The question of who's in charge of the proposed NBA arena became even more clouded this week as Don Smith resigned as executive director of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority (PBA).
Smith's resignation came four days after the PBA chose a Minneapolis-based construction firm, M.A. Mortenson Co., as lead contractor for the $250 million project. Attention has now shifted to the specifics of subcontractors, the cost of benefits packages for workers, and minority participation.
"I cannot in good conscience continue in this capacity for one reason only," Smith said in a statement he faxed to PBA chairman Arnold Perl. "I do not believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County to build the NBA Grizzlies Arena under the current arrangements and practices."
The Shelby County Commission voted 7-6 Monday in favor of using non-union as well as union labor on the project. The resolution is nonbinding on the PBA but could foretell more problems next month when the commission and Memphis City Council vote on approving bonds to finance the arena project.
Close, surprising votes have been the order of the day for the proposed arena. The PBA also divided last week by a single vote, 6-5, in opposing a Memphis-based partnership -- Beers Flintco Bricks -- as lead contractor. And the 8-3 vote in favor of Mortenson came only hours after the firm failed to get a seconding motion of support.
All of this activity sets up an endgame in which the city council could decide the fate of the project in April. "The council has positioned itself as the final decision-maker on this thing," said Councilman Tom Marshall, who has been working behind the scenes with the PBA.
Marshall interpreted Monday's commission meeting as a message that the county commission has the votes to head off a union-led project-labor agreement. He said a joint session on or around April 8th is "quite possible."
The issue is not simply the role of union labor. It also consists of cost controls and the extent to which minorities will participate in the construction. Mortenson senior vice-president John Wood told the PBA he put up $500,000 of his fee to guarantee compliance with minority-hiring guidelines, but politicians want more specific assurances.
"Mortenson is going to have an uphill battle with the council until they start naming the names of their subcontractors," said Marshall. "The participants should be disclosed. You've got to disclose them and you've got to mobilize them."
City council chairman Rickey Peete was guarded in his comments after the PBA chose Mortenson last week. "[The council has] never been one-contractor specific," he said. "Mortenson has as good a chance as anybody."
The overriding question of who's in charge has hung over the project since it was announced a year ago. The powers that be include: the Memphis Grizzlies (operating as a business entity called Hoops); the Memphis ownership group which owns 30 percent of the team but commands considerably more respect and influence thanks to the credibility of AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde; the city and county mayors; the Tennessee General Assembly, represented on the PBA by state Sen. John Ford; the city council and county commission; and the PBA.
One of the earliest indications of dissension came last summer when the PBA chose Smith as executive director instead of Mike Ritz, favored by the mayors. Smith sealed his fate when he publicly criticized what he sees as inordinate influence by the Grizzlies.
The choice of Beers Flintco Bricks as pre-construction manager also did not sit well with the mayors. Last week, county mayoral assistant Tom Jones said Beers had not performed well, but Ford took strong exception, calling the comments "totally out of order and inaccurate and made solely for the purpose to influence in the wrong direction."
The role of the PBA has also been an issue. Arnold Perl, chairman of the PBA, believes it was created by the city and county and "if we're not going to accept this assignment then let this body go away right now."
Ford, who helped draft the legislation that created the PBA, insists it is in charge. "This PBA created by statute can't be disbanded by the city or county," he told fellow members of the authority last week. "If the Public Building Authority goes away, you cannot spend a dime."
Hoops, represented by attorney Stan Meadows, favored Mortenson as lead contractor. Meadows seems willing to play hardball if it comes to that. He reminded the PBA last week that the Grizzlies have "approval rights" over the lead contractor.
"We have to pay all arena losses," he said. "Last June, we negotiated a detailed project agreement and lease. We would not have moved here without that."
Asked what it was like dealing with two local governments, Meadows told me it is actually more like four governments, given the independence of the council and commission. Even after the PBA awarded Mortenson the job, Meadows remained wary that labor agreements could put the project over budget and jeopardize its future.
