Friday, April 19, 2002

Regionalism and the Ring

How Dyersburg money saved the big fight.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 19, 2002 at 4:00 AM

It may not be exactly what politicians and the chamber of commerce had in mind, but the Tyson-Lewis fight at The Pyramid shapes up as a prime example of four very different Mid-South cities joining forces for a common cause in a unique case of regionalism.

Memphis will host the fight and get most of the ink and a big boost to its hotels and restaurants. But it couldn't happen without some influential neighbors in Nashville, Tunica, and, of all places, Dyersburg.

Tunica casinos will be the training camps for the fighters and entertain thousands of visitors and media. Fitzgeralds Casino announced this week that Mike Tyson will stay there. Lennox Lewis will set up camp at Sam's Town.

Fight promoter Brian Young of Prize Fight Boxing is based in Nashville.

And now Dyersburg, the town 90 miles north of Memphis that was once known as "Little Chicago" for its wide-open ways, has gotten into the game. When First Tennessee Bank declined to issue a letter of credit for the $12.5 million site fee last month because of concerns about Tyson's image, it was widely reported that another unnamed bank stepped in to take its place. Other reports referred only to unnamed West Tennessee investors.

The Flyer has learned from sources that the letter of credit for the site fee is being issued by an investment vehicle arranged by businessmen in Dyersburg, Memphis, and Tunica. The group includes highway contractor John Ford of Ford Construction in Dyersburg as well as others.

Ford is on First Tennessee's advisory board in Dyersburg, according to a bank spokesman. Ford Construction has political connections to Nashville. Retiring state Rep. Ronnie Cole (D-Dyersburg), who has served in the General Assembly for 10 years, is vice president of the company. Contacted this week by the Flyer, Cole said he had heard "street talk" about Dyersburg businessmen backing the letter of credit, but he would not comment further.

Efforts to speak to Ford Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The fight financiers have tried to remain anonymous, and promoters have tried to protect them. Russ Young, brother of Brian Young of Prize Fight Boxing, said the letter of credit is "controversial" and the identity of the people behind it "is really nobody's business." Privacy is something the highway industry also takes seriously. In 1996, the Tennessee Roadbuilders Association got Cole to introduce legislation that would have restricted public access to financial records that contractors file with the state. Governor Sundquist vetoed it.

But controversy is no excuse for secrecy in this case, and it's surprising that the media have played along for three weeks. After being spurned by Las Vegas, New York, Atlanta, and Nashville, Mike Tyson wound up in the arms of Memphis, thanks to promoters and Mayor Willie Herenton. There were no public hearings of any kind. The fight was a rumor one day, a done deal a few weeks later. In contrast, that other controversial local sports story, the new NBA arena, has been publicly vetted for a year.

For better or worse, Memphis will be the center of the sports world on June 8th. The fight will tie up downtown for the better part of a weekend, require the city to deploy hundreds of police officers and spend an untold amount of money on preparations and security, and, in the minds of many citizens, subject Memphis to international scorn and ridicule.

It could not have happened without the promoters and casinos, who stand to make millions. The promotion could not have happened without the issuers of the letter of credit, who also stand to make a handsome return on their bet. The letter of credit is controversial enough that Ralph Horn, the CEO of First Tennessee Bank, took considerable pains to publicly explain the bank's decision not to issue it.

If that isn't public business, then what is?

Because big-time prizefights are unusual in this part of the world, the term "site fee" is sometimes misunderstood. It is not paid either by or for the benefit of Memphis or The Pyramid. Alan Freeman, general manager of The Pyramid, likened it to a talent guarantee in the concert-promotion business.

"The investor makes a guarantee to the promoters of X amount of moneys to come from the live site, The Pyramid," said Freeman. "What he gets for making that is a portion of the excess, if any."

The Pyramid's contract is with Prize Fight Boxing even though it is not the investor. Declining to discuss specifics, Freeman said Prize Fight Boxing may have a joint venture with the investors.

The Dyersburg connection highlights the extent to which Memphis is either a lucky or unlucky host of the high-stakes, controversial fight due to the machinations of outsiders. Even with the efforts of Herenton and Freeman, Memphis couldn't have done it alone.

