These days, many people, even those with a cup half-full attitude, consider Commerce Square the symbol for downtown Memphis.  It’s less than half-full and its future is in doubt.

But for us, it’s just as much the signalization poles at intersections.  They are symbols that remind us of the benign neglect that has characterized downtown for so.

There are fine-looking green poles on Main Street, but at intersections, there are often poles – we count about three dozen of them – that are either not painted or have different colors for different parts of them.  That’s because three city agencies have responsibilities for various parts of the poles, and as a result, no one has responsibility as the agencies debate who’ll pay the paltry sums for painting them.

City of Memphis Engineering is responsible for the arms of the poles that hold the signal lights.  Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division is responsible for the poles themselves.  In some cases, City of Memphis General Services installed the poles.

In other words, everybody is in charge and nobody is in charge, and in that way, it sums up our feelings about downtown.

Hypnotized by Our Own Rhetoric

All of us are accustomed to the glowing rhetoric about downtown, and it does seem to have a hypnotic effect on elected officials in particular.  City and county officials have watched – and propelled – the abandonment of offices downtown.  County officials (ironically led by the former head of the Center City Commission) started moving offices out of downtown with a vengeance in the late 1990s, and only downtown patriarch Jack Belz raised an alarm.  It was ignored.

It was the beginning of the erosion of downtown as an office hub for our region.  Slowly but surely, other firms abandoned downtown and county officials couldn’t really complain about it since they contributed to it.  The Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t complain or recruit firms to downtown because it said it represented the whole county and couldn’t show partiality.  The mayor of Memphis talked a good game about downtown, but never used his bully pulpit to fight for firms to stay downtown.

The Center Commission was so totally politicized that it seemed paralyzed when it came to doing its job, which should have been fighting aggressively to keep every job and firm and making it an issue that the mayors had to respond to.  Upon the announcement by SunTrust that it was moving, the Center City Commission failed to sound the alarm and instead said: “Of course (we’re) 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 Ellers Oakley Chester and Rike moved, when Shelby County Government moved hundreds of employees out of downtown, when Glanker Brown just moved out 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.

Standing for Something

It’s no wonder that with four decades of experience in the downtown core, we’ve never seen it as poorly maintained and more in need of desperate attention than right now. We can only imagine what it would look like if there hadn’t been so many people talking so much about the “downtown renaissance.”

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.  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.  Instead, we soft peddle the overwhelmingly negative impacts on downtown 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 most often puts Memphis in the bottom of the city rankings.

Unfortunately, in the case of the bank move eastward a couple of years ago, The Commercial Appeal became a co-conspirator in misleading the public with the editorial, “SunTrust move’s no death blow.” Around the same time, The Commercial Appeal perpetuated the self-delusion: “Downtown Memphis office market gains momentum.”  Contrary to the editorial, it was indeed time to panic, or at least display some sense of urgency. We’ve watched anchor business after anchor business exit downtown without as much as a forceful word of protest from elected officials and downtown development leaders.

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 typically 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.

Answering the Right Questions

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.  That goes double for downtown. But, compared to other cities, our progress is  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?

When the Center City Commission was formed, it was said that the future of downtown was as the government, finance, legal and arts hub for the region.  We’re hard-pressed to say what’s left of that vision now.  It should matter to all of us because the self-congratulations turning into a residential center belies the fact that the taxes produced by residences pale in comparison to commercial taxes (a fact complicated by the fact that so few new projects pay taxes in the first place).

Thank God for AutoZone, Morgan Keegan and Burch, Porter and Johnson.  They continue to anchor downtown, but few companies have displayed the same measure of civic leadership.  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.

Tell It Like It Is

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 to sell our city and removing an important magnet for young talent.

A few years ago, 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?