WWYD? Nine thinkers discuss their visions for Memphis.
If you were given carte blanche to make whatever changes in Memphis you thought were needed, what would you do? Would you overhaul MATA? Would you rename Union Avenue Rufus Thomas Boulevard? Or would you just run away, screaming?
Memphis and Shelby County have their share of problems: poverty, urban sprawl, troubled schools -- the list seems to go on and on. We wondered how people would solve these problems, what changes they might make. So we asked a variety of Memphis residents -- activists, developers, politicians, and artists -- to describe their visions for Memphis if "money was no object and politics were no problem."
The intention behind omitting money and politics was to make sure that no idea was dismissed. But more than one of our thinkers said the more useful question is: What do you do if politics and money are problems?
We don't disagree. But we hoped our open-ended approach would encourage more interesting and creative suggestions. After all, if you have a great concept, no matter how off-the-wall, you can find the money for it. Or the political support. Just look at AutoZone Park or the luring to town of the Grizzlies.
We heard a lot of ideas -- some silly, some pie-in-the-sky, some just pet peeves, and some very serious. But all of them were intended to make Memphis a better place.
All the issues that affect Memphis have to do with race relations. That's a core issue in this city. I would try to address the situation.
In 2003, I came up with a project that I called "Diversity Through Art, Music, Food, and Dance." I recognized that the government cannot make people love each other. You have to create an atmosphere where people can enjoy each other. They'll get to know each other, and then maybe they can work together.
Memphis is a tale of two cities: black and white and also rich and poor. I would try to merge neighborhoods. If you concentrate a group of poor people in one neighborhood, you sentence them to poverty for the rest of their lives, because they don't have any role models. But if you can find a way to disperse people ... You take a single mother with three or four kids from the projects and build a moderate house for them in Germantown. Then you talk the neighborhood into adopting this single mother and assimilating them into the neighborhood. They'll see role models. When they see their neighbors taking care of their property, they'll be inspired to do that too.
Most third-world countries do not have poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods. You might have a beautiful mansion next to shantytowns. I grew up very poor, but I played with the children from the mansion. That was inspiring to me. I knew education was the key. For that to happen, you couldn't have put me with people who were poor like me.
If we can do that in key neighborhoods in the city, suddenly we've created an atmosphere for hope and possibilities. It's in every one of us to reach our potential if we're given the opportunity. It's been proven over and over again: If you take people from the projects and put them in different conditions, they excel.
The churches are supposedly moral leaders. I would hold them to that standard. What is the color of God? Nobody knows, so why should there be black churches and white churches? On Sunday, the city is so segregated -- that's why I say religious leaders need to be held to a higher standard. They have to break from what they're most comfortable with.
I would also create an Office of Visionaries, where people who have great ideas can put their heads together and come up with projects the city can undertake. Memphis has people like that, but there's no place where they can express those ideas.
What we did in South Main, it took creative people, but it stalled because it hasn't been embraced by the city. Many organizations in Memphis are chaired by the same group of people. They have not opened the door to let in fresh thinkers, outsiders who can press the button a little bit.
If I were in charge, here's where I would focus: Develop a new story for Memphis. Today, Memphis is defined increasingly by its deficits. We need to define Memphis and its future in terms of its potential.
Pay attention to details. Make Memphis clean, green, and well-maintained. Toughen up and speed up code enforcement. Institute a 411 system and use it as an "early warning system" so that you know where problems are developing. Then respond, and report results.
Create reasons for people with choices to stay in Memphis. Consider where Memphis can develop strategic advantages and with what kinds of people. Figure out what they want and then deliver. For instance, Memphis is likely the most logical choice for people without children in their households, immigrants, people who go out frequently, people who want a more maintenance-free lifestyle. If so, let's develop a deep understanding of their needs and serve them.
Re-imagine the commercial corridors and aging neighborhood commercial centers. Many of our best neighborhoods are masked by horrible-looking major streets. Poplar is the new Summer. And because of the super-sizing of retail and entertainment, neighborhood commercial centers have lost their vitality. Bring together the best minds in the country to develop a new strategy for redevelopment.