Tunica provides an additional 5,000 hotel rooms, gambling, and glitz.

Nashville's unheralded Prize Fight Boxing has proven to be an able promoter, delivering a fight that many writers in the national media still think will be postponed or turn into a fiasco.

And Dyersburg came up with the money when Memphis, home to three major independent banks, did not.

Busting Rhymes

Reading poetry is better for you than committing mass murder. Really.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 19, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Tomorrow morning some poet may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous -- for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.

-- Randall Jarrell

April is the cruelest month," T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land begins, and so begins poet Charles Bernstein's essay "Against National Poetry Month As Such." In that essay, Bernstein laments the annual ritual of dragging poets into the spotlight in order to be humiliated by claims that "their products have not achieved sufficient market penetration and must be revived ... lest the art form collapse from its own incompetence, irrelevance." The resulting message to America: a degrading "Poetry's not so bad, really."

Mary Leader, a poet who teaches at the University of Memphis, sympathizes with Bernstein's despair at what she calls this month's "Poetry is for everyone! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!" campaign. "I don't take the point that anyone who can read, can read poetry. But I do think that it has in common with very deep art forms an appeal that people may not be able to explain," says Leader.

It's an appeal actively highlighted by the Academy of American Poets, which boasts on its Web site (without any real evidence) that since National Poetry Month's inception in April 1996, the initiative "has grown exponentially, with an estimated audience that now reaches into the tens of millions."

And, truly, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky did much to give validity to the claim. His popular "Favorite Poem Project" sent the message that everyone -- your baker, your garbage collector, even your first lady -- has a favorite poem. The project is an archive of short documentary-style film clips where "ordinary" and "extraordinary" people are shown discussing and reciting their favorite poems. Though the project didn't uncover a secret America with an unbridled enthusiasm for poetry, it did give the sense that poetry was still hanging around in some important, if neglected, corners of our consciousness.

But here in Memphis (like the rest of America), April is merely the month our taxes are due. There isn't a lot of talk about poetry on the local evening news or around the office water cooler, but there are weekly open-mics at many of the local coffee shops, where people pull poems out of their back pockets and their laptops. In a world where literary magazines die almost as quickly as they're born, the fact that one of our own, River City, is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a special "Elvis" issue in May is something for Memphis to be proud of.

But poems have not, despite Maya Angelou's new greeting-card line and Jewel's lyric efforts, achieved any market penetration to speak of. And in all fairness, there are so many thousands of bad poems out there, who knows where to begin to find the good ones? Certainly not at our local super-bookstore chains, where maybe one measly shelf offers (at best) only the broadest sampling of dead poets (including Jim Morrison) and a handful of contemporaries who have managed to land a Pulitzer or a National Book Award (or record deal). And who can blame the stores? Selling poetry is no way to run a business. If the industry were really only interested in selling poems, they would print them on toilet paper.

"In this country, we tend to measure things census-style, and numbers are not the only way to measure the impact of something," says Leader, who offers, half-jokingly, a "trickle-down poetics" based on the idea that when language changes, the world changes.

According to Leader, "There is no one who is engaged as intensively at changing language, in pushing language, in refining language -- nobody labors in that field exclusively, except for poets and possibly lawyers."

"It's not a bad thing to suggest that people read poems," says Little Rock-based poet Ralph Burns, who just stepped down as editor-in-chief of Crazyhorse, a renowned literary magazine started in California in 1960 by Tom McGrath. (For the inaugural issue, McGrath wrote a manifesto that laid out the type of poetry the magazine would publish: "Crazyhorse will gentle its own mustangs and stomp its own snakes, and we aren't interested in either the shrunken trophies of the academic head hunters nor in those mammoth cod-pieces stuffed with falsies, the primitive invention of the Nouveau Beat.")

"It's not because it's spinach and it's good for you that you should learn your Tennyson the same way you should take your vitamin A," says Leader, "but because it's a vital art form. And because in the hands of its best makers, it makes an object of art that cannot be made any other way."

