Sunday, November 29, 2009

Urge To Merge Leads To Urge To Surge

Overlooking and listening to the rhythmic surf of the Atlantic Ocean from a third floor condominium, it’s hard to be objective about Jacksonville.

But we’ll try.

Our professional reason to be in Northern Florida is interesting in its own right, but combined with the nine-month timetable for the newly appointed commission to write a charter for a totally new government for Memphis and Shelby County, it’s been fascinating to check in on a city that merged its city and county governments in 1968, a few years after Nashville did.

Back then, Memphis, Nashville and Jacksonville found themselves in much the same economic position. But in momentum and potential, Memphis clearly had the edge.

Changing Times

Nashville and Jacksonville were mired in government scandal. Confidence in public leadership had bottomed out and dysfunction gripped their governments. Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis was doing well.

There were early signs that the times were changing. Population was beginning tentatively to move eastward, retail stores were flirting with the suburbs and plans to widen two-lane highways out of Memphis (like Poplar Avenue) were being made.

Dr. King’s assassination punctured the general sense of progress and sent Memphis into a free fall whose results we’re still dealing with. Faced with the abandonment of downtown, the white stampede out of Memphis and economic upheaval, Memphis leaders dug in their heels, assuming that things would return to normal.

But by the time the smoke cleared, there was a new normal. The Memphis in which they had so much confidence was fundamentally changed, setting in motion troubling trends that continue even now.

Changing History

In Jacksonville and Nashville, confronted with their own crises, they chose to think differently and to shake up things, particularly the government structure that was seen as central to their problems.

It was hard in those days to conceive of Nashville or Jacksonville being competitors to Memphis. After all, Memphis thought its major rival was Atlanta. It all seems so naïve now, but it was a comparison that hung on even as the Georgia capital grew by leaps and bounds, becoming not only a major Southern city but a major national city on its way to becoming an international city.

Those Memphis delusions of grandeur are long gone, swept away by the reality that we are not even keeping pace with Nashville and Jacksonville. But, there remains the persistent attitude that we don’t need (or can’t) do anything: What will be will be.

It’s inarguable that for over 30 years, we’ve used the lack of a consolidated government as a crutch to keep from making the tough decisions or acting courageously. Nashville and Jacksonville took a “no excuses” attitude by changing their governments and it shows.

Changing Things

They had a different image of themselves – one defined by self-confidence and self-worth – that was the antithesis of the one here. Obviously, the positive changes didn’t come overnight. But they did come, and it’s hard to find anyone in either Nashville of Jacksonville – in public or private sector leadership – who does not credit the consolidated government as the spark that burned away the corrupt government, brought in innovative new leaders, flattened out increases in the tax rate (Jacksonville’s is the lowest of the major cities in Florida), turbo-charged their economies and repositioned their city’s images.

Some people in Shelby County opposed to merger of city and county governments say that Nashville and Jacksonville would have prospered regardless of their governments. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in leadership who agrees.

Jacksonville is beginning a review of its charter to update it, and in a July 30 presentation to the commission, City of Jacksonville General Counsel Richard Mullaney said: “We in Jacksonville enjoy a competitive structural advantage in the creation of public policy that other counties in the state of Florida do not…There’s no question that 40 years ago, for those of us who were here and were observers and participants that we were in a very different place.

“At that time, not just structurally, Jacksonville at that time was viewed by many as a slow-moving, backwards Southern town with an inferiority complex…we are in a very different place. They (rest of the state) marvel at how the smallest market in the nation got an NFL team and…I think that happened because of this structure.

Changing Trajectory

“They marvel at a preservation project that acquired 53,000 acres to take them out of development. They marvel at River City Renaissance, they marvel that we brought a Super Bowl here, and they marvel quite frankly at this consolidated for of government.”

Jacksonville was racked with scandal in 1934, but Mr. Mullaney said the governments were not merged at the ballot box until 1967 because “those who fear change and those with vested interests in the current system won out” 43 years earlier.

As the charter commission in Shelby County does it work in the next nine months, we’ll probably hear a lot of statistics and data, but what finally moved us to the pro-consolidation side of the ledger weren’t the tangibles. It was the intangibles.

All the numbers aside, what we find palpable in Nashville and Jacksonville is a “can do” attitude and a sense that they can dream big and act boldly. Both cities send the unspoken message that they are places that care about themselves and are proud of themselves. Neither has the character or the culture of Memphis, but they are creating more jobs, attracting more business investment and creating the kind of quality of life that is a key competitive advantage in the new economy.

Changing The Rhetoric

Here’s the thing: we’re tired – actually, exhausted - of being told that Memphis has potential, Memphis is at a crossroads and that great things are about to happen in Memphis. We’ve heard it in every election since 1978, and it’s simply getting old.

While we’ve been talking about our potential, other cities like Nashville and Jacksonville have been reaching theirs. In the end, this is why we think that creating a new government for Memphis and Shelby County is our last, best shot at moving past the rhetoric about our potential to actually realizing it.

Simply put, we have to change Memphis’ trajectory, and it will take something profound and earth-shaking. It seems clear from the history of Nashville and Jacksonville that the earth-shaking event can be blowing up the existing government and starting over.

After our visit to Jacksonville, we volunteer to buy the dynamite.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sucking The Life Out Of Cities

Regionalism is all the rage. The Obama Administration is betting big on regional planning as a way to make smarter decisions on transportation, climate, the economy—all those things that don’t respect political boundaries. The Administration plans to reward communities that work together across jurisdictions toward common goals and, by implication, punish those that do not.

Who can argue with that? I certainly can’t.

But as I sit here in a brand name suburban motel room situated on a highway that could be anywhere, all my doubts about the wisdom of regionalism resurface. I can walk to the Shell station for some Fig Newtons, and I see a Checkers across the street, but there’s too much pavement between here and there to make the trip.

I happen to be in this motel in City A because I landed today in City B for a meeting tomorrow morning in City C. Got that?

All three cities, plus two others, happen to share a single region. On their own, all of these cities have distinct charm. But string them together with the highway sprawl so familiar all over the country, and it sucks all the charm out of the idea of regionalism—fast. In this case, the sum is decidedly less than its parts.

These are the opening paragraphs from today's blog post by our colleague, Carol Coletta, at To read more of her post, click here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thawing Out The Logic About Tax Freezes

At the risk of being burned at the stake for heresy, we just have to say it: we don’t care if warehouses are moving from Memphis to Mississippi.

And while we’re at it, let’s be honest about one more thing: tax freezes are more about land development than economic development.

But as long as our economic development officials measure success by giving tax waivers rather than limiting them, we’ll continue to chase distribution jobs and pretend that they somehow are positioning Memphis to succeed in a knowledge economy.

As long as we talk the talk about the power of a regional economy and but can’t walk the walk, our obsession with North Mississippi will continue to erode a healthy, balanced economic development strategy.

It’s An Entitlement

Maybe, just maybe, North Mississippi is luring the kinds of companies we shouldn’t really worry about, because the vast majority of employers who are still here are the value-added kinds – those that pay good salaries for good jobs.

And maybe, just maybe, we should be focused on keeping people, and it starts by doing a better job of explaining that taxes in North Mississippi are higher than taxes in many parts of Shelby County. Perhaps, we should let Mississippi pay for the infrastructure that distribution facilities want and we should do our best to keep the people who work there.

But that’s not what we do and because of it, to this day, no one has adequately explained why over a 10-year period, Memphis and Shelby County approved more than half of the state’s tax freezes – 809 of them – while Nashville approved only five. Or put another way, Memphis approved more tax freezes than Nashville, Chattanooga, Jackson and Knoxville combined.

A former director of the Nashville mayor’s office of economic and community development put it best: “Incentives should incentivize. Once it becomes an entitlement, it’s no longer an incentive.” It’s easy enough to know which noun applies to tax incentives here.

Why Do We Fight For Them?

For 15 years, it’s been real estate development interests that have driven the lobbying that turned tax freezes into entitlements, and they took them to the point that warehouses may never again pay taxes in this city. It is sobering to drive down Shelby Drive and Holmes Road in Southeast Shelby County and realize that a handful of the hundreds of warehouses covering the landscape are paying property taxes.

It almost defies logic. If a company doesn’t understand the added competitive power that comes from being in the world headquarters of FedEx, perhaps they’re simply too stupid to care about in the first place.

