Friday, March 31, 2006

Creative Class, My Ass

The young and the restless have nothing on the old and experienced.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 31, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Could we hold off a while before anointing the "creative class"?

Like maybe 10 or 20 years?

The Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Memphis have embraced the creative class, age 25-34, as the salvation of Memphis. Well, marketing is marketing, and there are only so many ways to say "new." But facts are something else. Like the former U.S. Supreme Court justice who couldn't define pornography but knew it when he saw it, I know creativity when I see it, and writing a blog, singing a rap song, making an indie movie, wearing an earring, harvesting e-mails, or hanging out at Starbucks doesn't make you -- often through no fault of your own -- a charter member of the creative class.

Mike Royko, a newspaperman back when columnists were expected to have some experience as reporters before spouting off, used to say the first 20 columns are easy. Blogs are easy. I read last week that there are 22 million of them. Longevity and making news pay is hard. E.W. Scripps was 41 in 1895 when he founded the newspaper chain that would later buy The Commercial Appeal. Publisher Ken Neill was 41 when he founded The Memphis Flyer in 1989. Barney DuBois was 35 when he founded the Memphis Business Journal in 1979.

CA sports columnist Geoff Calkins is going strong at 44. Mike Fleming was 53 when he reinvented himself as a full-time talk-show host. Janice Broach, Mike Matthews, and Les Smith, who set the standard for local broadcast news reporters, are all over 50, as is the Flyer's Jackson Baker, who has been setting the standard for political columns for 16 years.

Shelby Foote was 42 when the first volume of his Civil War trilogy was published in 1958 and 58 when the last volume was published in 1974. He was 74 when he became famous on Ken Burns' PBS documentary in 1990.

Fred Smith was 28 when he founded Federal Express but 44 when the company bought Flying Tigers and 61 when the company added three more flights to China last week. Kemmons Wilson was 39 when he founded Holiday Inns and 44 when Holiday Inns became a public company in 1957. Allen Morgan Jr. was 27 when he co-founded Morgan Keegan and 58 when it merged with Regions Bank. Pitt Hyde was 35 when he founded AutoZone and 50 when it became a public company.

In real estate, Henry Turley was 45 and Jack Belz was 58 when they started HarborTown. Harold Crye, 62, and Dick Leike, 64, founded the Crye-Leike real estate company, whose prosperous employees' smiling faces filled two pages of the Sunday paper with color pictures last week. Turley, Belz, Crye, and Leike are still creating.

Thirty-six-year-old Harold Ford Jr., notwithstanding, politics, for better or worse, is largely a matter of persistence, name recognition, and paying your dues. Willie Herenton was 51 when he became mayor of Memphis, and A C Wharton was 57 when he was elected mayor of Shelby County. Steve Cohen was 52 when he finally pushed a state lottery through the Tennessee legislature. Lois DeBerry, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, is 60. The average age of the 13 members of the Memphis City Council is 53. Like I said, for better or worse.

Want to make a splash with a civic event or fund-raiser? Pat Tigrett is probably your first call. She's, well, over 50. Maybe you want Kallen Esperian as a headliner. She's 44. Or Isaac Hayes, 61, who was 52 when he became the voice of Chef on South Park. Or Jerry Lee Lewis, who is still the Killer at 70. B.B. King was 35 when he wrote his first song that made the national charts. He's now 81 and still on the road.

Shirley Raines was 54 when she came to Memphis to be president of the University of Memphis. Bill Troutt was 49 when he became Rhodes president. John Calipari was 36 when he took U Mass to the Final Four and 40 when he came to Memphis. Football coach Tommy West was 50 when he first took U of M to a bowl.

Tennessee Waltz prosecutor Tim DiScenza is 58. Investigative reporter Mark Perrusquia of The Commercial Appeal is 47. For that matter, defendants John Ford and Ward Crutchfield are 61 and 76, respectively. Proving, I suppose, that older is not necessarily wiser.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Exemplary Agency?

Riverfront Development Corporation claims big savings, but some aren't buying it.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Maybe the Riverfront Development Corporation should expand its reach.

