connectivity.

It’s all about connecting our people to the regional economy and our regional economy to the global economy. That’s why the LambdaRail and Internet 2 are so important. Now we are outposts for the networks, and it’s almost as if the plans leave a hole in the middle of the country, leaving us in the hinterlands between Nashville and Tulsa. The networks are the backbones for innovation and research.

Then, there’s the high-speed rail corridors mapped by the U.S. Department of Transportation -- the line from San Antonio to Dallas to Little Rock, one from Houston to New Orleans to Atlanta and another from St. Paul to Chicago to St. Louis to Kansas City.

Railing For A Better City

In other words, the closest one to Memphis is about 120 miles away. The Obama stimulus funding bill provides $8 billion for high-speed and intercity rail projects, and support will be sustained with $5 billion over five years to states. Of course, that’s only a start, since the plans in California alone cost $40 billion, but already, cities are pitching high-speed rail as essential to economic growth, particularly if it connects with a multi-modal center connecting to airports, ports and public transit.

It makes Memphis, Shelby County and Tennessee governments’ continued chase of I-269 pathetically misguided, because other cities are getting it right, campaigning for their place on the map of high-speed rail.

All of this is taking place in the age of the megapolitans, super-regions strung together by economies, commuting patterns, culture and demographic trends, giving birth to what are becoming the super-novas of the global economy.

More than two-thirds of the country’s population already live in 10 megapolitans, which are growing at a faster rate than the U.S. as a whole, according to Robert Lang, the Virginia Tech University professor who’s become the nation’s expert on this statistical phenomenon. He predicts that the population of the megapolitans will grow by 85 million people and see $33 trillion in construction spending in the next 35 years.

Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

The problem for Memphis is that when the age of megapolitan areas dawns, we’ll be in its backwater, no closer than about 200 miles to the nearest one – the Piedmont megapolitan area, which embraces 19 million people in an area that stretches from Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta and Birmingham. Its western edge teases the Nashville metro.

The largest of the megapolitan areas is the gigantic Northeast, stretching from New England to Northern Virginia and holding 50 million people and a $3 trillion economy. The Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago corridor holds 40 million people in the Midwest; Southland embraces Southern California and Las Vegas with its 22 million people; the I-35 megapolitan area runs from San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City with 15 million people; and the Peninsula is essentially all of Florida south of the mainland and holds 14 million people.

It’s unlikely that Memphis will become part of a super-region. We’re just too far off the growth corridors, and it seems unlikely that I-69 – which on most days feels more like a real estate scheme than a transportation plan - can produce the kind of growth that could attach Memphis to the Midwest megapolitan, and it seems even more unlikely that the Piedmont super-region will ever ooze this far west.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should not be exploring ways to create connections to the megapolitan areas that will be the centers for economic activity in the future. If Memphis continues to be willing to continue to sell itself at a discount, our city will continue to pick up the crumbs from the knowledge economy table. More to the point, we need to be creating scenarios in which we get our city on to the grid that will spell success in the future.

It may take a citizen revolt to make it happen, to make sure we’ve got the most progressive agenda, to make sure we’re having the right conversations and to increase the intellectual capital brought to issues and to spark new thinking. Best of all, the seeds of that revolt seem to be bubbling beneath the radar and can it has the power to change everything.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Memphis: Looking Smart

Natural Resources Defense Council’s Kim Ranney notifies us about an interesting new website feature that uses Memphis as a spotlighted scenario demonstrating the impact of simple design changes.

Picturing Smart Growth, the new feature, “visualizes how communities ripe for transformative change can grow and develop while saving open spaces, revitalizing neighborhoods and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improvements to walkability, public transportation, public safety, infill development, and more.”

The Memphis images
, illustrating "Smart on a Small Scale," show how simple changes like sidewalks, shade trees, and street lamps can turn unappealing streetscapes into pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

In addition to the featured scenario, the website maps 70 locations across the U.S. To view the visualization, you can open the map, zoom in on a location, and see a Good Maps satellite view, some context about the metro area, and a slide show detailing how each can be converted, step-by-step, from sprawl, vacant property, or disinvestment into a lively, beautiful neighborhood.

Here's the overview on the new feature from NRDC Smart Growth Director Kaid Benfield's blog.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

State Legislature Continues Worst Session

Who do the Memphis City Council members think they are?

They continue to pass ridiculous ordinances without getting the blessings of Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature.

We can only hope that the cowboy legislators who think that taking guns into restaurants and parks is acceptable will take immediate action to reverse the ordinance passed by City Council that bans open containers of alcohol in a car.

