Bloomberg Philanthropies Grants Memphis $4.8M

By Bill Dries

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls it the “Mayors Project.” The $4.8 million, three-year grant his foundation announced Thursday, July 14, it is giving the city of Memphis is part of $24 million the Bloomberg Philanthropies will give to five cities including Memphis.

The grant demonstrates the porous border between Bloomberg’s mission as mayor and his nonprofit foundation that frequently pursues policy areas Bloomberg has championed in his role as mayor.

The Memphis grant is to come up with programs to reduce handgun violence and revitalize vacant property in the core city with new commercial activity and building.

The money will specifically go to fund an “innovation delivery team” that will come up with plans, set goals and monitor progress.

Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Ky., and New Orleans were the other cities to win grants announced this week.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. selected the goals of reducing gun violence and revitalizing vacant and abandoned properties outlined in the Memphis application.

Bloomberg started the foundation, which has assets estimated at more than $2 billion, in his second term as New York City mayor. He has donated more than $1.6 billion to different causes and organizations, according to the foundation’s website.

Forbes magazine estimated Bloomberg’s personal net value was $18 billion as of last March.

“Mayors are uniquely positioned to tackle some of our most pressing challenges,” Bloomberg told The Associated Press. “The Mayors Project will fuel these efforts by spreading effective programs and strategies between cities and helping mayors work together in new ways around solutions.”

Even before becoming Memphis mayor in late 2009, Wharton pursued discussions with Bloomberg.

The foundation has been involved in a variety of issues in both spheres including road safety, public arts programs and public health issues including what the foundation calls “tobacco control issues” – policies that limit or ban smoking.

Like Bloomberg, Wharton, a former Shelby County public defender, has taken the position that violent crime and particularly violent crime involving guns is more than a law enforcement issue but a public health issue.

Wharton and Bloomberg first talked about that and other issues in 2005 during a trip by Wharton to New York when he was Shelby County mayor.

Last year at about this time, Wharton – then city mayor – announced Bloomberg had drawn together a coalition of national nonprofit foundations who would partially fund an anti-poverty program that provided small cash rewards of between $50 and $200 for low-income citizens when they meet benchmarks in the program that included getting library cards or holding a job.

Carrying out the program depended on getting matching local funding from local nonprofits.

Meanwhile, the Thursday announcement capped a week in which Wharton and his administration advanced already considerable ties to the Obama administration aimed at quicker access to remaining federal government funding.

Memphis is one of six cities across the country that will have a federal team based locally to help city officials break through or circumvent federal bureaucratic red tape.

The federal funding at stake is typically grant money aimed at leveraging private investment for economic development. And competition for the funding has grown more intense.

The broad category covers everything from public infrastructure to the development of affordable housing to continued U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding for the development of mixed-use, mixed-income areas.

The Washington access and relationship began to bear fruit when George W. Bush was president and Willie Herenton was Memphis mayor.

The approach matches traditional ties to the White House through the city’s congressional representatives. But it also adds direct city contact with the presidential administration through cabinet-level contacts.

Through the Bush administration and into President Barack Obama’s administration, the city of Memphis has won five HOPE VI HUD grants that have made possible the dramatic change in the city’s public housing areas.

Demolition began in April of Cleaborn Homes with funding from the fifth HOPE VI grant. When the demolition is complete, neighboring Foote Homes will be the only one of the city’s large public housing developments still standing and operating as public housing.

Memphis was one of the first cities in the U.S. to have the large, Depression-era public housing projects and the demolition of the projects combined with the building of new mixed-use, mixed-income developments on the sites. It is a model for other large cities, according to HUD officials from both administrations who have visited the city over the years.