AC Wharton is Mayor of Shelby County:
To use an old phrase, the end of the year 2008 and the beginning of the year of 2009 represent the worst of times and the best of times.
It is the worst of times in terms of our country’s overall economic and financial meltdown. Unemployment bordering on an all time high, foreclosures at an all time high, business failures at a record level, and with the poverty gap widening, the American Dream seeming to slip farther and farther away for more Americans.
It is the best of times, however, in the sense that we have a golden opportunity to “be born again” and to start from a totally new perspective as we move into 2009.
In terms of physical attributes that make a great city, Memphis is not exactly poverty-stricken. As a matter of fact, if you look at those things experts usually prescribe when listing the ingredients for a great city, we have many if not most of them. For example, it is often said that in order to become a great city, you need major league sports. We have the Grizzlies. Great cities have an abundance of cultural outlets; we have that in the way of the Brooks, the Dixon, the Orpheum and many other offerings. Research is another prescribed item; we have that in the form of the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences, the Medical Education and Research Institute, St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital, and Bioworks. What about a world-class airport? We have that and we are making the most of it. What about a headquarters for major corporations? We have that. FedEx, International Paper, Medtronic, and Service Master, to name a few.
What then is missing? I would submit that it’s not that we are missing much in terms of physical infrastructure. I am of the firm belief that our greatest shortcoming is an investment in our story and our people.
The Urban Land Institute Magazine for November – December 2008 lists the elements needed for a “vibrant city” — a compilation of origin, creed, context, symbols, and action that attracts people and commerce and consumes resources. While they seem to happen organically, they are actually developed through a systemic construct, or shared narrative. What is the Memphis story – not merely an account of the Chickasaw Indians, and the Winchester Family?
Rather, when I ask the question about our story, I refer to what is the soul, the spirit, and the inspiration that moves this place. I would submit that we have a rich story which, if told, would give our residents a sense of connectivity, not merely to the present day but to the history, good and bad, which gives Memphis so much potential. It is the story of a city built on struggles that always manages to bounce back through it resiliency. Much the same as Atlanta is known as Phoenix City because of its rise from the ashes.
While we have not suffered a physical burning down, the death of Dr. King and all of the fury surrounding his death amounted to a spiritual burning down. Yet in spite of that, we see an unprecedented coming together of the races and period of sustained and genuine reconciliation. That’s our story. It’s a story of folks who are honest with each other and do not seek to brush under the rug the evils of the past. Rather we use them as stepping stones to move on up to a higher lever.
This is a story of a city on the Bluff, not on some man made tributary, but on one of the mightiest of rivers. This is place which a recent study by Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance described as having infrastructure unsurpassed in the U.S. How many of us know that?
A story is only a good story if people are comfortable enough to tell it and not constantly living in fear. Just as we arose to break the grips of the Yellow Fever, we are now confronted with another fever that could be just as devastating, that of crime. Drastic steps are needed. Those of us in leadership positions should not leave this cause to our prosecutors and law enforcement officials. We must demand a reexamination of the bed rock principles and laws on which our Nation rests and examine them and see what lawful steps can be taken to deal with an extraordinary situation. It is for that reason I will very shortly call for a reexamination of our state Constitution which basically prohibits the pretrial detention of many dangerous individuals who while facing charges are released and continue to commit heinous crimes in our streets. Regardless of what comes of this effort, the symbolic step of showing that we are willing to go every inch of the way to render our streets safer would speak volumes to our citizens and give them something to hold on to.
With respect to our story, we need a “keeper of the flame”. We have no keeper of our story. We have no keeper of the great culture of our city. Great cities have offices of cultural affairs or similar offices whose sole job is to tell the city’s story to the world, the good and the bad. To herald the good, and to show what we learned from the bad and why we are stronger as a result of having learned those lessons.
We are losing talent to the world. We have done little to stem this loss. We have taken great steps to ensure the greater participation of minorities and women in all of our governmental activities. Yet, for some strange reason we have omitted taking steps to ensure that we develop and retain young and new talent. It is for that reason all of our governments must take affirmative steps by way of executive orders, and resolutions to dictate that all appointments, services, and governmental activities are required to take affirmative action to see that our youth are fully engaged in our governmental, political, civic and business affairs.
To the degree that new talent is excluded from government and civic affairs on the grounds that they do not have the experience, it is our responsibility to see that the individuals holding this potential do get the experience desired to enter governmental service. This can be accomplished by innovative ideas such as creating what I have chosen to call an “Urban Fellows Institute” which would work with our local colleges and universities to offer “for credit” courses which have as a part of the curriculum internships with our local governments. The interns will be assigned to real-life governmental issues such as transportation, healthcare, crime, and the preservation of our natural resources. Their research will serve as the basis for actual policy decisions and direction. It is well worth it for the Internships to carry stipends. Students completing internships will be given preference for jobs with our government. This is small, but and emphatic way of saying that we value your service and we want you to stay and grow in Memphis.
A similar effort will be undertaken with respect to newcomers to Memphis. We once had a business known as Welcome Wagon which saw to it that every family arriving in Memphis would receive assistance in navigating their new hometown and becoming involved. We need to reinstitute an electronic welcome wagon which will work with our major employers so as to ensure that every person they hire and bring into Memphis will receive a welcome to let them know that we want to make every use of their talents.
Likewise, we should see that every high school graduate leaving Memphis to go off to college is tracked electronically and kept abreast of developments and opportunities back home. Again, just another way of saying that Memphis is your home and we want you to play an integral role in its future.