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VOL. 127 | NO. 84 | Monday, April 30, 2012

Marohn: Cultivate, Don’t Hunt Growth

By Bill Dries

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It clearly wasn’t something done professionally. Chuck Marohn called the pavement markings in the Broad Avenue Arts District “guerilla art.”

“They went out with a bucket of paint,” he said as he showed a slide last week of the bicycle lane markings and parking space markings. “It looks like maybe my daughter did it. I love it. You have this labor of love out there by people who live there. … And all of a sudden you have businesses starting to open. Commerce is starting to take place.”

But he told the group of nearly 200 people at Ducks Unlimited headquarters at Agricenter International last week that the citizen-directed effort that painted the parking and bicycle lanes is just the kind of decentralized innovation needed to help cities grow.

Marohn, the founder of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Strong Towns, drew a crowd that included city and county planners, tea party activists, neighborhood groups, planning and architecture students, and planning and architecture firm principals.

The remarks capped a three-day visit to the city in which Marohn made a case that touched on the recent debate about how the city and county have pursued economic development.

He referred to the process of getting a company to move its headquarters or plant to a city from another as “economic hunting.”

The approach of attention to existing businesses Marohn favors is what he called “economic gardening.”

And Broad Avenue is the kind of garden Marohn is talking about.

He made the case that with tax freezes and abatements used as incentives, a new one of those relocated in a city doesn’t generate the return for local governments that an expansion of smaller existing businesses and improvements to their existing properties would.

When someone in the crowd questioned whether the area’s growing vibrancy was a function of the recently built school in the area, numerous people in the audience indicated it wasn’t.

Marohn said the school and neighboring apartment buildings are more isolated than they should be from the district by Sam Cooper Boulevard.

“There’s a moat of a road between this block and that school. There’s a moat of a road between this block and a whole new residential neighborhood,” he said. “What if the next time you went through and fixed Sam Cooper – instead of saying this is a maintenance project and assigning it to some technician to figure out how much paving to do – we said … this is a Memphis value creation project. How do we connect that residential neighborhood and the school to this street that is trying to emerge? How do we take an investment we are going to make in Sam Cooper anyway and tweak it however slightly so that we get a higher return on it?”

Showing a slide of a new fast food restaurant alongside a slide of a row of businesses in a visibly older street front, Marohn produced tax revenue figures showing the row generates more revenue in its most decrepit state than the new restaurant specializing in tacos does in its new condition.

He then turned again to the Broad Avenue district where Marohn heard rents have gone up 50 percent with the recent activity.

“I guarantee you there is no taco joint on the edge of town that will have a 50 percent increase in value even if we pave the roads with gold,” he said.

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