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Old Dog, New Tricks

Memphis leaders get schooled on new urbanism.


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The overall growth strategy for Memphis hasn't really worked in the last four decades, some say, and a series of talks beginning Tuesday is designed to get leaders and citizens speaking the same language as they consider changes for the city's future.

Memphis Boot Camp, which is led by a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Strong Towns, will bring in some of the nation's heaviest hitters on new urbanist thinking. Memphis leaders in government, business, and the nonprofit sector will hear from these speakers in a series of closed-door sessions that focus on urban planning, land use, taxes, government structures, public projects, and more. Each day will end with a free lecture that is open to the public.

While the discussions will touch on a wide range of issues, one underlying theme seems to connect them: For Memphis to grow stronger, it must find a new way forward.

Tommy Pacello, project manager with the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team, said the city is at a point of major change. To prove it, he points to the fact that the city's population has risen only 4 percent since 1970 (from 620,000 to 645,000) but the size of the city has grown 55 percent (from 208 square miles to 323). So the city government has to use basically the same tax base to care for a much bigger city, and that has stifled growth.

"We have to figure out if we're going to double down on what we've been doing and try to grow ourselves out of [a soft economic situation]," Pacello said. "Or can we begin to think a little differently about the direction we're heading and think about the different tools and strategies we might have?"

The Boot Camp will set a baseline for Memphis, Pacello said. The overall prosperity of Memphians will be the yardstick to measure the overall success or failure of growth strategies.

So far, Memphis, like so many other big cities, has experienced and paid for the sprawl away from the city's core in the last four decades. Also, the city has worked with other government agencies to provide big incentive packages for large companies to lure jobs here. Both methods have eroded the city's future tax revenues, according to some Boot Camp speakers.

"Prosperity for Memphis is not going to come from a mega-project the city undertakes or a business that can be subsidized to move to town. We've tried that approach," said Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn, a Boot Camp speaker. "Real, enduring prosperity for the residents and businesses of Memphis is possible only with a bottom-up effort that focuses on ongoing, incremental improvements through all of the city's neighborhoods."

For an example of this, Pacello points directly to the redevelopment of Broad Avenue. More than $20 million of private money has been invested there since 2010's "New Face for an Old Broad" event drew thousands to the once-forgotten area. All of the investments since then have been small — each under $1 million, Pacello said — and have been spread out over time.

"It's low-cost, creative, and leading to real results," Urban3 principal and Boot Camp speaker Joe Minicozzi said of new approaches to urban development. "In this way, Memphis is a model for cities across the country. The goal of Boot Camp is to inspire Memphians to collectively push it further."

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