Sunday, August 30, 2009

Aerotropolis Waiting On Tarmac For Clear Take-off

Aerotropolis had a bumpy take-off and encountered immediate turbulence at Memphis City Council over a request for $2.3 million for a beautification project for the roadway that leads to Memphis International Airport.

While it’s clear from the comments of Council members that they need more information and better communications about aerotropolis, the problem may have been connected more to the absence of strong attachments by elected officials to the operations of the airport, which they often liken to a private club with privileges for only a few.

And truth be told, many people can be forgiven for little enthusiasm for a more beautiful entry into an airport where Memphians pay heavily for the privilege of being an airport hub. In addition, some Council members questioned why the Airport Authority itself didn’t pay for these improvements – which would cost about $140,000 a year in debt service for bonds – out of its $127 million budget.

In fact, over the years, the Airport Authority has prided itself on never asking city and county governments for money (it has its own significant sources of revenues from landing fees, concessions, etc.) except when it asked for help in paying for customs facilities and the international concourse required for the direct flight to Amsterdam. Despite promises that aerotropolis would transform the airport area, some Council members were dismayed that the first request for funding would be to beautify the approach to the airport rather than to improve conditions or infrastructure in the adjacent areas.

The Four R’s

As one Council member put it, at this point, there are a lot more questions than answers about aerotropolis. We suspect that even many of the people working on the project have the same feeling, because that’s the nature of a project that has no real ground rules and has to be customized for each city chasing it.

That said, there’s reason to be hopeful that it could work in Memphis, but clearly, there needs to be a well-communicated vision for the aerotropolis and a specific plan of action shared by decision-makers in both public and private sectors. In a city often hypnotized by our own hyperbole, some key members of Greater Memphis Chamber have already suggested that the new brand for our city should be: “Memphis: America’s Aerotropolis, Where Runway, Road, Rail and River Merge.”

We've written before that while it's a catchy slogan for this plan, it's not the city's brand, and we're pleased that there has been push-back on this notion. We have a disproportionate debt to logistics and distribution here, and we think that in focusing on attracting and retaining talent, our stronger brand - if it's related to this industry - is that we are the place where modern global commerce was invented.

That speaks to our streak of innovation and entrepreneurship, and the generation of workers that we are trying to keep here are the most entrepreneurial generation every. At any rate, “America’s Aerotropolis” is a good moniker for a specific part of our economy. We just hope no one rushes to make it the city’s brand and to start putting it on signs welcoming visitors to Memphis.

Airport Cities

Already, the aerotropolis derby is getting crowded. Detroit has embarked on an aerotropolis plan that involves two airports and 25,000 acres of developable land, backed up by the ubiquitous economic impact report promising incredible results. Meanwhile, a prominent developer in Atlanta with deep pockets has announced the beginning of an aerotropolis there. Dallas-Fort Worth has been talking about it for awhile, and Phoenix has heard the sirens’ call.

Then, there are aerotropolis plans centered on the Piedmont International Airport and the area transportation network in Greensboro/Winston Salem. In each case, there is the promise of untold riches foretold by John Kasarda, creator of the aerotropolis concept.

His concept was inspired by Asian “airport cities” that have fueled dreams in American cities. It’s hard to remember a concept that has had as much build up as quickly as the notion that Memphis can be the home of North America’s first true aerotropolis.

It’s difficult to imagine how our version – or any U.S. version for that matter - can really emulate the Asian models that inspired it. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport will have shopping malls, office buildings, hotels, hospitals, an international business center, conference and exhibition space, warehouses and even a residential community. Singapore’s Changi Airport has movie theaters, saunas and a swimming pool. As it’s prone to do, Dubai took the concept and went one better. Its World Central International Airport will have office towers, hotels, a casino, golf course and one of the world’s largest malls.

Changing Opinion

Despite those daunting examples, American cities remain committed to the aerotropolis concept, and yet, we are different than other major cities - at the bottom for airport hubs in the number of passengers boarding and deplaning and at the top in the amount of freight. The ultimate question is how a fully successful aerotropolis can be built here around an airport known for its multitude of boxes rather than its multitude of bodies.

There are also concerns by some elected officials that aerotropolis is merely the latest concept designed to enrich the real estate industry rather than help people in the declining areas near Memphis International Airport or buttress a Whitehaven that deserves much more care and support. Based on what we know about some key leaders for the aerotropolis project, we expect these concerns to be heard fully and handled sensitively.

Actually, the greatest challenge in the long run may be that it is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and there is little that we can do about it but to have alternate plans. That’s particularly true of airlines, which are one of the fastest-growing sources for greenhouse gases. Dipping oil prices are encouraging but likely temporary, doing little to mitigate the looming crisis caused by the fact that the business model for many airlines essentially doesn’t work when oil sells for $135 a barrel.

Already, in Europe, the high cost of fuel is changing public opinion about air travel, with protesters shaming airline passengers and reflecting a growing feeling that flying is synonymous with ignoring the imperative to reduce greenhouse gases. There are even the first signs of legislative support for higher taxes on air travel and opposition to any new runways.

Finding The Niche

Back here, predictions that U.S. passengers will be cut in half and that there will only be 50 major airports in less than 20 years (roughly 85% fewer than today) are no longer discounted as inconceivable. Such is the seriousness of the crisis facing the airline industry and the cities that depend on it for major economic activity and employment.

Here, the risk is felt in spades since most of the logistics industry here is built on a foundation of fossil fuels. All of these issues need serious deliberation and research, because the continued dominance of our local economy by logistics and distribution is the economic equivalent of betting all of our chips on our hand. As a result, this isn’t the time for the normal cheerleading about all things airport-related that comes from the chairman of the Airport Authority, but serious discussion about scenarios for the future. If the aerotropolis can help us do that, it would have made a major contribution to our economic agenda.

We are confident that this discussion is in good hands, because we don’t think there’s anyone smarter in our city that Tom Schmitt, FedEx executive, who’s guiding this discussion. FedEx didn’t invent modern global commerce by failing to ask the tough questions, evaluate options and make tough decisions, and we know that he brings this to his civic work as well.

We suggested several years ago that our city should consider the aerotropolis model as part of our economic development agenda, so we are supportive of the idea, but we are equally anxious to hear more data and facts about it. Most of all, we hope that it emulates the approach of the Bioworks Foundation which crafted a distinctive niche for our city from our unique set of assets.

There no part of urban affairs that is more faddish than economic development, so it's important to separate our specific opportunity from a general head-long pursuit of something that will ultimately be replaced by the new new thing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This Week On Smart City: New Bohemia And New Philadelphia

Bohemia is no longer a small and embattled refuge for society's weirdoes and starving artists. According to Vanderbilt professor Richard Lloyd, it is now an established district in every medium-sized city that drives up real estate prices. He calls it "Neo-Bohemia," and we'll talk to him about his book on the topic, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, and find out how cities are promoting these districts as a lifestyle amenity.

We'll also talk with Rich Bendis who is working to turn Philadelphia's creative economy into an international development asset for the city as head of Innovation Philadelphia, a public/private partnership dedicated to increasing the region's entrepreneurial capacity and positioning the city as a leader in the global knowledge economy.

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, August 27, 2009

The U.S. Senate Won't Be The Same

Previously posted May 8, 2008:

We were standing in an anteroom of a Senate hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building some years back when Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy walked in.

Instantly, there was a surge of energy in the room, and although the room was filled with Republican senators waiting for the start of a hearing in the adjacent committee room, all eyes turned toward him, and every one broke into a smile, anticipating a bellowing greeting or a story that gave tribute to his Irish heritage.

He took a quick scan of the room, ignored his colleagues and walked toward us, sticking out his hand: “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

Foote Loose

We said we were from Memphis and were waiting for one of our state’s senators to join us.

“You’re from Memphis?” he said, without allowing enough hesitation for an answer. “Do you know my old friend, Shelby Foote? He’s spent time with us in the summer.”

Then, shifting easily into an uncanny impersonation of the Memphis author’s distinctive drawl and magnolia-drenched speaking style, he said: “Can you give me a glass of branch water with two fingers of bourbon?”


The impersonation brought down the house (or the Senate, as the case may be), because Foote’s highly personalized speaking style had by then become almost as well-known as his remarkable three-volume of the Civil War, thanks to his starring role in Ken Burn’s PBS series.