But if we don’t give taxes away, we’re told we’ll lose the “logistics business” to Fayette County or DeSoto County. The key question regarding warehouses is this: why should Memphis taxpayers care where they locate? If they locate in Shelby County and get tax freezes, it just perpetuates the disproportionate share of local property taxes being paid by homeowners and small businesses.

Years ago, city and county governments hired a firm to analyze land use and taxes. After inputting the data, he called officials to say that he could not deliver the final report on time because his computer malfunctioned. He was given extra time.

Error Message

A few weeks later, he called again. He reported that the computer hadn’t malfunctioned after all. Because so many large swaths of property were off the tax rolls – particularly mile after mile of warehouses in South Shelby County – the computer “thought” that the data must be faulty and sent an error message. Shelby County was not similar to what was normally found in other metros like ours.

As syndicated columnist on urban affairs Neal Peirce has written: “Call it, if you will, the crack cocaine of state and local governments’ economic development practices -- their endless flow of tax breaks and outright gifts to private corporations they either want to land, or figure they have to pay off to stay put.”

Today the practice runs so deep, pervading such a huge number of corporate location moves, that officials -- even those who privately admit it’s an insane, zero-sum system -- keep on forking out the cash, no matter how incredibly costly the addiction. For years Greg LeRoy has been America’s chief whistle blower on the subsidies, which he estimates add up nationally to $50 billion a year.

So what should be done? First, says Mr. LeRoy, “disclosure-disclosure-disclosure.” When the public is informed, the jobs blackmail diminishes. As we have frequently said, this begins by posting every tax freeze on the city and county websites. Then set up serious “clawback” recapture provisions when a subsidized firm doesn’t fulfill its job-producing promises. And stop all subsidies for retail deals, except in truly-depressed inner-city neighborhoods.

Reinvestment Needed

And, let governments, Mr. LeRoy proposes, start registering and regulating the site location consultants who make often negotiate the public subsidies. This would stop them from double-dealing (and driving up subsidy costs) by requiring that they take payment from just one party to any transaction.

But the really fresh ground LeRoy plows is a big reminder to us that the scramble for jobs that ignited the subsidy wars will soon be pointless -- and simply unaffordable. With baby-boomers headed toward retirement, we’re likely to face an enormous shortage of skilled workers. From 1980 to 2000, the pool of prime-age (25-to-54-year old) workers increased by 35 million. But from 2000 to 2020, the expansion will be just 3 million. Teachers, nurses, expert workers of all sorts will be in desperately short supply. Huge new efforts (and spending) for workforce development will be critical to stop a slide in the United States’ standard of living.

At the same time, America’s physical plant is suffering from serious disinvestment and deterioration. Traffic congestion is costing our economy $67.5 billion a year; thousands of bridges need replacement; wastewater systems are in bad shape; almost 2,600 dams are now deemed unsafe; transit spending is far below what’s needed to maintain even the inadequate systems we now have. The American Society of Civil Engineers totals the repair bill at $1.6 trillion. Discount that 50 percent and the pending bills are still staggering.

The bottom line, says Mr. LeRoy: “We need reinvestment, not disinvestment.” It’s time, he asserts, to take a “fine-tooth comb” to the $50 billion states and cities are now spending for corporate promises of jobs. Any subsidy that doesn’t serve compelling public need by creating more skilled labor, or doesn’t provide a “carrot” for companies to invest in new skills development, should go on a list for likely elimination.

It’s time, Mr. LeRoy concludes (as if speaking for Memphis taxpayers), for sweeping reform of the subsidy policies and to recognize them for what they are: “wasteful handouts we can no longer afford.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Places That Define Cities

This week's Smart City features Katherine Gustafson, award-winning landscape architect and designer of Chicago's Lurie Garden. We'll talk to Katherine about creating places of serenity, in a bustling city.

Dr. Nancy Zimpher
is the Chancellor of the State University of New York. With 64 campuses and almost a half million students, Dr. Zimpher believes she has the assets that will make the difference in New York's 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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting The Cobwebs Out Of The City Website

There’s not much that can be done to the city and county websites that would do any damage.

They are the digital equivalents of a three car pile-up on the interstate. Well, in the county’s case, it’s more like a five car pile-up.

If a public website is the on-line representation of a government’s persona, our governments’ personalities are defined by secrecy, misdirection and obfuscation. Even when you know information is on the website, it doesn’t mean you’ll ever find it. It’s been buried so expertly, it regularly requires a search party to find it.

It’s hard to fathom the fact that city and county government spend about $31 million a year on information technology, and that these websites are the best we can get.

Monkeys And Hamlet

That’s why the Wharton Administration is on the right track with its intention to overhaul the city’s website as part of its new transparency policies. While local government has a dismal record of imbedding new technologies in ways to open up the public sector and to create effective e-government, there’s no reason that the fundamentals of on-line transparency shouldn’t be done forthwith.

The Wharton Administration is currently circulating a survey asking for the public’s advice on improving the city website. It’s good that a usable, user-friendly city website is a priority of Mayor Wharton, and seven years of frustration with the county website fuel his determination to do something different in City Hall.

As the theory goes, if you lock a group of monkeys in a room with typewriters, they will eventually type Hamlet. In the meantime, they could be accused of typing out the Shelby County website, perhaps the most impenetrable government site anywhere.

Our Suggestions

As for the city website, it would be an improvement if it just got the basics right.

First, get rid of all the extraneous information. Who really is going to the city website for tourist information? Make it simple and make it about city government.

Second, don’t make us have to know the city organizational chart to find information. It’s a curious feature of local government websites that before a visitor can find the information that he needs, he needs to know what division or department it would be found in. Hell, we don’t even care what the org chart looks like, much less that it’s used to organize information on the websites. We just want to find what we need without having to click four times to get to it or rummage around to find out what department it’s in.

Third, it’s not just about an understandable website. More to the point, it’s about understanding writing. For example, it’s just hard to understand why there’s not someone among the 6,000 employees of city government who can be asked to write a easy-to-read summary of the 409-city operating budget. After all, the new transparency policy will be toothless if the information posted online is in the kind of bureaucratese that defies comprehension.

Fourth, post everything. A quick survey of studies and major reports prepared in the past 5-7 years tallies more than 165 of them. About five of them are on-line. Here’s a rule of thumb: everything goes on-line – tax freezes, contracts, special project reports and data that gives the public the ability to hold departments accountable. Some cities are doing some remarkable things by using GIS to measure city services and keep citizens informed, and there’s just no excuse why Memphis isn’t among them.

Be The Best

Fifth, don’t appoint a committee to build the new website. Group think is the enemy of a cohesive vision and execution of a quality website. That’s why we suggest that city government do something really revolutionary – forego one of those $1 million contracts with some corporate giant hired to build a new website. Rather, create a R & D war room by hiring 3-5 young web designers for $15,000 apiece and turn them loose to design the model 21st century government website.

Six, build a website with the user in mind rather than being driven by political egos and political agendas. Don’t talk to us like voters; talk to us like the people we are – the ones who pay your salaries. Tell us what we want to know, rather than what you think is in your political self-interest.

Seven, get serious about e-government. Every form or application in city government should be on-line – every one. Meanwhile, we ought to be able to do more than pay government money for tickets and taxes. Rather, we ought to be able to do anything on-line that we can do standing at a counter in a city department.
Meanwhile, dozens of governments are developing broadband networks for their communities, but Memphis isn’t one of them. Here, not even downtown Memphis is wireless. In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced the "Atlanta Dashboard" that keeps city government managers focused on goals and indicators of success. Most of all, it opens a window for citizens to judge how city operations are performing.

Keeping Pace

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is equipping all city vehicles to double as "digital street assessment tools" to measure vibrations created by rough roads and potholes, then send the data to a computer that maps locations using GPS. Shanghai, China, is doing much the same thing, but its constantly updated map is also used by private companies who want to know which routes are best on a given day.

At its most basic, there needs to be a plan to apply technology to improve administrative functions and to share more information within and without government. More to the point, this level of transparency can in fact transform the relationship between the government and the people it serves.

It's about creating government that's open for business when we need it, 24/7/365. It's about citizen-centric government and flattening the bureaucracy, and it's about increasing government efficiency and productivity, promoting transparency and accountability, and inviting the public into discussions and decisions.

