Sunday, April 25, 2004

Guest Editorial: RDC proposal would ignore will of public

The Commercial Appeal

Guest columnist John Gary is vice president of Friends for Our Riverfront.

Public-private partnerships are not a new concept. One hundred and sixty-seven years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville cited extra-governmental associations as America's legacy to democracy in his treatise, Democracy In America.

Today in Memphis we have several examples of how private entities can work together with local government to the benefit of our community. The Center City Commission, the Memphis Redbirds Foundation, the Memphis Zoo and the Memphis Biotech Foundation are among the private, nonprofit groups that work closely with government agencies to make a positive impact on our city.

We should applaud the efforts of such groups, and especially their volunteer boards of directors, for all they contribute. With a clear mission and continued community support, partnerships with quasi-governmental organizations help Memphis and Shelby County governments make longer and faster strides in the right direction, and in the process bring our city to a higher level of regard nationally and internationally.

One distinct advantage that these small entities have over government is that each can be tailored to best meet its specific challenges. They can draw expertise from the local pool of professionals who likely would not leave their careers to work in government, but are willing to commit their time and knowledge to service on volunteer boards.

What a deal! These organizations can focus on one specific mission instead of having to deal with the broad scope of issues faced by their counterparts in the public sector.

Private organizations also are not faced with the level of public scrutiny that government officials and agencies must live with. Their meetings can be held behind closed doors, and their strategies can be devised in private, which is often beneficial at the inception of a project as it facilitates the free flow of ideas.

Quasi-governmental entities also benefit from many of the attributes of their much larger public partners, as they gain prestige from their proximity to our elected officials. Their capital flows from various levels of government, private foundations and individual donors with the assurance that the government partner will see that the money is properly spent.

When partnerships between government and private, nonprofit entities are used appropriately, we all win. The mission is accomplished faster and cheaper, with lasting quality. However, when a public-private partnership goes off course, or when its mission is contrary to the will of the people, the results can be troublesome. An example of this can be found in the record of the Riverfront Development Corporation.

The origins of the RDC can be traced back to 1997, when the City of Memphis presented a plan to revitalize our riverfront. The most prominent element of the plan was the creation of an expensive lake of questionable utility between Mud Island and downtown Memphis.

The public voiced its opposition quickly and decisively. Citizens questioned the wisdom of closing our valuable harbor and changing the character of our historic riverfront in the name of "progress." Because of the opposition, the plan was shelved.

However, the idea was reborn in 2000 when the RDC was formed as a nonprofit public-private partnership charged with managing five miles of riverfront parks and helping the city create a master plan for our riverfront's future.

I was excited at the prospect of a coherent plan of action to clean up my favorite part of our city. I attended each of the public meetings the RDC held and participated with great enthusiasm until it became apparent that one suggestion that had been clearly dismissed by the citizens - the lake - kept coming back into the debate.

This has again been the RDC's approach with its current plan proposing the commercial development of the river bluff west of Front Street and leasing part of the tract to private developers to generate revenue to sustain itself.

The RDC's Memphis Promenade Public Realm Plan has several significant flaws. First, the RDC acknowledges that its approach will cost the city taxpayers $50 million to replace the city-owned buildings ocupying the land. Furthermore, the plan ignores the fact that the use of the promenade land was granted by the city's founding fathers to all of the citizens of Memphis in perpetuity, so long as none of it was used for private gain, although the title to the property remains in the hands of the founders' descendants.

The sale or long-term lease of promenade property to private developers for the construction of high-rise buildings violates both the letter and the spirit of the original grant. If the RDC's lawyers have figured out a way to break this 175-year-old, legally binding arrangement, then the land Memphis citizens have enjoyed for free will have to be acquired at today's fair market price, and will add millions of dollars to the already exorbitant price tag on the project.

The RDC meetings on the proposal, or at least those that were open to the public, have been well attended. The overwhelming sentiment of the public - concerns about excessive taxpayer expenditures and preservation of our treasured public property - do not seem to have been factored into the revisions that have been made to the RDC's plan.

That exemplifies one drawback of the public-private partnership approach: The community can lose its voice to a non-elected group that cannot be swayed by the will of the people.

If the RDC's Promenade Public Realm Plan moves along to City Council approval, it will set off a chain of events that will cost our citizens millions of dollars to pay for land we have always had, so that the RDC can collect rent for buildings for which there is no documented demand.
While it may be well-intentioned, such a plan is akin to selling your front yard to pay for a new sidewalk.

Friends for Our Riverfront has created an alternative plan for the promenade that would remedy the problems associated with the property's current condition, enhance existing river views and complement the character and ongoing revitalization of our historic downtown district - at a small fraction of the cost of what the RDC proposes to do.

It is time to put the "public" back into the public-private partnership that is the RDC, by improving our public spaces while honoring the intentions of our city's founding fathers and the will of the people.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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