After a few pleasantries, he was gone, stepping into the meeting room where he was immediately surrounded by admirers and seekers of favors.

We’d never seen him before, and we’ve never seen him since, but we can still hear that Shelby Foote imitation as clearly as the day he delivered it. It was dead-on.

God’s Will (Not)

We’ve thought of it often this week as we heard that Senator Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Despite uplifting, optimistic statements from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, his prognosis is grim. And he no doubt knows it.

As television news crews fought to fill the airtime, they almost seemed willing to put on any talking head who was available. One of them, in an attempt to explain the inexplicable, referred to it as “God’s will,” conjuring up memories of pastor cum politician Hubon Sandridge referring to God’s purpose in the aftermath of the horrific murders on Lester Street.

Nothing Divine About It

Maybe, if nothing else, Senator Kennedy’s disease could inspire a moratorium on the obscene use of God’s name to justify all manner of tragedies and diseases. In this vein, there’s no better time to be reminded of the eloquent eulogy by Rev. William Sloane Coffin upon the death of his son, Alex:

“Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths, and Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.

“Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths. I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist, yes, even an Eternal Vivisector.

“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over his sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

There’s little question that it broke again this week.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Merger Mania Needs To Give Way To Reality Check

In the not too distant future, government in Memphis and Shelby County will look nothing like it does today.

And it will happen with or without consolidation.

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

Tiny Towns

When Memphis completely executes the annexation agreements reached in the wake of the “tiny town” controversy of the late 1990’s, 65 percent of Shelby County will be inside Memphis, which will be almost 50 percent larger than today (about the same land area as the city of Los Angeles).

The fixed order will be transformed, and smaller cities will find that their futures will no longer be defined by their relationships with Shelby County. Rather, it will be with Memphis.

Memphis will overshadow and drive the futures of all the other cities in Shelby County even more directly than now. Meanwhile, Shelby County Government will morph from a major force in our community to a government more like rural counties that deliver little more than schools, jails and justice, and public health.


Outside Memphis, only annexation provokes more enmity than consolidation. It was a similar anti-annexation attitude that led to Nashville’s successful consolidation 46 years ago. Faced with the choice of consolidating governments or being annexed by Nashville, voters in Davidson County opted for the merger.

But there was something else. The consolidation vote in Nashville became a referendum on who voters had the most confidence in – the county executive or the city mayor. In the end, it was Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley, a staunch consolidation advocate, who won the vote of confidence and became the first mayor of the new consolidated government.

That too offers a useful lesson for consolidation proponents here.

A Change Is Gonna Come

If consolidation passed here, city government would cease to exist.

The best chance for consolidation presupposed that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was serious about changing the Tennessee Constitution to remove the dual majority that now makes consolidation all but impossible. The dual majority requirement sets up two hurdles that consolidation has to clear to take place – approval by a majority of voters inside Memphis and also approval by voters outside Memphis.

Mayor Herenton’s amendment was supposed to allow passage of consolidation with only one vote tally for the entire county. Realistically, the only thing more challenging than convincing non-Memphis county voters to vote for consolidation is convincing the Tennessee Legislature and state voters to approve an amendment to the state Constitution. Perhaps that's why Mayor Herenton abruptly dropped yet another consolidation plan after promising another all-out battle for government merger.

New Lens

Even if Mayor Herenton's plan had been successful, the earliest that a consolidation vote would have been held was 2011, and if the amendment hadn't been passed in the current session of the Legislature, it moves to 2015.

Without a change in state law, the only way to consolidate government is the old-fashioned way – with voters outside Memphis coming to grips with the idea that they may actually prefer a merged city-county government to the massive annexation that lies ahead.

It runs counter to everything the mayors of the municipalities now believe, but there may be a time not too far in the future when they look back and realize they missed their best chance to negotiate what they want most in return for supporting consolidation – frozen school boundaries, special school district, and freedom to control development in their annexation areas.

By then, they will have watched as Memphis ballooned and Shelby County Government dwindled away.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

City-County Merger: Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

When the topic of city-county government consolidation comes up, it’s hard to figure out if the small town mayors have more in common with Pavlov or Edgar Cayce.

On one hand, like the dogs in the Russian scientist’s famous reflex action studies, the mayors immediately salivate, growling over territory and turf, personality and propaganda.

On the other hand, like the American psychic, the mayors can foretell the future and their citizens’ opinions on something that isn’t even in the form of a proposal yet.

That’s the thing about the knee-jerk reaction elicited every time someone mentions the merger of city-county government. They profess on one hand to espouse basic Republican principles abhorring big government, but they oppose eliminating one of the two big governments here.

More Questions Than Answers

They complain about having a voice in decisions, but they refuse to engage in a discussion of what a better government could look like in our community. They complain that government wastes money, but they resist a change that can eliminate duplication and inefficiency.

But here’s the main thing: what are the mayors against? There is no proposal to be against.

All that Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery and Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chairman Deidre Malone have suggested is that our community ought to have a discussion about what we could do to reinvent government here, to give the public the chance to weigh in and ultimately, to give the public the chance to vote for or against a proposal.

As Mayor Wharton has said, what he’s heard on his listening tour throughout Shelby County is that people want to have this discussion, to see what a new government could look like and to have the right to vote. That sounds like the fundamental principles of democracy itself.

Why Worry?

And if the mayors are so certain that voters outside Memphis will never approve this government, then what are they worried about? In an incomprehensible mangling of the “one man, one vote” principle, in the end, their voters not only have one vote, but ultimately, veto power as well.

That’s because it doesn’t matter if a majority of Shelby County citizens would prefer a new government, what matters more is whether citizens outside Memphis prefer it. After all, for creation of a better government, there are two referenda and the concept must pass in both – one for voters inside Memphis and one for voters outside Memphis.

It seems a peculiar invention since we are all county residents, and it’s confusing why some votes have more weight at the ballot box than others. But it’s the law in Tennessee, and it would take a complicated, time-consuming change in the state Constitution to make it more rational.

So, the mayors and their citizens – and the increasing number of people living in unincorporated Shelby County - have extraordinary clout on whether the rest of us can get the government that we all want. In the end, however, this isn’t about unity and singing Kumbaya around a communal campfire. More to the point, it’s about doing something dramatic to change the direction of our region – yes, region, because the troubling indicators are not for Memphis only; they are regional.

Old Ideas Block New Ones

There are some who suggest that the mayors are hunkering down because of the changing demographics of the area outside Memphis and making their last stand against black Memphis. Despite the idea by some city politicians, the non-Memphis area of Shelby County is hardly a bastion of white elites.

Already, there are 60,000 African-Americans living outside Memphis, and every town but Germantown is adding diversity, and it’s about more than black people. It’s about Pakistanis, Indians and people of all kinds of religions. The concept of monolithic Ozzie and Harriet suburbs where every one looks alike is as outdated as analog TV.

We resist the contention that opposition to city-county merger is a manifestation of suburban racism. We know most of the suburban mayors, and while we don’t agree with them on this and many issues, we are reluctant to paint them with this brush. They are good people, and more to the point, they are logical within the world in which they live, but they can read the demographic trends. If they cannot govern cities increasingly characterized by diversity, their political futures are short-lived any way.

In their own cities, they are dedicated to processes that engage the public and they often emphasize the importance of considering new ways of doing business. As we’ve written before, there are lessons that the rest of Shelby County can learn from these towns, particularly quality of life issues such as park and outdoor recreation.

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

As a result, it’s dispiriting to see them take such a contrary position when this public engagement and innovation involve the broad community of which they are a part and on which their futures depend. Willingness to take a seat at the table and talk about how they think Memphis and Shelby County Governments should be changed is not political weakness. It’s the essence of real leadership.

Of course, fear of change is a compelling motivator, and while we realize that it’s much easier to say what’s wrong with something than to show the leadership to fix it, we think the mayors – if they can take a few steps back and reflect on their own political values – could find places at the table where their input would be valuable and essential.

Now, they say that they are opposed to consolidation. What kind? What governmental structure? What delineation of responsibilities? What district make-up for a new legislative body? How does a new government use technology to cut costs? What is the law enforcement structure and can it fight crime better? What could a new government look like?

