Famous for its blues clubs, barbecue, Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tenn., draws a steady flood of tourists from around the world every year. However, until about 10 years ago, tourists had few reasons to venture into downtown, and residents had fled to the suburbs with no sign of returning. Except for the twice-daily duck parade at the Peabody Hotel, downtown Memphis held little appeal.
“When I came here, the downtown area was almost desolate,” says Mayor Willie Herenton, who was first elected to the office in 1991. “The downtown area is the heartbeat of any city. I knew that in order to move this city forward, we had to breathe new life into the downtown area.”
By working with private developers who shared his vision for a gleaming, friendly, exciting downtown, Herenton has led Memphis through a boom in capital investments and residential growth. Block by block, the city is redeveloping the downtown area to create offices, apartments, and retail and entertainment space where abandoned buildings once stood.
In addition to leading a charge for downtown revitalization, Herenton, the first African-American mayor for Memphis, worked tirelessly last year to secure a National Basketball Association franchise for the city — something others had tried to obtain for at least 40 years. He also has guided the city through improvements in financial stability, economic growth and public safety. The work has paid off and has made Herenton American City & County’s 2003 Municipal Leader of the Year.
Building the foundation
Born in Memphis in 1940, Herenton and his sister were raised by his grandmother and mother in housing projects on the south side of the city. A student in the then-segregated public school system, Herenton learned early in life the value of education and a strong work ethic. He got his first job delivering groceries at 11, and he has been working ever since.
Despite growing up in impoverished circumstances, Herenton attended LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in elementary education. Later, he topped that off with Master’s and Doctoral degrees in educational administration from the University of Memphis and Southern Illinois University, respectively. He was a public school principal at age 28, and, at 39, he became the first African-American superintendent of the Memphis Public School System.
For 12 years, Herenton led the school system, which had more employees and a larger budget than the city. It was a visible leadership position in the community, and it taught Herenton about city politics as well as how to plan, coordinate, make decisions and manage the activities of a large organization. “I was deeply embedded in politics because, in Memphis, you had to fight with the mayor and the city council for funding for schools,” Herenton says. “When I was the superintendent, and I say this respectfully, both mayors were not open to supporting public schools.”
Although Herenton had gained an understanding of the city’s politics, upon his retirement, he had not considered running for an elected office. That is, until a group of five young African-American men asked Herenton to run for mayor against a two-term white incumbent. “I was really honored that those young guys had watched my career,” Herenton says. “They thought it was time for Memphis to change, and they said, ‘You’re the guy we want to support.’”
The Herenton team launched a campaign and mobilized African-American residents to go to the polls. “It was mainly the organization and effective turnout of the black vote that succeeded in electing the mayor,” says Charles Crawford, history professor at the University of Memphis. “It was largely a racially divided vote in 1991.”
In fact, Herenton won by a margin of only 142 votes and took the helm of the city that — as the site of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the subsequent assassination of Martin Luther King — had a history of being one of the most racially polarized cities in the country. “Being the first black mayor of the city, at the very beginning, people were scared,” says Pete Aviotti, special assistant to the mayor since 1999. “People were running; people were just tearing down the brick walls to get out of the city of Memphis.”
Upon taking office, Herenton set to work calming residents’ fears, and he has succeeded in handily winning reelection twice. “In Mayor Herenton’s first term, he made a genuine effort to reach out to the entire community and to include both black and white people in everything he did — in his appointments, in the city hiring, in the meetings he attended, the groups he assisted,” Crawford says. “He made a truly effective effort to bridge the gap between the races.”
While assuaging residents’ fears, the mayor began implementing measures to increase the city’s meager $3.5 million fund reserves, trying to avoid property tax increases. He called for performance-based budgeting that has improved the effectiveness of city spending and has helped the city build its reserves to approximately $55 million today and secure a AA bond rating.
“Performance measures allow us to make sure that [the services] we’re spending our resources on actually meet the customers’ needs,” says Rick Masson, chief administrative officer for Memphis. “That’s been a big boost in terms of [overall] accountability and financial accountability for the organization.”
In addition to controlling spending, the city needed to attract investments that would boost its tax revenues. The city worked with the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce and Shelby County to create an economic development strategic plan. Memphis 2005, which was finalized in 1995, spelled out the region’s goals, which include attracting new industries such as biomedicine and information technology, creating new job growth, increasing minority- and women-owned businesses and improving public safety. By 2000, the region had attracted $6.8 billion in private capital investment, created 44,700 net new jobs, increased minority- and women-owned businesses by 38 percent, and reduced the overall crime rate.
According to the Chamber, the city has led the state in new capital investments for the last five years, and the total capital investments for that period exceed those made in Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville combined. AutoZone, Federal Express, International Paper and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are a few of the businesses that have completed or are building new facilities in Memphis. “Those things wouldn’t happen if you didn’t have a healthy city and you didn’t have confidence in the leadership of your city,” says Marc Jordan, president and CEO of the Chamber.
Implementing the vision
In addition to attracting businesses, Herenton began working with private developers to create more residential housing in the downtown area. Some decrepit public housing facilities have been demolished and replaced with mixed-income communities, including one $46 million community that opened last year on the south side of the city. Additionally, new single-family home neighborhoods have been constructed, and historic buildings have been refurbished as lofts.
“Downtown Memphis was never really a residential center,” says Jeff Sanford, president of the Memphis Center City Commission, the agency responsible for coordinating public-private development partnerships downtown. “In the mid-1980s, there were approximately 500 people living in market rate housing in downtown Memphis. That number now, according to Fannie Mae, is approximately 10,000.”
