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VOL. 10 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 22, 2017

Riding New Wave

In RegionSmart world, leaders learn to love their neighbors

By Don Wade

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In 2007, about a half-dozen Memphis companies came together to found the Urban Land Institute Memphis chapter. It was a fine start. Six years later, ULI Memphis was convening a group of mayors from the tri-state area and, at least initially, trying very hard to make it informal and non-threatening.

“We went to them and said, `If y’all get to know each other, it’s a good thing,’” said ULI Memphis director Anna Holtzclaw. “If you want to get together and drink beer and eat barbecue, that’s a good thing.

“They decided to be more responsible.”

Which isn’t to say that shared responsibility has never happened over beer and barbecue. But the Mid-South Mayors’ Council meets six times a year with topics such as workforce development, education and transportation as focal points. Last year, the council hosted the first annual RegionSmart – a summit aimed at demonstrating the layered powered of regional collaboration.

The second RegionSmart is being held on April 27 at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education. This year’s agenda: area workforce development, transportation and land use. Registration, which is $125, opens at 8:30 a.m. The programming begins at 9 a.m. and runs until 5 p.m., with a reception to follow. Visit regionsmart.org/register to register in advance. The Memphis Daily News is a sponsor of the event.

Last year’s summit brought in several heavy-hitters as speakers. This year’s will do the same and retrofitting suburbia and sustainable transportation planning are two of the subjects. But Holtzclaw’s favorite moment from the 2016 summit was a more casual one between two women working and living in different states, attending this event in Downtown Memphis.

It seems the mayor of a small town in Arkansas was telling another woman who lived in Hernando, Mississippi, but commuted to work in Memphis, about the park her town was about to build. The woman from Hernando not only said she would be there to help, but that she would bring other volunteers with her.

It was good old-fashioned neighborliness, across many miles and state lines. No government meetings required, no unwieldy committees convened.

Six-year-old Lily Little hula-hoops at A Day of Merrymaking in Overton Park, a park citizens have defended for decades.

(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

That story, Holtzclaw says, fits in perfectly with the message from one of RegionSmart’s main speakers this year: Peter Kageyama, author of “For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places.”

Kageyama recognizes that cities have to be mindful of budgets and expenses while also providing the essentials – everything from police protection and fire service to fixing potholes. Recognizes it, but doesn’t belabor it.

“People appreciate you for that,” Kageyama said. “They don’t love you for that. There’s no emotional return on investment for fixing potholes.”

Memphis, for example, is buzzing about its ambitious projects – from the Greenprint to Chisca on Main to Central Station to Crosstown Concourse; that’s where passion pushes progress.

“We can get wrapped up in finances,” Kageyama said. “And we tend to think of ourselves as intellectual creatures. I don’t think that’s true. We’re emotional creatures. We make emotional decisions. And then we’re smart enough to rationalize them: `I bought that red sports car because …’

“We may disagree to what extent love matters (in terms of cities), but when people, pets or plants are loved, they thrive.”


The second annual RegionSmart will start with Dr. Jim Johnson from UNC Chapel Hill laying out, as he did last year, the demographic trends shaping not only America but the Mid-South.

“He talked about the graying and browning of America and that’s also true in Germantown and Memphis,” said J.T. Malasri, principal of Malasri Engineering and a ULI advisory board member.

Those two demographic realities are having, and will continue to have, a profound effect going forward. As Malasri notes, every city or town has a set tax base. And infrastructure, like the population, will age and need more care. And that costs money.

It is a shared challenge even if cities and towns are working out of their own budgets. So individual communities, and the region, benefit from bringing in more business and revenue. Sounds basic, but competition is real, too, and perhaps even more so fear of competitors can be real.

Overton Square, a retail, entertainment and arts district in Midtown, is enjoying its second incarnation and drawing a new generation of patrons.

(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“The fact RegionSmart is happening and was a huge success last year shows a slight paradigm shift,” Malasri said.

