In light of recent questions regarding the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) being absorbed into EDGE, we are reposting a revised commentary from March 18, 2015:
While we have advocated for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to become a key tool in our local 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 doing it.
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, declining neighborhoods, 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 here, 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. In the meantime, there are serious questions about whether EDGE has any 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.
There is the potential for the CRA to be the point of the spear for well-conceived neighborhood revitalization projects, because there’s little question that more city neighborhoods need to offer a path into the middle class and economic mainstream. No offense to EDGE, but it’s hard to imagine that becoming the case with CRA has yet another entity absorbed into the organization.
While CRA is also a joint agency like EDGE, 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. It will just have a different mailing address.
In other words, to put it colloquially, so far, no one has explained what’s broken and needs fixing.
ED VS. 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. 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, what its vision for Memphis neighborhoods is, 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 should be a criterion 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 would be a valuable exercise if this proposed move to spark a discussion about the difference between the two and produce broader, intensive 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.
It seems to us that the better course of action would be for EDGE to keep its eye on its main thing and stake its reputation on leading the community out of the economic doldrums, as reflected in a climbing poverty rate, too many jobs that don’t pay living wages, and where we aren’t still losing talented workers to other cities.
Needed: A Singular Focus on Neighborhoods
Improving these trend lines does not rest totally with EDGE and they are not of EDGE’s making. They are structural problems for Memphis and they deserve undivided, concentrated, obsessive attention and within the framework of finding solutions that start in the disadvantaged neighborhoods themselves.
What Memphis needs is one agency with one focus on one goal – development interventions to turn around challenged neighborhoods. While EDGE’s interest is sincere, Memphis needs a singularly focused, neighborhood-based organization backed with the vision, the resources and the strategies to improve the backbone of Memphis – its neighborhoods.
This offers the best chance for them to be transformed from the inside-out rather the top-down and backing grassroots leaders willing to fight for their neighborhoods’ future, but who need the opportunity to set their own priorities, to identify the resources (financial, technical, and advisory), and to lead their own neighborhoods ahead.
Back in 2002, we wrote the white paper that recommended the merger of all city-county economic development agencies under one umbrella. We also helped to write the city-county PILOT program, which is why we are concerned about how it changed from an incentive to an entitlement.
Because of our historical perspective, we believe that folding the CRA into EDGE is not the best decision for Memphis and its community development industry.
Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries that are relevant to Memphis.