Friday, September 30, 2005

The Next Big Thing in Sports

Ray Kroc's $48 million gift could energize the fairgrounds.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 30, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Memphians are used to seeing stories about big-dollar sports facilities such as Liberty Bowl Stadium, AutoZone Park, The Pyramid, and FedExForum. Now there's serious talk of one that could make Memphians players instead of spectators.

Last week, the Salvation Army announced a $48 million gift from the estate of Joan Kroc, whose husband Ray was the founder of McDonald's. Danny Morrow, area commander of the Salvation Army, told the Flyer that the Mid-South Fairgrounds is under consideration as the site of a 103,000-square-foot community center.

The Salvation Army was the favorite charity of Ray Kroc, and his wife's $1.6 billion gift to the National Salvation Army for community centers across the country is one of the largest donations ever to a nonprofit organization. The Memphis grant includes $24 million for construction and $24 million for an endowment and operations, with the requirement that the local Salvation Army raise another $24 million.

Morrow said the community center would be modeled after the Kroc Center in San Diego, except that it would not include an ice-hockey rink. It would have indoor swimming, a gym, fitness room, performing arts center, child care, a Head Start program, a Salvation Army Corps (a church), and outdoor recreation and fitness.

"This will serve the neighborhood and the community at large," he said.

A site has not been chosen, but the fairgrounds is getting serious attention in pre-development talks led by Kerr Tigrett, son of Pat Kerr Tigrett and the late John Tigrett, the driving force behind The Pyramid. Tigrett confirmed that the fairgrounds is being considered but declined to do an interview at this time.

Current tenants and buildings in the fairgrounds include the Memphis Children's Museum, Liberty Bowl Stadium, the Mid-South Coliseum, the annual Mid-South Fair, Libertyland amusement park, flea markets, and a track and football field used for high school events. The old Tim McCarver baseball stadium was recently torn down.

The fates of the Coliseum, Libertyland, and the Mid-South Fair are uncertain. All are past their prime, and there was talk of closing or moving them before the Kroc Center came up. But they also have their defenders and their customers. The Kroc Center could force the issue and raise at least three new ones:

* Will public officials and their constituents be comfortable with the Salvation Army, a Christian organization, playing a major role on a public site, probably in partnership with other faith-based organizations and nonprofits?

* Can another $24 million be raised? Or even more than that if the community center is only part of an overall redevelopment of the fairgrounds?

* In a new master plan for use of the fairgrounds, should private residential development be part of the plan or should public property only be used for public purposes?

* Are other sites equally attractive, including the privately owned site of the old Mall of Memphis?

By way of disclosure, I am a contributing author of a five-year-old consulting report (and a bumper sticker promoting Midtown) recommending that the fairgrounds be turned into a community sportsplex modeled after Centennial Park in Nashville, the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, the Snowden Grove youth baseball fields in DeSoto County, or any other park or center that encourages people to participate in sports instead of watching them.

You don't have to be a Midtowner or a futurist to connect the dots and to see the appeal of the fairgrounds as the site of the Kroc Center. The immediate neighbors are diverse, including Christian Brothers University, Chickasaw Gardens, Orange Mound, and the Cooper-Young neighborhood and commercial district.

The fairgrounds is reasonably accessible by car or MATA bus. If gas goes to $4 a gallon and sentiment builds for a light-rail extension of the existing trolley to nowhere that ends at Madison and Cleveland, one of the two proposed routes for an extension goes right past the fairgrounds.

Let the debate begin.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Job Description

Should the next U.S. attorney have prosecutorial or political background?

Posted By on Fri, Sep 23, 2005 at 4:00 AM

A federal prosecutor in Memphis once said that a United States attorney has "more power than a good man ought to want or a bad man ought to have."

Well, the job of U.S. attorney for Western Tennessee is open now that Terry Harris has resigned to be vice president of customer security for FedEx Express. And the man or woman President Bush picks to replace him will have more direct influence on Memphis than the people Bush picks to fill the vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. He or she will lead a staff of 37 attorneys in Jackson and Memphis and jump into the middle of the Tennessee Waltz.