That seems to be where the Wharton Administration is headed. It’s past time for Memphis to get into the first tier of cities using technology to modernize and economize its operations and to engage and involve its citizens.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Inside Baseball Strikes Out In County Government

Here’s the real problem with the appointment of the new Shelby County Mayor.

It’s not the alliance between a couple of Republican commissioners to usher in the era of the Joe Ford Administration.

It’s not the parody of leadership that two days of serial voting produced.

It’s not even the laughable criticisms about the Wharton Administration’s financial stewardship by a leading candidate.

Hope Springs Eternal

The real problem is that from the beginning, the appointment of the interim county mayor was an insiders’ game. It was driven by an impulse that one of the commissioners should get the political plum. It was also about the devaluing of the county mayor’s job by suggesting that almost any commissioner could do the job.

The sad part is that there wasn’t anyone on the county legislative body unwilling to game the process in one way or another – either as a potential candidate or in return for political support. It was probably too much to hope that instead of turning to look at each other first, the commissioners would look beyond the county building to consider who in Memphis would be the qualified person to provide the sound management that the $1 billion enterprise needs over the next nine months.

We suspect that FedEx founder and guru Fred Smith may have even been willing to bivouac one of his top managers at Shelby County Government to keep it on sound footing, particularly to continue the debt reduction plan by the Wharton Administration. With little notice, the amount of debt service payments by county government actually went down last year for the first time in about 25 years.

Getting The Message Right

Or, if the Shelby County Board of Commissioners wanted to send a strong message about the future, its members could have chosen one of the talented, young people who are more than capable of setting the right agenda and sticking to it. It was a move that could have sent a dramatic message about the changing of the generational leadership in Memphis.

Instead, the commissioners sent a different message, the unmistakable one that it was politics as usual in county government. At a time when the hopeful attitude unleashed by the election of a new Memphis mayor could have spread to county government, the commissioners elected one of the hoariest names in local politics.

To put it bluntly, at the precise moment with the commissioners should have been sending a message about a new day and new hope, it chose to elect someone with political baggage that immediately makes half of all Shelby Countians instinctively abandon confidence in him and their county government.

Dashed Hope

This is not to say that Mayor-to-be Joe Ford is not a fine person. But that does not change the fact that his family name is anathema to so much of the public. In the end, a majority of the commissioners essentially said they just didn’t care and did it any way.

It was a valuable opportunity squandered, and because of it, the momentum that could have been born from new hope and enthusiasm has been muted, if not derailed completely.

To further complicate things, Commissioner Ford’s stinging and unfounded criticisms of CAO Jim Huntzicker, whose name was submitted at the 11th hour as a compromise candidate, will now require serious fence mending by the interim mayor. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Commissioner Ford succeeding without Mr. Huntzicker’s institutional knowledge and financial advice. We can only hope that the new mayor does not plan to make any changes to the major appointed officials who operate Shelby County Government day to day.

The Fallout

During deliberations about the mayoral appointment, Commissioner Ford exhibited a regrettable tendency to shoot from the hip wide of the mark. That continued after his election with his half-baked idea to eliminate the board of The Med. Hopefully, this behavior is an aberration and the real Ford style has not yet been previewed.

Already, there is speculation that Commissioner Ford – despite protestations to the contrary - is a possible candidate in the May primary for county mayor, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he could be elected. There are just too many barriers.

Fallout from the appointment came quickly. The two Republican commissioners who voted for Commissioner Ford – Wyatt Bunker and Mike Ritz – already have targets painted on their backs by some irate members of their party. It could be problematic for Commissioner Ritz, who already had created some discomfort for some party members with his iconoclastic brand of representation, and Commissioner Bunker’s critics suggest that he has simply taken his conservative constituents for granted with this vote.

Ups And Downs

It remains to be seen what will develop from the current political rumblings, but the political winner at first blush seems to be Commissioner Deidre Malone’s mayoral campaign. Her vote against Commissioner Ford strengthens her credentials with voters outside Memphis, a place where she needs to gain a stronger foothold and be identified as someone who’s not willing to go along to get along.

Speaking of county commissioners, Steve Mulroy continued his quixotic quest to save the rotting Zippin Pippin at the Fairgrounds. All that’s left are the wood and metal from the track and structure of the old roller coaster, because the cars, motors, and everything else were taken away years ago by a company who bought the ride.

It didn’t want to spend the money to move the track, and as Commissioner Mulroy acknowledged, the wood is in such bad shape that it would have to be replaced anyway. In other words, at this point, the controversy is essentially over whether to save the metal track.


It’s reached a point where it’s just Kafkaesque – spending close to half a million dollars to disassemble rotting wood and rusty tracks and to store them until there is some unimaginable time when they are needed again.

It’s enough to make the commissioners’ deliberations about the next county mayor look reasonable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No DeTox For Addiction To Tax Freezes

Here we go again.

It seems that Memphis economic development officials have an addiction to tax freezes that the Betty Ford Clinic couldn’t cure.

Meanwhile, they have an obsession with North Mississippi that Sigmund Freud couldn’t have shaken.

As a result, real reform of our community’s Payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) program always seems just out of reach, and even when loosely grasped, it’s only a matter of time before the hoary justifications for giving away taxes are trotted out once again.

This time around, it's about giving tax breaks to businesses already in Memphis who are threatening to leave Shelby County. They have to have been here 10 years, to be investing $10 million and retaining 100 jobs. Someone should lock the key to the city and county vaults, because we predict a run on the bank by companies who say they are now thinking about leaving.

Unchecked And Unbalanced

Most troubling of all this is the fact that there are no meaningful checks and balances in deliberations like the one today before Memphis City Council to loosen up tax freeze policy again. Advocates for the change in policy are the same economic development officials who benefit from the change itself, and once again, in the absence of a comprehensive plan to shift our incentives from cheapness to quality, City Council members are susceptible to the self-serving analyses and recommendations.

Curiously, the only outside assessment of the city and county policies on tax freezes – which recommended common sense and reasonable reform – was forgotten almost before it was officially submitted for consideration. And although some of its recommendations were approved, the full impact of the well thought out report was never realized, and campaigns to water down the changes began almost before the ink had dried on the government resolutions.

The tax freeze program was so out of control that it was criticized by everyone from pro-business Forbes magazine to researchers, and most of all by city and county governments’ own consultants, URS Corporation and NexGen Advisors, who called for major overhaul of the program in its 97-page report issued December 1, 2005. Even then, it took more than a year for local government to get around to reforming the PILOT program, which has always been more about real estate than economic development.

But, most importantly, the tax freeze program lost public support and credibility because of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board’s pro forma approval of any application whose paperwork was filled out correctly. But most damning of all, in a 10-year period, for every tax freeze approved in Nashville, Memphis approved 83 totaling about $60 million, a total that was more than the other major cities combined.

Quality Counts

These days, economic development officials act as if we all have amnesia and that our opinions about the overuse of this incentive have changed. While we’ve tried to give away the store, decades ago, Nashville decided to send a message about quality government, quality of life, and quality of public investments.

It set out to execute “quality strategies” that make it today a magnet for young college-educated workers and skilled jobs. It identified key public investments to make this happen. It rejected the notion that it should sell itself at a discount to get jobs and people to move there.

Memphis took another road. It was rooted in “old school” economic development programs that sold our city on the basis of cheap land, cheap labor and cheap taxes. Ultimately, what we’ve learned is that throwing money at companies to convince them to love us is not only poor public policy, it is also counterproductive, stimulating higher tax rates that choke off the small businesses and the entrepreneurs who create most of the new jobs in the first place.

Forbes magazine held up our PILOT program as the poster child for tax incentives run amok: “Targeted tax cuts aimed at attracting particular employers are bad policy. For decades now targeted tax incentives have been a favorite elixir of state and local politicians in depressed communities. But targeted tax incentives don’t spur real growth. Quite the contrary…tax incentives are inevitably financed at the expense of established businesses. Today’s winner of a targeted tax break is tomorrow’s victim of a broad increase in business taxes.”

No But’s

The third strike for the program was the thoughtful report by the city-county consultants. One of those recommendations – the so-called “but for” test - was for companies asking for tax freezes to prove that they need the public investment (and that’s what it is) to make their projects work.

