Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz is a first-termer who, on issues ranging from outsourcing Head Start programs to combating sexually oriented businesses, has indicated a willingness to stick his neck out. He is about to do so again.
This week, Ritz threw down the gauntlet against funding a developmental proposal which the University of Memphis is pushing hard and which Ritz sees as an out-and-out rip-off of the taxpayers.
The projec, approved by a 7-2 vote in committee Wednesday and up before the full commission next week, would require TIF (tax increment financing) outlays for a portion of the adjacent Highland Street strip as a "gateway" to the university. The premise of TIF projects is that they generate significant increases in the tax base over the long haul.
"These TIFs are supposed to be used for public projects," Ritz says. These include such things, as he has pointed out in notes sent to the media, as housing developments, street and sewer improvements, lighting, and parks.
But the Poag McEwen Lifestyle Center project on Highland, as Ritz sees it, is little more than a "gift" to the developers, who propose building a retail center/apartment complex on the west side of Highland from Fox Channel 13 north to the site now occupied by Highland Church of Christ.
"The University of Memphis is running interference for something that shouldn't get done," says Ritz, who maintains that the developers would be using a total of $12 million from the city and county and would be under no obligation to pay any of it back.
"There has been no analysis done on this project, and it contains no performance requirements," says Ritz, who argues in his distributed notes about the project that "retail centers move sales and jobs around, they do not grow local economy; [there is] no growth of jobs or tax base." In a conversation this week, he added, "It's like moving checkers around on checkerboards. There's no lasting benefit."
Ritz's statement of concern comes on the heels of two new reports.
One report from county trustee Bob Patterson notes that 120 local companies have tax freezes under PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) programs and that some $44 million worth of county property taxes and 372 parcels of land are involved in the programs.
Another report, from the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board's performance and assessment committee, indicates the likelihood of default by several corporations on obligations relating to their tax breaks under PILOT programs. Under the circumstances, Ritz says, the Highland project amounts to an additional "giveaway" which the county simply can't afford.
University of Memphis officials have been aggressively promoting the project as a way of shoring up the university's "front door." One who concurs is veteran U of M booster Harold Byrd, who has had his differences with university president Shirley Raines concerning her lack of enthusiasm for an on-campus football stadium, of which Byrd has been a strong proponent.
But Byrd says he's on "the same page" with Raines about the Highland Street project. "It would shore up an area that, particularly south and west of campus, has begun to deteriorate." Citing what he says is a prevalence of "cash-for-title businesses, pawnshops, and fortune tellers," Byrd says, "It's definitely a distressed commercial and retail area." Moreover, he says, "the residential area south of the university is in strong decline."
Both circumstances would respond positively to the proposed Poag McEwen Lifestyle Center, he said, and the "gateway" aspect of the project would benefit the entire community, not just the university area itself. (For more on this perspective, see "City Campus".)
On the first round on Wednesday, the Highland TIF project, which has the imprimatur of the Memphis and Shelby County Redevelopment Agency, got preliminary support on the County Commission, too. The 7-2 vote in favor (Wyatt Bunker joined Ritz in opposition) came despite a recusal from Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor.
Though Ritz continues to lobby his colleagues against the Highland TIF proposal, the commission is scheduled to take up and almost certainly approve the measure on a formal vote next week.
• This coming week sees the formal completion of the 2007 Memphis election cycle, with four City Council runoffs being decided on Thursday, November 8. The contests are between Stephanie Gatewood and Bill Morrison in District 1; Bill Boyd and Brian Stephens in District 2; Harold Collins and Ike Griffith in District 3; and Edmund Ford Jr. and James O. Catchings in District 6. Pre-election updates,as well as full coverage of the results, will be posted on the Flyer Web site and in next week's print issue.