Opinion » Editorial

Rock? Or Hard Place?

Those Memphis/Detroit comparisons keep arising.


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Detroit, which of late has famously descended into bankruptcy, will remain a symbol of urban failure and a warning thereby to the rest of the nation. The city's name has become something of a proverb — invoked, for example, by Memphis mayor A C Wharton, who, when confronted by several recent fiscal emergencies facing his city, responded, "We're not Detroit."

Well, that's true. We're not. By dint of some economies worked out by the administration in concert with the Memphis City Council, the city has so far been able to meet its payrolls and pay its bills, though state comptroller Justin Wilson has already made it clear he's keeping a sharp eye on how Memphis arranges its finances for present and future purposes.

Just as watchful, on the other side of the matter, are the various population sectors and interest groups who fear that too much budget-cutting will wreak lasting damage on the city and its people.

Police, fire, and sanitation services — all basic to the health and well-being of the whole community — have been at the center of the dilemma in recent years and seem destined to remain so. Those who work in these areas are feeling the pinch of austerity and there are obviously limits to how far the city can go in trying to reach an economic bottom line that is both solvent and safe.

Many have criticized city and county government for what critics allege is a too-generous attitude toward tax abatements and other incentives that are offered to attract new industry in our direction. And there is beyond doubt a point of no return at which prospective gains do not make up for lost revenues. Hopefully, we have not reached it yet, but it remains a concern.

An increasing number of thoughtful public officials have raised questions also about unintended consequences (cannibalizing of local tax resources, among them) that might arise from the TIF (tax increment financing) and TDZ (tourist development zone) procedures so often proposed as long-term financing for large development projects.

Most recently, dissenting members of the city council have expressed reasonable doubts about a pending $1.5 million grant to redevelop the Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven, and that project remains on hold.

And yet, what are we to do? The weekend brought us news of a just-concluded University of Memphis study suggesting that our metropolitan area — and that includes the suburban middle-class preserves — is the nation's poorest. Is it possible that the denizens of Detroit — observed by the nation's sports-lovers to have filled up a glittering-looking Comerica Park for last week's American League championship series — might have reason to boast defensively, "Hey, we're not Memphis!"

Somewhere, there have to be prime movers and first causes in the efforts of the Memphis and Shelby County metropolitan area to raise itself up by the bootstraps. Maybe, as some critics allege, the deals that brought in Electrolux and Mitsubishi are riddled with risks and giveaways, but they have a chance of paying off in the long run. The Grizzlies deal certainly seems to have.

Maybe, apropos some of the aforementioned propositions and other deals now hanging fire, we'll have to abandon some of the usual cautions and take a chance. Maybe we have no choice.


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