In other words, it’s not simple enough any more to say simply that we are for or against consolidation. It’s about being for a process to answer our questions and to consider what could be rather than what is.

Living In The Present

This is a question that should interest the mayors more than anyone else based on their political philosophy and their personal statements. Who knows what we, as a community, could create if we would all just agree to be at the same table to talk about what the future could be rather than fall into roles dictated by our past?

Perhaps we are probably too sympathetic at times to the town mayors, but one of us was reared in one of them and he knows full well the immediate fear and the subsequent dread that any mention of city-county merger provokes.

But that was then. This is now.

All of us, including the town mayors, must shed ourselves of our preconceived notions and our kneejerk opinions. Consolidation is a concept of governance. It does not have a template or a preordained organizational chart. It does not have a rule book.

Finding Our Unique Answers

It is just the opposite. There are as many versions of city-county mergers as there are places where it has been approved. In this way, we have the very real chance to remake a new government in our own image, reflecting our values and our aspirations.

Clearly, the current governmental structure does not work. It is too expensive, it is too wasteful and it is too bureaucratic. Perhaps, just once, our community could be the first in developing what a high-performing government ought to look like in today’s highly competitive world.

There is much that the towns have done right. Memphians need to acknowledge that.

Conversely, there is much that Memphis has done right. All Shelby Countians need to acknowledge that.

Ultimately, we can play our familiar “we versus they” game yet again. But, it is a zero-sum game and in the end, it is a stalemate, and in this case, that is as good as a loss, one we can ill afford.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Gas, Money And Life

If you think gas is expensive at the peak of summer driving season, try to imagine paying $20 a gallon. Forbes staff writer Christopher Steiner has, and it's a future that looks surprisingly rosy, that is, if we get ourselves on track.

Even in these turbulent economic times, there are people who are truly thriving. Randall Jones has talked to 100 of them. We'll discover what he learned about money and life by interviewing "The Richest Man in Town."

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, August 20, 2009

Culture Eats Policy For Lunch At MCS

It was no surprise to us that the highest hurdle facing Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash is changing the culture of his own central office.

But seemingly lost so far in the overhaul of the insular world of the mother ship at 2597 Avery Avenue is the fact that the strongest warhead of all is open, clear and strong communications – with the board, with the staff and with the public.

At this point, we think that the Cash Administration has concentrated too much on controlling communications and too little on getting the message out and spread by advocates for its agenda. To compound the message of chaos played out in the media this week, the Administration’s decision to discipline (and probably fire) someone allegedly for talking to The Commercial Appeal is not just self-defeating. It is egregious.

Sadly, this is not just a part of this administration, because it was done also in the abysmal transitional administration of Dan Ward, when the former head of planning was released essentially for being truthful and open. Everything at the district is the public’s business and all the records on transportation are public records, so it seems to us that if an employee did in fact communicate with the newspaper, that person might also be considered a whistle-blower. We need more of them in the public sector, not less.

Emotions Always Top Information

At any rate, the harsh attack on the alleged source has a chilling effect within the administration at a time when Superintendent Cash needs as many disciples as he can get, and this will hardly win him any friends in the news media. There’s such a natural tendency for large bureaucracies to concentrate on control and power, and in the end, it never works – especially in our digital age. As it did at the Memphis Police Department, the pressure to control can actually lead to anonymous blogs that are much more troublesome than a public employee divulging public records.

We recommended a year ago that based on the gaffes in communications, Supt. Cash should clean house in that department and start over. He needs a more assertive, comprehensive communications plan, and he needs to create a small group operating in a war room to handle the crisis de jour. But in addition, top management has to set communications as a priority and respect the communications function enough to integrate it into all decisions and all policy announcements.

There is much that Supt. Cash is saying that everyone should hear, but so often, the message is not about the program, but about the lack of communications about the program. Some in top positions in Memphis City Schools say that top management is not in the communications business, and if that’s the case, they are clearly headed for more falls that will shatter confidence their best chance to win approval for their plans.

Sound policies and well-thought-out programs mean nothing if you’re always playing defense and can’t get the message through the clutter of screaming parents and frustrated board members.

Mobilizing A Mandate

We reported a year ago that the two things that surprised Supt. Cash the most about Memphis were the depth of the entrenched poverty here and the obstinance and lack of innovation that run deep in the central office. One board member said it was expected that Supt. Cash would have a learning curve, but they did expect stronger attention and skill in communications.

What disturbs us the most is that clearly Supt. Cash’s approach is gaining some positive national attention and there is much to commend in his agenda. If it were not so, the Gates Foundation would not be strongly considering Memphis City Schools for a $100 million grant. But we can’t hear enough about that plan for all of the noise about block scheduling and changes in school bus policies, and the outcry was so loud that we’re still not sure we understand the underlying plans by Supt. Cash.

It’s all too bad because if Memphis City Schools is to be as effective as it can be, support and help from all of us is needed to give every student in every classroom opportunities for the future. Most of all, that’s why communications matters, because as Supt. Cash implements his program of change, it goes much smoother when the public is involved and informed before the plan or proposal full-blown before the school board.

To this end, we also think the administration should loosen up the screws on its key staff members and principals so they don’t cower in fear if they are even seen talking to a reporter. There are no more effective spokespersons for change than the almost 400 principals and assistant principals who should be the foundation for the Cash Agenda, and they need to be mobilized, not manacled.

Anxious To Help

We can appreciate the difficulty that Supt. Cash and his factotum Irving Hamer are having getting adjusted to the Memphis way of doing things. But if they reach out more and convincingly communicate with local leaders - who often feel that they are treated dismissively or with suspicion - they will find a surprising level of engagement.

The Cash agenda for the future is coming into clear focus and there is much that we like, notably the commitment to putting a highly-qualified teacher in every school classroom. This would be transformational to Memphis City Schools, but more to the point, it would be transformational to Memphis itself.

We can kid ourselves into thinking that the 105,000 students in city classrooms aren’t relevant to us – a variation of the Pickler dimentia – but we ignore these young people at our peril. With no in-migration of new talent and with the relocation of three 25-34 year-olds a day, we don’t have the luxury of thinking that we’ll bring in enough talent to offset our failure to educate these students.

Like only a handful of cities in the U.S., the students in our urban school district will drive everything in their path – the economy, the quality of life and our ability to compete. But before we succeed at that, Supt. Cash must change a culture that tends to strangle all innovation in its crib.

Churning The Policy

Of course, part of the problem is that every superintendent brings a new crib of solutions with them, and with the average superintendent staying 3-4 years, a student who attends Memphis City Schools from pre-K to high school graduation will have 3-4 different plans to turnaround Memphis City Schools (think Gerry House and Carol Johnson). That’s part of the problem. If Memphis City Schools (and many other urban districts) are known for anything, it is policy churn.

With each new superintendent, we throw out all that came before and this constant stopping and starting prevents any momentum for progress. In truth, it is the role of the school board to provide this level of continuity and to be the keeper of the agenda, and it is haltingly making progress in that direction.

At its most basic, the problem of the top-down culture at our school district is a no-brainer. It has to end.

In that regard, Supt. Cash has taken some important steps in the right direction, and we hope that he’s not through yet. As one long-time administration said, “The best thing would be to burn the place down and start over.” But short of a pyromaniac’s dream, the objective is to end the central office-centric attitude that characterizes the central office and to convince everyone there to remember that their jobs are to serve the schools and not the other way around.

Keys To The Kingdom

Organizational change is never easy, and that’s especially true for a large bureaucracy, and here are some keys to success:

Establish a “no excuses” philosophy. Supt. Cash is already fighting this one, because he is unwilling to allow people to use poverty and race as excuses for lack of results.

Develop a widely-owned philosophy of teaching and learning. This takes place with forums, facilitated discussions and public meetings so that the buy-in is broad and wide, and in particular, important stakeholders are behind the change.

Build trust and encourage risk-taking. This is built on a foundation of predictable behaviors and consistent messaging, but it also appreciates a culture where people are willing to innovate and experiment without the roof falling in on them.

Base decisions on data. Favoritism and politics are staples in the central office of Memphis City Schools, and it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of the district for Supt. Cash, we are told. In his system, people will be rewarded for what they know, not who they know. This data is also crucial to creating a system of shared accountability which builds trust within the community.