It seems a good time to remember what the consultants wrote: “The current matrix approach (the score sheet now being used to award tax freezes and set their terms) for awarding PILOTs should be abandoned and replaced by a ‘but for’ test or the true economic need of the project.”

This was what was always missing from the PILOT process. Instead of an emphasis on facts, there was an emphasis on rhetoric that is being resurrected once again: “The company will move to Mississippi if it doesn’t get the PILOT” or “This company is looking at locations in Indianapolis right now,” or “This company wants a sign from government that Memphis values its presence.”

In truth, this strict “but for” test was straightforward and encouraged good stewardship of scarcer and scarcer tax dollars. The consultants define “but for” as a business investment that isn’t reasonably expected without the public tax freezes, and it can be proven by a “gap analysis, a competitive cost analysis for competing sites, or a combination of the two,” the report states.

Getting It Right

“The establishment of a ‘but for’ test is the whole premise of any public investment or the need for it from a logical, moral and legislative standpoint,” the report said. “Most, if not all, business incentive programs across the country imply a ‘but for’ test in their intent and enabling legislation.”

Previously, we’ve expressed our concern about the pervasive feeling of unworthiness that is found in Memphis, and which is mirrored in public policy like the PILOT program. It embodies the attitude that we aren’t worthy to have new business and business expansions without bribing them. Is it at all possible that unlike the other cities who sell their cities on their quality, we come off looking desperate and unsophisticated, and a result, we give more than necessary?

We think David Birch, former Harvard and MIT academician and now president of a company that advises companies on where to locate, said it best: "The cities growing fastest right now have the highest taxes, most expensive workers, most expensive land...To say you want the cheapest worker is an old way of thinking. What you really want is a talented labor force, not the least expensive labor force."

Or as Professor John Eger puts it: "The effort to create a 21st century city is not so much about technology as it is about jobs, dollars and quality of life. In short, it is about organizing one's community to reinvent itself for the new, knowledge-based economy and society; preparing its citizens to take ownership of their community; and educating the next generation of leaders and workers to meet these global challenges...At the heart of this effort is ultimately defining a 'creative community.'"

Corporate Tax Dodging

In the end, it seems logical that the overriding question about tax freeze policies is whether they are encouraging the reinvention of Memphis into a creative community, a city of choice, known for its quality and innovation. The answer seems obvious, and so then is the rationale for expanding the basis for issuing yet more PILOTs.

As government officials consider what they’re going to do, we recommend that they listen to the Smart City interview with Greg LeRoy, author of The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation. He said: “There’s a popular myth that’s promulgated by companies and their consultants and their public relations machines suggesting that tax breaks are responsible for companies locating or relocating or expanding. I think that’s just not true because all state and local taxes combined has a cost of doing business for the average company in this country of less than one percent of their cost structure.

“Tax breaks, therefore, comprising some fraction of less than one percent of a company’s costs can’t create markets, can’t drive innovation, can’t drive skilled labor. It’s really become a way for elected officials to take credit for things that are already going to happen in the market. And by letting these programs become so loose and allowing them to become pro-sprawl, we’ve also allowed these incentive programs to turn into things that are really harming our land use, undermining our public schools, forcing people away from transit…”

Mr. LeRoy suggests that programs like ours are in truth real estate development masquerading as economic development. “We hope elected officials look at the broader policy issues about how policies affect everybody paying taxes to the city, to the county, to the state, and what’s really going on is a burden shift in which companies that are foot loose, or threaten to be foot loose, are getting lots of other people to pay for their public services, because when a company doesn’t pay its fair share of the cost of public services it uses, everybody else either has to pay higher taxes or get lousier public services.”

Amen. And we pray that no one thinks now is the time to return to policies that were key to creating the low-wage, low-skill economy on which we are too dependent.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reports: Kids, Cars And Carbon Footprints

Three recent reports we’ve been reading are about social promotion of students, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO’s) and airports, all subjects that should be of interest to Memphis.

In a study about social promotion of students in New York City, “Ending Social Promotion Without Leaving Children Behind,” the well-respected think tank, RAND Corporation, said that social promotion “remains a controversial and hotly debated policy (that)…has come under increasing attack and criticism.”

That certainly was the case here when Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash proposed similar promotions out of concern that the stigmatizing that comes from grade failure outweighs every student showing mastery of that grade’s subjects. The policy is under study these days after an outcry that such a change was tantamount to throwing in the towel at city schools.

We were willing to give it a try, since there’s little evidence that current failure policies are doing much to change the trajectory of the most seriously at-risk students. Then again, maybe we were simply influenced by the lessons of our lives from a simpler time.

No Harm, No Foul

Back when some of us here were in school, no one talked about social promotion, but there were students who moved up a grade each year with every one else. There was also the unwritten, but oft-applied policy, that no one would be held back a grade more than one time in the 12 grades then offered.

But back to the RAND report, it calls for identifying struggling students early and providing interventions to turn their academic performance around. That early intervention was a centerpiece of the plan for Memphis City Schools, but some school board members felt it was too undefined to embark on a new promotion policy.

The most seminal conclusion of the RAND study was that “retained students did not report negative socioemotional effects.” Surveys of these students in fact showed “greater sense of school connectedness than at-risk promoted students and not-at-risk students.” “The study found no negative effects of retention on students’ sense of belonging or confidence in mathematics and reading over time,” it said. In addition, principals and teachers In New York tend to be positive about performance-based promotions.

The think tank recommended stepped-up identification and intervention of students with problems, greater attendance at special Saturday sessions and summer school and collection of data and measurement of results of intervention strategies.

Better Planning

Meanwhile, the report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) – with one of those bureaucratic titles we love, “Metropolitan Planning Organizations: Options Exist to Enhance Transportation Planning Capacity and Federal Oversight” - suggested that MPO’s also needed more performance-based measurements.

Unfortunately, the report didn’t address the need to bring rationality to membership of MPO’s, and if you’ve read us much, you know this is a sore point here. Our MPO is one of the most unrepresentative in the country. It’s controlled by suburban interests and in a region that is majority African-American, black members are few and far between.

That said, some of the GAO’s recommendations were nonetheless important as Congress considers legislation concerning the role of MPO’s. And they seem in line with the ambitions of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton “to move (MPO) from acting as a planning organization to become a more visionary agency acting on the shared values of the community and what we want Memphis to be and asking the tough questions about sprawl.”

As Mayor Wharton – chairman of the MPO - has said, the MPO approach is too often to find out that the federal government will pay for two bridges, four roads and three interchanges, so the organization approves two bridges, four roads and three interchanges. Instead, he wants MPO to consider transportation as more than additional lanes of asphalt, to mitigate the negative impact of I-269 and to think about place-making rather than project-building.

Better Results

To all of that, we can only say amen, and toss in one more: that MPO would require MATA to develop a plan that will create a 21st century public transit system.

The GAO said that 85% of MPO’s want more funding for transportation planning and about 50% say the lack of flexibility for federal funds is an obstacle to more effective planning.

GAO recommends that Congress should make MPO transportation planning more performance-based by (for example) identifying specific transportation planning and charging U.S. Department of Transportation with assessing MPOs’ progress in achieving these outcomes. It sounds simple, but it would produce a revolution in the work of MPO’s.

“Currently, there are no requirements (for MPO’s) to attain explicit performance thresholds, such as reducing congestion or improving highway safety, built into the federal planning requirements for the MPO’s.”

Up In The Air

Many MPO’s – and possibly ours with its Imagine 2035 plan - have taken on duties that aren’t required by the federal government such as some land use planning. And some MPO’s have led public processes to develop integrated land use and transportation scenarios. Finally, 16% of MPO’s have responsibility for operating all or part of their regional transit system.

Regarding another mode of transportation, air travel, Brookings Institution’s report, “Expect Delays: An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States,” sounded a warning for major metro air traffic centers. “Increasing stress on our air travel system will accompany the return of economy growth, requiring future infrastructure investments to target both the large volume of environmentally and spatially inefficient short haul flights and the country’s critical 26 metropolitan centers of air traffic.”

