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VOL. 126 | NO. 193 | Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Morris Makes Case for Reviving City’s Core

By Sarah Baker

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Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 but his words live on through Twitter under the handle @Kurt_Vonnegut.


Paul Morris is a big fan of the late writer’s posthumous tweets, especially a recent one that read, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

Morris, the 37-year-old president of the newly rebranded Downtown Memphis Commission who keeps up with Twitter through his handle @MemphisMorris, couldn’t agree more.

That’s because in Morris’ lifetime, the city’s population has stayed relatively flat, at about 650,000. But as taxes and the cost of government increase – faster than inflation even – he hears a lot of complaining.

“The answer is actually pretty obvious if you think about it,” Morris said Thursday, Sept. 29, at the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors’ luncheon. “Government services expenses really don’t correlate as much to population as they do to land area served.”

The biggest expenses of city government are police, fire, solid waste collection and infrastructure improvements, Morris said, and all of these services depend much more on how much space there is to cover rather than the number of citizens served.

And although population has stayed flat in Morris’ lifetime, the size of Memphis has doubled.

In 1950, when Memphis was winning awards left and right for its cleanliness, it was only 50 square miles as a city, with 7,780 people per square.

Now, Memphis has only 1,900 people per square mile, which is four times less dense. And what cities across the nation have learned, Morris said, is that density creates the sustainable model.

“As I look out the window and see all of the beautiful trees and the sprawl that we created here and elsewhere, I’ve got to point out the fact that those decisions to create that development has really hurt us as a city,” Morris said. “The sad fact is, we don’t have enough assets in this city to spread them out as far as we have. And the only chance we have of ever reducing our tax burden and thriving as a city is if we repopulate the core of our city and that’s really the fundamental mission of my organization.”

That mission is to make all of Memphis and Shelby County a better place by making Downtown Memphis a better place to live, work, play, visit, to invest and to heal.

People often don’t realize that the Downtown Memphis Commission’s definition of Downtown Memphis takes in about 6.5 square miles, including the Memphis Medical District between Poplar Avenue and Dunlap Street, Morris said.

While touting the Main Street Pedestrian Mall’s amenities – from the new Le Bonheur Community Health and Well Being to multifamily units enjoying nearly 100 percent occupancy – Morris was asked by an audience member if bringing cars to the street would spur future development.

But to Morris, focusing on the basics – such as infrastructure improvements – will yield dividends.

“I really don’t think that that’s the best use of our limited resources,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of places Downtown where there are cars on the street where retail’s not working and you’d spend a lot of political energy and a lot of money on that project as if it’s a panacea and then we still have the same fundamental problems we’ve got.”

Over the past year and a half, because of the new student population and increasing apartment options, Main Street has become “the hip place to be without car,” Morris said. Local Gastropub, for instance, doesn’t have any parking nearby and the patio is constantly filled with what Morris called “knowledge workers” – the kind of people that the city needs to attract and retain.

“What Downtown has really got is a strong sense of community,” Morris said. “When you work Downtown, or you live or you visit Downtown, you get that sense walking around, you see people you know, it feels kind of like Mayberry – a small town. It’s not easy to get in the suburbs when you’re driving around.”

But unfortunately, the Main Street mall is in horrible disrepair, Morris said. And for all of the policymakers on City Council who think Downtown gets too much attention and investment, he’s optimistic that they soon will share his vision of maintaining the vibrancy of the city’s core.

“Main Street mall in its day, you’ll remember, was a big project,” Morris said. “We get big projects, like The Pyramid, Beale Street Landing, FedExForum and others that are great. But we forget the maintaining the big projects of yesterday. The sad thing is right now, there’s nothing on the immediate horizon that will be a source of funding to fix those problems. But I’m hoping that one day the city will make that a higher priority and have the money to make those improvements occur.”

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