A Culture Of Change

Encourage a culture of continuous learning. Professional development is about a district-wide conversation about issues, about research and about priorities of the administration.

Acknowledge non-negotiables. Be clear about the essential elements to the reform program and invite discussion about ways to build a program upon them. This can’t include just the senior management but the support staff and principals whose support is key to success.

Encourage interconnectedness and cross-department problem-solving. For too long, connections have been central to the central office, but rather than political connections, this is about development connections and teamwork between various functions and roles.

Pursue collaboration inside and outside the district. Commonality and collaborative solutions and support are more important now than ever.

In the end, the goal is one we can all support: to create a culture at Memphis City Schools that is one of trust, openness, communications and continuous improvement, the keys to long-term reform and high expectations.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Getting In The Zone With The UDC

Although well-intended when they were first introduced into city governments, zoning codes became an instrument for sprawl and unsustainable growth.

They up-ended walkable neighborhoods, increased greenhouse gas emissions, contributed to unhealthy lifestyles and driven up government spending. Often, it seemed that our communities might have grown better if there had been no zoning codes at all.

That’s certainly true here. We have created a community with the worst economic segregation among the top 50 metros. We have urban neighborhoods whose survival was undermined by the codes themselves.

Just think about it: list the cities that you enjoy visiting – New York to San Francisco, Provincetown to Savannah – and the downtowns that you like best – Seattle to Chicago, Charleston to Portland. They’re the ones that have the mixed uses that zoning codes prohibited in cities across the U.S.

Zoned Out

When the codes were put in place, it was for the best of intentions: to solve the “enormous losses in human happiness and in money which have resulted from lack of city plans which take into account the conditions of modern life,” in the words of then Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover.

The notion that people shouldn’t be living next door to a factory belching out black smoke inspired the idea of setting up “zones” in cities where specific kinds of functions could be isolated – residential here, commercial there, industrial way over there.

Unfortunately, zoning codes proliferated just as cars came to dominate the American landscape, and once crowded neighborhood sidewalks gave way to enclosed shopping malls and office parks, ushering us into an age where politicians seeking political contributions and developers seeking greenfields converged to give us the sprawl that brings no net benefit to our community – its economy, its social ties, its civic life and its environmental impact.

And yet, anyone who questioned the futility of the zoning codes was treated like he was caught poisoning the mayor’s dog.

Code Red

As a leading smart growth advocate put it, “if zoning is the DNA of sprawl – the coding that endlessly replicates the bleak landscape of autotopia – then what is the DNA of a livable communities?”

It’s a fundamental question that Memphis and Shelby County needs to answer, because in the past 25 years, zoning codes have given us a community that we cannot afford and cannot sustain.

That’s why the proposed form-based code making its way through city and county governments is so crucial, and as Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has said, best of all, it is a beginning and not an end.

Hopefully, in the future, its emphasis on smart growth principles, New Urbanist sensibilities and public engagement will be expanded and strengthened, but for now, the new Unified Development Code (UDC) is light years from the previous code that allowed a proliferation of Planning Developments (PDs) that neutered any semblance of planning for a quality urban fabric.

Good Form

Here’s hoping that the proposed forms-based code – which will emphasize the form of buildings rather than the use of buildings – will change all that. At its heart, the lack of interest in a smart code until now fundamentally mirrors our civic lack of self-worth and the pervasive attitude that we simply don’t deserve the best – in our downtown, in our neighborhoods and in our urban design.

It is the antithesis of the UDC’s attention on forms, because if anything, too much of our community, particularly its suburbs, is formless. So, the question is what do we really want our city to be and what principles should we follow?

Here’s the beginning of our list (and we invite you to send yours):

Build great places – recognize the importance of the public realm and set out to make it exceptional. For those who say that our people don’t “get” this, keep in mind that when the opinions of 125 people who developed the Sustainable Shelby were combined with the public polling, creation of high-quality public realm was the #1 priority. This requires us to take the quality of the public realm out of the hands of the city engineering department because we need to re-establish streets as the primary public space for the city.

Principled Planning

Walkability – put simply, we have to care more about people than cars. We need to develop neighborhoods with mixed uses so people can walk to the store, to the park or to the school.

Traditional Neighborhood Structure – neighborhoods need to be connected to the rest of the city by streets, sidewalks, greenways and complete streets. We have to get serious about walk-bike issues.

– we need to concentrate on streetscape that is human scaled, we need to surround big box retail with liner buildings and we need to locate parking to the side or rear of stores.

Design – we need to care about urban design and use the soon-to-be-adopted Unified Development Code as the smart code to guild development and to design a city where the best architecture is not just pursued but expected.

High Drama

As we’ve said repeatedly, Memphis has no margin for error because we are dangerously near the tipping point from which we cannot return. We need dramatic action, and approval of the UDC is one of those changes.

To survive in today’s economic climate, local government needs a new way of thinking, flexibility, a new business model and an injection of optimism. That’s why we strongly support consolidation of city and county governments after year’s of antipathy.

Simply put, it’s time to shake things up, to do things differently and to send a message that we are unwilling to accept business as usual any longer, particularly in our public sector. Those who think that we should work on city government first and then pursue consolidated government just don’t realize how close we are to disaster and how little time we have to waste.

We have no more time to lose. We begin by adopting the UDC. We continue by starting over and creating local government that we are proud of.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Land Use (Out Of) Control Board Rubber Stamps Sprawl

Maybe we’re just the world’s slowest learners.

Despite 20 years of tax freezes that have accomplished nothing so much as expanding a low-wage, low-skill economy, we fought the reform of the PILOT program and continue to define success by how much city and county taxes are given away.

Despite the exodus of an average of three middle-income families a day from Memphis in the first seven years of this century, we re-elected a mayor who invited them to leave in greater numbers.

Despite 105,000 students in Memphis City Schools who deserve sustained, concerted attention, by the time a student graduates from high school, he’s had 3-4 superintendents and the same number of “comprehensive plans” to turn around city schools, creating a policy churn that prevents fundamental change.

Code Red

Despite the desperate condition of some urban neighborhoods, we continued to annex areas that spread public services over a broader area and eroded services where they are most needed – inside the urban core.

Despite a miserable record of code enforcement in Memphis neighborhoods, the review and reform of the city program were buried and a new director was appointed to a division with few reasons to exist.

But despite all these, they’re no match for when we are at our dumbest - when we come face-to-face with developers. If talk were money, we could pay off Shelby County’s debt with all of our big talk about smart growth. Sadly, all the big talk has rarely been followed up with any substantive action.

If there is a poster child for our lack of commitment to planning and quality of place, it is the strip mall that is Germantown Parkway. It has about as much to do with a livable city as Chernobyl.

Land Use Out Of Control Board

It didn’t have to be this way. The Office of Planning and Development wrote a plan for the highway that was aimed at creating neighborhoods, but before the ink was dry on it, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners labeled it as an advisory plan and began to make exceptions to it.

The result is what you see on Germantown Parkway today. There is little argument from anyone now that it is a planning – if not visual – disaster and an object lesson for all of us.

But perhaps that’s all of us with the exception of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board. Despite the obvious lessons, our ultimate slow learners are on the verge of transforming Houston Levee Road into the next incarnation of Germantown Parkway.

That’s because in July, the Board approved three massive Planned Developments (PD’s) – our community’s favorite misused and overused zoning application – at Houston Levee and Macon Road. In a real sense, these votes effectively sealed the fate of Houston Levee Road. It will now slowly but inevitably become Germantown Parkway, enriching the few while damaging the quality of life and tax stability for the many.

Subversion Of The Process

The subverting of a legitimate planning process stems largely from the blizzard of PDs that have blown effortlessly through the Land Use Control Board. Although PDs were intended to be rare and only granted for innovative development with important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, they are the rule, not the exception.

And, the underlying zoning isn't even changed, so that we have land with agricultural zoning covered with cookie-cutter developments. To make matters worse, local PD applications are treated as special exceptions with their weak requirements for public involvement.

We’re hoping that the new Unified Development Code working its way through the political approval process not only has beefed up the public notice for such applications but more fundamentally that it has reduced the use of them in the first place.

