Monday, June 29, 2009

Denver Brewpub Advice For The Next Memphis Mayor

To continue the theme that we began yesterday on what it will take for Memphis to recruit the kind of candidate that can become a great mayor, here's the abbreviated advice from one of our favorites, Denver's John Hickenlooper:

LESSONS FROM A BREWPUB:
The John Hickenlooper Guide To Civic Success

We started our Profiles in Leadership: America’s Great Mayors series to answer a simple question: what does a great mayor look like?

We weren’t expecting to find out that, sometimes, a great mayor looks like a brewpub manager. But John Hickenlooper is used to surprising people.

He surprised his friends and family in Narberth by morphing from an awkward, unambitious kid into a dynamic, successful businessman. He surprised his bankers by turning a risky brewpub venture into a catalyst for a neighborhood’s development. He surprised everyone in Denver by beating the pants off of a field of well-established politicians and becoming mayor.

And he surprised our audience by explaining that restaurants and city halls aren’t that different. “I think that any candidate is greatly improved by having spent a few years running a big, popular restaurant,” he said. “Whether it’s the restaurant or a big city, you never have enough money. You have a diverse group of people you’ve got to weld into a team. And the public is always ticked off about something.”

In 2003, Hickenlooper rode a wave of ticked-off voters to victory. Public frustration with Denver’s political establishment had opened the door to an outsider candidate like him. Hickenlooper seized the opportunity not by railing against his opponents but by presenting a positive vision for the city. He emphasized the need for teamwork. He vowed to improve city services and balance the budget. He promised to end the old-school game of political insider-ism and put the best possible person in every city job.

So far, he has delivered enough that his re-election is virtually assured. He balanced the budget despite declining revenues. He passed key civil service reforms. He reached far beyond his circle of friends and supporters to find qualified, diverse appointees. He helped end years of city-suburb political warfare, paving the way for a groundbreaking regional transportation initiative. TIME Magazine has called him one of America’s top big city mayors, and he faces no significant competition for his second term.

How did he do it? He turned to the lessons he learned on the brewpub floor.

Lesson One: Listen

As a candidate, Hickenlooper listened to local businesspeople and found out that tax revenues were more likely to shrink than to grow. That allowed him to craft a smart budget that helped him win early endorsements from the local papers. He listened to leaders in the towns and suburbs surrounding Denver. That helped him end years of animosity and start money-saving, region-growing regional projects. He listened to average Janes and Joes all around Denver, and that helped him grasp the importance of improving city services and restoring faith in government.

And from the minute he launched his campaign, he listened to his own gut instincts. “At that first meeting, we’re sitting there with a bunch of political consultants,” he recalled. “There’s six other candidates- it’s almost like a made-for-TV movie – there’s the Greek former police chief, the Latino former city auditor, the African American state senator – all the way down the list. And one of the people said, ‘You’re at 3 percent in the polls. If you’re going to distinguish yourself, you’ve got to pull down one of these frontrunners.’ And my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well that’s exactly the direction we’re not running.’

“We never did opposition research. We never did a negative ad. We never attacked. We tried to run a campaign where we said, ‘We’re going to hire the best person for the job for every single job in the city.’ We were going to focus on being transparent, inclusive, and collaborative in a way that no one in the city has seen.” The message worked: Hickenlooper won 65 percent of the final vote.

Lesson Two: Know Your Real Budget

One of the first things that candidate Hickenlooper did was make the rounds of local businesses. Based on what he heard, along with other research, he decided that instead of tax growth, Denver was about to see a significant decrease in tax revenue; so he made up a budget, took it to the newspapers, and won early endorsements.

The next thing he knew, he had jumped to 33 percent in the polls, with his nearest competition at 15. “I still remember my wife reading the details,” he said, “and she was not terribly happy about this. She lowered the newspaper so just her eyes were above it and said, ‘You never told me you were going to win.’”

But he did win, and his projections proved correct. But he arrived armed with the mandate he needed to make tough budget cuts.

Lesson Three: Know your Real Competition

When Hickenlooper opened his brewpub in a half-forgotten downtown neighborhood, his employees thought he was crazy when he put ads for other local restaurants in his restrooms. “The other restaurants couldn’t believe it. Our staff came up to me and said, what are you doing?” he recalled. “I said, they’re not our competitors. You’ve got to look at our self-interest in broader way. They’re really our allies. Our competitor is the TV set. We’ve got to work together to get people off the couch and out to enjoy life.”

That attitude helped revitalize what’s now known as LoDo – for Lower Downtown – and Hickenlooper brought it to the mayor’s office. One of the first things he did was throw a party in his loft for every regional county commissioner and their spouses. “I gave a two-minute speech: ‘The history of divisiveness, and us trying to get benefit at your expense, is over. And from now on, the City of Denver will do everything we can to help the suburbs,” he recalled. “I got a huge round of applause. There was this tremendous hunger there.”

Similarly, he reached out to the Republican governor, who’d had epic battles with Hickenlooper’s Democratic predecessor, Wellington Webb. “On my first day in office I walked across the green. I spent about an hour and a half with him, and I said, ‘I guarantee you I will never embarrass you for political gain. We agree on about 90 percent of the stuff. It’s crazy for us to get in fights over these other things."

Why reach out? Because just as a successful brewpub needed a successful LoDo, a successful Denver needs a successful Colorado. “Denver doesn’t compete anymore with Seattle or San Diego,” he said. “We’re competing with metropolitan Shanghai. And metropolitan Bombay. If we don’t begin working together at a much higher level, we’ll find that not just our grandchildren’s jobs but our children’s jobs will have gone away.”

Lesson Four: Never Stop Building Your Team

Don’t ever expect to see Hickenlooper pat himself on the back. As he talks about Denver’s successes, he credits his partners, his predecessors, his employees, his advisors, his wife, his parents – everyone but himself. This is no accident. It’s part of his strategy of keeping his team together.

Restaurants depend on a team of diverse people with many backgrounds and skill sets, all of whom have particular needs if they are to get their jobs done. Cities depend on the same thing. When he came into office, Hickenlooper made sure that he brought in a staff of appointees who were not only highly qualified, but diverse and representative, with connections to all parts of the city’s social and political culture. He appointed one of his competitors for mayor as a leader in his transition. He established transition teams that could reach far beyond his personal circle to find qualified candidates for appointment in all parts of the U.S. He made a highly visible effort to put a team in place that Denver’s citizens could trust.

And he never stops building up his teammates, listening to their needs in private, and praising them in public whenever he can. He praises the city employees who helped him trim Denver’s budget. He praises the suburban officials who helped make transit reform a reality. He happily declined to put his picture up in the Denver airport, substituting pictures that celebrate regional landmarks.

“Symbolic stuff really matters,” he said. “You end up coming out better in the end. By taking your own picture down, it’s as if you had a bigger picture up there.”

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Time For Great Mayors

It seems a good time to reprise a slightly edited post from July 5, 2006, which was also the June, 2006, City Journal column in Memphis magazine:

This is the golden age of great city mayors.

In Chicago, Richard Daley transformed “Beirut on the Lake” into one of the world’s great cities - sophisticated, vibrant, seedbed for an astonishing array of enlightened “green” programs.

In Denver and San Francisco, two restaurateurs – respectively John Hickenlooper and Gavin Newsom – transplanted their customer service credo into city services and designed revolutionary programs for the homeless. Also, Hickenlooper’s determined regional fence-mending produced a 70 percent approval rating in the metro area, and he in turn used this reservoir of good will to lead seven counties and 31 cities to pass a sales tax increase to pay for 119 miles of new light rail and commuter trains costing $5 billion.

In Atlanta, Shirley Franklin slashed 1,000 jobs as well as her own salary, convinced 75 companies to analyze city government at no cost and began a 22-mile linear park connecting 45 neighborhoods. Through force of personality, Jerry Abramson convinced Louisville citizens to approve the largest government consolidation in 40 years; New York’s Michael Bloomberg turned a projected $6.5 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus; Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley developed a unique computerized complaint system making city departments more accountable and as governor of Maryland, he is now applying the same approach to state government; Miami’s Manny Diaz moved the city bond rating from junk to A+ while rolling out a six-year program to rebuild the infrastructure; and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty delivered something thought impossible – stability and innovation.

Rebirth

In other words, cities are in an epic period of rebirth, and great mayors are the reason.

Memphis has had great managers, great motivators and great speakers. But there’s no argument that Memphis has had a mayor who measures up to the standards of today’s great mayors.

Mayor Willie W. Herenton, contrary to critics who tend to blame him for everything from the economic downturn to global warming, flirted with a “Nixon to China” brand of greatness, but in the end, it was not to be and now seems as elusive as his being cheered at halfcourt at FedExForum.

In truth, the concept of Willie Herenton has always been more compelling than the reality of Willie Herenton. To his political base, he has special status as the city’s first African-American mayor, and the voter loyalty attached to that milestone will not be replicated again.

With civic leaders, explanations for support have frequently begun with the sentence, “He’s better than….”

