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A Time to Invest in Memphis

A Time to Invest in Memphis

Good evening, and thank you for joining me virtually tonight. I’m delivering my speech to you this evening from the newly transformed Renasant Convention Center. From what was a tired, outdated building, a new state-of-the-art space has been constructed that every Memphian should be proud of and every visitor will enjoy and want to come back and visit.

I chose the location for this year’s State of the City for a very specific reason, and as I get further into my remarks, you will understand why. Tonight, I’m going cover three main topics—

1) a recap of the past year and the road ahead,
2) a new violence intervention program, and lastly,
3) a transformative investment in Memphis.

First, nearly a year ago, leadership from across the county were briefed by the Governor and the State Health Department on the very first identified cases of COVID-19 in our community. In what feels like ten years ago now, I remember sitting in our conference on a Sunday morning in March as we received the news that would forever change our society.

One week later, we collectively came together under a joint task force to coordinate what has been an unparalleled effort to inform, protect, feed, teach, support, test and now— to vaccinate our community. Our objective has always been to navigate the pandemic so that we are able to return to normal as quickly as possible, while preserving as many lives and livelihoods as we could along the way.

It hasn’t been easy. We haven’t always gotten it exactly right, and while we haven’t always agreed, we have delivered what has been to this point a unified approach to overcome this virus. By now, many of us have been forced to learn how to cope with the pain of losing someone to COVID-19. Some of them have been our family, our friends, our co-workers— but they were all our neighbors.

Tonight, I want to pause for a moment as we reflect on those individuals, what they have meant to us and mourn their passing. But, we must remember—hope is just around the corner.

Our medical experts and government officials continue to innovate and find new ways to ensure testing is readily available and free, and because of this, only once have we suffered the scarcity of tests or slow test result times that other communities have often experienced.

Our hospital systems, though stressed, are expertly managing their patient loads to ensure those most in need of acute care are getting it, and our community has answered the call for desperately needed staff and volunteers to help relieve the pressure on our health care systems. Most recently, we have begun the life-saving work of administering vaccines, and we will not stop until every person in Memphis and Shelby County has the opportunity to receive it.

Most importantly, and we’re seeing this right now reflected in our new case numbers and hospitalizations, most Memphians have masked up, socially distanced, repeatedly washed our hands, and avoided gathering in large crowds. Thank you!

Last year, when a sudden outbreak of disease disrupted school schedules and Shelby County Schools couldn’t deliver vital food service to children who count on it, our joint task force found a way to reliably make food available for our children and families who needed it most without ever missing a beat.

Because so many of our parents depend on our schools to care for their children when they go to work to earn a living, the YMCA, the City’s Division of Parks and Neighborhoods and other agencies came together to deliver child care and remote learning for our essential workers in ways we had never imagined, and we cannot thank them enough for the work they are continuing to this today. In keeping with our history as the most giving city in America, the City, the County and the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund, have collectively provided more than $20 million of direct financial support for utility assistance, rent and mortgage assistance, business stabilization grants, and grants to directly support employees of industries most dramatically impacted by business restrictions, and ensured that non-profit agencies that provide essential social services and support have had the financial means to continue their work.

We have provided and continue to provide housing for chronically homeless individuals and families. In addition to the previously mentioned feeding program for school children and their families, we have kept a steady supply of food available, serving millions of meals to those in need, without interruption through our Mid-South Food Bank.

Additionally, while many cities across the country faced months of violent protests, our community came together peacefully to let their voices be heard, and we continue to reimagine policing for the residents of Memphis. This past year has been one of collective and individual sacrifice. But through it all, I have been inspired by the resiliency of our community and the resolve you have shown as we have worked to navigate our way through these turbulent waters.

There is still work to do and our journey is not over. The vaccine process will likely take many more months. But, with your help, we will get through it together. Along with the pandemic, this past year also brought an increased violent crime rate to Memphis and most large cities across our country, the likes of which we have not seen in recent history. For decades, violent crime has plagued our city. For me personally, it’s been one of the most frustrating and challenging obstacles I’ve faced during my time as Mayor because there is no “quick fix”. Unfortunately, the plans we make and the actions we take today do not mean our crime problem will be solved tomorrow.

It takes all of us—state and local officials, families, neighborhoods, churches, businesses—working together towards the long-term goal of reducing violent crime. With each murder, my heart breaks to see our citizens, especially our young people, taken from their families and friends due to senseless violence.

That’s why tonight as the second topic in this State of the City, I am announcing two major initiatives to combat violent crime:

1) The first is a comprehensive and collaborative initiative aimed directly at interrupting the cycle of violent crime by adding new and significant resources to that work. The Group Violence Intervention Program (GVIP) has been developed from evidence based practices that have been demonstrated to work in other cities. At its core, it is a collaboration between innovative policing and focused deterrence work. It will be complemented by other non-police agencies who will perform intense violence interruption, intervention, prevention and outreach to the hundreds of individuals we know who are committing most of the crimes and the most at-risk youth.