This overuse was compounded during the Rout Administration when the Land Use Control Board was taken by developers (aided and abetted by county politicians). It produced a startling statistic: in a one-year period, the percentage of times the professional planning staff was reversed skyrocketed from about 15% to 70%, opening the floodgates from ill-conceived projects that fueled sprawl and required tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure from a county government that could never said no to a politically-connected (and contributing) developer.

People, Not Cars

In other words, the zoning is regularly all about cars, not people. That’s certainly the case with the Land Use Control Board’s approval of the PDs on Houston Levee Road. All are poorly organized single-use developments that make Trinity Commons look like it’s a model New Urbanist development.

Only Emily Trenholm – essentially the only representative for city neighborhoods – voted against applications known more for their stupidity than their validity. It is nothing short of a civic scandal that this many years into the high-sounding rhetoric about smart growth and sustainability, Ms. Trenholm is still alone, fighting the good fight even though her own colleagues have their knives out to defend the developers.

As usual, developers paint beautiful pictures of new economic growth (although it will only cannibalize existing businesses, particularly on Germantown Parkway) and they talk of growth as if it’s not merely the most massive relocation of people in the history of our region.

These votes are an absolute contradiction of the Sustainable Shelby plan that should be the Bible for the Land Use Control Board. In a city that has to change its trajectory or become the next Detroit, the negative impact of these kinds of misguided decisions can’t be overstated. When you match it with the idiocy of I-269, we are not only slow learners. We are just plain dumb.

Getting It Right

Shelby County Government is light years behind in understanding the fallout of these projects on Houston Levee Road on the economy, environment and quality of life that we need to avert disaster. Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes – a disciple of context sensitive design – can’t design enough smart roads to offset the damage being done by the Land Use Control Board.

Shelby County Government can begin by examining all PD approvals along Houston Levee Road back to the turn of the century. Like Germantown Parkway, developers have been getting their approvals and sitting on the projects to see if the market for it makes sense. What this means is that the Land Use Control Board approves the application of the developer, who has five years to file the final plan although the deadline can be approved by an inconsequential sounding item routinely placed on the board’s consent agenda.

Here’s what every candidate for Mayor of Memphis should have in their platforms: correcting the weakness in our regulations that produces PDs’ abuses and removes any ability for us to create the kind of land use that serves the broad interest of our community.

In the end, we are beaten down and in serious need of a victory…any victory. Otherwise, our future is sealed: lower density, more and more developments that are non-sustaining and taxes rising to cope with the duplication of new infrastructure needed to move people around Shelby County.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Life of Dixie Fried Music Legend Comes To Close

If it were up to us, Memphis and Shelby County flags would be flying at half-staff today to commemorate the life of Memphis music high priest Jim Dickinson who died yesterday.

In a city where individuality is a birthright, he was the penultimate iconoclast – a free spirit, an encyclopedia of American music, midwife to some of our most enjoyable and interesting music, heretic and revolutionary. Also, he was a family man, a generous mentor and given to spontaneous acts of kindness.

Like so many of our legends, he understood and explained the Memphis mystique better than any of us who were born here and too often take it for granted. Most of all, like so many of our legends, he sought no headlines or wide acceptance, preferring to follow his own unique Muse and to find acceptance in our clubs and recording studies.

Extra Special

But if he was not widely known by the average Memphian, he was known widely by rock and roll legends from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan.

Looking for a distinctive sound for what would become his Emmy award-winning album, Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan put out a call for Mr. Dickinson to get to the studio to help out. When Dylan accepted the Emmy for Album of the Year, there was no mistaking his respect for his Memphis keyboardist: “We got a particular sound on this record which you don’t get every day. Everybody worked extra-special hard…Jim Dickinson, my brother, from Mississippi…”

It was the shout-out of all shout-outs from one outsider to another, and it was a nationally-broadcast and widely reported endorsement of Mr. Dickinson’s lifetime of doing what he did on his own terms. Later, Dylan followed it up with a visit to the Mississippi home of the Dickinson family.

No Industrial Rock

There were times when Mr. Dickinson heard the Sirens’ call from Nashville, and although he flirted with it, he said he could never deliver up the corporate tunes where every chord was preordained and experimentation was frowned upon.

He found Memphis to be fertile ground and he was constantly tilling it. Here, he could play what he wanted the way he wanted. He could criticize development on Beale Street for its attack on African-American authenticity. He could question strategies by an endless stream of music boards and commissions for their blind pursuit of the latest magic answer to reviving Memphis Music.

He understood – more viscerally than the rest of us – that the musical genius of our city isn’t just found in chapters in a music history book. Rather, it is still alive and well, waiting for the kind of organic groundswell of support and appreciation that can launch performers and bands.

Always On Target

He never lost site of the fact that the weird, gritty vibe of our city was the breeding ground for new talent and new music, and the answers to expanding our heritage wouldn’t be hatched in a board room, but in the garages where bands practice.

That’s the thing about Mr. Dickinson. He could have been content like others to get frozen in time, concentrating on tales of past glories and stories of music greats. Instead, he kept firmly rooted in the present while constantly moving ahead, inspiring hundreds of aspiring musicians who saw him as the Memphis Maharishi whose life was testament to putting inspiration ahead of aspiration.

He told of producing records where one more take could have resulted in a Top Ten hit, but the performer stopped short, understanding the price that you pay for celebrity and the compromises that you make with fame. Members of the group itself said that it was the presence of their producer that led them to following a different drummer. In that way, Mr. Dickinson was archetype of the artist who never loses sight of what’s most important – being true to yourself. In being true to himself, he motivated so many others to do the same in their own lives.

In that way, Mr. Dickinson was the real superstar.

The Right Focus

A dozen years ago, after he returned from his sessions with Dylan, we had lunch together. We only knew each other to nod at parties, but knowing that I was a Dylan devotee, he scheduled lunch to tell me about the chaotic, confusing but ultimately exhilarating experiences and to give me a cassette tape of the soon-to-be-released album.

Later, he would follow it up by mailing me a vinyl record with the note that it was better than the CD. It was typical. Beneath the sometimes foreboding exterior, he was generous and caring, but more than anything, he was a family man.

Whatever pride that he had in his own career, it was far exceeded by his pride in his sons’ success with the North Mississippi All-Stars. While he always felt at home in recording studios, there was in truth no place like Zebra Ranch, alternately called a farm in Coldwater, because that was the center of his universe, both personally and musically.

Standing Tall

If we sometimes don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone, every one who cared about Memphis Music knew what we had with Mr. Dickinson, and while we have suffered the loss of some towering figures in recent years, none stood taller.

We were thinking about this a month ago when Nashville officials were worrying openly that country music and Christian music are crushing Nashville’s creativity. There, sociologists are arguing about whether the music scene was ever that innovative because country music orthodoxy drowns out anything that sounds different and drives away musicians who want to try something new.

In a conversation about the forces and people that make Memphis different from Nashville – and which could serve us well as the industry shifts to the Internet and an artist-centric world – we thought immediately of Mr. Dickinson, because of his uncanny ability to tie events, people and history into a fabric that explained our city like no one else and then produced the music that spoke to that rich perspective.

One Of A Kind

To us, as magical as his ability in the studio was the magic of his fascinating mind, his inexhaustible recall of obscure musical groups and influences and his talent to bring meaning to seemingly inexplicable circumstances.

Like really great musicians, he was more than a skilled performer. He possessed an innate understanding of human nature, he was alternately an anarchist and a prophet, he was a family man who welcomed into his extended family all kinds of people and musicians, he was as comfortable with the old-timers comparing notes of their heydays as playing with bands whose members were younger than his sons.

He was one-of-a-kind in a one-of-a-kind city, and in our opinion, his passing is arguably as big as any loss Memphis Music has suffered since Elvis died. He was that kind of mythic figure, but his death is not the day the music died because fortunately, we’ll have his music forever.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Schools In The Big Easy And Making Education Easier

As classrooms open again this month in cities across the country, schools are on our minds. This week on Smart City, we have two revolutionaries in the field of education.

Leslie Jacobs is a native of New Orleans who is using her experience as a business executive to reform public schools. She's the
founder of a not-for-profit called "Educate Now," and she'll join us to talk about the work she's doing to rebuild the education system in New Orleans and keep talent in the city.

Technology has changed the way we do almost everything...from banking to shopping, to the ways we communicate. But the average school classroom is not much different today than it was fifty years ago. We'll find out how technology could revolutionize education, and what's holding it back from author and Stanford professor Terry Moe.

