Thursday, June 26, 2003

The Vision Thing -- Again

Politicians and developers get a voice on a new Shelby Farms committee.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2003 at 4:00 AM

The most studied piece of real estate in the county is about to get it again.

But the committee appointed this week by the county commission to study the future of Shelby Farms is a much more diverse and political group than the one proposed by former mayor Jim Rout and businessman Ron Terry a little more than a year ago.

The Rout-Terry proposal, which was shot down by the commission, was built for consensus, speed, and fund-raising ability. It would have taken control of Shelby Farms out of public hands and turned it over to a nonprofit conservancy with a privately funded $20 million endowment. The new 21-member advisory committee has more elected officials, more administration input, more women, more blacks, more developer-friendly types, and more people, period, than its would-be predecessor.

One thing it doesn't have, for now at least, is private money, which was one of the big hooks in last year's proposal. But that could change. Walter Bailey, chairman of the commission and the key opponent of the Rout-Terry plan, says he personally favors a Central Park model for management of 4,500-acre Shelby Farms. The Central Park Conservancy has managed 843-acre Central Park since 1998 under a contract with New York City. The conservancy has raised nearly $300 million.

What rubbed Bailey the wrong way last year was what he saw as an end-run around the commission by the former administration and a hurry-up mandate to approve what was essentially a done deal for the next 50 years. The new committee, he says, will take its time and hold meetings and hearings for a year or more.

"We don't want people with preconceived ideas," he said.

Members from the political side include commissioners Michael Hooks, Julian Bolton, Marilyn Loeffel, Tom Moss, and Bruce Thompson as well as state Rep. Henri Brooks, the city and county chief administrative officers, and Public Works director Ted Fox. From the business side, there are, among others, Union Planters Bank executive Ken Plunk, attorneys Charlie Newman and Charles Carpenter, Steve Epple from Friends of Shelby Farms, former commissioner Bridget Chisholm, and Dawn Kinard. The chairman is Gene Pearson, director of the graduate program in city and regional planning at the University of Memphis.

Thompson was elected last year partly on a promise to oppose commercial development of Shelby Farms. Kinard is the daughter of suburban developer Jackie Welch, the most outspoken proponent of developing part of it.

"At the corner of Germantown Parkway and Walnut Grove there needs to be a hotel," Welch said this week.

He plans to offer to pay for a rendering of what the eastern edge of Shelby Farms would look like if the Shelby Showplace Arena, an existing restaurant, and the farmers market were replaced by a new grand entrance off Germantown Parkway, two or three hotel sites, a 50-acre lake, and other commercial sites leased by the county.

"The tighter the budget, the friendlier they're going to be to it," he said.

Bailey said the advisory committee was created with the blessing of Mayor A C Wharton, who is on record opposing the sale and, presumably, lease of public lands to raise money for government operations. The broad makeup of the committee and its lack of a financial benefactor and driving force such as Terry could ensure that Shelby Farms stays pretty much as it is for a while. The park has been under more or less continuous study since the '60s. The private conservancy is one of many aborted ideas. A plan for a major new road and intersection in the park that was several years in the making has also been scrapped by the new administration.

Quiet controversies underlie several of the park's bucolic and seemingly mind-your-own-business uses. On a summer morning the day after the commission meeting, four men were training their dogs in a pasture. When told about the new committee, one of the dog trainers, Lanier Fogg, perked up like a retriever watching a shot duck.What could possibly be controversial about dog training?

Well, trainers haul their dogs and gear in trucks, and the trucks go off the dirt roads and drive on paths through the pasture. So do horse trailers. To get to the paths they go through gates, which can be open or locked depending on park policy. If dog trainers and horsemen can drive off-road, what about fishermen? Or four-wheelers? Or anybody having a picnic or looking for some privacy? And how does that impact compare with the impact of the series of eight outdoor music concerts in the park this summer and their attendant stages, light poles, and set-up crews?

In short, Fogg was very interested to know how the new committee was going to relate to the park board chaired by Ron Terry and the park superintendent Steve Satterfield, whose predecessor was fired by the last county mayor.

The answer, right now, is that nobody knows.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Alternative Use

Whatever The Pyramid's failings, a lack of ideas has not been one of them.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 19, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Go-slowers are alarmed that the city and county intend to move forward with a study of the prospects for turning The Pyramid into a casino "without exploring alternatives."