Outstripping Reality

When a political brand outstrips personal reality, it’s often a good thing for the politician. The formidable image silences critics, drives public opinion and overwhelms public discussions.

In Herenton’s case though, it’s no longer fair to him, and it’s not now fair to the city, because it has mutated into a mythology that polarizes every issue he touches. The seminal example took place just over year ago when he convened a meeting to consider his innovative proposal for merger of the two local school systems. On that day, he made the best researched and most detailed analysis by a public official of the $1 billion spent locally each year for schools, and he did it all without mentioning once that Memphis is the only major metro area in Tennessee where schools aren’t already consolidated.

And yet, none of the statistics, none of the projections and none of the historical trends were reported. Instead, the media fixated on the fact that the chairs of the city and county school boards – respectively, Wanda Halbert and David Pickler - were petulant no-shows at the meeting.

Losing The Pulpit

It was a defining moment in the Herenton Era, because it was at that moment that it became unambiguously obvious that his personality, not his positions or programs, would be the overriding factor defining the news from then on. In this way, it no longer mattered if he was right, because he was robbed of his bully pulpit.The sad truth of Memphis politics – and it is sad whether you like Herenton or not – is that the mayor no longer has the potential to be great, because the ultimate prisoner of the Herenton myth is now Willie Herenton himself.

Because of it, he was denied the chance to emulate great U.S. mayors who are creating bigger dreams for their cities that every one sees themselves being part of, reaching across political and racial boundaries and inspiring all of their citizens with the confidence to move ahead together.

Remembering What's Important

Kerry Hayes, always a wise observer of the Memphis scene, wrote some sound advice on his Facebook page about the post-Herenton era:

Remember: Mayor Herenton's departure is an opportunity, not a solution.

Remember: the leadership that comes next is vastly more important than the leader who's leaving.

Remember: the Mayor should not blamed for every bad thing that happens in the city no more than he (or she) should accept credit for every good thing that happens.

Remember: leadership starts in tiny, almost imperceptible ways. It starts by keeping your lawn cut and your sidewalk swept. It starts by arguing with people who say hurtful, misleading, untrue things about our community. It starts by not being afraid of certain neighborhoods. Or certain people.

Remember: we are a beautiful, fascinating, terrific city filled with beautiful, fascinating, terrific people doing all kinds of wonderful things. We deserve nothing but the absolute best at all levels of government. In order to get, we must expect the best.

Remember: July 10 is a beginning, not an end.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Memphians Show Why Our Destination Is King


There're many reasons that we respect Cindy and Kevin Brewer. They are the kind of talented people that we need in this city – young, entreprenuerial, positive. In their work and in their civic activities, they are committed to creating a better city that builds on its unique authenticity.

They are spreading the word about Memphis with their professional peers this week, and they are showing them the “real” Memphis. That’s a tour all of us should take to remember why we love this city so much.

Mrs. Brewer is founder and president of Destination King, award-winning event planning and management group and the Mid-South’s only Destination Management Company (DMC). Cindy, along with her husband Kevin, manages a full-time staff of eight and a part-time staff of 35. Destination King plans more than 250 events, both large and small, a year in Memphis and the Mid-South. Destination King has been in business since 2001.

Here’s a guest post by her that reminds us why Memphis is so special:

At Destination King, we make our living by showcasing everything that is wonderful and unique about Memphis, usually through the planning and execution of conventions, corporate events and other meetings. Most of our clients are from outside the Mid-South but also have many here in town. We are often their most direct contact with the dynamic Memphis community, and we work hard to make sure all of our clients and their guests have a wonderful, repeat-worthy experience.

This week, Destination King, The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and The Peabody Hotel are hosting the Global Events Partners (GEP) Executive Summit. This meeting is for 250 of the top executive-level corporate meeting planners in the world. Considering that everyone attending this Summit plans meetings and events for a living, this is a tremendous opportunity for Memphis.

The potential estimated ROI to the host city is $2M – per client – within two years of hosting the Summit. We hope that, due to economic conditions around the globe, Memphis will have an even greater appeal to these planners who are looking for “under the radar” locations for their meetings and events. Corporations represented at the Summit this year include Volkswagen, Sealy, Liberty Mutual, Monsanto, MasterCard Worldwide, GMAC, NAPA AutoParts , American Express and more.

Mythic Memphis

After several years of being held at international locations (Paris, The Bahamas, Madrid and Salzburg), the Summit is returning to the States. One planner told me that she couldn’t wait to visit Memphis, a place she’d heard about her entire life. For our part, we’ve planned some exciting events that will showcase the best of Memphis, including a community giveback teambuilding event that involves 11 area nonprofits. We’re excited for the Summit, and we’re hopeful for the ROI for years to come.

But as we put the final touches on the Summit, we are reminded almost daily of the challenges Memphis faces, in part because so any of our friends and neighbors succumb to accentuating the negative and forgetting the positive. As we know well, sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us of all that is upbeat and unique about this city we love.

I wish some of those naysayers heard what Kevin and I did on March 28th at the Corner Bar in The Peabody. We sat at a little table surrounded by fans from Gonzaga, Oklahoma and North Carolina who were in town for the Sweet 16 tournament. We heard one couple talking on their cell phone to their kids back in Seattle and telling them how impressed they were with the National Civil Rights Museum. A family of six from Oklahoma had been to Graceland and were still amazed that Elvis won more Grammys for Gospel than any other genre. And then we heard a few men grumbling that they needed to take a break that evening from their revelry on Beale Street.

The Economic Importance Of Pride

It was one of those many moments where I am proud to be a Memphian and consider myself very fortunate to help sell our city on a daily basis.

But there are days that I feel somewhat alone in that thought. I often find that the people who are the most negative about Memphis are Memphians. We recently played host to a statewide association meeting that rotates every year to a different city in Tennessee. Destination King had planned a wonderful event at Handy Park for the attendees. Being a weeknight, we had exclusive use of the park, had lined up stellar entertainment, great food and secured Beale Street VIP cards for all. Three weeks before the event, one of the association’s Memphis-based board members called the meeting planner to complain about the venue. Her exact words to me were “he says it’s very dangerous and that we might get shot.” His words were louder than ours, and the event was ultimately moved inside a hotel.

That was unfortunate but not everyday. Several years ago, a group was looking at both Memphis and Orlando for its annual meeting. They came to Memphis first. We met them at the airport and gave them the VIP treatment from start to finish. Then they went to Orlando where they had to take a cab to the hotel, as no one thought they were important enough to pick up at the airport personally.

In the cab, they asked the taxi driver what was great about Orlando and that they were thinking of holding a meeting there next July. His response? “Why on earth would anyone want to meet in Orlando in July? It’s so miserable and hot here.” Unfortunately for Orlando, this group’s first impression was their last.

Walking The Walk

Don’t get me wrong: This can certainly happen in Memphis. But thanks to the Leadership Academy, they have plans with the MCVB and the Chamber to work with local cab companies to empower drivers with positive information and dialogue.

We know it to be true but sometimes it bears repeating: We don’t always put into action what’s best.

Memphians can be our own worst enemy in promoting our city. Most of us don’t know or don’t believe all of the positive things it has to offer: unique things like 13 James Beard honored chefs; a Mobil Travel Guide four-star hotel and restaurant; the tripadvisor.com number one ranked zoo in the country; world class ballet, symphony, opera, art museums and theatre companies; Ben Cauley, an original BarKay who survived Otis Redding’s fatal plane crash, plays guitar at the Corky’s in the Memphis International Airport; and speaking of music, there’s Elvis, Stax, Sun Records and Ardent Studios. Plus, Memphis has the distinction of being mentioned in the lyrics of more songs than any other city in the world…899 songs, in fact, and that just goes to 2008.

This week’s GEP Summit allows us to introduce Memphis to a new audience, and in return, we believe this will bring even more meetings and event business to our city. We know that the city we love continues to grapple with challenges that must be surmounted but we’ll keep preaching the gospel about all of the things we believe make Memphis one of the most unique and remarkable places on the planet.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Memphis Neighborhoods Among Most Dangerous

Memphis made a top 25 list, but unfortunately, it wasn’t one we wanted to be on.

We had two neighborhoods in the 25 most dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S. - #11 (Bellevue Boulevard/Lamar Avenue) and # 7 (Warford St/Mount Olive Road.

The rankings were compiled by WalletPop based on the exclusive neighborhood crime information from NeighborhoodScout.com. NeighborhoodScout.com said it collects data from all 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

Based on that data, the two Memphis neighborhoods cracked the top 25 most dangerous neighborhoods. Dallas and Kansas City also had two neighborhoods on the list and Chicago had four.

The most dangerous neighborhood, according to the listing, is in a Cincinnati where people have a 1 in 4 chance of being a victim of crime.

In Memphis, the Bellevue area has a 1 in 8 chance of becoming a victim of crime, and in the Warford area, it is 1 in 7.

