Memphis Magazine, in its 30th anniversary issue in April, began a new monthly column, City Journal. Here’s the inaugural installment by our colleague Tom Jones:
It was 1976, and the decline of Memphis had ended. Unfortunately, it was because we had hit bottom.
The economy languished; the Chamber of Commerce flirted with bankruptcy and its last campaign, Believe in Memphis, had fallen flat; Beale Street was boarded up; downtown was on life support; Stax Records was shut down; and the closed Peabody Hotel was a potent reminder of Memphis’ flagging confidence in itself.
And yet, there’s nothing like a crisis to inspire new thinking.
As a result, young Turks conceived a new festival called Memphis in May. Other Memphians laid the groundwork for what became the Center City Commission. A small group began to talk about creating a new generation of leaders, giving birth to Leadership Memphis. City Hall fleshed out plans to buy and revive Beale Street. A new, improved Shelby County Government launched, complete with its own mayor. A fledgling company called Federal Express picked up momentum after erecting its first drop box. Some civic-minded Memphians published the inaugural issue of City of Memphis.
Back then, Memphis was all about survival, and that’s why the most important milestone wasn’t a new program, project, or political office. Rather, it was an obsessive determination – equal parts faith and desperation – to fight for Memphis’ future.
It was a sense of urgency that is all too rare in the life of Memphis. Today, there’s less of a feeling that we are facing history-altering choices, but it remains no less true.
Here’s a half dozen issues we could begin to address today in the name of Memphians 30 years from now:
Reinvent the local tax structure. In a survey of 51 cities – Washington, D.C., and the largest city in each state – Memphis has the third most regressive tax structure in the nation. That’s why the ultimate answer to current government budget catastrophes lies in an overhauled tax structure (such as requiring the 88,000 non-residents who work in Shelby County to contribute to the public services they benefit from), not in patching up revenue shortfalls with new taxes that perpetuate the existing reality of families earning $25,000 a year paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes than families earning $150,000.
Stake the future on quality, not cheapness. To compete in the global economy, Memphis can’t sell itself at a discount – cheap workers, cheap land, and cheap costs. The city-county tax freezes program, which is waiving more than $50 million in taxes, is more entitlement than incentive, given even to companies paying food stamp wages. In the global economy, strategies to “out cheap” Bangladesh or India are a race to the bottom. Memphis’ competitive advantage has to be quality – research universities, highly-skilled workforce, efficient government, and attention to design.
Develop a greenprint. More and more, the future is shaped by a heightened environmental consciousness, and knowledge economy workers are drawn to cities with a “green” ethos. Few cities could compete with Memphis if it created a seamless system linking Wolf River Greenway, Shelby Farms Park, Memphis Greenline, and a reinvigorated downtown riverfront.
Develop an anti-sprawl plan. If words were money, rhetoric about sprawl could pay off the county debt. With the opening of Highway 385 – a worthy test case for the state transportation department’s toll road concept – sprawl is poised to get a $450 million boost. It’s not too late to do something about sprawl, but it’s perilously close. Doing nothing will bankrupt county government, create a disposable community, and hollow out urban neighborhoods and first ring suburbs.
Rationalize local government. Local governments’ current division of labor is schizophrenic, because there is no sense of what is always a city service and what is always a regional, or county, service. This confusion prevents accountability and results in Memphis taxpayers paying a disincentive to live inside the city limits. Countywide services should be shifted to the countywide tax base, more equalizing the tax rates of Memphians with their neighbors in Bartlett, Germantown, and Collierville, and allowing Memphis to compete on a level playing field.
Think and act like a region. Regions are the competitive units of the global economy, and although Memphis is now competing against regions in India and Europe, we’re still focused on competing with Northern Mississippi. This balkanizes a regional economy that is larger than nine states and dozens of Third World nations. New alliances aimed at a cooperative vision of the future begin with interests every one in the region has in common – water and air protection, an integrated communications and transportation grid, smart growth, and economic growth.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. But if 1976 teaches us anything, it is that it can indeed be done, and maybe this time, it won’t take a crisis to make it happen.