Thursday, May 31, 2007

Advantage Downtown

Separate and unequal is the rule for Memphis parks, depending on who runs them.

Posted By on Thu, May 31, 2007 at 4:00 AM

It's amazing how quickly Tom Lee Park is cleaned up each year after Memphis In May is over.

On Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day and near the end of a month in which the park was trampled and littered by thousands of people at the music festival, barbecue contest, and Sunset Symphony, most of the trash was gone. The tents, fences, and temporary structures had been taken down, and workmen were mowing and edging the bluff along Riverside Drive. The grass will be watered, the sidewalks hosed down, the flower beds spruced up, and with a little rain Tom Lee Park will be good as new in a few weeks — that is, if you don't mind ground that's as hard as concrete.

Now that's service. Unfortunately, it's not standard service for Memphis parks.

In 1993, a small group of Memphians, including Midtown residents, recreation directors at Midtown churches, and the principal of East High School, decided that the underused property west of the school would be a good place for playing fields, a track, and a playground. The impetus was a soccer game between Idlewild and Evergreen church teams that had to be played in Cordova because of a scarcity of fields in Midtown. With the help of Lora Jobe, who was then on the school board, and John Vergos, who was then on the Memphis City Council, the Memphis Park Commission hosted a couple of meetings, drew up some plans, and came up with the East High Sportplex.

There was a four-lane rubberized track, two baseball diamonds with backstops, drinking fountains, a football practice field, an asphalt walking path, an undersized soccer field with two goals, and a playground. Mayor Willie Herenton, who was then in his first term, presided at a modest opening ceremony, and that was that.

The total cost of the improvements was around $1 million. There were no consultants. The design certainly didn't win any awards. There was no economic impact study. If the sportplex attracted any tourists, it was strictly accidental. The only beneficiaries were the students at East High, the little kids who play on the playground, the regulars who use the walking path, and the people who use the fields for pickup games of soccer, baseball, and touch football. The vision of a sports complex for Midtown churches and rec teams proved to be unrealistic, as bigger and better facilities were built in Germantown, Cordova, and DeSoto County. But it was a partial success.

Thirteen years after the East High Sportplex opened, it is no Tom Lee Park. The walking path is covered in spots by broken glass. One of the baseball diamonds doesn't have any bases. Neither has any grass in the infield, and there are no outfield fences. The goals on the soccer field are falling down, and the nets are gone. If someone kicks a ball through the south goal, it is likely to roll all the way to Poplar Avenue. The football field has more sand and bare dirt than grass. Four guys working out on it Monday said they can't ever remember it being watered. There is quite a bit of litter on all the fields.

Maybe it shows what happens when you build a public facility next to a poor neighborhood. People drink beer in the park and throw their trash on the ground and become apathetic. Except we don't say that about Tom Lee Park, where people come to the music festival and drink beer and throw their trash on the ground. We don't expect the patrons to come back the next day and clean the place up. The workers hired by Memphis In May and the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) do it for them. So the park and Mud Island and Riverside Drive look nice, which is as it should be.

But public parks and public facilities in other parts of Memphis are getting screwed. They're either tended by volunteers and the Memphis Park Commission or they're not tended at all. There's no fully staffed and separately budgeted RDC to watch over them. There's no $29 million project like Beale Street Landing to draw attention and public funds to them. There's no board of directors to write letters to the newspaper at the first sign of criticism. There's no catchy program with a shoestring budget and a name like Empty Nets or Stolen Bases or Green Fields to see that regular maintenance is done.

And that's a shame.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Hype Hall of Fame

The real reason why the NBA lottery matters to more than Grizzlies fans.

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Twelve stories, and not one of them hit the nail on the head.

The Commercial Appeal's two-week Grizzlies-palooza failed to identify the real reason the newspaper is so fired up about Tuesday's NBA draft lottery.

It's not, as the headline over columnist Geoff Calkins' story said, because the "Future of Griz riding on right bounce." Nor is it, as the headline over Grizzlies beat writer Ron Tillery's story said, "Why the Grizzlies NEED to win the lottery."

It's because the future of the CA is riding on the right bounce, and the CA NEEDS to win the lottery.

Daily newspapers and sportswriters are always among the big winners when a professional sports franchise comes to town, but they rarely admit it. Major-league sports is one of the few subjects that can still attract a mass audience of fans and readers. The news operations of television stations — there are five of them in Memphis — can make it on murder and mayhem and weather. A daily newspaper — there is one of them in Memphis — and good writers like Calkins and Tillery need headliners and big stories.