That compares with a 1 in 64 chance in our entire city. According to NeighborhoodScout, Memphis is safer than 2% of the cities in the U.S. (with more than 25,000 population). In the city rankings, Memphis is #41 behind cities like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Orlando, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Tampa and Salt Lake City with 218 crimes per square mile, compared to 323 per square mile in Atlanta. The U.S. average is 49.6.

Nashville was not in the top 100 most dangerous cities.

Closer to home, West Memphis is the 74th most dangerous city in the U.S. where there is a 1 in 57 chance of becoming a crime victim.

While there has been some marginally good news on the crime-fighting front lately, it’s unlikely to get significantly better any time soon. The unemployment rate for Shelby County is 9.6%, but in Memphis, 1 out of 3 people in the labor force is either unemployed or not looking for work any longer.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Herenton Resignation Ushers In Political Junkie Heaven

It seems that a lot of people won’t believe Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is really leaving City Hall until he turns in his keys July 10.

Such is the mystique of unpredictability that surrounds him. Although reports of a resignation have circulated and sounded firm for weeks, there were still people at the City Hall press conference who half expected him to announce that he was appointing a new chief administrative officer.

Because of his dominating presence over the city he has served, it is almost impossible to imagine a post-Herenton Memphis, and passions for and against him are so strong that it will probably rest ultimately with historians to sort out his record time in the mayor’s office.

There are those who think that his political base suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, and there are those who are equally convinced that his critics refuse to recognize that he is truly a fighter for people who have shared his life experience, particularly his hard scrabble upbringing, and his overachieving career.

No Time For Eulogies

There’s little time for reflecting on the Herenton legacy any way, since the line forms on the right for the covey of candidates quequing up for an October election that has a timeline that seems more akin to Great Britain politics.

The mayor’s announcement was reminiscent of the funeral of a county elected official where his potential successors solicited votes in the shadow of the casket. The difference today is that Mayor Herenton is no political corpse, and absent action by the never ending federal investigation, his odds for taking the oath of office as a freshman Congressman are awfully good.

His resignation has produced the political equivalent of a dam bursting. With the pressure soon unleashed, candidates seemed to come out of the woodwork – a couple of them serious candidates, more of them engaged in wishful thinking and even more floating trial balloons that will soon float to the ground.

There are two things you can never have enough of in a campaign - time and money. This time around, candidates will find themselves without enough of either. The candidates who have the power to raise the kinds of money that will be needed to mount a serious campaign – particularly against the popular favorite, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton – can be counted on one hand (with several fingers left over).

Tag Team Match


In a normal election, before ramping up the media saturation in the last couple of months, candidates take a year (or more) to raise money and set up their ground campaigns. This time around, they will need to out fund raise Mayor Wharton, a considerable hurdle to clear.

With such an abbreviated schedule, the combination of Mayor Wharton’s fundraising abilities and his high approval ratings presents a formidable challenge, because it means that an opponent needs to raise more money than he does if that person is going to position himself/herself and to compete in the air wars.

Because of the short fuse for this election, the advantage goes to candidates who can raise money, who have an existing citywide campaign structure, a strong base and high favorability. Those are tough objectives in campaigns four times longer than the upcoming mayor’s race.

Put simply, the overall campaign objective will be for opponents of Mayor Wharton to bring down his favorable ratings, and to this end, he is said to be preparing for the cadre of contenders to alternate between acting as a tag team attacking him and a Greek chorus describing what they want the audience to believe the drama means.

The Fun Begins

They are counting on Mayor Wharton’s reputation as measured and cautious to keep him off balance, but the Wharton team say they relish the chance for him to show “the real A C.” “People underestimate him because they think he’s dispassionate. We can’t wait.”

It promises to be the most interesting six months in modern Memphis political history. We can’t wait. This is going to be so much fun.

Here’s our post from a couple of weeks ago about the selection process:

Reports about an imminent resignation by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton are rumbling again, and this time around, they seem to have more credence than before.

But with Mayor Herenton, we’ve learned to believe it when we see it, but if he steps aside, it will have far-reaching ramifications – for not just who follows him as city mayor but who gets elected county mayor.

His political friends report that the lack of passion in City Hall is quickly being replaced with the energy triggered by a potential race for U.S. Congress against two-term incumbent Steve Cohen.

The Contest


Despite the breathless coverage by the media, we are a long way from having any idea how that race is likely to shake out. The poll headlined by Channel 5 showing Rep. Cohen trouncing Mayor Herenton was specious and has little connection with the reality of the situation.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mayor Herenton still has a strong base, and the race for Congress between two political veterans – one who’s a master of the sound bite and another whose mastery runs more to biting when least expected – is likely to be a street fight to the death.

At this point, the main questions are how early will the mayor play the race card – or if he will leave it to be played by others – and how early the congressman will bedevil him with his patented barbs designed to either draw laughs or blood.

Swimming Upstream

Congressman Cohen already expects to swim against a strong political current in favor of returning an African-American to the congressional seat in a majority African-American district. In turn, Mayor Herenton should expect to confront an opponent who raises more money than he does and can point to African-American colleagues in Congress who have lauded his work.

But this election is still more than a year away – a lifetime in politics – and a great deal can change, notably Mayor Herenton’s legal status as the federal investigation continues.

More current are the dominoes that will fall if Mayor Herenton steps down within weeks to concentrate on his race for Congress and a new business arrangement with one of his sons.

Options And Plenty Of Them

But we want to talk about mayors’ elections, so consider what happens if the mayor resigns. If Mayor Herenton steps down next month or August, his successor will be chosen in a special election in October or November respectively. Immediately upon the mayor leaving office, Memphis City Council Chairman Myron Lowery would be appointed as interim mayor, and the special election scheduled within 90 days.

At this point, he’s planning to run for mayor, and the prospects of yard signs, “Keep Lowery as Mayor,” are pretty appealing, as well as the ability to leverage the city’s most important bully pulpit as he campaigned.

That said, it’s obvious that a special mayor’s election in such short order favors the person with the county’s highest approval ratings and the deepest campaign pockets – A C Wharton. He would be formidable in the best of circumstances, but in an election called with such a short fuse, it would take lightning striking for him to lose.

One Scenario

We know there is the speculation that the mayor’s race will attract a cavalry of candidates, and as the electorate is divided up like a pie with too many people at the table, Mayor Wharton’s slice will shrink, allowing former Council member Carol Chumney to ease into office. All things are possible in politics but it’s not a prediction to which we subscribe for a variety of reasons, including his ability to attract both black and white votes and that the other candidates are largely fighting for the same votes.

It’s our sense that anyone trying to undercut Mayor Wharton will need to raise at least 50% more than his campaign budget and with only 90 days to do it, the points go to the candidate with a proven ability to raise big money and with an existing war chest.

Assume we’re right: Mayor Herenton resigns and Mayor Wharton is elected city mayor in October. His victory immediately opens up the county mayor’s seat, and the chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners fills in temporarily.

County Options

At this point, the next chair of the legislative body – whose term begins Sept. 1 - is expected to be Joyce Avery, now chairman pro tempore. She would serve for 45 days, upon which time an interim mayor would be elected by the board of commissioners. Commissioner Sidney Chism is interested in running for the next chairman pro tempore and using it as a springboard for the appointment as interim mayor.

All in all, a Herenton exit now is a near miss for the current chair of the board of commissioners, Deidre Malone, a leading candidate for county mayor. Filling in as the 45-day mayor with hopes to create some momentum if appointed interim mayor, her campaign would have been jump started with a head start for the mayor’s race.

It would probably have been tough since Commissioner Chism is backing former state legislator and Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and he’d try to block her appointment. (On the other hand, it’s just as likely that she’ll work hard to block him being named to the same position.)

Post-Republican Era

Whoever is elected as interim mayor by the board of commissioners, that person will serve until September 1, 2010, when the winner in the county general election takes office as Shelby County’s fifth mayor.

Interestingly, on that same August 5, 2010, ballot will be the election that will be a magnet for large Democratic turnout – the Cohen-Herenton Congressional battle. The returns 14 months from now will ratify the proposition that if we are not in fact in a post-racial world, our community is indeed in a post-Republican world.

It could even make for a difficult race for two-term sheriff Mark Luttrell, and it makes Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ campaign as the Republican candidate for governor an even greater long shot.

And as has been the case for 17 years, everything seems to start with Mayor Herenton.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spinning A Webb Of Misinformation

It was a match made in heaven.

The worst Tennessee Legislature in memory advised on charter schools law by the specious superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Bobby Webb.

Fortunately, in the midst of its gun fetish exhibitionism, the Legislature found time to reverse course on a proposed amendment to Tennessee’s restrictive charter schools laws.

In keeping with the mantra of the educational bureaucrats, Mr. Webb was critical of charter schools generally and the motivations of their supporters specifically. His intemperate – not to mention uninformed – comments made their way to today’s front page of The Commercial Appeal where he dug the hole even deeper.

Red Scare


It’s hard to know exactly where to start since his remarks managed to question the integrity of charter advocates – which include all kinds of people and organizations – and the intelligence of school-age parents who overwhelmingly support charter schools.

