First, a big turnout, with the council chamber roughly two thirds full. Lots of supporters of CVS with their "Jobs" stickers and lots of preservation supporters with their own stickers. It's only a drug store, some might say (including me), but this issue touched people in a way that got them involved and passionate enough to come to a long meeting.
I'd give good marks to the council and good marks to the speakers. Chairman Harold Collins made a reasonable suggestion to limit comments from both sides, and when it was politely declined, he shrugged it off and simply agreed to let everyone have their say. In our age of anonymous online haters and slanderers, it was refreshing to see so many people stand up and give their names before they spoke. Just as it was refreshing to see the council members, often criticized for talking too much, patiently listening to a debate that I suspect struck some of them as a tempest in a teapot compared to the problems in their districts.
The debate split Midtown and Midtowners. I have known pastor Mark Matheny, a CVS proponent, for many years as the former minister of Trinity United Methodist Church in my neighborhood. Good guy. Jeffrey Lancaster, minister of the church that was bidding to take over the building, is one of my current neighbors. Good guy. Unlike some council debates, where the sides are clear in the audience because of skin color or uniforms, this crowd looked more alike than different.
Interesting and compelling comments on both sides. And, once again, so much more powerful and gutsy because they were made in person, by name. Watching the first part of the debate in person and listening to more of it on the radio (I do not have the patience of a council member) I changed my view several times. There was the woman who was married, twice, in the old church. The minister of Union Avenue United Methodist Church, Birgitte French, telling how membership had declined to 40 people. Councilman Barbara Ware pointing out the blighted corner at Summer and East Parkway, where a Walgreen's proposal was rejected several years ago and now the corner is worse. Councilman Jim Strickland warning that the council, past and present, is partly to blame for the sprawl on Winchester and Germantown Parkway and that Midtown deserves better.
I see no reason for anyone to cry about this. For one thing, the tear-down may never happen. CVS has other options and a lot to comply with now that the council has spoken. It was a fair fight, honestly fought by both sides. That's all you can ask for. Move on. I don't buy the suggestion that this was another glaring example of insensitivity that will drive away from Memphis a generation of America's best and brightest. I've lived in Midtown for 28 years and we have put up with and overcome much worse.
What would help going forward is a stronger Office of Code Enforcement. Again and again I hear someone — the council, a neighbor, the Center City Commission, me — blame weak code enforcement for a crack house, an eyesore, a blighted street or neighborhood. So give the office more muscle. Take away that excuse. Strickland suggests a corps of "reserve" officers, ala the police reserves, to note violators.
But I think more than that is needed. I — jokingly — told Strickland I want to give 'em guns. What I mean is they need to be able to impose fines and make them stick.
Code enforcement is doable now, with the government structure we have. It cuts across neighborhoods and districts. It's something most of us can agree on. The benefits are sooner, not later. Once the consolidation issue is disposed of or passed, I hope tougher code enforcement becomes one of top civic priorities and picks up the same clout.