So far, three names have emerged as possible replacements: David Kustoff, a Bush political ally, attorney, and former head of the Shelby County Republican Party; Larry Scroggs, an attorney with Burch Porter and Johnson and former Republican state representative; and Thomas Parker, an attorney with Baker Donelson and assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis from 1995 to 2004.

Should the chief U.S. attorney have experience as a prosecutor? And is a political background an asset or liability, particularly at this time? I put those questions to Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, and Jim Neal, former U.S. attorney in Nashville and a lawyer in private practice for 35 years. Neither man has a dog in this hunt, but both have tried cases in federal court in Memphis.

"Experience as a prosecutor is helpful," said Neal. "But is it necessary? No. The office today involves more administration than it used to. Back when I was U.S. attorney in the Sixties, offices were smaller. You had a one-volume manual, and now you have something like 10 volumes."

Neal wanted to personally prosecute high-profile cases such as the one against labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, so he designated an assistant to administer the office. He admits that would be harder to do now that there are new areas such as terrorism (see related story on page 11).

Neal, a Democrat who was close to the late Robert Kennedy but has never been a political candidate himself, is a little uneasy about prosecutors with primarily political backgrounds. "I think it could make the job harder," he said. "I would hate to see the day when being extremely active politically is a crucial ingredient. The U.S. attorneys in this country have enormous power to do wrong. Prosecution should absolutely be nonpolitical."

Cummins, who prosecuted former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith earlier this year, had more political than prosecutorial experience when he was appointed by Bush in 2000. He had been a candidate for Congress and chief counsel to a Republican governor but had also clerked for two federal judges and done some criminal defense work in private practice.

"I don't think prosecutorial experience is a necessary prerequisite," he said. "Most offices are already staffed with real talented prosecutors. What you bring may be management talents, communication skills, and people skills. A big part of what we do is deterrence, by going out and explaining to the public what we are doing and why."

Cummins said Bush and his attorney general are "absolutely intolerant of prosecutors engaging in political activity of any kind. If you can't leave politics at the door, you shouldn't come here or you won't last." In more than four years, Cummins said he has gotten only one call from a politician about a case, and he backed off after Cummins explained the facts. When he gets calls, "99 percent of the time those people have been told by the subject of the investigation an incomplete set of facts."

Federal prosecutors in Memphis have had strikingly different backgrounds. Harris was a veteran state prosecutor. Veronica Coleman worked in corporate law. Ed Bryant was an all-but-declared candidate for Congress when he took over for Hickman Ewing, who was a career prosecutor. Mike Cody was former head of the Shelby County Democratic Party and former President Jimmy Carter's state campaign manager.

As a reporter, I have known them all, plus many of the well-known people they prosecuted. I think it's the most important and powerful public office in Memphis.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

CITY BEAT

Should next U.S. attorney have prosecutorial or political background?

Posted By on Tue, Sep 20, 2005 at 4:00 AM

JOB DESCRIPTION

A federal prosecutor in Memphis once said that a United States attorney has “more power than a good man ought to want or a bad man ought to have.”

Well, the job of U.S. attorney for Western Tennessee is open now that Terry Harris has resigned to be vice-president of customer security for FedEx Express. And the man or woman President Bush picks to replace him will have more direct influence on Memphis than the people Bush picks to fill the vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. He or she will lead a staff of 37 attorneys in Jackson and Memphis and jump into the middle of the Tennessee Waltz public corruption investigation and prosecution.

So far, three names have emerged as possible replacements: David Kustoff, a Bush political ally, attorney, and former head of the Shelby County Republican Party; Larry Scroggs, an attorney with Burch Porter and Johnson and former Republican state representative; and Thomas Parker, an attorney with Baker Donelson and former assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis from 1995-2004.

Should the chief United States attorney have experience as a prosecutor? And is a political background an asset or liability, particularly at this time?

I put those questions to Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, and Jim Neal, former U.S. attorney in Nashville and a lawyer in private practice for 35 years. Neither man has a dog in this hunt, but both have tried cases in federal court in Memphis.