He called charter schools a “fad” (remember when educators called pre-K the same) and said, “It’s about private entities trying to get their hands on millions and millions of public dollars. That’s all it’s about.” Not to be outdone, the county district’s board chairman David Pickler, who’s always able to spot a Communist under every bed, added for effect: “Be aware of the trend generating here.”

It would be laughable except that these are the people who are supposed to really understand public education and to be looking out for the interest of every child. However, as usual, to them, it’s all about control, authority and political advantage.

The Party Line

It’s incredible how quickly the litany can begin:

* Charter schools undermine public schools (even though charter schools are public schools)

* Charter schools “cherry pick” students (even though state law requires them to educate failing students or students from failing schools)

* Charter schools take money from public schools (even though they educate students cheaper – they’re supposed to be funded at the same level as public schools but Memphis City Schools shortchanges them)

* Our state doesn’t need more charter schools because we are doing so well on our state assessment tests (even though repeated research has shown that our TCAP and Gateway tests are a farce)

Supt. Webb vs. Secretary Duncan

And yet, Mr. Webb treats the children in our classrooms as props in his political theater where the aim is to protect teachers from more accountability, fight any innovations that aren’t invented by him and reject any solutions that come from nontraditional sources.

These days, however, people like Mr. Webb aren’t arguing with the many local people and organizations working every day to give parents options for their children’s education. More to the point, they are arguing with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who called for less restrictive charter laws.

In a column written with Tennessee Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, Secretary Duncan wrote: “We have seen the potential that charter schools can have in getting results for American students. As the debate over public charter schools moves forward across the country and in Tennessee, we must stay focused on the core issue, which is educational quality, not government.”

The question for Mr. Webb is this: if you are right about charter schools, why is Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash opening his own and why is the Democratic Secretary of Education calling for more?

Getting The Facts Right

Repeating the old apophthegm, Mr. Webb said charter schools are reducing public school resources. If he believes it, he needs to sign up for remedial math.

If there are about 3,000 charter school students in a district (as in Memphis City Schools), that means there are 3,000 fewer students in traditional schools. As we wrote 18 months ago, about $3,000 less is spent per charter school student in the city district than a traditional school student, or about $9 million a year for 3,000 students. So, actually, right now, traditional public schools here have more money, not less.

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

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

Proof Positive


According to results of the Stanford 10, a nationally normed achievement test taken by KIPP DIAMOND Academy students annually, fifth graders entering KIPP in the fall of 2007 were outperforming only 18 percent of students nationally in reading. By the end of the school year, however, KIPP DIAMOND’s fifth graders were outperforming 42 percent of the national norm group in reading.

In mathematics, the scores climbed from the 21st to 49th percentile; in language arts, the scores rose from the 17th to 53rd percentile; in science, the scores jumped from the 17th to 44th percentile; and in social studies, the scores rose from the 19th to 51st percentile. Nationally, more than 80 percent of the students from KIPP schools attend college while fewer than one in five low-income students typically do.

Public charter schools have been frequent subjects for much debate over the past 15 years, and frequent objects of broad knee-jerk screeds by academicians who see everything that doesn’t originate within the hallowed halls of public education as the enemy.

Large government bureaucracies often act like organisms that see innovations as viruses they must attack. That's why so many promising ideas are suffocated in their infancies, and it’s also why Mr. Webb was caught holding the pillow over the crib.

Electing To Disclose Public Records

Anybody who can take on Wal-Mart and win is special in our books, but Brian Stephens isn’t through yet.

As a new member of the Shelby County Election Commission, he’s about to do something way too rare in local government. He’s about to make public records public.

If we had a dollar for every time someone in local government talked about transparency, we could actually afford government websites that provided it.

At this point, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the incomprehensible, clumsily navigable websites aren’t just the result of incompetency or lack of interest. They are exactly what government wants – a digital wall that discourages true citizen participation and places that so rarely offer public information that most of us just avoid them.

Whole Lot Of Shaking

For that reason, it’s worth celebrating when a significant step is taken forward. If his fellow election commissioners agree with Mr. Stephens this week, for the first time, the financial disclosure reports filed by each candidate with the Election Commission will be put online.

It will end decades-old tradition in which all of us who have been involved in campaigns trekked to the Election Commission to ask for hard copies of the disclosure reports. Yes, they were public records, but we still had to identify ourselves so that elected officials could be notified who was looking at their list of financial contributors.

In this way, the Election Commission in the past has always seemed more about the elected than the electors, and it’s also why some recent changes made by the commissioners to shake up the culture of the agency were not only welcome, but overdue.

We’re not saying that the Election Commission website will win any awards, because like all local governmental websites here, it’s pretty basic. However, if the Election Commission wanted to send a message, there isn’t one with more impact than this one, because it signals that there is a new willingness to give the public the information that they need to evaluate candidates, to see who contributes to them and to see who they are beholden to.

Obfuscation

It sounds like the posting of the financial disclosure forms may be the first of the innovations undertaken by the Commission, and that’s really good news. After all, a large part of our community questions the fairness that must be at the heart of our electoral process, so a prime responsibility of the present members of the Commission is to strengthen it.

Best of all, we hope that the Election Commission can raise the bar for all of city and county government when it comes to public records. It’s amazing to us that the public agencies waiving property taxes are not required to post a list of all tax freezes and the justifications for them.

It’s confounding that there is no simple-to-understand, easy-to-use budget for either government on-line. Apparently, someone in the respective finance offices believes that the average Memphian has the knowledge of a CPA. They would call on us to plow through the hundreds and hundreds of pages in the budgets of city and county governments.

It’s easy to see that the websites do much more obfuscation than education.

So Old School

At a time when some governments have added blogs and twitter to their digital arsenal, it’s as if Memphis and Shelby County are still living in the 1980s. The dead giveaway is that the websites seem more designed to satisfy political egos than to serve the public.

Because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), commonly known as the economic stimulus program, it’s fairly easy these days to see which governments possess the talents and the platform for communicating effectively with their citizens.

Some cities like Cincinnati have created websites that track its ARRA funding and provide the details about the projects. This level of transparency is in keeping with the mandate of the Obama Administration’s directives to state and local governments for ARRA transparency.

Here, the stimulus program seems as clear as the Mississippi River. No one seems able to tell us how much money our community has received, where it’s going to be spent, what are the objectives that are trying to be achieved and when will the projects be completed.

Misspent

This historic funding from the federal government offered us a chance to catapult ahead of our peer cities if we could be strategic in the investment of the money. Instead, there is the pervasive fear that the money is being spent with little overall philosophy or strategic goal.

Then, there are the normal sources of frustration, such as the city engineer, who could actually use some of the money to ramp up the bike lane plans for Memphis but instead is expected to give little attention to the need for walkable, bikable neighborhoods.

But back to transparency. In an April 30 letter to the city and county mayors, officials with the state comptroller’s office fired a warning shot about governments that treat ARRA as a blank check. “Local governments should recognize that the accountability and transparency requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will not allow for business as usual,” the letter said. “Governments that do not comply with ARRA provisions may be required to repay ARRA grants.”

More pointedly, the letter cautioned: “ARRA is not the answer to local government budget problems.” We have heard reports that some local agencies are treating ARRA as “found” money, substituting it for capital funding already in their budgets. This too is a short-signed approach, because ARRA is intended to give local governments a chance to pursue bolder, more strategic projects, say, for example, here, it could be to launch a serious sustainability effort.

Online

As for the websites of local government, federal law requires for them to have specific information and to be “transparent.” So far, things here have been perfunctory but if local government is going to get a handle on stimulus funding, they better do it soon.

As the federal law states clearly, failure to comply with the law’s requirements will result in the repayment of the federal money. Already, federal officials have made it clear that this is no idle threat.

Maybe, our local officials should see if there’s any federal money to upgrade our public websites so that we can do online anything we can do in a government office and that all public records are put online where we can see them.

The days of going to the Election Commission to get financial disclosure forms is likely to come to a close shortly. If we’re lucky, perhaps, soon to follow is the rule of the city and county attorneys’ offices that we have to write letters requesting copies of public records. Instead, they should just be put online.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jeffrey Higgs Reminds Us Why We Care About Soulsville



We wrote today about someone we really admire, Charlie Santo, and someone who has an equal amount of our respect, Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of Lemoyne-Owen Community Development Corporation (CDC) replied with conviction, so we're posting it here.

Finally, we can't think of a neighborhood that is more poised for this kind of revitalization. No neighborhood has more pride and more history than Soulsville, and for that matter, no neighborhood deserves our support more for the exciting progress being made there.

Here's Mr. Higgs' beautifully stated comments:

It appears to me that whenever this community (Memphis) decides to do something that attracts positive attention, there are those that say "...we cannot or exhibits the (NIMBY)- Not In My Backyard - syndrome…"

The idea of creating an artistic community in SoulsvilleUSA is a great idea, not only for what it brings to this City but what it tries to capture ...the essence of the music industry TODAY. Which is a vital part of the history of Memphis, and it is not just EP or BB, it is the creative class of minds young and old that says yes we can, have a vibrant and lively music scene and residential community as well that celebrates music and the economics associated with it.

