As a long time reader of the SCM blog site, I both respect and embrace many of the issues supported by such forward thinking.  Truly, this community and region are in desperate need of a complete overhaul of our thought process concerning economic development, social equality and creating our built environment.

Sometimes I feel the need to play devil’s advocate where some of these issues are concerned especially when so many tend to agree on the topics.  This motivation comes from the standpoint that while change, especially that of the radical variety, may be necessary, it can also yield byproducts that can be as devastating as they are beneficial in their impact.  Even the best fortune tellers and most knowledgeable experts may not be able to foretell some of these side effects, but others can at least be identified even in vague terms and thus we can be prepared if they should manifest themselves.  I’ve taken such a n approach to two recently discussed topics here at SCM.  As countless medication and treatment commercials can attest, some side effects may include nausea, headaches and perhaps even irrational outbursts, but let’s take a look:

Right Sizing MCS:

What a broad issue.  There is little doubt that the footprint of MCS is so remarkably out of kilter with present day demands that a thorough process to right size both the administration and facility footprint is paramount to its future success.  As mentioned in an earlier post here at SCM and as admitted by MCS superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, this will likely result in the closing of numerous school buildings and facilities where low enrollment has created vast underutilized school facilities.

It is easy to recommend the closing of a school, but the potential side effects  can be costly in terms that go beyond the school budget or management of already scarce resources.    Schools in fact can serve as a glue that binds sections of a city together.  Public schools are able to achieve this because their districts can transcend income bracket and religious beliefs while uniting everyone through the basic driving human principle that seeks to ensure that one’s children are provided care and support.  For many that experienced the shock that accompanied the national policy of “busing” the city’s youth in the 1970’s can attest, schools represent far more than learning facilities for their surrounding neighborhoods.  Busing helped erode this sense of spacial orientation by creating an atmosphere where neighbors no longer shared perhaps the one aspect that would have brought them together.  It isolated families within their own neighborhoods and gave one less reason to remain there- it deprived residents of one more way in which they could testify they belonged to a place and that place belonged to them.

Here we are decades later at a time when we are still uncovering and studying the effects of this policy and we are considering removing a tie that binds these communities together.  We must keep in mind that as we consider shuttering elementary school A or high school B we are in fact tampering with one of the last knots that me be helping to hold already struggling neighborhoods together.

As if the social effect of balancing the school system’s facility inventory was not enough, there is the effect of releasing these properties onto neighborhoods where vacant and abandoned structures and lots are already far too common a sight.  There are charter schools that are in need of homes and could definitely make use of these schools.  However, closing as many as 50 public schools in a city that hosts 9 charter schools- most of which already have facilities- will result with many unused schools in the heart of some of the city’s neighborhoods.  Obviously abandonment is not an option and a degree of building and grounds maintenance would need to continue along with a hefty dose of security over the short term to ensure that these buildings do not become magnets for criminal activity.  That leaves us with several options.

The MCS might simply mothball the facilities in order to preserve them for future charter school or community use.  That would of course incur its own set of costs which would still be lower than what is required to maintain them as operating schools.  Another option is to sell the schools to the private sector (assisted and senior living come to mind).  It’s hard to imagine a company purchasing these facilities which would require investment for renovation especially in a city with rents that are below the national average in almost every category.  Another option is demolition.  This is probably one of the first options to appear in the public’s mind when the topic of closing schools is discussed, but it is hardly the easiest.  Demolition is not a “cheap” option in many cases, especially with facilities of the size we are discussing and in a system where funding seems to be an annual lesson in sadistic public policy practice.

The MCS might come up short even if there are large savings achieved in the long run.  However, this higher initial investment does yield greater flexibility where future uses are concerned.  Additional park space in neighborhoods that are lacking such an amenity might prove to be worthwhile.  Some locations might be partial towards added benefits such as storm water retention, tree banks and active recreation featuring athletic fields, jogging tracks and exercise stations.  These areas would also allow for urban farming opportunities where scale is everything in terms of creating a financially viable model.  There is also the potential for urban re-fill where large tracts of single owner property is far more appealing in the world of developers than individual lots and parcels that must be assembled over longer time periods.  The decision to lock the doors at some of these schools could in fact be the easiest step of the process unless we plan and prepare in advance.

