Thursday, September 28, 2006

Corrections, Amplifications

As New Orleans reopens the Super Dome, downtown Memphis can take heart.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 28, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Who knows more about mistakes than newspapers? We try to keep them out of our stories, but they get in anyway. So we swallow our pride and acknowledge them openly or in the dark and dusty corners of our journalistic closets.

Downtown Memphis would be improved by a similar policy, starting with the Main Street Mall, which should bring back cars to share the street with pedestrians and trolleys. Developer Henry Turley, smitten with one of his frequent brainstorms, wants to do this on the blocks between Union and Gayoso, and he's right.

The big hole in the ground between Main Street and Peabody Place was supposed to be a parking garage, but the developer (not Turley) backed out. Who needs a parking garage if it's hard to drive to? There has been an unwritten change in policy on the mall anyway. At least 20 cars and trucks are usually parked on the so-called Demonstration Project blocks south of Union. Not all of them, it is safe to suggest, belong to workmen. The cops look the other way and often drive along the mall themselves.

It was probably a mistake to take cars off what was then called the Mid-America Mall in the 1970s, but, like so many other downtown projects that didn't pan out, it seemed like a good idea at the time. For a lot of reasons, including the car ban, retailers ranging from small businesses to Goldsmith's department store suffered. The trolley, even after the disruption of construction ended, couldn't bring them back. It's fine for tourists with time on their hands but impractical for anyone else.

Today, downtown is a different animal, more of a residential neighborhood and entertainment district than a business center. Tinkering with traffic worked when Madison and Monroe were transformed from one-way streets into two-ways. Not all of Main Street could accommodate cars, but part of it could. The fact is that Americans buy expensive cars, are willing to pay $3 a gallon to put gas in them, and like to drive them as close to their destination as possible.

A lot of downtown's other shortcomings can be fixed. The trolley schedule could be adjusted to coexist with cars if MATA's board would simply spend a few days and nights riding the cars when they are empty or crowded, depending on the season and schedule of events. It was not a mistake to put in a trolley system, because it allowed Memphis to rebuild the mall and spruce up downtown with federal money. But it is hardheaded to stick to an obsolete vision and schedule.

The Pyramid was a good idea when it was envisioned in 1987, less so when it was finished in 1990, and a white elephant once FedExForum opened in 2004. The city and county have no choice but to admit their mistakes and cut whatever deal they can with Bass Pro or someone else. FedExForum was a good idea, but the price of everything -- from Bryant "Big Country" Reeves to nosebleed seats to bottled water -- was a mistake. To their credit, the Grizzlies didn't waste time trying to fix it. Building a garage wasn't a mistake, but lying about its purpose was, and covering it up will be a bigger one.

Mud Island River Park was a good idea 30 years ago but stumbled shortly after it opened in 1981. Letting Sidney Shlenker tear down the playground was a mistake, but not rebuilding it after so many years is another one. Expanding Tom Lee Park along Riverside Drive without putting in more trees and facilities for everyday activities was a mistake, but blowing $27 million on Beale Street Landing with a parking garage, steamboat landing, and concrete islands probably won't fix it. Just look at Mud Island.

Letting the U.S. Post Office hold on to that handsome old customs building and courthouse on Front Street long after it had outlived its original purpose was a mistake. Booting the P.O. and peddling the property to the University of Memphis Law School was better late than never.

Make no misteak, Memphis isn't Iraq or New Orleans. Downtown can be fixed.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Man of Many Hats

Robert Lipscomb has so many titles that some wonder if he is spread too thin.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Robert Lipscomb has plans.

Plans for Bass Pro Shop and The Pyramid, plans for the Kroc Center and the Mid-South Fairgrounds, plans for the medical center, plans for LeMoyne-Owen College, plans for public housing and police precincts, plans for the old Mall of Memphis, plans for transit systems.

He has them on his desk in neatly bound folders with titles like "Rebuilding Communities One Brick at a Time" and "Functional Consolidation," and he has them on oversized show-and-tell color renderings stacked 10 deep against the walls. It sometimes seems as if the city and Mayor Herenton must have a giant catch-all file labeled "Lipscomb."

As if Lipscomb didn't already have enough to do, one year ago, Herenton admitted that his finance staff wasn't getting the job done and named Lipscomb chief financial officer for the city. That made Lipscomb the most titled person in local government. He was already head of the Division of Housing and Community Development, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority, chairman of the board of LeMoyne-Owen College, and the mayor's representative on committees exploring new uses for The Pyramid and the fairgrounds.

City Council members, not known for being friendly with Mayor Willie Herenton or members of his team, generally praise Lipscomb.

Rickey Peete calls him "the glue that has held the city together through the financial crisis." Jack Sammons says Lipscomb "has as good a relationship with the council as anyone in the administration. We've got confidence in the numbers now."

Myron Lowery, however, says he'll wait and see if the city is able to add $20 million to its reserve fund, as Lipscomb predicted last year. "I don't see anything that has increased our downside," Lowery says. And Carol Chumney says Lipscomb "has too many responsibilities, wears too many hats, and has no staff. I think eventually that's going to catch up with him."

Lipscomb, 57, has worked for Herenton for most of the mayor's 15 years in office, leaving for two years in 1996 to be chief operating officer of LeMoyne-Owen, his alma mater. He is both insider and outsider. His office is in MHA's headquarters near Victorian Village, several blocks from City Hall. He is apt to return phone calls at any hour from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but he is something of a loner. He says, with evident pride, "I never get asked to lunch." Jeff Sanford, director of the Center City Commission, says he has had breakfast meetings where he ate and Lipscomb watched.