While the city of Memphis pinches pennies, the RDC has cut park admission fees, added concerts, set an exemplary standard for grounds-keeping, and forged ahead with a $28 million addition to Tom Lee Park. With a staff and board of current and former City Hall bigwigs, the RDC claims it has saved taxpayers between $2 million and $7 million by taking care of riverfront public spaces for the same dollars the city was spending back in 1999.

So, is there a model of innovation and efficiency here that could help the city erase its deficit and hush the complaints of cranky citizens? City councilman E.C. Jones doesn't think so. He says the RDC, which some councilmen say stands for "retired directors club," is a luxury that Memphis can't afford. His criticism last week drew a response from RDC board chairman and former city chief administrative officer Rick Masson, who said the RDC saves the city money and without it riverfront costs would "explode."

Who's right? Sorting out interconnected budgets is a little like trying to figure how much it costs to run part of your house or raise one of your children. To understand the nonprofit RDC, it's useful to look at three Fs: finances, foundations, and focus.

Finances: The "same dollars" line is the RDC's usual response to criticism from the media and City Council members. The basis for it is the RDC's annual $2,394,830 management fee for five years. When the RDC was formed, that's the number the city came up with for what it was paying for riverfront parks in 1999 under the Memphis Park Commission. John Conroy, one of three former city division directors who now work for the RDC, says parks division expenses prior to 1999 were trending upward at 14 percent a year. Since 1999, overall city expenses have increased 4 percent a year. Hence, he says, a "conservative" estimate of savings is $2 million.

John Malmo, chairman of the Park Commission before the RDC was created, says "it is probably playing fast and loose to say it is being done with the same dollars."

The RDC has four executives who make close to or in excess of $100,000 a year, but there has been no offsetting reduction in management at the Park Commission. Those trucks with RDC logos are city trucks donated to the RDC. And the city's General Services division does plumbing, electrical work, and painting for all parks.

Unlike the Park Commission, the RDC outsources grass-cutting to a private contractor who owns the mowers and other equipment. The RDC's own staff of 35 full-time employees does horticultural work such as the plantings in the medians on Riverside Drive.

Conroy says there were "tremendous inefficiencies" at Mud Island Riverpark before the RDC stepped in. Now, he says, instead of having a single job, an employee might operate equipment one day and pick up litter another day.

Foundations: The RDC has raised $2.5 million in private funds that the city would not have gotten otherwise, Conroy says. The biggest donors are the Hyde Foundation and the Plough Foundation. The money is used to augment salaries and pay for office space, marketing, and some operational expenses.

"Not-for-profits have a better record of attracting private-sector funding than government," says Masson, who is executive director of the Plough Foundation.

Foundation support has helped the RDC eliminate admission and parking fees for Mud Island and put on a summer concert series at reasonable prices.

Focus: Conroy says when he worked for the city there were several divisions that had riverfront responsibilities, including Housing and Community Development, Parks, Engineering, and Public Works. "Nothing was coming of it because everyone had 100 things to do of equal priority," he says.

The RDC's domain includes 10 parks; the Park Commission has 180. Last summer, while many city parks were overgrown, RDC parks were neatly trimmed. Masson says RDC employees possibly feel more "ownership" and responsibility.

Its record, he admits, is hard to duplicate, although the Memphis Zoo and Shelby Farms have somewhat similar nonprofit operators.

"Could you set up not-for-profits to take care of different sections of the city? I don't know. Slow expansion of the RDC might be more practical."

Friday, March 17, 2006

God and Mammon

Reporters don't "get it" but not in the way Ford and Herenton think.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

"Ungodly" is the latest count against news reporters in the indictments handed up last week by Ophelia Ford and Willie Herenton.

Pending further investigation and consultation with attorneys, defendants have not made their pleas. Besides, sources say more charges may be forthcoming. The ungodly media is not the only story. The real indictment is missing a story or getting the story incomplete an ungodly number of times. I was reminded of one such instance last week when I got a call from developer Waymon "Jackie" Welch Jr.