For more information on National Poetry Month and a more comprehensive selection of poetry, go to the Academy of American Poets Web site at www.poets.org. Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project can be accessed at www.favoritepoem.org. River City can be purchased at local bookstores. For more information on Crazyhorse, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Crazyhorse, Department of English, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC 29424.

Friday, April 12, 2002

Multiple Choices

It's test time in public schools, but the state has doubts.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2002 at 4:00 AM

For public school students and their families, this is test week, time for the annual TCAP standardized test for grades 3-8.

For the first time in 10 years, I don't have a personal stake in the test, because my children are in high school, so I took a few hours last week to join some other volunteers tutoring third-graders at LaRose Elementary School.

It's easy to be nonchalant about the TCAP if your kids are doing all right in school. You can talk about the importance of standards or the danger of drill-and-kill teaching or whether it's all worthwhile.

But if you're not sure of your multiplication tables like Ray, one of the kids I worked with, the test can be a bummer. Trouble with multiplication means trouble with division, which means trouble with fractions and the whole structure of arithmetic. So you drill and memorize and practice. In a way, you teach the test. Not the most creative form of instruction but effective for learning seven times seven or the dates of the Civil War. Besides, Ray and his friends seemed to enjoy it.

In a long article last week called "The Class War Over School Testing," The New York Times, always ahead of the curve, caught the mood of ambivalence that surrounds the subject of testing. The author, James Traub, sees a coming backlash against testing led by well-to-do suburbanites who think teaching to the test is too structured and unimaginative.

The debate goes on in most communities. In Memphis, standardized testing drives college-prep high schools to teach vocabulary-building courses in etymology and elementary schools to adopt the same reading texts and workbooks. Etymology is glorified preparation for the ACT and SAT college-entrance exams. Workbooks are often drill for the TCAP.

Unlike New York, most of the opposition so far in Memphis has come from representatives of schools that test poorly.

Now it seems that the state of Tennessee, after nearly two decades of fooling with standardized tests of various kinds, has mixed feelings about them too.

A new report from the Office of Education Accountability is called "Multiple Choices: Testing Students in Tennessee." The clever title is only one of its virtues. Its 79 carefully footnoted pages include some important findings, especially for Memphis, which has two-thirds of the state's schools that are (multiple-choice question): A) failing; B) low-performing; C) on notice.

For instance, what will happen to failing schools and failing districts? The answer -- widely suspected and now officially acknowledged for the first time -- probably nothing. Failing districts have three years to do better, one in which they are "on notice" and two more in which they are "on probation." After that, the superintendent and school board can be removed. The report says the state board of education staff is looking at necessary steps in a takeover in response to a request from board member Avron Fogelman of Memphis. In other words, nobody knows yet.

Another question is what happens to all those tests and data? Theoretically, schools and systems are supposed to use test information to improve classroom instruction. But when the state offered sessions on how to do that, they were canceled in Knoxville and Memphis for lack of interest. Almost nobody showed up. As most of us began to suspect early in elementary school, the test is the end, not the means -- either a justification to hold you back or send you to the next grade. Testing as instruction is one of education's great myths.

The state of Tennessee has taken official notice of this but is not ready to give up the myth entirely. The remedy for the lack of interest, the report says, is "more specialized professional development sessions." In other words, if teachers don't show up for one set of sessions, offer them some other sessions. And if this doesn't work, offer a "Web-based delivery system."

The report criticizes one of the most annoying features of the TCAP scoring system, the so-called value-added feature that is supposed to recognize schools that go from bad to not so bad or good to only fair. It calls the value-added primer "confusing" and "far too technical." It even questions the wisdom of paying University of Tennessee researcher Dr. William Sanders $435,000 a year for four years, or a total of $1,740,000, to do it.

The tests, however, are not being completely ignored. One group is very interested in them -- other researchers. Tennessee, it seems, is the mother lode of testing data because of its years of experience. Former Governor Lamar Alexander was one of the first politicians to jump on the accountability-and-standards bandwagon, and his house intellectual, Chester Finn, is widely quoted in the national media on education. The "reforms" implemented by former Memphis superintendent Gerry House (and scrapped by current super-intendent Johnnie B. Watson) also drew national attention.

