Wednesday, November 30, 2005

CITY BEAT: Break the Chains

For a new model for newspapers, start with local ownership.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 30, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The Commercial Appeal has decided that it should concentrate on local news. But that doesn’t go far enough. It should break the chains of its corporate masters and become locally owned.

Excepting the Christmas decorations of Peanuts characters, Memphis gets very little out of having its only daily newspaper owned by the E.W. Scripps Company in Cincinnati. In the big picture, Scripps newspapers are as old-fashioned as founder Edward W. Scripps’ custom of smoking 40 cigars a day. After closing the Birmingham Post-Herald in September and selling its assets to its rival for $40.8 million, Scripps has 20 daily papers. The company’s most profitable and cutting-edge media operations are its six cable networks, 10 television stations, and online shopping subsidiary Shopzilla.

Consolidation was the trend in the newspaper business in the 20th century. Now competition from the Internet and declining circulations are forcing editors, publishers, and investors to scramble. The CA announced another round of employee buyouts this month. The Knight-Ridder newspaper chain is up for sale, as a whole or in pieces.

Gannett is the newspaper industry giant, with 99 papers, including USA Today, the Nashville Tennessean, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the survivor of a circulation war with Gannett that ended in 1991, is locally owned by WEHCO Media.

Contrary to popular belief, the newspaper business is quite profitable. Scripps’ newspaper division earned a profit of $167 million through the first nine months of 2005. The stock price has tripled since 1996. General Motors and Northwest Airlines are laying off employees and making cuts to try to regain profitability. The CA is buying out senior employees and cutting the size of the newspaper to maintain a profit margin that is anyone’s guess. The last reliable figure, 36 percent, came out inadvertently in a 1991 lawsuit.

Scripps spokesman Tim Stautberg said the company does not release financials for individual papers or comment on potential acquisitions or sales. The CA wouldn’t be cheap, assuming Scripps would sell it.

When I bounced the idea off of Morgan Keegan chairman Allen Morgan Jr. and business consultant John Malmo, both of them were skeptical that anyone would pay the price. But I wonder. Memphis and Memphians overpay for lots of things, from former Grizzlies hoopster Bryant “Big Country” Reeves to the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. A daily newspaper is endlessly challenging, entertaining, influential, and new. Memphis prides itself on being an entrepreneurial, major-league city. A bigger and better home-owned newspaper would distinguish it as much as an NBA team.

Scripps doesn’t seem to have its heart in Memphis. Its annual report and Web site tout the wonders of food, home decorating, HGTV, the Food Network, Internet shopping, and shopping on television. It’s unfair to blame CA editor Chris Peck and his shorthanded staff for the shrinking newspaper. The corporate decisions are made in Cincinnati. It would be better if the blame, the credit, the profits, and the decisions about the paper’s future stayed here.

The Tennessean, Clarion-Ledger, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are in capital cities and aspire to be statewide newspapers. The CA is in the difficult position of serving a sprinkling of readers outside Shelby County, which has more poor people and non-readers than any county in Tennessee.

So local ownership is a long shot. It’s expensive. It’s a tough business. But where is it written that newspapers must have a 20 to 30 percent margin? The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo) is owned by a nonprofit. The Wall Street Journal puts out a daily primer in great newspapering, independent of the editorial page. Temper that with Elmore Leonard’s advice to aspiring writers — “leave out the parts readers skip” — and you have a good start. In 1948, journalist H.L. Mencken was asked about the new media: “The way for newspapers to meet the competition of radio and television,” he said, “is simply to get out better newspapers.”

           

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sears Sale?

The Sears Crosstown building is on the block

Posted By on Thu, Nov 24, 2005 at 4:00 AM

news feature By John Branston

The Midtown monster is back.

At least as far as the planning office and public hearing stage. And that's as much of a life-sign as the massive Sears Crosstown building, opened in 1927, has shown in years.

Sears Crosstown is Midtown's biggest building and biggest eyesore -- 1.36 million square feet of empty space enclosed in dirty yellowish brick, broken windows, rusting fire escapes, and general neglect. It sits just south of the intersection of North Watkins and North Parkway, with a 200-foot tower tall enough to block out the afternoon sun for a piece of the neighboring Evergreen Historic District.

Too big and expensive to tear down and too old to attract serious interest as a retail store, Sears Crosstown is an 80-year-old orphan. Now that might -- underline might -- change.

