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.

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