Ever heard this before?
“Slow-moving, backwards Southern town with an inferiority complex.”
Nope, it’s not an extended version of Time magazine’s infamous description of Memphis as a “backwater river town.”
Rather, it’s a description of Jacksonville that was given of Jacksonville a year before Time‘s slap in our face.
No one’s making fun of Jacksonville any more. It often is at the head of lists of high-performing cities and successful cities.
Back then, Memphis and Jacksonville found themselves in much the same economic position. The same goes for Nashville, now that we think about it, but in momentum and potential, Memphis had the edge.
Nashville and Jacksonville were mired in government scandal. Confidence in public leadership had bottomed out and dysfunction gripped their governments. Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis was doing well.
There were early signs that the times were changing. Population was beginning tentatively to move eastward, retail stores were flirting with the suburbs and plans to widen two-lane highways out of Memphis (like Poplar Avenue) were being made.
Dr. King’s assassination punctured the general sense of progress and sent Memphis into a free fall whose results we’re still dealing with. Faced with the abandonment of downtown, the white stampede out of Memphis and economic upheaval, Memphis leaders dug in their heels, assuming that things would return to normal.
But by the time the smoke cleared, there was a new normal. The Memphis in which they had so much confidence was fundamentally changed, setting in motion troubling trends that set the stage for us more than 40 years later.
In Jacksonville and Nashville, confronted with their own crises, they chose to think differently and to shake up things, particularly the government structure that was seen as central to their problems.
It was hard in those days to conceive of Nashville or Jacksonville being competitors to Memphis. After all, Memphis thought its major rival was Atlanta. It all seems so naïve now, but it was a comparison that hung on even as the Georgia capital grew by leaps and bounds, becoming not only a major Southern city but a major national city on its way to becoming an international city.
Those Memphis delusions of grandeur are long gone, swept away by the reality that we are not even keeping pace with Nashville and Jacksonville. But, there remains the persistent attitude that we don’t need (or can’t) do anything: What will be will be.
It’s inarguable that for over 30 years, we’ve used the lack of a consolidated government as a crutch to keep from making the tough decisions or acting courageously. Meanwhile, Nashville and Jacksonville took a “no excuses” attitude by changing their governments and it shows.
They had a different image of their future. The positive changes didn’t come overnight. But they did come, and it’s hard to find anyone in either Nashville of Jacksonville – in public or private sector leadership – who does not credit the consolidated government as the spark that burned away the corrupt government, brought in innovative new leaders, flattened out increases in the tax rate (Jacksonville’s is the lowest of the major cities in Florida), turbo-charged their economies and repositioned their city’s images.
Some people in Shelby County opposed to merger of city and county governments suggest that Nashville and Jacksonville would have prospered regardless of their governments. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in leadership in either place who agrees.
Jacksonville is beginning a review of its charter to update it, as it is required to do every 10 years by that same charter, and in a presentation to the commission, City of Jacksonville General Counsel Richard Mullaney said: “We in Jacksonville enjoy a competitive structural advantage in the creation of public policy that other counties in the state of Florida do not…There’s no question that 40 years ago, for those of us who were here and were observers and participants that we were in a very different place.
“At that time, not just structurally, Jacksonville at that time was viewed by many as a slow-moving, backwards Southern town with an inferiority complex…we are in a very different place. They (rest of the state) marvel at how the smallest market in the nation got an NFL team and…I think that happened because of this structure.
“They marvel at a preservation project that acquired 53,000 acres to take them out of development. They marvel at River City Renaissance, they marvel that we brought a Super Bowl here, and they marvel quite frankly at this consolidated for of government.”
Jacksonville was racked with scandal in 1934, but Mr. Mullaney said the governments were not merged at the ballot box until 1967 because “those who fear change and those with vested interests in the current system won out” 43 years earlier.
As the charter commission in Shelby County does it work in the next nine months, we’ll probably hear a lot of statistics and data, but what finally moved us to the pro-consolidation side of the ledger weren’t the tangibles. It was the intangibles.
All the numbers aside, what we find palpable in Nashville and Jacksonville is a “can do” attitude and a sense that they can dream big and act boldly. Both cities send the unspoken message that they are places that care about themselves and are proud of themselves. Neither has the character or the culture of Memphis, but they are creating more jobs, attracting more business investment and creating the kind of quality of life that is a key competitive advantage in the new economy.
Changing The Rhetoric
Here’s the thing: we’re tired – actually, exhausted – of being told that Memphis has potential, Memphis is at a crossroads and that our greatest days are ahead of us. We’ve heard it in every election for 30 years, and it’s simply getting old.
While we’ve been talking about our potential, other cities like Nashville and Jacksonville have been reaching theirs. In the end, this is why we think that creating a new government for Memphis and Shelby County is our last, best shot at moving past the rhetoric about our potential to actually realizing it.
Simply put, we have to change Memphis’ trajectory, and it will take something profound and earth-shaking. It seems clear from the history of Nashville and Jacksonville that the earth-shaking event can be blowing up the existing government and starting over with a new one.
We volunteer to buy the dynamite.