I met Welch several years ago when he was selling land along Winchester and Germantown Road in southeastern Shelby County. He was well known to local politicians and homebuilders as a force in suburban development and county school site selection, but he was less well known to the public because suburban sprawl and the location of new schools were not as widely covered in the local media as they are today. You can prove this by searching those terms on the Internet.

In 2000, Welch and his partners made a bold move. They bought a choice piece of land on the north side of Poplar Avenue east of Germantown Baptist Church for a subdivision of 129 lots called Devonshire Gardens. What was unusual about it was that the lots were priced from $165,000 to $210,000 apiece, and the houses were expected to sell for $1 million -- a subdivision of million-dollar homes.

Shortly after that, the Internet bubble burst, and the Nasdaq stock market index went from 5,000 to 1,600. Then 9/11 happened. Welch had sold nine lots. I wrote a story in which I quoted him saying, with some irony, "All I need is 120 more millionaires," and I speculated that he might not get them.

It now looks like he will. Last week he called to tell me he had nearly sold out his inventory of lots at Devonshire Gardens. When we drove through the subdivision this week, mansions stood where there had been vacant lots and ravines and stakes with little flags on them a few years ago.

"The biggest problem when I started this was the sticker price," Welch explained. "It turned off the builders. They didn't believe you could sell lots at that price unless they were on an acre of land. When individuals drove through and didn't see any activity, they were reluctant to buy. Then the bankers were worried. They wanted to know why there wasn't any activity on that $10 million loan they had up here."

Needless to say, the housing market and the economy recovered, interest rates on home mortgages dropped to historic lows, the wealth migration to Germantown and Collierville accelerated, St. George's Day School started a high school next door to Devonshire, and the lots that didn't sell for a year at $200,000 now sell for $240,000.

The million-dollar home is no longer the rarity in Shelby County that it was seven or eight years ago. The Shelby County Assessor's office says there are 638 of them. Technically, Devonshire Gardens has not lived up to Welch's billing as a subdivision of million-dollar homes. I found a nice five-bedroom, four-bath job for sale for a mere $739,000. And with 17 lots unsold, my skepticism may not have been entirely off base.

But I'll concede I was a false prophet on the whole subject of big money.

In 2001, I thought housing prices couldn't go much higher in Germantown and Collierville and downtown. They did. I thought luxury SUVs and Hummers were a fad. They weren't. I thought bench-warming ballplayers couldn't continue to command $3 million salaries. Now they get $5 million. I thought CEO pay packages of $2 million couldn't go much higher. They now top $10 million.

After 9/11 and Enron and the start of the war in Iraq, I and other reporters gulped too much of that crap about America being changed forever and accountability and downsizing. We're in the dark about God and the political careers of Ford and Herenton. But what we really don't get is Mammon.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

CITY BEAT: God and Mammon

Reporters don’t “get it” but not in the way Ford and Herenton think.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 14, 2006 at 4:00 AM

"Ungodly" is the latest count against news reporters in the indictments handed up last week by Ophelia Ford and Willie Herenton.

Pending further investigation and consultation with attorneys, defendants have not made their pleas. Besides, sources say more charges may be forthcoming. The ungodly media is not the only story. The real indictment is missing a story or getting the story incomplete an ungodly number of times. I was reminded of one such instance last week when I got a call from developer Waymon "Jackie" Welch Jr.

I met Welch several years ago when he was selling land along Winchester and Germantown Road in southeastern Shelby County. He was well known to local politicians and homebuilders as a force in suburban development and county school site selection, but he was less well known to the public because suburban sprawl and the location of new schools were not as widely covered in the local media as they are today. You can prove this by searching those terms on the Internet.

In 2000, Welch and his partners made a bold move. They bought a choice piece of land on the north side of Poplar Avenue east of Germantown Baptist Church for a subdivision of 129 lots called Devonshire Gardens. What was unusual about it was that the lots were priced from $165,000 to $210,000 apiece, and the houses were expected to sell for $1 million -- a subdivision of million-dollar homes.

