On the “Core City” 

In what amounted to a part two of his earlier State of the City (SOTC) remarks, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton shed some additional light on the past, present, and future issues of governing the city in a luncheon address last

Wednesday to the Memphis Kiwanis Club.

Talking to the Kiwanians a few scant hours after making a very generalized SOTC address at the University of Memphis Law School, the mayor noted, as he had earlier, the need for taking care of Memphians' mundane, everyday needs: "Unfortunately, we've become so tomorrow-minded that we forget about the immediacy of today," he said.

But that aspect of governing the city — encompassed, as before, by the keyword "potholes" — yielded to detailed discourses on past history as well as the "tomorrow-minded" matter of the mayor's proposed Tourist Development Zone (TDZ) to redevelop the fairgrounds.

The mayor pronounced himself done with the idea of curing the city's financial problems by annexing further territory in Shelby County. In a variation on the "pothole" argument, he pointed out that, in dealing with existing areas of the city, "there is no need to provide new services; it's there. My philosophy is to rebuild the core city, to maintain the core city. ... I'm going to ride that horse 'til she drops."

The mayor even related his pending proposal for a TDZ for developing the fairgrounds to that tenet. "If we redo the fairgrounds," he told the Kiwanians, "it will do so much to stabilize those residences on Parkway." Okay.

Not 10 minutes later, however, Wharton was reversing the terms of the argument. The TDZ would work, he said, because the fairgrounds area is "one of most stable locations" in the city. "Christian Brothers [University] is not going anwhere. Central Gardens is one of the most stable neighborhoods in this city. It's not going anywhere," he said.

Whatever. However mystifying (and somewhat contradictory) the mayor's — and planning czar Robert Lipscomb's — arguments for the TDZ are, one thing is clear: The Wharton administration, taking heed of an analysis by an ad hoc city "innovation team" that "re-examined the premise of whether we make money by annexation," is reversing several decades of a long prevalent and finally discredited growth-by-expansion theory.

What the mayor and Lipscomb seem to be substituting in its place is a theory of growth-by-leverage, in which grants from federal and state sources might make up for a deficit of internal revenues. Hence the plethora of TDZ and TIF (tax-increment financing) proposals originating from within city hall. In this theory, the issues of the core city can become the source of regeneration — not only of themselves but of the city as a whole.

So far, so good. The problem — as we and others have consistently pointed out — is that the structure of these leveraged proposals needs to be made clear and transparent, depending less on close-to-the-vest sleight-of-hand than has been the case so often.


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