“There are certainly hurdles. Some suburbs feel that they can function alone without Memphis,” said David Bradford, a senior principal with SSR, a Memphis engineering and consulting firm, and also a part of ULI. “But RegionSmart kind of opens everybody’s minds up. They’re not just concerned about their own little sandbox where they play.”

Collaboration and regionalization can be about as big as you want to make it. Kageyama notes that Memphis is part of a megaregion with Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, and he sees benefits to that for the Bluff City when trying to lure industry and business to the southeastern United States.

“That’s cool because if you and Atlanta and Charlotte are in competition against Hong Kong and Shanghai, it’s a bit more of a fair fight,” he said.

But the thrust of the summit is around the tri-state area. Regionalism for that purpose, Bradford says, goes as far west as Little Rock, Arkansas, as far to the east as Jackson, Tennessee, as far north as the Tennessee-Kentucky line, and as far south as Grenada, Mississippi.

“That’s still a pretty big region,” Bradford said.

More of the focus, however, falls on Shelby, Fayette and Tipton counties in Tennessee, Crittenden County in Arkansas, and DeSoto, Marshall, Tate and Tunica counties in Mississippi.

The Greenprint, of course, literally spreads the idea of regionalism. It’s a 25-year plan to create 500 miles of greenway trails and 200 miles of bicycle paths across the three states. And it’s a likable, even lovable, kind of project.

Meantime, there is also a growing shift back to the urban core – new development of all shapes and sizes bringing people into Midtown and Downtown to work, play, live.

Jessica Reeves, 34, an attorney in the Memphis office of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP, and who grew up here, just moved back to town in 2013 after working in the firm’s Nashville office.

“I chose to relocate,” she said. “I saw a big change in the city just in three years – the energy, the passion. The Overton Square project, the Crosstown project, Shelby Farms (expanding) … people are starting to feel a love for Memphis.”


The Mayors’ Council includes everyone from Memphis’ Jim Strickland and Shelby County’s Mark H. Luttrell to the mayors of Marion, Arkansas, Walls, Mississippi, and Covington, Tennessee.

Justin Hanson, 37, is the mayor of Covington.

“We have three states surrounding the largest city in Tennessee,” he said. “The more times we cross those state lines, the better off we’ll be.”

He jokingly says his own town is on the “west coast of Tennessee,” notes that it’s home to people who work in Memphis, but that there are also people who live in Memphis and work in Covington.

He’s optimistic about the future, hopeful about what becomes of the 4,100-acre, $106 million Memphis Regional Megasite located mostly in nearby Hardeman County, but he also remains mindful about running the town day to day.

“You think a mayor’s job is difficult?” he asks. “Wait till somebody’s garbage doesn’t get picked up.”

It’s true. It’s also, as Kageyama points out, not what makes residents passionate about a place.

The bigger picture of progress must go deeper, be more emotional. This is perhaps especially so for millennials, who have their own opinions on workforce development, education, land use, transportation and any other topic you care to name.

“Millennials might want green transportation,” Bradford said. “Carpooling, biking.”

Said Reeves: “I meet a lot of millennials not from here. Whether it’s Teach for America or other things that bring them to Memphis, a lot are staying. It’s an affordable city and there are great spaces here that do compete with larger cities. But there’s also still work to do and they want to feel a purpose for what they’re doing.”

And then there’s this: Kageyama says studies show that two-thirds of millennials first choose the place they want to live, then the place they want to work.

“That’s not logical,” he said, “but their attitude is, `that feels like me, that nurtures the kind of person I want to be.’”

So there is momentum for collaboration at several levels. And the more towns, counties and cities that once viewed each other only as competitors can see each other as partners, the more opportunity there is for broader, larger, and more sustainable progress.

It’s an adjustment that creates, in Kageyama’s view, a new dynamic: “friendenemies.”

Said Holtzclaw: “I like what one mayor said: `If a business can’t move into my county, I sure as hell want it in the county next-door as opposed to going to Indianapolis, Houston or Charlotte.’

“I said last year, we’re trying to change the definition of ‘we,’” she added. “And ‘we’ means all of us in the Mid-South.”

Beer and barbecue optional.

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