Not long ago, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton sat down at the newspaper offices of The Marion Salute just across the river in Arkansas and delivered himself of some explicit remarks in favor of that community's prospects for becoming the site of a new Toyota plant. Good. One way or another we've made clear our own hopes for that outcome -- a highly salutary one for the economy of the greater Memphis area.
But -- and there is a "but" clause: Why was it that Wharton, speaking last week to the downtown Rotary Club of Memphis, could not bring himself to be equally forthright about the desirability of the nearby Arkansas location? For the record, here are portions of what the mayor said to our Rotarians about Marion: "So anything that goes there would be good. Obviously, if we could get it into the Tennessee tax base, it would be even better."
Huh? Did he mean that if Chattanooga, a major rival to Marion for the plant, got the nod from Toyota instead, the indirect benefits to Memphis from the sales tax and other state revenues would be "even better" for us than the direct provision of jobs and dollars in our very midst?
After another rhetorical nod or two toward Marion, Wharton followed that up with his own "but" clause: "But I will not be in the position of saying it ought to be there [Marion], as opposed to Alamo, Tennessee, which I heard yesterday is also still in the running, or Chattanooga." If some in his audience thought they had misheard, the county mayor repeated himself: "[A]nything that brings jobs and development to this area, I support it, but I will not get into a position ... and make this clear: I will not say it ought to be in Marion [or] Chattanooga."
With all due respect to the mayor's open-mindedness, what gives here? What's the source of all this noble neutrality, when -- as Wharton, his County Commission, and all who keep up at all with current events know -- one of the most agonizing reappraisals going on in these parts concerns the serious and growing doubts as to the wisdom of PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of taxes) programs extended as bait for new industry by local government. The term in vogue for such programs these days is "giveaways" -- measured as a correlate to the widening gap between governmental revenues and needed government services.
So are we to turn up our nose at the idea of new industry coming to our area free of charge? Is that beneath our dignity? Counter to some secret vow of masochism?
Are Mayor Wharton and his fellow chief executive, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton (who has kept a strict silence on the matter), beholden in some hitherto unrevealed way to Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen -- who for obvious reasons would prefer that Toyota locate in Chattanooga or Alamo?
Has some deal been made that we don't know about which would enrich us here in Shelby County by some governmental happenstance? In which case, we would merely request that our local chief executives stop being so inscrutable and Buddha-like and start talking turkey. Otherwise, it would appear that they're playing a game of mumblety-peg -- at our expense.