The building is supposed to be sold in December, and a public hearing is scheduled for December 8th at City Hall on a redevelopment plan that includes retail, commercial, office, and residential space. An application was filed with the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD) on October 26th. OPD will make a recommendation on December 2nd. The identity of the purported buyer, like the identity of the current owner, is vague.

Sears closed the last vestiges of its retail, catalog shopping, and warehouse operations in 1990. In 2000, Sears sold the property to Memtech LLC for $1.25 million. Beyond its incorporation in Delaware and its name, which evoked images of Memphis and technology, Memtech was an unknown quantity.

Memphis architect Guy Payne, who is working with the prospective new owners, said Memtech's living and breathing face was "a lady out of New York." Payne said the would-be new owners, who go by the name DBS LLC 2, include a local and an out-of-towner who are laying low until the sale closes.

"They're not going to tear it down," Payne said. "They will keep everything."

As a first step, Payne said the new owners plan to repair the broken windows, remove the rusty fire escapes, and seal the building off from the vagrants and thieves who have ransacked it over the years. Sears sits on 19 acres and includes a tower that is the tallest building between downtown and Clark Tower in East Memphis; an 11-story warehouse with a two-story addition; and a parking garage. The top of the tower includes an executive office (reputed to be quite plush by old-timers who have seen it) and a red, 75,000-gallon water tank that supplied a sprinkler system.

No one would propose building such a massive building today next to a neighborhood where new houses must conform to historic guidelines, but Sears Crosstown -- especially the tower section -- has its fans among preservationists. It was recently named one of the 10 most endangered historic buildings in Tennessee by the Tennessee Preservation Trust.

Bill Bullock, president of the Evergreen Historic District Association, notified his board last week that an application for redevelopment of the property has been filed.

"I spoke with Guy [Payne], and while specific details like which big-box anchors are being considered were not available to us, I was generally pleased with the outcome of our conversation," he said. He recommends that the Evergreen association support the redevelopment.

The prototype for possible renovation of Sears Crosstown is a similar Sears building in Boston near Fenway Park, which was renovated to include a movie theater, retail, and housing. The Memphis application includes before-and-after photographs of the atrium of Boston's Landmark Center.

Midtown is not exactly Boston, and North Watkins is a far cry from Fenway Park. Talk is cheap when it comes to Sears Crosstown or a long-rumored Target in Midtown. Without knowing any more about the prospective new owners and their financing and track record, the Land Use Control Board and Midtown neighbors are acting on faith and hope.

The Land Use Control Board makes recommendations to the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, which have the final say. OPD planner Mary Baker said it is not unusual for the staff to have to act on incomplete information about prospective developers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

CITY BEAT: Time to Sell?

John Elkington says the city should auction off Beale Street.

Posted By on Tue, Nov 22, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Our next item for auction, bidders, is a little slice of Memphis with a great location, nice cash flow, and lots of history. Who wants a piece of Beale Street?

Far-fetched? Maybe not. John Elkington, co-developer and manager of Beale Street for more than 20 years, says it’s time for the city of Memphis to sell it.

“I believe that Beale Street’s value is now at the highest level it will be for some time,” Elkington wrote recently in a letter to Mayor Willie Herenton. “We just completed the appraisal on the Westin Hotel garage which was $13.9 million. The appraisal was performed by one of the most conservative appraisers in Memphis, Walter Allen. Many of the assumptions that he used, with respect to land value, would apply to the buildings and land on Beale Street.”

Elkington, chief executive officer of Performa — a real estate management company which is itself a Beale Street tenant — suggests that the city sell off individual buildings as opposed to selling the development as a whole. He would exclude Handy Park, the outdoor park and amphitheater featuring the statue of bluesman W.C. Handy. But he would include part of Church Park, east of FedExForum, and convert it to multi-family residential.

“We have businesses like Alfred’s and Rum Boogie that have been in the same location for 20 years,” Elkington said in an interview. “That says to me these tenants would be very interested in owning their own space.”

Elkington said the city would get a badly needed payment, and the property would be put back on the tax rolls. Under city code, the city must auction property it wants to sell, conjuring up a vision of television cameras from across the country clustered at the courthouse steps as reporters say things like, “A busted city auctions its soul.” But Elkington says it doesn’t have to be that way. Leases could be structured so that tenants would have first crack at properties. To set a benchmark, he suggests selling off the Terry Building at 203 Beale, home of Performa, Alfred’s, Dyer’s, Wet Willie’s, and ESPN 730. The building should fetch $6 million to $8 million, Elkington estimates.