That’s plainly a violation of our rights as God-fearing, gun-toting Americans. We don’t know why that on our way to our favorite eatery, we should be denied the chance to take a swig or two. That would give us a head start toward a good attitude, and surely, you want someone carrying a loaded weapon and sitting next to you in a restaurant to have a good attitude.

Majoring In Minors

If the Council wasn’t intent on invading our privacy inside the cabs of our own vehicles, they then went on to say we can’t put our young kids in the beds of our trucks. It’s an obvious attempt to demean and punish rural families driving into Memphis.

To top it off, City Council also passed an ordinance that will fine us for non-emergency calls to 9-1-1. It’s government interference at its worst. Who are we supposed to call to get the time?

If only our “anything goes” legislators would take up these burning issues. After all, in a world upside down with economic crisis and in a state at the bottom in education funding and performance, our legislators have time to get incensed over the public’s access to public records, like who’s carrying weapons, and transfixed on the importance of having a gun handy in a restaurant.

Sitting atop Olympus, they are generous to share their wisdom with mere mortals like us. We sleep more soundly at night knowing that the likes of Curry Todd and Ron Lollar are leading the fight for more guns in public places, and that Paul Stanley is intent in exercising his omniscience to reverse local decisions by local officials that we elected to run local government.

Tin Man With A Tin Ear
Meanwhile, with so much stupidity in their midst, at least our Democratic legislative leaders are focused on issues of real importance. They’re investing their political capital working to ban baggy pants. Maybe it’s part of the economic stimulus package – the hiring of a new cadre of enforcement officers given yardsticks and sent out to measure the pants of teenage boys.

It’s laughable - and depressing - about how much wasted energy is spent in Nashville on such politically motivated agenda items. It’s not really about Tennessee. It’s about getting elected. It’s about self-importance and political gamesmanship. It’s about pandering to your base.

To prove the point, this Tuesday, Senator Stanley’s bill to outlaw Memphis’ living wage legislation goes to committee. In a previous post, we referred to him as our community’s “tin man” in Nashville – someone in search of a heart in the Land of Oz that is the State Legislature.

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.

It Must Be Nice To Be So Smart

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. In this case, it’s making sure that our taxes are used to require that our fellow citizens are paid a living wage.

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 have a 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 their 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 – from doing it, but his willingness 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.

Wishful Thinking

That said, if nothing is done to change the trajectory of our city, it won’t matter if he’s 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 wrote 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.

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

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Gates Of Memphis' Greenline Tour

Gates of Memphis is always required reading for us, and you'll be reminded why it should be for you (if it isn't already). It offers our first chance to tour the Greenline. In keeping with the sentiment of the blog post, we congratulate every one responsible for this impressive project, including the grassroots folks that breathed life into it until the rest of the city shared their vision.

This Week On Smart City: Investing In The Future

The economic crisis has left many not-for-profit organizations in a
financial pinch. But a new funding mechanism run by our guest Robin Hacke is bringing investment into low-income areas of cities. We'll speak with Robin about The Catalyst Fund, and why they provide loans to social organizations, instead of grants.

And...what can high speed rail do for a region? All over the world, trains whisk people from location to location at speeds over 100 miles an hour. Everywhere but America that is. In the midwest one man is looking to change that: Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association joins us to talk about how to connect a region using very fast trains.

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.

Friday, April 10, 2009

10 Reasons I Love Memphis, Redux

As part of our continuing posts on "10 Things I Like About Memphis," the following is a list we received from thirty-three rpm. If you have a list of your own, we'd love to post it.

From thirty-three rpm:

As a newcomer to Memphis, I can easily list the things that drew me here to my neighborhood in Midtown from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007 without even having to pause to think about it.

1. Affordability.

2. The people. Folks are friendly and proud to be from here.

3. The fabulous mix of housing types and architecture in Midtown. Single-family, multi-family, condos and everything else all mixed together to create vibrant sustainable neighborhoods.

4. The V&E Greenline. The most remarkable neighborhood-supported urban greenspace/trail I know of.

5. The Memphis Zoo, the Brooks Museum, the rehabilitated Levitt Shell and Overton Park in general. Beautiful, beloved public places!

6. The unique must-see sights. The Stax Museum, Sun Studio, The Rock and Soul Museum, Graceland, The National Civil Rights Museum, Center for Southern Folklore, The Pink Palace, The Ornamental Metal Museum, The Orpheum, Summer Drive-In, Mud Island and the Mississippi River.

7. The food. Gus’s World Famous Chicken, Cozy Corner BBQ ribs, Payne’s BBQ chopped pork sandwiches, the BBQ Shop, Dino’s, Soul Fish...