No Grizzlies means nothing but the Redbirds, golf, and prep sports to "fill" the space between Tiger basketball and SEC football. And that would mean further declines in a readership that is already shrinking.

So, come on, guys, go ahead and say it: Professional athletes are overpaid mercenaries but good local reporters and editors are here for the long haul. If the Grizzlies win the lottery and get one of the top two draft picks, it's good for the franchise and it's also good for the daily paper (and to a lesser extent the Flyer). I don't care if Pau and Stro stay or go, but I do care if Geoff, Ron, Mark Perrusquia, Mary Powers, Otis Sanford, and the Flyer's Chris Herrington and some others stay gainfully employed.

Whether the Grizzlies are all that important to Memphis is another question. Some pretty strong evidence runs the other way: The Detroit Tigers went to the World Series last year; the Detroit Pistons are three games away from the NBA Finals; the Detroit Red Wings are two games away from the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. But the city of Detroit is about 0-5 against the world in the 21st century, with half its population gone since the 1950s, Ford and General Motors bleeding jobs and profits, Chrysler putting its fate in the hands of private-equity investors, and Comerica Bank — the corporation that bought the naming rights to Comerica Park, the home of the Tigers — moving its headquarters to Texas. Not coincidentally, Detroit still has Mitch Albom and two daily newspapers, thanks in no small part to their healthy sports sections.

Pittsburgh has three major-league teams but is also bleeding residents and jobs. And, of course, there is New Orleans, proud home of the Saints.

If the Grizzlies help keep FedEx in Memphis, then FedExForum was worth every dollar. If FedEx were to move a substantial number of jobs, then it wouldn't matter a hoot if the Grizzlies won the NBA championship.

A case can be made that colleges, medical centers, safety, and good public schools are more important to cities than pro sports teams. Think Oxford, Tupelo, Hattiesburg, Cleveland, Mississippi, Nashville, and Murfreesboro. Then think Batesville, West Memphis, McComb, Greenville, and Memphis.

What Memphis needs is a Hype Hall of Fame. The obvious location would be The Pyramid, with plaques commemorating Sidney Shlenker, the inclinator, the Big Dig, the Hard Rock Café, and Rakapolis. The music wing should include a tribute to tributes to Elvis Week. The football wing would feature highlights from the Arena Football League, the USFL, the Mad Dogs, and the uniform and oversized shoulder pads of Albert Means, the greatest football prospect who never made all-conference in college. The basketball wing should have a place for Dajuan Wagner, Bryant Reeves, and The Commercial Appeal's breathless build-up to "Christmas in May," "the ultimate birthday party," and "the biggest thing to happen to Memphis since God invented fire and the pig," otherwise known as the NBA draft lottery.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

On Polls and Votes

Can traits that make Chumney unpopular with colleagues win over voters?

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Two things that are often not what they seem to be: close votes in the Memphis City Council and polls showing the standing of Memphis mayoral candidates five months before the election.

Last Friday, a committee of the council voted 3-2 to withdraw funding for the $29 million Beale Street Landing project. But that doesn't mean the proposed riverboat landing and architectural monument at Beale Street and Riverside Drive is dead. The full council will have opportunities to replace the funding, perhaps as early as this week.

One of the three votes against Beale Street Landing was cast by Carol Chumney, who also happens to be leading Mayor Willie Herenton and challengers Herman Morris and John Willingham in the election polls.

Neither the committee vote nor the polls matter very much, but here are four reasons why I think Chumney will continue to make news this summer.

First, she is independent to a fault, which suits her fine, even if her colleagues see it as counterproductive and grandstanding. Her supporters see a diligent council member who is demonstrably not better off financially for having been a public servant.

Second, she favors upending the status quo. She is a radical in a way that has nothing to do with feminism or war or national issues and everything to do with local issues and priorities.

Third, when she takes a position, you may not agree with it but you know what it is. Her refusal to join in the censure resolution of Joseph Lee because it was irrelevant was unpopular but turned out to be correct.

And, fourth, unlike her fellow council members and the Memphis business establishment that supports Herenton with its money but not its mouth, she accepts the fact that this year you are either with the incumbent or you are against him. You're in as a mayoral candidate or you're out. And she's in.

Does this mean that Chumney would be an electable and effective mayor or that she is even an effective council member? Not necessarily, although my personal view is "no" on the first count and "yes" on the second.

