Bridges v. Walls – Annexation Edition

Gray's Creek, from the Shelby County Area Plan
This week’s big story locally has been the fight between the State legislature and the City of Memphis over the Gray’s creek annexation area.

The two biggest issues revolve around A) a city’s right to annex area to expand its borders, and B) the desires of the residents of that area to remain autonomous.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled on this issue this week, and a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’. Ugly things have been said about both sides by both sides. A quick look at the Letters to the Editor in this morning’s Commercial Appeal as well as others from earlier in the week show that pretty conclusively.

Us v. Them

Certainly, there’s an “Us v. Them” element to any annexation. In every city I’ve ever lived in there’s always been an “Us v. Them” scenario where annexations were concerned.

In Jonesboro, AR back in the early 1990’s, which is anything but a metroplex, the annexation of Valley View was greeted with much the same rhetoric that we in Memphis see coming from not just the residents of Gray’s Creek, but a lot of the suburban areas ringing the eastern border of the City.

In Little Rock, throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the attitudes of people in the surrounding cities of North Little Rock, Sherwood, Jacksonville, as well as those in the counties surrounding Pulaski; Faulkner and Saline, reflected a kind of disdain for the ever expanding Capitol city.

The reality is, these kinds of attitudes dominate in any potential annexation, as noted in this Editorial by Otis Sanford from this morning’s CA. Here’s part of what he had to say.

…The point is, Memphis, by necessity, has always relied on annexation as a primary tool to maintain revenue. That reliance has grown in recent decades because tens of thousands of residents — and their tax dollars — have left the city.

Many Memphians who remain — like those in the 1960s — believe suburbanites take unfair advantage of all the amenities Memphis has to offer, but are unwilling to share in the cost.

But instead being of the municipal equivalent of Pac Man, perhaps it’s time for Memphis and its suburban neighbors to revisit their 1998 annexation reserve plans.

Instead of trying to expand all the way to the Fayette County line, perhaps it’s time to put serious effort behind helping Memphis grow and revitalize from within.

Sanford is both right and wrong.

Sanford’s Thesis

Sanford is right in that Memphis should be working to revitalize from within. It can’t do this alone. The damage that the perpetual eastward expansion in the County has done to the city hinders its progress and makes the kind of annexations we saw from the late 1960’s through the present, necessary to maintain revenue. This isn’t about waste, its about a highly mobile tax base and a growth policy at the county level that has ignored the symbiotic relationship that Memphis and its suburbs have, as noted by Chris Peck’s editorial from this morning.

Shelby County can no longer afford to have an “Us v. Them” mentality. There is no them. And while this “Us” may be very diverse and have a huge diversity of opinions, the end result is that we must acknowledge and accept the roles we have played in creating and maintaining this “Us v. Them” mentality, both in the City and in the Suburbs, because both sides are culpable in defining a “other” to blame for its problems.

But Sanford is also wrong and ultimately misses the larger point on the issue of annexation generally. The 1998 agreement that set up the annexation reserve we currently have must be honored, not only by those who made that agreement, but also the State.

The move by Sen. Norris, and Reps. Todd and Lollar to circumvent that agreement is what brought this on, not any desire to go on a massive land grab, as noted by Wendi Thomas and this editorial.

By seeking to effectively “go over the heads” of the local governments that made this agreement some 14 years ago, the City of Memphis was forced into action to protect its right, as set forth in that agreement, to extend its borders. Honestly, any of the cities involved in this agreement would have sought to do the same thing under the same circumstances.

That Sanford conveniently ignores this point, is a critical flaw in his analysis.

Bigger Than Annexation

The larger point is that Memphis government has a lot on its plate, and declining resources to get that plate of things done. The County plays a huge role in the fate of Memphis. Until these two entities get on the same page, Memphis and the region as a whole is going to continue to suffer.

Looking at the political climate, it seems the outlier is the County Commission, where in the past it was pretty much all parties concerned. There is a growing consensus between the Administrations on the City and County side, as well as the City Council that the two governments must work together to maintain the economic driver of the region, which, by virtue of its size and infrastructure is Memphis, not the surrounding suburban and rural areas. That the County Commission hasn’t gotten on board with this is due in large part to the investment many on that body have and continue to make in the rhetoric of division on the grounds of location, class and yes, race.

But it’s not just suburban Commissioners that engage in this, its also Commissioners representing people inside the city that maintain the division. In doing so, they do harm to their own cause by using the rhetoric of their opponents to further their point rather than building their own rhetorical case to push the debate forward.

If rural and suburban Shelby Countains want to maintain the status quo in terms of boundaries and annexation, it would serve their best interests to play a long game of working to strengthen the entire community rather than a short game of immediate self-interest. This means working to build bridges instead of walls.

Defining a Bridge

Demanding that the county take care and maintain the property it is responsible for in the City, including the 3600 some housing units owned by the Shelby County land bank is a step in the right direction. Asking the County government to work with the city to redevelop that land, and in the process, better the living conditions of those who have had to live around these vacant and often blighted properties will bring both better living conditions and better outcomes for all those involved, including people outside the City limits.

This is a “We” issue. “We” must agree that we will not allow our governments in the County and the City to maintain substandard living conditions in our community through a policy of neglect that has been prevalent for some time. “We” must agree that it is in the best interest of all: urban, suburban and rural County residents to create an environment of prosperity for everyone. Doing so will net long-term rewards by eventually reversing problems that have dogged our county for decades: declining density, poverty, blight, low educational attainment, and want.

But these things can’t happen in a vacuum, and they can’t be conditional. They have to be addressed in a coordinated fashion and with a kind of resolve that we simply haven’t seen in this county, well, ever.

By demanding that their suburban Commissioners get on board with dealing with the problems the County government has jurisdiction over in the City and working to make a better Memphis, the people of Gray’s Creek, and other areas in the City’s annexation reserve can protect the lifestyles they seek to maintain by building a bridge rather than building a wall.

That bridge is finding common cause with the City to increase density and remove blight within the city to increase the standard of living throughout so the City doesn’t have to look at its annexation reserve. This is a positive action based on offense (bridges) rather than defense (walls).

Walls work until they are overcome. Bridges, on the other hand, have a positive impact on people on both sides of the bridge. That’s what this county needs. We have enough walls, we need more bridges.

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