Additionally, needed services for those individuals and their families who are most likely to shoot or to be shot will be provided, (assuming they agree to turn away from criminal activities). These services will be designed to support the individual’s decision not to commit further crimes and to choose the right path in life. This is a targeted, more comprehensive approach directed at those committing the violent and other more serious crimes.

To give you an idea of how this can be transformative for our community, this is just one example from our prior, very limited focused deterrence program: An offender with 46 prior arrests—many for violent felonies—including Aggravated Robbery, agreed to work with us to turn his life around. Because of the program he has:

  • Obtained housing
  • Received help with overdue MLGW bills
  • Received employment training
  • Been hired at a local automotive shop
  • Now has full custody of his child
  • Has not failed a drug screen in one year

If we’re going to truly address violent crime and the root causes of it, this kind of individual approach must be greatly expanded and added to our current efforts. To coordinate this undertaking, I am appointing a fulltime staff of four in my office who’s only job is to implement this program and coordinate the many partners necessary to make it successful.

This group will be led by Joy Touliatos. Joy is deeply committed, and as former two-term Juvenile Court Clerk, she has a clear and full understanding of the many factors that drive violent behavior, especially among our young people.

I want to thank the many government partners who have committed to work with us to get this done: the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, Memphis Police Department, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, and Councilman Jeff Warren.

I also want to acknowledge our partners in intervention, interruption and outreach work from the Shelby County Schools GRASSY Program, the 901BLOC Squad and our regional trauma center leaders from Regional One Health and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. I look forward to working with all of you to expand your programs and increase this critical work.

2) The second part of this equation is in the next few weeks, we will be soliciting bids from companies to work with City government to convert all 84,000 street lights across our city to LED bulbs. By doing this, we will be bringing much needed and significantly improved lighting to every neighborhood in Memphis. No longer will criminals have safe harbor to operate under cover of darkness and prey on our citizens in dimly lit parts of the city.

At the beginning of my remarks, I told you I chose the location of tonight’s speech for a very specific purpose. This beautifully renovated building is symbolic of what we’re going to do for our city in the very near future and is my third topic—transformative investments in Memphis.

Prior to this pandemic, we were experiencing momentum in our city on all fronts. For the first time in a long time, more Memphians thought we were heading in the right direction instead of the wrong one. Billions of new private dollars were being invested citywide. Violent crime had gone down three years in a row. For the first time in history, we had set up free, universal needs-based Pre-Kindergarten. 20,000 more Memphians were working than when I took office in 2016, and our poverty rate had dropped to its lowest point in twenty years. We were moving in the right direction, but the pandemic has halted much of this.

We will get this momentum back, and I’m going to tell you how we start that process tonight. Throughout the 2010s, the City of Memphis exercised fiscal discipline through tough financial times. We experienced modest gains in overall annual revenue and our large debt service payments consumed approximately one of every three dollars of property tax revenue. While some investments were made in our infrastructure, fiscal limitations, like annual borrowing caps, saved our city’s finances, but fell short of the kind of transformative investments all Memphians deserve. But as we start a new decade, Memphis stands at the precipice of a confluence of events, including:

• Our commitment to quality-of-life improvement throughout all neighborhoods in Memphis. We are neighborhoods-first administration.
• Our economy is now beginning to pick back up in the wake of COVID-19, and we will build upon the momentum we were experiencing pre-pandemic.
• We have an ingrained culture of data-driven government decision-making and fiscal discipline, which has inspired confidence among our citizens, other elected officials, bond rating agencies, and the State of Tennessee.
• We have a “debt cliff” coming in July of 2026, when our annual debt service payments will fall dramatically.
• We have a low-interest rate environment for issuing bonds.
• And, in Memphis 3.0, we have a newly adopted comprehensive plan with input from 15,000 citizens to guide development, transportation, infrastructure, and civic space over the next two decades and beyond.
From all these factors, project Accelerate Memphis: Invest in Neighborhoods is born.

As the saying goes “everything in life is about timing”. Well folks, now is the time and Memphis, Tennessee is the place. We are going to capitalize on these favorable conditions by making an unprecedented $200 million investment in catalytic community projects in every neighborhood and every city council district from Smokey City to Orange Mound, Raleigh to Whitehaven, Klondike to South Memphis. This will help restart the momentum and accelerate our growth by improving the quality of life, driving equity and inclusion, improving housing and connectivity, and solving stubborn problems that are deeper than any single yearly budget can solve.