And why not SOULSVILLEUSA? Over $150 million in revitalization activity, the City's only HBCU, Elmwood Cemetery, Soulsville Foundation, East Trigg Missionary Baptist Church, Memphis Slim's House, Aretha Franklin Childhood Home, J. E. Walker House, Historic Fountain Court, Rouhlac Mansion Bed and Breakfast, Firehouse Black Arts Alliance, Boys and Girls Club, Four Way Grill, College Park, Towne Center at SoulsvilleUSA and the people who make this neighborhood vibrant and contribute to the mosaic of diversity and a sense of being...a sense of place.

When we talk about crime and SOULSVILLEUSA proper, we are speaking about some of the lowest crime statistics in the county. While I know that image and perception counts for a lot, the reality is quite often much different than the perception and for SOULVILLEUSA, we are changing perceptions daily.

It takes a sense of ownership to instill pride. Now I am not naive enough to think that crime does not exist here, but it exist in Midtown, Germantown and Downtown and these are communities of choice. Residents in SOULSVILLEUSA are not opposed to reporting crime and the elements that drive it. Quite frankly, we have four neighborhood associations that are very active and contribute to the success of this neighborhood daily by reporting - vacant lots, vacant unboarded homes, spotting the criminal element and making the calls to the authorities as good neighbors should. All this to ensure that change in its self-image is one positive step to being a better neighbor and neighborhood. One cannot stand on the outside and get involved in this notion of perception, but one must immerse themselves in the fabric of the neighborhood to see the good and the changes that have occurred.

SOULSVILLEUSA and its residents are working to become a place that welcomes everyone, everyone that is trying to make this neighborhood a better place to live, work and play.

I can assure you that the people of this neighborhood are hard working and honest people that want the same things that others may want for their own neighborhoods - positive economics, green spaces and a environment that is lively and inviting to all.

I suggest: what better place to have Musicians live, work and play than SOULSVILLEUSA, a neighborhood with it rich musical history, creative young musicians attending the Academy now, and the future of Memphis Music all rolled into one thriving neighborhood (SOUSLVILLEUSA) and community Memphis.

Bring on the Musicians.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Musicians Can Bring New Beat To Soulsville Neighborhood


The Memphis Music Magnet - a project spearheaded by the always creative Professor Charles Santo - is based on the premise that musicians can make equally beautiful music in revitalizing the Soulsville neighborhood.

More to the point, it's about building a culture of creativity that in the end can be more important in attracting young, college-educated to Memphis than the big projects that are so often billed as "the" answer to talent retention and attraction.

One of the programs that Dr. Santo has used as the pattern to recreate the fabric of the South Memphis neighborhood is the Paducah Artists' Relocation program.

For that reason, we offer this reprise of a February 18, 2007 post:

You’ve got to admire Paducah.

While the spotlight most often falls on large cities grappling with ways to strengthen their arts scene, there’s much to be learned from the small Kentucky rivertown. Few cities, regardless of size, have been as assertive or as successful in using their arts as a powerful competitive advantage.

We were reminded of this when we saw an ad in the Memphis Flyer a few weeks ago inviting us to “experience the Lowertown Fine Arts District.” It was the latest volley in Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program, this one aimed at Memphis, St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, Lexington (KY), Cincinnati and Chicago.

It was a heady display of the confidence that comes from success, because the Paducah program is a good example of how a bold vision, aligned civic resources and a focused strategy can transform a city. Memphis could take some lessons from it.

The Turnaround

With more than 70 artists lured from places across the U.S., Paducah’s success has outstripped the projections of even its wildest advocates. Since being started about eight years ago, the Artist Relocation Program has been responsible for the renovation – completed or under way – of about 70 buildings and attracted new construction.

It’s a dramatic turnaround for a part of the city of 30,000 that was built 150 years ago as a grand neighborhood of charming homes before a slide late in the 20th century took it to a seedy slum known for the easy availability of cheap drugs and women. Today, the area, which, according to a Paducah planning official, comprises about 30 blocks, is best known for artists’ homes and studios, not to mention the visitors strolling through the neighborhood in search of artwork and the new firms and restaurants drawn to it.

Arts and culture are being used as the foundations for economic growth in a number of cities. Through our firm’s work in developing creative city plans for cities capitalizing on their unique artistic and cultural assets, we can attest to the wisdom of emphasizing cultural assets as an effective, and undervalued, way for a city to find its distinctiveness.

DNA

Too often, cities looking for answers to their problems first turn their attention to finding “best practices.” It often leads to them identifying successful programs and strategies in other cities and eagerly transplanting them in their own with understandably limited success. In the end, it is an artificial initiative with no resonance in the local DNA. That’s because it’s the plans built on differentiation that offer the best opportunities for success, plans that grow out of a city’s own character, personality and heritage.

That’s what’s so impressive about Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program. It’s an innovation program that’s unique and responds to the needs of the city. Confronted with neglected homes with architectural integrity and a neighborhood serving as a seedbed for crime, city officials understood the need for redevelopment of Lowertown.

Artists can be as important to cities as new companies. It’s just most cities put all their attention and target their financial incentives on the latter. That’s too bad, because artists have the proven ability to transform at-risk neighborhoods and bring life to dying areas. Strategies to attract them have included tax exemptions from sales and income taxes for art produced and sold in a specific arts district, new “live-work” space carved out of warehouses and converted into loft studios, and specific neighborhoods where they receive special incentives or subsidized rents.

Triggering Change

Paducah knew all this, but it decided to do things its own way. It did it by focusing on home ownership, and along the way, it is creating a stable, arts community.

The Artist Relocation Program is the second attempt to revive the area, and the city’s first effort is instructive. About 25 years ago, Paducah designated Lowertown as an historic district, but it had marginal impact on stabilizing the area. What was missing a triggering mechanism to change things.

Planners say that was to come when a local artist living in Lowertown grew concerned about the crime at his front door and the fact that 70 percent of the property was rental and decaying. His concern took him to the city’s planning department which acted to deal with absentee landlords with a get-tough rental license ordinance and with aggressive enforcement of new codes to protect the neighborhood.

Defining Success


The artist-planner team – which essentially created the program from whole cloth - soon had city funding for the first year’s budget for the Artist Relocation Program and raised money to buy Lowertown homes. Back then, there definition of success was in attracting 10 artists to Paducah.

Here’s how they’ve attracted seven times that many. The city buys a deteriorating house at a bargain price and spends a modest amount stabilizing it. The house is given to an artist who spends significant amounts of money to renovate and restore the structure. Once completed, the house is appraised at much less than the renovated value, but the Paducah Bank agrees to make 100 percent loans on the full value as opposed to the appraisal. Amazingly, the bank became so supportive of the program that it stopped getting the appraisals altogether.

Instead, the bank qualifies the artists individually to make sure they have the ability to repay the loans for the renovations. This is in dramatic contrast to other cities, because more commonly, cities gives incentives for developers to renovate the space and then lease it to artists, which means that as soon as the neighborhood turns around, the artists are the first to be forced out because of higher values.

Artistic Support


In support of its program, Paducah pays a bonus so artists can pay for architectural fees for renovation, it exempts construction materials for properties in the program from sales tax and it pays for the websites of the artists.

These days, Paducah is a popular destination for city officials interested in ways to attract artists, because in the end, Paducah did much more than revitalize a neighborhood. More to the point, it has created a vein of creativity that enlivens the entire city and enriches its quality of life in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

This Week On Smart City Radio: Mobility

This week, Smart City will talk about mobility - bikes and career.

B-cycle
is the latest bike sharing project to hit the U.S. Behind the project is Alex Bogusky, a principal with the creative firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We'll find out how B-Cycle works and why easy access to a bike causes big drops in traffic congestion.

And Elliot Brown will talk about Springboard Forward, an organization that inspires people to develop a long-term vision for career mobility. Springboard Forward helps transform the lives of entry-wage workers with a unique form of career development.

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, June 19, 2009

Unexpected Cities Creating First-Class Public Transit

Grist magazine has a timely article in light of our recent post about the need for a 21st century public transit system in Memphis. The article - The best U.S. transit systems you never knew existed - spotlights cities where we'd never expect to find first-class public transit.

Must reading.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pay Raises Raise Questions

The first reaction to the Memphis City Council’s vote in favor of a three per cent pay raise for its employees is disbelief.

On the surface, it appears that a majority of the Council is more concerned about employees than taxpayers. Below the surface, it was yet another reminder of the special importance that government has to the African-American middle class in our city.

In the end, we understand those dynamics, but it does little to temper our incredulity that in a year of disastrous budget challenges, with billions being shipped to local governments to stimulate the national economy and with jobs cuts are the norm, $11 million was used to boost city employees’ salaries.

One-Time Hit


We’ve written until most of your mouths move when we start talking about this, but it remains nonetheless true: the Memphis property tax rate must be reduced so that Memphis is on a level playing field with suburban municipalities. If a majority of Council members believe that city government has $11 million to spare, we’d suggest that it should be used to reduce the tax rate about a dime.