“Experience as a prosecutor is helpful,” said Neal. “But is it necessary? No. The office today involves more administration than it used to. Back when I was U.S. attorney in the Sixties, offices were smaller. You had a one-volume manual, and now you have something like ten volumes.”

Neal wanted to personally prosecute high-profile cases such as the one against labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, so he designated an assistant to administer the office. He admits that would be harder to do now that there are new areas such as terrorism.

Neal, a Democrat who was close to the late Robert Kennedy but has never been a political candidate himself, is a little uneasy about prosecutors with primarily political backgrounds.

“I think it could make the job harder,” he said. “I would hate to see the day when being extremely active politically is a crucial ingredient. The U.S. attorneys in this country have enormous power to do wrong. Prosecution should absolutely be non-political.”

Cummins, who prosecuted former Shelby County Medical Examiner O.C. Smith earlier this year, had more political than prosecutorial experience when he was appointed by Bush in 2000. He had been a candidate for Congress and chief counsel to a Republican governor, but had also clerked for two different federal judges and done some criminal defense work in private practice.

“I don’t think prosecutorial experience is a necessary prerequisite,” he said. “Most offices are already staffed with real talented prosecutors. What you bring may be management talents, communication skills, and people skills. A big part of what we do is deterrence, by going out and explaining to the public what we are doing and why.”

Cummins said Bush and his attorney general are “absolutely intolerant of prosecutors engaging in political activity of any kind. If you can’t leave politics at the door you shouldn’t come here or you won’t last.” In more than four years, Cummins said he has gotten only one call from a politician about a case, and he backed off after Cummins explained the facts. When he gets calls from the public, “99 percent of the time those people have been told by the subject of the investigation an incomplete set of facts.”

Federal prosecutors in Memphis have had strikingly different backgrounds. Harris was a veteran state prosecutor. Veronica Coleman worked in corporate law. Ed Bryant was an all-but declared candidate for Congress when he took over for Hickman Ewing, who was a career prosecutor. Mike Cody was former head of the Shelby County Democratic Party and former President Jimmy Carter’s state campaign manager.

As a reporter, I have known them all, plus many of the well-known people they prosecuted. I think it’s the most important and powerful public office in Memphis.

Friday, September 16, 2005

High and Dry?

Casinos on Mississippi Gulf Coast ponder where and how to rebuild.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 16, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Mississippi plans to pull out all the stops to hang on to its casinos, even if it means allowing them to build on dry land.

At least seven of the 13 casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were severely damaged or destroyed, said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, after taking a walking tour of several properties last week. The image of casino barges tossed on to and over U.S. Highway 90 is likely to be a Katrina classic for years to come. Gregory said, however, that the damage was well short of total devastation.

"Beau Rivage and Imperial Palace withstood it fairly well," he said. "There was not a lot of damage to the hotels. The Hard Rock hotel which was supposed to open on September 1st looked fine except for broken windows, but there was major damage to the casino."

Casinos are the state's largest private employer and contribute $330 million in taxes annually to the state and to the counties in which they are located. The state's share -- nearly $200 million -- is 5 percent of its total tax take. The Gulf Coast and Tunica are the two biggest casino markets, each with over $1 billion in total revenue.

Mississippi officials are facing three big issues related to casinos: helping employees in the short term, persuading casino operators to stay in Mississippi and rebuild, and the legislation that requires the casinos to float instead of being built on dry land.

"The first priority is employees," Gregory said. "There are lines a mile long of people looking for paychecks. Most casinos are handing out checks and answering questions about insurance."

After the cleanup, the focus will shift to rebuilding. Mississippi faces competition from Louisiana and specifically New Orleans. Louisiana's casino taxes, however, are twice as high as Mississippi's combined state and county tax rate of 12 percent.

"The casinos have said their intention and commitment is to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Gregory said. "There's going to be a lot of discussion about where to rebuild. A lot of companies have said the risk is too great to put barges back on the water."

