Friday, July 29, 2005

Man on Horseback

Political correctness is only one of the problems with Forrest Park.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The real problem with Forrest Park is neglect, not the equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest or the controversial name. Like many other city parks, it's a mess. The grass is knee-high and littered with trash and dead tree limbs, metal benches are bent and broken, and trees and bushes haven't been pruned in years.

Normally, few people would notice any of this because the park on Union Avenue next to the University of Tennessee Medical Center is usually empty. For the last two weeks, however, every local television station and newspaper covered the Forrest Park controversy and took pictures of the statue. The national media are likely to follow when the controversy reaches the Memphis City Council. Now suppose you are mayor of our fair city and the Memphis Park Commission answers to you. You have been a public official for 25 years and know a photo opportunity better than most television news directors. Do you make sure a crew cleans up the park? Go see.

Assuming that Willie Herenton doesn't resign, he could be voted out for apathy, if not in a recall election in 2006 then in the regular election of 2007. After nearly 14 years, the mayor simply shows no zest for the most basic duties of the job. How can Memphians have any confidence in the mayor possibly taking over MLGW, if his park commission can't cut the grass and pick up the trash in a park in the news on one of the busiest streets in town?

Lawyer/developer Karl Schledwitz, a member of the UT Board of Regents, has proposed moving Forrest's monument and grave to Elmwood Cemetery and having the city turn the park over to UT. It's about time UT asserted itself. The medical school should be allowed to develop part of the park since the park commission doesn't maintain it. A renamed, cleaned-up, and smaller park could help revitalize both UT's campus and Union Avenue, which is bordered by several blighted buildings and vacant lots between the old Baptist Hospital and AutoZone Park. University medical centers in Birmingham, St. Louis, Nashville, and Jackson, Mississippi, are hubs of new construction, street life, and restaurants. The only restaurant near the UT Medical Center in Memphis is a McDonald's.

Memphis has been in national newspapers and magazines a lot this summer thanks to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Craig Brewer's movie Hustle & Flow, International Paper's possible headquarters relocation, and the residential growth of Harbor Town, Uptown, and South End. Not all of the news reports have been positive. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted last week, Toyota shunned pitches from Southern locales and will instead put a new plant in Ontario. Memphis and eastern Arkansas - unlike Middle Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky - have made no headway in the car chase. As Krugman wrote, "Japanese auto companies opening plants in the Southern U.S. have been unfavorably surprised by the work force's poor level of training." Focus groups interviewed for an upcoming Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce report made similar comments.

Although Herenton sometimes seems as burned out as a Fourth of July firecracker, he and the chamber have a chance to close a bragging-rights deal with International Paper, which will make a decision within 30 days. More than 2,000 other IP employees relocated to Memphis or were hired here since 1987.

Dexter Muller, a former city division director and interim CEO of the chamber, said, "We have to deal with it as a competition. This is too important to take for granted."

The incentives package is likely to include moving costs for at least some of the 134 Stamford, Connecticut, employees, which Muller said can be as much as $30,000 per employee. IP's executive compensation has been under fire from shareholder activists. Former CEO John Dillon, who retired in 2003, got $15.2 million in his last year, or 595 times the average U.S. worker's salary of $25,500. His successor, John Faraci, made $4,884,333 in 2004. IP's stock has been a laggard. A $100 investment in 1999 was worth $85 five years later. Paper industry peer group stocks were worth $113.

Wonder what the IP honchos and their wives will make of the gritty scenes in Hustle & Flow, or Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority Chairman Arnold Perl's recent crack that Memphis minus FedEx is Shreveport.

Trivia note: The president of IP when the company moved to Memphis in 1987 was Paul O'Neill, later Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush, whom he famously described in a book as being "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." n

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