8. The can-do, entrepreneurial spirit of local businesses like Goner Records and Shangri-La Records, who help foster a unique Memphis music culture that draws tourists here from all over the world.

9. The local live music scene. All the bands, clubs, recording studios, bars and live music venues.

10. The rich and vibrant history of this city.

And my list could go on and on: the weather, the festivals, the trees…

Thursday, April 09, 2009

School Fight Could KO State Department of Education

Yeah, right.

The Tennessee Department of Education will refuse to fund Memphis City Schools which could force the district to shut its doors which means that the state has to operate the Memphis school system. Yeah, that's going to happen.

The educational bureaucrats in Nashville already proven that they prefer to avoid Memphis City Schools like the plague, as proven by the preferential treatment and special attention that Nashville schools have received when it hit the high-priority list. Here, when that happened, the strategy for DOE was essentially to do the minimum allowed by law, wish us well and to get the heck out of town.

Duty Calls

We wonder they'll do next year when the schools that don't meet state standards swells to around 75 because of Governor Bredesen's leadership to toughen the standards so that they actually mean something.

But back to the funding issue, ultimately, it is the state that has the Constitutional responsibility to provide public education. Not city or county. The State of Tennessee.

The Tennessee Attorney General has said it clearly: “The State has a constitutional duty to provide for a system of free public education for all K-12 school children.”

Painted In A Corner

To punctuate the meaning of that sentence, in a deposition given about a year ago, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education acknowledged that if the state withheld its funds, it would still have the legal responsibility for making sure Memphis students are educated. If it did not, it would break federal as well as state law.

So, here’s what the state is doing when its educational bureaucrats threaten to withhold $423 million in state funding from Memphis City Schools: it would dynamite Memphis City Schools, but in turn, it would be forced to pick up the pieces and provide the public education for our students that the law requires.

As we’ve written before, that’s why state threats are essentially saber-rattling of the silliest kind, coming primarily as a political tit for tat in the wake of City Council’s cut in school funding.

Swift – Jonathan, That Is

You know our position. Memphis City Council showed courage and political will in refusing to continue the inequitable taxation of their constituents. Yes, we care about the 25% of us who have school age kids, but more to the point, 100% of Memphis taxpayers deserve to have relief from a system that is both regressive and inequitable, a toxic mix that poisons the city's ability to compete on a level playing field with its suburbs.

We predict that the Council won't blink in the face of the oneupsmanship shown by Memphis City Schools by including the former amount of city funding in its upcoming budget, while conjuring up the dire specter once again of a collapsing school system.

However, in his revealing deposition, Commissioner Webb said that if “an approved budget is not submitted, we will begin in short order to put together a task force or a working group of people involving all stakeholders…to begin to put together an emergency response plan so that the students in the City of Memphis are not left without a free and appropriate public education.”

New Thinking About An Old Idea

When it reduced school funding, City Council members acted in keeping with their responsibility for setting the tax rate and setting the budgets for city services.
It makes no sense (and surely there ought to be some layer of good sense in the law) that local taxpayers, through its Memphis City Council, lose all rights to determine its tax structure, its ability to pay for services and to align priorities to funding and ultimately and to have the ultimate flexibility to move around money in its budgets in times of crisis.

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

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

The Wrong Rx

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

Taken to its logical - and most ludicrous - conclusion, this reading of the law would mean that despite the declining enrollment at Memphis City Schools, Memphians should never have the option of reducing its funding even if there are fewer students. In the end, perhaps all of us should be paying more for our schools, but neither district has made a convincing case that more money will cure what ails the two districts, one that is not as bad as people say and the other is not as good.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

$1 Billion Economic Strategy And No Tax Freeze

Normally, for a billion dollar economic opportunity, Memphis will do just about anything.

For a lot less, we gave The Pyramid to Sidney Shlenker on little more than a promise and a few architectural rendering. That house of cards collapsed in bankruptcy with $16 million in debts.

A few years earlier, we believed that we could actually build a first-class arena for $39 million, complete with “balloons at the grand opening,” according to John Tigrett. The final price tag for The Pyramid was $62 million.

Broken Plays

We chased NFL teams until it was said that we had the highest threshold for civic embarrassment in the U.S., and to prove it true, we gave the future Nashville Titans squatters’ rights at our stadium for a dismal year of football.

We ran up almost $2 billion in county debt because we were told that sprawl was economic growth. A report was deep-sixed by county government because it showed that it took 20 years for a housing development to generate enough taxes to offset the costs of the new roads and schools it required.