Most visitors to Beale Street probably don’t know or care that the city owns the entertainment district. The recent history goes back to the early 1980s, when most of the current buildings were constructed and the street was repaved in an attempt to recreate some of the nightlife and excitement of Beale Street before urban renewal. Elkington was hired to manage it in 1982. He recalls a City Council member warning him in 1983, “Don’t come back, because we are not putting any more money down that rat hole.”

Sandwiched between Peabody Place and FedExForum, Beale Street has only recently been in such fast company. In the early years of redevelopment, bars and restaurants came and went, and the street’s neighbors were parking lots and vacant land.

Elkington said Beale Street businesses have paid approximately $42 million in liquor and sales taxes since 1983 and will gross roughly $40 million this year.

Selling Beale Street could be complicated. B.B. King’s Blues Club, Hard Rock Cafe, and Pat O’Brien’s have separate deals with the city. The Beale Street Development Corporation, a separate entity that would make a title claim, has been at war with Herenton for years. Its original mission was to promote minority participation, but that role has been taken over by the Beale Street Merchants Association and Performa.

“We are open-minded on what direction to go, but we have been overlooked by this administration,” said Randle Catron, executive director of Beale Street Development Corporation and a candidate for Memphis mayor in 2003. “I have no problems with John Elkington at all. It’s the city administration that has ignored us.”

Herenton’s administration inherited Beale Street leases and management agreements negotiated by his predecessors, mayors Dick Hackett and Wyeth Chandler and staff.  Hereton’s spokeswoman, Gail Jones Carson, said he received Elkington’s letter but had no comment at this time.

 

 

 

Friday, November 18, 2005

Generation Gap

The torch is passed, and that's a very good thing.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 18, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Her smile was wan and her greeting tentative when I ran into Janet Hooks at the grocery store the other day.

She was grabbing a cart on the way in, and I was toting a box of fried chicken and checking out. We'd known each other slightly as City Council member and reporter for several years and had a few rough innings, but I saw another side of her last year when she led a lonely and doomed campaign for a Memphis payroll tax. Some fights have to be fought even when the outcome is as certain as tomorrow's sunrise. Plenty of politicians run to the front of a parade but not when it's going off a cliff.

The Hooks clan has been in the news a lot this year. Janet is leaving the City Council for a job in the Herenton administration as head of the office of religious and multicultural affairs. Her husband, ex-Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, is under indictment in the Tennessee Waltz. Her son, Michael Hooks Jr., a member of the city school board, has been in news stories for his contacts with E-Cycle Management, the FBI's bogus computer company.

Interesting stuff, but I'm taking a pass because of a conflict of interest called children -- another Hooks son and my daughter -- who graduated from the same high school and started college this year. It's one thing to be a smartass when you're an anonymous blogger or a columnist writing about George W. Bush or Karl Rove or the Clintons. They're built for it. It's different when the people you write about run into you in the grocery store and have kids who get scholarships to good schools and come to your house for dinner on prom night and graduation, hug your wife, call you "sir," say thank-you and how-do-you-do, pose for pictures in your backyard, and exchange e-mails with your daughter.

Somebody must be doing something right, because these kids are the huggiest generation I've ever seen. They hug when they meet and they hug when they say good-bye, then they break and repeat 10 minutes later. They hug when they win, and they hug when they lose. They hug boys, girls, black people, white people, old people, and even -- gasp -- their teachers and preachers. My daughter has more cheek-to-cheek pictures in her room than the art director of People and, at 18, more BFFs than I've had in my life.

That's "best friends forever." Before I got so hip I came from a place in the chilly Midwest where you took a stranger's extended hand like it was a deadly snake, hugged like a bad dancer, and said "I love you" at engagements, weddings, and funerals.

Not that I need any more reminders, but you know you're an old fart in this business when you start interviewing the children of the people you interviewed when you broke in. I met Kerr Tigrett last week to hear him tell me about some plans for the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Mr. Branston this, Mr. Branston that. Nicest, most polite young man you ever saw. While he was talking, I kept being distracted by how different he is from his father, who was cordial enough but in a different way. The old man -- and John Tigrett wouldn't have minded that usage at all -- used to call me and other reporters -- and even mayors -- "sport" and "boy" when he was pitching The Pyramid. He was a piece of work and a product of another place and time.

