There’s a vote taking place a few weeks before the October 8th mayoral election that is almost as important. It’s the vote to pick the next president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, and whoever gets the job will face problems as challenging in the microcosm of downtown as the mayor will face citywide: the use of 131 PILOTs that waive about $17 million in city and county taxes, thriving neighborhoods within walking distance of serious blight, patchy economic growth, and jobs sprawl.
The job opening results from Paul Morris’ resignation to head up his family’s business, and he leaves downtown in better shape than when he found it. The focus on South Main and interim management of Beale Street created new momentum, the focus on “demonstration blocks” was smart strategy, art lighting under viaducts enlivens dead space, the $28 million renovation of the historic Chisca Hotel fulfilled a long-held dream, Commerce Square was kept from going dark, and the stepped-up fight against downtown blight yielded results.
For 15 years, Main Street was neglected and became pockmarked by amateurish, unsightly plywood repairs to broken grates along the trolley tracks and bricks shattered by cars driving on the pedestrian mall. Today, it has all been repaired, and best of all, it was largely paid for with the same federal grant that will add a pedestrian/bike lane to the Harahan Bridge.
Despite these tangible examples of his five years at the helm of the development agency, perhaps it’s the intangible for which Morris will be remembered most — his unflinching advocacy for downtown. In the past, many of Memphis’ largest employers abandoned downtown and the velocity of the exodus was propelled by a “go along to get along” attitude at the Downtown Memphis Commission.
It’s an attitude that could never be used to describe Morris. Clearly, he saw his job as an unrelenting cheerleader for downtown, and in that role, he often ruffled feathers with his “take no prisoners” emails to business leaders and politicians, admonishing them for failing to stand up for downtown and urging them to help.
His sense of urgency was well-placed. Despite the overblown political rhetoric that frequently refers to downtown’s “renaissance,” it lags behind downtown revivals in comparable cities and the jobs continue to move outward. The Memphis MSA is number-one in the ranking as the most decentralized MSA for smaller employment regions, with 12.4 percent of the MSA’s jobs within three miles of downtown, compared to the national average of 23 percent. Among the 100 largest U.S. cities, downtown Memphis ranked 38th in population growth from 2000 to 2010: +22 percent.
The trend lines underscore the conundrums of downtown. Despite the momentum generated by Morris’ five years at the helm of the Downtown Memphis Commission, Main Street has unconnected nodes of vibrancy that are generally event-driven and location-specific while the street remains largely moribund. It has so many ingredients that should make it more successful — postcard-worthy trolleys (when they finally run again), historic lighting fixtures, a bounty of historic buildings, and a downtown with a decidedly human scale.
It remains home to 16.7 percent of the Memphis workforce on only 2 percent of the city’s land area, and it is the indisputable center of the region’s tourism industry with more than 8 million visitors a year to Beale Street and Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. A major priority for Morris’ successor should be finding a way to coax these visitors onto Main Street to support existing businesses and to spark new ones.
Other priorities should be to evaluate whether downtown should continue to provide tax freezes for apartments now that occupancy rates are almost 95 percent; to find ways to improve the overall cleanliness of downtown; to develop a streetscape plan for more trees and green spaces; to activate Main Street with more activities and events beyond Court Square; and to improve connectivity between all of downtown.
At this point, the track record of the Downtown Memphis Commission calls into question whether it should be given the responsibilities of the Riverfront Development Corporation in hopes of upgrading downtown parks by removing the jumble of Confederate markers and statues from Memphis Park (formerly Confederate Park); determining a better use for Mississippi River Park (formerly Jefferson Davis Park) that would move Bass Pro customers along the riverfront; and working with city government to invigorate Cossitt Library.
Morris leaves his successor a downtown with improved basics, and most of all, with higher expectations for the future.