For a billion-dollar economic opportunity, Memphis will do just about anything.
For a lot less, we gave The Pyramid to Sidney Shlenker on little more than a promise and a few architectural renderings. That house of cards collapsed in bankruptcy with $16 million in debts.
A few years earlier, we believed that we could actually build a first-class arena for $39 million, complete with "balloons at the grand opening," according to John Tigrett. The final price tag for The Pyramid was $62 million.
We chased NFL teams until it was said that we had the highest threshold for civic embarrassment in the U.S., and to prove it true, we gave the future Tennessee Titans squatters' rights at our stadium for a dismal year of football.
We ran up almost $2 billion in county debt because we were told that sprawl was economic growth. A report was deep-sixed by county government because it showed that it took 20 years for a housing development to generate enough taxes to offset the costs of the new roads and schools it required.
We accepted as fact incredulous economic impact studies, including one saying the Grizzlies' economic impact would be $1 billion and one from Agricenter International claiming more than $524 million.
We approved more tax freezes in 10 years than all other metro counties of Tennessee combined, waiving more than $60 million in property taxes, on the assertion by the Chamber of Commerce that they were indicators of success rather than the failure to create a city more competitive in an economy shifting from brawn to brain.
The tax-freeze program was so out of control that it was criticized by everyone from pro-business Forbes magazine to college researchers, and most of all by city and county governments' own consultants, who called for its overhaul in a 97-page report in December 2005.
Now, only 18 months after changes were finally made to tighten up the runaway program, economic development officials are lobbying hard to open up the tax freeze spigot again. And yet, they've been unwilling to assure local government that they will not continue to suggest that more low-wage, low-skill jobs are economic progress, although many warehouses given tax freezes paid so little that their employees were also eligible for food stamps.
While some of the new rules for tax freezes have proven to be unenforceable and need to be refined, the imperative to reform the old tax-freeze program remains unchanged. While economic development officials complain about too much government oversight, it seems that when you go to the bank to get money, you should be prepared to play by its rules.
City and county officials are willing to consider softening up the rules on tax freezes for the Greater Memphis Chamber if it would present a 12-step program to end its addiction to them. As one elected official put it, the Chamber would be better received if it submitted a plan that shows how Memphis can transition to the knowledge economy rather than depending on the low-wage, low-skill jobs that enrich real estate developers more than real Memphis workers.
In addition, one city councilman said the Chamber should help end Memphis' overreliance on tax freezes by describing what a more effective toolbox of incentives would look like and by developing a campaign led by Tennessee chambers to get it approved by the legislature.
Meanwhile, the $1 billion economic opportunity stares them in the face. It is the impact from a one-percent increase in college attainment, according to CEOs for Cities' "City Dividends" report. It said that if the Memphis region can move the needle from just 23.7 percent to 24.7 percent for people over 25 years of age with a college degree, it could create economic activity commensurate to the highly coveted automobile manufacturing plants chased by every city in America.
In other words, all it takes is for 8,002 more people in Memphis to get college diplomas. To put that into perspective, there are 130,000 people in Shelby County alone who attended college but didn't graduate.
Surely, it is in the city's self-interest to adopt a short-term strategy aimed at getting as many of them back into college and creating a bridge that leads from community college to university graduation. After all, each percentage-point increase in college attainment is associated with a $763 increase in per capita income for the entire metro area.
There's no denying that with each one-percent improvement in college attainment producing $1 billion in economic growth, the payback is high. And best of all, it doesn't even require a tax freeze.