Lipscomb and Herenton have had their differences, but they teamed up with developers for one history-making change: the end of "the projects." The first public-housing projects, Lauderdale Courts for whites and Dixie Homes for blacks, were built 60 years ago. Hurt Village, LeMoyne Gardens, Lamar Terrace, and others soon followed. By the 1970s they were synonymous with crime, murder, overcrowding, and neglect.

Spurred by loss of residents and a stinging federal audit in 1997, MHA began demolishing them and building $122 million worth of mixed-income communities, including College Park (formerly LeMoyne Gardens), Uptown (Hurt Village), Uptown Square (Lauderdale Courts), University Place (Lamar Terrace), and Dixie Homes. Since 2000, there have been only 18 murders in MHA properties.

"Robert is doing a good job with the resources he has," says developer Archie Willis. "I often wonder how he gets to all the things he has on his plate."

The conversion of Lamar Terrace is revealing. For several years MHA tried unsuccessfully to acquire the abandoned Baptist Hospital Rehabilitation Center on Crump Boulevard next to Lamar Terrace in order to condemn it. An elusive nonprofit organization proposing to build a giant homeless shelter tied it up for six years. A few years ago, developer Rusty Hyneman suddenly appeared in the ownership picture seeking, Lipscomb says, more than $1 million for the neglected building. Hyneman is politically connected, and there was some pressure on Lipscomb to deal with him. But Lipscomb said no, and the case went to Circuit Court. Public records show MHA wound up paying $571,000, including $338,000 in back taxes. The owners, with whom Hyneman abruptly denied any association, got $199,353.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Waiting Game

As the Tennessee Waltz stalls, star witnesses make movies and buy homes.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 14, 2006 at 4:00 AM

After Roscoe Dixon's sentencus interruptus last week, television reporter Mike Matthews asked the former senator how he was holding up financially. Dixon admitted he was feeling some strain and joked that Matthews might want to buy him lunch.

While Tennessee Waltz defendants are feeling the strain, cooperating witnesses are feeling no pain. Foremost among them are Tim Willis and Darrell Catron, who have been living large since they began cooperating with the FBI in 2003.

Catron, who lost his job in the Tennessee Waltz scandal and an inexpensive house to foreclosure, bought a new, $265,000 house in April, according to public records. Catron could not be reached for comment. U.S. attorney David Kustoff would not discuss whether Catron, who lost his county job in 2001, is being paid by the FBI.

Catron's friend and partner in crime, Tim Willis, has been getting at least $6,000 a month plus expenses from the FBI, according to testimony in Dixon's trial. Secretly recorded videotapes played at the trial showed the natty Willis driving an expensive car and entertaining Dixon and other visitors at his home in Harbor Town. Willis, who went undercover posing as a lobbyist for the sham company E-Cycle Management, has even been making an indie movie about his adventures.

Well, undercover work is tough, potentially dangerous (serious or not, John Ford can be heard on a secret tape threatening to kill Willis if he double-crosses him), and requires a high degree of skill. Willis has shown his chops on tape and on the witness stand. We'll see about Catron.

But the contrast between the lifestyles of cooperating witnesses and stonewalling defendants is stark. Dixon had to give up a $100,000 a year job as an assistant to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. Senator Ward Crutchfield of Chattanooga gave up a job last year as attorney for the Hamilton County school board that, according to secret audiotapes, paid him $150,000 a year. John Ford gave up his Senate seat and lost his license to sell insurance. Kathryn Bowers gave up her Senate seat and was arrested for DUI this summer. Michael Hooks Sr. resigned from the Shelby County Commission and appeared abject as he changed his plea to guilty. His son, Michael Hooks Jr., faces trial and has blown a once promising career as a consultant. All of the defendants face mounting legal bills and prison sentences if convicted.

Catron, on the other hand, has not been sentenced, and Willis, who previously did prison time on a credit-card conviction, is a free man after he finishes testifying.

Dixon will be sentenced October 13th. Judging from the large number of Dixon supporters, feds, and audio-visual specialists in the courtroom at last week's aborted session, both sides are preparing to do some rehashing, even if it is unlikely to influence super-attentive U.S. district judge Jon McCalla. Next up, on November 6th, is Calvin Williams, charged with extortion and bribery while serving as a county employee. He has promised (threatened?) to write a book about his experiences as a young black Republican activist and former chief administrator for the Shelby County Commission. He now has a low-level county job and is represented by the federal public defender. On his way out of the federal building last month following a court appearance, he vowed, "I will not be a Roscoe Dixon. I wouldn't go to trial if I didn't have a defense."

And the government, we can assume, wouldn't try him if there weren't a case, although the indictment doesn't spell out exactly what he supposedly did. In 2005, he and former Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun were standing outside a courtroom, literally minutes from going to trial on state criminal charges, when the special prosecutor suddenly and inexplicably dropped the case.

The Williams trial could feature Willis in a reprise of his starring role as accuser. Call it "The Clash of Brash" -- the tell-all author Williams facing the tell-all filmmaker Willis. In a Flyer interview before his federal indictment, Williams said he and Willis were friends and business partners at one time but fell out "because [Willis] had too many people with their hands in the cookie jar."

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