We will soon see more new faces and new structures through elections, possible consolidations and general leadership changes in this region.  I am asking these new faces to please respect the time, vision and expertise of the greatest minds in Shelby County by embracing Sustainable Shelby as a mechanism to inspire a cohesive push toward long-term vitality.

Few people today remember that Wernher von Braun was the Chief Architect of the Saturn V Rocket.  However, most everyone knows the name of at least one of the 39 Astronauts that played lead roles in space exploration through the Apollo missions.  And, just about anyone could tell you who said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Sustainable Shelby is the first agenda for sustainability in the Memphis region and a strategic framework that addresses building codes, the environment and neighborhood rebirth.  It makes the connections between transportation and traffic, public incentives for economic development and land use patterns.  This plan looks close to home by improving public building efficiency and purchasing policies, while looking far down the road at development opportunities, natural resource preservation and tax revenues.

The plan was developed through a process coordinated by 13 Shelby County employees and seven committees chaired by private architects, Sierra Club and neighborhood development leaders, urban planning professors, real estate professionals and community activists.  These committees consisted of almost 150 experts in their respective fields who each volunteered an extraordinary amount of time to a project that they believed would be a seminal moment in the history of Shelby County.

The Sustainable Framework

They all knew that, then-County Mayor Wharton needed this plan to address problems confronting us.  He stated clearly, “the present course is unsustainable on the basis of public finances, environment and land use, disposable neighborhoods, deteriorating health, and declining quality of life.”  Wharton recognized that young educated people are leaving Shelby County, that economic development practices can actually conflict with community building projects and that both fiscal and environmental efficiencies were needed to survive.

This team, however, knew something even more important.  They knew that the plan had to transcend one mayor’s time in office.  They had to create a document that wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the past smart growth plans and suburban expansion plans.  A plan was needed that could achieve buy-in from Shelby Countians and be embraced by administrations to come.  The Sustainable Shelby team was not only interested in solving problems and engaging environmentalists.  They were driven to create the catalyst we need to transform this county.

This plan is in line with past philosophies, current directions and future needs.  This initiative is in line with nationwide ideals that are being set by HUD, DOT and other agencies.  Shelby County is poised to be a true nationwide leader and has already been approved for a federal grant to begin implementing some of the Sustainable Shelby principles.

Interim-Mayor Ford unveiled the Clean Green Shelby initiative and also sought advice from local environmental experts… most all of whom participated in Sustainable Shelby.  This initiative consisted of a Wolf River brownfields assessment program, recycling, a greenhouse gas inventory, an MOU with municipal mayors seeking a solution to waste water issues and stream protections, in addition to drinking water protection.

Smarter Growth

Sheriff Luttrell, as a candidate for Mayor, publicly recognized Sustainable Shelby and that acknowledgment is appreciated by many who have been involved through multiple similar initiatives only to see them scrapped and rebooted years later under another name.  As well, the Mayor-elect stated that economic development begins with a safe and attractive community where people want to live and industries desire to locate.  He knows that “smarter growth” utilizes existing infrastructure like roads, schools, greenways, retail, medical and recreation.  He says we must capitalize on existing infrastructure that is not fully utilized.

There is no question that many of our leaders are speaking the language that is encapsulated within Sustainable Shelby.  This speaks to the lack of partisanship that existed in its creation.  So, there is no reason to lose ground by reinventing the wheel.

And please know that momentum may be waning as our county’s experts have enthusiastically come to the table and been disappointed many times before.  They are looking for a leader because their proposal is not achievable as a grassroots movement.  And because they know you can claim victory from day one, positioning Shelby County with peer communities around the country.

Like many cities in the late 1960s, Portland, Oregon found itself facing urban decay and suburbanization.  Then Republican State Governor Tom McCall and Democratic City Mayor Neil Goldschmidt rallied for and enacted measures to deal with issues ranging from urban zoning to farmland conservation.  The sustainability plan implemented over the last 30 years boasts about providing a regionally inclusive approach in order to build thriving communities, economic vitality and scenic beauty.

Ready to Go

Since 1980, the City of Portland has grown by 57% with a population density of over 4,200 people per square mile.  The Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has grown by 62% to almost 2.2 million.  Portland’s regional household income surpasses $70,000 a year.

By contrast, the City of Memphis has grown by 4.8% since 1980 and has a population density of less than 2,200 people per square mile.  The MSA has grown by 29% to just over 1.2 million.  Memphis’s regional household income is less than $62,000 a year.

Closer to home, please consider Nashville’s Cumberland Region Tomorrow.  As Davidson County and the surrounding area began to grow, this organization became concerned about the future livability and economic vitality of the region.  They have successfully supported and encouraged growth planning, with emphasis on land use, transportation, and preservation of the rural landscape and character of the existing communities for over 10 years.

When their Executive Director, Dr. Bridget Jones, was here for a Livable Memphis conference, she became familiar with the Sustainable Shelby work.  She talked about the most difficult part of Nashville’s project being tied up in building coalitions and creating a strong enough plan.  Dr. Jones marveled at the work that had been done here and stated emphatically, “you are ready to go, you have what you need, Sustainable Shelby is your plan and you are lucky to have it.”

Positioned for Success

Today our system of uncoordinated, isolated departments makes it difficult to promote and improve life in this county.  When the economy rebounds, is Shelby County going to be positioned to succeed?  We have all of the pieces of the puzzle.  Sustainable Shelby just makes sure they are all in the same box.  Who will be responsible for defining our quality of life and powering the greatest economy in this region?

A past county mayor, respected staffers, industry experts and an army of volunteers have built your rocket.  However, they have done all they can do until a champion steps up to move it off of the ground.

You, as new leadership, can choose to use your first few years drawing up new plans.  Or, you can be our Neil Armstrong, strap into the Commander’s seat and help Shelby County take the next step by implementing Sustainable Shelby.