It seems possible that a trend is starting in Memphis.
Despite the oppressive heat, the weeks seem to bring more to make us feel upbeat than the old familiar sense of despair. And for the first time in almost a decade, the good news is coming from City Hall.
Some questioned if Memphis Mayor A C Wharton could move out of the shadow of former Mayor Willie W. Herenton, but these days, watching the former mayor on television news just makes us sad. There was a time when he was a very good mayor and had the chance to be a great mayor, but ego, lack of focus and a willingness to play the divisiveness card undermined all the potential.
Today, he just seems more and more irrelevant, and after the Democratic primary, the Herenton narrative will be punctuated by his failure to get elected as Congressman and his failure to know when to leave the ring as mayor.
Art of the Deal
Meanwhile, the Wharton Administration seems to be hitting its stride. June was a red letter month, but already this month, there has been a $225,000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts to develop a plan for live/work space for artists on South Main, there has been the dressing down of the legal department for failing to know a public record when they see one, there has been the shot across the bow at the city engineer’s office for failing to put bike lanes in new road paving projects, and there was the announcement that Mayor Wharton had ordered 55 miles of new bike lanes to be built in the next 24 months.
But the most exciting thing for us is that when Pinnacle announced its public flirtation with the State of Mississippi to relocate its headquarters to that hub of international headquarters, Olive Branch. It’s the first time in more years than we can remember that City Hall assertively responded, and best of all, Paul Morris, new Center City Commission president, showed and expressed a sense of urgency in offering the best possible deal to get the regional airlines company located downtown (in Commerce Square.
In Memphis, it hard not to feel like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop..and invariably, it has. So, we’re trying to fight any Pollyannish tendencies. We know we have a long way to go, but for the first time in a long time, we at least feel hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
Getting on the National Radar
The announcement by NEA president Rocco Landesman that Memphis will receive one of the largest Mayor’s Institute of Civic Design 25th Anniversary grants reflected the good sales job done by local public and philanthropic leaders when he visited Memphis a few months ago. Following his visit, Mayor Wharton became the first Memphis mayor to participate in an MICD charrette to brainstorm the future of Overton Square.
The NEA said: “Each of the MICD25 projects takes a problem such as isolated neighborhoods or a neglected waterfront and uses the arts to solve that problem. The aesthetic and communal qualities of art make them excellent construction materials for transforming physical spaces. Although the arts are at the center of each of the projects, the grantees are extending beyond the arts world to collaborate with local entities such as chambers of commerce, downtown redevelopment councils, departments of transportation, urban planning offices, and park and recreation offices. “
The application filed by City of Memphis requested funding to work with ArtWorks, the national leader in development live/work space for artists, to develop a plan of action to bring one of its projects to South Main Arts District. We are told that Mr. Landesman was impressed by the arts and cultural anchors in the area and in fact, he even mentioned Memphis in remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Fighting City Hall
As for quality of life, the Wharton Administration got the attention of everyone in city management when the mayor called out the city engineer for not moving on his campaign pledge to create 500 miles of bike lanes in Memphis. That this followed his mandate that the engineer’s office would hire a bike-pedestrian coordinator made the message unmistakable: get on board or get on the bus.
It was a huge symbol of the persistence and advocacy of bike activist Anthony Siracusa and Livable Memphis’ Sarah Newstok in particular. More important than the bike lanes was the lesson that people at the grassroots can indeed fight City Hall and win. That too is a big change.
As we mentioned, what most excited us is the energetic response to Pinnacle Airlines’ consideration of a move to Olive Branch. Not only did Mayor Wharton say that it’s important for Memphis that Pinnacle remain here but he strongly pitched downtown Memphis as the place where a major regional airline should locate its headquarters.
Fighting the Good Fight
In the past, City Hall has been timid about fighting for downtown and contentedly watched the exodus of jobs and companies, so this outspoken salesmanship is refreshing and way overdue. That it was joined by Mr. Morris made it especially encouraging.
As the young, new CCC president, he could be forgiven for taking a cautious approach and keeping a low profile. Instead, he announced that he’s fighting for the downtown location and working with City Hall to put together the best deal possible for Pinnacle.
There are few people in Memphis who can equal the business acumen of Pinnacle Airlines President Phil Trenary. While almost everyone predicted the demise of his company just a few years ago, he not only rescued it but he made acquisitions that grew Pinnacle even more.
Dance with the One that Brought You
We’re hoping that he is only using Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s latest attempted raid on a Memphis business as leverage to sweeten his Tennessee offer. The offer to Pinnacle just proves once again that Mr. Barbour assumes that everyone has a price and even civic-minded business leaders will turn his back on his city if the check is big enough. It’s a decidedly cynical view of the world, despite the sugary drawl that delivers it.
It’s hard to imagine a check that can make an Olive Branch address look prestigious for this fine airline, and more to the point, we know that Pinnacle executives are aware that it’s been the investments and improvements at the city-owned airport that have contributed to the company’s success, and Mississippi now wants Pinnacle to turn its back on the city that’s helped it the most.
That said, regardless of how this battle ends, it’s good to see people advocating for downtown and refusing to give up without a fight. That’s the best news of all.