After last Friday's morning session of the PBA construction committee failed to agree on a consensus choice, I asked Hyde if this is how business gets done in the corporate world.
"We'd go out of business," he said with a laugh.
To the critics of the Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis fight and the possibility of it being held in Memphis: The more sordid members of the local media respect and admire your moral stand. We understand completely your concerns. And we would really, really like your tickets and press passes if this thing happens and, for the sake of consistency, you won't be going.
There will, of course, be lots of other sports alternatives on June 8th. The Redbirds are at home against Oklahoma City in the third game of a four-game set. The NBA season will only be in its ninth month, with the conclusion just weeks away. The Nashville Predators could still be in the NHL playoffs. And there's a big bass-fishing tournament up in Missouri that weekend.
Alternately, The Pyramid could be bathed in klieg lights with stretch limos lined up along Front Street and television cameras from around the world focused on the preening celebrities and the spectacle inside and outside the building. Every hotel and restaurant within miles and every club on Beale Street and in Peabody Place could be packed with customers.
Isn't that what they were made for?
The Tunica casinos and their Las Vegas owners would underwrite some of the costs of the fight because it could fill their hotel rooms, restaurants, and gambling halls with high-stakes players. Isn't that what Tunica's 10-year-old casino empire was built for? If they want the fight real bad, stick them with a share of the security costs too. It's not like they're demanding a new arena.
And, let's face it, this is what we, the media, were made for. For a couple weeks, consolidation and schools and murder and mayhem (assuming Tyson behaves) and wrecks and robberies would be space fillers. And we get the chance to be Howard Cosell on Ali vs. Frazier or A.J. Liebling on Moore vs. Marciano or H.L. Mencken on Dempsey vs. Carpentier or Entertainment Tonight at the Oscars.
What's not to like about that?
Imagine Mayor Herenton, a former boxer, wearing a tux and a grin in one of those corny dukes-up poses with Tyson and Lewis.
Or Isaac Hayes singing the National Anthem.
Or the worldwide media getting a taste of Memphis music and Memphis barbecue and Memphis hospitality. Lennox Lewis, remember, is from London. The coverage would be huge.
Imagine people you haven't heard from in years calling you up to chat or inquire about extra tickets.
For a change, the hype is understated. A heavyweight title fight wouldn't just be the biggest sports event in Memphis since -- what? -- Bear Bryant's last game? It would be the biggest media event since the death of Elvis.
The people who mock Memphis will mock Memphis anyway. As the above cartoon shows, that's already begun and Memphis hasn't even been chosen. But a funny thing seems to be happening. The columnists in Detroit and Washington, D.C., which are rivals of Memphis for the fight, are strangely quiet. Maybe they sense that this one's going to Memphis. Or maybe the fight is seen as "a black thing," and criticism would be politically incorrect. In The Washington Post this week, only veteran political columnist Mary McGrory ripped Tyson and the fight. But with all due respect to the excellent Ms. McGrory, she is not exactly the target audience.
Two weeks of televised Olympic figure skating and the half-pipe, 70 college and professional basketball games, and 35 minor-league baseball games are not everyone's cup of tea.
Those of us who enjoy the spectacle of a good fight had a bad week. We lost Harold Jr. vs. Lamar. We lost Tipper vs. Lamar. So bring on Tyson vs. Lewis.
Is sunshine overrated?
Journalism's darling, the Tennessee open-meetings laws or "sunshine laws" passed in the 1970s, are currently being flouted by Mayor Herenton's task force on school funding. Its members meet privately, claiming no violation of the sunshine law, because, technically, only a couple of elected officials are face-to-face. The interested parties, or at least the ones that have been invited, send a delegate, and the delegates carry water for and report back to the mayor and the school superintendents and other public powers that be, who are not actually in the room.
Democracy may survive. No one has yet been imprisoned or indicted for violation of the sunshine laws. And calling these "secret" meetings may be a compliment. It implies that people want to get inside, which is questionable in light of the attendance at earlier public meetings on the same issues.
