The day after the October 2009 special city elections, local Name SearchWatch Service">Panatoni Development Co. LLC partner Al Andrews showed up at Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s door notifying him of a site location specialist conference in Atlanta that displayed a map with big red circles around certain areas of the country as places to avoid. Memphis was one of those.
“The word had gotten out that we were closed,” Wharton said. “I’m proud to announce that that red circle is no longer there. We are open for business big time.”
That’s the anecdote Wharton used to explain the city’s progress to the Memphis Area Association of Realtors Commercial Council during a breakfast Wednesday, July 27, at Downtown’s One Commerce Square Annex, Property SearchCrime ReportNeighborhood ReportWatch Service">40 S. Main St.
The setting was appropriate for the mayor’s proactive message, given the historical tower’s transformation from bank-owned and nearly vacant to its current 85 percent occupancy level, thanks to recent leases with Name SearchWatch Service">Pinnacle Airlines Corp. and Electrolux. One Commerce is also amid securing LEED certification, an “extremely large tenant,” and a restaurant provider in the building, said Commercial Advisors’ Phil Dagastino, leasing agent for the building and who introduced Wharton.
Giving a “tour” starting from Downtown Memphis and working east, Wharton gave updates on some of the city’s “vital signs,” from The Pyramid to Overton Park to Winchester Road and Whitehaven.
And that all starts with the city getting its “house in order,” he said, by shrinking the size of government and becoming more efficient.
“We know that brings a lot of misery to families, but the point I’m trying to get across is that city government, state government or whatever, does not have an exemption from the economic pressures that the private sectors operate under,” Wharton said. “We’re going to need folks such as yourself that have voices of reason not coming from any particular dogma, but just saying, ‘Look, it’s not a matter of politics, it’s what you can afford.’ The bottom line is we cannot afford the present structure and level of spending that we have.”
One way to reduce spending that’s in the works is utilizing technology such as a 311 system. The device not only takes calls, but more importantly applies a business intelligence function that allows patterns – such as the effect of bad asphalt – to be discerned over time, Wharton said.
An additional issue Wharton is in the process of “chipping away at” is reforming the city’s pension and other benefits – yet another difficult message to convey to the public.
“It’s hard to get folks to see that they have to sacrifice today in order for us to meet an obligation 15, 20, 30 years down the road,” he said.
In order to combat those who “get down in the mouth” about all of the negative news surrounding the city, Wharton touted progress with Great American Steamboat, Beale Street, Tiger Lane and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s this type of positive reinforcement Memphis needs, he said.
“We say all of these bad things about ourselves and when somebody on a national level picks them up, we get mad about it, but they’re just repeating what we said,” he said.
For instance, with the Memphis City Schools controversy, he noted, the national networks stopped airing when “we stopped calling each other names.”
So it was appropriate that when asked his biggest accomplishment, Wharton was quick to point out the rebirth of optimism in the city, which he described as “palpable” and “everywhere in all sectors.”
“This is life in the big city,” he said. “Show me a place where nothing’s happening and I’ll show you a dying city. Our form of government was written with built-in tension. I love what I do because I know when I get up in the morning, it’s for a reason.”