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, August 13, 2009

Herenton's Latest Is No Laughing Matter

Today, Willie W. Herenton officially became a punch line.

There are no ways left to describe his behavior except clinical ones - early onset dementia, early stage Alzheimer’s, self-destructive narcissism, obsessive-compulsive behavior or behavior disorder.

Maybe he’s just an addict – a prisoner of the spotlight with a need to always be the center of attention, or maybe he’s like genital herpes. You always know he’s going to show up again; you just don’t know when.

Whatever it is, he’s become the political equivalent of the three-car pile-up on the interstate. We’d rather look away but it’s just so hard to ignore it.

When he strolled into the Shelby County Election Commission this morning and picked up a qualifying petition to run for city mayor, it didn’t create shock waves. We all just need to look away and drive on.

Pot To Kettle

In throwing his hat back into the ring for a possible run for his old seat, he essentially labeled Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery as a menace. It’s hard to imagine a bigger boost that could be given to Mr. Lowery’s campaign.

In our last post, we talked about projection, and it was on display in full force in former Mayor Herenton’s statement charging Mayor Pro Tem Lowery with a “reckless style of leadership.” This from a man whose resignation resulted in a $1 million special election to fill his seat, who put former body guards in appointed offices, who said a mayor can’t do anything about crime, who invited people to leave the city, who berated City Council members at his whim, who inspired a culture of disengagement in City Hall and whose presence had become the most divisive force in our city.

For those of us who remember him from the days when he won his historic election way back and was poised to one of Memphis’ great mayors, the overriding feeling is simply one of immense sadness. How did that person come to this? How did he lose all self-perception and self-worth? Where did the inspirational man go who once inspired superintendent job offers from New York and Atlanta?

It’s a Memphis tragedy. There’s the argument about whether great men make history or history makes great men, but in this case, history apparently just overtook him and he ended up being the stereotype of the self-indulgent politician who treats his city as if it’s his to do with as he wishes, no matter how much damage he does along the way.

Arbitrary And Capricious

Just think about it. His sense of entitlement is so extreme that it leads him to feel that he can inflict a $1 million bill on the rest of us for the special election, because he now wants to be his own successor. The disregard and self-indulgence evident in his decision to pull a qualifying petition are troubling enough for those who once cared about him, but they are unforgivable to the public who now have to pay for his latest act of caprice.

The Herenton script has become such a self-parody that it makes a Sasha Baron Cohen movie look like a documentary.

As usual, his latest erratic action sent theorists contemplating justifications for his topsy-turvy political strategy. The Herenton insiders – the faithful few – didn’t know that he had requested the qualifying petition until the news media called them for comment. Most responded in the same way that the rest of Memphis did – they just shook their head.

Conspiracy Theories

Some said the controversy surrounding City Attorney Elbert Jefferson had been engineered by Mr. Herenton to weaken Mayor Pro Tem Lowery, who has never been mistaken about the former mayor’s disdain for him.

Some said that he resigned only to make sure his pension was locked down, so that in the event of a federal grand jury indictment, his retirement check was protected. With that done, he’s now looking to return to his old job.

Others conjecture that he got back into the race to undermine the candidacy of Memphis lawyer and Herenton confidante Charles Carpenter. The former city mayor has told some friends that he considered some of Mr. Carpenter’s campaign statements disloyal.

Regardless, this time, he may have gone one bridge too far. When Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton toyed with the idea of opposing Mayor Herenton in the last city mayor’s election, polls clearly showed that he would win. But the spectacle of the area’s two dominant African-Americans battling it out in a divisive race is said to have been instrumental in Mayor Wharton deciding against a race. Clearly, Mr. Herenton has no such qualms.

Lame Railings

He said that he’s jumped into the race out of his fear that Mayor Pro Tem Lowery is on the verge of becoming the new city mayor. We’re not sure how he thinks his entry into the race will block a Lowery Administration. They have two entirely different political bases, so there’s little he can do to fatally damage Mr. Lowery.

As Mayor Pro Tem Lowery himself acknowledged in his comments, it’s Mayor Wharton who’s the frontrunner, and despite Mr. Herenton’s political prognostications, it’s not an “anybody can win” race. Of course, it was only a few weeks ago that Mayor Wharton also was the target of Herenton criticisms (shortly after calling Congressman Cohen an asshole).

Today, he said he’s planning to run for mayor because of “the current dilemma.” We’re not sure what he’s talking about unless it was the blessed sense of relief and the stirrings of a new sense of optimism following his resignation.

At any rate, the reemergence of the Herenton political specter was, if nothing else, deflating in an environment where for the first time in eight years, we had a sense of possibility for the future.

Changing Direction

We need to hold that thought. Mr. Herenton will not win the special election, and he will limp into the race against Congressman Steve Cohen, where he will be vulnerable and easy pickings. In politics, the perception of power is always greater than the reality of power. If he enters this election, his air of invincibility will be blown to shreds.

That’s why we predict that today was just a day to tweak the noses of all the people who were pleased by his absence from the local scene, and that in the end, he will not run for his old job. He may be many things, but he is not dumb, and he knows that a run for city mayor is not only sybaritic but he will be a laughing stock.

More to the point, his election would be a blow to our city’s future. That’s because that all of the devastating trends that threaten Memphis’ future actually accelerated this decade under the Herenton leadership – three middle income families a day move out of our city, three 25-34 year-olds a day move out of our community, economic segregation is deepening, college attainment is down, to name a few.

We have to do something dramatic to change our trajectory and the chance for new leadership, consensus-building leadership, healing leadership is too important to squander. That’s the ultimate irony of the Herenton sideshow. Today, as he often does, he talked about how he “loves” our city, and we take him at his word. However, his action today was anything but an act of love.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

County Schools Flunk Course On Tax Fairness

Psychologists call it projection.

It’s the tendency of some people to attribute their own attitudes and behaviors onto other people, like a thief who thinks every one is trying to steal from him, or the county school board chairman who thinks every one else is lying and untrustworthy.

It’s a primitive form of paranoia that always surfaces when anyone tries to do what is fair for all Shelby Countians when it comes to public education. It is a rampant condition outside Memphis.

So many people seem able to say with a straight face that Memphians should pay twice for schools, and these are the same people whose flight out of Memphis was subsidized by city taxpayers, paying the lion’s share of new roads and new schools although they had already paid for the Memphis infrastructure with no help from county taxpayers.

Separate And Unequal

It’s a curious double standard. For decades, Shelby County Government – at a time when 90% of all county taxes were paid by Memphians – would fund major roads within the smaller towns. In the 1980s, the county amended the formula so that it paid 50% of major roads in the towns.

There was a point when former County Commissioner Julian Bolton revealed county government’s dirty little secret. It was considered audacious when he made a modest proposal for Shelby County to pay 50% of a road project within Memphis.

It was as if he had threatened Western Civilization. He was labeled a trouble-maker and he was shunned by the county administration. And yet, like many U.S. Supreme Court decisions, his minority opinion was proven right as the years passed.

But some form of the formula remained in place until the election of Mayor A C Wharton in 2002 when faced with the county’s deteriorating fiscal health, financial expediency was the vehicle for a better public policy.

It’s All About Me

We were thinking of all this in the wake of comments by Bartlett Chamber of Commerce president John Threadgill – who knows better – and Shelby County Schools Board Chair David Pickler – who just seems impossible to pursue anything except his own political demagoguery.

They typify the way that suburban officials are able to feign outrage as they take a position that essentially says this: yes, we know that Memphians pay twice for schools and we don’t, but we’re against fairer taxes because we’d have to pay more.

In other words, they like it just like it is now. They should. They’ve been making out like bandits for decades.

That’s why they push back against any recommendation – such as the single source school funding proposal now moving through the political system – that would promise Memphis taxpayers that they will receive services from Shelby County Government mandated by the Tennessee Constitution the same way that resident outside Memphis do.

Funny, Not

It’s strange how often quickly political expediency can amp up the rhetorical overkill outside Memphis. That’s how you have someone as normally intelligent as Mr. Threadgill taking shots at the plan to make Shelby County Government the sole funding source for public education in our community.

Memphians have such gall: they want to be treated the same as the suburbs. They have to know that isn’t right.

