While we have advocated for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to become a key tool in our local economic development toolkit, the recommendation to place the city-county Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) under EDGE (Memphis and Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine) has a lot of hurdles to clear, chiefly the need to make the case for the change.
Without that context, at this point, it feels like a tactical action being recommended without a strategic context for it.
When TIFs work best, they are used within the context of an overall comprehensive plan. But here, incredibly, we have limped along for more than three decades without an official vision for the kind of community that we are trying to create. Most cities would consider such an oversight unforgivable, but here it is simply business as usual. Nashville, meanwhile, will be unveiling in one week the results of its comprehensive plan called NashvilleNext that has been three years in the making, complete with massive public input, issues briefs, and expert speakers series.
With a comprehensive plan, public policy, code changes, and zoning requests can be evaluated and calibrated within the lens of that vision. Without it, decisions are made in a vacuum and without the kinds of principles outlined in the plan.
Framing Up Things
Here’s how the City of Seattle describes its comprehensive plan: “Our Comprehensive Plan, Toward a Sustainable Seattle, is a 20-year vision and roadmap for Seattle’s future. Our plan guides City decisions on where to build new jobs and houses, how to improve our transportation system, and where to make capital investments such as utilities, sidewalks, and libraries. Our Comprehensive Plan is the framework for most of Seattle’s big-picture decisions on how to grow while preserving and improving our neighborhoods.”
In Memphis, we see the impact from this lack of a framework all around us – erosion in code requirements, erratic zoning, mushrooming billboards, car-dependent culture, and unsustainable sprawl. It’s even a factor in the libraries, parks, and community centers’ losing battles for more money as police department budgets get larger and larger.
Without that framework, there is the risk that TIF requests, like so many policy decisions, will be treated as one-off decisions about giving incentives for silo’ed projects rather than about creating lasting places. When they are done best, TIFs can do both – project-building and placemaking – while becoming the leverage that encourages developers to consider how to build strong neighborhoods and not just strong projects.
Fixing What’s Broken
That too is another public policy question to be answered. EDGE has no serious experience and has shown limited commitment to inner city redevelopment, and when it does address it, it inevitably broadens its focus beyond Memphis and into the municipalities.
While CRA is also a joint agency, it’s always had a Memphis-centric focus, and if it’s suffered from anything, it has been the need for more enthusiastic support within government for it as a valuable tool for improving core city neighborhoods. It’s unclear how moving it will improve things since it has the same powers and authority.
In other words, to put it colloquially, so far, no one has explained what’s broken and needs fixing.
ED V. CD
EDGE’s top priority at this point, according to some elected officials, is to deal with the need for greater public confidence in the exercise of its powers, which now waive about $85 million in city and county taxes a year. As a result, the board – whose powers are delegated to it by Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners – should present a salient worldview for how it sees its current work, when it expects Memphis and Shelby County to be competitive on its own merits without giving away money, what recommendations it has for accomplishing this kind of competitiveness, and how it sees the future of our economy and its role in it.
to that end, if EDGE is to assume the responsibilities of the CRA, it should present its case for what it is prepared to do, why it wants to do it, what the scope of its work will be, and what its priorities will be. There is a big difference between economic development and community development, and while the lines and definitions between the two are often blurred and misstated here, it’s a clarity that will need to be reached for approval of the CRA’s move to EDGE.
Simplistically, one way to describe the difference is that economic development is about creating jobs and businesses and community development is about creating social capital and neighborhoods. It could be a valuable exercise for this proposed move to spark a discussion about the difference between the two and produce more support for community development as crucial to the future of Memphis.
The amendment to make this move possible was filed March 2 in the Tennessee Legislature. It allows for an increase in the numbers of members who can serve on the CRA to match the number of members who serve on EDGE.
Eye on the Ball
We write regularly about how the tax holiday program for corporations in Memphis and Shelby County is broken and how, despite our largesse in doling out more tax waivers than all the other cities in Tennessee combined, our economic trend lines are still going decidedly in the wrong direction.
It’s why at this point, it seems that some public officials say that EDGE needs to keep its eye on its main thing and stake its reputation on leading the community out of the economic wilderness where our poverty rate is climbing, too many jobs don’t pay living wages are being created, and where we continue to lose talented workers to other cities.
These are structural problems for Memphis and Shelby County, and they were certainly not of EDGE’s making. That said, EDGE can provide a glimpse into a better future, the road to get us there, and how incentives play a smarter, more strategic role.