Thursday, October 24, 2002

Half-pregnant

A state lottery would close the door even tighter on Tennessee casinos.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Tennessee is taking considerable pains to become half-pregnant.

This is what will happen if the lottery amendment passes on November 5th and the General Assembly subsequently approves a state lottery for college scholarships. The state will officially be in the business of promoting, administering, and profiting from gambling. At the same time, it will more adamantly than ever oppose the form of gambling that has had a much greater impact on Tennesseans, especially Memphians -- casinos.

The main reason the proposed lottery amendment takes up so much space on the ballot, right below the governor's race in the left-hand column, is to erect legal blockades in front of anyone with ideas about a lottery being a gateway to casinos, particularly Native American casinos like the ones run by the Choctaws in Neshoba County, Mississippi.

Gamblers being forward-looking sorts, there was a little buzz during Tunica's 10th-anniversary celebration last week about the chances of a tribal casino in Memphis if the lottery amendment passes.

The reasoning went something like this: Casinos quietly entered Mississippi through the back door while the governor and everyone else were diverted by a lottery issue that never went anywhere. Once established, riverboat or dockside gambling soon evolved into something high and dry and many times larger than anyone envisioned.

Memphis will, in a couple of years, likely be looking for a major tenant for The Pyramid after the Grizzlies and, possibly, the U of M Tigers leave for the new downtown arena. Pyramid debt service looks more and more like a $3 million-a-year albatross. The Pinch District, always an underperformer, will be more forlorn than ever.

The Pyramid's neighbor, Mud Island River Park, is also underused and would be an interesting site for a casino.

Memphis and Shelby County residents spend $300 million to $400 million a year in Tunica, which even at the low end is more than the estimated $243 million that all Tennesseans together spend on lottery tickets in other states like Georgia and Kentucky. If lotteries in neighboring states are a leak, casinos are a flood.

Deed Mud Island or The Pyramid to the Chickasaw Indians and set them up under provisions of the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, just like their brethren the Choctaws in Mississippi or the Pequot in Connecticut. Suddenly, casinos are 30 minutes closer to Memphis.

What's wrong with that scenario?

"No way" it can happen, says lottery proponent Sen. Steve Cohen. "No Indians and no Tigers, Bears, or Orioles, either."

But the question is hardly off the wall. The Tennessee attorney general's office addressed the state lottery and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in two opinions in early 2001.

"Because Senate Joint Resolution 01 expressly states that it does not authorize games of chance associated with casinos, it would not be a gateway to Indian casino gambling in Tennessee," the opinion read. "The state would not be required to negotiate with an Indian tribe about casino gambling, nor could the tribe sue the state without its consent to force the negotiation."

End of story? Probably but perhaps not. One of the interesting things about the proposed constitutional amendment is how it breaks down one gambling barrier while erecting another.

Quoting from the attorney general's opinion, "Currently, the Tennessee Constitution, Article XI, section 5, flatly prohibits the General Assembly from authorizing lotteries. The constitutional provision does not, however, prohibit all types of gambling. Except for lotteries, there is nothing in the state constitution prohibiting gambling, and the regulation of all types of gambling, other than lotteries, is a matter for determination by the General Assembly."

As the opinion notes, Tennessee law already provides for pari-mutuel betting. In fact, 15 years ago, Memphians approved a horse-racing referendum for a pari-mutuel track that was never built.

The legal rule of thumb is that bona fide tribes can engage, on their sovereign lands, in whatever forms of gambling are allowed in the rest of a state. But in addition to the ban on casinos in the amendment, there are strong doubts whether the IGRA applies to Tennessee.

"To this office's knowledge, there is no Indian tribe which holds Indian land in Tennessee," the attorney general's opinion read. "Thus, at this point, IGRA does not apply."

In other states, however, tribal claims have suddenly been made when casinos are on the horizon. An incomplete Internet roster of "Native American Associations" in Tennessee has 89 listings, with a caveat that some are probably defunct or fake. For several years, Native Americans have held an annual powwow at Halle Stadium in Memphis.

Lottery proponents, who don't wish to complicate their long-sought amendment with any more controversy than necessary, are taking no chances. So the word "casino" is added to the amendment and, voters willing, to the state constitution but in a negative sense. And in a year or two, the state of Tennessee could be promoting instant scratch-for-cash tickets while busting the criminals who operate gas-station pinball machines or video poker.