I don't have any illusions that Marcus Hooks and Katy Branston and Kerr Tigrett and their friends won't have to learn to use their elbows as well as their arms and their brains if they want to get ahead. But like the old Buffalo Springfield song says, "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear." When you've been through hell and come out the other side, maybe an office of religious and multicultural affairs is just right. So when I ran into Janet Hooks in the grocery store, I couldn't let her go by with a nod and a quick hello. I wanted to give her a damn hug.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

CITY BEAT: Generation Gap

The torch is passed, and that's a very good thing.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Her smile was wan and her greeting tentative when I ran into Janet Hooks at the grocery store the other day.

She was grabbing a cart on the way in, and I was toting a box of fried chicken and checking out. We’d known each other slightly as City Council member and reporter for several years and had a few rough innings, but I saw another side of her last year when she led a lonely and doomed campaign for a Memphis payroll tax. Some fights have to be fought even when the outcome is as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise. Plenty of politicians run to the front of a parade but not when it’s going off a cliff.

The Hooks clan has been in the news a lot this year. Janet is leaving the City Council for a job in the Herenton administration as head of the office of religious and multicultural affairs. Her husband, ex-Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, is under indictment in the Tennessee Waltz. Her son, Michael Hooks Jr., a member of the city school board, has been in news stories for his contacts with E-Cycle Management, the FBI’s bogus computer company.

Interesting stuff, but I’m taking a pass because of a conflict of interest called children — another Hooks son and my daughter — who graduated from the same high school and started college this year. It’s one thing to be a smartass when you’re an anonymous blogger or a columnist writing about George W. Bush or Karl Rove or the Clintons. They’re built for it. It’s different when the people you write about run into you in the grocery store and have kids who get scholarships to good schools and come to your house for dinner on prom night and graduation, hug your wife, call you “sir,” say thank-you and how-do-you-do, pose for pictures in your backyard, and exchange e-mails with your daughter.

Somebody must be doing something right, because these kids are the huggiest generation I’ve ever seen. They hug when they meet and they hug when they say good-bye, then they break and repeat 10 minutes later. They hug when they win, and they hug when they lose. They hug boys, girls, black people, white people, old people, and even — gasp — their teachers and preachers. My daughter has more cheek-to-cheek pictures in her room than the art director of People and, at 18, more BFFs than I’ve had in my life.

That’s “best friends forever.” Before I got so hip I came from a place in the chilly Midwest where you took a stranger’s extended hand like it was a deadly snake, hugged like a bad dancer, and said “I love you” at engagements, weddings, and funerals.

Not that I need any more reminders, but you know you’re an old fart in this business when you start interviewing the children of the people you interviewed when you broke in. I met Kerr Tigrett last week to hear him tell me about some plans for the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Mr. Branston this, Mr. Branston that. Nicest, most polite young man you ever saw. While he was talking, I kept being distracted by how different he is from his father, who was cordial enough but in a different way. The old man — and John Tigrett wouldn’t have minded that usage at all — used to call me and other reporters — and even mayors — “sport” and “boy” when he was pitching The Pyramid. He was a piece of work and a product of another place and time.

I don’t have any illusions that Marcus Hooks and Katy Branston and Kerr Tigrett and their friends won’t have to learn to use their elbows as well as their arms and their brains if they want to get ahead. But like the old Buffalo Springfield song says, “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” When you’ve been through hell and come out the other side, maybe an office of religious and multicultural affairs is just right. So when I ran into Janet Hooks in the grocery store, I couldn’t let her go by with a nod and a quick hello. I wanted to give her a damn hug.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Too Many Credit Cards

Why talk of a spending freeze by the city of Memphis is just that.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 11, 2005 at 4:00 AM

A $27 million Beale Street riverboat landing and a $400 million train track from downtown to the airport are capital improvements. So are a walking trail and playground at the Bickford Community Center in North Memphis. Guess which one is most likely to be stopped by the city's spending freeze.

The city and county are trying to get their budgets in shape and keep their bond ratings from slipping. The news gets worse by the month. So the city administration and City Council have frozen spending on capital improvements.

Public facilities such as the Bickford Community Center and its customers will feel the chill. Located between Caldwell Elementary School and Uptown, Bickford has an indoor swimming pool, an after-school and Head Start program, and a senior citizens program. The playground consists of a single swing-set and a bare open field. A modest investment that would make a modest improvement in the everyday lives of young and old is on hold.