Hit the streets. The mayor and senior staff should be forced out onto the streets and into the neighborhoods monthly to get an up-close look at what they govern. If you want to know what's really going on in our city, knock on doors and ask. And when you find someone who is adding value to their neighborhood by keeping their home particularly well-maintained and planted, issue a Mayor's Award on the spot.
Make it easier to invest in the city. Developers -- good ones who want to do the right thing -- say it is almost impossible to get a new project through City Hall and MLGW in a timely way. That's ridiculous. Break the logjam so we can rebuild the city and reap the benefits of new taxes.
Elevate design and planning. As architect Andres Duany said in a recent Smart City interview, 1.5 million new homes are built in America every year, and the vast majority degrade the landscape. That is certainly true of much of the new development in Shelby County, especially the design of new roads and commercial centers. It doesn't have to be that way. An excellent new planning code is being developed for Memphis and Shelby County. Let's get it finished and passed.
Make the tax premium count. Memphians pay more to live in Memphis than citizens pay to live in surrounding communities or in unincorporated Shelby County. That's fine when the taxes are being invested in real gains for Memphis. But why should Memphians be expected to invest in schools when the people of Germantown do not? Why should Memphians pay for fire stations in Lakeland when the people of Lakeland will not tax themselves to do so? Why should Memphians be expected to pay twice for the Health Department, once as Memphians and once as Shelby Countians? Why should Memphians subsidize the move of Memphis businesses to the county? That's the dumbest move of all. Why should Memphians pay for emergency services for unincorporated Shelby Countians who won't pay for the service themselves? It's unfair, and it needs to end. Let's pay more only when it benefits Memphis.
LET'S GET OUR PRIORITIES IN ORDER
Jacob Flowers, director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center
We need to give people a living wage so they only have to do one job. We've been trying to get a living wage passed in Memphis for two years, but business interests have been fighting it. People don't see the connection between citizens adequately being able to provide for their familes and boosting the economy and boosting Memphis as a whole. We don't all need to make the same amount, but we should take care of each other.
People are being paid poverty wages all over the city. They work 40 hours a week and they're still poor. Their families are still hungry. What do they do? They go out and get a second job. Who suffers then? The family suffers. Maybe we should stop pouring money into arenas and riverfront development and start funding people's needs. When you're working 80 hours a week, it's hard to justify a $50 ticket to the Forum. The things we're pouring money into, they aren't for the people in the 38103 zip code who live just south of FedExForum.
Our resources need to go to the right places. There shouldn't be tax abatement for companies that are paying poverty wages. They should have to pay living wages so the people of Memphis get taken care of, not just the bigwigs from out of town.
What we neeed is wide-reaching reform. We've got to start providing for people's needs: health care, housing, proper education.
The Peace and Justice Center has had a community garden in Orange Mound since 2001. It's a great way to take an abandoned lot that is a blight on the community and turn it into a thriving center of community where people can come together and put their hands in the ground. What we feel it's doing, besides giving people access to whole foods and better nutrition, is empowering the community, improving property values, and pushing an entrepreneurial spirit.
We try to come to it without preconceptions and let it be what the community wants it to be. In two or three years, it should run itself. We could have community gardens throughout low-income communities, but only if they would like one. It's a community-driven effort. We're not tearing down houses; we're just taking pieces of land that are doing nothing and cleaning up the trash and making it a place where the community can be together.
Since I'm a real estate developer and that's all I know, I'd make everyone's neighborhood as good as mine. My life is better, and I am a better citizen becauseI live in an environment that supports and sustains me. I suspect that others would benefit from the same advantages that I enjoy.
The city of Memphis and Shelby County are so deep in debt and the only available source of additional revenue is to raise the property tax. I suggest a 2.5 percent Shelby County privilege tax, related to and based on the individual's paycheck income as a common denominator, which can be deducted from the individual's federal income tax return. This tax would be for 10 years and would be revenue-neutral to the people who live in Shelby County. I propose we concurrently enact a 10-year comprehensive tax reform by abolishing the wheel tax, reducing property taxes 25 percent and lowering our sales tax from 9.25 percent to 7 percent. This 2.5 percent paycheck tax, based on a $20 billion gross annual payroll in Shelby County, would generate $500 million gross and $3,390,000 net each year.
