Sometimes, it just seems that Memphis is too timid for its own good.

Too often, the people we expect to articulate and fight for a defining principle or a critical issue seem to go along to get along.

We thought of this in light of two recent displays of self-loathing – Memphis’ neutral position on the Toyota plant being considered for Marion and the shrugging acceptance of SunTrust Bank’s move to East Memphis.

It’s inexplicable why this is such a core part of our civic DNA. It’s as if there is never anything important enough for some leaders to drive a stake in the ground and tell it like it is – whether it is ruffling the feathers of the governor with the Toyota plant or SunTrust bankers about their move.

Soft Soap

Instead, we soft peddle the overwhelmingly negative impacts and perpetuate the myth that the local economy is strong and positioned for the future. It’s a curious attitude of laissez faire, because any honest reading of key economic indicators puts Memphis in the middle to bottom of the city rankings.

And yet, we herald the state of downtown Memphis by pushing the definition of renaissance to its breaking point and as if we never get of town and see what vibrant, competitive downtowns look like in so many other places. Meanwhile, we acquiescence to state demands, sitting on our hands and holding our tongues while Marion competes with Chattanooga for a coveted auto plant.

Unfortunately, in the case of the bank move eastward, The Commercial Appeal becomes a co-conspirator in misleading the public with the headline, “SunTrust move’s no death blow.” Contrary to the editorial, it is indeed time to panic, or to display some emotion of urgency. We’ve watched anchor business after anchor business exit downtown without as much as a word of protest from elected officials and downtown development leaders.


Somehow, back when the downtown development agency was formed 30 years ago, it developed a culture in which it avoids ruffling feathers or, in the parlance of rural West Tennessee, “telling how the cow ate the cabbage.”

Upon the announcement by SunTrust, a Center City Commission official gave the customary response: “Of course I’m sorry to see SunTrust leave, but it is hardly the death knell for the Downtown renaissance.” When Storage USA left downtown a few years ago, the Center City Commission said: “Times change. It’s not a reflection on downtown.” It made similar comments when Union Planters Bank left, when Goldsmith’s exited, when Ellers Oakley Chester and Rike moved, when Shelby County Government moved hundreds of employees out of downtown, and when other important employers closed their downtown offices. It’s anybody’s guess what downtown has to look like for someone at the CCC to understand that we have a serious crisis that needs strong, decisive leadership to correct.

Today, successful downtowns are known for their overall vibrancy, not an isolated node of activity like Beale Street. They are also known for getting the basics right, especially cleanliness and safety.


If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance, it’s hard to tell it at what was once called the hottest corner in downtown – Union at Main – where all four corners are vacant. If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance, it’s hard to tell it by the Peabody Place development on Main Street, where not one original tenant is left on the block and where vacant storefronts are now fixtures.

We don’t want to belabor the point, but suffice it to say, if downtown Memphis is in a renaissance, we sure don’t want to see it struggle. Too often, we are seduced by our own hyperbole and lulled to sleep by our compulsion to define success by comparing Memphis against itself, rather than other downtowns. In such a comparison, our progress would be defined at best as modest.

After the SunTrust decision, the Center City Commission said: “What downtown once was, it will never be again.” That’s certainly the case, but surely, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put up a fight or make a compelling public case for why it’s in our city’s best interest for these companies to remain downtown. It also begs the question: if downtown will never again be what it once was, then what does our downtown development agency plan for it to be? What is the plan to make it competitive, vibrant and the site of a real renaissance.

Mature Criticism

A future built on a residential, government and entertainment base will in the end be a shallow definition of success. And despite The Commercial Appeal’s delusion, wishing that Toyota opens its headquarters downtown isn’t a plan and neither is acting like Autozone’s decision to locate downtown a decade ago is a trend.

If you don’t understand the importance of all this, just talk to some of the young researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who say the absence of a “real downtown” is a reason they don’t stay when their contracts expire. To a very real extent, our city’s ability to compete for talent – especially smart talent like these researchers – will determine whether we can compete for jobs and economic growth in the knowledge economy.

It would be a sign of our civic maturity if in the face of a decision by another business to abandon downtown, someone in a key position of leadership would tell it like it is – it is indeed a serious blow not only to downtown but to the entire city by eroding our tax base, attacking the vibrancy so desperately needed and removing an important magnet for young talent. And when’s the last time that you heard of any city’s economic health and its success being judged by its suburbs?


During the recent new media conference at Memphis Cook Convention Center, a national columnist revisited Memphis after an absence of 10 years or so. His reaction: Downtown Memphis is in real trouble, and I’m not sure it’s going to make it.

That’s why we begin by being honest. We owe it to ourselves. The real question is who has the courage to do it?

While we’re on the subject of telling the truth, it’s been discouraging to see our local elected leaders struck mute when it comes to the subject of the heated competition between Marion and Chattanooga for a new Toyota plant. The Commercial Appeal’s industrious business reporter Amos Maki reported on the pressure from the Bredesen Administration on Memphis economic development officials to keep their mouths shut when it’s abundantly clear to anyone with a modest understanding of our local economy that we should be doing all that we can to get the plant in our region.

Political Blackmail

While the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development is understandably putting all of his department’s energy into the Chattanooga bid for Toyota, it’s simply wrong-headed for him to tell us that we should prefer a Tennessee location 300 miles away rather than Northeastern Arkansas, whose lethargic economy could be supercharged by the plant.

It’s unreasonable to expect that the Memphis Regional Chamber should be leading the charge to help Marion. It has a close working relationship with state ECD, which has been a key source of funding over the years. Of course, if someone in Marion wants to demonstrate the Chamber’s support for regional investments like this, he would simply send the report from the Chamber-supported Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence to Toyota decision-makers.

More to the point, this is fundamentally a political battle, and it’s not fair to expect the Chamber to fight a battle on this terrain. Rather, it’s up to our mayors, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners to fight for a position that’s best for our city and county.

Supportive Leadership

At the least, our legislative bodies should pass resolutions in support of the Marion location, and at the most, our mayors should pick up the phone and express their support directly to Toyota. There’s no reason for them to remain silent. The Bredesen Administration needs them as much as they need him. Our elected officials have had disagreements with the governor and his staff before, and politics being politics, they have mended fences and renewed alliances. There’s never been a disagreement more in need of taking place than this one.

As we said earlier, we begin by being honest. We owe it to ourselves. The real question is who has the courage to do it?