But it does mean that Chumney, by being Chumney, brings clarity to issues and helps put them in clearer perspective?

Beale Street Landing, for instance, is a signature Herenton project. The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) is a Herenton creation staffed by former Herenton division directors and their spouses and supported by a board of Herenton appointees. Herenton and the RDC say the landing would bring more local and out-of-town visitors to Tom Lee Park and downtown. Chumney calls it a "boondoggle" in the tradition of Mud Island and The Pyramid.

Both Chumney and her colleague Scott McCormick, one of the two committee members who supported Beale Street Landing, correctly see that the funding vote is really a referendum on both the project and the RDC. Without a big project — the Front Street Promenade, the land bridge, relocating the University of Memphis law school, Beale Street Landing — the RDC is the "Riverfront Maintenance Corporation." You don't need three former division directors and a full-time PR person to do that.

Beale Street Landing and the RDC will probably survive because the City Council is also hooked on big projects. They make headlines and photo opportunities. They get federal funds. They create jobs and goodies and opportunities to repay favors to campaign contributors and fellow council members. This is the stuff of politics and, sad to say, the news business. On New Year's Day, Herenton proposed a new stadium and a new program to fight blight. Heard much about blight since then?

Many of the votes that make headlines at the City Council never amount to anything — think Lee's non-censure and the investigation of MLGW, the non-removal of Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete, the non-reuse of the Fairgrounds and The Pyramid, the non-annexation of 2006, and the 2007 efficiency study that will wind up on the shelf. So much of what goes on at the council is just for show.

Herenton knows that, just as he knows that a telephone poll putting his support at 20 percent or less reflects "free" votes that don't really count. The vote that counts will be in the October election.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Counting the Class of '07

As graduates prepare to march, a school board member wants some numbers.

Posted By on Thu, May 10, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Happy graduates in caps and gowns, proud parents with the latest cameras, dire warnings about misbehavior, and the most far-flung list of venues in recent memory mark high school graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2007.

Memphis and Shelby County high school seniors will march across stages from the DeSoto Civic Center to The Orpheum to the Mid-South Coliseum this month.

Uncertainty about the availability of the Coliseum earlier this year caused some schools to lock in dates at other sites. Germantown High School and Collierville High School are both slated for the DeSoto Civic Center. The Orpheum, the Rose Theater at the University of Memphis, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and World Overcomers Church are also holding graduation ceremonies.

The Coliseum will host graduations for four county schools and 11 city schools between May 19th and May 27th. The facility may or may not be closed and demolished as part of the redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, but it is back in play for at least one more year as a graduation site. The second most popular site is downtown at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, with nine graduations scheduled. Schools pick their own sites and set their own policies for how many guests each graduate may invite, said Memphis City Schools (MCS) board member Tomeka Hart, who will attend ceremonies for five schools in her district.

One of her school board colleagues, Kenneth Whalum Jr., also plans to attend several graduations, including one at the Coliseum for Overton High School, where his son is a graduating senior. But Whalum, himself a graduate of Melrose High, is not pleased with what he sees as a reluctance on the part of the central office to provide numbers on graduates and dropouts for each school.

"The statistics we get are useless without comparisons," said Whalum, who is pastor of Olivet Baptist Church.

At Monday's school board meeting, Whalum introduced a resolution directing the superintendent to produce a graduation report by the start of the 2007-2008 school year. It would include the total number of seniors enrolled in MCS in each high school at the start of the 2006-2007 school year and the number who actually graduate as well as school-by-school scholarship and college acceptance information.

Those numbers are currently not readily available and have not been widely reported when this newspaper has printed them. In previous years, the number of graduates has varied from nearly 400 at the largest schools to less than 80 at the smallest. A low number of graduates is usually an indication that a school is losing enrollment to demographic movements or dropouts. Such schools can face pressure to close — the most politically sensitive decision a superintendent or board member can make. Likewise, when scholarships offered to MCS grads are reported as a lump sum, it obscures the fact that a single standout student can receive multiple offers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while the majority of his or her classmates get little or nothing.

As far as Whalum is concerned, a school-by-school graduation report would show that the MCS motto "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound." is unrealistic. "It's sticking our heads in the sand, it's a blatant lie, and it's unfair," he said. "We do not owe them a college education. We owe them a high school education that prepares them to make their own decisions."