Establish a public school building authority (PSBA), which would float a $2.5 billion revenue bond issue. The PSBA then purchases all of the schools by paying down $500 million of city of Memphis bond debt and $1 billion of Shelby County's debt, leaving the PSBA with $1 billion with which it would establish a new standard design for elementary, middle, and high schools. Then build new schools, maintain the new and existing schools, and lease these schools back to the cities of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Memphis, Millington, and Shelby County. This would reduce Shelby County's debt by $1 billion and lower debt service from $2 million per week to $750,000 per week.
I would suggest floating a $500 million revenue bond issue and seeking matching funds from local business sources: e.g., FedEx, Nike, AutoZone, the hotel/motel industry, Mike Heisley, Hoops, Grizzlies, etc., for the purpose of rebuilding and expanding the existing fairgrounds properties and facilities into a Mini Olympic Village that would host the "National High School Championships" in every sport, plus animal husbandry, home economics, computer science, auto mechanics, academics, etc. This would generate an estimated $2 billion in tourist dollars to Memphis and Shelby County.
I would survey all of the taxpayers of Shelby County and determine if they would or would not support the following efforts in The Pyramid: continuation of the Wonders series, establishing a national BBQ Hall of Fame, a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" museum (including the Memphis Belle and other World War II aircraft via electronically projected holographs), along with a casino.
This could be accomplished within three years, earning $130 million per year for the city of Memphis, county of Shelby, and state of Tennessee. And it would draw another $2 billion in tourism revenue, which would undoubtedly generate major business for downtown Memphis and all of Shelby County.
Why, maybe we could even take over the risk on the FedExForum, including its management. Certainly we should be able to retain a major portion of the $400 million per year that presently goes to Tunica casinos.
One government. That's what we need in Memphis and Shelby County.
We're not only wasting our current tax dollars, we're wasting our future as well. This is bad for business and nearly lethal for future economic growth.
Everybody suffers from our current setup. More important is that everybody's children are going to suffer even worse unless we fix it. Now.
It's going to take vision -- a cultural vision the whole community can gather around. It's going to take business and political leadership -- leaders who can reach out to all people, city and county, and explain clearly why this step is crucial to their future.
When are the people going to put aside racism, socioeconomic differences, whatever and realize we're all in this lifeboat together?
It's not just the other guy's end of the lifeboat that sinks, you know. And everybody in Memphis and Shelby County is in the same boat.
REEVALUATE "DISTRIBUTION CENTER"
Eric Robertson, development manager of LeMoyne-Owen College CDC, founder of Tha Movement, and co-founder of New Path
Memphis needs to be known for more than just "America's Distribution Center." Right now, we flaunt the distribution stuff. We can be that, and we need to acknowledge it, but when you think of distribution, you think of warehouses. You don't think of technologically savvy individuals. What is your labor pool if you're the distribution center? You have people pulling orders, putting it on the dock. [Prospective companies] look at our education statistics and say, "See, this is what I thought."
The thing to do would be to leverage the resources of our location and bring those jobs that would bring higher incomes. I know people are going to say, "Well, biotech," but how can we do more things of that nature? If we get more companies like that, a child can say, "Wow, I can work and have a salary of $52,000 a year." That's something to aspire to versus children growing up saying, "I want a warehouse job making $10 an hour."
We need to look at the things that made us attractive to distribution companies and then reapply those things to other companies and fields, such as biotech or film or music.
I was reading that Mississippi has one of the few plants where CDs are pressed. What if we were to look at something like that? If we could use our position -- the fact that we're centrally located -- could we lure manufacturers of music CDs because they could be pressed and shipped anywhere around the world? The more highly skilled jobs we get, the more income, the less poverty, we have. Then education levels would increase because people aspire to higher things when they see and experience more things. It's not that far of a stretch with Memphis and our musical history. Why don't we use the musical connections that we have to lure that industry here?
Our arts organizations should have the funding they need, but they also need more than just money: They need people who say, "I'm going to have original art in my house," instead of going to Target and getting the same piece of art everybody has. I would create more art festivals like the Cooper-Young Festival, so we have more opportunities to buy from local artists, to get the Memphis flavor.
