Strickland stuck to basics in 2018, touted momentum

By Published: December 31, 2018 12:59 PM CT

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland stuck to the basics in 2018 – the “brilliant at the basics” four-word slogan of his 2015 campaign for mayor and the motto of his three-year-old administration.

The definition of the basics grew more complex in 2018 as more investments were announced and new construction projects got underway around a city slow to emerge from the Great Recession. The availability of capital reflected national trends and a thriving economy.

It was around the fringes of that new territory that Strickland encountered the unexpected as well as some resistance. He also began saying the gospel of basics he preached was yielding to “momentum.”

Three years into a four-year term of office and just ahead of an expected re-election bid in 2019, the “basics” administration moved into heavy equipment in 2018 as road graders and other machines led a street paving program that ramped up. And the city’s plans for hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to the sewer system moved into actual construction.

While the city played a role in supporting billion-dollar developments like the proposed Union Row mixed-use project Downtown that ties together several other developments already under construction, the tab for long-term upgrades to the city sewer system moved closer to $1 billion.

Strickland’s philosophy has always been that the “basics” – specifically infrastructure – is the bulk of what the city funds as a way to leverage much greater private investment and growth of the local economy.

But even funding the basics can be a financial struggle he has tied to growing the city’s population, and thus the city’s tax base.

“Our revenue only increases by 1.4 percent a year. When I tell business owners that our revenue only increases by 1.4 percent, they can’t believe how little it grows,” Strickland said in a Q&A with The Daily Memphian in August.

BILL DRIESThe Daily Memphian Q&A: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland

The 1.4 percent growth in revenue amounts to $10 million more a fiscal year the city has.

“Our pension fund is not fully funded on an annual basis. This current budget that was about $2.6 million. That meant 25 percent of our increase had to go to that,” he said. “Then we had to do promotional testing for police officers. That was $1.8 million. That $10 million doesn’t go very far.”

Strickland has made it clear while there are items that are priorities, the top of his administration’s list is basic city services starting with police, whose numbers saw a net gain in the ranks for the first time in seven years with a police academy graduating class of 80 in January.

“I wanted to give every city employee a raise. We just could not afford to do it,” he said. “When we had needs at City Hall – which was to give raises to public safety employees in particular, but all employees – to do all the things that are core basic services of city government, we can’t afford to do that yet.”

The City Council nonetheless added an item to Strickland’s budget proposal that raised the minimum pay of all full-time city employees to $15.50 an hour in the current city budget that ends June 30.

Strickland’s most vocal critics in the third year of his administration remain a new generation of activists and protesters who shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge seven months into his term of office.

A more aggressive police presence was seen at protests that followed. The accompanying police surveillance of some protesters was ruled a violation of a 40-year-old consent decree in October by U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla. Strickland and the city’s attorneys contend the decree specifically barring such surveillance was outdated in the age of social media. McCalla said that didn’t excuse the city from abiding by the basic terms and underlying principles of the decree.

Pre-trial affidavits in the case included revelations of a police-controlled Facebook account under the fictitious name of Bob Smith used to keep track of protesters and police surveillance of such non-protest events as food truck and book club gatherings.

YOLANDA JONESJudge issues sanctions against city for violating consent decree

McCalla later imposed sanctions that include a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes to police department policy.

The city is also in talks at year’s end with the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiff in the federal court case, on possible terms of an updated consent decree.

The year 2017 ended with the removal of Confederate monuments from two city parks sold to a private nonprofit group called Memphis Greenspace. 2018 began with expected legal challenges, including by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The city’s position that there was nothing in state law to prevent the sale of the parks, including the monuments within them, was backed at the trial court level but remained under appeal at the end of 2018.

BILL DRIESConfederate monument anniversary reveals a work in progress

At year’s end, the $175 million renovation of the Memphis Cook Convention Center had been rebid. 

A renovated convention center with views of the Mississippi River and Wolf River Harbor as well as ties to the $1 billion capital expansion of nearby St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is a part of the city’s plan to mark the bicentennial of its founding in 2019.

While the convention center renovation is behind schedule, the administration had all but secured a second convention center hotel in the plan to renovate and reopen the 100 North Main Building – the city’s tallest building.