"Tennessee test databases have attracted the attention of researchers nationwide," the report says.

Multiple choice question. What data are most likely to attract their attention? A) report cards; B) low-performing schools; C) urban school systems.

And regardless of which answer you chose, which Tennessee city do you suppose will get hammered? A) Memphis; B) Nashville; C) Knoxville.

You got that right.

Dialed In

Your cell phone will soon keep an eye on you.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Tracking devices were once a staple of old science-fiction and action movies. One typical scene: The good guy slaps a tracer on the villain's getaway car and follows him -- at a safe distance -- to his lair for the final showdown. Or a team of leering, white-coated technicians forces a microchip-sized homing device into the hero's brain.

These days, such scenarios aren't so fantastical. Blanketing the United States are 140 million human-tracking devices: cellular phones.

When you place a cellular phone call, your phone seeks out the nearest receiving tower, which serves a discrete area, or "cell." The tower routes the call to its destination. If you leave the cell area before your call ends, the call is bumped over to the corresponding cell tower, thereby tracking your rough location.

"Rough" is the operative word: While urban centers, which contain many cell towers, can relay your location with some accuracy, those odds go down in rural areas, where towers are fewer and cell service is often spotty.

But in the coming months, the tracking ability of cell phones will grow exponentially -- not just in its power to monitor users but also in the way it can be used for commercial gain.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered cellular companies to equip all new cell phones with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) tracking devices that can pinpoint a user's location to within 300 feet anywhere on the planet. The agency ordered the move at the behest of law-enforcement agencies, which have long wished to be able to tell where 911 calls made on cell phones originate.

To a degree, cellular companies have reacted to the FCC's order with distaste. The GPS chips will add about $20 to the cost of each phone, which are often given away with cellular service plans.

But the companies are also rubbing their hands with glee at the potential profits. As regular Internet users know, marketers believe there's money to be made from information about people's daily activities and habits. Log on to a typical Web site, and it may plant a "cookie" -- a piece of code that identifies users -- on your hard drive. With that information, Web sites can track your surfing habits and tailor the content of advertisements accordingly.

Cell-phone companies are aware of the potential backlash from consumers. a Verizon Wireless spokesperson told the technology news Web site CNET.com that it currently has no plans to release information about customers' day-to-day whereabouts to commercial third parties. Still, none of the cell companies are saying they won't try to use the information for their own purposes.

One way cell companies could profit is by selling advertising that would be displayed on cell-phone screens. In the near future, your cell phone could turn into a miniature billboard, alerting you, for example, to nearby restaurants at lunchtime or to sales at the local mall.

This won't happen overnight. Cellular companies have lobbied for and received a temporary stay from the FCC's order to install the GPS chips, although that reprieve is set to expire later this year. The FCC ruling also allows companies to ease into compliance, giving them until 2005 to make all cell phones GPS-equipped.

But, in the meantime, some companies, such as marketers PangoNetworks, are already making use of today's more limited location-tracking technology.

Pango sets up zones called "hot spots" within businesses or shopping malls. Hidden sensors can detect your phone or Palm Pilot, and the system hums into life, sending ads for merchandise you might be standing near and compiling data about your shopping habits: What stores have you visited? Did you linger near the wrinkle-free khakis or by the animatronic Hello Kitty display? Boxers or briefs?

On its corporate web site, Pango says users who don't want to receive these messages will be able to program their phones to remain undetectable by the system.

Of course, at the rate things are going, true anonymity may soon be a thing of the past.

In fact, there's only one foolproof way to beat the system: Turn off your phone. But how likely is that to happen? n

Chris Kanaracus writes for AlterNet, where this column first appeared.

Friday, April 5, 2002

Pyramid Power

The Pyramid deserves more respect than it's getting

Posted By on Fri, Apr 5, 2002 at 4:00 AM

by JOHN BRANSTON

A campaign is under way to smear The Pyramid, just in case anyone is having second thoughts about its adequacy as an NBA arena.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Commercial Appeal sports columnist Geoff Calkins, and other boosters of the proposed new $250 million arena would have Memphians think that The Pyramid is, as Calkins wrote last week, "the half-baked pyramid project" and a "disaster."