We should increase the minimum wage in Shelby County. We should have a standard living wage, so someone is able to live comfortably instead of squeezing out every dollar to feed their families. When our parents were our age, they could buy a house and a car and live decently working at a gas station. Now you have to have several jobs to have that lifestyle.
I would have mandatory counseling for people filing bankruptcy. It's too easy to file bankruptcy. There has to be education to explain to people how not to get into those situations.
I think we need new city planners. I have been in other cities that have huge events, but they don't shut down the city. Here, you dread certain events because you don't want to deal with the traffic.
I would also demand that local news cover news. They get caught up in frivolous stories that don't do anything to make Memphis a better place or to make their viewers any smarter. They make their viewers dumb. A lot of stories they choose to do are not news stories. I'm not saying I want a feel-good station. I would like to see this story: Here's a problem in Memphis. Let's see how this problem is being handled nationally. We don't need 15 stories about who has House [license] plates. I don't need to see someone running out into traffic. I'm more concerned about the little kid down the street who can't eat.
There's a never-ending list of things you could change. We've done a lot, but we still have a lot to do. n
OVERHAUL CITY GOVERNMENT
John Malmo, co-founder of archer>malmo
In 1967, Memphis voters threw out the commission form of government in favor of a new strong mayor and council government. Little by little, each succeeding council has assumed more authority, and since Mayor Willie Herenton abdicated his role as a strong mayor, the council runs roughshod. Most current council members are in over their heads. This council simply is not competent to run a half-billion-dollar city government.
Memphis needs a new City Council of educated individuals with substantial business experience and a sense of noblese oblige who will make decisions in the best interest of the entire city, not merely to benefit one district or an individual councilperson. It should recognize and fulfill its true role of budget oversight and let a competent new mayor run city operations with a few new, talented directors.
The average City Council member has been in office for more than nine years. Eight of the 13 members have served an average of more than 12 years. The mayor is in his 14th year and has announced intentions to run for a fifth term. Memphis needs term limits.
Never has Memphis City Government had so little talent in key positions. To begin with, a competent, experienced CAO should be appointed by the mayor as soon as possible.
Financially, each new annual city budget is the result of a process that begins with the current year's budget and builds [from there]. Each division director should be required every two years to begin from scratch and build the new year's budget from a zero base, questioning each individual line item. Only this way can budget inflation be controlled.
City employee numbers, salaries, and benefits are out of control. Eight members of the city's human-resources department make more than $75,000 a year. Holiday and sick pay policies are too lenient. Each division and department has grown topsy, and mayoral job appointments are 300 percent over the authorized limit. Each department should be examined and a new, more efficient table of organization created for each with more specific job descriptions than exist today.
All city pensions should be restudied to be consistent with what's going on in the private sector, such as a move away from defined benefit plans.
Each city division should examine each program and facility for cost-efficiency, usage, and obsolescence. Many programs and facilities were created in a different time with different neighborhood environments and requirements. There are parks and golf courses, for instance, that should be closed and the land sold. There are new neighborhoods that need facilities that could be provided with that money.
As for infrastructure, much of the city's is in disrepair. Inadequate regular maintenance of all kinds of city-owned property leads to more costly, periodic, major maintenance that must be paid with General Obligation bond money and the interest thereon. When a leaky roof is not repaired for several years, the roof must be replaced, as well as interior damage caused to the building.
The city needs someone with a new definition of "clean" and "maintenance."
The city should get tougher on private-property owners, requiring better maintenance, and should be more aggressive with its power to condemn and raze derelict structures.
What Would YOU Do?
We'd like this week's cover story to serve as a stimulant to Flyer readers. You've read what some of your fellow citizens would do to make Memphis a better place. We want to hear your concrete ideas about how to improve the city and county. Platitudes, such as "Fix the schools," are useless. Everybody knows we need to improve our schools. What we want are ideas about how to do it. And even though it might feel good, a general bashing of public officials doesn't accomplish much. You might think the problem is the mayor or the City Council, but the question is, How do we fix the problem? Is there a way to change our political system so that we get more enlightened city and county officials?
So, imagine if you will, that you are in charge of Memphis. You are the boss of, well, us. What would you change and how would you do it? You can e-mail your ideas to email@example.com.
I look forward to hearing from you.
-- Bruce VanWyngarden, editor