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Smart Phones, Smart Government

July 9, 2012

City of Memphis residents can now access some aspects of city government from their smart phones.

By downloading GeoSpace’s Smart Government App Memphis from the app store, iPhone users can receive push notifications about garbage pick-ups, road closures, and emergencies, as well as a one-touch call list for different areas of city government.

“It uses the same technology as Facebook and Twitter,” says GeoSpace president Ashley Mooney. “This was all done because I wanted to make a difference.”

The app, which did not cost the City of Memphis anything, was an idea Mooney had after last spring’s historic flooding. He thought something that could immediately notify citizens of emergencies or smaller issues would be useful, and pitched the idea to the Mayor during one of the Mayor’s regular Drake and Zeke appearances.

In addition, citizens can use the Pic/Fix feature on the app to take GPS-encoded pictures of problems such as potholes, downed street signs, or malfunctioning traffic signals, and send them directly to the city to resolve. By using a map interface, the picture will be able to pinpoint the location of the problem within 5 to 10 feet.

“If a citizen sees a pothole and they take a picture of it, we don’t have to ask where is it or how big is it,” said Mayor Wharton. “Our hope is that what Ashley has done here will inspire others.

The Smart Gov Memphis is available now, for free, in Apple’s App store.

City Celebrates Bass Pro Construction Kick-Off

June 22, 2012
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Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl

When you go hunting or fishing, you don’t just need a rod and reel or a bow and arrow. You need patience.

So it was that after seven years of speculation, Bass Pro Shops and the City of Memphis celebrated a construction kick-off yesterday for the new Outdoor World in the city’s iconic downtown Pyramid.

The planned additions to the 220,000-square-foot store include a floating dock, an aviary, a waterfowl museum, a 24,000-gallon aquarium, and zip-line stations. The company is also planning a three-story hotel with balconies overlooking the retail space, nature-scapes, and giant cypress tress swamp below.

“We will utilize the unique retail environment we’re creating to celebrate the Delta Flyway and make this store the Waterfowl Center for the whole company,” said Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris.

Morris fishing buddy and legendary angler Bill Dance recalled how the Pyramid project came to be. The two were fishing  on the Mississippi River, not far from the building, with Jack Emmitt when Morris said that if any of them caught a 30-pound catfish, they’d put a Bass Pro in the Pyramid. In what will surely become Pyramid lore, Emmitt caught that 30 pounder and the rest is history.

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The fish that made it all happen. She was later released.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. pointed out where some of the future attractions — the hotel, the bowling alley, the marina — would be located within the Pyramid.

“What we see today, even in its bare bones, is Johnny Morris’ vision coming to life,” said Mayor Wharton. “What we see emerging is a hunting, fishing, and sporting paradise, right here on the Mighty Mississippi.”

Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is scheduled to open in Fall 2013, and the company has an initial 20-year lease on the Pyramid, with several options for renewals.

City Begins 25-Square

May 15, 2012

Community Enhancement Deputy Director Onzie Horne

For the City of Memphis, it’s hip to be square.

Last year, the city began a pilot project to clean up the city – 25-square-blocks at a time.

Due to the success of that effort, the city has implemented the 25-Square strategy for neighborhood improvement going forward.

In the past, clean-up efforts were handled on a case-by-case basis. Citizens would call in with a problem property or code enforcement officers would see one; a crew would then be sent out to take care of it.

Under the more comprehensive and proactive 25-Square strategy, crews will work in predetermined “target zones” to mitigate grass and weed overgrowth, abandoned and dilapidated houses, litter and debris, impassable sidewalks, congested alleys, potholes, and vacant lots all at one time.

“This is the right strategy,” said Onzie Horne, deputy director for the city’s Community Enhancement division. “The idea of going into a neighborhood and cutting the vacant lots but leaving the abandoned houses doesn’t make sense.”

512 properties were mowed, trimmed, and cleared of debris; 378 weed violations were issued; … and perhaps most strikingly, 25 dump trucks loads of garbage, trash, and debris were removed.

The 25-Square crews actually began the season with a super clean-up in Orange Mound: 512 properties were mowed, trimmed, and cleared of debris; 378 weed violations were issued; 44 vacant houses were boarded and secured; 18 houses were demolished; and, perhaps most strikingly, 25 dump trucks loads of garbage, trash, and debris were removed.