Whalum welcomed Governor Phil Bredesen's warning last week that funding increases must be tied to better results next year or the state could take over the system.

"I say bring it on," Whalum said. "Remove the board if it's not doing a good job. But you know and I know that the state doesn't have the human resources to run the schools."

Whalum believes smaller class sizes are the best remedy, even if all failing schools must be converted to charter schools. But he doubts that will happen, because "I am seen as this preacher who is new and doesn't know how things work."

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Keeping It Unreal

A fake company snared John Ford, but what about "real" corrupt deals?

Posted By on Thu, May 3, 2007 at 4:00 AM

So the government fired five shots at John Ford and hit him once, federal prosecutors kept their Tennessee Waltz winning streak unbroken, and the E-Cycle FBI Actors Repertory Company closed another Memphis performance.

This one was a little shaky. Prosecutors said they are sending out a strong message of deterrence. But four years after its inception, Operation Tennessee Waltz still looks more like a sting targeting Democrats in Memphis and Chattanooga than a purge of "systemic corruption" in state government. Its success is due to secret tapes of a handful of public officials taking bribes from a fake company that their colleagues were too honest, too smart, or too irrelevant to deal with.

Or maybe they just know how to Google.

Type "Joe Carson" and "FBI undercover" in a Google search and you find that Joe Carroll, whose FBI undercover name is Joe Carson, starred in at least two FBI undercover productions before Tennessee Waltz. In "Operation Lightning Strike" from 1991 to 1994, he posed as a big shot for Eastern Tech Manufacturing Company, a phony business seeking crooked contracts in the aerospace industry in Houston. His undercover name? Joe Carson. The sting resulted in indictments and a mistrial.

In 2001, Carroll and the FBI resurrected "Joe Carson" in a Maryland undercover operation targeting state lawmakers. His phony Atlanta-based company was seeking crooked deals with Comcast for fiber-optic contracts. A former state senator, Thomas Bromwell, is under federal indictment but has not yet gone on trial.

Give the FBI, Carson, L.C. McNeil, and Tim Willis credit for pulling off a two-year Tennessee undercover operation, including the 2004 and 2005 legislative sessions, without a leak. The Ford tapes were so powerful that the defense barely tried to explain them away. They left no doubt that money was exchanged for special legislation. The sting worked, but it hasn't yet exposed corruption in real deals in high places.

Operation Tennessee Waltz started in 2003, after FBI agents investigating phony contracts in Shelby County Juvenile Court found evidence of "systemic corruption" in state government. Seven of the 11 Tennessee Waltz indictments were announced at a press conference in Memphis on May 26, 2005. The investigation, convictions, and guilty pleas since 2003 have produced no indictments for bribery or other wrongdoing by any full-time state employee, lobbyist, or contractor. On tape, Ford boasts that he is the man who "does the deals" and "control[s] the votes," but his trial was all about E-Cycle and legislation that never got beyond committee.

"Systemic corruption," it seems, is a product of Shelby County and Hamilton County, two of the 95 counties in Tennessee. Five Memphians have been convicted or pleaded guilty. In a conversation with agent McNeil in 2004, Barry Myers, the bag man who later became a government witness, explained why lawmakers were wary of the free-spending black millionaire: "To be honest with ya', most of the money I used to pick up come from white folks, white males, established businessmen that would send money to Kathryn, Lois, Roscoe, and John. That's where the real money came from."

Who spent the "real money" for "the big juice" — Ford, Roscoe Dixon, Kathryn Bowers, and Lois DeBerry? We don't know. The payment of "consulting fees" by real companies is at the heart of Ford's pending case in Nashville, which is not part of Tennessee Waltz. He has a hearing on May 3rd. Eli Richardson, assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, said "it remains to be seen" how the Memphis case will mesh with the Nashville case, which apparently relies on old-fashioned evidence and witnesses.

"The conviction in Memphis opens up all kinds of possibilities for plea negotiation that didn't exist before," said Bud Cummins, a former federal prosecutor in Arkansas. "But there is not a whole lot of pressure on the government. They are still holding most of the cards. My best guess is they're pretty intent on going to trial."

Ford could appeal his Memphis conviction and request a sentencing delay until after he is tried in Nashville. If he is sentenced and goes to prison before his appeal is resolved, he could still be tried on the Nashville charges.

"We try people all the time who are sitting there in prison clothes," Cummins said, although Ford would probably be unrestrained and in civilian clothes in the courtroom, with a federal marshal standing behind him.

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