Funny how county taxpayers outside of Memphis were mute about school funding as long as they were treated preferentially.

Funny how county taxpayers outside of Memphis were mute when county taxes paid for roads inside the suburban towns but not within Memphis.

Funny how county taxpayers outside of Memphis were mute when Memphians paid for the roads and schools that fed sprawl and starved the city budget.

Funny how county taxpayers outside of Memphis were mute when Memphians paid for ambulances but county towns got theirs free.

Funny how county taxpayers outside of Memphis were mute when Memphians subsidized fire protection and law enforcement for some county towns but Memphians paid for their own.

Funny how county taxpayers outside of Memphis were mute when their libraries were funded by county government but Memphians paid for their own.

Shell Shock

O.K., it was never really funny for Memphians, but with white mayors feeding sprawl as the political strategy to keep white voters inside Shelby County, there was a conspiracy of silence within county government about the truth. As a result, there developed a sense of entitlement for the towns (a term they're always use as a pejorative for Memphis officials).

There’s even the conventional wisdom outside Memphis that they are paying more than their fair share of countywide taxes…although its Memphians who were paying twice for schools, health services, arenas, and more.

It may have been funny then, but now, people like Mr. Pickler and Mr. Threadgill have the gall to defend the a tax system based on separate but unequal status for Memphis.

I had a cousin who served in the South Pacific during World War II, and his relief did not come as expected. In fact, it didn’t come for so long that when they did rescue him, he was suffering from shell shock. The Army’s answer was typical for the times: they operated on him and snipped something in his brain that disconnected him from reality.

Operation Error

Somehow, these officials outside Memphis have done it without any surgery at all. And yet, they are nothing short of delusional, operating on a “we versus them” attitude that thrives on the fantasy that they will do just fine even if Memphis goes down the tubes.

It’s a condition that produces statements like this one from Mr. Pickler: “Shelby County schools would not receive any less money, but they would not receive an additional dime. But yet the taxpayers who live outside the city of Memphis would receive on the education portion of the tax rate an increase that could go from $1.98 to as much as $2.81.”

Well, yeah. What he fails to mention – as he conducts his regular forays into attacks of amnesia – is that if Memphians are paying twice, why doesn’t he go to the board of aldermen in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Millington, Arlington and the pretend city of Lakeland and ask them to spend part of their property taxes on schools? Why is it fair for Memphis taxpayers to pay a higher proportion of their taxes on schools than every resident outside Memphis?

Meanwhile, he continues to plead for city and county boards of education to have taxing authority, an idea that was essentially DOA, but that doesn’t stop him from his normal demagoguery.

The “C” Word

He’s even throwing around the dreaded “c” word – consolidation – although he has to know that this isn’t going to happen and it was never a subtext to the special committee appointed by Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chair Deidre Malone to consider the best proposal for single source funding.

Then, both Mr. Pickler and Mr. Threadgill are continue to fan the flames with the town mayors, constantly reminding them that they weren’t on the committee. Of course, considering that they don’t put any money into public education and that it was all a ploy to make the committee as unbalanced as the MPO, it’s merely another example of what is becoming way too common in politics today – the big lie.

Based on everyone in the process that we know, it was Mr. Pickler that was the person unwilling to find a resolution that was fair to everyone and that he threatened to “take his ball and go home” more times than an NFL prima donna.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz said the county school system’s support isn’t necessary for an agreement, and he is now doing his best to write it so that we can keep local decisions local and not be forced to go to Nashville for the Tennessee Legislature’s approval.

Meanwhile, Mr. Threadgill complained about “hidden agendas” and incredulously, we don’t think he was referring to the town mayors and Mr. Pickler. And he punctuated his journey into illogic by complaining that the process is basically about helping city residents to the detriment of the suburbs.

Come to think of it, there would be no suburbs without Memphis, and even small town Chamber of Commerce rhetoric can’t deny that fact.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Digital Politics: What Has God Wrought?

It was longer ago than I care to remember when a young and perceptive aide in the office of a U.S. Senator from Tennessee pointed to the newly-purchased piece of equipment in his Washington office, and said: “In the end, it will be our undoing.”

It was an optical scanning fax machine, and even then, pre-digital revolution, he could see the potential that has become a reality. It would lead to a time when we were no longer Tennesseans, but a collection of special interest groups.

Looking back, it seems like such a simple time, long before the digital tsunami would sweep away all vestiges of e pluribus unum and usher in the “it’s all about me” political constituencies. More to the point, it ushered in the era of politicians who willingly and often gleefully put their own political ambitions ahead of the public good.

It seems that today everything – and I mean everything – is about political advantage and talking points. There’s no issue that’s so crucial to the future of the country that it is spared from the partisan grand-standing that passes for policy debate these days.

Losing Our Way

Whether it’s the anti-tax Tea Party-goers, the birthers, or the town meeting health care hecklers on the right or the glib sloganeering and the social media self-organizing of the left, it’s just too little about creating consensus on important public issues and too much about shouting each other down.

Yesterday, it was Congressman Steve Cohen’s time in the bull ring, and predictably, a crowd of people showed up spouting Fox News’ talking points and the slogans from the well-heeled anti-health care reform lobby. Lost in the screaming yesterday was the chance to have a serious discussion about the health insurance plan moving through Congress with an expected vote in the fall.

Most of all, what was lost was the chance to make the reasonable point that the Congressional plan for health insurance coverage is flawed and inflationary. There’s plenty to criticize, but instead, it became a time for people to shout at each other rather than talk with each other.

It was also the latest evidence of the Fox News impact on the lack of civility in the public square. It is a disingenuous ploy (refined with the anti-tax Tea Parties and now sometimes duplicated by MSNBC) in which the news anchor asks a question, like, “If this health care plan is so good, why don’t Congressmen use it?”

Echo Chambers

Then, the commentators – some of whom are paid by the special interests they are commenting on - take up the theme for the day, and by the following day, there is inevitably an interview with a Congressman who feeds back the same question and belittles his colleagues for their alleged hypocrisy.

At that point, the question is also integrated into a viral campaign and people at town hall meetings parrot the message which in turn allows the channel to close the self-reenforcing loop by reporting that people are outraged at town hall meetings and asking why Congressmen aren’t covered by the health plan. There’s no mention of course that it was Fox News that stocked the fire and wrote the talking point in the first place.

It’s not that demagoguery and the politics of fear are sole province of the Far Right (although we do find it there to be an especially shrill and coarse version of it). It seems today that there are always people willing to play the fear card, and in a country with so many people unnerved by an African-American in the White House, with a transition under way that will make white males a minority and with the bombardment of self-serving sound bites, it’s a volatile situation waiting to explode.

Yesterday, it exploded on Congressman Cohen, who did as well as he could under the circumstances to create an environment where people could actually talk (the idea that some of the screamers were actually armed with pistols is too unnerving for words). It so clear these days that too many people – mainly testosterone-driven – are angry at a world they no longer understand and health care reform gives them the chance to vent.

A World Turned Inside Out

It is a frightening time for these people. Everything they thought was certain about their world feels like it’s been turned upside down. A black man is president, gays are getting married, a wise Latina woman is on the Supreme Court, health care insurance will change, white men will become the new minority and Latinos will transform the country.

But change is gonna come, and in this way, Congressman Cohen is on the right side of history. In some ways, it’s ironic that they feel that things are so out of control, because in more ways than his supporters ever expected, President Barack Obama has kept some abhorred Bush policies from secret prisoners to presidential signing statements.

In a country where disillusionment is the coin of the realm, it’s also a highly combustible currency, and most of all, it shouts down reasoned debate and reasonable discussions about serious issues that are crucial for our future. In other ways, it seems strange because although President Obama ran on the singular theme of change and as being the agent of that change, the cast of characters in the federal government seem depressingly old school, particularly those charged with our financial recovery.

While predictions of the demise of President Obama’s popularity are overblown, he finds himself standing on shifting sand, and he has to prove that he is truly committed to the kind of change that makes the American Dream real for every person in this country. There’s still the feeling that there are special deals for special people, and that even in the midst of a game-changing moment in history, some people such as bankers always seem to figure a way for the rest of us to pay for their mistakes.

