We’re trying not to overreact to Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s annual New Year’s bombshell, this time saying that his priority for 2007 is, of all things, a football stadium.

After all, if history repeats itself, by the first of February, it could largely be irrelevant because of the inaction that often follows in the wake of these yearly pronouncements.

At least we hope so.

Where We Rank

It would be difficult to grasp the logic of a new stadium on the best of days, but at the moment that media coverage of Mayor Herenton’s speech began, we were reading Where We Stand: The Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region, the analysis by our river city sister of its key social, economic, fiscal, and physical variables.

St. Louis mapped out its competitiveness and quality in life by comparing them to 35 other metros, including Memphis. Just for the record, the others are Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Miami.

We’re # 1

So, with Mayor Herenton on the TV news talking about a football stadium, here’s a few rankings from the St. Louis report that attracted our attention. Here are the categories where we finished # 1:

• Families headed by single parents – 37.3%

• Families in poverty – 14.9%

• Smallest percentage of adults with advanced degrees – 7.9%

• Smallest number of firms (with employees) owned by African-Americans per 100,000 of African-Americans – 192

• Smallest number of firms (with employees) owned by women per 100,000 of women – 404

• Births to teen parents – 14.7% of total births

• Persons with disabilities living in poverty – 26.9%

• Unwed parents – 46.9%

• Individuals living in poverty – 17.7%

• Children living in poverty – 25.8%

• Metro crime rate – 6,961.3 crimes per 100,000 population

• Metro property crime rate

• Metro violent crime rate

• Fewest arts, entertainment, and recreation establishments per 100,000 – 21.7

A Symbol of Misplaced Priorities

It’s worth mentioning that Memphis was nosed out of the # 1 position, but remained in a strong second place in some other categories: change in the percent of population living outside the principle urban county, children aged 5 to 15 with disabilities, diabetes risk, infant mortality rate, deaths from motor vehicle crashes, lowest percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees, and subprime refinance loans.

Put simply, we’re hard-pressed to identify any one of these problems that a football stadium would improve. More to the point, in the context of these troubling realities, a football stadium runs the risk of becoming a national symbol of a city that has lost its compass.

It’s not our intent to attack Mayor Herenton. Unlike his public persona, Mayor Herenton is a thoughtful, friendly person, and like the rest of us, he can also be complex and confounding. Too often, in the glare of media coverage and the beat of the blogosphere, people are treated as if they are one-dimensional, and for this reason, we shy away from generalities that seem to deal more with personalities and race than to public policies and alternative plans for the city’s future. That said, there’s no question that a debate on civic priorities right now would be well-timed, because Mayor Herenton’s priorities deserve serious challenge.

Long Ago And Far Away

Looking back, Mayor Herenton’s crowning achievement as mayor was his successful attack on the “tiny towns” legislation that threatened to destroy Memphis and its government. But that was long ago, and it’s hard to stay at the top of your game after 15 years of marriage to one person, much less 15 years as head of an entire city.

Contrary to that impervious attitude that he has so publicly cultivated, Mayor Herenton is well-aware of the growing chorus of people questioning the leadership coming from City Hall. There’s a growing sentiment that Memphis is adrift and an emerging viewpoint that we’re heading directly at an iceberg. Putting a stadium at the top of Memphis’ list of priorities only cements that feeling, particularly considering that a $100 million stadium would cost about $6,000,000 a year in debt service for 20-25 years.

But a new stadium isn’t just the wrong idea at the wrong time for Memphis. It’s also wrong for University of Memphis. That’s because it fosters the perception that the U of M somehow just doesn’t measure up to “real” universities, because it’s dependent on the largesse of city government if it is to have a stadium like other universities.

The Family Reunion

In this way, the proposal perpetuates the University of Memphis’ role as the “red-headed stepchild” in Tennessee’s higher education family. We know that some well-connected UM boosters have been lobbying Mayor Herenton hard for a new stadium to correct their list of grievances about the aging Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, but why is it city government’s job to provide a stadium for a state university in the first place?

That’s particularly true for a university that needs some physical symbol that sends a strong message that it is a big-time university. If Mayor Herenton wants to champion a stadium, we think he should organize a unified group of local leaders to descend on Nashville to demand that state government build the U of M its own stadium, just like other universities.

There are dozens of ways that state government trivializes and demeans the University of Memphis in the eyes of its peers and potential students. For this reason, fighting for and winning the funding for a new stadium sends the message that we are finally driving a stake in the ground and demanding equal treatment for our university.

We admit that there are days when we wonder if U of M should even be in the football business at all, but hope never springs quite as eternal as in the hearts of Tiger fans. There’d be no greater symbol of that hope – or an investment in its realization – than getting our university its very own stadium.

Absolutely And Positively Dissimilar

We’re sure that advocates of a new city-funded stadium will cite FedEx Forum as evidence of the positive impact that a new sports facility can have on the community. But the difference between the two is profound and unequivocal.

First and most importantly, the new arena was the entry fee into the NBA, and there’s no pro franchise even hinting that Memphis is an NFL town. It’s a banner year if the stadium approaches 10 events, and thanks to the NBA, the Forum is home to more than 100 events in a year. Second, the vast majority of the funds paying for construction of the Forum comes from non-property tax sources that could be spent no other way, and in the absence of a financing innovation that doesn’t immediately come to mind, a new stadium’s cost would be born largely by property taxpayers. (That’s not to mention that the operating costs of the Forum are paid by the Grizzlies, while the costs at the stadium are paid by city government.) Third, a stadium on the UM campus makes more sense to the economy and character of our city than one on the Fairgrounds, a plat of land more suited to New Urbanism than a new stadium.

If the University needs any encouragement to take up the campaign for its own stadium, the lessons of The Pyramid should prove instructive. (Remember: the university was promised a “state-of-the-art” facility there, too.) At The Pyramid, state government invested about $15 million for the university’s basketball venue – roughly 25 percent of the total cost of the bargain basement facility – and in the end, the university was still treated like a tenant, and today, the return on its investment is precisely zero as the building sits dark on the banks of the river.

Controlling Its Own Destiny

It’s no secret in local government that there is no more demanding tenant for any public building than the university athletic department, so to us, it’s simply the best possible time for the university to control its own destiny with a stadium that it owns and operates.

In a speech in which a new stadium got top billing, a proposal to spend $50 million (over four years) to revitalize neighborhoods became almost a footnote. It’s too bad that such a cancerous city issue received so little attention from City Hall, because as the Brookings Institution pointed out in a report a few months ago, Memphis is also near the top in another ranking – cities hollowing out as the middle class vanishes. In truth, $50 million spent barely scratches the surface in addressing the dimensions of this pervasive problem for our city.

Put simply, there’s plenty to occupy the best and brightest minds in Memphis these days, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Concentrating on a new stadium is nothing but taking our eye off the ball.