It seems a good time to remember what downtown looked like in 1977 when it was decided to create a downtown development agency.  It was in truth a desperation move.The Peabody Hotel was boarded up, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce closed its office and its “Believe in Memphis” campaign had fallen flat, Beale Street was barricaded, businesses were moving east like Okies escaping the Dust Bowl, and confidence in the future of downtown was as low as the Arkansas floodplain.

Something had to be done, and City of Memphis and Shelby County Government joined together to establish a public agency singularly focused on downtown – the Memphis and Shelby County Center City Commission.

It was arguably one of the most important of several developments to reboot Memphis and its flagging self-image.  There was also the creation of Memphis in May and Leadership Memphis, a new company called Federal Express erected its first drop box, Memphis magazine started publication, and voters had approved the restructure of Shelby County Government, which shifted its traditional rural orientation to an ambition to become a modern urban-oriented government.

We’re The Government and We’re Here to Help You

In its early years, the Center City Commission was a persistent and valuable cheerleader, advocate, and beggar for downtown, and under the leadership of executive director John Dudas, it developed an agenda and culture that was broadly supported by political and business leaders, and once Lucia Gilliland became chairman, she led the development of an ambition to aim higher and dream bigger.

This year, the agency celebrates its 40th anniversary, and with the resignation of its executive director, Memphis City Council Chair Berlin Boyd and Philip Spinosa want to inject the legislative body into another issue that needs delicacy more than political interference.

We’ve already seen the results of their leadership on greensward parking at Overton Park and Beale Street.  This time around, they suggested that they will sponsor a resolution creating a committee to study both the Downtown Memphis Commission and Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) with an eye toward restructuring or abolishing them.

Inconvenient Truths

Let’s take the RDC first.

Here’s the thing: Memphis City Council can’t abolish or restructure it.  It’s a private, independent nonprofit organization.  Yes, it has a contract with city government for maintenance of the riverfront and its parks, but only its board can change or end it.

As for the DMC, City Council seems to have forgotten that it’s a city and county board, and it would take both governments to restructure or abolish it.  City government could probably pull out of the agency and leave it as a county-only agency, but that could put at risk the tax freezes that waive both governments’ property taxes.

Then again, if the DMC is abolished, we assume that City Council is prepared to assume a responsibility that was shifted to the DMC years ago.  Faced with capital needs of more than $100 million in improvements in the downtown infrastructure – sidewalks and alleys; construction of new curbs, gutters, sidewalks and ADA compliant access ramps at street corners; and new lighting, street trees, tree grates, and benches – City of Memphis told the DMC that it wasn’t going to fund the 80-block improvements, and instead, the DMC was told to figure it out for itself.

Put In A Thumb and Pulled Out A Plum

Politicians have a habit of seeing agencies like the DMC as political plums and that the thumbs in them should be their own.  Unfortunately, it is an attitude that has reared its head periodically in the modern history of Memphis and resulted in the blowing up of effective national best practices in the form of the Park Commission and the Planning Commission.  Largely, they were victims of City Council members who coveted their powers and believed they could be converted into political advantage – not to mention political donations.

It is a strange phenomenon, because these kinds of commissions would seem to represent the best of democracy, that is, committed citizens who love their city enough to serve without pay or privilege on a public board as representatives of their city government.  It’s made even stranger by the fact that City Council has to approve every member of every city board or commission.

And yet, Mr. Boyd said that the DMC amounts to the Council “giving away our authority” to people who aren’t obligated to do what the Council wants. There is of course a City Council member – the capable Edmund Ford Jr. – on the DMC board, but apparently, Mr. Boyd is more interested in a rubber stamp board that genuflects to whatever he wants.

This is not to say that after four decades, the departure of its president makes for a perfect time to reassess where the DMC is, where it wants to go, and how it can do it better.   But we are saying that such a process should be conducted by the board members of Downtown Memphis Commission itself, who have access to the resources of the International Downtown Association and other professional downtown groups.

Déjà vu All Over Again

If the past is best predicter of the future, it’s a good time to remember how the politicization of the Center City Commission almost fatally wounded it at the turn of the new century.  When it was established back in 1977, the agency was billed as one of the community’s first public-private partnerships with the emphasis on the latter – private.  The philosophy was that the agency would work best if it emulated business by exercising entrepreneurship, engaging in risk-taking, operating on sound business principles, and acting with urgency and efficiency.