When Mississippi opened itself to casinos 13 years ago, laws required "floating" casinos along the Gulf and on the banks of the Mississippi River. In a concession to river navigation and the danger of flooding, riverside casinos were allowed to move to man-made lagoons several hundred yards from the river. But the casinos on the coast, despite the threat of hurricanes and the memory of devastating Hurricane Camille, are required to be on the waters of the Mississippi Sound, where they were easy prey for Katrina.

"The governor said he will address the issue within a matter of weeks," said Gregory. "He has to call a special session of the legislature if he decides one is warranted. The gaming regulations cannot be changed without legislative action."

Mississippi's casino licensing policy lets the market determine the survivors. Several of the earliest casinos in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast were no-frills operations that raked in huge profits before giving way to elaborate properties such as the $750 million Beau Rivage in Biloxi. Gregory said there will not be a repeat of the wild, wide-open days.

"To even contemplate or think someone could come in with some mom-and-pop casino or barge, well, they better just keep rowing their barge to some other location and not stop here," he said.

The Gulf Coast casinos emptied their slot machines before Katrina came ashore.

"Most of the slots on the first floors were damaged," he said. "We don't take them off. They weigh a lot, probably 500 pounds, if not 1,000. By state law they can stay on the premises during an evacuation, but all the money is taken off and deposited in banks."

That has not stopped looters from cracking open some machines.

"They may find a dime but they're going to be disappointed," Gregory said.

Tunica was unscathed and may even see a business boost with the Gulf Coast out of commission. Hundreds of storm refugees are being housed at shelters in Tunica and DeSoto County, including the convention center of the Grand Casino.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

CITY BEAT

Casinos on Mississippi Gulf Coast ponder where and how to rebuild.

Posted By on Tue, Sep 13, 2005 at 4:00 AM

HIGH AND DRY?

Mississippi plans to pull out all the stops to hang on to its casinos, even if it means allowing them to build on dry land.

At least seven of the 13 casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were severely damaged or destroyed, said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, after taking a walking tour of several properties last week. The image of casino barges tossed on to and over U.S. Highway 90 is likely to be a Katrina classic for years to come. Gregory said, however, that the damage was well short of total devastation.

“Beau Rivage and Imperial Palace withstood it fairly well,” he said. “There was not a lot of damage to the hotels. The Hard Rock hotel which was supposed to open on September 1st looked fine except for broken windows, but there was major damage to the casino.”

Casinos are the state’s largest private employer and contribute $330 million in taxes annually to the state and to the counties in which they are located. The state’s share — nearly $200 million — is 5 percent of its total tax take. The Gulf Coast and Tunica are the two biggest casino markets, each with over $1 billion in total revenue.

Mississippi officials are facing three big issues related to casinos: helping employees in the short term, persuading casino operators to stay in Mississippi and rebuild, and the legislation that requires the casinos to float instead of being built on dry land.

“The first priority is employees,” Gregory said. “There are lines a mile long of people looking for paychecks. Most casinos are handing out checks and answering questions about insurance.”

After the cleanup, the focus will shift to rebuilding. Mississippi faces competition from Louisiana and specifically New Orleans. Louisiana’s casino taxes, however, are twice as high as Mississippi’s combined state and county tax rate of 12 percent.

“The casinos have said their intention and commitment is to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Gregory said. “There’s going to be a lot of discussion about where to rebuild. A lot of companies have said the risk is too great to put barges back on the water.”

When Mississippi opened itself to casinos 13 years ago, laws required “floating” casinos along the Gulf and on the banks of the Mississippi River. In a concession to river navigation and the danger of flooding, riverside casinos were allowed to move to man-made lagoons several hundred yards from the river. But the casinos on the coast, despite the threat of hurricanes and the memory of devastating Hurricane Camille, are required to be on the waters of the Mississippi Sound, where they were easy prey for Katrina.

“The governor said he will address the issue within a matter of weeks,” said Gregory. “He has to call a special session of the legislature if he decides one is warranted. The gaming regulations cannot be changed without legislative action.”