The trash talk is perfectly understandable. The Grizzlies want a new building. They put out the idea last year that it would cost $190 million to bring The Pyramid to "NBA standards." But the timing is strange. The Pyramid is on a profitable roll which should continue for at least two more years. The disaster assessment is too harsh.

Let's look at the record.

For starters, the Grizzlies couldn't even be here without it. The "disaster," which is not good enough for a perennially last-place NBA basketball team that has to conjure up make-believe attendance figures to "fill" thousands of seats in Memphis and Vancouver, is apparently adequate for the Tyson-Lewis fight, a worldwide television audience, and 20,400 spectators.

The Pyramid replaced the Mid-South Coliseum, which had 11,200 seats and was too small for an ambitious, growing city. For about $75 million, including two retrofits (costing less than a third what the new arena would cost by even the most optimistic estimates), it has hosted scores of big-name concerts, wrestling shows, nearly 200 University of Memphis basketball games, one successful Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament, opening-round games in the 2001 NCAA men's basketball tournament, the Grizzlies, and in June will host one heavyweight championship fight.

The Pyramid makes good money. It made an operating profit of $357,900 last year and has been profitable in eight of the last 10 years. If the fight goes off smoothly and the Grizzlies play there two more years, fiscal 2003 and 2004 should be even better.

The Pyramid has been overhauled twice since it opened in 1991. The acoustics were improved in 1993. Last year, at the insistence of the Grizzlies, the city and county spent $7 million to upgrade locker rooms and put in a new floor. This was supposed to benefit both the Grizzlies, who are scheduled to be in the building for two more years, and the University of Memphis, once considered a long-term tenant. But the U of M now wants to follow the Grizzlies to the new arena if it is built, making The Pyramid either surplus property or competition in 2004.

Six years after The Pyramid opened, FedEx CEO Fred Smith, who chaired the public building authority that oversaw planning and construction, said this: "The Pyramid met its original goal of being a signature and reasonable public amenity. I think it's met that test in every respect but one. I suspect it has diminished attendance for University of Memphis basketball just because of its geographic location."

Attendance has improved since then, but The Pyramid has other shortcomings.

If your name is Dick Hackett, it probably forced you to change careers. Hackett initially favored expanding the Mid-South Coliseum.

If you're over five feet tall, you have possibly cursed the lack of space between the seats. When it was being planned in 1988, its backers -- overriding the explicit objections of then-Memphis State University president Tom Carpenter, who wanted 15,000 seats -- thought 20,000 was the magic number to attract NCAA tournament games. As it turned out, that is only partly true. The Final Four wound up at much bigger indoor football stadiums like the Georgia Dome and the Superdome. But The Pyramid is hardly the only arena to be trumped by a bigger or newer venue.

The Pyramid has been pretty much a failure as a tourist attraction. First, promoter Sidney Shlenker and the city and county were unable to fill the apex and the lower spaces. More recently, an effort to lure the recording industry's Grammy museum was aborted. Still, taxpayers have gotten some cultural mileage out of the extra space thanks to the Wonders series and the Titanic exhibition housed there. The inclinator was never built, but $8 million that would have paid for it was suddenly "discovered" last year and used to help meet the Grizzlies' demands just days before a key public vote.

Partly because of its location below the bluff instead of on top of it, The Pyramid never became a major landmark on the order of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. On the other hand, it is undeniably a one-of-a-kind minor landmark that serves as a milepost along Interstate 40 and the signature for numerous magazine covers, brochures, and local newscasts. If it isn't the arch, it isn't just another corporately named arena either. Had it been built on the bluff, there would be no South Bluffs residential development.

Finally, it is invariably tied to Shlenker, often by people who were not in Memphis at the time and who assume it was all his idea. In fact, the promoter (perhaps reeling from his involvement with the Denver Nuggets of the NBA) came along as it was being built and after the PBA had done most of its work. Unlike the Grizzlies and the proposed new arena, Shlenker played no role in the design or construction of The Pyramid.

All in all, not bad for a disaster. Certainly not a home run but a clean double. We'll see if as much can be said for a new arena a mile away after it has been open 10 years.

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