The goal is to do 15 target areas or 365 square blocks – located across the city – each week.

Community Enhancement estimates that the comprehensive 25-Square strategy is 80 percent more efficient than the previous complaint-based system. The new strategy won’t result in cost savings for the city, but with unloading and loading, as well as travel time, drastically reduced under 25-Square, the city’s cost per unit has also dropped.

“We did 11 target areas last year,” said Horne, “but we were primarily focused on overgrowth and vacant lots. … The goal now is to mitigate blight of all types.”

As 100 Days End, Administration Moves Into Budget Season

May 3, 2012

May 1st marked both the end of the Mayor’s 100 Days and the second day of the Memphis City Council’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget hearings.

During his State of the City speech last January, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. talked about a period of action when the administration would jumpstart the term’s four priorities: Creating safe and vibrant neighborhoods, growing prosperity and opportunity for all, investing in the area’s youth, and advancing a culture of excellence in government.

During the 100 days, the administration assessed the condition of every city park, developed a maintenance plan for those parks, and brought city mayors from all over the country to Memphis to talk about education and post-secondary success.

The city focused on connecting city parks to greenlines via bicycle facilities and bringing baseball back into neighborhoods. It began working with the Redbirds to strengthen the team’s presence downtown – Mayor Wharton was even invited to throw out the first pitch – and working with community groups to clean up neighborhoods.

As part of the 100 Days, the Memphis Police Department also developed and implemented its new Community Outreach Program, or COP.

“One of the items I am most pleased about is COP,” said Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. “When we began talking about COP, citizens were concerned that we were getting rid of Blue Crush and all the success we’ve had with that initiative. The reality is the COP builds on the data and techniques we were using as part of Blue Crush and enhances it with real community engagement.”

And there’s MORE, literally.

MORE is the Mayor’s Office of Resources and Enterprise, and the hope is that it will help small and minority- and women-owned businesses bid for and win contracts. Headed by Alandas Dobbins, MORE’s goal is to help grow a new layer of thriving local businesses.

“It’s one thing to bring companies such as Electrolux or Mitsubishi Electric to town using the city’s natural assets,” said Mayor Wharton. “We also need to create an economic infrastructure to help nurture and grow the city’s small businesses into the next Electrolux or Mitsubishi Electric.”

Within this same 100 days, the City of Memphis saw the American Queen return to cruise the Mississippi River with Memphis as its home port and headquarters. Prior to that, the city participated in a job fair for the Great American Steamboat Company, which helped the company staff many of its 300 ship staff positions with Memphians.

We also saw the Memphis Grizzlies make it to the NBA Playoffs, and the Leadership Academy begin the Mayor’s Millennials group to discuss what young professionals want to see out of their city.

Parks and Neighborhoods, General Services, and Finance presented their budgets during Memphis City Council committees Tuesday, May 1st. Budget hearings continue May 9th.

Memphis Council, Administration Begin Budget Talks

April 18, 2012

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. presented a $628.3 million budget to the Memphis City Council yesterday for fiscal year 2013.

The proposed budget included $24 million in cuts from day-to-day operating expenses and a 47-cent tax proposal earmarked for education. It also included an increase for the Memphis Police Department to make up for lost federal funding and rising fuel costs.

“The budget I am presenting today does not include layoffs of police officers or firefighters,” the Mayor said. “In this economy, many cities like Miami, Chicago, Cleveland, and Newark have been fiscally squeezed to the point of making substantial layoffs in their police and fire departments. … [This] will ensure we do not start.”

Since 2008, when the City Council cut funding to Memphis City Schools (MCS), the City of Memphis has been funding its maintenance of effort obligation to MCS primarily out of the city’s general fund. That fund also pays for personnel, libraries, parks, and most of the day-to-day operations of city government.

ImageThe city’s property tax revenue also has decreased by $17 million a year since 2009.

Accordingly, city expenditures, save those for public safety, have been cut by 6.5 percent in the last two years.

“While we always look for areas of savings, this Council and this community as a whole have made it clear that is does not wish to see any reduction in our successful crime fighting efforts,” Mayor Wharton said.