Alternately, City Council should have treated the three percent raise was a one-time bonus, so that it would not be an ongoing cost in future city budgets.
A one-time bonus would not de facto increase the personnel budget for next year, and even if City Council voted for raises next year, they would be based on the salary levels of last year without the three per cent increase.

Coupled with last year’s courageous, then disappointing, vote on school funding – when $40 million of the cut was moved to general city government operations – means that City Council has missed crucial chances to decrease the tax rate by about 50 cents.

Mixed Messages

As a result, City Council is sending mixed messages. On one hand, it’s cutting school funding in the interest of tax equity, but on the other hand, it’s not following through by slashing the city’s tax rate.

It’s Step 2 that matters most. Otherwise, as was shown last year, city taxpayers get a token reduction and the bulk of the money ends up feeding the broken business model that is city government.

And yes, we know that before their 5 per cent pay raises were given last year, city employees hadn’t received a pay raise in two years. But the economic downturn is forcing hard decisions on everyone, and there’s no reason that government is exempt from the realism that private sector Memphis workers are confronting every day, particularly the 33 per cent of them who are not now working.

Unfulfilled Promise

This year’s budget hearings began with such promise, but deteriorated into some grand-standing that is always expected with such a process and the racial divide that we hoped had finally passed.

The final vote on the three per cent said it all: only one white Councilman and one African-American Councilman abandoned their racial voting bloc. As usual, there was the seemingly inevitable black and white discord that accompanies most major public decisions here.

Hopefully, the residual effect of the budget wars will quickly recede, but suspicions seem to be growing with some members suspecting others with using the process to position themselves for higher office and with some convinced that other members are mired in the past.

Deepest Cut Of All

It would make for a challenging group therapy session, but despite the conflict of the hearings, a vast majority of the Council members profess a desire to mend fences and repair relationships. It can’t happen too soon, because with the economic realities and the regressive tax structure defining city government’s options, budget hearings will otherwise become more and more rancorous as this yearly drama plays out.

If the public questions the wisdom of the three per cent raise, they are absolutely bewildered by the reluctance of local government to reduce their workforce. We’ve seen juries return death sentence verdicts easier than local legislators faced with the idea of paring back the “personnel complement.”

It’s manifested in the attitude by some Council members and county commissioners that workers should be protected at all costs. There’s almost the sense that employees have a right to be employed and that the financial implications on the public are almost irrelevant.

The Promised Land

There’s normally a racial divide that opens on this question that has more to do with history than finances. For decades, government has been the promised land for the African-American middle class.

That’s why any time suggestions are made that workforce of city schools, city government and county government should be cut back, there is a howl of protest. That’s because in a large part of this city, this is more than attack on government spending. It is in fact an attack on the black middle class.

Of the 22 largest employers in Shelby County, 11 are public entities with about 75,000 workers. It’s a safe bet that at least half of them – in government and schools, it’s more like 65 per cent – are African-Americans.

All of this is why an issue like residency tend to explode in ways that perplex the white colleagues of black legislators with its emotions and hostility. And yet, as the local tax structure restricts city government’s ability to fund its services, it may in time erase any racial sensitivity about the size of the workforce and any idea that the workers deserve raises no matter what their performance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Moving Past Denial About Our Shrinking City

We can cure you but we may have to kill you first.

That was a common reaction to an article in London’s Daily Telegraph that reported that the Obama Administration is considering plans for selective bulldozing in some “rust belt” cities including Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Memphis.

We suspect that the story may be a combination of imprecise writing by the reporter and an overstated interest by the Obama Administration from the article’s source, the treasurer of Genessee County who’s out to shrink Flint, Michigan, by 40 percent to compact the city into a more manageable size for public services.

Bruised Pride

He said the Obama Administration has approached him about applying the lessons learned in Flint to a number of U.S. cities. That’s where Memphis came in, because the treasurer Dan Kildee said he was relying on a Brookings Institution report suggesting that 50 cities should shrink.

Based on our inquiry to the Washington think tank, that is likely not an accurate interpretation of what its reports said and that the Obama Administration’s inquiry into the razing of deteriorating neighborhoods was like dozens of conversations about urban strategies by federal officials.

While it might all be a tempest in a teapot, it was disturbing to a number of people that Memphis was listed among the rust belt cities, but we hope that it encourages the serious discussion that is needed about Memphis as a shrinking city.

Doing More With The Same

As we have written before, Memphis annexations have been built upon a faulty analysis. Rather than merely calculating the cost of public services and the amount of new taxes (which often seem to assume that the area will never decline), the evaluation should consider the impact on the core city.

Too often, it’s been a false economy, and in the end, the same services are merely stretched over a larger area. For example, the budget of the Memphis Division of Park Services has been flat for 20 years despite annexations. Meanwhile, by propping up our city’s population through annexation, we are given a false sense of security about our city.

Here’s the thing: since 1970, even with 27 annexations of 100 square miles, the population of Memphis has remained essentially the same. And despite taking in this much land area, the population outside Memphis in Shelby County increased from about 95,000 to 250,000.

A Different Lens

Within those 1970 city limits, Memphis has lost more than 20% of its population. Density was cut in half, making service delivery more expensive and complicated. Perhaps, the equation isn’t about how much new land can we add to Memphis, but how much better can we serve what we have.

Some other cities in the same situation are beginning to consider shrinking their footprints, notably Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint. In fact, in its earliest days, Memphis was less interested in new territory. Between 1891 and 1950, there were 19 annexations, but with the dawning of the 1950’s came a new aggressiveness toward annexations. There were 12 annexations in the Fifties alone and the 1960’s saw 23 more.

In other words, city officials inherited a culture of annexation that has driven the idea that the appropriation of new territory is always a good thing.

The Lure Of New Taxes


The lure was new property taxes and new sales taxes. Unfortunately, we are strapped by one of the most regressive tax structures in the United States. In other words, the less you make in Memphis, the more you pay as a percentage of your income.

It’s time to step back and look at our annexation policies with fresh eyes. If the price for that new revenue is more responsibility over a larger area and no more to spend on the core neighborhoods that are the heart of Memphis, the entire transaction may have been built on a false economy.

It will require courage to act differently, but fortunately, this City Council has shown more in two years than previous Councils showed in 10. It also requires a shift in economic development thinking, where officials normally prefer to brag about.

A Totally New Approach

We can gain solace for the fact that we are not alone. More cities have shrunk in the last 50 years than have grown around the world, according to City Mayors. The difference is that here, we would decide to do it rather than having it done to us. We could consider scenarios in which we abandon the “annex at all costs” attitude or even consider deannexation.

As Shrinking Cities Institute said: “This alternative model could include the demolition or dismantling of underutilized housing and other building stock, the removal of redundant streets, and downsizing of municipal infrastructure to correspond to declining population…Opportunities may arise for restoring native landscape ecologies or reconstituting a new kind of city, where pockets of development are surrounded and connected by natural areas.

“Planned shrinkage can identify opportunities to establish lively and attract development clusters that take advantage of the best the region has to offer, while improving air and water quality, enhancing wildlife habitat and establishing exciting new recreation opportunities.”

New Planning

It may sound simple and logical, but it is incredibly difficult, because it requires us to up-end everything we’ve ever thought about cities.

The study and strategies for urban decline have dwelt on ways to revive neighborhoods and somehow breathe life in areas on life support. Only recently has the attention turned to “shrinking cities” and away from the magnetic (and misleading) power of “growth.”

That’s why it requires a total shift in planning, and the traditional tendency to react to the shrinkage by focusing on economic growth. It’s no overstatement to say that Memphis as a shrinking city may be the single biggest issue facing right now. That’s why we are so exorcised about the nail in the coffin that will be hammered home by I-269.

Taking The First Step


So here’s hoping that our city begins this important conversation. We also hope that it begins with the 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 14,000. 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.

But first things 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.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Turning Memphis Green

The burgeoning green ethos that’s bubbling up from grassroots Memphis is gaining ground, and it can’t come too soon.

The downturn in gas prices may have lulled our city into a false sense of security, but we’re confident that the various forces for change – the evolution of cycling from a group of enthusiasts into a community of activists, the ambitious agenda of Sustainable Shelby attacking sustainability on all fronts, and the mushrooming of community-based programs like Green Fork, Green Hope, Clean Memphis, Grow Memphis and more – will not allow us to lapse into lethargy.

The actions of county government that drove up the public debt paid by all of us to about $1.8 billion and effectively put millions of dollars into the pockets of politically-connected, influential developers and homebuilders produced a pattern of sprawl that will require Herculean efforts to reverse.

The Numbers

Here’s the tale of the tape:

• Of the world’s largest cities by population, Memphis is #159.

• In land area, it is #69 in the world.

• In population density, it is #168.

It would be bad enough to contend with the consequences of sprawl in terms of the financial costs, but the social costs are even more. The warren of houses stamped out on small lots on parallel streets make finding an address in many suburban areas as difficult as finding an address in Venice (where the street names change every block).