The City will take advantage today of the reduction in debt service in July 2026 to make a transformative, one-time investment in a variety of capital projects all across our city. Now, for our non-finance people out there—the easiest way to look at this debt cliff is kind of like when you refinance your mortgage on your home. When you refinance your mortgage, you can significantly lower the amount you pay each month. Because we were able to take advantage of this low interest rate market a few years back and we have limited taking on additional debt, the annual debt service (which is our equivalent of you paying your monthly mortgage) that we pay falls by roughly $63 million a year in July of 2026.

And, with Accelerate Memphis, we will intentionally seek to leverage additional funds — such as private and philanthropic dollars — to increase its impact. As it stands right now, proceeds from $200 million in Accelerate Memphis bonds will be used in the following
three main ways:

• Neighborhood Improvements — $75 million
• Improving our parks — $75 million; and
• Revitalizing citywide assets — $50 million

Now, these funds must, by law, be used only for one-time, capital costs; they cannot be used for recurring operating expenses like salaries.

Neighborhood improvements | $75 million

Neighborhood improvements will include three things:
1) infrastructure improvements designed to improve quality of life, to entice private investment and commercial offerings, and increase traffic and pedestrian safety;
2) broadband infrastructure to areas with limited or no access; and
3) quality affordable housing for those in need.

First, the infrastructure will be guided by Memphis 3.0. Again, Memphis 3.0 is our first comprehensive plan in 40 years and was drafted with input from 15,000 Memphians who came up with plans on what their neighborhoods should look like over the next 10-20 years. It’s a roadmap for growth—a tool to help us bring investment and jobs to every neighborhood across our city.

As you know, we at City Hall do not tell business owners where to locate their businesses. Like every city and state in the country, we recruit businesses to our city and help local businesses grow and expand, and we work to train our workforce.

As a side note, please remember that thanks to state government, we are the only state in the country with free workforce training in the form of free community college and tech schools. And for those graduating with a degree or certificate in a technical trade, the job placement rate is over 90 percent, and all the jobs pay well over a liveable wage. So, we try to get as many people trained up, and for several years, Shelby County has enrolled more people in this free education than any other county in the state.

We also sometimes provide tax incentives, and if business locates in neighborhoods that have been underserved, those incentives are greater. But, we do not and cannot pick their locations. What we can do, however, is to improve our city as a whole—neighborhoods specifically—so they want to invest. Improving our infrastructure is one of the best things we can do. For example, when St. Jude decided three years ago to expand its research and medical care with 1,800 new jobs, fortunately they chose Memphis. Yes, it made sense to expand here, but they could have gone anywhere. What did they ask for? A well-functioning sewer system. Understand that the Pinch is probably the oldest neighborhood in Memphis, and the old terracotta pipes needed complete replacement.

Another example of when this type infrastructure improvement helped us—Amazon. When Amazon was looking at various locations, they asked if we at the City could help with nearby lighting and some street repaving. For a relatively minor investment on the City’s part, Amazon ended up choosing Memphis and bringing more than a thousand good paying jobs and millions in new private investment with them.

On smaller level, most every neighborhood has an intersection with current or abandoned commercial activity. Think about it: Do you prefer to shop for groceries, get a meal, buy a cup of coffee or insurance at an establishment where the sidewalks are crumbling, the light or power poles are rusted or damaged, or there is a blighted vacant building next door? Of course not. And business owners don’t want to invest there either.

Memphis 3.0 tells us where and what kinds of investments in infrastructure would be best. The Accelerate Memphis plan provides $60 million in improved infrastructure at 87 locations across the city and is a call to action to business owners and private citizens to also invest in our neighborhoods, some of which have been forgotten over time.

For example, the largest investments would go into community anchors as defined in Memphis 3.0. These each have small area plans, again drafted in partnership with neighbors.

• Raleigh Town Center (Austin Peay and Yale)
• Whitehaven Plaza (Elvis Presley and Raines)
• South City (Mississippi and Georgia; Lauderdale and
• Soulsville (Mississippi and Walker)
• Klondike (Jackson and Watkins; Brown and
• Hollywood/Hyde Park (Chelsea and Hollywood)
• Orange Mound (Lamar/Park and Airways;
Marechalneil and Park; Dallas and Park)
• Highland Heights (Summer and National)
• Oakhaven (Shelby and Tchulahoma)

The second Neighborhood Improvement is closing the knowledge gap with broadband infrastructure ($7.5 million). Too many Memphians do not have access to broadband Internet, negatively affecting learning, job access, and quality of life. By allocating $7.5 million in Accelerate Memphis funds to bring fiber to more neighborhoods, the City will make meaningful progress in closing this gap.