The downtown redevelopment agency was supposed to be even more private sector-oriented, but after spawning the idea of a downtown development agency, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce closed its doors and was essentially bankrupt.  Without that strong business partner, City of Memphis moved ahead alone, and after a period of reluctance, Shelby County Government joined in.

Sadly, the moment for transformational change had passed, but despite that, the Center City Commission had the strong support of individual business leaders and a determined staff and board, and in those early years, both city and county governments provided money for its budget (they have not done this for at least 20 years) and $1 million a year each in capital funding for downtown projects.

Unfortunately, about two decades after it was created, politicians thought that if they could get control of the agency, they could dole out favors themselves in the form of contracts, tax freezes, and grants.  It began a Gold Rush to the Center City Commission, and before it was over, 10 of the 20 board members were politicians or bureaucrats.

As a result, not only was the original private sector approach undermined but the agency itself was weakened, and the political nature of the agency made it harder to recruit the kind of blue-ribbon members that characterized the Center City Commission in its early years.

Determining The DMC DNA

Today, the number of politicos has been reduced to six members.  There are two state legislators on the Downtown Memphis Commission board (down from four – legislators when the agency needed passage of a state law), one City Council member and one member of the County Board of Commissioners (down from two apiece), and representatives of both city and county mayors.

That is not to say that the Center City Commission and its successor organization have always been the kind of visionary, take-no-prisoners dealmakers for downtown.  In truth, in its 40 years, the agency has only lived up to its founding aspirations for about half of the time, and for about half, it has run in place and seemed to go along to get along.

The good news is that the Paul Morris era shook up things and gave downtown someone who didn’t mind ruffling feathers if necessary to fight for downtown.  He laid a strong foundation for the DMC, and whatever is to come has that to build on.

The strategic priorities for downtown established in the early years of the Center City Commission was for it to be the regional center for finance, culture, government, and commerce.  Both Shelby County and City of Memphis agreed to the priorities and for a time, they fought any threat to these foundational priorities.

But after about 15 years, everyone took their eyes off the ball.  No one at the Center City Commission would fight decision after decision as major law offices, major banks, and companies moved eastward.  That changed under Mr. Morris’ leadership and whatever the future of the Downtown Memphis Commission holds, it must make this aggressive advocacy part of its DNA.

Miles To Go…

There is much that remains for the DMC to do, and it deserves the chance to evaluate itself and present how it plans to set a strong course for the future.  Only in our own hyperbole about the “downtown renaissance” is the Memphis downtown keeping pace with the vibrant downtowns of other cities.  Vibrancy largely remains event-driven or isolated to islands of activity while much of Main Street is moribund and the riverfront demands serious and concerted attention.

The Downtown Memphis Commission should set vibrancy as the key measurement of downtown progress, and at the same time, it should turn its full attention from projects to place. It should focus on creating the connective tissue that leads residents first and visitors second to explore and enjoy downtown, moving seamlessly from one distinctive place to another.  It should continue to support initiatives like the Fourth Bluff to encourage us to take a new look and create new ideas for improving downtown, especially Main Street from City Hall to Union Avenue.

Hopefully, Downtown Memphis Commission will have the opportunity conduct its own self-assessment and develop a comprehensive plan for downtown that concentrates on creating the kind of foundational and aesthetic elements that emphasize connectivity, vibrancy, and ubiquitous quality on which successful downtowns are built.

Honoring Its Mission

Meanwhile, the Downtown Memphis Commission should be given the chance to assess its structure, its philosophy, its principles, and its priorities.

Too often, the board may get the media coverage, but there are four other organizations under the DMC umbrella: Center City Development Corporation, Center City Revenue Finance Corporation, Downtown Parking Authority, and Design Review Board.

Communications, collaboration and coordination could be stronger because there are times when the DMC agencies are siloed and unconnected to a single over-arching objective.  It seems a good time for the board to lead a process that brings all of the various entities into a single process to develop mutual principles, values, and priorities, creating an organization firing on all cylinders in pursuit of objectives that they all share.

All that said, if we’re picking the group best equipped and with the most public confidence to consider what should be done to make downtown more successful, we pick the Downtown Memphis Commission every day, particularly when the alternative is Memphis City Council.


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