Mississippi casino interests profess to be somewhat bored by the whole thing.

"We don't have an official position," said John Osborne, president of the Mississippi Gaming Association and general manager of Hollywood Casino in Tunica. "Most people believe the residents of Tennessee need to make that determination."

Casinos and a lottery coexist in New Jersey, he noted. One school of thought holds that lotteries take players from casinos, but Osborne views Tunica as a destination resort offering amenities and gambling experiences "you really can't get at a gas station."

The association, he said, is not lobbying or contributing to either side in the Tennessee referendum.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Guitars Under Glass

Contenders and pretenders stake a claim to being "home of the blues."

Posted By on Thu, Oct 17, 2002 at 4:00 AM

So Baton Rouge wants a piece of the blues by taking the Blues Foundation away from Memphis? Well, in addition to being a wee bit south of the Mississippi Delta, Baton Rouge is also a little late to the party.

Blues museums, blues festivals, and the "home of the blues" claims that go with them have become as commonplace as Wal-Marts in the Delta.

For a magazine assignment, I have visited every major music museum and some minor ones in the Delta in the last year, plus three blues festivals. They're running out of names to distinguish them from one another. From the lobby of The Peabody to Catfish Row in Vicksburg, and a dozen towns in between, guitars under glass are right up there, or, depending on your perspective, down there, with quilts, cannonballs, taxidermy, and arrowhead collections.

Memphis has Beale Street, the Rock 'N' Soul Museum at the Gibson Guitar plant, the Center for Southern Folklore in Peabody Place, and the often-overlooked museum at Mud Island River Park. Soulsville will open next year. All that plus Sun Studio and Graceland. And Memphis is supposed to be worried about possibly losing a foundation?

Tunica has the polished Bluesville museum at Horseshoe Casino.

Clarksdale has the rough-hewn Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old train depot next to the levee, plus a fall blues festival on the grounds.

Helena, Arkansas, just over the river, has the Delta Cultural Center, also housed in an old train station next to the levee, and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in the fall.

Leland has the cozy little Highway 61 Blues Museum and blues murals on the sides of stores that spice up an otherwise bland downtown.

Greenville has historic Walnut Street and the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival.

Greenwood has the Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum, featuring Robert Johnson memorabilia.

Indianola is planning a museum to house items donated by favorite son B.B. King.

Yazoo City is opening the Mississippi John Hurt Museum.

Jackson has Farish Street, which the city and its partner, Memphis developer John Elkington, hope will someday be as successful as Beale Street.

Those are just the ones I visited. I might have missed a few.

All these towns in the Delta, celebrated this year by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones in his coffee-table book Blues Odyssey, are chasing the same fans and tourist dollars.

"There are a lot of people starting to jump on the bandwagon," said Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture & Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland. "Whether they've got a claim to the blues or not is another story. A lot of people who come to the Delta on a blues tour are interested in going to a lot of different places. If they come to Clarksdale, they're probably also going to Greenville, Greenwood, or Leland. But there is no real megasite.

"Where I do think there are too many sites is with the festivals here in the Delta. There is no coordination. Sometimes, it's really spread out, and sometimes, there are events going on the same day. Right now, it's either competitive or disappointing."

The blues is in a constant tug-of-war between myth and marketing. Blues music is a staple of every Mississippi travel article but heard, if at all, only on the low end of the FM radio dial. To illustrate the point, Brown shows visitors two sites near Cleveland.

One is the old cotton gin at Dockery Farms, a plantation that was once a virtual city-state on Highway 80 east of town. Bluesmen including Charley Patton and Son House lived there and later sang about it. The photogenic gin has become a blues icon, "the birthplace of the blues," featured on more than 175 Web sites.

The other site is the mythical crossroads, where guitarist Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Sometimes purported to be the intersection of highways 49 and 61 south of Clarksdale, Brown said it is more likely what is now a nondescript dirt road in a cotton field near Dockery Farms.

But you can't sell that, of course. So a sign next to Abe's barbecue and tamale shop in Clarksdale proclaims the junction of 49 and 61 to be the fabled crossroads. And a couple of miles away, you can soak up the Delta sun and sky and relive the sharecropper experience for $50 a night in a renovated shotgun house called the Shack-Up Inn at Hopson Plantation, which, by God, looks like what the blues and the Delta ought to look like.

Such faux blues offends some purists. In downtown Clarksdale, there's a club called Ground Zero next to the blues museum.