Shortly after that, the Internet bubble burst, and the Nasdaq stock market index went from 5,000 to 1,600. Then 9/11 happened. Welch had sold nine lots. I wrote a story in which I quoted him saying, with some irony, "All I need is 120 more millionaires," and I speculated that he might not get them.

It now looks like he will. Last week he called to tell me he had nearly sold out his inventory of lots at Devonshire Gardens. When we drove through the subdivision this week, mansions stood where there had been vacant lots and ravines and stakes with little flags on them a few years ago.

"The biggest problem when I started this was the sticker price," Welch explained. "It turned off the builders. They didn't believe you could sell lots at that price unless they were on an acre of land. When individuals drove through and didn't see any activity, they were reluctant to buy. Then the bankers were worried. They wanted to know why there wasn't any activity on that $10 million loan they had up here."

Needless to say, the housing market and the economy recovered, interest rates on home mortgages dropped to historic lows, the wealth migration to Germantown and Collierville accelerated, St. George's Day School started a high school next door to Devonshire, and the lots that didn't sell for a year at $200,000 now sell for $240,000.

The million-dollar home is no longer the rarity in Shelby County that it was seven or eight years ago. The Shelby County Assessor's office says there are 638 of them. Technically, Devonshire Gardens has not lived up to Welch's billing as a subdivision of million-dollar homes. I found a nice five-bedroom, four-bath job for sale for a mere $739,000. And with 17 lots unsold, my skepticism may not have been entirely off base.

But I'll concede I was a false prophet on the whole subject of big money.

In 2001, I thought housing prices couldn't go much higher in Germantown and Collierville and downtown. They did. I thought luxury SUVs and Hummers were a fad. They weren't. I thought bench-warming ballplayers couldn't continue to command $3 million salaries. Now they get $5 million. I thought CEO pay packages of $2 million couldn't go much higher. They now top $10 million.

After 9/11 and Enron and the start of the war in Iraq, I and other reporters gulped too much of that crap about America being changed forever and accountability and downsizing. We're in the dark about God and the political careers of Ford and Herenton. But what we really don't get is Mammon.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Elvis, ETAs, and CKXElvis, ETAs, and CKX

Whither the Elvis impersonator in the overhaul of Graceland and Elvis marketing?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 10, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Is the Elvis impersonator contest as we know it doomed?

A story this week in The New York Times by Julie Bosman reported that Robert Sillerman, the billionaire who plans to overhaul Graceland, "believes that Elvis Presley Enterprises has not used Elvis to his full potential, by a long shot."

Sure, and NASCAR has underutilized corporate logos.

In 2005, Sillerman, chairman and CEO of CKX, Inc., a publicly traded entertainment company, bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises. When you see the words "billionaire," "Elvis," "full potential," and "publicly traded" in the same story, you can bet that revenue enhancement is on the way. And that could mean an end to one of the sweetest vestiges of the annual Elvis Week celebration in August, the Images of Elvis contest.

The Times story says "the fate of the impersonators was still undecided."

I have no illusions about the purity of the Elvis legacy. But the annual Elvis contest in Memphis, the Super Bowl of such things, was a nice event -- thanks to co-founder Ed Franklin, the earnest and highly respectful contestants, and the indulgence of Memphis-based Elvis Presley Enterprises. The guardians of the Elvis legacy are vigilant, but the contest was good marketing and contestants were given free rein to have their fun, entertain, and make a modest or even a comfortable living. The airport Holiday Inn ballroom was an unpretentious venue, the admission ticket and drinks were reasonably priced, and spectators got to mix and mingle with the faux Elvi before and after the competition.

The ETA, or Elvis tribute act, is an art form. As with any art form, there are bad practitioners, hacks, and grand masters. In 2000, the winner of the Images of Elvis contest was first-time entrant Ryan Pelton, who bears such an uncanny resemblance to the young Elvis that he has effectively put all other ETAs in the position of competing for second place. It is like trying to be taller than Yao Ming. Pelton has parlayed his act into a nice career, with appearances all over the country and a spot on The Weakest Link television program, which, according to his Web site (RyanPelton.com) earned him $137,500.