We accepted as fact incredulous economic impact studies, including one saying the Grizzlies’ economic impact would be $1 billion and one from Agricenter International claiming more than $524 million.

The State Leader In The Wrong Category

We approved more tax freezes in 10 years than all other metro counties of Tennessee combined, waiving more than $60 million in property taxes, on the assertion by the Chamber of Commerce that they were indicators of success rather than the failure to create a city more competitive in an economy shifting from brawn to brain.

The tax freeze program was so out of control that it was criticized by everyone from pro-business Forbes magazine to college researchers, and most of all by city and county governments’ own consultants, who called for its overhaul in a 97-page report in December, 2005.

Now, only 18 months after changes were finally made to tighten up the runaway program, economic development officials are lobbying hard to open up the tax freeze spigot again. And yet, they’ve been unwilling to assure local government that they will not continue to suggest that more low-wage, low-skill jobs are economic progress, although many warehouses given tax freezes that paid so little that their employees were also eligible for food stamps.

Proceed With Caution

While some of the new rules for tax freezes have proven to be unenforceable and need to be refined (and both city and county legislative bodies have now approved some amendments), the imperative to reform the old tax freeze program remains unchanged. While economic development officials complain about too much government oversight, it seems that when you go to the bank to get money, you should be prepared to play by its rules.

City and county officials are willing to consider softening up the rules on tax freezes for the Greater Memphis Chamber, but someone needs to present a 12-step program to end our community’s addiction on them. As one elected official put it, the Chamber would be better received if it submitted a plan that shows how Memphis can transition to the knowledge economy rather than depending on the low-wage, low-skill jobs that enrich real estate developers more than real Memphis workers.

In addition, one City Councilman said the Chamber should help end Memphis’ overreliance on tax freezes by describing what a more effective toolbox of incentives would look like and by developing a campaign led by Tennessee Chambers to get it approved by the Legislature.

The Proverbial Low-Hanging Fruit

Meanwhile, the $1 billion economic opportunity stares them in the face. It is the impact from a one percent increase in college attainment, according to CEOs for Cities’ “City Dividends” report. It said that if the Memphis region can move the needle from just 23.7% to 24.7% for people over 25 years of age with a college degree, it could create economic activity commensurate to the highly-coveted automobile manufacturing plants chased by every city in America.

In other words, all it takes is for 8,002 more people in the Memphis metro to get college diplomas. To put that into perspective, there’s 130,000 people in Shelby County alone who attended college but didn’t graduate.

Surely, it is in the city’s self-interest to adopt a short-term strategy aimed at getting as many of them back into college and creating a bridge that leads from community college to university graduation. After all, each percentage point increase in college attainment is associated with $763 increase in per capita income for the entire metro area.

There’s no denying that with each one percent improvement in college attainment producing $1 billion in economic growth, the payback is high. And best of all, it doesn’t even require a tax freeze.

This post was previously published as Memphis magazine's City Journal column.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Time For Candor And A Call To Arms

We know the primary job description for any reputable staff member of a Chamber of Commerce is to be a reliable cheerleader for Memphis, but there are times when we just want someone to tell us the truth.

While we admire the dependable hyperbole that’s attached to all things Memphis, we are concerned that our leadership – not just at the Chamber -seems hesitant to tell us the unvarnished facts about our city. Here it is: Memphis’ trajectory is headed treacherously in the wrong direction, and because of it, we absolutely have no margin for error.

That’s why what we need most from our leaders is for them to shoot straight with us, to acknowledge that we are now setting the course of the city for the next 25-50 years and that all of us need to be mobilized to tackle the challenges that confront us.

Instead, when asked about the report by the highly-regarded Brookings Institution that showed that the Memphis metro is in the bottom of metros in the rate of jobs growth nearest to the downtown core, a Chamber official responded: “We are probably among the leaders (nationwide) of bringing growth back to the core.”

How Many Warning Shots Are Enough?

Hyperbole is one thing. This one is simply misleading. The notion that we are among the nation’s leaders in urban revitalization is simply the stuff of myth-making, and unfortunately, it comes at a time when we need to hear the honest facts and a call to arms about the price that our urban core is paying for our willingness to subsidize suburban lifestyles.

If current statistics represent success in revitalizing our urban core, we hope we never see what failure looks like. For 30 years, our government, our business community and our economic development officials have conspired to fuel sprawl in the form of more and more lanes of traffic and car-centric transportation systems. They have done it in recommendations and justifications that obfuscated the negative impacts that sprawl was enacting on our city.