The influx of residents created a demand for more schools downtown, and the city is responding by building the first public school in the downtown area in at least 75 years. The construction is part of a $100 million capital improvement program for the city schools. Last year, the city completed a drive to install air conditioning in all city schools.
To complement the boom in residential space, the city has turned its attention to creating attractive public spaces for visitors and residents. The development of the city’s western border on the Mississippi River has been a special interest of the mayor’s. In 2000, Herenton created a not-for-profit, public-private partnership to manage development along the city’s riverfront, including expansion of a riverwalk, creation of a new harbor and lake, and public parks.
In May 2002, the city council endorsed the 20-year Memphis Riverfront Master Plan, which calls for $225 million in construction and development, including construction of a land bridge to connect the downtown to an island in the river. “Historically, and for reasons unknown to many of us, Memphis, from a physical standpoint, seemed to have turned its back on the river,” Sanford says. “So many older buildings along the riverfront made little use of their commanding views of the river. That’s all changing now. The highest valued residential projects downtown — [and] there are now many — are those with river views.”
The riverfront redevelopment is one of the main reasons Herenton will seek reelection next year. “This riverfront development is the next big opportunity for Memphis to expand its quality of life, its tourism and other development in the downtown area,” Herenton says. “During my tenure, I would like to be the architect of the vision and to implement the beginning stages.”
While attracting businesses and residents is difficult for any city, the mayor went one step further by taking on the challenge of attracting a professional sports team. Memphis made an unsuccessful bid for a National Football League expansion team in 1992, and soon thereafter, it lost its AA baseball team to Jackson, Tenn. As a result, Herenton set out to fill the recreational void. “The mayor took a leadership role, and in our first objective, we put together a plan to have a new baseball park built in the downtown area that would house a AAA baseball team,” Masson says. “That’s been complete for a couple of years. It is probably one of the best AAA ballparks in the country. It’s been a tremendous success.”
Although many residents questioned the city’s involvement in the construction of AutoZone Park for the Memphis Redbirds and its location downtown, the mayor argued successfully for its completion. The stadium has sparked approximately $75 million in residential, retail and office development nearby, according to Sanford.
While the AAA baseball team satisfied the city’s short-term goals of hosting professional sports, the city was not exactly in the big leagues yet. Its big break came in March 2001, when two NBA franchises — the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Charlotte Hornets — announced interest in moving to Memphis. Eventually, the Hornets dropped out of the running, leaving the Grizzlies franchise, which also was considering Louisville, Ky., as a potential new home.
Herenton worked with business leaders and the Shelby County mayor to negotiate a deal with the team. Following weeks of deliberations, the city agreed to partially finance construction of a new $250 million arena downtown. It also agreed to improve the city’s existing multi-use arena, The Pyramid, to meet NBA standards for the team’s interim use. “Once [the team owners] came here and saw what was going on in this community, particularly in the downtown area, the mayor convinced them this was a city they should relocate to,” Masson says.
Despite the decades-long desire for a major league sports franchise, residents were not sold on the idea of paying for a new arena for the team. “There were many in the community who felt that the proposition should be put to a vote, but the mayor argued that, in order to secure the franchise and meet NBA obligations, there was not enough time to hold a public referendum,” Sanford says. “The mayor waged a hard-fought battle, and, in the end, the arena was approved.”
The arena, scheduled for completion in 2004, is situated within a half-mile of the baseball stadium and the downtown entertainment district. It is within walking distance of the Beale Street blues clubs and restaurants as well as the retail outlets, restaurants and movie theaters in Peabody Place.
“I took the view that this was an investment that would yield tremendous dividends to our city,” Herenton says. “The team would bring national visibility to our city, and it would be another amenity that people are expecting to enjoy. Memphis is no longer just a struggling southern metropolis; we’re truly becoming cosmopolitan.”
Securing the future
As part of its efforts to attract businesses and residents downtown, the city has instituted several public safety programs. Herenton has initiated programs to involve residents in fighting crime and to keep children and teenagers out of trouble.
For example, the mayor has committed the city to establishing police substations in high-crime neighborhoods to speed reactions to crimes and to improve relationships with residents and officers. Four such Community Action centers opened last year, bringing the total number of centers to 15.
Following the highly publicized murder of a three-year-old girl this June in a drug deal, the mayor established a task force to find ways of reducing gang and youth violence in the city. Out of the task force came the Juvenile Violence Abatement Team, which sends speakers into schools to talk to children about crime prevention and to try to stop children with criminal histories from continuing to commit crimes. Speakers also attend community groups such as Yo! Memphis, which is a federally funded after-school program started by the mayor to help disadvantaged children with homework and to provide counseling and activities.
To help keep teenagers out of trouble and to expand their employment opportunities, the mayor teamed with local businesses to provide summer jobs. Last year, more than 1,000 teens worked in law offices and other businesses to earn extra money and to learn the importance of a good work ethic. “[Herenton] has made youth a major focus over his years in office,” Jordan says. “Making sure inner city young people have an opportunity to get some exposure to the job world and what it’s like to work in a business is something he’s committed to.”
Whether Herenton is working on reducing the city’s crime rate, encouraging downtown development or attracting professional sports franchises, he tries to bring about changes that will serve the best interests of the community. “I don’t think you can lead if you’re consumed with how [each decision is] going to affect you politically,” he says. “I refuse to be that type of leader. People describe me as independent — my own man — and I like that.”