He was fun to watch and pleasant to talk to as he explained how he had sidetracked a career as a graphic designer for his singular calling and given up trying not to look like Elvis.

"When I went into the Marine Corps after high school, they shaved my head and people said I looked like a bald Elvis," he said. "When I grew my hair long, they said I looked like a long-haired Elvis."

Pelton tours with Elvis chums D.J. Fontana and the Jordanaires. Beneath him are several strata of less talented Elvis impersonators with fan clubs, photos, and regular paid gigs. It is not hard to see how all this could get seriously weird, with batallions of lawyers and agents for Sillerman's company taking on the first-chop imitators or "authorized Elvis entertainers" with lawsuits and injunctions and orders to comply or cease and desist in their hands.

I hope it doesn't happen, but it's hard to imagine that it won't. Sillerman paid more than $100 million for his stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises, and public companies are all about wringing every dollar of revenue from every possible source. If he follows through on his plans, Whitehaven and Graceland will get a nice bump in investment. But somewhere a lad dreams of letting his sideburns grow out, donning a jumpsuit, and belting out Jailhouse Rock in front of a bunch of screaming women in an airport hotel ballroom on a Saturday night in Memphis -- or in a lounge somewhere else in the American heartland. Please keep the dream alive, Mr. Sillerman.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

CITY BEAT: Elvis, ETAs, and CKX

Whither the Elvis impersonator in the overhaul of Graceland and Elvis marketing?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 7, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Is the Elvis impersonator contest as we know it doomed?

A story this week in The New York Times by Julie Bosman reported that Robert Sillerman, the billionaire who plans to overhaul Graceland, "believes that Elvis Presley Enterprises has not used Elvis to his full potential, by a long shot."

Sure, and NASCAR has underutilized corporate logos.

In 2005, Sillerman, chairman and CEO of CKX, Inc., a publicly traded entertainment company, bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises. When you see the words "billionaire," "Elvis," "full potential," and "publicly traded" in the same story, you can bet that revenue enhancement is on the way. And that could mean an end to one of the sweetest vestiges of the annual Elvis Week celebration in August, the Images of Elvis contest.

The Times story says "the fate of the impersonators was still undecided."

I have no illusions about the purity of the Elvis legacy. But the annual Elvis contest in Memphis, the Super Bowl of such things, was a nice event -- thanks to co-founder Ed Franklin, the earnest and highly respectful contestants, and the indulgence of Memphis-based Elvis Presley Enterprises. The guardians of the Elvis legacy are vigilant, but the contest was good marketing and contestants were given free rein to have their fun, entertain, and make a modest or even a comfortable living. The airport Holiday Inn ballroom was an unpretentious venue, the admission ticket and drinks were reasonably priced, and spectators got to mix and mingle with the faux Elvi before and after the competition.

The ETA, or Elvis tribute act, is an art form. As with any art form, there are bad practitioners, hacks, and grand masters. In 2000, the winner of the Images of Elvis contest was first-time entrant Ryan Pelton, who bears such an uncanny resemblance to the young Elvis that he has effectively put all other ETAs in the position of competing for second place. It is like trying to be taller than Yao Ming. Pelton has parlayed his act into a nice career, with appearances all over the country and a spot on The Weakest Link television program, which, according to his Web site (RyanPelton.com) earned him $137,500.

He was fun to watch and pleasant to talk to as he explained how he had sidetracked a career as a graphic designer for his singular calling and given up trying not to look like Elvis.

"When I went into the Marine Corps after high school, they shaved my head and people said I looked like a bald Elvis," he said. "When I grew my hair long, they said I looked like a long-haired Elvis."

Pelton tours with Elvis chums D.J. Fontana and the Jordanaires. Beneath him are several strata of less talented Elvis impersonators with fan clubs, photos, and regular paid gigs. It is not hard to see how all this could get seriously weird, with batallions of lawyers and agents for Sillerman's company taking on the first-chop imitators or "authorized Elvis entertainers" with lawsuits and injunctions and orders to comply or cease and desist in their hands.      

