Downtown Overkill

Is the rest of the city being shortchanged?

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Just what Memphis needed: more special pleading for downtown.

State Rep. Larry Miller, in a guest column in The Commercial Appeal, says that even though an estimated $2 billion in downtown projects are underway, "we need at least that much more in new projects to complete the turnaround. Another $100 million is needed in infrastructure improvements downtown and in the Medical Center."

Miller is one of many politicians and government employees who have figured out that it is a lot more fun, prestigious, and lucrative to climb on the downtown bandwagon than it is to muddle around in Nashville or the rest of Memphis. He is past chairman of the Center City Commission (CCC) and a member of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority (PBA) in addition to being -- ho hum, how boring -- one of 99 representatives in the General Assembly.

The list of downtown boosters now includes the CCC, Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), PBA, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Memphis Development Foundation. Should they stumble, they can expect help from able developers like Henry Turley, Jack Belz, and John Dudas (a former head of the CCC). Five newspapers, one television station, three of the city's largest advertising agencies, and the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce have their main offices downtown.

Helping to run those agencies is a growing list of full-time and part-time government employees, including three former city division directors (Benny Lendermon of Public Works, John Conroy of Engineering, and Dexter Muller of Planning and Development), two former city council members (Pat Halloran and Jeff Sanford), one former county department head (Dave Bennett of Engineering), and assorted assistants and appointed board members like Miller and state Sen. John Ford. If you want to get something done downtown, you no longer politic the city council. You politic the CCC or the RDC or the PBA.

Why worry about running the whole cumbersome city and county when you can focus all your efforts on a piece that constitutes about 1 percent of the more than 300 square miles in the city of Memphis?

As Memphis annexes yet another chunk of land, it's becoming clear that geographic size has its problems. With a population of just over 600,000 people spread from the river to Cordova on the east and from Raleigh on the north to Whitehaven on the south, there is no common cause and no critical mass of energy and influence to get things done in older, deteriorating parts of the city.

So Midtown sits on the Sears Building, Crump Stadium, Tim McCarver Stadium, and the Fairgrounds. Whitehaven starves for retail development. Raleigh, Frayser, Fox Meadows, and Hickory Hill watch their public school enrollment decline and their shopping malls close. Frayser needs a railroad to give up an abandoned line so it can replace old factories with golf courses for kids.

All these far-flung places from the past have lost their luster and are no fun to talk about anymore. And nothing's being done about them because there are always newer places, more glamorous places, more promising places to go when your city is bigger than St. Louis, Atlanta, and Birmingham combined. Stonebridge needs streetlights and police officers. Cordova needs new schools. And downtown needs another $2 billion-plus and may well get it because it has the combined influence of politicians, consultants, the media, and private citizens like Dean and Kristi Jernigan who, as reported here nine months ago, are moving to Europe for an extended stay.

Things are changing so fast in our disposable city that even relatively recent additions like The Pyramid are in danger of becoming obsolete when the new arena opens in two years. The Pyramid shows what can happen when a city channels its taxes and resources into dedicated projects and taxing districts instead of into the general fund. For eight years, it made a modest operating profit. Then, last year, despite the presence of the Memphis Grizzlies and 41 home games, it lost money. There was more money coming in, but it was allocated differently among the Grizzlies, the University of Memphis, the managers of The Pyramid, and the city and county.

A proposal is coming up before the CCC that would make all of downtown a special taxing district, with incremental revenues earmarked only for downtown.

That will be great for downtown residents and all those consultants and boosters who make a living off of some downtown project or cause. But it won't be much comfort to people in North Memphis, Midtown, Raleigh, Fox Meadows, Cordova, Whitehaven, or Orange Mound.

There is another way to go: Focus on small, relatively inexpensive projects instead of huge ones like a downtown taxing district, the new arena, the trolley, and a land bridge to Mud Island.

Give Mud Island a chance to work as a free park with improved pedestrian access and marketing. Fix its southern tip so it doesn't look like a sandbar.

Make Joe Royer, dedicated outdoorsman and founder of the Great Mississippi River Canoe and Kayak Race, the unofficial commissioner of riverfront recreation.

Build the riverboat landing at the foot of Tom Lee Park at the entrance to the harbor.

Rebuild the boat ramp for fishermen at the north end of Mud Island.

Invite Memphians and tourists to enjoy the great new sidewalk along Riverside Drive between Tom Lee Park and Jefferson Davis Park. Complete the trail from the National Ornamental Metal Museum to the Mud Island Greenbelt.

Experiment with putting traffic back on the mall.

Knock down the old Baptist Hospital so Pitt Hyde can get to work on something new.

This would help downtown continue to grow and not shortchange the rest of the city. And it wouldn't cost another $2 billion.

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