Mayors Create Place
“Mayors create place”. This quote, which I heard while attending a mayoral meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, immediately appealed to me. It nicely emphasizes what the community is all about: a place to have jobs, start new businesses, establish a family, have access to decent municipal services, be safe, have access to education, socialize, and be healthy. However, creating place is a very challenging task for any community leader. It requires much creativity, effort and talent. The community of Memphis uses a variety of ingredients to create a sense of place.
Memphis’s community leaders, for example, proclaim their love of the city. Government officials, business leaders and nonprofit activists share a similar development vision. They collaborate to strive to transform every piece of land and every building into a new, exciting development project. They go beyond the bureaucratic barriers and work together to change the landscape. If someone wants to transform an old building into a brewery then, of course, public authorities will allow it and people may even volunteer time to help the restoration process. If a developer wants to transform the old railway station, transform a building into a small cinema, or build a farmers market, everybody will help so that the city can grow.
However, change does not occur quickly, so how is it possible to solve long term problems? The mayors have an answer to this question as well: sell the process instead of selling the product. They also set milestones to consider the tactical short-term factors as well as the strategic long-term level, ensuring change is adopted sustainably. This way, people and community leaders not only find a person’s proposal credible, but also better understand the role community will play in reaching milestones. Every community member can make a small contribution to create place, but they need to see the big picture and the process to get there.
Every community has problems and in Memphis it is okay to share them. Many Memphis citizens suffer from poverty, infant mortality, lack of jobs, and an absence of African American males, while youth are the least engaged in the political process, to name just a few issues. However, the mayors are not afraid to speak openly about these problems and to explain them to their constituents. Defining the problem well is a crucial step in the policy-making process, allowing officials to use public resources and public-private partnerships more effectively. In the state of Tennessee, solutions to address these issues take the form of workforce development, new business investment, access to low-interest loans, payment in lieu of taxes, leadership development, entrepreneurship, and no income tax.
Creating place is one of the most difficult yet exciting journeys for any community leader. It is like creating art, but more challenging. It requires passion for the community, building constructive partnerships, taking initiative, sound financial management, generating success stories, and nurturing effective leadership. One can find all of these ingredients in Memphis.
Radu Adrian Oprea, president of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of the Southeast Region of Romania, is a Spring 2015 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.