Alternatives? Where have they been for the last 15 years?

Certainly not paying attention. Otherwise they would remember John Tigrett, Isaac Tigrett, the Hard Rock Cafe, Sidney Shlenker, Rakapolis, the College Football Hall of Fame, hidden crystals, Disney on Ice, the WWF, the inclinator, Bill Morris, Jim Rout, Willie Herenton, the University of Memphis, Marius Penczner, Island Earth Park, Ed Armentrout, NARAS, Michael Greene, the Grammy museum, the Titanic exhibit, Wonders, Dick Hackett, John Calipari, Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies, and Alan Freeman.

Every one of those people took their best shot at getting maximum mileage out of The Pyramid. All of those attractions have been tried or seriously proposed since 1988 when The Pyramid was designed. Let's look at them again, starting with the most recent.

™ Alan Freeman and SMG manage The Pyramid and 157 other facilities worldwide. Freeman has booked family shows, concerts, fights, graduations, ballgames, elephants, monster trucks, wrestlers, rappers, you name it. Last weekend The Pyramid was dark while Wynonna played the Botanic Garden, Blues Traveler was at Mud Island, and Ray Charles was in Tunica. Add FedExForum to the mix next year, and The Pyramid does not have a bright future as a first-choice concert and entertainment venue.

™ The University of Memphis has been a partner in The Pyramid, sometimes reluctantly, since its inception. Three presidents, four basketball coaches, and two athletic directors have taken their best shot at filling it. It will be a surprise if the U of M doesn't follow the Grizzlies to FedExForum, which everyone agrees will be a superior facility. The Pyramid does not have a bright future as a college basketball arena.

™ Michael Heisley and the Grizzlies moved to Memphis from Vancouver and will play in The Pyramid for a third and final season in 2003-2004. The NBA, Heisley, and the Grizzlies' local owners insisted that The Pyramid is not up to NBA standards, hence the $250 million FedExForum. The Pyramid does not have a future as a professional basketball arena.

™ The Wonders series was moved to the lower level of The Pyramid during the Convention Center renovation, which is now complete. Wonders is taking a year off in 2003. The head of Wonders is former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett, who knows a little about marketing, salesmanship, and The Pyramid because it was built on his watch. The Pyramid does not have a future as a permanent home for cultural exhibitions.

™ NARAS and its president at the time, Michael Greene, looked at The Pyramid from 1998 to 2000 as a potential home for a Grammy museum. Ed Armentrout, then head of the Center City Commission, and downtown developer Henry Turley also worked on it, assisted by some of the best architects, investment bankers, and real estate pros in Memphis and several out-of-town consultants. The conclusion: The Pyramid does not have a future as a music museum.

™ In 1995, Marius Penczner went to the city and county with a proposal for a high-tech attraction at The Pyramid called Island Earth Park. Penczner had a national reputation for creative advertising in political campaigns, credentials, contacts, videos, renderings, and feasibility studies. Conclusion: The Pyramid does not have a future as a privately operated high-tech theme park.

™ Former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris helped bring International Paper to Memphis and kept St. Jude Children's Research Hospital from moving to St. Louis. He's raised millions of dollars for political candidates, the U of M, and charities. Morris was mayor when The Pyramid was proposed and spent four years figuring out what to do with it.

™ Sidney Shlenker came to Memphis in 1989 to develop attractions inside The Pyramid. Shlenker's reputation was tarnished in his later years, but before that he was a player in pro sports promotion in Houston and Denver. He spent two years trying to get private financing for an inclinator and to develop Egyptian-themed attractions dubbed Rakapolis at The Pyramid and Mud Island. With all his contacts and experience and with his personal reputation at stake, he failed.

™ John Tigrett was the father of The Pyramid. His son Isaac was co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe and interested enough in The Pyramid to hide New Age crystals in its apex. John's wife Pat is responsible for the bridge lighting and the Blues Ball. Their close friend Fred Smith is founder of FedEx and was the first chairman of the Pyramid Public Building Authority. With all their clout and connections, the best they could do for The Pyramid was ... Sidney Shlenker.

Now comes Lakes Entertainment with a proposal to do a nonbinding study of casino gambling at no charge to the city or county. If another casino company ever operates an exclusive casino in The Pyramid, that company -- not the city or county -- would pay Lakes $20 million. That's a lot of money, but Boyd Gaming, the owner of Sam's Town Casino in Tunica, paid $25 million for its site 10 years ago, and it has eight competitors.