Loews Hotels and THM Management, a New York firm, worked with the administration on plans that ultimately moved the general idea of the hotel out of 100 North Main and closer to the convention center itself on open land in the Civic Center Plaza across from City Hall. The $200-million multi-use complex includes the new Loews hotel as well as two 30-story towers next to the 100 North Main Building and parking as well as retail.

The city, Loews and THM hope to close on the deal in the first quarter of 2019.

And late in 2018, the Memphis-based and founded Church of God In Christ announced it would move its annual convocation – once the city’s largest annual convention or meeting before its exit and move to St. Louis in 2009 – back to Memphis and the refurbished convention center starting in 2021.

An upgrade and expansion of two of the city’s wastewater treatment plants got underway in 2018. Strickland’s 2017 decision to end new connections to the city’s sewer system by developments outside of the city limits became a statement about bringing growth back within the city.

The administration met with developers in the Fletcher Creek basin area after a first report that wastewater capacity there had topped out, meaning no connections for new development.

That changed to approving connections on a case-by-case basis and developers in the area having to store the wastewater on site for movement to city plants during non-peak hours. Strickland also advocated incentives from the city to help them pay for the wastewater storage capacity in what is expected to be a three-year period before capacity can be increased.

OMER YUSUFShelby County withdraws multimillion-dollar sewer plan

Late in the year, Strickland’s administration told county government leaders that there would not be a handover to the county of the city’s existing sewer infrastructure outside the city limits. The decision at City Hall prompted Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris to announce the county will not be getting into the sewer business in unincorporated Shelby County.

Harris’ reaction meshes with Strickland’s belief that the density of development requiring such services should take place in Memphis and the county’s six other towns and cities.

Strickland, with City Council approval, made solid waste – garbage and trash collection – a separate division of city government, taking it out of the city’s public works division.

That followed Strickland’s decision to dump Inland Waste as the city’s private trash contractor in some parts of the city, following persistent complaints from residents in those areas. Inland Waste was replaced in the interim by Waste Pro. Strickland also began a shift of the city’s schedule for picking up curbside – mostly yard waste – to every other week by private contractors as well as city crews.

The city’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included the city formally honoring the surviving strikers, each paid $70,000 by the city earlier in one-time payments, and with compliments from civil rights movement veterans Andrew Young and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“There’s a new spirit here,” said Young, former mayor of Atlanta, U.S. representative and United Nations ambassador. “You kind of feel good. You feel there is real hope and opportunity.”

Young and Jackson, who came to Memphis with King in 1968, each praised the administration for its program to increase minority business growth in city contracts as well as encouraging private-sector growth.

But the kick off of the formal “MLK50” observances in February came with a vocal dissent from Angela Rye, a CNN and NPR commentator, who took Strickland and the city to task. That included criticism for early tentative plans for a “reverse march” of elected officials from City Hall to Clayborn Temple – the reverse of a daily route strikers and their supporters took in 1968.

Plans for the reverse march were called off well in advance.

“You wanted to have a reverse march today but you couldn’t – and you couldn’t because we can’t just stand here and honor progress that doesn’t exist,” Rye said from the stage at The Orpheum Theatre. “The black child poverty rate is the highest in the nation. The city of Memphis spends more on policing than on education.”

Strickland said he didn’t have a problem with the dissent.

“I think being challenged is a good thing – challenged to do better,” he said. “If there are lessons to learn from 1968 – which I think there are – those are timeless. … We’re not there yet.”

The other major observance by city government of the anniversary was the dedication of “I Am A Man” Plaza by Clayborn Temple in April attended by many of the surviving sanitation workers from 1968 and their families as well as others involved in the strike, including civil rights icon Rev. James Lawson.

The base of the monument includes words from a speech Lawson gave during the 1968 strike.

The plaza, park and the church are meant to spur further private development in an area dominated by open lots for decades.

Strickland emphasized the leverage the city park and plaza has in encouraging private investment in an area that includes the South City project – a federally funded demolition of two large public housing projects and redevelopment in the larger south Downtown and South Memphis area with a $30 million match by the city.

BILL DRIESNew South City homes begin rising on site of Foote Homes

In 2018, the demolition of Foote Homes, the last of the city’s large public housing developments, was completed and construction of the new mixed-income, mixed-use community began across from Cleaborn Point at Heritage Landing, the mixed-income and mixed-used development built on what had been Cleaborn Homes during the administration of Strickland’s predecessor, A C Wharton.


Jim Strickland
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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