Digging Out Of A Hole

Worst of all, the problems that characterize Hickory Hill are destined to be repeated in other areas where the design ethic, the inferior construction and the inattention to creating neighborhoods have been recreated. In other words, there is little question that like Hickory Hill, these sad developments will require homeowners to invest significant money in their houses before the first mortgage is even paid off.

Despite the temporary respite from gas prices, it is likely that there will remain increased interest by many suburbanites in moving westward to reduce their commuting. If we can reduce the average mileage driven by motorists by just one mile, it produces $250 million in additional income.

Sadly, we have to dig out of a really deep hole if we are to create a more sustainable community. Most surveys of green behavior find us on the wrong end of the rankings.

It’s Pretty Rank

Of the largest 50 metros in the U.S., Memphis ranked #45 in city preparedness for an oil crisis. The top 10 cities were unsurprising: 1) San Francisco; 2) New York; 3) Washington, D.C.; 4) Seattle; 5) Oakland; 6) Chicago; 7) Portland, Oregon; 8) Philadelphia; 9) Baltimore; and 10) Boston.

Ranking highest, according to the survey by Common Current, are cities with strong public transit system ridership (which we suspect is tied to delivery of a quality product, the crux of the problem here), well-organized and relatively dense city centers, a high degree of mixed real estate uses (retail, office and residential) and medium-to-high city population density.

Memphis’ ranking in various categories is revealing and points to the areas where we need to concentrate our efforts:

Carpooling: #13

Telecommuting Rate: #50 (dead last)

City Resident Public Transit Commute Use: #36

City Resident Walk/Bike Commute Rate: #38

Metro Area Overall Per Capita Public Transit Ridership: #39

Metro Area Sprawl: #35 (of 46 cities)

Trouble In River City

In stating the obvious, “clearly, the way in which cities and metro areas are planned and developed also has a measurable impact on fuel use, household transportation expenses as well as the degree of dependence on auto transport,” the report might as well have been commenting on Memphis.

A survey by BusinessWeek identified the 20 cities where Americans would most like to live and where they would least like to live. Memphis wasn’t on either list. The magazine observed how important it is to attract talent these days, and we’ve repeatedly pointed out the particular challenge facing Memphis when it comes to 25-34 year-olds – the most mobile, most entrepreneurial and best educated generation in history – and the precise group we need to retain and attract.

From 2000-2006, Memphis lost 14,508 people in this demographic, speeding up a skid that began in the 1990’s with a decrease of 6,814. It’s a troubling trend, particularly at a time when Memphis is struggling to compete in a knowledge-based economy. Past public policies, especially tax freezes given to companies that don’t pay living wages and that subsidized industries offering low-wage, low-skill jobs that relegate Memphis to the bottom rungs of economic growth in the future.

Selling Memphis At A Discount

By the way, already, the dismal job creation rate in Memphis and the weak record of capital investments produced a Greek chorus calling for weakening the PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) program of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board little more than a year after some of the most liberal policies in the U.S. were reformed.

The mantra from developers and economic development types is that we need to loosen up the public cash register once again because we can’t compete with Desoto County unless we do it.

First off, our challenge isn’t to compete with DeSoto County. That’s part of our problem. We’ve got the question all wrong: we’re competing with cities in Asia and India. And frankly, we’d just as soon see some of the low-wage, low-skill jobs move to DeSoto County so their taxpayers can pay for the social services that they need as a result of not receiving living wages.

Freezing Tax Freezes

If we are going to loosen up the regulations for tax freezes, we sure don’t need to return to business as usual and the traditional over-reliance on tax freezes. As we were the first to point out three years ago, in a 10-year period in which Nashville only stamped approved on 5 tax freezes, Memphis/Shelby County approved 415 tax freezes which waived $60 million a year in taxes (we gave more tax freezes than the other 94 Tennessee combined).

If the IDB returns to the good old days, there would be one of those rare outcries that will reverberate loudly in the halls of government. That said, and this was why we brought up tax freezes in the first place, if the IDB is going to shift from perpetuating Memphis’ non-competitiveness in the knowledge economy to being a vehicle to create the kind of community that we need to compete in the future, it needs to tie its incentives to the objectives and strategies of Sustainable Shelby and to the overall sustainability programs that are creating a buzz about cities today.

And if you don’t think that is important, let us quote BusinessWeek: “Perception is a big deal when it comes to places. Everybody has preconceived notions.”

On A Bubble

Here’s the thing: we don’t have the margin for error that many cities have. We have to get things right, and we have to make the most of every investment, every program and every opportunity.

That’s why Sustainable Shelby is so crucial. It institutionalizes sustainability as a core principle and a core business of the public sector, and that’s an important beginning. There is so much to do, and we are blessed right now by the presence of so many people – especially young, creative ones – who are prepared to do what it takes.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reward Good Employees Absolutely, Positively

As Memphis City Council gets ready for its budget wrap-up this week, we have only one request: no more Fred Smith analogies.

Because of our broken tax structure, there are no easy answers for the Council, only a menu of poor options. That said, the tendency to justify pay cuts (which are crudely symbolic) and the elimination of next year’s pay raises (which are prudently overdue) by citing Fred Smith’s reduction in his salary as FedEx founder is really getting old.

The relevance between Mr. Smith’s salary and any of the 6,000 workers in City of Memphis is non-existent – unless the employees are secretly getting stock options as well.

Come to think of it, maybe City Council should set up the equivalent of public stock options. They could do it by setting up a system where high-performing employees get special payment options. Now, it’s a system of disincentives, dragging everyone down to the same level and sending the message that excellence matters little. Best of all, something like a stock options approach would require city government to set up the kind of performance-based system that could truly shake up the public’s business in City Hall.

Now that would be something worth quoting Fred Smith about.

As Usual, Everything Starts With Mayor Herenton

Reports about an imminent resignation by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton are rumbling again, and this time around, they seem to have more credence than before.

But with Mayor Herenton, we’ve learned to believe it when we see it, but if he steps aside, it will have far-reaching ramifications – for not just who follows him as city mayor but who gets elected county mayor.

His political friends report that the lack of passion in City Hall is quickly being replaced with the energy triggered by a potential race for U.S. Congress against two-term incumbent Steve Cohen.

The Contest

Despite the breathless coverage by the media, we are a long way from having any idea how that race is likely to shake out. The poll headlined by Channel 5 showing Rep. Cohen trouncing Mayor Herenton was specious and has little connection with the reality of the situation.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mayor Herenton still has a strong base, and the race for Congress between two political veterans – one who’s a master of the sound bite and another whose mastery runs more to biting when least expected – is likely to be a street fight to the death.

At this point, the main questions are how early will the mayor play the race card – or if he will leave it to be played by others – and how early the congressman will bedevil him with his patented barbs designed to either draw laughs or blood.

Swimming Upstream

Congressman Cohen already expects to swim against a strong political current in favor of returning an African-American to the congressional seat in a majority African-American district. In turn, Mayor Herenton should expect to confront an opponent who raises more money than he does and can point to African-American colleagues in Congress who have lauded his work.

But this election is still more than a year away – a lifetime in politics – and a great deal can change, notably Mayor Herenton’s legal status as the federal investigation continues.

More current are the dominoes that will fall if Mayor Herenton steps down within weeks to concentrate on his race for Congress and a new business arrangement with one of his sons.

Options And Plenty Of Them

But we want to talk about mayors’ elections, so consider what happens if the mayor resigns. If Mayor Herenton steps down next month or August, his successor will be chosen in a special election in October or November respectively. Immediately upon the mayor leaving office, Memphis City Council Chairman Myron Lowery would be appointed as interim mayor, and the special election scheduled within 90 days.

At this point, he’s planning to run for mayor, and the prospects of yard signs, “Keep Lowery as Mayor,” are pretty appealing, as well as the ability to leverage the city’s most important bully pulpit as he campaigned.

That said, it’s obvious that a special mayor’s election in such short order favors the person with the county’s highest approval ratings and the deepest campaign pockets – A C Wharton. He would be formidable in the best of circumstances, but in an election called with such a short fuse, it would take lightning striking for him to lose.

One Scenario

We know there is the speculation that the mayor’s race will attract a cavalry of candidates, and as the electorate is divided up like a pie with too many people at the table, Mayor Wharton’s slice will shrink, allowing former Council member Carol Chumney to ease into office. All things are possible in politics but it’s not a prediction to which we subscribe for a variety of reasons, including his ability to attract both black and white votes and that the other candidates are largely fighting for the same votes.

It’s our sense that anyone trying to undercut Mayor Wharton will need to raise at least 50% more than his campaign budget and with only 90 days to do it, the points go to the candidate with a proven ability to raise big money and with an existing war chest.

Assume we’re right: Mayor Herenton resigns and Mayor Wharton is elected city mayor in October. His victory immediately opens up the county mayor’s seat, and the chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners fills in temporarily.