And the end may justify the means. The task force could find some common ground that moves the city and county closer to a better way to build schools and fund classroom instruction.
So says Buck Wellford, a Shelby County commissioner who is not running for reelection and who knows a little about public meetings.
Two years ago he tried to bring all sides together to resolve the same issues. Those meetings, which were open to the public, started out as a textbook civics class. There were high-ranking representatives of both mayors, county commissioners, city council members, school board consultants, chamber of commerce researchers, out-of-town experts, facilitators on loan from FedEx, PowerPoint presentations, and complementary sandwiches. By the fourth meeting, attendance had flagged worse than a Grizzlies game on a rainy night. There were more no-shows than shows. It was horrible television and, after the first meeting, lean gruel for the print media. If Wellford could somehow have mustered the original group one more time, he might have achieved secrecy by media apathy.
One problem, Wellford says, was that the participants "were afraid to talk candidly," and with the media watching they tended to "rehash the same old crap."
Wellford also faults himself.
"I made such an effort to be inclusive that it became unwieldy," he says.
Based on what he's heard about the current task force, he's more optimistic. Former county schools superintendent Jim Mitchell, who is taking part, has a chance to play the role of honest broker in the process, Wellford believes.
"Some people are giving ground on some points," Wellford says. "They have an agreement in principle on single-source funding. It seems to be making real progress."
Mitchell couldn't be reached before press time for comment. County school board president David Pickler, who was in the Wellford meetings and the current meetings, says the privacy factor may be a plus.
"We've been able to avoid some of the circus atmosphere that surrounded Commissioner Wellford's hearings, which were more focused on political posturing than substantive conversations," he says.
At the same time, he warns of potential perils to come.
"Any outcome from this committee is going to be immediately met with substantial skepticism because of the fact it was done in a secret environment, as well as a lack of involvement by suburban mayors, teachers, and PTA leaders," Pickler says.
Sunshine laws were passed in Tennessee and other states in the post-Watergate spirit, which is only a history book chapter to those under the age of 30. Most politicians at least pay lip service to them, if only to court favor with reporters.
No matter how hot the topic, public meetings can drag and be a drag. At a Memphis Board of Education meeting earlier this month, colleagues rolled their eyes and some reporters got up to leave as Commissioner Carl Johnson went through a tedious recitation of single-source funding. Last week's city council committee meeting on financing for the new arena was another example. It featured a presentation of architectural drawings, some general remarks by Mayor Herenton, PBA chairman Arnold Perl, and Grizzlies investor Pitt Hyde that ate up some more time, and some plaudits from council members. Almost all of the local media were represented, but the meeting was more form than substance. At its conclusion, council committee chairman Tom Marshall acknowledged that he had not even given city attorney Robert Spence a chance to speak.
If the school-funding talks are successful, Herenton hopes they will clear the way for consolidation of city and county government over the next four years. As a three-term mayor and a former school superintendent, he may well hold the record for attending the most public meetings in Memphis history. He knows their limitations. He knows the gap between political posturing and reality on this issue better than anyone except possibly civil rights attorney Richard Fields, who has represented plaintiffs in city and county school-desegregation cases for nearly 30 years.
Pickler says that Fields has given the meetings some urgency by imposing a March 22nd deadline if the county schools want to get funding approval and seek bids by May for a new high school in Arlington in 2004.
The committee meets again Friday. Behind closed doors. After decades of stalemate, the players are willing to sacrifice a little sunshine.
The centerpiece, literally, of the new riverfront plan is the land bridge to Mud Island, a $75 million investment that would create 50 to 70 new acres of prime downtown real estate.
Bold as it is, the land bridge is not new. Since 1924, at least half a dozen ideas including pontoon bridges, dams, pedestrian bridges, and land bridges similar to the one in the current plan have been floated by architects, planners, and engineers. Two of them, of course, were actually built: the Mud Island monorail and the Auction Street Bridge.
