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Creative Merger

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Mayor Willie Herenton is getting creative.

Now in his fifth term, the mayor proposed a renewed push for consolidation last week. Only this time, he proposed a countywide vote rather than separate polls for Memphians and suburban citizens.

Of course, that means changing the rules ... er, the state constitution, but again, he's getting creative.

I can see the mayor's logic. If there are more than 900,000 people living in Shelby County and 650,000 of them live inside the city limits, a consolidated vote is the best chance for consolidation. But even consolidating that is going to be a challenge.

In a column from January 3rd, my colleague John Branston wrote that if crime, higher taxes, bad schools, and King Willie didn't sink consolidation (again), a decades-old spirit of isolation between the city and the county will.

I have to say I agree. Residents in all the municipalities — Memphis, included — are going to act in their own, separate, best interest, even if a consolidated government could leave everyone better off. It's like the prisoner's dilemma, only with economies of scale.

For people in Memphis, consolidation would mean consolidated taxes, one funding body for education, and one government. Memphians now pay twice for things such as the Health Department (once in their city taxes and once with their county taxes).

Even though Shelby Countians who live outside of Memphis pay lower taxes, they're not entirely well-served by the current arrangement.

The tax discrepancy provides a financial incentive for people to move out of Memphis and into unincorporated parts of the county, contributing to sprawl and increasing costs for sewers, roads, and schools, which, in turn, raises taxes. (Of course, as gas prices rise, they might create a "tax" on people who work in Memphis but live outside the city limits.)

Some parts of government already have recognized cost savings from working together: Last year, the county saved $2 million by piggybacking off of Memphis' fuel contract.

But I've long argued for consolidation because I think the artificial boundaries of "the city and the county" pit the community — neighbors even — against each other. In a global economy, 20 miles apart is barely a hop. We act as if it's worlds away.

And Herenton isn't the only one who needs to get creative.

Last month, Richard Florida, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, was in town to speak at the Memphis Regional Chamber's annual chairman's luncheon. Perhaps to signal a renewed energy, the Peabody Ballroom was arranged "in the round" with a stage at the center of the room and a guitar, guitar case, and bicycle hanging from the ceiling. Dessert took the shape of tiny chocolate airplanes, ready for takeoff from a pear pomegranate compote.

"Memphis is special because it has a true soul," Florida told those assembled. "With logistics and [Memphis music], you have an amazing combination of assets."

Florida, whose theory says that a high number of knowledge workers, musicians, and artists correlate to economic development, spoke about the economic transformation happening now.

"Labor can be done more cheaply and effectively elsewhere around the globe," he said. "The only competitive edge places have left are their people and their creativity.

"I'll tell you what matters: The bottom line of my theory is that every single human being is creative," he said.

Despite the prevailing idea of the creative class as a group of young, hip workers, Florida said his idea should encompass everyone in a city.

"It's not just about harnessing the creative class or stealing them from another town. It's about making a place where every human being can be creative," he said. "We don't need another Silicon Valley [or] another Austin, Texas."

If you believe Florida and that creativity is key, how does one grow it? Can it be nurtured?

Typically, ingenuity and originality often occur at crossroads of culture, geography, and time. Openness and acceptance help breed creativity. Isolationism and separatism do not.

Consolidation might not make area residents more creative — except Herenton, of course — but staying separate just reinforces the same old story.

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