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VOL. 127 | NO. 56 | Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Grant Applications Highlight DC Trip

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and the delegation from City Hall he took with him to Washington last week had several stops to make and several sets of relatively new political rules to negotiate in those stops.

The centerpiece was a White House conference on the “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” program in which Wharton was part of a panel discussion with mayors of other major cities about the problems unique to larger cities.

The White House initiative pairs federal liasions with certain cities to smooth the path through the bureaucracy and red tape of Washington programs. It’s a collaborative approach.

“Don’t tell me that, ‘Mayor, you applied to the wrong agency,’” Wharton said after his return to Memphis. “That was the gist of the meeting. We want to think and act strategically but there are some things that we’ve got to deal with right now.”

The other part of the trip was more technical. City leaders talked with U.S. Department of Transportation officials about the city’s two applications for millions of dollars in TIGER – Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery – grant funding.

The city is seeking funding for two projects – streetscape improvements to Elvis Presley Boulevard between Shelby Drive and Brooks Road and the Harahan Bridge pedestrian and bicycle walkway connecting Main Street Memphis with Broadway Avenue in West Memphis.

That’s where the different rules came into play.

“We have to think strategically long term. But right now there are some critical needs.”

–A C Wharton Jr.

Memphis mayor

“The first time we submitted a TIGER grant they turned down because they said we didn’t ask for enough money,” Wharton said.

So, what would seem to be two competing applications from the same city for transportation projects that put an emphasis on bicycles and pedestrian access as well as cars and buses and trolleys may stand a better chance together.

After consulting with transportation department officials, the city submitted both applications Sunday, March 18, and is waiting for word along with other cities that applied.

Wharton credits the better and more immediate White House connection for changing not just the rules for such programs but the nature of federal-local collaboration.

“It’s no longer a game of, ‘We got you. We can’t fund everybody, so we’re going to go through every application and find some place where we can trip you up and disqualify you,’” Wharton said. “We’ve got open communications now.”

On the panel with mayors from New Orleans and Detroit, Wharton said all agreed that youth crime is a common problem and is linked to economic development. All of the cities are trying to put in place long-term job training programs but make near-term employment gains.

“We have to think strategically long term. But right now there are some critical needs,” Wharton said. “If you haven’t been employed in three or four years … I will have you in a job in two years is not going to get it. We need to be able to get people jobs in two months.”

Wharton also defended the incentives Memphis and other cities are using in competition with one another to attract new industry. The city is preparing an application for $2 million in state Fast Track Infrastructure Development funding for the Kruger tissue paper plant expansion in North Memphis.

“That is the nature of the beast these days. We can pretend to be pure and virtuous and say, I don’t do that,” Wharton said of the grants that the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam has emphasized. “We didn’t create that system. But it’s the field on which we have to play. … We can stand around and wait until some remote day when we’ve long perished as a city and hope somebody will get us out of that. Or we can go ahead and play the hand we’ve been dealt. I choose to play the hand we’ve been dealt.”

The $2 million Kruger grant would go to fund most of the cost of a utility substation for the expanded plant to come. The rest of the cost would be paid by Kruger, which bought the old Kimberly Clark plant in 2002 and has been operating it since with plans for expansion using new machinery as well as an addition to the existing plant.

Kruger’s investment in the total project is expected to top $350 million.

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