MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - In a no-nonsense 17 minute speech to the Memphis Rotary Club, city government's Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen bragged on Memphis and then laid out a host of challenges the city faces as it approaches its 2019 Bicentennial.
"It is a place where anything can be made to happen," McGowen told Rotarians. "I say that deliberately because, if you're not aware, there was a book called Cities and Civilization which ranked the top 20 most influential cities in the world from inception of civilization until today and Memphis is in there! It says that Memphis is a city where anything can be made to happen. Not where anything does happen or things just happen or things pop up, but where through grit and determination, anything can be made to happen. That is the stuff that our city is made of."
The former Top Gun Naval aviator now serves as Mayor Jim Strickland's Chief Operating Officer with oversight of all city government. The 26-year Navy veteran ticked off a list of recent Memphis accomplishments, including the transformation of the Pyramid from NBA arena to Bass Pro Shop retail mecca, the renewal of Sears Crosstown into an urban village, the renovation of the old Tennessee Brewery into new apartments and the metamorphosis of Peabody Place into ServiceMaster's corporate headquarters.
"This is the DNA of our city," McGowen testified.
McGowen made special mention of the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike that began February 12, 1968.
"They changed the face of America forever," the COO said of the sanitation workers, and made clear city government expects Memphis will be in the spotlight when the world stops to remember what happened in 1968 next year. "This is going to be a time when people focus on us. Make no mistake our time, this is our time. Our time is now in Memphis. There's energy like no other in Memphis."
The one time Commander of the U.S. Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington noted that there are thousands of open jobs available now in Memphis that remain unfilled in part because of the city's ailing transit system.
"Our public transit system is funded by the lowest number of dollars per capita of any transit system in America," McGowen said, repeating this funding challenge twice for the Rotary audience.
The COO said it would cost $30 million to get MATA where it needs to be and those dollars aren't available now. But McGowen said on-time performance of MATA buses has improved from 44 percent in January 2017 to 75 percent today. McGowen said the city's trolleys will be back in service this year.
Most Memphians take our sewer system for granted, but not the COO.
"We have a world class infrastructure here. We have a separate sanitary system and a separate storm water system," he said. "Many other cities in America don't enjoy that. People here don't recognize that underneath us there's 3800 miles of sewers that separate us from the rest of the world, but it's great and works fantastic but it is 100 years old. I have to put about $500 million dollars into that."
McGowen said without detailing how that major capital improvement project would be financed or executed going forward. McGowen said it's his job to think about and take action on challenges like infrastructure.
"You drive down the street and your fillings stay in your teeth because the roads are smooth," the COO said.
McGowen said he's playing an active role in "Memphis 3.0," the planning and design overview that will guide Memphis as it enters its 3rd century of existence. McGowen said Downtown, the Riverfront, and the Medical District will be key areas for planners because the core of the city generates value for the rest of the city. The COO has designs on major development in the Pinch District and says the Convention Center will undergo major renovation with completion targeted for 2019. McGowen said the Mid-South Coliseum and the Fairgrounds now have an opportunity to be "reimagined."
McGowen said 25 percent of the Memphis Fire Departments emergency runs end up not being emergencies.
"We have people who call us 30 times a month for everything from I need help with the remote to I have nowhere else to go," McGowen said. "We need to help those people but we have a plan in place. IBM helped us put that plan in place to be more effective and efficient."
The city administrator said calls to 911 which used to take up to one minute to answer are now being answered in an average of 12 seconds.
In his matter of fact style, the veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (just to name two) told Rotarians he cherishes his opportunity to serve Memphis.
"I take very seriously the charge that I have to serve the mayor and to serve all of you, to be sure we take advantage of this time and extract as much value out of this time as we can and we don't dither around and waste opportunities that are before us," McGowen said.