While Memphis International Airport is not one of the largest 26 airports, the conclusions of the report bear close attention. “All is not well in the sector,” Brookings wrote. “The same surging oil prices taxing commuters and truckers are also wreaking havoc on the airline industry as real jet fuel prices increased over 55% in three decades. The growing air travel industry also led to increased emissions, leaving more pollutants in flight paths and the areas surrounding airports. Equally troubling, all those passenger increases intensified congestion and air space pressure, depressing national on-time arrival performance to near-record lows.”

After reviewing 19 years of air travel patterns, Brookings Institution found that air passenger travel recorded its first annualized since 9/11 and the decline continued through March, 2009. In Memphis, over a year, the number of passengers dropped 6.2%.

Delays in metro centers of air travel will continue and intensify as the economy improves. “The return of economic growth will increase travelers, reduce on-time performance and continue the hyper-concentration of U.S. air travel within major metropolitan areas and on short-haul flights,” the report said, adding that half of the country’s flights are for less than 500 miles.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Creating And Sparking A Creative City

Smart City is talking with people who have discovered new ways of attracting and retaining a creative community.

First we'll speak with Helen Johnson and Josh McManus. They lead a group called CreateHere, which focuses on the artists in their own backyard in Chattanooga, TN. Through an innovative series of grants, programs and projects, CreateHere is helping to build a thriving community for artists, artisans and creative entrepreneurs.

And we'll speak with Aly Khalifa of Gamil Design. He was looking for a way to unite the creative community of the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. Taking inspiration from the world of open-source software, he co-founded Sparkcon.

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, November 13, 2009

Giving Every Child A Chance To Learn

In light of our post and your discussion about the D's and F's environment that most city school students come from, "Parenting, Language Development and School Readiness: The Importance of Early Brain Development," a new report by the Urban Child Institute, is crucial reading for anyone who cares about our children.

The skills that help a child succeed in kindergarten begin to develop long before she enters school. Language skills, for example, begin to develop as soon as a child hears her first words. Early childhood language development reflects both parenting practices and the type of language that young children hear at home. Preschool language skills, in turn, are strongly associated with later literacy and academic achievement.

Interventions that increase parental responsiveness, that improve parental language, and that encourage reading to young children help to place these children on the strongest possible footing when it is time for them to enter kindergarten.

In the end, so much of success in school and life is about early brain development, and as Urban Child Institute points out, if a child's synapses are not developed at this early age, education is much more difficult.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Praising Our High Marx

Often, it seems Memphis took Groucho Marx’s self-deprecating attitude and overlaid it on the entire city. Paraphrasing the comedian, Memphians don’t want to belong to any city that will accept them as members.

It’s a lack of self-worth that plays out in local politics where big projects pass for vision and where cheap projects win out over quality ones. The poster child for this lack of ambition is The Pyramid, a bargain basement arena touted as state-of-the-art until we saw what one really looked like when the FedEx Forum opened.

It’s as if there’s an underlying belief that Memphis just doesn’t deserve the best or that it doesn’t have the ability to do what great cities do – dream big and set national standards.

Vital Signs

There are signs that things are changing – FedEx Forum, Autozone Park, National Civil Rights Museum expansion, and Hattiloo Theater – and exciting ideas bubbling up from the grassroots – Memphis Music Magnet, Memphis Art Park, Skatelife Memphis, Project Green Fork, Clean Memphis, Coalition for Livable Communities, Grow Memphis, and dozens more.

A hub for Memphis creativity, Memphis College of Art, continues to be a force in neighborhood redevelopment, a new theater for Playhouse on the Square hints at new life for Overton Square, Memphis Bioworks Foundation advances construction of its research park, and the Fairgrounds offers a blank canvas for something nationally significant.

But a great city isn’t about great projects. It’s about great people. That’s what’s most exciting these days – the willingness of groups of people all over the city to be part of a DIY (do it yourself) movement to improve Memphis.

Bottom Up

Often, news coverage leads us to believe that great things only happen when there is a great mayor. There’s little denying that after the chaos, division, and distractions that have dominated City Hall in recent years, it will certainly be a welcome change to have a different style and attitude in the mayor’s office. That said, there are just as many cities whose success is tied to citizens working for change as mayors leading change.

That is why all of us should be so hopeful right now, because we could be about to have both – innovative mayoral leadership and a growing number of citizens involved at the grassroots level. As this new era begins, Memphis must shake off other evidence of our lack of self-worth – the lack of recognition for the experts and the “best practices” that we already have here.

Youth Villages CEO Patrick Lawler seems to win a national award every year, and this year, he was invited to join a select group of nonprofit leaders to meet with President Obama, and to top it off, Youth Villages got a shout-out from the First Lady herself.

The Best In The Field

Church Health Center is a regular tour stop for cities looking for innovative ways to respond to the health needs of their poor, and founder Scott Morris has been featured often in national and international news programs. The Urban Child Institute is a unique civic asset, driving policies and programs for children from conception to three years of age and its research is definitive. Local foundations have been forces for riverfront improvements, Shelby Farms Park/Memphis Greenline, and community development.

Meanwhile, the university that gets too little respect – University of Memphis – has methodically improved its faculty so that it now has people and programs that are competitive with most universities.

For example, this year’s Distinguished Faculty Award winner, Robyn Cox, is recognized as a leading international researcher in audiology and hearing aid research, and Provost Ralph Faudree is a world-class mathematician specializing in the field of combinatorics that is understood by only a few people on the globe. Director of the Graduate Program in City & Regional Planning, recently moved here from Cornell University, is the oft-quoted and widely respected Ken Reardon, an activist for neighborhood redevelopment.

Bring On The New

Robert Neimeyer, professor in psychotherapy research, is the author of 21 books with emphasis on finding meaning in grief. Communications professor David Appleby is well-known for his nationally broadcast documentaries, which have won almost every award in his field. Meanwhile David Cox, Laura Harris, and Karen Weddle-West spoke at a Congressional hearing earlier this year, an invitation that is often used as the marker for a major university.

With a new mayor will come a new attitude, and hopefully, a new appreciation for the grassroots leadership, the innovative programs, and the national expertise that need to be treated as the kinds of forces that can change the course of Memphis history.

This was previously published as the City Journal column in the November issue of Memphis magazine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Memphis Gets D's And F's From City Students

It’s nothing short of hypocritical for us to wring our hands over the D’s and F’s given to Memphis City Schools students in the Tennessee Department of Education report card.

After all, that’s exactly what we as a city preordained for them.

Yes, these 105,000 students made D’s and F’s, but what did we expect?

Making The Grade

These students come from neighborhoods that earn D’s and F’s on their best days. Crime fighting in their neighborhoods gets D’s and F’s. The low skill, low wage economy where they find their jobs deserves D’s and F’s.

Opportunities to break the cycle of multi-generational poverty that grips them are D’s and F’s. Day care and early childhood for them largely get D’s and F’s. The social network that teaches job skills to middle class kids and connects them to employment earns D’s and F’s.

Housing conditions get D’s and F’s. Literacy programs and community resources earn D’s and F’s. Risk factors for child development are D’s and F’s, and so are coordinated social services. The ratios of children to working adults are D’s and F’s, and so is economic integration.

Health care and access to it are D’s and F’s. Public transportation gets D’s and F’s. Infant mortality rates earn D’s and F’s. Physical activity and sexual activity are D’s and F’s.


And yet, in the midst of this D and F world, Memphis City School students are supposed to earn A’s and B’s like the middle-class kids in the suburban school district.

It’s the parochial residue from the puritanical work ethic: they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. These are people without boots, much less the energy to pull them up.

It’s the same short of policy by bromide that fuels the mantra of higher standards as if standards alone will give these students better opportunities and choices for the future. More to the point, the ability of Memphis’ students to achieve these higher standards won’t result only from more qualified teachers in the classroom. They will be achieved only when all the other D’s and F’s in these students’ lives are equally addressed.

The good news is that change is in the wind. Finally, after more than two decades of pretending like the poverty in our midst could simply be ignored, there is a growing understanding of its cancerous impact and growing interest in getting deadly serious about attacking it with the full force of our governments and civic organizations.

Geography Lesson

Its target is what Robert Lipscomb, Memphis director of housing and community development, called the “geography of poverty” in a meeting yesterday at Leadership Academy. As he pointed out, it’s no mystery to any of us where the problems are, and because of the concentrated nature of the poverty there, the “city of choice” concept is merely vaporous rhetoric.

