VOL. 8 | NO. 1 | Saturday, December 27, 2014
The Memphis News staff
The end of the year hastens a season of resolutions about the year ahead, resolutions about what to include on the blank canvas of a new year.
No matter who you are, the road to 2015 starts at the same place – through the experience of 2014. With that in mind, we surveyed many of the people we’ve covered in these pages in the last year to talk about the possibilities ahead.
We told them to feel free to stray beyond the borders of the areas and topics we usually approach them about or to talk just about those issues they work with every day. It was their choice and we often got a bit of both.
We already know a few things about the year ahead by dates already marked on our calendars. It’s another election year. There is a special session of the Tennessee Legislature later in January in Nashville. Construction is underway on the Crosstown project. The Chickasaw Trail Industrial Park in Marshall County, Miss., will continue to change the area and economies north and south of the state line. Pre-kindergarten services under Shelby County Schools will expand dramatically with an infusion of funding from several sources. The Shelby Farms Park Greenline will expand to cross Germantown Parkway with construction beginning in the spring.
As we report on all of these stories and many more in the year ahead, we strive to also make these stories part of the larger narrative that is thoroughly Memphis.
Dr. Scott Morris, founder of the Church Health Center:
“In the world we live in, in Memphis, we end up on too many lists – the worst of this, the worst of that,” said Morris, who’s preparing for a future move of his Midtown institution to the Crosstown building. Meanwhile, the center continues to try to move the city’s metrics when it comes to the health of the city’s poor, including its working poor.
Practically speaking, he says the city could make a commitment to providing every pregnant woman in the Memphis area with quality prenatal care. “That’s a doable thing.”
“But I’m convinced we can lead the world in one thing and that’s working together,” Morris adds. “That’s how you solve these problems. It’s really not about more money or more anything. You address crime through giving people opportunities to live hopeful lives. That’s the solution to crime.”
Sally Jones Heinz, executive director of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association:
“Being a part of MIFA has taught me that there are so many rewards for us as individuals and as a community when we intentionally expand our comfort zone,” Heinz said. “When we get to know a person whose life is different from ours, a person whom we would not ordinarily know, we become larger, more compassionate and more eager to serve. My hope is that Memphians will continue to seek and explore the opportunity to grow in this way.”
Heinz said how Memphians discuss issues and see each other is just as important as the positions they take.
“I am hopeful that Memphians can continue to move beyond an either/or, right/wrong mode in addressing issues and solving problems. As we serve members of our community, we fail when we see our efforts as ‘the blessed’ helping ‘the needy.’ But we thrive when we see ourselves as brothers and sisters, all of whom have blessings and all of whom have needs.”
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.:
“Some may say it’s been a bad year because of the turmoil and the pain surrounding benefit reform,” Wharton said. “I think it will become a foundational year of really getting the city on a sound, sustainable financial footing.”
As for 2015, it will be an election year at City Hall and Wharton has said repeatedly he will be running for re-election – and he will be running on his record of changes to city government benefits and tough decisions in a local economy that has been slow to recover.
“Every time we think we have a dollar that’s not attached to something, we hear that giant sucking sound. I hope we will see some breathing room. We won’t be out of the woods yet. But we will be able to spot that trajectory down the road.”
Taylor Berger, restaurateur and Memphis booster:
Berger suggests 10 ways Memphis can prosper in 2015. His list, in its entirety:
“1. Grow locally. Focus on helping established local businesses grow rather than solely on enticing out-of-town companies to move here with costly incentives.
2. Innovate tourism. Convert Peabody Place into a high-tech convention center for small to medium-sized groups that works in collaboration with the Cook Convention Center.
3. Invest incrementally. Instead of huge, risky, public debt-financed projects, invest in many small, neighborhood-level private projects and iterate off what works.
4. Build connectors. Give priority to projects like the Greenline, bike lanes and efficient public transportation rather than bigger roads that serve new development outside the city core.
5. Demolish silos. Create a set of values and strategy for multidisciplinary collaboration to unlock the hidden potential of city and county government agencies that currently operate more or less independently of one another.
6. Attack blight. Enforce laws to make slumlords and delinquent property owners pay and clean up or sell out. Publicize and sell the county land bank properties.
7. Increase transparency. Create an easily navigable online hub for local government studies, presentations, meetings and other information.
8. Get smaller. Memphis has half the population of Detroit but twice the area. There’s a huge cost to maintaining infrastructure over this area. Stop annexation now, and consider de-annexation where it makes sense.
