In “State of the City” address, Wharton Points the Way to His “One Memphis"

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Mayor Wharton at Kiwanis
  • jb
  • Mayor Wharton at Kiwanis
There was an overflow crowd on Wednesday when Mayor A C Wharton addressed the downtown Kiwanis Club at The Peabody. So many came to the Skyway to get the word that extra tables had to be set up. Everybody got served who wanted to be, but the desserts ran out in fairly short order.

Symbolically, that was just about right, since, for all the inspirational uplift of his address — and there was a good deal of that — the mayor made it clear that Memphians shouldn’t expect too many goodies right away. He didn’t dwell on the pending budget shortfall that may end up with either serious cuts or serious taxes, or some combination of both, but he didn’t brush it aside, either.

Wharton came armed with a 14-page prepared address, but he cut-and-pasted a-plenty and ad-libbed at will, rising to some of his best eloquence when he went off the page.

After citing as many of the Who’s Who types on hand as he could see or felt like acknowledging, he segued into a resounding passage: “We cannot wait for fortune to find us. We must find fortune. I’m here to tell you our boat will list in the sea no longer. Our course is charted. I am confident in our city’s future.”

And, after touching upon the usual high points in the city’s legacy — AutoZone, FedEx, Holiday Inn, St. Jude, and, latterly, the Broadway music “Memphis” — and listing such civic attributes as “a spirit of innovation, a hard work ethic, faith in God, and our faith in one another,” he stated bluntly, “We must stop being our own worst enemies.” Memphians, he said, “leave the ranks of those who bemoan what we once were and join the ranks of those who see what we can become.”

Wharton cited some of those Christmas Futures — “thriving” arts enterprises, the developing bio-med complex, the Chamber’s “Fast Forward” Plan which had created 3,000 jobs in a recession year, and — shades of University of Memphis athletic director R.J. Johnson — growth at Memphis International Airport, “the largest economic generator in the state of Tennessee.”

And the mayor noted that, on that very day, CNN, no less, had expressed interest in the city’s new policy of dealing with bad weather by restoring power to those MLGW customers who had defaulted on their bills. The “city of compassion” had committed itself to the proposition that “you will not suffer tonight.”

He also mentioned — intriguingly but without elaboration — “transformative” possibilities for The Pyramid and The Fairgrounds.

But — there was crime and poverty and this line from the mayor’s advance text: “I am talking about the lack of opportunities and lack of trust that have driven a generation of men and women out of our city because they did not feel Memphis had what they needed, nor did we appreciate what they had to offer.”

There was a fine balance to that, as there was to the address as a whole — much of which was directed to the members of “an ascendant generation” of Memphians.

“I will never, ever, ever succumb to the nation that poverty leads to crime…that if you’re poor, you’re going to resort to crime,” Wharton said. The poor have “the same values, the same dreams, the same aspirations” as their better-off fellow citizens. But, he conceded, poverty created a “milieu” that could tempt deprived young people into misdeeds.

Crime being a reality, Wharton pledged that the city would be unstinting in his effort to preserve public safety, and he mentioned “a number of initiatives” to combat crime. He promised a “study,” a “fresh look,” some means of getting “illegal guns off the street.”

But: “Young people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law need their freedom once they have paid their debt to society.” Without some effort to redress the wrongs of the “milieu” from which they came and to which they return, “they never leave the jail.” As one remedy, the mayor proposed to find more jobs, and to freely use tax incentives and other tools to do so. He was, as he noted, conducting a “jobs forum” at the Ben Hooks Library that very afternoon.

He gave lip service, and maybe more, to an old goal. “For some time, it is no secret, I have been advocating for a consolidated, metropolitan form of government.” He still would be, he assured his audience, in the interests of efficiency. “We can eliminate the needless, wasteful bureaucracy that deters good companies and good jobs from making Memphis their home.”

On the basis of a recent conversation with Vice President Biden, Wharton held out the promise of new money headed “straight to the city.” He knew how to use it, to build a new river wall, say, to put roofers, carpenters, and painters back to work, so long as the funds came to Memphis and not to Atlanta or Nashville. He didn’t “need a regional director in Atlanta, Georgia, “nor do I need a governor” to dole out the funds or tell him how to use them.

That was an evocation of an old quarrel, dating from his tenure as county mayor, that Wharton has had with the concept of money being routed through Nashville at the discretion of Governor Bredesen. He lashed out at the very notion of “from-the-top-down” controls over stimulus funds. Help should be routed “from Main Street up and not from Wall Street down,” he said.

Highlights of the brief Q and A that followed his remarks included a pledge to give “serious thought to not giving pay raises in the coming year,” coupled with a vow not to “take back” raises already given.” Though the tax increases he requested have been stonewalled by the council, he felt optimistic about finding “some constructive opportunities for dealing with our debt, anyhow.”

Wharton called for better and strictly enforced spay and neuter laws, and he answered a question about neglect and worse at the Animal Shelter by opining that “we give ourselves a false sense of relief when we fire people when we have not yet fired up our consciences.”

The mayor had concluded his formal remarks with an “appeal to our people, to the best in them and not to the worst in them, to find the things that bring them together,” to help bring about the “One Memphis”of his campaign rhetoric.

He had promised to get the ship of state moving, that it would “list in the sea no longer.” It was clear from the generally enthusiastic reception to his remarks that he would be given the benefit of the doubt to do just that.

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