There, choices are cut off. There is a greater likelihood of a future in the justice system that in a system of higher education. There is little choice for entering the economic mainstream, because there aren’t the paths to self-sufficiency that exist in neighborhoods with higher incomes.

There is a lesson learned by these young people that is more powerful than anything they ever learn in a city classroom. It’s that everything in their world teaches them that the city in which they live places little value in them.

Tale Of Two Cities

Reasons for optimism center on Memphis’ “City of Choice” agenda praised by the Brookings Institution in a report early this year. It’s a new, strategic way of looking at public policies and public investments – with an eye of creating choices for every one in our city. It’s about giving talented people choices for the future, poor people choices for better jobs and middle class families choices for staying in Memphis. It’s about using the federal stimulus funding with the end in mind and leveraging local government funds to propel real change.

But first and foremost, it’s about the geography of poverty and the no man’s land that traps more people in poverty in Memphis than the entire population of Chattanooga.

It’s a city within a city. And as it always is, when the national economy sneezes, poor people catch pneumonia.

Harsh Realities

That’s why in the city within a city, it’s almost impossible to find a family that isn’t on welfare. There are 50,000 vacant houses, and the density of the neighborhood is half of what it was 30 years ago, making public services more difficult to deliver and more difficult to have impact.

In the city within the city, neighborhoods have so little value that Shelby County Board of Commissioners will turn over 140 lots to a builder to construct even more homes that earn D’s and F’s.

In the city within the city, more than half the families live on less than $8,700 a year. Children there almost have no friends who weren’t born out of wedlock and whose mothers aren’t single. Incredibly, the mean age of death in some poverty-stricken zip codes is less than 60 years of age.

Vigilant Vigils

Here’s the thing: we were appalled by conditions of the dogs at the city animal shelter, and we could have easily joined the people who held vigil there. But we think there are reasons to hold vigils on the other days of the years when it’s not animals, but people, who are being emotionally starved and educationally malnourished.

We wonder why we never see the picketers in front of Planned Parenthood walking in front of City Hall demanding better chances for every child once they’re born.

There’s little argument here that it was time for a vigil at the animal center, but we’re past time for vigils demanding action to change the lives of the 151,000 people held captive in the geography of poverty in Memphis.

As former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith said: “It’s not just that poverty is morally inappropriate. It’s also economically dangerous.” That’s why it’s in the best interest of everybody in the region that we not only get serious about fighting poverty but that we become the national model for it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Downtown's Case Against City Hall For Abandonment

At a time when cities were making investments to improve their downtowns, City of Memphis put our downtown up for adoption.

More accurately, City Hall left downtown like a waif in a basket on the doorstep of the Center City Commission.

There was no note and no money. There was only the directive for the city-county agency to assume the responsibility for the future of 80 blocks that are common ground for every citizen of the region.

Unfunded Mandate

It was a stunning act of civic neglect, especially considering that in the 8-10 years since that mandate, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton hardly let a day go by that he didn’t hold up the “downtown renaissance” as the proudest achievement of his 17 years in office. There were times that his descriptions were flourished to such a point that it was hard to imagine that he ever walked in downtown Memphis.

Over the past six years, as he boasted about his legacy for downtown, sidewalks were crumbling, streetscapes were haphazard, urban design was sloppy, maintenance was nonexistent, alleys were deteriorating and vibrancy was as scarce as a retail store on Main Street. And yet, the $1 billion city government dumped responsibilities for downtown on an agency whose annual budget is about 0.6% - six-tenths of one percent – of one of its parent governments.

Faced with such a daunting challenge, Center City Commission has been able to fund about $6 million in capital improvements in an 80-block area by leveraging the extension of tax freezes, an option that has been all but taken away by Shelby County Board of Commissioners and as a result, it offers little potential as a source for more bonds for improvements.

City Beautiful

That only leaves $113.4 million in improvements that were needed years ago – in demolition of deteriorated sidewalks and alleys; construction of new curbs, gutters, sidewalks and ADA compliant access ramps at street corners; and new lighting, street trees, trees grates, trash cans and benches. Utility upgrades are also needed (and we can only hope that someday city government does understand that its large “gray tombstones” of utility boxes scattered all over downtown are constant reminders of its civic disregard for aesthetics).

The lack of improvements to the downtown infrastructure stands in stark contrast to the big project mentality perpetuated by city government. While we have been strong advocates for Autozone Park, FedExForum and Beale Street Landing, it is disingenuous for City Hall to act as if isolated spots of excellence are the same as making sure that the entire fabric of downtown is of the highest possible quality.

The reality is that several billion dollars of development have been set on top of a collapsing foundation. It’s absurd to think that infrastructure investments that benefit the entire city should be borne by a small downtown agency whose funding comes largely from a special tax on downtown businesses.

Frayed Welcome Mat

And yet, this is precisely what the city’s decision to abandon downtown’s infrastructure suggested. At the precise time that city elected officials were delivering uplifting rhetoric about the importance of downtown to the overall economic health of the region, to attracting and retaining talent and to its role as “welcome mat” to Memphis, it was engaged in a financial sleight of hand that largely set downtown adrift.

To top it off, city government subsequently abandoned its responsibility for landscaping and maintenance downtown, shoving that to the Center City Commission, which also pays about $200,000 a year to beef up security because Memphis Police Department won’t do it.

It’s a strange testament to chasm between the rhetoric about downtown and the reality of downtown.

These days, few people remember the time when both Memphis and Shelby County Governments provided yearly operational funding for Center City Commission and backed it up with yearly CIP funds.

Getting The Policy Right

It was sound public policy then. It would be sound public policy now, so hopefully, the new Wharton Administration will reevaluate the failed Herenton policies on downtown and develop a serious plan of action to fix the many things that are broken in the public realm.

It’s time for a new look at funding for downtown improvements and to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the area up to a presentable level of infrastructure, particularly streetscape and ending the discordant signage and lack of standards that characterize it.

These problems are main reasons why vibrancy in downtown Memphis is as much a distant dream as an Ikea on South Main. It’s why we favored limited vehicular traffic back on Main Street. Clearly, what we’re doing now isn’t working, and doing the same thing and expecting different results is delusional.

Serious Advocacy

Unfortunately, an 18-member task force didn’t end up recommending an experiment in cars on the mall, but it did make recommendations that were equally important to Main Street, notably turning the trolley from a postcard photo for tourists into a reliable, serious mode of transportation; better maintenance of the mall and more serious anti-neglect enforcement.

There was the regular filler “feel good” material, like “advocating for Main Street” and “collaborative marketing and promotion among downtown businesses.” And yet, it’s hard to escape the idea that what downtown needs right now is a Greek chorus and an army of activists demanding change in policies and attitude when it comes to its needs.

In this regard, there are some neighborhoods in Memphis that have shown how to get public sector action and it’s time for an effective downtown coalition that can exercise the clout and mobilize the political influence to get City Hall attention to the needs of downtown and the results of more than a decade of neglect.

Hit Teams

More the point, our city does not have a commitment to quality public realm. And it shows. Here’s the thing: if asked to show someone Memphis’ model public realm, we ought to be able to take them downtown. But at this point, we have merely hints of what could be. If nothing else, public realm is the perfect first priority for all of us who work and live downtown to write our elected officials about.

To this end, we have a proposal. We think that the Center City Commission should invite teams – architects, residents, urbanists, young professionals and others – that would survey downtown and send in recommendations to Center City Commission.

After all, we walk the streets. We know downtown block by block. We know every special spot and every ugly wart. We know every unsightly sign put up by MATA, we know every landscaping mistake and we know every place trash accumulates.

Why not appoint us as special hit squads that’ll issues reports on the state of downtown and recommendations for improving things? We would demand downtown improvements, a design ethos and for regular reports that could be shared with elected officials on what has to be done for the city’s core to be healthier and more competitive.

Friday, November 06, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Making Cities Work And Fun

This week on Smart City,Ed Glaeser is our first guest, and he is always asking the question, "What makes cities work?" He is a prolific researcher at Harvard University's Department of Economics, and he has challenged the wisdom of the ambitions of shrinking cities to get bigger.

