Thursday, July 01, 2004

New eyes on Memphis

Memphis Heritage Keystone

July/August 2004

The Keystone recently interviewed Mike Cromer, a contributor to The Keystone and an enthusiastic new Memphian. A retired business development executive who has lived in Park City, UT and attended the Sundance Institute for filmaking, Mike is now spending his time producing documentary videos.

Q. You moved to Memphis last August [2003]. What motivated you to come here?

I was actually moving from California back to Washington DC where I grew up. I stopped in to visit an old friend and she convinced me to stay a while. It didn’t take much convincing.

Q. You have previously lived in Boston, Ottawa (Canada), Park City, and San Diego. How do you like Memphis? How does it compare?

I love it. Memphis is a perfect size, has loads of culture, history, and a unique flair…and of course very nice people. I had visited here a number of times over the years and watched the city "grow up." I feel it’s right on the cusp of something big and special. My experience of Memphis compares to Ottawa, which is also friendly, historic, and cultural, and similar in size.

Q. Why did you decide to live downtown?

I like snug and cozy walking cities, where you can do and see so much without getting in a car. I like the mix of old and new, and especially how Memphis has put a new life into many of its old structures and institutions. But I also enjoy riding the boulevards and character-rich neighborhoods in midtown and elsewhere.

Q. You’ve started working on a documentary about the Riverfront project. What got you interested in this?

I’d come here hoping to find an interesting subject to film. But at first, my interest in the Riverfront was simply as a new Memphian. I’d heard about a meeting last fall at the ballpark to discuss big plans affecting the Riverfront. Naturally I wanted to know what it was all about, so I went.

Q. Your reaction?

Frankly, disappointment. The way the plan was presented was unclear and confusing -- I didn’t get it. There was a lot of talk about other cities that didn’t really compare with Memphis; it didn’t particularly interest me. I got a sense of a long, paved walkway with shops and restaurants. But I’d just been filming the waterfront and it was mostly green and cobblestones. There was no help for me on the RDC’s Web site, either. My feeling was that somebody could do a better job of presenting the plan.

Q. So you decided to do a documentary to explain it?

Not at that point. In the winter, I heard that a group of Memphians were unhappy with this plan. I went to the initial meeting of Friends for Our Riverfront and heard many people discuss problems with it, each from a different perspective. At that point, my own perspective changed. If I did a documentary, it could be more than just informational with great visuals. It could be issues-oriented, and help people make an important decision about the City’s future. I also saw a potential for drama, and human interest, a sort of David versus Goliath story.

Q. What do you think are the major issues?

I’d prefer to say “questions”, and there are four or five of them. Aesthetics, history, economics (or feasibility), and public process. Environment would be the fifth, but my preference is to include it under feasibility. Legality is also a question, but one to ultimately be decided in the courts. The first two, aesthetics and history, are very subjective. Each person has a personal opinion about whether the plan looks good and fits their image of the waterfront and personal lifestyle. Similarly, and legal questions aside, each person may have a personal opinion of how important history should be in the outcome. For many people, one or both of these two questions are their hot buttons. They are certainly engaging and interesting topics for a documentary, and I will include them. But my special focus will probably be on the other two, economics and public process. They are my own hot buttons.

Q. Talk about economics.

I think it is astonishing that so little is really known, publicly at least, about the economics and feasibility of the project. This is huge plan and the costs, whoever pays them, are very significant. You hear the words "growth" and "progress", but these are assertions, not facts. Where are the details? What are the measures of success, and the risks of failure? As a software executive, I cringed when someone tried to sell me a product “vision” without addressing those questions. We called it "slide-ware"! I don’t mean to insult Memphians, but I wonder if they are asleep. I should think they would care more about a matter that potentially affects their pocketbooks.

Q. Why are you concerned about public process?

How big decisions are made, and the extent to which the public is directly involved in the process, is important in a democracy. The specifics vary from locality to locality, but the goal is always the same. In this case, there are at least two aspects that tie into national trends. One is the creative and expanding use of quasi-public entities to manage aspects of our life that would ordinarily be in the government’s domain. This is not a new idea, but it is being applied in new ways across the country, and some question if they are good, proper, or even successful. The second, closely related issue is the expanding and often creative use of eminent domain, which is the government’s limited right to seize private property for a clear public purpose. In many recent cases around the country, the “public” purpose hasn’t been so clear, while private interests have often benefited immensely.

Q. Do you think that’s happening here?

I think it’s definitely worth exploring the subject and presenting it for Memphians, and perhaps others, to understand, using the Riverfront project as a case study.

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