I hope it doesn't happen, but it's hard to imagine that it won't. Sillerman paid more than $100 million for his stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises, and public companies are all about wringing every dollar of revenue from every possible source. If he follows through on his plans, Whitehaven and Graceland will get a nice bump in investment. But somewhere a lad dreams of letting his sideburns grow out, donning a jumpsuit, and belting out Jailhouse Rock in front of a bunch of screaming women in an airport hotel ballroom on a Saturday night in Memphis -- or in a lounge somewhere else in the American heartland. Please keep the dream alive, Mr. Sillerman.

Friday, March 3, 2006

On Recalls and Redesigns

Why do newspapers and elections cater to people who ignore them?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 3, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Wonderful. In Memphis we now have newspapers designed for people who don't read newspapers and special elections for people who don't vote.

This is progress in journalism: a daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, chopped up into so many sections that it is as annoying to read as an online newspaper with pop-up ads on a slow computer with a dial-up connection.

"Honey, you mind handing me the front page?"

"You mean the front front page, the second front page, the front of the Greater Memphis section, or the front of the Memphis and Region section?"

"Hell, just give me the remote."

Judging from the e-mails I get from CA employees and the letters to the editor in the CA, I'm not alone in my confusion. I'm pulling for the print edition of the daily to survive and even prosper. I'm sorry to see them lose another good reporter, Oliver Staley. But I think they should quit pandering to their non-customers and start leveling with their loyal customers and share some of the financial realities that are driving the design changes.

As consumers, we know what Northwest Airlines earned and spent last year, what its CEO earned, what its pilots and mechanics and flight attendants earn in salaries, what its fares are, even more than most of us probably want to know about its pensions and benefits and debt load. We know the same things about the financially troubled companies in the auto industry, General Motors and Ford. So when we read about layoffs and plant closings and union contract negotiations, we can put things in perspective.

"Old Reliable" (the hoary self-imposed nickname for the CA hauled out of the attic last weekend by way of softening the shock of the changes) and its parent company, E.W. Scripps, don't disclose financials and profit margins for individual newspapers, although the Scripps newspaper division earned over $200 million in profits last year. Where are the numbers in those times-are-tough columns from the editor and publisher? What are advertising revenues for classifieds and displays ads? How much have they fallen? What is the profit margin? What does it cost to keep a reporter or editor? What is the daily and Sunday circulation? This is a business story of local interest, and it should be covered like any other business story, with facts not fluff.

Newspapers have to deal somehow with the loss of young readers. A former colleague, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, told me she spoke recently to college students interested in writing careers. She could understand them not knowing about Ernie Pyle and Mike Royko. But they'd never heard of Maureen Dowd, either. So I'll go along with any design change for a while, but don't shortchange me on the story.

Meanwhile, this is progress in democracy in Memphis: A recall campaign is officially under way to boot Willie Herenton out of the mayor's office. Backers need slightly less than 65,000 valid signatures of Memphis voters. That's more than twice as many as the 31,183 people who voted against Herenton in the 2003 mayoral election and well over half the number of people who voted, period (103,226, or a 23 percent turnout).

I don't think they will get them without a more broadly organized effort. Some of the current backers are mainly and perhaps exclusively interested in making a noise. Herenton fatigue is one thing; Herenton removal another. The language of the city charter indicates that Herenton's chief administrative officer, Keith McGee, would replace him. If recall supporters believe the mayor guilty of gross malfeasance and fiscal mismanagement, it's hard to see how installing his CAO or the survivor of a deal brokered by the City Council make things any different. And Herenton himself could run again in 2007, if not sooner.

Then there is the still unresolved matter of Ophelia Ford's seat in the Tennessee Senate. Challenger Terry Roland, the Republican who lost by 13 votes in a special election last year, says he was robbed. A do-over election is possible. But nine out of 10 voters eligible to vote in last year's special election stayed home. If either the Ford side or Roland side had expended as much energy getting out the vote as they have fighting over the results, the issue would have been settled long ago.

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Looking Back at Flyer Story About a "Religious Freedom" Protest in Mississippi.

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