We'll also speak with Randy Gragg, who is the former Architecture and Urban design critic for Portland's daily newspaper, The Oregonian. He has been a close observer of that city's evolution to what is widely considered to be one of the nation's most successful cities. He is collaborating on a fantastic mash-up of art, architecture and urban design called City Dance in downtown Portland's public fountains designed by Lawrence Halprin.

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, November 04, 2009

DOE Caught Cheating On Test Results

Before yesterday is dubbed "Black Tuesday" for the sobering announcement that Memphis City Schools is doing a dismal job educating our students, let's see it for what it is: a day to celebrate.

We have a friend who says that Memphians love to pay people to lie to us - we're doing great in economic development, downtown development and school reform - but clearly this is not a Memphis phenomenon, because the Tennessee Department of Education has conducted the largest fraud in state history with the seductive news year after year that our schools are among the nation's best.

The first step in real change is to face reality. Finally, yesterday, that's what we did.

The facts were not pretty. They were not sugar-coated. There was no way to pretend.


Revelation And Reaction

And that's one of the best things that happened with the revelation that Memphis students got D's in math and reading and F's in social studies and science. It's a precursor to a day in the not-too-distant future when essentially every school in the city district is put on the state's failing list.

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash immediately embraced the results as fodder for his agenda, including more days in the school year, and we were encouraged that he didn't try to explain it away or lay it off on his predecessor's benign neglect (which he could have easily done). We were encouraged that he did not use the day for political theater but to talk about the kids in classrooms.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Department of Education officials should be in ICU for whiplash. After being the perpetrators of the department's long-time, large-scale propaganda campaign to obscure the facts about student performance and to block accountability for DOE's pathetic leadership for better schools, its officials now act like the rest of us have mass amnesia.

In the educational equivalent of a burglar who returns to your house and offers to sell you an alarm, assistant state commissioner of education Connie Smith said: "We are going to get an A in truth in advertising. Proficient will be mastery."

Buck Stops Where

There are so many people culpable in turning Memphis students out into the workplace with the false promise that they were competent in the basics. That's one of the most disturbing parts of public education: the tendency for students' futures to be treated as political fodder. Because of it, for years, the Department of Education - and sometimes Memphis City Schools pre-Kriner Cash - held celebrations of the results when they absolutely knew they were lying to the public.

To follow the dots a la Harry Truman, the buck inevitably stops at Governor Phil Bredesen's desk. In the ninth inning of his terms, he started pushing for the changes in reporting that he knew were needed on the first day that he took the oath of office. Well, thankfully, he's finally seen the light, pushed ahead by the business and philanthropic insistence that the status quo was simply not good enough.

Clearly, there are moral issues in not giving children the quality education that they need to succeed in today's economy and to succeed in life as parents and citizens. But sweep away the moral issues and there's nothing so powerful as the self-interest that dictates that all of us should have in making sure that our city and our state have the smartest men and women in our workforce, the kinds who attracts the jobs, not the other way around.

So, forgive us if we are celebrating the fact that we finally are being told the truth by our public officials in the state of our educational system. It sure beats those phony parties that the Department of Education had each year - complete with balloons and cakes - to feed us the lies that guaranteed them their jobs but shortchanged students who deserved better.

For context, the following is a post from April 14, 2007:

Tennessee Department of Education Is Generous When The Report Card Grades Itself

The release each year by the Tennessee Department of Education of its State Report Card is accompanied by celebration and rhetoric about improving schools, but it’s the educational equivalent of the Detroit Tigers popping the champagne corks after this year’s World Series.

There’s really not much they should be cheering about.

In recent years, DOE has gotten really adept at churning out press releases about the improving school scores in Tennessee, but they’re more about hype than hope. All in all, the students of Tennessee aren’t performing much better than 14 years ago, and in a word, the Report Card is a farce.

It’s one thing to spin the facts. But this is something else altogether.

Government Spin

All of us expect a little spin from government, and to be truthful, all of us like to interpret situations in our own best light, but in this case, the state deliberately misleads the public. After all, surely no one believes – particularly the administrators in Nashville - that almost 90 percent of Tennessee students in the fourth and eighth grades are proficient in math and reading as shown on the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program).

A report written earlier this year by Kevin Carey of Education Sector dramatically showed how much our Department of Education is playing loose with the facts. When compared to the other 50 states, Tennessee Department of Education claims that we are among the top 5 in the U.S. in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading.

It’s an incredible claim, especially when a more objective national test of student proficiency paints just the opposite picture for Tennessee. In that test – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – Tennessee ranks #40 and its percentage of proficient students is more in the average range of about 25 per cent. In case your math proficiency has been certified by DOE, we point out that this is a difference of about 65 percent

So, how does Tennessee fare so well in its own tests?

It’s Simple In Its Execution

It’s simple, our state lowers its standards to jack up the results. For example, eighth grade students who answer 40% right in the state’s math test are considered proficient. Just three years ago, they had to answer 51% of the questions right to clear that bar.

At least, it now makes sense why nobody in a fast food restaurant in the state can make correct change these days. They’re getting high marks if they’re only getting 40% right.

But in the interest of fairness, it’s probably unrealistic to expect anything else from DOE. After all, if you were given the power to evaluate your own performance every year, wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to give yourself high marks?

Essentially, that’s what happens here, because the much-vaunted No Child Left Behind allows each state to develop their own tests and to define their own levels of proficiency. Faced with loss of federal funding if they don’t make progress under No Child Left Behind, they have strong incentive to massage the results.

To be fair, Tennessee isn’t alone in playing games with the numbers. At least 40 other states are doing the same, which means that No Child Left Behind in the end is the poster child for unintended consequences. Passed by Congress as the way to let the public know if its schools are improving, it does just the opposite by presenting statistics every year that are virtually meaningless if you’re trying to determine if schools are better.

Putting On A Pretty Face

In his report, Mr. Carey puts states on a “Pangloss Index,” named for the character in Candide who, despite all evidence to the contrary, always argued that all was well. On that index, Tennessee’s results rank it as the 11th best state in student achievement when compared to the other 49 states.

Meanwhile, NAEP ranks Tennessee as #40 in student achievement, and more disturbing, since 1992, test scores have been relatively been flat except for fourth grade math.

Since 1994, fourth grade reading scores have moved all the way from 212 to 214; fourth grade math scores have climbed from 211 to 232; eighth grade reading scores have moved a grand total of one point, from 258 to 259; and eighth grade math has gone from 259 to 271.

Curiously, the state Department of Education doesn’t schedule any press conferences to announce these scores, which come from the only national student test that allows us to actually compare students’ performance across state lines.

The Time For National Standards

All of this begs the question of why we don’t have a national standard that allows us to have comparables as part of No Child Left Behind, but in the interest of states’ rights, when the federal law was passed, each state was given the power to interpret their own standards and progress.

As Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson said in The Commercial Appeal series: “If every state is going to create its own assessments and tools of what is proficient and advanced, then what’s the point? We’ve got to figure out what is proficient as a nation.”

She’s right, because what’s happening now is perpetuating the cruelest kind of hoax on states like ours. At a time when the economy depends on our ability to produce knowledge workers for the new economy, we’re deluded into thinking we’re making progress. By the time that it becomes clear that we’re not, it will be too late, and we don’t know about the rest of Tennessee, but here in Memphis, we simply don’t have time to waste.

As long as Tennessee is able – and most of all, willing – to set the bar low so proficiency is high, the public is given a false sense of security that the people in the Tennessee Department of Education are taking care of business.

Asking The Tough Questions For A Change

Hopefully, now that Governor Phil Bredesen has breezed to victory and says that education will be his top priority in his second term, he’ll ask the tough questions and demand more out of DOE. He prides himself on his experience as a businessman but what businessman, much less governor, could make wise decision about investment or success if someone is cooking the books.

Tennessee had its own standards in place before No Child Left Behind was even passed in Washington, D.C., and its stated intent back then was to make sure our schools produced students who could compete with students from Singapore and Hong Kong. Over time, this attitude has eroded, with political spin trumping public accountability.

Some things are so important that they should rise above the normal day-to-day politics in Nashville. Surely this is one of them.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Lessons From Great Mayors

We’ve been writing about great mayors because Memphis has never had one.

With A C Wharton now in the mayor’s office with a mandate for action, he – like most of his predecessors – has an opportunity to be a great mayor. There is little resemblance between Shelby County Government and City of Memphis Government, but his terms as county mayor should give him a head start in setting his vision and the agenda to achieve it.