Like The Pyramid (which is similar to a golden bluff-top structure proposed in 1975 by designer Mark Hartz), major-league sports, and a music museum, the land bridge is one of those Memphis ideas too powerful to die.
Its earliest ancestor appears to be the 1924 Harland Bartholomew & Associates riverfront plan. It featured a classic promenade consisting of a series of arches on Front Street and a low, arched bridge wide enough to carry cars to future parks on Mud Island.
"No immediate steps are necessary," planners wrote. "As private improvements are made and as public funds become available, the various improvements can be made."
The plan was updated in 1955 with an interstate-style Riverside Drive connecting Tom Lee Park to Mud Island, an east-west interstate crossing the Wolf River at Auction Street, and a cloverleaf intersection in the middle of the island.
"It is proposed to divert the channel at a point near Poplar, and to fill the old channel, thus creating a very large area to be used for the purposes shown on the plan."
The Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River (and Mud Island) was built in the late Sixties. The Corps of Engineers raised the island's elevation at the same time, but development of the island was still several years away.
In 1972, Mud Island landowner Bill Gerber and Percy Galbreath, Inc., commissioned a plan for Mud Island. This one also had a land bridge closing the Wolf River harbor at Beale Street and a new channel at the north end of the island.
"We had just seen 400 acres filled by the Corps, and the idea of filling in a 30- to 40-acre connection didn't seem like any real major feat," says Gerber. "The value of the land you would gain would be more than the cost of producing it."
Harry Rike, an engineer who worked on the plan, jokes that "we were not engineers, we were prophets." The land bridge came in small, medium, and large sizes, and the preferred option, the middle one, was almost exactly the size of the one in the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) plan.
But Gerber and Rike couldn't interest then-Mayor Henry Loeb, who was worried about crime on South Main Street.
"They didn't want to connect Mud Island to a high-crime area," Rike says. "Now, of course, all of that has changed and it's an entertainment district."
Instead, the next city administration and architect Roy Harrover moved ahead with Mud Island river park. Harrover considered two options similar to the RDC proposal. One was making the bridge that now supports the monorail a building with a museum instead.
"The second thing was quite pertinent," says Harrover. "We started at Union and filled in the Wolf River up to where the I-40 bridge ties in, creating a complete public park from Riverside Drive to the Mississippi. That scheme was cancelled by the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers. And the entire Yacht Club was opposed to it."
Then-Mayor Wyeth Chandler and the City Council instead chose the concept of a monorail and a park dedicated to the river. It cost $60 million and now has few fans.
"The harbor is considered a public waterway commercially used," says Harrover. "The Coast Guard told us we had to build the monorail bridge the same height as the Hernando DeSoto Bridge at that point. Then they came back a few years later and allowed them to build the Auction Street Bridge lower than that."
The Auction Street Bridge opened Mud Island to residential developments like HarborTown, but the lure of direct access from the heart of downtown remained. Architect Tony Bologna and developer Henry Turley played around with the idea of a low-cost pontoon bridge at the southern tip that could open or close for boats and barges. A former Bologna associate, Tom Turri, joined the Hnedak-Bobo architectural firm, and he sketched out drawings of a 28-acre lake formed by closing the harbor with a dam at Beale Street and another at Jefferson. "The lake" went public in 1996, its estimated cost $30 million.
"It didn't do anything to bring the city to the river," says Turri, now with Bottletree Design Group. "There was some public discussion, then the RDC idea came along."
The RDC's charge is to recoup the cost of any public investment with roughly three times as much private development. Total package price: $292 million.
Benny Lendermon, head of the RDC, says RDC planners were staunchly opposed to a land connection at Beale Street, which was favored by the RDC board at one point. The planners insisted it should be north of that. Minds were made up.
"They might have walked away from it," Lendermon says.
So north it was. And north it is. For now, at least.
Shelby County mayor Jim Rout is the most effective and enthusiastic public proponent of the new arena.