A spending freeze gives city officials some breathing room, but it won't stop big-ticket projects such as the boat landing and airport train, and it won't fix the budget or restore public confidence. The reason, to oversimplify a bit, is that the city of Memphis is married with children. There are a lot of credit cards out there.

Memphis and Shelby County are like a couple with joint checking accounts and individual accounts. They have rich uncles -- state and federal government -- that shower them with money they must use or lose. And they have children -- the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), to name a few -- with their own credit cards and some very nice allowances. Unless the parents take away the credit cards and allowances, the spending won't stop.

The Riverfront Development Corporation has groomed Riverside Drive, the bluff, and riverfront parks to an exemplary standard. But now that it has killed the land bridge and written off most of a $760,000 master plan, it should consider its own relevance. A self-imposed sunset clause might be a public service and a recognition that the agency, like the dot-com boom, was a product of an era of excess that is as yesterday as the catered breakfast served up at RDC board meetings.

What's left for an outfit with three former city division directors on its payroll at salaries plus bonuses that exceed what they were making as public servants? Its driving force and guiding light, Kristi Jernigan, is gone. The land bridge is gone, and several board members didn't even bother to show up for the vote that killed it. Mud Island River Park is ready for its annual seasonal shutdown after losing another million dollars or two this year. The University of Memphis can carry the ball for the proposed downtown law school. Lawyers and Friends For Our Riverfront and heirs of the city founders will determine the future of Front Street and the public promenade. The Pyramid has its own reuse committee.

The boat landing is supposed to make the river more accessible, but the river is already accessible from two boat ramps on Mud Island, and you can throw a rock in it from Tom Lee Park or Greenbelt Park.

The city has a contract with the RDC, which in turn signed contracts for the design, construction, and management of Beale Street Landing. With several million dollars already spent, it's not likely that the mayor and City Council will pull the plug on the Beale Street Landing and the RDC. Unless the board acts on it own, as it did on the land bridge, Memphians will have a $27 million tourist bauble.

MATA is another semi-autonomous agency, responsible for the costly and baffling extension of the Madison trolley line to Cleveland in Midtown. With the MPO, MATA is actively studying alternative routes to the airport. The lure of big construction contracts and "free money" in the form of state and federal funds is driving the project.

Once again, unless the board acts or the mayor and City Council specifically target this project, Memphians will wind up paying for it.

Monday, November 7, 2005

CITY BEAT: Too Many Credit Cards

Why talk of a spending freeze by the city of Memphis is just that.

Posted By on Mon, Nov 7, 2005 at 4:00 AM

A $27 million Beale Street riverboat landing and a $400 million train track from downtown to the airport are capital improvements. So are a walking trail and playground at the Bickford Community Center in North Memphis. Guess which one is most likely to be stopped by the city’s spending freeze.

The city and county are trying to get their budgets in shape and keep their bond ratings from slipping. The news gets worse by the month. So the city administration and City Council have frozen spending on capital improvements.

Public facilities such as the Bickford Community Center and its customers will feel the chill. Located between Caldwell Elementary School and Uptown, Bickford has an indoor swimming pool, an after-school and Head Start program, and a senior citizens program. The playground consists of a single swing-set and a bare open field. A modest investment that would make a modest improvement in the everyday lives of young and old is on hold.

A spending freeze gives city officials some breathing room, but it won’t stop big-ticket projects such as the boat landing and airport train, and it won’t fix the budget or restore public confidence. The reason, to oversimplify a bit, is that the city of Memphis is married with children. There are a lot of credit cards out there.

Memphis and Shelby County are like a couple with joint checking accounts and individual accounts. They have rich uncles — state and federal government — that shower them with money they must use or lose. And they have children — the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), to name a few — with their own credit cards and some very nice allowances. Unless the parents take away the credit cards and allowances, the spending won’t stop.

The Riverfront Development Corporation has groomed Riverside Drive, the bluff, and riverfront parks to an exemplary standard. But now that it has killed the land bridge and written off most of a $760,000 master plan, it should consider its own relevance. A self-imposed sunset clause might be a public service and a recognition that the agency, like the dot-com boom, was a product of an era of excess that is as yesterday as the catered breakfast served up at RDC board meetings.

What’s left for an outfit with three former city division directors on its payroll at salaries plus bonuses that exceed what they were making as public servants? Its driving force and guiding light, Kristi Jernigan, is gone. The land bridge is gone, and several board members didn’t even bother to show up for the vote that killed it. Mud Island River Park is ready for its annual seasonal shutdown after losing another million dollars or two this year. The University of Memphis can carry the ball for the proposed downtown law school. Lawyers and Friends For Our Riverfront and heirs of the city founders will determine the future of Front Street and the public promenade. The Pyramid has its own reuse committee.