County Options

At this point, the next chair of the legislative body – whose term begins Sept. 1 - is expected to be Joyce Avery, now chairman pro tempore. She would serve for 45 days, upon which time an interim mayor would be elected by the board of commissioners. Commissioner Sidney Chism is interested in running for the next chairman pro tempore and using it as a springboard for the appointment as interim mayor.

All in all, a Herenton exit now is a near miss for the current chair of the board of commissioners, Deidre Malone, a leading candidate for county mayor. Filling in as the 45-day mayor with hopes to create some momentum if appointed interim mayor, her campaign would have been jump started with a head start for the mayor’s race.

It would probably have been tough since Commissioner Chism is backing former state legislator and Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and he’d try to block her appointment. (On the other hand, it’s just as likely that she’ll work hard to block him being named to the same position.)

Post-Republican Era

Whoever is elected as interim mayor by the board of commissioners, that person will serve until September 1, 2010, when the winner in the county general election takes office as Shelby County’s fifth mayor.

Interestingly, on that same August 5, 2010, ballot will be the election that will be a magnet for large Democratic turnout – the Cohen-Herenton Congressional battle. The returns 14 months from now will ratify the proposition that if we are not in fact in a post-racial world, our community is indeed in a post-Republican world.

It could even make for a difficult race for two-term sheriff Mark Luttrell, and it makes Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ campaign as the Republican candidate for governor an even greater long shot.

And as has been the case for 16 years, everything seems to start with Mayor Herenton.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Sustainability And Race

This week on Smart City, we have two authors who are re-imagining some persistent but outdated ideas from the 20th century.

Alex Steffan is a journalist and author who runs the organization and website WorldChanging.com. The site practices what he calls "Solutions based journalism" on the environment and has become the go-to source for forward thinking solutions on climate change and sustainability. Alex joins us to tell us about this new vision for journalism and how to build a brighter future. Alex is the author of "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

And we'll talk with author and Harvard professor William Julius Wilson. He's written extensively on race in America from his seminal work, "When Work Disappears : The World of the New Urban Poor" to his latest, "More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (Issues of Our Time)." Professor Wilson joins us to talk about reframing the relationship between race and poverty.

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

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

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quoting A Colleague In The New York Times

Our good friend and colleague Joe Cortright was quoted today in the New York Times in its coverage of cities' racing to bet on biotech. First, it made us proud that Joe was quoted, and second, it made us proud that Memphis Bioworks Foundation took a different, more precise approach built on our city's authentic strengths.

It's interesting coverage, which can be read here.

Here's Joe's cautionary tale in the Times:

Skeptics cite two major problems with the race for biotech. First, the industry is highly concentrated in established epicenters like Boston, San Diego and San Francisco, which offer not just scientific talent but also executives who know how to steer drugs through the arduous approval process.

“Most of these states probably don’t stand much of a chance to develop a viable biotech industry,” said Gary P. Pisano, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of “Science Business: The Promise, the Reality and the Future of Biotech.”

“You can always get a few top people,” Mr. Pisano said, “but you need a lot of critical mass.”

Second, biotech is a relatively tiny industry with a lengthy product-development process, and even in its largest clusters offers only a fraction of the jobs of traditional manufacturing. In the United States, only 43 biotechnology companies employ more than 1,000 people, according to BioAbility, a consulting firm in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

There is no guarantee that if a blockbuster drug materialized, it would be manufactured and marketed in the same place it was developed and tested.

Joseph Cortright, an economist who has studied biotechnology clusters, gave the example of a promising anti-leukemia compound developed at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, where Mr. Cortright is based. “The economic impact in the Portland area is zero because the rights to manufacture and market this drug were owned already by Novartis,” Mr. Cortright said.

But the race continues.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Memphis' Opportunity For First-Class Public Transit, Finally







It looks like Memphis Area Transit Authority has finally reached a long awaited point: put up or shut up.

For years, MATA has offered up numerous justifications for the sad state of public transit in Memphis. At a time when efficient, effective mass transit is a competitive advantage for cities attracting talented workers, ours does just the opposite.

For many students and young workers who come here, MATA becomes a symbol for a city that just can’t seem to get its act together. And it’s not a bus that they take getting out of here fast.

We won’t repeat the reasons why we are so focused on 25-34 year-olds because you’ve probably memorized it by now, but suffice it to say that we are bleeding this crucial demographic.

That Giant Sucking Sound

In the decade between 1990 and 2000, Shelby County lost 14,205 25-34 year-olds, and that was troubling enough, but in the first six years of this decade, we lost 18,482. In these same periods, Memphis lost 6,814 and 14,508 respectively.

Said another way, from 1990 to 2006, Memphis lost 21,332 25-34 year-olds and Shelby County lost 32,687 (including Memphis). DeSoto County gained 11,146 of this demographic, so our area had a net loss of 25-34 year-olds of 21,541 people.

In other words, slightly more than three 25-34 year-olds have left Shelby County every day for the past 16 years.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said that improving mass transit is the top issue that he hears from young Nashville residents (and keep in mind that Nashville’s public transit includes trains while we've managed to have trolleys that pretend to be transportation). Mayor Dean said he plans to move assertively to leverage newly passed legislation about dedicated funding source for mass transit to attract more federal funding and to upgrade his city’s system.

The silence here is deafening.

Why It Matters

Operating with the attitude that public transit is for poor peoples with no other choices, MATA is a significant obstacle to the kind of progressive image (and more important, reality) that other cities like Nashville are using as a lure for talented workers.

Focus groups with college-educated workers here tell us that they expected a city of Memphis’ size to have a modern, welcoming, efficient public transit system. Instead, they complain that the recruiters’ promise of a lower cost of living was misleading because “no one told us we’d have to buy a car.”

For example, workers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital come from around the world. Researchers have lived in Paris, Boston and San Francisco. In other words, they know what a first-class transit system looks like. One relatively new arrival from Africa said she felt home at Memphis because so much of Memphis felt like a third world country - such as its bus system.

In previous years, MATA has suggested that it can’t attract more riders, and that was certainly born out by polling of the Sustainable Shelby project. It was widely predicted that climbing gas prices would force suburbanites out of their cars and back to city neighborhoods.

It never happened here and it’s not likely to unless something dramatic changes. Shelby Countians say gas prices would have to be $6.69 before they’d get aboard a city bus.

Getting It Right

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

The poll results are backed up anecdotally by Leadership Memphis' regular experiment requiring its members to travel to a class day using public transportation. The experience is always an eye-opener, because most of the class members are among the 92 percent of Shelby Countians who don’t travel in MATA. Comments from Leadership Memphis fall into broad categories like the need for better customer service for MATA and cleaner, better-maintained buses.

Meanwhile, Atlanta has upgraded the comfort of its seats and now loads news, sports scores and weather reports into televisions on its buses when they leave the bus barn. Utah and Colorado have added Wi-Fi to longer commuter buses for $5,000 and report that it has produced added ridership. Meanwhile, the buses have reclining seats, cup holders and racks for briefcases, backpacks and bicycles.

A number of cities like Portland, Oregon, send alerts to passengers’ Blackberries, offering up-to-the-minute information about trouble spots and alternatives in the event of problems on the route.

Doing More Than The Expected

All of this sounds light years away for MATA, but two recent developments might change all that…or at least prove once and for all if MATA is competent and capable to deliver a high-quality public service.

MATA is currently drawing up its plans to update its regional transit master plan, which in the past had often been merely updating the previous plan. If the current system is the answer, then it’s clear someone at MATA has been asking the wrong questions with its previous master plans.

This time around, there is a growing interest at the Memphis Area Planning Organization (MPO) to do more than the expected and the perfunctory. Over the years, MATA has repeated that the Memphis region can’t afford a first-class transit system.

Here’s the problem: they’ve never told us what a modern 21st century system would look like and what it would cost. The transit authority might be surprised: it might be exactly what we want and we might be willing to pay for it.

No More Excuses

Meanwhile, the other – and more on target – explanation given by MATA is that it doesn’t have a “dedicated funding source” like many other transit companies. It is this dependable source that has been pivotal to other cities far superior systems.

Just two days ago, when told rightly by City Council member Wanda Halbert that “it shouldn’t talk an hour to get from a certain point to downtown, MATA president Will Hudson told the City Council Budget Committee: “I’m not being smart. A lot of cities have a dedicated funding source that allows them to do that..They beat up on us all the time. It’s not about we don’t know how to run a transit system…If I had the money…”

While we think his contention that the current management has the ability to manage an effective transit system is arguable, we assume that he knows that quietly, the current legislature unanimously passed a law to approve a dedicated funding source for public transit.

It’s encouraging that finally someone in Nashville understood that transportation is about more than just about building more highways. Public transit advocates across Tennessee hailed passage as a historic step toward improved mass transit in the four metro areas of Tennessee, and said it was the first step toward a toolbox for a modern public transit system.

Just Do It

The law allows for our area to create the dedicated funding source for a Regional Transportation Authority.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it begins a “no excuses” era for MATA and ushers in the opportunity for the MPO to think more boldly and broadly about the future of public transit in our community.

It proves conclusively that hope springs eternal.