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.