The Center City Commission has picked its next executive director and Memphis proves once again that we use the term, “national search,” as loosely as we do “downtown renaissance.”

Both are more rhetoric than reality, as yet another national search for the leader for a public or quasi-public agency ended up picking someone who just happened to be sitting at the table a few weeks before.   It’s a wonder that anyone ever applies for any job in Memphis when we made a grand gesture of announcing that a national search will take place.

The process for selecting the successor to Jeff Sanford always seemed insulated and insular since the search committee was essentially the insider’s insiders at Center City Commission.  Two candidates seemed to have the most direct experience in the qualification that should matter most for a downtown redevelopment agency – the ability to close a deal and to create the complex financing constructs to make it happen.

In that regard, Paul Krutko, director of development at San Jose, California, and Thomas C. Chatmon Jr., executive director of Orlando’s Downtown Development Board/Community Redevelopment Agency, seemed especially strong.  Mr. Krutko is nationally-known as one of the most innovative, strategic thinker in his field and comments about Mr. Chatmon were also favorable.   Mr. Krutko withdrew early in the process, and Mr. Chatmon made the final three.

We’re So Special

For some observers, the Memphis provincialism reared its ugly head again, as search committee members seemed to think that knowing our city and being plugged in were essential.  It’s a symptom of our tendency to treat outsiders as well, outsiders.  Strange that so many other big-time cities actually thrive on the new ideas, new approaches and new thinking that comes from recruiting from outside their borders.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, for example, means national search when he says it.  After his election, he told his transition team that he wanted to know the best people in the country within their fields and he went after them.  It’s small wonder that the Denver administration is imaginative and dynamic, fed by the energy that comes from welcoming new people.

Here, we act like knowledge of Memphis is information passed down from the gods, and only the blessed can be trusted with it.  It’s this closed view of the world that creates the kind of echo chamber that is Memphis these days.  Maybe, just maybe, somebody from outside Memphis could be the leader we have been waiting for.  And if we think that knowledge of Memphis is so pivotal, we should be honest enough to tell people on the front end.

Meanwhile, in the private sector here, the major employers are recruiting people from all over the world and from all kinds of companies.  The folks at FedEx don’t require knowledge of FedEx when it recruits a great manager, so why is public leadership so different.

The Searchers

Unfortunately, the Center City Commission also ratifies a suspicion in a large part of the African-American community that as black voters took control of government here, quasi-government organizations were set up and white men were appointed to run them.  Because of this, it is inevitable that there will be questions about why Mr. Chatmon, African-American head of the Orlando downtown development agency, was not chosen.

Perhaps it will help that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. wrote a letter supporting Paul Morris, the white lawyer chosen for the president’s job at Center City Commission.  Then again, local government isn’t particularly known for national searches themselves.

It was widely believed from the beginning of the Center City Commission’s national search process that it was aimed at the ultimate pick, Mr. Morris.   He is young (a big plus in our book), he is smart, he is passionate about downtown and he loves his hometown.  There is little doubt that he will be a quick study.

The Center City Commission search committee did a poor job of defining what it was looking for in a new president and what vision it wanted to achieve in the coming years, and as a result, Mr. Morris begins his job at a disadvantage.  As a result, we are left wanting for a bolder vision and a compelling plan for the next leader.

Hope Springs Eternal

Fortunately, Mr. Morris is savvy, so we’re hoping that he’ll lay out his own ideas for what we can do to bring the revival of downtown more in line with the dramatic changes in other major cities.  As we have said often, our rhetoric about downtown development has outstripped all objective analysis.

There is just so much that needs to be done.  There are nodes of activity, but there are few and far between.  The overall condition and maintenance of Main Street is pathetic.  The grates along the trolley rails are broken in way too many places, the decorative bricks outlining the tracks are almost all cracked, light poles are not painted and the urban aesthetic is nonexistent.

For a street that has no cars, it’s nothing short of amazing how workmen, shop owners and just visitors park on downtown sidewalks.  Cars are parked up and down Main Street, allegedly reserved for pedestrians and trolleys only.  The lack of enforcement of illegal parking on Main Street is a fact of life downtown, while people whose cars are broken into in the Center City Commission’s garages are told that it’s their carelessness that’s the problem.

Despite the “national search,” we still have high hopes for Mr. Morris.  This is his dream job, and the alignment of passion and work is always an energizing force.  We have high hopes for his leadership.

Hope Floats

We hope he will shift the emphasis from planning to action.

We hope he will review the strategies that have been used in cities who are getting downtown development right and compare them to our failed ones.

We hope he will stop window dressing programs like the $120,000 marketing plan to spruce up the image of downtown parking, particularly the Center City Commission garages.  It’s not an image problem.  It’s a reality problem – the CCC’s parking garages have all the charm of Eva Braun’s bunker.  It’s high time for all of us to get serious about supporting a Center City Commission plan to blow up these eyesores and build garages that have green roofs.

We hope he will meet with the Division of Planning and Development to find ways that we can have centralized planning and an overall philosophy of neighborhood renewal.

We hope he will compare development incentives between downtown Memphis and other cities.  Taxpayers need to be assured that the long tax freezes being handed out at the Center City Commission make sense within the overall plan for downtown and Memphis.

Hope and Glory

We hope he will give special attention to improving the programming of the public realm and in making downtown more vibrant.  25-34 year-old college-educated people are 30% more likely to live within three miles of the CBID than other people, so an appealing, active downtown is crucial to our economic success.

We hope he will give special attention to make downtown the preferred location for entrepreneurs and start-ups, since the empty store fronts, if reasonably priced, could become seedbed for new companies.

Downtown is like the city for which it is the front door.  It needs bold ideas for a challenging time.  It also needs new thinking about what downtown can and should be.  We hope Mr. Morris is up to the task, because as Mayor Wharton has said, our city has no margin for error.