For FY 2013, the City projects that $424,495,000 will go toward personnel costs. Of that figure, 80 percent is attributable to police and fire. The city has 5,834 general fund employees; 4,519 of them are employed in police or fire.

Memphis City Council budget hearings will begin Saturday, April 28th. FY 2013 begins July 1st.

Mayor Meets with POTUS To Discuss City Challenges, Solutions

March 19, 2012

As part of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities convening in Washington, D.C. last week, Mayor A C Wharton met with President Barack Obama, other administration officials, and mayors from Detroit, New Orleans, Fresno, and Chester, Pennsylvania.

“It was very productive,” said Mayor Wharton. “We weren’t meeting with the deputy undersecretary’s assistant to the hall closet.”

President Obama signed an executive order last week to establish a White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities; the council is expected to facilitate communication and coordination between the federal government and local municipalities. The move follows a pilot program begun last year with Memphis and five other partner cities.

At the convening, Mayor Wharton joined Mayor Dave Bing of Detroit, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Mayor Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, and Mayor John Linder of Chester, Pennsylvania, to talk about overcoming the challenges faced by our cities.

“There was one thing that was strikingly similar with all the Mayors on the panel,” said Mayor Wharton. “Not one of them was ‘woe is me.’ Here in Memphis, they said we were dead after yellow fever. They said we were dead after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Look out [at this city now] and tell me we’re dead.

“There are comeback cities.”

In addition, the Mayor also met with Shaun Donovan, the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Hilda Solis, the United States Secretary of Labor.

“With Secretary of Labor Solis, we got into the summer jobs program and what kinds of alternative funding sources are out there. We talked about programs to help the unemployed and the unemployable,” said Mayor Wharton. “It was really helpful to deal directly with the people who have the power to make things happen.”

Mayor Names City’s Advisory Council on Education

March 12, 2012

Calling it “a golden opportunity” for the city, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., today named the members of the city’s new Advisory Council on Education.

The group, which includes former Booker T. Washington principal Elsie Bailey and former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Dr. Jane Walters, will be charged with looking at what to do with the portion of the city’s budget that currently goes to Memphis City Schools (MCS) each year.

Mayor A C Wharton stands with Advisory Council on Education Co-Chairs Cato Johnson and Elsie Bailey.

Pursuant to a court ruling, the city’s obligation to fund MCS will end with the beginning of the 2013 school year, which is technically July 1, 2013.

“It’s rare that we get a chance to plan ahead like this,” said Mayor Wharton. “This is the first thing we are talking about doing when that obligation ends. We could plan for a new industrial park. We could plan for a lot of things, but let’s plan for the welfare of our children.”

The Mayor could not say how much funding the advisory council would be looking at; his plan is to first ask the City Council to lower the tax rate by the same amount that Shelby County raises its tax rate to pay for the full school funding obligation.

The advisory council will be looking at programs outside the classroom that could positively impact education. A recent study released on Books from Birth, for example, a program that gives Tennessee children one book a month from birth until their 5th birthday, said that it significantly and positively impacted what occurs later inside the classroom.

The members of the advisory council are Walters, Bailey, consultant Allie Prescott, Director of High School Initiatives Joyce Mitchell, Hazel’s Beauty Salon owner Hazel Moore, President and CEO of Stax Academy Kirk Whalum, retired NBA player Elliot Perry, United Way of the Mid-South Senior Vice President Regina Walker, Women’s Foundation Deputy Executive Director Shante Adair, Shelby County Head Start Executive Director John Lovelace, Memphis Tomorrow President and CEO Blair Taylor, Professor Reginald Leon Green, founder and CEO of EVS Corporation Gayle Rose, MEA Advocate Yvonne Acey, Urban Child Institute consultant Barbara Holden Nixon, Methodist Healthcare Senior Vice President Cato Johnson, founder, President and CEO of The Carter Malone Group Deidre Malone, City Council member Shea Flinn, City Council member Wanda Halbert, KIPP Academy Executive Director Jamal McCall, and First Tennessee Bank executive Jill Crocker.

The group’s first meeting will be April 9, 2012. They expect to bring something back to the Mayor by the fall.

“For the first time, Memphians have the opportunity to ask: What do our children need?” Mayor Wharton said.