The third Neighborhood Investment is in housing opportunities ($7.5 million). As we have from day one, our administration is committed to making investments in quality affordable housing that support the needs of Memphis residents. These funds will be used for infrastructure, acquisition, and demolition in support of affordable housing development in Memphis 3.0 anchors. These investments will ensure that long-term affordability in Memphis neighborhoods remains a priority as redevelopment occurs.

Along with Neighborhood Improvements, we have allocated $75 million for improving our parks. Parks are often the focus of neighborhood life —more than 120 developed parks of all sizes, 30 community and senior centers, 17 pools (14 outdoor, three indoor), seven golf courses, three splash pads, 81 playgrounds, 48 basketball courts, 78 pavilions, four dog parks, 80 tennis courts (12 indoor, 68 outdoor), and more. The City has more than 3,200 fixed assets (benches, trash cans, water fountains, etc.) throughout 120 developed parks. As an initiative of Memphis 3.0 and the Parks Division, a master plan for the city’s parks is nearing completion. While the planning is not finalized, citizens have already voiced a strong preference for bringing existing park assets to excellent condition. Furthermore, citizens have identified key priorities that include more splash pads, more and better walking trails, better connections to other parks, and amenities such as wireless internet in parks and fitness rooms in community centers. Through a $75 million allocation, Accelerate Memphis will address many of these issues while bringing vibrancy back to assets throughout our city.

A wide range of maintenance needs exists in our parks system. By investing $35 million of the $75 million for Parks in deferred maintenance, we will make significant, noticeable improvements to the assets citizens use on a daily basis. Also, we will construct replacement facilities or fund major renovations with the other $40 million allocated to Parks. These are just a few examples of the types of investments we’re proposing to make:

Pine Hill Golf Course ($4 million). A new clubhouse will be built both to serve the golf course and as a multipurpose room for the community.
Riverview Community Center renovation/improvements ($2 million).
Southwest Twin Drive-In ($1 million). We will acquire and demolition the former blighted drive-in movie theater on South Third, for future conversion into community asset.
Gaston Community Center ($4 million). Complete renovation of this beautiful historic facility.
Gaisman Community Center ($8 million). Replacement of the current facility, which was constructed in the 1960s.

The third, and final, category in the Accelerate Memphis plan is Revitalizing Citywide Assets with $50 million allocated. Regardless of which neighborhood you live in, there are common assets that all of us enjoy. Many of those assets are at a point in their lifecycle at which major repairs or renovations are necessary to maintain their usefulness and vibrancy. Below are the assets we plan to revamp.

AutoZone Park Capital Repair Fund ($5 million).
FedExForum Capital Repair Fund ($10 million).
Historic Melrose mixed use/library/housing development ($10 million). With $10 million in funding from Accelerate Memphis, Historic Melrose will become a state-of-the-art library branch and genealogy center that will be co-located with senior housing on the upper floors.
Mud Island River Park rehab ($4 million).
100 N. Main remediation ($10 million).
Underpass improvements ($1 million).

Now, we call this $200 million plan Accelerate Memphis: Invest in Neighborhoods, and it does construct or rehabilitate many buildings or structures — but it is really an investment in one of our most precious assets, our people. It’s an investment in the child who wants a nice place to play. It’s an investment in the busy parent who needs to run errands but doesn’t want or maybe doesn’t have the financial means to drive across town to buy an item. It’s an investment in the elderly neighbor who may simply want a well-lit and safer neighborhood. This is a plan about Memphians—the individuals young and old, black and white and everyone who make our city unique and such a gift to the rest of the world.

I want to take a moment to recognize the team who spent countless hours working to put this massive project together. Thanks so much to our Chief Operating Officer, Doug McGowen, and his two deputies—Chandell Ryan and Kyle Veazey. To my Chief Financial Officer, Shirley Ford. To the director of Housing and Community Development, Paul Young, the director of the Division of Planning and Development, John Zeanah, and the director of the division of Parks and Neighborhoods, Nick Walker. This would not have been possible without the hard work you all put into this.

Also, I want to thank the Memphis City Council. Without our partnership with you, none of the positive things I have mentioned — our successful response to COVID-19, our pre-pandemic momentum, the universal needs-based pre-kindergarten, the improved City services in our first five years — none of these would have been possible without their support and partnership. We are seeking their continued partnership with these new proposals, and in fact, their input has played a large role in the substance of these plans.

As I close out my remarks tonight, I just want to say one last thing. Over the last year, we have been dealt more fear, anxiety, and tragedy than many of us have experienced in our entire lifetimes. But, know this—as I stand here tonight, I can honestly and whole-heartedly tell you I believe the future of Memphis is brighter now than it ever has been, and these projects are just the beginning.

Thank you for your time, and may God bless you and may God bless Memphis.

-Mayor Jim Strickland

Accelerate Memphis Map