"A lot of blues tourists get upset if they go to a place like Ground Zero and hear rock-and-roll instead of the blues," said Brown.

Beale Street has been the target of similar objections, but the bottom line is that people like it, out-of-towners usually have a great time there, and it outdraws all the other contenders to the "home of the blues" crown put together.

Those in search of something more rough and real should get in their car, put Elmore James in the CD player, and head south on Highway 61 through the cotton fields and see for themselves whether Memphis and the Delta have anything to fear from Baton Rouge.

Friday, October 11, 2002

First Report Card

The numbers are in for the city and county public schools. Test your knowledge.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 11, 2002 at 4:00 AM

The first six-weeks grading period is over, and the city and county school systems now have their final enrollment numbers. With all the news stories about schools, this little true-false quiz should be easy.

1. Alarmed by two years of failing report cards and bad publicity, thousands of students have left the Memphis City Schools.

2. Thanks to an influx of new students and a booming market in new schools and subdivisions, the Shelby County Schools System has nearly doubled in size in the last decade.

3. Hundreds of city school students have enrolled in the innovative KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy, a test case for charter schools.

4. In racial composition, the city and county school systems are virtually the opposite of each other.

5. The most racially diverse public schools in the area are the city optional schools.

Pretty simple, huh?

The first statement is false. So are the next four. Sometimes, what media reports suggest and what people actually do are two different things.

If there is anything remarkable about the enrollment reports that come out this time each year, it is how little the big picture changes. Individual schools sometimes undergo dramatic declines or increases in enrollment and racial makeup, but the trends in the city and county systems as a whole are gradual and pretty predictable.

The Memphis City Schools have 119,049 students. That's an increase of about 1,000 students from last year and 2,271 more than the 2000-2001 school year, when the first failing report cards came out.

The Shelby County Schools System, with no failing schools, has 45,561 students, which is only 456 more than it had in 2000-2001 and 117 students less than it had in 1995-1996, the year before the Grey's Creek sewer extension and Nonconnah Parkway triggered a building boom in eastern Shelby County.

The KIPP Diamond Academy has 55 students, all fifth-graders, or roughly one for every news story that has been written about it. KIPP is new and controversial, so maybe that's understandable. Or maybe it's the most overhyped educational reform since Dr. Gerry House and the New American Schools. For now, the sample is too small and it's too early to tell.

As for the racial diversity of the two school systems, there was a time six or seven years ago when they were nearly the opposite of each other, but that is no longer the case. The city system is 87 percent black, 9 percent white, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian. The county system is 70 percent white, 25 percent black, 3 percent Asian, and 2 percent Hispanic. The county system would be even more diverse (and about 4,500 students larger) if four county schools with large black and Hispanic populations had not become city schools because of the Hickory Hill annexation.

The most racially balanced public school in the Memphis area is also the biggest one, 2,309-student Germantown High School, which is 49 percent white, 46 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic and Asian. Optional schools, which are only in the city system, tend to self-segregate, with the extremes being all-black John P. Freeman Elementary School and its predominantly white counterpart, the optional program at Grahamwood Elementary.

As for "one-race" schools, three of the 48 county schools are 90 to 91 percent white. In the city system, 130 of 175 schools are 90 to 100 percent black.

Of course, just because the city and county public schools start the year with a combined total of 164,610 students doesn't mean they'll all be there at the end of May. The dropout problem is acute at city high schools. Ten of them -- Booker T. Washington, Carver, Frayser, Hillcrest, Kingsbury, Melrose, Northside, Raleigh-Egypt, Sheffield, and Treadwell -- have fewer than half as many seniors as freshmen.

And city high schools are a lot smaller than county high schools to begin with. The smallest county high school, Millington, is bigger than all but three of the 28 city high schools (White Station, Hamilton, and Whitehaven).

Shelby County government is much maligned these days for supposedly encouraging suburban sprawl and throwing up a passel of new schools. But the seven county public high schools, with an average enrollment of 1,987 students, are arguably the most efficient educational institutions in the Memphis area.

In contrast, there are 28 city high schools, with an average enrollment of 1,040 students. Seven of them have enrollments under 700, with the smallest, 376-student Manassas High School, getting an $18.5 million overhaul.

