Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hunters and Gatherers

On Bass Pro, bald eagles, journalism jobs, and hunting ducks and humans.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Whether Memphis and Shelby County strike a deal with Bass Pro or a theme-park developer to fill The Pyramid — and neither prospect is close to being a sure thing — they will be buying at the bottom of the market.

Theme parks and hunting and fishing stores are both sensitive to fads and recessions. Last year was a bad one for public companies selling bass boats and roller coasters. Six Flags (stock symbol SIX) has been in business since 1961 and operates 18 amusement parks in the United States, including one in Atlanta. The stock is trading at around $1.89 a share this week, an all-time low. It peaked at $40 a share in 1999. Opryland theme park in Nashville, owned by Gaylord Entertainment, ended a 25-year run in 1997. The would-be developer of The Pyramid and Mud Island is a private company with no track record in theme parks.

Over in ammo-and-camo, Cabela's stock (CAB) was down 60 percent last year, and Gander Mountain (GMTN) was down 70 percent. Cabela's closest retail store is near St. Louis. Gander Mountain has a store in Jackson, Tennessee. Bass Pro, a private company, has a store in Memphis and a larger one in Pearl, Mississippi. Sportsman's Warehouse, also privately held, has stores in Memphis and Southaven.

"The ongoing decline in participation in the sports of fishing and hunting suggests that the recent rapid store rollout within the outdoor lifestyle retail sector may not be warranted," according to a recent report by the Mercanti Group, an investment bank.

Robert Lipscomb, the point man for the city of Memphis in dealings with Bass Pro, said he had his first conversation with Bass Pro's CEO Johnny Morris this week. He described Morris as "concerned." Lipscomb and members of the City Council and County Commission plan to visit Bass Pro's headquarters in Branson, Missouri, this week, two days before the January 31st deadline for the company to make a binding commitment to develop The Pyramid.

"They want to feel the love," said City Council chairman Scott McCormick, an outdoorsman who is not among those making the trip to Branson.

The timing is not the best for pitching downtown Memphis as a regional shopping and entertainment destination. After struggling for years, Peabody Place is giving up on retail shops and movie theaters, and attendance for Memphis Grizzlies games at FedExForum is the lowest it has been since the team moved to Memphis.

Bass Pro is one of two proposals for reuse of the The Pyramid. The alternative plan for a theme park would include The Pyramid, Mud Island, and the 90 acres of riverfront land they occupy. Selling parkland would be a radical departure for a city famous for resisting intrusions on The Promenade and Overton Park ever since its founding. More recently, the mere suggestion of leasing a small strip of 4,500-acre Shelby Farms along Germantown Parkway for commercial development was widely derided and went nowhere. Riverfront acreage across from downtown could be a valuable futures play for anyone contemplating a casino. Casino gambling is not legal in Tennessee, but 18 years ago it wasn't legal in Mississippi either.

• The eagles have landed, right here in river city. The bald eagle was "delisted" last summer and is no longer endangered, thanks to a successful hacking program that began in 1980. You might even see one in downtown Memphis if you look carefully. I saw one half a mile north of the bridge a few weeks ago. Granted, I was in a boat. Novice birdwatcher that I am, I excitedly called the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. An agent told me 187 eagles were counted two weeks ago between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River, and there are probably more than that. Sightings have been made all along the Mississippi from Memphis to Dyersburg and at Pickwick Lake. Who needs a two-hour drive to Reelfoot Lake? Eagle Lake, on the border of Shelby and Tipton counties, is just 30 minutes away.

On another bird note, Memphis is not the home of Ducks Unlimited for nothing. I am sworn to secrecy on particulars, but I can state with absolute confidence that it is quite possible to shoot a limit of ducks, legally, within the cozy confines of Shelby County. Throw in a little local venison, and this is good news for when the economy goes off a cliff and we become a society of hunters and gatherers, as appears likely.

Or you could supplement your income by throwing newspapers for The Commercial Appeal. Who says there are no jobs and no future in print journalism? This e-mail went out this week to Memphis Publishing Company employees: "Due to the carrier delivery rate revision project we are currently involved with, we are experiencing a significant but not unexpected number of down routes. WE NEED YOUR HELP! We will accept help from any salaried employee that wants to volunteer to help out by throwing routes (one day, many days, WHATEVER!). Also, we will pay friends or family members a substitute delivery fee of $10 to deliver the affected routes."

Karl Wurzbach, vice president of circulation, confirmed that the e-mail is genuine, and the delivery problem is "one of those things the industry is going through right now."