Because of it, Memphians have been required to subsidize the deterioration and abandonment of their own neighborhoods, and all the while, our leaders kept telling us that this suburban relocation of our population was “growth” and “economic development.”

The recent Brookings report was just the latest warning shot for our city, and we don’t want to beat up the Chamber too much. Elected officials from Memphis to Washington also immediately sought to dismiss the results of the analysis, suggesting that somehow the Mississippi River was to blame or that the state line was an impenetrable barrier. By the way, these were metro-wide statistics.

More Of The Same

The Brookings Institution's latest negative report about Memphis said that the share of jobs created within three miles of downtown Memphis declined from 14.4 percent to 12 percent in 2006, while the share of jobs created beyond 10 miles of downtown climbed from 40.9 percent to 49.3 percent.

Perhaps, it’s no wonder that the exodus of 25-34 year-old college-educated workers has quickened in this decade from the already troubling rate of the 1990s. These workers are about 60 percent more likely to seek work within five miles of downtown.

Meanwhile, Memphis is one of the most hollowed-out cities in the U.S., and is #1 of the 50 largest metros in economic segregation. Put plainly, public policies have promoted the flight of middle-income families and left concentrated poverty that sprawns our city’s most serious problems and challenges our best efforts to address them.

A recent briefing paper by CEOs for Cities summed it up well in three key points: 1) When metropolitan areas are economically segregated, every problem becomes harder to address; 2) suburban sprawl has been an engine of economic segregation; and 3) infill development increases the possibilities for stable integrated neighborhoods.

It’s A Choice

In an especially ominous statement for Memphis, the researchers wrote: “Suburban sprawl becomes especially damaging in metropolitan areas with weak job and population growth...the outward movement of middle and affluent households and rising concentrated poverty creates a reinforcing cycle of decline.

These facts are why we get so exorcised by the continued investments in wider lanes and more roads. These are not just curious decisions. They are in fact attacks on our city’s future.

Worst of all, they are made as if we are not making choices, serious choices about the future of our city.

Jared Diamond wrote in his book, Collapse, about how “societies choose to fail or succeed.” In other words, sprawl did not just happen in Shelby County. It was a choice. The suffocating county government debt did not just happen. It was a choice. The hollowing out of the urban core did not just happen. It was a choice. The dependence on low-wage, low-skill jobs did not just happen. It was a choice.

Rubber Stamping Sprawl

Diamond describes in his best-seller how civilizations that formerly flourished made choices that doomed them to catastrophe, and many of these bad decisions were tied to the squandering of resources, to ignoring trouble signs that the environment emits and to the cutting down of too many trees.

It sounds familiar. For more than 20 years, when Memphis City Council routinely approved any development within the 3-5 mile extraterritorial area outside of the city limits, there seemed to be no sense that it was making a choice.

Developers wanted more development, and these areas were outside of the city limits, so there was no perceived cost in giving them what they asked for. Actually, every vote on one of the developments was as a choice -- to shift public investments to the suburban fringe rather than spend them on strengthening the urban core and capitalizing on the public infrastructure already paid for there.

For more than two decades, when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted time after time to approve every development placed on their agendas, they never had a sense that they were making a choice that was fueling sprawl and setting in motion their own march to the brink of bankruptcy, cuts in services and erosion of their ability to take a leadership role in the community.

Ignoring The Signs

Like many of the societies described in Diamond’s book, our community made the choice to ignore the warning signs, always believing that the flow of money was endless, short-term benefits were as good as long-term ones and the political power structure was unshakeable. In the end, the seminal question of Collapse is: How can society best avoid destroying itself? It’s a question that should be applied to every project, program or policy of local government for the near future.

If, as the Chamber official suggested, our community is ready to be a national leader for urban rejuvenation, our leaders should begin by applying Diamond’s question to the proposed I-269, a pork project with no economic or social benefit to Memphis.

Don’t believe the propaganda or media headlines. As recently as Sunday, The Commercial Appeal editorialized: “Chances are good that speeding up the completion of Tenn. 385 and I-269 will have the desired effect, creating more jobs and circulating more money in the local economy.”

Should we really be building an interstate if the best we can say is "chances are good" it will create new jobs and economic growth? There is no research to back up that conclusion, and more to the point, I-269 is just another giant magnet pulling jobs and people out of the urban core.

Asking The Right Question

We need to connect the dots - these massive sprawl-inducing, car-dependent investments are not only gifts to developers, but they are killing off the city whose health will determine whether the region survives.

If nothing else, it’s time to connect the dots – cause and effect – and to ask the paraphrased question from Collapse: How can Memphis best avoid destroying itself?