What exactly do the go-slows think has been overlooked? If there are investors out there willing to take over a 30-story pyramid-shaped fixer-upper with 20,000 cramped seats, no elevators, and a $28 million mortgage, where are they?

Friday, June 13, 2003

Memphis 2005

Chamber of Commerce retools its flagship project as government support wanes.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

The partnership between city and county government and the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce is not exactly over, but it is a shadow of what it was when the ambitious Memphis 2005 plan was launched in 1996.

The partnership is a casualty of tight budgets, political opposition, mixed results, and the Shelby County government credit-card scandal that brought down former mayoral aide Tom Jones. Jones pleaded guilty two weeks ago to federal and state charges of misusing public funds funneled through Memphis 2005 and is scheduled to be sentenced in August.

When the city and county approved their annual budgets last week and this week, the chamber and Memphis 2005 were conspicuously absent. The city will chip in $350,000 next year, while the county contribution is zero. Each government contributed $750,000 a year in the first years of Memphis 2005, and the chamber raised an additional $1.2 million from the private sector.

Marc Jordan, president and CEO of the Memphis Regional Chamber, said Memphis 2005 was cumbersome and dependent on political support which began to lapse after the first few years.

"It did a world of good, but it was pretty complicated," he said, estimating that the chamber had at least eight partners and, in all, 250 people involved in Memphis 2005 activities. "It was administration-driven. You would have to say it was mayorally driven."

The scope of Memphis 2005 went beyond the chamber's traditional role of business recruiting to include crime reduction, anti-poverty programs, public school improvement, "livable" communities, and minority-business growth all in the name of economic development.

Consultants and politically correct committees thrived in the climate of Memphis 2005, but some elected officials thought public funds were being wasted or that accountability was difficult to measure.

As the City Council put the finishing touches on its budget last week, Councilman John Vergos noted that there are politics involved in funding swimming pools or golf courses in members' districts, "but at least the public gets a swimming pool."

Memphis 2005 will continue with limited public funding and a new focus on regionalism, job growth and personal income growth, a railroad "super terminal," and a third bridge across the Mississippi River. Its sexiest component is the "talent strategy" aimed at recruiting people instead of companies. Nashville has overtaken Memphis as the state's largest metropolitan area, and the chamber's analysis indicates that most of its growth is due to in-migration rather than births.

Bottom line: New people with job skills have more money than new babies.

"We're not getting people saying Memphis is a neat place to live and a great place to get a job, although obviously we think it is," said Jordan.

Jordan was candid in assessing the problems of Memphis 2005, including his own health problems (he had heart surgery), too many goals, and unstable leadership. Willa Bailey was first hired to run the program, then after two years she gave way to Carol Crawley. Crawley, a longtime member and officer of the Center City Commission and a consultant to the Public Building Authority on FedEx Forum, held the job for less than two years and was not replaced after she left.

Local government support had already waned when the news broke last fall that Jones had spent thousands of dollars of Memphis 2005 funds on personal and family expenses while misleading Jordan and the chamber. From 1998 to 2001, Jones was the point person for $466,355 in Memphis 2005 payments (excluding credit-card payments) ranging from $1,221 for 50 copies of the book The Livable City to $7,650 of travel expenses for Jones and former Mayor Jim Rout to $60,000 to establish the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission.

"Our relationship with the county is different now," said Jordan. "The contact is the mayor. There is not an individual that has stepped in like Tom did. It spreads the mayor a little thin. I think over time the chief administrative officer [John Fowlkes] will do more."

The chamber's setbacks are apt to be temporary. It can still pluck talent from city government and Memphis Light Gas & Water former Planning and Development Director Dexter Muller and MLGW energy buyer Bill Bullock, for example as well as consultants like Carol Coletta, who is leading the talent star search.

And organizations fall in and out of favor with politicians all the time. Just this week, grant requests from MIFA and WKNO came under fire from county commissioners who wanted to make a point about tax increases. A few years ago, the Center City Commission was on the hot seat due to revelations of misspending by executive director Ed Armentrout.

