Opinion » Viewpoint

River City Rivals

Louisville consolidated this week. Will Memphis follow suit?



The old Southern river town had finally had enough.

Enough of the squabbling between city and county governments. Enough of seeing rival cities get the goodies. Enough of being the butt of jokes in the national media. Enough of being spurned by professional sports teams. Enough of the fading glory of yesterday's stars and celebrities and the low profile of Conference USA. Enough of being displaced by its neighbor to the east as the largest city in the state.

So on Monday the city of Louisville officially consolidated with Jefferson County, Kentucky, to become Metro Louisville, going from being the 67th-largest city in the country to the 16th-largest and overtaking, among others, Lexington, Kentucky, and Memphis.

In his inauguration speech, Mayor Jerry Abramson said, "Our city has been fractured too long along racial and economic lines, along the lines of suburban and urban." He talked about the importance of Louisville having one vision and one voice. It looks as if Abramson will be that voice for quite a while. He was mayor of Louisville for 12 years until term limits sidelined him four years ago.

The similarities with Memphis are striking, to a point. Louisville has UPS. Memphis has FedEx. The Louisville Cardinals have Rick Pitino. The Memphis Tigers have John Calipari. Louisville has Churchill Downs, business legend Colonel Harlan Sanders, and "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali. Memphis has Graceland, business legend Fred Smith, and "The King," Elvis.

Sportswriter Jim Murray once called Louisville "the nation's bar rag." Time magazine once called Memphis "a Southern backwater" and a "decaying Mississippi River town."

The Louisville Chamber of Commerce likes to boast about its river, rail, roads, and runways. The Memphis Chamber of Commerce does too.

Louisville pursued Michael Heisley and the Vancouver Grizzlies before they came to Memphis.

Jerry Abramson, a Democrat with appeal to Republicans, is sometimes called "mayor for life." Ditto Willie Herenton.

Consolidation opponents in Louisville twice voted it down. Some municipalities threatened to secede before a referendum passed in 2000. Consolidation votes have failed twice in Memphis and Shelby County and opponents threatened to secede the last time the issue came up five years ago.

So much for the similarities. Now, the differences.

Memphis has grown by annexation to encompass 300 square miles and over 650,000 residents -- more than double the population of the rest of Shelby County. Louisville, before consolidation, was a city of 250,000 people surrounded by 83 municipalities. Louisville had barely half the population of surrounding Jefferson County.

Jefferson County is 77 percent white and 19 percent black. Shelby County is 49 percent black and 47 percent white.

The Louisville and Jefferson County school systems merged back in 1975. Memphis and Shelby County have separate systems, superintendents, and boards.

The new Louisville City Council has 26 members, including six blacks and 20 whites. Combined, the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission have 13 blacks and 13 whites. In other words, our fracture is bigger than their fracture, and the line goes right down the middle.

So don't hold your breath waiting for Memphis to follow Louisville's example in a surge of "so can we" spirit. Mayor Herenton, a proponent of consolidation, says only one thing will bring it about.

"The economics of funding government is going to drive us to a metropolitan form of government," he said this week.

If so, it will probably be a hybrid with separate school system boundaries. Herenton has twice proposed such an arrangement, and this week he unveiled a plan to nudge it along via an appointed city school board.

One thing he won't accept is what he sees as a "piecemeal" solution to the schools funding issue. "The best way to get this job done," he said, "is to do it comprehensively."

John Branston is editorial director for special projects for Contemporary Media, Inc., the Flyer's parent company.

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