We know the primary job description for a Chamber of Commerce is to be a reliable cheerleader for Memphis, but there are times when we just crave someone to tell us the truth.

While we admire the dependable hyperbole that’s attached to all things Memphis, we are concerned that our leadership – not just at the Chamber -seems hesitant to tell us the unvarnished facts about our city. Here it is: Memphis’ trajectory is headed treacherously in the wrong direction, and because of it, we absolutely have no margin for error.

That’s why what we need most from our leaders is for them to shoot straight with us, to acknowledge that we are now setting the course of the city for the next 25-50 years and that all of us need to be mobilized to tackle the challenges that confront us.

Instead, when asked months ago about the report by the highly-regarded Brookings Institution that showed that the Memphis metro is in the bottom of metros in the rate of jobs growth nearest to the downtown core, a Chamber official responded: “We are probably among the leaders (nationwide) of bringing growth back to the core.”

How Many Warning Shots Are Enough?

Optimism is one thing, but the notion that we are among the nation’s leaders in urban revitalization is simply the stuff of myth-making, and unfortunately, it comes at a time when we need to hear the honest facts and a call to arms about the price that our urban core is paying for our willingness to subsidize suburban lifestyles.

If current statistics represent success in revitalizing our urban core, we hope we never see what failure looks like. For 30 years, our government, our business community and our economic development officials have conspired to fuel sprawl in the form of more and more lanes of traffic and car-centric transportation systems. They have done it in recommendations and justifications that obfuscated the negative impacts that sprawl was enacting on our city.

Because of it, Memphians have been required to subsidize the deterioration and abandonment of their own neighborhoods, and all the while, our leaders kept telling us that this suburban relocation of our population was “growth” and “economic development.”

The Brookings report was just the latest warning shot for our city.  We’ve had plenty, as we’ve written lately, about lost income, lost talent, lost people, lost middle-income families, lost jobs and rising poverty all over Shelby County.  A number of your emailed to ask us why you haven’t read these trouble signs anywhere else, and it’s a good question.  Our economic development officials and our elected officials owe us the facts, unvarnished and as brutal as they are.

More Of The Same

The Brookings Institution’s report said in Memphis that the share of jobs created within three miles of downtown Memphis declined from 14.4 percent to 12 percent in 2006, while the share of jobs created beyond 10 miles of downtown climbed from 40.9 percent to 49.3 percent.

Perhaps, it’s no wonder that the exodus of 25-34 year-old college-educated workers has quickened in this decade from the already troubling rate of the 1990s. These workers are about 60 percent more likely to seek work within five miles of downtown.

Meanwhile, Memphis is one of the most hollowed-out cities in the U.S., and is #1 of the 50 largest metros in economic segregation. Put plainly, public policies have promoted the flight of middle-income families and left concentrated poverty that sprawns our city’s most serious problems and challenges our best efforts to address them.

A briefing paper by CEOs for Cities summed it up well in three key points: 1) When metropolitan areas are economically segregated, every problem becomes harder to address; 2) suburban sprawl has been an engine of economic segregation; and 3) infill development increases the possibilities for stable integrated neighborhoods.

It’s A Choice

In an especially ominous statement for Memphis, the researchers wrote: “Suburban sprawl becomes especially damaging in metropolitan areas with weak job and population growth…the outward movement of middle and affluent households and rising concentrated poverty creates a reinforcing cycle of decline.

These facts are why we get so exorcised by the continued investments in wider lanes and more roads. These are not just curious decisions. They are in fact attacks on our city’s future.

Worst of all, they are made as if we are not making choices, serious choices about the future of our city.

Jared Diamond wrote in his book, Collapse, about how “societies choose to fail or succeed.” In other words, sprawl did not just happen in Shelby County. It was a choice. The suffocating county government debt did not just happen. It was a choice. The hollowing out of the urban core did not just happen. It was a choice. The dependence on low-wage, low-skill jobs did not just happen. It was a choice.

Rubber Stamping Sprawl

Diamond describes in his best-seller how civilizations that formerly flourished made choices that doomed them to catastrophe, and many of these bad decisions were tied to the squandering of resources, to ignoring trouble signs that the environment emits and to the cutting down of too many trees.

It sounds familiar. For more than 20 years, when Memphis City Council routinely approved any development within the 3-5 mile extraterritorial area outside of the city limits, there seemed to be no sense that it was making a choice.

Developers wanted more development, and these areas were outside of the city limits, so there was no perceived cost in giving them what they asked for. Actually, every vote on one of the developments was as a choice — to shift public investments to the suburban fringe rather than spend them on strengthening the urban core and capitalizing on the public infrastructure already paid for there.

For more than two decades, when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted time after time to approve every development placed on their agendas, they never had a sense that they were making a choice that was fueling sprawl and setting in motion their own march to the brink of bankruptcy, cuts in services and erosion of their ability to take a leadership role in the community.

Ignoring The Signs

Like many of the societies described in Diamond’s book, our community made the choice to ignore the warning signs, always believing that the flow of money was endless, short-term benefits were as good as long-term ones and the political power structure was unshakeable. In the end, the seminal question of Collapse is: How can society best avoid destroying itself? It’s a question that should be applied to every project, program or policy of local government for the near future.

If, as the Chamber official suggested, our community is ready to be a national leader for urban rejuvenation, our leaders should begin by applying Diamond’s question to the proposed I-269, a pork project with no economic or social benefit to Memphis.

Don’t believe the propaganda or media headlines. Even The Commercial Appeal editorialized: “Chances are good that speeding up the completion of Tenn. 385 and I-269 will have the desired effect, creating more jobs and circulating more money in the local economy.”

Should we really be building an interstate if the best we can say is “chances are good” it will create new jobs and economic growth? There is no research to back up that conclusion, and more to the point, I-269 is just another giant magnet pulling jobs and people out of the urban core.

Asking The Right Question

We need to connect the dots – these massive sprawl-inducing, car-dependent investments are not only gifts to developers, but they are killing off the city whose health will determine whether the region survives.

If nothing else, it’s time to connect the dots – cause and effect – and to ask the paraphrased question from Collapse: How can Memphis best avoid destroying itself?