Public Schools at a Glance

Memphis City Schools: 175 schools, 119,049 students; 87% black, 9% white, 3% Hispanic, 1% Asian

Shelby County Schools: 48 schools, 45,561 students; 70% white, 25% black, 3% Asian, 2% Hispanic

(sources: city and county school system 2002-2003 reports)

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Alphabet Soup

The city council takes aim at CVB, CCC, RDC, and "quasi-governmental" agencies.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 3, 2002 at 4:00 AM

The alphabet agencies are about to catch a little flak from the Memphis City Council.

The spark that set off the council's fire was the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau's (CVB) hiring of former Shelby County mayoral aide Tom Jones less than a month after Jones was suspended for using a county credit card for personal items. When Jones was not reappointed by new county mayor A C Wharton, the CVB and its president, Kevin Kane, snapped him up.

Jones will be doing a job in community development that did not previously exist at the CVB. The Commercial Appeal reported that his salary will be approximately $100,000, but Kane said last week it is not that much.

Kane attended Tuesday's council committee meeting where the issue of "quasi-governmental agencies" was pressed most forcibly by council members TaJuan Stout Mitchell and John Vergos. Kane noted that the CVB wasn't created by the city or county and has gotten "not one penny from the general tax fund in 20 years." It does, however, get a dedicated revenue stream from the so-called bed tax on hotel rooms.

The council committee unanimously approved a resolution requiring the "quasis" to regularly provide information about budgets and expenses. The list of agencies is yet to be compiled, but members indicated it will include the CVB, Center City Commission (CCC), Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Memphis in May, the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and The Orpheum.

Mitchell said she wasn't singling out the CVB or Jones but felt the job should have been posted because "there are a lot of folks looking for jobs and people need to know where the opportunities are." She said she didn't care if "Donald Trump or Donald Duck" gets the job.

"This is just a request for information," she said. "It does not imply that someone will lose funds."

Vergos said some of the agencies are "creating kingdoms" run by a handful of well-connected board members who are hostile to requests for sensitive information but quick to run to the council in time of need.

"They want to all act as if they are independent private corporations," he said, noting that his father, Rendezvous founder Charlie Vergos, was instrumental in setting up both the CVB and the Memphis Development Foundation, which runs The Orpheum.

Turf and jealousy may be factors with the council as well. The alphabet agencies have been grabbing a lot of headlines, and the pay and perks are usually better than they are in government. The city council gets the heat, a modest salary, some of the bills, and a supporting role. Top executives at the quasis tend to be consummate government insiders or, like Jones, former top-level government employees. In recent years, three city and county division directors have moved over to alphabet agencies -- Benny Lendermon and John Conroy at the RDC and Dexter Muller at the chamber of commerce.

Neither Kane nor council members were particularly happy with the term "quasi-governmental agencies." In addition to being a mouthful, it lumps together agencies like the RDC and CCC that were created by elected public officials and organizations like the CVB and chamber of commerce that get most of their operating support from their members.

The resolution adds to the confusion by making it seem that divisions of city government are the target. It says "each division of the City of Memphis that is either dependent on city funds or the approval of same shall provide the Memphis City Council and the chief administrative officer of the city of Memphis copies of their enabling legislation, annual report, 10K form, and personnel policies and procedures" each year.

A handier and more accurate catch-all is "nonprofits," although that has an outdated "food baskets to the needy" connotation. All of the groups the council is interested in are nonprofits, and they are already required by the IRS to file and make readily available to the public an annual Form 990 listing their public purpose, top salaries and benefits, budget, and income and expenses.

Nonprofit organizations, specially created authorities, and quasi-governmental agencies have virtually taken over much of downtown, including the public parks on the riverfront, AutoZone Park, the new NBA arena, The Orpheum, Memphis in May, and dozens of office buildings and apartments to which the CCC's Revenue Finance Corporation holds title, so they can get tax freezes.

Councilman Jack Sammons pointed out that many nonprofit board members serve for altruistic reasons, bring special skills and fresh ideas to the table, and "would be glad to provide us this information."

This is not the first time the accountability issue has surfaced. During the NBA arena debate, state Senator John Ford, a member of the Public Building Authority, argued that the authority and, by extension, the arena could not exist without the enabling legislation and support of the state legislature. Elected officials have made similar comments about the CCC, with the result that several of them now serve on the board.

Vergos said having a city council representative or other elected official on the board of the quasi-governmental agencies doesn't solve the accountability problem if the board is "stagnant" and run by a handful of insiders.

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