Mississippi’s casino licensing policy lets the market determine the survivors. Several of the earliest casinos in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast were no-frills operations that raked in huge profits before giving way to elaborate properties such as the $750 million Beau Rivage in Biloxi. Gregory said there will not be a repeat of the wild, wide-open days.

“To even contemplate or think someone could come in with some mom-and-pop casino or barge, well, they better just keep rowing their barge to some other location and not stop here,” he said.

The Gulf Coast casinos emptied their slot machines before Katrina came ashore.

“Most of the slots on the first floors were damaged,” he said. “We don’t take them off. They weigh a lot, probably 500 pounds, if not 1,000. By state law they can stay on the premises during an evacuation, but all the money is taken off and deposited in banks.”

That has not stopped looters from cracking open some machines.

“They may find a dime but they’re going to be disappointed,” Gregory said.

Tunica was unscathed and may even see a business boost with the Gulf Coast out of commission. Hundreds of storm refugees are being housed at shelters in Tunica and DeSoto County, including the convention center of the Grand Casino.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Riding MATA's #50 and #56

Mass transit gains riders as gas price rises, but in Memphis the car is still king.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 7, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The number 56 MATA bus, carrying nine passengers, rocks eastward on Union Avenue on its way to Perkins and American Way, past gas stations where the posted price changes before our eyes from $2.69 to $2.99 to $3.09 to the flexible $3.-9.

For MATA, the good news is that the transit agency is under contract to buy diesel fuel for $1.21 per gallon for most of 2005. The bad news is that the price will probably be close to $2 in 2006, the bus gets four miles a gallon, and the capacity is 40 passengers.

"I'm nervous," admits MATA president and general manager Will Hudson.

The trip from downtown to the old Mall of Memphis takes 75 minutes this Thursday afternoon and costs $1.40. At times it is speedy, other times jerky and teeth-jarring. Carrying an open beverage is a wet adventure.

For people like Jeff, a medical assistant at Methodist Hospital, MATA's 56 bus is a lifeline. He lives in Hickory Hill, and by the time he transfers, the trip to work takes an hour and 45 minutes. When his shift ends at 11:15 p.m., he gets a ride home with his brother. For Jerrica, a student at Middle College High School downtown, a one-hour MATA commute on 56 and number 19 at 6:40 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. is a standard part of her school day.

Mass transit has not caught on with the Memphis masses. MATA claims 40,000 rides a day -- a 6 percent increase from a year ago but down from 100,000 daily rides in 1980 when there were 13 more routes. Few public officials, professionals, or power brokers are MATA customers. It is too soon to tell whether $3.29 gas will change that, but as gas-guzzling vehicles roar by with one or two occupants, it seems unlikely.

MATA must cover a metro area of 300 square miles and do it day and night, seven days a week. To a casual observer, its one-size-fits-all approach seems inefficient and wasteful. But MATA says the system average is 24 passengers per hour per bus, and some routes are full all day. There are 90 to 150 buses on the road, depending on time of day. MATA keeps its buses, which cost $275,000, for 12 years. Hudson says the biggest operating cost is the driver, "so if you have to add a driver you double your cost."

MATA buys fuel, mostly diesel, on a one-year contract. A year ago it paid 85 cents a gallon. The current price is $1.21 a gallon, and last Wednesday's price would have been $2 a gallon -- still a dollar less than stations were charging after adding taxes. The new contract starts November 1st. MATA uses about 2 million gallons of fuel each year. The standard fare was increased in May from $1.25 to $1.40 because of fuel costs. In August, MATA's board approved the purchase of four hybrid electric-powered, 27-passenger buses, but they won't be in use for another year.

On Friday morning at 7:15, I board the number 50 bus from the main MATA station across from The Pyramid to Germantown. Fifteen of the 20 riders are schoolchildren dressed in their uniforms, and many of them get off in Midtown. The bus is one of seven accordian-style 60-footers in the fleet, and the ride is smoother than the older 40-foot model. In exactly one hour, it reaches the end of the line on Exeter east of Saddle Creek.