Armentrout was replaced, first on an interim basis and then permanently, by former city councilman Jeff Sanford. Today, the CCC's stock has never been higher. It's a major player in the rebuilding of downtown via the tax favors and fees that fund its operations. Politicos like city councilman Rickey Peete and state legislators Larry Miller, Steve Cohen, and John Ford clamor to get appointed to it. The genial Sanford showed up at both city and county budget hearings to make his case but barely had to say a word, leading county CFO Jim Huntzicker to marvel in mock amazement, "How'd you do that?"

Thursday, June 5, 2003

The Straight Story

An extortion charge doesn't change the big story at the Tri-State Defender.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 5, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Some of our colleagues in the Memphis media seem to be more interested in the sideshows than the main event when it comes to the story of serial plagiarism at the Tri-State Defender.

On Tuesday, The Commercial Appeal published a front-page story about a former Defender employee, Myron Hudson, being charged with trying to extort $50,000 from the Defender in April. The CA story reinforced the erroneous idea, first put forth by the Defender in an editorial, that the Defender is an innocent "victim" of a serial plagiarist and, now, an extortion scheme.

That is not the case. The plagiarism was first discovered by a weekly newspaper in California which had a story stolen almost verbatim by the Defender under the byline of Larry Reeves. An investigation by the Flyer uncovered several more stolen stories under the bylines of Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy, whose combined output was nearly 200 stories and commentaries. Our charge of plagiarism, which has not been disputed, was based 100 percent on the evidence of clumsily disguised stories in the Defender that matched up against nearly identical stories published earlier in weekly newspapers across the country. Whatever the facts of the extortion allegation against Hudson, they do nothing to change that.

The owner of the Defender, Tom Picou, and editor Marzie Thomas declined to go over the evidence with us. They contend Larry Reeves is a freelance writer who was not paid for writing more than 140 articles, never came to the office, and whose whereabouts cannot be determined. A former managing editor of the Defender, Virginia Porter, told the Flyer, The Commercial Appeal, and other publications that she believes Tom Picou is Larry Reeves and Reginold Bundy, who was also a serial plagiarist.

Three weeks after the Flyer published two articles about plagiarism at the Defender, Hudson contacted us to corroborate Porter's claim. We gave him two paragraphs in the middle of a 900-word story about plagiarism at The New York Times.

By no stretch of the imagination was Myron Hudson the whistle-blower in this story, nor does it stand or fall on his credibility, as readers of the CA might think based on the page-one headline "Newspaper accuser arrested." Television reporter Stephanie Scurlock of WREG-TV Channel 3, the CA's media partner, asked us two weeks ago if we were aware that Hudson possibly has a criminal record.

For the record, neither the CA nor Channel 3 had anything to say about fraud at the Defender until the Flyer broke the story locally. We offered to provide our evidence, a "road map" to how we found it, or both to the CA, Scurlock, WMC-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Reader (a weekly in Picou's home town), The Columbia Journalism Review, the Association of Alternative News Weeklies, and the Defender. Several news organizations have picked up the story, some more accurately than others.

In case any of our readers have the same question as Scurlock, the answer is no. This reporter and this newspaper do not do criminal background checks on the people we interview unless there is a compelling reason to do so. But we do check our sources, and in the current media climate it may be worth saying a little more about that. Hudson, like Porter, spoke on the record with no restrictions. Both produced satisfactory evidence, verified by other employees, that they had indeed worked at the Defender in the jobs they claimed to have held.

Most important, of course, was the overwhelming evidence of serial plagiarism and manipulation of stories and the absence of a credible official explanation. Both Porter and Hudson were in positions to know Tom Picou, Larry Reeves, and Reginold Bundy. If you believe the Defender's owner and editor, two unscrupulous serial plagiarists remain at large, possibly ready to strike again at some unsuspecting newspaper. No charge, of course, for the first 200 stories.

As Porter and others have noted, the victims of the Defender's fraud included not only the reporters whose work was stolen and the organizations like the Nashville Metro Police Department, which was smeared by having crimes and official misconduct transposed to its staff and jurisdictions. The victims were also the Defender's honest employees, its readers, and the African-American community it serves. "Larry Reeves" and "Reginold Bundy" treated them like gullible dupes unable to distinguish fact from fiction and easily inflamed by outrageous stories and poorly sourced claims.

Memphis deserves better. There is a profitable and important niche for an African-American newspaper. Hopefully, the epidemic of "can-do spirit" that the CA loves to write about will spread to publishing, and a group of Memphians will start one. That's the real continuing story and the only way to put a happy ending on this sorry saga.

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