The boat landing is supposed to make the river more accessible, but the river is already accessible from two boat ramps on Mud Island, and you can throw a rock in it from Tom Lee Park or Greenbelt Park.

The city has a contract with the RDC, which in turn signed contracts for the design, construction, and management of Beale Street Landing. With several million dollars already spent, it’s not likely that the mayor and City Council will pull the plug on the Beale Street Landing and the RDC. Unless the board acts on it own, as it did on the land bridge, Memphians will have a $27 million tourist bauble.

MATA is another semi-autonomous agency, responsible for the costly and baffling extension of the Madison trolley line to Cleveland in Midtown. With the MPO, MATA is actively studying alternative routes to the airport. The lure of big construction contracts and “free money” in the form of state and federal funds is driving the project.

Once again, unless the board acts or the mayor and City Council specifically target this project, Memphians will wind up paying for it.

Want to respond? Send us an email here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

CITY BEAT: Waiting for the Big One

Should we be quaking in fear of catastrophic disaster? Nah.

Posted By on Tue, Nov 1, 2005 at 4:00 AM

One of the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina was that journalists and politicians predictably raised the specter of “Earthquake Memphis” in the same breath.

Last week, The Commercial Appeal ran a couple of front-page stories on “the greatest natural-disaster threat to the Mid-South,” beginning one of them with the ominous thought that “When a catastrophic earthquake rumbles out of the New Madrid fault, it won’t just be Memphis’ problem.”

And last Friday night, if you passed on the free music on Beale Street and high school football, you could have attended a public forum on earthquake preparedness at the University of Memphis.

These urgent warnings left me unmoved. I fear falling trees, which crush a few houses on my Midtown street every year or so. I spend a few hundred dollars to trim mine every year and wish that my power lines were buried underground like they are in the suburbs.

I fear hurricanes, which tear up the Gulf Coast I love every year. I try to avoid visiting the coast when there is a storm warning.

I fear ice storms and windstorms, like the ones that hit Memphis in 1993 and 2003. I’m grateful for the linemen who work for MLGW.

I fear drunk drivers, terrorists, criminals with guns, and contagious diseases. I try to avoid them, and I support the DUI and gun laws and the efforts of the police, FBI, federal prosecutors, and research doctors — even if I don’t get an annual flu shot.

I fear fires, and I pay $1,122 a year for homeowners insurance.

But I don’t feel the same way about earthquakes. That’s a risk I can live with. I won’t even spring for the extra $255 a year it would cost for an earthquake policy on my home. For one thing, the 10 percent deductible would leave me liable for the first $18,000 in repairs. The deductible on my standard policy is $500, which tells you something about how the insurance industry views risk.

But the real reason is it just doesn’t seem worth it. The famous New Madrid earthquakes were back in 1811 and 1812. No building or home in Memphis that I know of has been knocked down by an earthquake. If I lived in California, where nine of the 10 most devastating earthquakes in the history of the United States have occurred (the other one was in Alaska), then I would probably feel differently.

Most of the preventive measures recommended by federal agencies and preparedness organizations strike me as silly. It’s common sense to keep a stock of food, water, and batteries, but does anyone seriously practice “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” at least twice a year? Or replace windows with tempered glass? Or secure china cabinets and book cases to wall studs? Or use double-sided Velcro, bee’s wax, fishing line, or bungee cords to hold down trophies, potted plants, computers, and televisions?

If I’m killed by a falling bowling trophy, I figure my number was up.

The U.S. experiences 2 percent of the world’s earthquakes. Some 3,300 Americans have died in earthquakes in the last century. More than 1,000 died in Katrina in one week. FEMA has estimated that over time earthquakes could cause annualized losses of $4.4 billion nationwide and $17 million in Memphis. The Katrina cleanup could cost $250 billion.

The first impulse of journalists and politicians after a natural disaster is to visit the scene and tell the story. The second impulse is to find someone to blame. And the third impulse is to propose a “solution” which involves shifting millions or billions of tax dollars around.

As individuals and as communities, we make decisions about risks and rewards. Equating earthquake risk in Memphis with earthquake risk in California or hurricane risk on the Gulf Coast is illogical, irresponsible, and will lead to bad public policy.

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