Is that good news? After all, Rout, by his own decision, is leaving office later this year, a full two years before the new arena is scheduled to open. But give him this. It looks like he intends to run all the way to the finish line.
He did it again Monday, facing a roomful of skeptical county commissioners and helping to derail a proposal to hire more financial consultants.
A smile on his face as usual, Rout deftly worked the room with a handshake for everyone. He sat down at a table opposite the commissioners, fielding some questions himself, passing others off to various experts. He promised to make everything public. He apologized for commissioners being scooped by The Commercial Appeal on some Public Building Authority (PBA) news last month.
He noted the stellar play of Grizzlies rookies Pau Gasol and Shane Battier and some recent favorable national publicity about Memphis and the team.
And he said the revenue projections for the arena are on target. There is no fence-straddling by Rout on this one. Along with Mayor Willie Herenton, Rout seems to be one of the few public officials who is a genuine fan of both the team and the arena. Unlike Herenton, there is no defensiveness about his pitch, no edge to it, no digs at "naysayers" or arena critics like Commissioner Walter Bailey.
Rout is an exclamation point in the middle of a bunch of question marks.
On the commission, Bailey seems likely to vote against issuing the bonds. Michael Hooks complained about "lousy" marketing by the Grizzlies and noted a few consistently empty sky boxes and thousands of empty seats. Nobody else on the commission seemed particularly enthusiastic or particularly skeptical. There were no testimonials and no rants. Zoning permits have aroused more passion.
In a quarter century in county government, this could be Rout's last starring role. He answered many of the questions about the arena raised in various quarters last week, or he referred them to someone else who answered them -- consultant Marlin Mosby, Finance Director John Trusty, or Don Smith of the PBA.
Rental-car revenue is ahead of projections because of huge demand last September, when the airlines shut down.
Downtown Tourism Development Zone revenues are building up a nice little surplus because the arena gets the tax increment above a low base year.
Rout met with the governor last week and $20 million in state assistance (or possibly federal funds funneled through the state department of transportation) should be locked in within a week or two. The General Assembly does not have to approve it.
The $20 million in privately backed bonds will be placed.
And there will be some sort of substitute for the defunct season-ticket guarantee by private businesses.
"They are understanding that they must bring some sort of alternative," said Rout.
One question Rout could not answer is the percentage of the team that is Memphis-owned. He said it is between roughly 30 and 49 percent. Michael Heisley is the majority owner. But Rout deflected concerns about the team moving from Memphis by citing contractual provisions locking the Grizzlies in for 13 years and forcing them to pay off millions of dollars in bonds if they move after that.
State Sen. John Ford made a cameo appearance at the meeting to assure one and all that the PBA is alive and well and perfectly capable of providing scrutiny and oversight. Shelby County mayoral candidate A C Wharton came in briefly and sat and watched. The arena could be his baby after Rout leaves.
Commissioner Tommy Hart broached the $250 million hanging question, asking what would happen to the contracts signed so far "assuming it does not go forward." Smith said the $17 million in contracts could be canceled. That was as far as that line of inquiry went, although privately, one county official suggested paying the Grizzlies the difference in revenue projections for the new arena and The Pyramid and not building anything.
The critical date for the commission to give final approval is April 8th.
At the rate they're going, the Grizzlies will be down to six healthy players by then. The team, which has won 15 games, fielded eight healthy bodies this week. Help is not necessarily on the way. The Grizzlies owe a first-round draft choice this year or next to the Detroit Pistons. NBA action regularly fills only 12,500 seats at The Pyramid, which is far better than two other southern cities, Charlotte and Atlanta.
In Atlanta on Sunday, sportswriter Mark Bradley of the Journal-Constitution wrote, "As it is, the [Atlanta Hawks] team draws nobody. The Marietta Blue Devils have a more passionate fan base."
Under the circumstances, selling a new arena to Memphis to replace The Pyramid, which has served it well for about $70 million, has been no small accomplishment. On Tuesday it will be the city council's turn to go through the financials with the consultants and Mayor Herenton.