Jeff Sanford, president of the Memphis and Shelby County Center City Commission, had his last day at work yesterday after 12 years of leading the downtown development agency.

As anyone knows if they have read this blog long, we are highly opinionated about downtown  issues, and we believe that it is unfortunate that the reality of the Center City Commission has not met the promise when it was created long before Mr. Sanford arrived.

Mr. Sanford led the agency through the most politicized era in its history, and in that environment, it’s commendable that he was able to accomplish what he did.  As a former City Councilman during the “golden years” of that body, he understands the political forces that whiplash this community on a regular basis, but we suspect that nothing prepared him for the politics that were injected into most decisions of the downtown development agency.

The truth is that the current structure limited Mr. Sanford’s options – working with what he had to work with, he far exceeded the uninspired instructions that he got from the powers that be when he took the job: keep it in the road.  With a proper organizational structure and a commitment from local government to his mission, he could have achieved the ambitious goals he had as he set out.

As we say often, culture eats strategy for lunch.  The culture of benign neglect created by city, county and state governments, which took over the agency for its alleged political plums, was a regular barrier to strategies.  Mr. Sanford leaves to return to his consulting business and will undoubtedly do capably, as he did before he took the Center City Commission post.  It’s a lead pipe cinch that it will be more enjoyable. 

Meanwhile, the culture remains and new Center City president Paul Morris will face it soon enough.  It’s time for elected officials to realize that politics and sound downtown policy so rarely go hand-in-hand, and take firm action to return it to the Center City Commission’s founding mission as a business-driven development agency.

Mr. Sanford deserved better.  Mr. Morris does as well.

Here’s a post from May 6, 2009, on this subject:

What do you call a bill in the Legislature that would cut the number of state legislators on the Center City Commission in half?

A start.

Reducing the number from four to two legislators would take place with passage of a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature to reverse a 10-year amendment that required twice as many members from the legislature here as any other downtown development agency in Tennessee.(Kudos to Councilman Bill Boyd for his behind-the-scenes work to reduce the politicians on the downtown redevelopment agency.)

Senator Paul Stanley – under the heading of “even a blind hog finds an acorn once in awhile” – submitted his own bill calling for the removal of all legislators. It’s a sensible change, because it’s just plain hard to figure out why these state politicians bring any value to the work of the Memphis and Shelby County Center City Commission.


But we’ll take half a loaf any day, and we can only hope that the logic spreads to Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners who also have two members each on the downtown agency. Then there are two members appointed by the city and county mayors, bringing the number of public employees to 10.

At the point that the state legislature doubled its members, an arms race with city and county began, capsizing the founding philosophy of the Center City Commission and running counter to the examples of successful downtown redevelopment agencies across the U.S.

Those that work best are business-driven and have a strong private sector majority. That was once the case for the Center City Commission when it was created 30 years ago.

As its success grew, there grew the sense by some politicians that there was a pot of gold hidden at the Center City Commission and they just had to get closer to it. As a result, the number of elected officials swelled, and they tried to use the programs of the agency to reward their friends, to hire supporters and to get special perks for themselves.

Politicized Policy

The swelling number of politicians did nothing so much as to undermine any vestiges of entrepreneurship that were crucial to the success of the agency. In time, the politicizing of the Center City Commission created a high hurdle that it had to clear every time that it wanted to adopt a priority, make a business incentive and close a deal.

In other words, Center City Commission became the antithesis of the kind of agency that downtown needed, one that is decisive, bold and innovative. More and more, the 10 brave souls who represented the private sector were shouted down or forced to play uncomfortably in a political world as foreign to them as the Alba Patera Quadrangle of Mars.

In the end, the overbearing influence of political interests dumbed down the work of the Center City Commission as well as limited options for success. As a result, downtown Memphis is behind most cities in design standards, vibrant public realm, and quality of life improvements.

Getting The Sector Right

It didn’t have to be this way if only city and county mayors had listened to downtown developer Henry Turley about 20 years ago.

Thirty years ago, when the Center City Commission was being created, the concept was that the public sector would create the agency in concert with the private sector, because it was wisely thought that for it to be successful, it needed to have the entrepreneurial culture more in keeping with business.

Unfortunately, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, which spawned the downtown redevelopment idea, closed its doors and was essentially bankrupt. Shelby County Government then was reluctant to support the agency, and in the end, only Memphis City Government moved ahead with its creation.

Later, county government joined in, but it would take time before the Chamber was reinvented, and by then, the moment for real change had passed. Ever since, hopes that the agency would reflect a business orientation have been, well, hopes.

Just Do It

Enter Mr. Turley, who inspired a new discussion about returning to the founding vision of the Center City Commission, but the effort faltered for lack of political will to get it done. Sadly, the current of change ran in precisely the opposite direction.

The private sector orientation almost disappeared as more and more politicians added themselves to the group. It was difficult enough to act entrepreneurially before, but with the addition of state senators and representative, and more local politicians, entrepreneurship has become the exception, not the rule.

There’s no question that members of the Center City Commission are good people. It’s just that the public sector doesn’t possess the skills most needed for the agency to be most successful in its work.

Often, when the conversation turns to downtown development, we think of the words of Mr. Turley: “We need to quit planning and do something. Let’s pick two or three things and go do them, and when we’re done, we’ll pick two or three more, and we’ll do them too.”

It sounded like wise advice back then, and it seems absolutely prescient now.