Oh, no.  The Downtown Memphis Commission says it will have a “relatively quick” search for its next president. 

That’s the exact opposite of what it should do.  That’s because the DMC needs to get it right, not get it fast. 

To put it politely, Downtown Memphis is in disarray. Its present condition calls out for someone with specific experience in downtown development and urban sensibilities to turn things around. 

The job will become vacant 82 days from now on January 1 when its president, Paul Young, takes the oath of office as Memphis mayor. 

As the 65th mayor of the City of Memphis, he takes office with 24,408 votes and with the majority of votes in the mayor’s race cast against him, creating a challenge as he works to deliver on his message of unity, consensus, and optimism. The vote is convincing proof that City Council is right to proceed on a referendum vote to require a runoff so that a mayor takes office with a majority of the voters behind him or her.  All in all, the dismal election turnout is enough to subdue celebrations about electing a new mayor.

The Blank Slate of the New Mayor

Despite his past experience, Mr. Young takes office largely as a blank slate.  Memphians have heard what he said and they know where he has worked but now he must translate the campaign generalities into specific operational priorities and programs.  

He faces a dichotomy of public opinion. Some people are energized to have a 44-year-old mayor who ran a campaign without rancor or recriminations, to have a mayor who understands from a personal level the challenges of so many African Americans, to have a mayor who’ll bring a fresh look at city services, and to have a mayor who can call on members of the power structure who supported him for resources.

Then too, there are questions: will he simply be an extension of the Strickland Administration, will he largely reappoint Strickland appointees, can he balance expectations of the neighborhoods with the priorities of the real estate and development interests that strongly backed his campaign, is he strong enough to project the command presence needed for the job, and can he see action as the deliverable rather than more plans.

But that is not the purpose of this post.  Rather, it is that Mr. Young’s election provides our community with an opportunity that is arguably almost as important as mayor – appointing the next president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, a joint board of Memphis and Shelby County.

Downtown’s Problems

There’s no polite way to say it: Downtown is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.  And I have seen it over 45 years – that’s how long I worked there. 

  • Illegal parking is out-of-control and city government vehicles are among the worst offenders, seemingly believing they have the right to park anywhere, even if they are blocking sidewalks.
  • Trash receptacles spill over onto sidewalks because they are not emptied for days at a time.
  • Beale Street often smells and its ambiance is lacking.
  • Streets are closed willy-nilly with no real traffic plan, driving away potential restaurant customers and discouraging people from coming downtown.
  • There is not enough coordination with city departments to address lingering issues that they could help with.
  • The litter left by the unhoused is not picked up until after hotel guests and downtown residents take their morning jogs and people walk to work.
  • Planters and landscaping are embarrassments; planters are regularly full of trash rather than live plants.
  • The argument that downtown is the safest neighborhood in Memphis is getting hard to make.
  • Car thefts, break-ins, and vandalism for downtown residents, restaurant customers, and people at special events are well-documented but not well-prevented. Sheriff’s deputies appear to have been assigned to downtown with no sense of urgency or plan of action.  

Getting the Best

It’s laudable that the Downtown Memphis Commission pursues marquee projects – although the most transformative ones have not yet moved ahead despite back-patting announcements and repeated tax breaks being given and renewed without adequate due diligence. 

However, there are other things that are even higher priorities than new buildings – cleanliness, orderliness, livability, pedestrian-friendly design, and safety.  It often feels that no one is paying attention to these priorities and that DMC members don’t believe in the concept of managing by walking around.

It gets harder to attract investments when the area sends up so many red flags. It gets harder to attract customers to restaurants, hotels, and retail stores.  It even runs the risk of dampening the Grizzlies and Tigers’ pull of their fans to downtown. 

Most of all, downtown residents are treated as if they have no option but to live there.  They aren’t treated like people who can live anywhere and if downtown continues to decline, they may vote with their feet while others will have second thoughts about a downtown move. 

Simply put, today, it feels like no one is in charge of downtown, and those assigned this responsibility are unfocused and distracted.

Here’s the thing: the Downtown Memphis Commission seems in a rush to fill this key civic position when deliberate, strategic action is needed more.  We need a real national search to identify nationally prominent candidates who could be transformative leaders for downtown.  Without it, the DMC may essentially be inviting politicians, political buddies, and people drawn to the $175,000 salary rather than the mission to line up for the job.

And Mr. Young should not be involved in any way in the search for his successor. 

This is no slap at him; it is simply customary for previous job holders not to be involved in finding a successor.  More to the point, he should not be involved because the head of the DMC should have unquestionable allegiance to downtown rather than to City Hall. 

In addition, involvement of the future mayor would tilt what should be an objective analysis of all candidates.  It also ignores the fact that the DMC is a joint city and county agency. 

Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

Memphis has gained a national reputation for faux national searches when the ultimate hire tends to be an insider who already lives here.  It results in a learning curve and the need for “on the job” training with rigorous requirements.  I’m not saying that a couple of urbanists who live in Memphis don’t immediately come to mind and who have unique qualifications for the job, but I believe we benefit from casting a wide net to make sure we get the best possible person.

In its 2021 job request for applications for the president’s position, the Downtown Memphis Commission leaned heavily into knowledge of real estate, finance, public/private partnership, budget preparation, analysis, economic development credentials, and dealmaking.  What was missing was the mention of safety, cleanliness, and safety, the backbone of downtown’s livability.

Downtown businesses pay a special tax assessment that generates about $4 million a year for Downtown Memphis Commission.  Before any search process begins, the DMC should solicit – and listen to – the opinions of the people who are investing in downtown with their lives – the people working and living there. 

The list of concerns mentioned earlier in this post are the ones heard most often from these people.  It’s why they deserve a serious opportunity to give input into what qualifications they want in the next president of the DMC and to be assured by the DMC that it will respond.  

This job search isn’t simply about posting job qualifications online and seeing who applies.  Rather, a search firm with experience in downtown redevelopment should be hired because it would know where the best in class people are working (including any in Memphis) and can encourage them to submit applications.

Get It Right

The Downtown Memphis Commission so far gives indications that time is of the essence. 

It isn’t. 

Getting the right person with experience and relevant qualifications is the essence of their assignment. 

Downtown Memphis Commission can take its time and get it right.  There is no mandate to rush.  There is only the mandate to hire someone uniquely qualified to tackle the problems that seem to dominate downtown today.


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