9. Reduce roadblocks. Target outmoded laws and regulations that stifle innovation and entrepreneurship. If the only reason it’s on the books is because it ‘always’ has been, get rid of it.
10. Empower citizens. Examine citizen/government interaction, services and procedures; simplify them and publish coherent instructions online.”
Michael Ugwueke, president and chief operating officer of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare:
“Anything we do as a city to improve (high school) graduation rates and improve education, that will help us from an economic standpoint,” said Ugwueke, who became leader of the Memphis institution in 2014 after more than a year as chief operating officer and executive vice president.
Ugwueke’s ascendance is one of several changes in the last year in local health care with more changes in the upper ranks likely in the future.
“A lot of things have been happening (in Memphis), many very positive. Some of the revitalization – Overton Square and Sears Crosstown. Maybe some of those things can be replicated, including the Elvis Presley Boulevard Improvements Project.”
DeAndre Brown, executive director of the Lifeline to Success program:
“Blight is our wheelhouse,” Brown said at year’s end. He also believes it’s an unconventional way into race relations.
Through the blight patrol as a way of felons re-entering society, the workers encounter a broader group of people and those people encounter men and women on an individual basis that they previously may have regarded as a faceless problem.
“We should work intentionally on bridging that divide between the different races,” he said. “Our crews will be in every neighborhood. … Come out and speak to our men and women and they will be respectful. They understand it’s bigger than us. We have to find innovative new ways to bring these things to pass.”
In the coming year, he also hopes to make progress on work for felons beyond the blight patrol. “What our program is supposed to do is give them a work ethic – teach them the value of work and then prepare them for the workforce. This is not supposed to be a permanent position.”
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell:
“I see so many indications that tell me this is a community that’s on the move,” Luttrell said outside the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual luncheon. “You can say that’s Pollyannish. But I like to say it’s being extremely optimistic based upon the trends I’m seeing. Let’s see if the optimism plays out.
“We’re still climbing. … Our unemployment rate is high, but it’s getting lower. The poverty level is high, but it’s getting lower. We’re making some significant progress in the area of education. … I see some leadership in our schools that looks good.”
Ben Fant, principal and creative director at Farmhouse:
“My New Year's resolution for Memphis would be the continued revitalization and beautification of commercial areas and storefronts within the city. I have been so thrilled to witness all of these new, ‘old’ spaces come back to life. We are creating a stronger city. We are building better communities. We are removing blight. We are making an economy that is not based off of large corporations, but rather small business. And we are making a more compelling environment for visitors who will spread the word about a city that is trying. Let's continue the reinvestment in what is available. We still have a lot to do.”
Kemp Conrad, principal at Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors:
Kemp Conrad views the city of Memphis through a unique set of eyes.
Conrad is also a member of the 13-member Memphis City Council, giving him a distinct outlook on government and business and the sometimes contentious nexus of the two.
After surviving a bruising 2014 at City Hall, a year when the business community, led in large part by the Greater Memphis Chamber, advocated reeling in municipal benefits, including pensions and health care, Conrad would like to see the public and private sectors coalesce around less volatile topics like job creation or early childhood education.
“My hope is that all stakeholders can get aligned around a common agenda so we can move forward and win together,” said Conrad. “Memphis will not survive in a zero-sum game where when one group wins another group loses.”
Conrad said he hopes both sides can lay down their arms, tone down the rhetoric and focus on policies and discussions that lead to job creation and investment, which help fill public coffers.
“We must ‘grow the business’ by attracting more businesses and residents,” he said. “We can’t grow if we are fighting and squabbling about who gets the shrinking pile of scraps on the table.”
Conrad, citing the “moon missions” launched by the chamber’s Chairman’s Circle and a recent grant for pre-K education, said he is increasingly optimistic about the role the business community will play in advancing Memphis in 2015.
“The business community’s involvement will lead to a seismic positive shift for Memphis,” said Conrad. “This is a great example of business being a force for good, and when business partners with the government and the nonprofit community, anything is possible.”
Conrad, a father of two, said one of the biggest issues facing Memphis and one he will devote an increasing amount of time to in 2015 is improving conditions for the city’s children.
“How do we make Memphis the best city in the country for children and families?” Conrad asked. “This is an eternal and spiritual issue, and if we can figure this out, we can accomplish anything.”