Tuesday night we had a public symposium where I delivered a Memphis version of the Strong Towns Curbside Chat. We’re going to have clips and audio from the talk online soon. The talk lasted around ninety minutes and then there was some really good question and answers following. It was a serious conversation with people who are serious about Memphis.
The morning after the conversation, a report appeared in the Commercial Appeal – a local newspaper – that framed the event within their lead in these terms.
A leading thinker on the development of cities had both harsh and gushing things to say about Memphis during his “Curbside Chat” with an audience of 100 in Downtown Tuesday night.
Spending $35 million to turn the Pyramid arena into a Bass Pro Shop is “orderly but dumb,” said Charles Marohn, founder of the Minnesota-based organization Strong Towns.
The Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization is destructive in the way it steers federal transportation money on big road projects in the Memphis area, he said.
Memphis may not be bankrupt like Detroit, but it is in a “soft default” that causes cuts to services.
We obviously don’t control the media and, being married to a reporter, I personally have a deep respect for the difficulties that a reporter faces in putting a story like this together on a deadline. It is tough work to summarize a long and complex conversation in a way that is relevant to the local reader. Not only that, you need to do it with a catchy lead and in less than 800 words. Nearly impossible.
So I tend to cut reporters a lot of slack. In fact, when I feel like they missed my point, I usually assume that I didn’t make my point well enough to be clearly understood and communicated.
This lead from the Commercial Appeal made me cringe. I felt it was unnecessarily provocative in a rather cruel way, misrepresenting both the substance and the spirit of what I was saying. I got a lot of feedback from people upset with me about it, particularly regarding the pyramid, including a number of people who felt it was “uncharacteristic” of how I approach things.
I’m not going to dispute the accuracy of what was reported, but I welcome you to read the following transcript of my comments and then listen to the audio (we are working to get that released) so you have the full context the people at the event had.
After introducing an adage from Silicon Valley -- Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb while innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. -- here is what I said specifically leading up to my comment about the stadium.
Orderly but Dumb.
The City of Memphis has done everything right according to the post World War II script. I’m here to tell you did everything right. You did EVERYTHING the way you were supposed to.
You ran the highways through the middle of the city. You ripped down buildings to do it. You ripped down buildings to build parking. You identified neighborhoods that you thought were blighted and undesirable. You moved people out. You built stuff that you thought was better.
You built a beltway. You extended sewer and water our further and further. You ultimately built a second beltway. You paid businesses to move to Memphis. You paid businesses to stay in Memphis. And at one point you said, ‘You know what would make us successful? If we had an NBA team in a pyramid-shaped stadium.’
I just imagine a big public meeting where people would walk up and say, ‘Here’s my values and priorities.” And someone said, ’NBA team’ and everybody had their stickers putting stuff on the way and everybody put one on the NBA team because, ‘wouldn’t that be cool?’
And what is now the highest priority of the community? Not all the little needs that everybody has, but an NBA team.
I’m not slamming your NBA team. You guys kicked our butts. We’re not in the playoffs. You are. You’ve got a coach from Minnesota. I have to cheer for you. But really, we’re talking about investments in the community.
I think it would be really hard to say that a pyramid-shaped stadium has been a catalyst for growth and success and prosperity. $35 million to get a Bass Pro Shop in there is not winning.
This is orderly but dumb.
I then went on to contrast the top/down approach with what has happened on Broad Avenue in Memphis. Here are some of the comments I made on the project that provides some additional context:
Look what people can do when they care. When they take some elbow grease and love a place.
The return on investment is what I’m in awe of. How much did we collectively spend on this [Broad Avenue]? Hardly anything, yet look at the new tax base. Look at the new growth. Look at the new jobs. This is chaotic but smart.
We have for decades been trying desperately to get that dollar out on the edge. Growing, growing, growing and chasing that buck. What we’ve left behind are the nickels and dimes in all of our neighborhoods waiting there for us to pick up.
If we don’t embrace chaotic, we won’t get smart.
What should Memphis have done with the vacant pyramid? I don’t know. And, quite frankly, I don’t have an informed opinion on the matter. It isn’t relevant to the conversation we are having this week at the Memphis Boot Camp.
Here’s what is relevant: If Memphis wants to innovate, and if Memphis wants to make really high returning public investments, it isn’t going to happen from the top/down. Successful innovation starts at the bottom and works its way up.
A Memphis that wants to make high returning investments needs to resist the temptation of the silver bullet mega-project and instead embrace the steady, incremental growth pattern that was used to build a strong Memphis in the first place.