Getting It Right

Meanwhile, we are forced to endure some Republican opportunists, notably John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who find nothing coming out of the Obama Administration – from rules about health care to ground squirrels – as socialism. Listening to their screed, it’s hard to condemn citizens who take the same kind of absurdism to the streets. For them and so many others, everything is measured in their political power and rarely about finding a consensus solution.

In the midst of the chaos on the national scene, it was a pleasure Friday to have lunch with the Washington and Memphis staff of Congressman Cohen at the FedEx Institute of Technology on the University of Memphis campus. It was reassuring that in the midst of the political wards, the congressman and his staff were focused on what matters most – the problems of Memphians.

Congressman Cohen has assembled a bright, well-informed team of legislative aides, and it was reassuring to hear their ideas for Memphis. It was a wide-ranging conversation – about Memphis’ challenges, trends and opportunities, about transportation, neighborhood redevelopment, road priorities, economic development, race, education and more.

They were inquisitive and committed to making the most of the opportunity to bring federal money to Memphis and to work with the new Memphis mayor to develop a shared city-federal agenda. That alone is reason enough to be optimistic.

For years, there have been serious missed opportunities because of the disconnect between City Hall and our Congressman’s office that long precedes Congressman Cohen. With the exit of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, we finally have the opportunity to see what the impact of a coordinated approach could be.

This Week On Smart City: The Value Of Walking And Technology

This week on Smart City, we'll have a conversation with our favorite economist, Joe Cortright of Impresa Consulting. He'll talk to us about a new study title "Walking the Walk" that shows how homes in more walkable neighborhoods are more valuable than those in more car-dependent neighborhoods.

And we'll talk to Susanne Dirks from IBM. The company recently released its first "Smarter Cities" study about the ways in which technology can help cities lead the way to a prosperous and sustainable future.

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

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

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Willie W. Herenton: The Hero And Anti-Hero

The signs that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was going to be a short-timer began almost immediately after his reelection.

At his swearing in, he seemed detached and the ceremony lacked the fire in the belly passion that characterized the previous times that he had taken the oaths of office as city mayor.

Always a detached manager, he seemed even less connected and less interested as he launched his fifth term. On his best days, he seemed bored. On his worst days, he just didn’t seem to give a damn.

Shortly after winning one of the most divisive campaigns in recent memory, he began to hint to close confidantes that he would never serve out his full four years. He suggested that other things – such as Memphis City Schools – ignited more passion in him than city government.

The Truth Is Out There

The truth was obvious. After 16 years, he’d seen it all and done it all before.

Despite all the proud public statements to the contrary, he even tired of being a lightning rod and the constant political turmoil that greeted his positions, regardless of their merit.

More than ever, it was obvious to his friends that he just wasn’t having fun. The gleam in his eye was gone, the joy in igniting political short fuses was gone and the sense that he was accomplishing something profound was long gone.

As he considered a life outside City Hall, his mind repeatedly turned to education once again. At an age when elected officials consider their legacies, he realized that his greatest pride centered on his years in Memphis City Schools, rising through the ranks to become one of the youngest principals and the first African-American superintendent.

In those days, he was considered a hot property and various districts romanced him to take their superintendents’ jobs – including Chicago, New York City and Atlanta – but each time, his ties to Memphis proved too strong, and he stayed put. In its way, this may be the greatest regret of his life, despite breaking the color wall at City Hall.

Politics 101

Eventually, his Memphis City Schools superintendency would be marred somewhat by controversy, notably the sexual harassment complaint that was settled out of court and sealed. It was in the midst of that turbulent, troubling time in his life that he decided on the ultimate “I’ll show you” strategy: He ran for mayor. After all, his currency in the superintendent sweepstakes were seriously devalued.

Truthfully, he was almost surprised as every one else when he beat popular incumbent Richard Hackett by a razor-thin 142 votes. One early supporter recalled finding him sitting in his new office following his swearing in ceremony, asking: “Now what do I do?” His friend described him as the dog who caught the car he was chasing.

It was the same motivation that led him to run for a fifth term last year. It wasn’t because he had a clear political agenda or a pressing political program. It was personal. It was to show certain people that he wouldn’t be pushed aside.

It’s hard now after more than six years of unfocused leadership by Mayor Herenton to understand the sense of excitement that greeted his election. It is equally difficult to remember the good work that he did in those early years and the inspiration that he created among people who were traditionally disenfranchised in the political process.

His Finest Hour

Unquestionably, his finest hour was in 1998 when he fought back the incorporation of a ring of new suburban towns around Memphis (think St. Louis). His battle against the state’s “tiny town” legislation pitted him against some powerful political forces and in the end, defeating them was the crowning achievement of his 18 years in office.

He was equally decisive when it came to public facilities and public improvements – such as the riverfront, Autozone Park or FedEx Forum – but on other policy fronts, he regularly laid out bold visions followed by limited action, a tendency that followed him from the school district where it was said that each new year brought a new vision for Memphis’ schools.

Sadly, it resulted in so many chances when he was unable to convert his rhetoric into solid results.

Rhetorical Flourishes

Only in his rhetoric was downtown Memphis in the midst of a renaissance, and regardless of how many times he repeated $3 billion investment as evidence of progress, it was obvious that downtown lacked the vibrancy and activity found in downtowns that had been revived across the U.S. during the Clinton boom years.

Only in his rhetoric was there a plan for the future of Memphis. Parks were declining. Quality public realm was the exception not the rule. There was no emphasis on designing a city as much as taking whatever idea came in the front door.

Only in his rhetoric was there anything resembling a response to the sprawl that was decimating his city. In fact, when confronted with the hollowing out of the city by the middle class, he invited even more to leave.

Only in his rhetoric were there suggestions that the condition of the multi-generationally poor was improving. In fact, they were sinking further and further into a pit of deprivation, lacking money and any serious opportunity to claw their way into the economic mainstream.

Tough Love

While it is impossible to doubt his deep love for his city, it’s inarguable that his rhetoric on several occasions hastened its decline, particularly when he invited people to love it or leave it. It was a time when we almost thought we could hear the stampede, as Memphis took its place as one of the nation’s most hollowed out cities.

Most painfully of all, for the past 19 years, three people between the ages of 25-34 years old left our community each day.

As a result, the Memphis that was created during the Herenton years became one that was largely polarized by race and income, populated by the rich who could afford to live anywhere and the poor who have no options but to stay.

It’s left to history to be the ultimate judge about the Herenton years. At this point, it seems probable that he will be cited as a historic figure and a larger-than-life leader whose promise always seem to remain just out of his grasp. As we have said before, it’s as if the concept of Willie Herenton always outstripped the reality of Willie Herenton.

Benefits To The Wrong City

Had he not been in the Memphis mayor’s office, our city might be in the same position as Nashville, where Mayor Karl Dean is on the verge of taking over operations of his city’s schools and driving reform and change. It is worth remembering that there was a time when Mayor Herenton was considered one of the U.S.’s most innovative urban district superintendents, pioneering decentralized and site-based management.

Sadly, it was another missed opportunity caused by his presence in the mayor’s office. While there was important support for a mayor-led school district in Memphis, there was none for him to lead it. Because of it, the momentum moved ahead in Nashville but died here.

In the end, when Mayor Herenton looks to his most meaningful days, if not his legacy, we suspect that he would cite his years as superintendent of Memphis City Schools. Even today, public education generally and Memphis City Schools specifically elicits an enthusiasm and energy in him that is seldom seen with any other subject (except his family).

In his way, he proved the power that a great mayor can have on a city (his own before and after example). The early version was the bridge builder and he benefitted from the “at least he’s not Harold Ford” sentiment. But he got things done, stood up for racial understanding and built a bi-racial coalition.

Hero To Anti-Hero

But Harold vanished, and there was no good cop-bad cop profile to the city’s political leadership. Enter Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton. Suddenly, Mayor Herenton assumed the Harold Ford role and Mayor Wharton was the highly favored local leader.

It was a bitter point in Mayor Herenton’s career and became a motivator in the anger which always seemed to be seething just below the surface. He became the anti-hero to his first two terms, seeding racial discord, confusing and complicating public debate and confounding reasoned City Hall decision-making.

It was a sad finale to a man with so much promise and who began his political career with such high potential. But he’s not done yet, and it will be interesting whether the hero or the anti-hero shows up for his Congressional campaign against Rep. Steve Cohen.