I spring for an extra 65 cents to cover the surcharge for Zone 1, plus another $2.05 for the trip back downtown on a different bus. It lurches along Poplar at a fast clip. From Exeter to Highland, there are never more than eight passengers, but 18 more get on between Highland and downtown. The bus pulls into the station at 9:05 a.m., just 50 minutes after leaving Germantown. It would be hard to beat that in a Lexus. The flat rate for parking in the lot across from the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar, where several passengers get off, is $6 a day.

For most of us, however, efficiency and economy don't outweigh convenience, even at $3.29 a gallon.

Friday, September 2, 2005

Can't Touch This

Ten issues that are too hot -- and too confusing -- for our leaders to handle.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 2, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Efficiency studies and image consultants. The U.S. attorney and the FBI. Tennessee Waltz and Tarnished Blue. Memphis Tomorrow and the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Leadership Memphis and the Leadership Academy.

Put them all together and many of the big things that vex Memphis, divide Memphis, and define young and old in Memphis would probably not change much.

Separation of church and state. Forty years after the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lawsuits against Bible readings and prayer in school, she might be surprised at some of the ways schools and churches are linked. Many parents could not have raised children without churches that provided daycare centers, after-school care, gyms, playing fields, and transportation, and groups such as Young Life that provide social life, diversity, summer camps, and trips.

Free speech. The word "m-----f---er" looks awful, doesn't it? Or maybe it doesn't, depending on your age, race, or level of sensitivity. Ten-year-olds can hear it in movies and songs every day. Everyone's George Carlin. Oops, sorry. He was a comedian who had these seven words and .... oh, forget it.

Integration. Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education and with the benefit of 40 years of affirmative action and minority recruiting, the story is resegregation. And not only in elementary and secondary public schools in the city of Memphis. It's less acceptable to talk about self-segregation at Rhodes College, MUS, Hutchison, Tennessee State University, Morehouse, Jackson State University, or the Southern Heritage Classic.

Ford and Herenton. Willie Herenton and Harold Ford Sr. are giants in Memphis political history. The Ford dynasty is familial, the Herenton dynasty personal. How long can they last?

Drugs and binge drinking. Medical marijuana? Never heard of it during the recreational-drug haze of the '60s and '70s, when college towns imposed a $5 fine for possession of marijuana and drinking 21 beers at the campus hangout was a ritual on your 21st birthday. Talk about diminished moral authority.

Democracy. Free exercise of democracy in Iraq? How about democracy in Memphis? Single-digit percentage voter turnouts are the norm in many elections.

Taxes. Tennessee is a low-tax state relative to, say, New York and Connecticut, the former homes of International Paper. But Memphis is a high-tax city relative to Nashville and the rest of the state, especially for homeowners. You can blame regressive taxation on competition from border counties in Mississippi and opposition to a payroll tax. But if a Republican governor, Don Sundquist, could stake his career on tax reform and lose, what are the chances of significant changes?

Big-league sports. Maybe there's a connection and maybe there's not, but after Memphis got an NBA team and a new arena, the grass stopped getting cut on public property and property taxes and the cost of utilities went up. No payroll tax and no state income tax makes every year an all-star year for pro jocks in Tennessee. A "jock tax" or luxury tax and an NHL-style salary cap would restore some sanity in a business that depends on subsidized stadiums and free-agent players who stay a couple years then move on.

Prosperity pockets. From the riverfront to Collierville, our best neighborhoods, public and private schools, colleges, and parks have never looked better. Wealth begets wealth, but sometimes it's a mile deep and an inch wide.

Philanthropy. You say charity isn't controversial? A few years ago, some wealthy Memphians with nothing personal to gain tried to turn Shelby Farms over to a conservation trust but were rebuffed by the Shelby County Commission. In his book Is Bill Cosby Right, "hip-hop intellectual" Michael Eric Dyson describes the concentration of power in the hands of a wealthy few as an American "philanthocracy." Will some far-sighted multimillionaire revolutionize philanthropy and, knowing full well some of it will be wasted, write a big check to ... the city treasury?

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