As we look ahead to a new year, I have asked some Memphians who care deeply about their city’s future for their resolutions or reflections for 2024. I am deeply grateful for their thoughtful submissions.
Today’s commentary is by Roshun Austin, president/CEO at The Works Inc., which is increasing the availability of affordable housing and revitalized neighborhoods and supporting them with programs and services; and Jim Gilliland Jr., principal at Diversified Trust and member of $450 Million for Memphis which advocates an open bid process for the city’s electricity supplier.
Two days before the end of 2023 I was asked if I was always so serious when having a discussion about neighborhoods and the state of Memphis. My response was that I had always been mostly serious even as a child. It is just who I am and it makes me uncomfortable when others attempt to fit me into a mold of what they think I should be. To me serious does not equal sad, stressed or having an inability to find joy and having moments of uncontrollable laughter. Quite the opposite.
What does that have to do with resolutions or wishes for 2024? Writing resolutions breaks with my strongly held conviction of the futility of writing down things that only nine percent of Americans complete. A quarter of the population quits before the end of the first week. I have been pretty resolute that a list of wishes is unbearable in a life already full of plans.
I learned to plan with little time for wishing. I planned how to get to the bathroom first in a two -bedroom, one bath home with four sisters and parents. I had to make a 5:30am bus to get to school five miles away at East High School by 7:00am. I planned just how much prep was required to get home from school and start the greens or pot roast for dinner when I was twelve. I planned how much daylight was left to complete my homework those times when the electricity was out due to an inability to pay. I still plan my outfits and count the number of hours of sleep I’ll get before it’s time to get started.
Wishes were for enough food, enough sleep, enough money to pay the mortgage and utilities. I am clear that my resistance to wishing is a trauma-response. I plan. But “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” (R. Burns). Might as well resolve that I will write my wishes, say them aloud and plan for the best.
I wish for more changes to local zoning ordinances to undo some of the decades long racist and exclusionary zoning practices.
I wish that the legislative bodies really had a grasp of the zoning ordinances and the need to get it right so that we can more easily get more properties performing adding much needed revenue to the tax rolls to provide essential services.
I wish for one less black and yellow street sign and the hour -long ceremonies at the beginning of the meetings.
I wish that I could provide like 100 families with a guaranteed income so that they could escape the cycle of not enough and can move to having wishes of leisure just for them.
I wish for neighborhoods that resemble my current experience where I can safely walk a few doors down to fine dining at Ecco or a local bar while passing many different housing types and uses.
I wish that many of my fellow Memphians believed that it is absolutely plausible that a Black woman trusted with a ton of resources could have all good intentions and a good plan without a clouding the work with tales of dark forces using her to annihilate or worse, gentrify places and displace the very people she is helping.
Finally, I wish that we’d all spend more time finding ways to love our neighbors. Now that just might be the most fantastical wish of all.
Five Hopes for Memphis in 2024:
Government officials will work to curb Juvenile Crime and keep Violent Criminals in jail – We need laws that actually work, and government officials who stand up for victims of violent crime. A major component of this is reducing school truancy that skyrocketed after covid, so the Shelby County Schools need a plan to be more involved with their families, and parents of violent juveniles will finally be held accountable too. As part of this, the Tennessee Legislature should pass common-sense gun laws. The 2nd Amendment of the Constitution reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Tennessee’s crazy gun rights law go way past “well-regulated”. Legal assault rifles, no background checks and open carry laws hurt Tennessee, and its cities like Memphis, in particular.
MLGW will finally stand up to TVA – TVA’s extraordinary lack of respect to Shelby County must be countered with a fair RFP for Wholesale Power, just as Mayor Strickland’s RFP auditor said. TVA only has about 0.5% of their 10,400+ employees in Shelby County, but we pay 10% of their total employee salaries, 10% of their 19,000+ retiree pension contributions, and 10% of their overhead and debt service. TVA coal ash not only threatens our aquifer and Memphis residents, but TVA blocks third-party testing, just as in the situation documented in the movie “Erin Brockovich”. TVA has also refused to move the coal ash outside of residential areas. The final insult is TVA’s status as MLGW’s largest water customer — over 1.5 billion gallons per year — which TVA uses to cool its power plant in Memphis before dumping that water in the river. By leaving TVA, MLGW could be in charge of its future and keep hundreds of millions of local money in our community.
The Regional One-University of Tennessee Hospital venture becomes reality – Shelby County has done its part for $350M of public funding, the Univ of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) strongly supports it, and now it is up to the State Legislature to match Shelby County’s funding for a new, state of the art academic medical center to be built downtown. It would be a boon to the Medical District, to downtown Memphis and to UTHSC. Upwards of a billion dollars could be invested in the Medical District, and could possibly incentivize the University of Tennessee Board of Regents to invest further into the non-hospital portion of the Memphis-based medical school. This would be a win-win-win for Memphis and UTHSC.
Shelby County will start a feasibility study to move and improve 201 Poplar – Let’s ‘move 201 for 901’; a proposed non-profit to fund and conduct a feasibility study on the relocation and improvement of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center. The goal is to design a facility that integrates the latest advances in re-entry, criminology and corrections-industry beet practices, as well as job training and other rehabilitative services. It should address a system that could lower recidivism and address the underlying issues of mass incarceration. We could partner with the University of Memphis and UTHSC on the design of the facilities and operations. It could make Memphis and Shelby County a model for addressing this national issue, and open our core downtown area for economic development, and improve the atmosphere for business and tourism. Crosstown Concourse, the Big River Crossing and Shelby Farms show that we can improve our surroundings and future with a little determination.
The Shelby County Health Department and Groundwater Board will act on Protect Our Aquifer’s (POA) recommendations to create programs to protect the Memphis Sands Aquifer –In 2014, TVA announced a plan to cool its new natural gas plant with water from the Maxson Wastewater Treatment Plant, located next door to it. Without public notice, TVA changed its cooling water plans and drilled five deep wells into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, a major risk to our drinking water due to arsenic, lead and fluoride in the nearby coal ash ponds. Thankfully, the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC) shut down these wells. However, TVA still refused to use recycled wastewater, and now uses 3-5 million gallons of our precious water per day. POA, created shortly after this, is the only entity that exists whose sole mission is to protect and preserve the Memphis Sands Aquifer and create a common-sense regional water authority that protects not only the aquifer but its recharge zone as well.