When $50 million is put on the table, there are always a lot of competing interests for it.

That was certainly the case with the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant in Memphis.  The funds come from the Obama Administration’s stimulus plan, and despite varying interests and intense lobbying, the City of Memphis called it right: It supported the funding for Whitehaven.

While the most well-known beneficiary for the improved three-mile stretch of Elvis Presley Boulevard is Graceland and it was the “hook” leveraged for government support, the attention to Whitehaven is the smart choice.  At a time when the political tendency is to spread money over a whole city for maximum effect, it’s much smarter for Memphis to identify areas like Whitehaven that still have assets that give it the potential for rejuvenation and economic growth.

The hard, albeit unpleasant, reality is that there are neighborhoods whose odds in coming back are slim to none.  It doesn’t mean that we completely abandon them, but it does mean that we have to be judicious and strategic with budgets already stretched thin.  It requires some tough choices and it demands political courage, and just as other cities are wrestling with their shrinking, we have no choice but to do the same.

The Fight Worth Having

It was January, 2007, when we first blogged that Whitehaven needs to be a top priority for our entire city.  If Memphis is worth fighting for, there is no battle line more important than Whitehaven.  The city undermined Whitehaven’s future with its long-time disregard for planning as a result of swallowing developer’s claims that all the apartment complexes were good for the economy and as a result of the city grabbing whatever federal money was available for affordable housing even if it was ultimately a detriment to the neighborhood.

Whitehaven has so much going for it.  It has engaged leadership, good housing stock, key institutional anchors, involved neighborhood associations, and committed businesspeople, but it needs government investments that strengthen its infrastructure, reward minority businesses, reinvest in its neighborhoods, and unleash confidence that things can change.

The Elvis Presley Boulevard Revitalization Program certainly addresses the purpose of the TIGER program: “preserving and creating jobs and promoting economic recovery, investing in transportation infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits, and assisting those most affected by the current economic downturn.”

Reporter Tom Charlier, in yesterday’s Commercial Appeal, wrote that the grant will begin by late 2013 and will “rebuild Elvis Presley Boulevard by relocating overhead utilities and installing landscaped or specially designed medians and new street lighting. It also would add or rebuild sidewalks, curbs and gutters and provide for upgraded crosswalks, shared vehicle-bicycle lanes and improved bus stops.”

Aerotropolis Connectivity

In addition to this grant, there’s also the interest by the aerotropolis project in connecting its work to improve the adjacent neighborhoods.  It is right on target.  There are some who suggest that aerotropolis should only be about roads and runways, but they miss the point that in this case, economic development and neighborhood redevelopment are opposite sides of the same coin.

Connectivity is the thread often ignored in stitching back together the fabric of Memphis.  And yet, connectivity runs through Sustainable Shelby and City of Choice plans, and that’s why it should be part of every major economic initiative.

To do otherwise reduces the impact from programs like aerotropolis, but importantly, it sends the message to the neighborhoods adjacent to aerotropolis that its success is also theirs.  To do otherwise is to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s when federal funding to revitalize neighborhoods was spent on sidewalks and street pavements.  It made for the incongruity of pristine infrastructure while houses decayed and businesses were abandoned.

It’s encouraging that the people working the hardest to make sure the aerotropolis concept is more than a marketing hook understand this.   The committees are working to answer the question that we asked four years ago: How do we create an aerotropolis in Memphis using the existing airport as its center but created in a way that produces higher value for the neighborhoods and commercial corridors?

Credit’s Due

Speaking of the airport, they deserve credit for the planting of more than 2,000 trees as part of the beautification and landscaping project that is under way on Plough Boulevard, the primary entry and exit point for MEM.  The planting of street trees to beautify Memphis – and to convince MLGW to allow them – was a recommendation of Sustainable Shelby, and it’s commendable that on this issue, the airport is leading the way.

All of this makes for an important start, but it is just the start.  For Whitehaven to succeed and become an economic anchor for Memphis, there must be continued attention and additional investments.

Finally, here’s the most encouraging thing of all: Memphis City Engineer John Cameron said this project will transform this stretch of Elvis Presley Boulevard into a “complete street.” Imagine, we have a city engineer that even uses the term, complete street, much less seeks it.  It’s the philosophy that “ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities,” according to the National Complete Streets Coalition.

“The streets of our cities and towns are an important part of the livability of our communities. They ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams.”

Poster Child

In his 2009 campaign platform and reprised this year, Mayor Wharton said his administration will act on “a ‘complete streets’ philosophy for all transportation plans and neighborhood redevelopment programs  so every street plan has to include alternative transportation options for safe, attractive, and comfortable access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transit.”

It appears that Elvis Presley Boulevard will be the poster child for how successful the promise of complete streets will be translated into the reality of complete streets. We’re optimistic about the results.