Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Getting It Done

It takes a sense of urgency to make changes in Memphis.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 11:40 AM

The job of consolidation backers got harder when the start date was pushed back to 2014 at the last minute. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the challenge went from impossible to impossibler.

How do you sell something as being a really big deal that is vital to good government and the growth of greater Memphis if it doesn't happen for four more years? Which is really more like seven more years, because one provision of the proposed charter caps tax rates for three years and other provisions keep current policies and practices in place.

In four years, Sarah Palin could be president. In seven years, Bristol Palin could be president. And Memphis could be broke.

Consolidation proponents have 80 days between now and November 2nd, when there will be separate referendums in Memphis and Shelby County.

If Cohen vs. Herenton for Congress was, as the former mayor said, a referendum on Willie Herenton, consolidation will be a referendum on Memphis, with suburban votes counted separately. Could the margin in the county be a Cohenesque 79-21?

It could be, unless proponents give consolidation some urgency. Otherwise, it's an issue without a constituency, a faceless, complicated topic for newspaper editorial writers to fill space on a slow week. Proponents will need more than "good government" to mobilize a big turnout. Opponents need to be given a compelling reason not to vote against it. Other than FedEx threatening to pull jobs out of Memphis, I can't think what it would be. If you want to get something done, make it urgent.

In last week's election, people who were fed up with Willie Herenton finally got a chance to send him a message, and they did.

Look at the old fairgrounds. If you haven't been by, it's amazing how much it has changed in six months. For years after they closed, the remnants of Libertyland, the Mid-South Fair, and Tim McCarver Stadium cluttered the site. Now all of that has been cleared away. There will be a new entrance, Tiger Lane, in a few weeks. Somebody — Henry Turley, Fred Smith, Robert Lipscomb? — gave the fairgrounds some urgency, and the Memphis City Council got busy on it.

The downtown office-vacancy problem has become urgent as workers move by the dozens, scores, and hundreds to East Memphis, Germantown, and Mississippi. There are too many empty buildings on the skyline. The tipping point was the Glankler Brown law firm moving out, along with some more employees of Morgan Keegan. That's why there's a push to get Pinnacle Airlines or some other corporation to move into One Commerce Square. That's why it's so important to get Bass Pro in the Pyramid.

It looked like bike trails and bike lanes would be talked to death when city engineers in June proposed that federal funds be used elsewhere. Instead, that became a catalyst for advocates, council chairman Harold Collins, and Mayor A C Wharton.

"Walk Bike Memphis became the vocal organization urging Mayor Wharton's administration to stay true to its promise of creating 55 miles of bicycle facilities in Memphis," said bike activist Anthony Siracusa. Stimulus funds gave Memphis a chance to do the project with federal money.

"While the community had been asking for bike facilities for many years, the stimulus funding oversight was egregious enough to really attract attention," said Sarah Newstok of Livable Memphis.

In somewhat the same way, council opposition to a skate park at Glenview Park made it easier to get a commitment this week to build the park at another location, Tobey Park, near the fairgrounds.

No urgency usually means no action. Blighted downtown property has been accepted for so long that there's a feeling that nothing can be done about it. Last week, Cynthia Ham, the head of public relations for Archer-Malmo, wrote a column targeting the blighted vacant lot at the corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive. Ham is married to Jeff Sanford, the former head of the Center City Commission. I asked him why the CCC couldn't make the property owner, Gene Carlisle, clean up the lot.

"The CCC doesn't have any powers of enforcement of city code or ordinance," Sanford said. "Code enforcement is grossly understaffed and has the whole county to look after."

Carlisle hopes to resurrect the project. Meanwhile, there is no urgency to fill the hole in the ground.

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