There is no job harder in any city than its mayor’s. There is no decision that goes unnoticed and there is no decision that is not magnified with the intensity of the faithful watching the color of the smoke coming out of the Vatican chimney. And yet, done well, there is nothing that compares to the impact on the future than a city mayor.

We’ve spotlighted seven mayors in the past week or so who transformed their cities, often righting them in the midst of challenges and setting a strong course for a better future. So what are the lessons that we can learn from these great mayors?


The City Narrative Matters. One essential lesson is that these mayors articulated and embodied the narratives for their cities, and in so doing, they developed cohesion, sense of community and a shared purpose. Effective leaders tell stories, stories that we all of us can see ourselves in.

This may all sound too ethereal, but it is nevertheless grounded deeply in the real world, because a city’s narrative creates sense of place and meaning. “Vibrant communities have a brand narrative that is a compilation of origin, creed, context, symbols and action that attracts people and commerce and consumes resources,” said branding expert Patrick Hanlon.

“Vibrant communities stand for something. Vibrant communities have a lexicon that their members understand. Finally, vibrant communities have a leader…(who) ultimately is responsible for weaving together these strands of civic pride and responsibility.”

Here’s the thing: Memphis doesn’t have a narrative. There is no common story that ties us all together into a community with shared values, symbols and rituals. There is no common narrative that describes what we stand for and what we believe in.


The mayors we profiled seem to understand this, and their stories and their symbolism created a thread that stitched together the fabric of their cities. Mayor Wharton has expressed an understanding of the role and importance of a narrative and story-telling, and because of it, we expect that he will give this narrative brand the attention that it needs.

So what are the other themes that can be taken from the examples of these seven mayors?

Start with a global perspective. Cities compete in a global marketplace of ideas and business, and because regions are the competitive units in this marketplace, these mayors emphasized regional collaboration and set out to end turf wars and self-defeating competition. As Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said: "Denver doesn't compete anymore with Seattle or San Diego. 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."

Know your budget. Every one of these mayors insisted on frank assessments of their city's fiscal state as the baseline for all strategic decisions. Job one was to understand the city's books, and job two was to make sure everyone else understood them, too. The foundation is to be honest and transparent in all financial matters.

Listen. These mayors traveled all over their regions to hear from fellow mayors, businesspeople and constituents. They never forget that they are public servants first and foremost.

Choose your battles. Each of the mayors started with a signature issue -- economic development, improved services, infrastructure upgrades, financial integrity, civic design – that laid the groundwork for broader success.

Never Stop Building Your Team. These mayors hired the best people to head up crucial operations. For example, Mayor Hickenlooper charged his transition team with finding the best people in the nation to head up schools, law enforcement, and planning. Politics didn’t matter. But when he talked about Denver’s progress, he credits his partners, his predecessors, his employees, his advisers, his wife, his parents – everyone but himself. This is no accident. It’s part of his strategy of keeping his team together.

One Word: Leadership. A team of brilliant young data analysts and hard-charging senior managers never substitutes for hands-on executive leadership.
Running in place. Marginal improvements in performance numbers from much harder work may obscure the fact that the system being used is antiquated. Often the entire process needs to be redesigned from the ground up, and a decisive leader can change as much with a memo as he can with an ordinance.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Great Mayors: New York's Michael Bloomberg And Bogota's Mayor Enrique Peñalosa

It’s hard to brag on a guy who’s spending $100 million to run for a third term that was supposed to be prohibited by law, but despite that, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is counted among our great mayors.

Our last addition to our list of great mayors is former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa whose bold aspirations inspired an unimaginable leap forward by his city.

Separated by half a hemisphere, both mayors’ accomplishments are anchored in their emphasis on quality of life. In New York, it took the form of smart transportation and a 127-point plan to make the city sustainable. In Bogotá, it was transportation, education and the public realm, and it’s hard to remember anyone who made more progress on as many fronts.

More to the point, if Mayor Peñalosa’s “no excuses” attitude in a Third World city could work, it’s pretty hard to suggest hat we should not set our sights higher in Memphis.

The Right Focus

But if we’re looking for inspiration, we could do a lot worse than emulating his radical improvements to the city and its citizens, giving priority to children and public spaces and restricting private car use and building hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, greenways, and parks.

Two accomplishments particularly interest us because of the intransigent bureaucracies that stand in their way in Memphis. He planted more than 100,000 trees (MLGW continues with its same Depression era thinking that treats trees are irritants) and he created a 21st century bus-based transit system (as for MATA, don’t get us started).

Most of all, he proved how a great mayor can transform a city's attitude from hopelessness to one of pride. "We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality. (Bogotá's) pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, ‘You are important.’

"Every Sunday we close 120 kilometers of roads to motor vehicles for seven hours. A million and a half people of all ages and incomes come out to ride bicycles, jog, and simply gather with others in community. A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen on a $30,000 car."

Beautifully Said

His advice to other mayors: start with a vision, “an understanding of what alternatives there are.” “People don't go to the suburbs because they're dumb. It's because they are looking for something. You must help people understand that they can have more of what they want by giving a little less preference to cars.

“We are living in the post-Communism era when we have immense confidence in private entrepreneurs and individualism and distrust any form of government intervention. Adam Smith is reigning triumphant. He told us that each citizen behaving selfishly yields the best good for society.

“This is not always true. If you have a shipwreck and everyone tries at the same time to grab the lifeboat, everyone will drown. You cannot allow a developer to do anything they want, whatever it does to his neighbors or the rest of the city. There is not a mathematical rule that will tell you exactly how many pedestrian streets, or how far people should live from a park or sports field, or how tall a building should be. These standards are a collective creation. How do societies create collectively? They do this through an institution called government.”

He urges mayors to pay attention to the power of good urban design and architecture. “Every detail in the city should shows respect for human dignity and reflect that everything human is sacred. And I do believe that if people have to walk in the street, avoiding parked cars, or next to some horrible surface parking lot, or they are mistreated by poor quality transportation systems, it's very difficult to ask them to be good citizens, to keep the streets clean, or even pay taxes. If a city shows respect, and more than that, loving care for its citizens, people will behave in kind. I do believe it, because I've seen it happen. It was beyond my wildest dreams the way the attitudes changed in Bogota, from being despondent and convinced the city was doomed, to civic pride and hope that the future can be better. If the physical quality of the city is poor, the quality of life there also will be poor.”

Up North

With this in mind, parks are especially powerful because they are equalizers of society. “We almost always meet under conditions of social hierarchy. At work, some people are bosses and others are employees; at restaurants, some people are serving and others are being served. Parks are the gathering place for community. They create a sense of belonging. Everybody is welcome regardless of age, background, income, or disabilities. This creates a different type of society.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg was expected to spend his energy on control of the school district and fighting crime, but he surprised many of his fellow citizens when he gave just as much emphasis on global warming, parks and sustainable government and neighborhoods.

He enacted "PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York" to fight global warming, protect the environment and prepare New York for the projected 1 million more people expected to be living in the city by the year 2030. “We now know beyond a doubt that global warming is a reality. And the question we must all answer is, what are we going to do about it?" he asked, urging cities to fight climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, using cleaner and more efficient fuels, and encouraging public transportation.

He took the $6 billion deficit that he inherited when he took office and turned it into a $3 billion surplus without slashing programs that help the poor, or improve health care, or ensure a social safety net.

Happiness Matters

He made HIV, diabetes and hypertension top priorities, extending the city's smoking ban to all commercial establishments and implementing a trans fat ban in restaurants. He strongly supports New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the largest urban healthcare agency in the United States serving over 1.3 million New Yorkers and Opportunity NYC, the nation's first-ever conditional cash transfer pilot program designed to help New Yorkers break the cycle of poverty in the city. Also, he instituted $7.5 billion municipal affordable housing plan, the largest in the nation, aimed at providing 500,000 New Yorkers with housing.

The most important measurement of whether a mayor is succeeding, according to Mayor Peñalosa, is the happiness of the public. He is no doubt right, and using this measure, the Bloomberg years delivered a level of happiness only hinted at by the Giuliani years.

In our next post, we’ll explore the lessons of great mayors that have special meaning for Memphis.