Thawing out the Tax Freeze

“Tax freezes” are perhaps one of the highest profile and yet least understood local public policy measures where economic development is concerned.  The method of locking in the value and taxes paid on a property for a set number of years is both benign in its simple approach and yet can prove to be toxic when either misused or over applied as it appears to be in Memphis.  We have used this tool perhaps more than any other in our quest to attract and maintain some of our lowest paid positions while subsidizing corporations as they moved from one neighborhood to another within the city limits.

Here the devil would suggest that while it is agreed that the use of this tool should be withheld for those circumstances that support the creation of an economy that can transform our region over the long term, its use in the short term to shore up labor might in fact be practical.  The simple fact is that a large portion of our existing population within this region is not prepared to enter or support a knowledge based economy.  Statistics show that in areas outside of Shelby County, the high school graduation rate drops to alarmingly low levels.  We cannot simply ignore these individuals and while raising their educational attainment level would be ideal, a lack of local resources and motivation suggest that the situation will not change much over the short term.

We are dependent on low wage labor because so many are not equipped with the knowledge to be employed in any other manner.  A rapid change in our economic landscape risks either displacing or excluding this segment of the population.  We need to find a way to both keep this section of the population employed while also providing the education and tools to educate both these individuals and their children for a new economy.  However, our track record shows a focus on the former and little in the way of addressing the latter.

The impact of tightening these incentives to the dramatic level we need in a short period of time could prove to be disastrous to both the local tax base and real estate market.  These markets have become as dependent on building for certain clients as the clients have become on the tax freezes themselves.  In a perfect world, the entire region would work together to meet certain shared goals that provide universal benefits without undercutting and competing with itself internally.  Unfortunately, we exist in a region where neighboring states would sell their soul in order to have a company relocate their minimum wage, part time facility approximately a few miles in another direction.  The hilarity of the situation is that this desperation is sold as “economic development”.

All of this so a governor, senators and congressmen in both local and distant cities can inform the population they “created ‘x’ number of new jobs” during their terms or that the state coffers can be slightly more full the next year.  What benefits the state of Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee does not necessarily benefit the local residents as a collective whole within the same metropolitan region.  To a limited extent, we make excellent pawns for state economic agendas.  Too severe a halt to the IDB’s policy of handing out tax freezes like candy could allow neighboring states, their leaders and distant economic development officials to pick off local companies at will.  Wholesale flight to cheaper locations that require a business to move only 5 miles could upend a local real estate market suffering from both regional economic stagnation and the lasting effects of the recent recession.  This would occur at a time when those revenues are most desperately needed in order to prepare the local populace to become competitive in the 21st century job market.

In order to satisfy a weaning of the local job market from the supply of low wage labor we need economic development with dual purposes in mind.  We must ensure that the existing job market remains stable long enough to allow the existing population to remain engaged in this transformation while attracting new companies and talent that speak more to the future than the past.  This will require a serious commitment by local and regional leaders in the face of forces radiating from our ignorant state capitals.  We must sell the goal and idea that a greater Memphis will yield far greater benefits and riches to the three states than this continued pattern of one-undermanship.  The time for our local leaders to begin talking about such a strategy is now.  Stronger collaboration with a unified general message signed by the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County as well as surrounding suburbs and exurbs might be able to indicate that we are serious about a change in regional tactics.  A bigger cake might take longer to make but it beats trying to grab more of our neighbor’s ever shrinking pieces.

Those are just a few point on the devil’s agenda to get the creative juices flowing.  The reason I bring them up is not to overwhelm with the enormity of the situation, nor to support dissension in the ranks but to begin the process of creative thinking to identify solutions for scenarios we are sure to encounter in changing the course of this community.  I have no doubt that just within the confines of the readers of this blog there are countless solutions to both topics discussed.  Identifying those possibilities will only help make the necessary transitions easier and maybe even fun!