Like Wurzbach, I'm a former paperboy myself. I was 12 years old, and sometimes I think it was the happiest I've ever been in journalism, trudging through the snow lugging a bag full of folded copies of The Grand Rapids Press with my buddy John Egger after basketball practice. Well, my throwing arm is still strong, my car runs pretty good, I can't sleep anyway, and I don't have a whole lot of confidence in this column-writing gig. Like they say about the guy with the shovel who walks behind the circus elephant, he's still in the show.

• To torture this survivalist theme a little more ... Should homeowners go armed? I've been going to neighborhood meetings in Midtown for 24 years, and the question always comes up at least once a year. Over the years, I've detected a shift in the way cops answer. Last week, our guest speaker was Inspector Mark Collins of the West Precinct. He nailed it when he said that the person who gets robbed wants Dirty Harry, and the person who gets stopped for speeding wants Officer Nicely.

The official recommendation on "CyberWatch" is still to call the police when you see a crime in progress instead of taking matters into your own hands. But Collins said that if you decide to arm yourself, make sure you know how to handle the weapon and are prepared to use it. Otherwise, it could be used against you. He suggested than an aluminum baseball bat might be more suitable and doesn't have to be reloaded. But there was no attempt to persuade anyone to put away their guns because of what might happen later in court or inside your head. Or on your property if you shoot and miss.

Earlier that day, a Midtown man had shot and killed an apparently unarmed burglar who broke into his garage. In less than 24 hours, the shooting was ruled justifiable. It was the third justifiable homicide out of 14 killings so far this year. Meanwhile, Rhodes College students are being warned about muggings near campus, and on Monday a popular Memphis police lieutenant, Ed Vidulich, was found shot to death in his home in Frayser. Homeowners are not going to take it lying down. We are coming perilously close, if we are not there already, to becoming a city where we organize hunting parties to hunt our fellow citizens.

• A cold night in January. Back in the frothy NBA Now days, I remember reading (and writing) that the true test for Memphis and the NBA would come on a cold night in January when the thrill was gone and the Grizzlies were playing a meaningless game. We're there, and now we know. The proverbial "announced" attendance for the last three home games was 10,212, 11,072, and 11,672. "We played them on the wrong day," said Grizz forward Rudy Gay after a 112-85 loss to Orlando. No kidding. Unfortunately, there will be many more wrong days. It is obviously not helping the Grizzlies that the University of Memphis Tigers are unbeaten and ranked first in the country and selling out FedEx Forum, although it helps the arena, and vice versa.

• Hillary Clinton came to Memphis last weekend and won endorsements from Willie Herenton and his bitter rival Carol Chumney who, between them, got 77 percent of the votes in the last election. Herenton was a no-show at Monday's media event. Shortly afterward, the Clinton campaign announced the formation of "rapid responders, a national group of truth tellers" in Tennessee and other Super Tuesday states. Maybe they'll investigate Herenton's "scheduling conflict" that kept him away from Chumney.

• Reason Number 996 why I don't own a cell phone or pager. For six years, Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick denied rumors about a sexual relationship with his chief of staff. Last summer, they both lied about it under oath in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by two former cops who knew the score. Kilpatrick 'fessed up last week after the Detroit Free Press obtained 14,000 text messages from the chief of staff's city-issued pager. The telltale pagers were SkyWriters, using a dedicated messaging device from SkyTel, which is headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi. Most text messages vanish, but SkyTel touts the "benefits of message archiving" in its system. Some benefit.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Memphis Week That Was

The meaning of mum, going armed, early voting, and NBA Blues.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Mum is the word. Adjective. Mainly used by Scrabble players and newspaper headline writers and reporters as journalistic shorthand. Rarely if ever used in everyday conversation. But there are a lot of mum people out there these days. The University of Memphis administration is mum about an on-campus stadium study. Bass Pro is mum on its plans for The Pyramid. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are mum about coming to Memphis. The Grizzlies are mum about the future of Pau Gasol and Damon Stoudamire. Willie Herenton and A C Wharton are mum on their school funding plans and when they'll reschedule with Gov. Bredesen. Also mum: Fairgrounds deciders, The Federal Reserve board on interest rates, federal prosecutors and the FBI on local investigations, and the New England Patriots on Tom Brady's ankle injury.

Reporters use mum to signal readers that, all evidence to the contrary, we are not asleep on the job. Mum implies that somebody important knows something interesting and that we are actively trying to find it out. Often, sources are not really mum. It would be more accurate to say they "don't have a clue," "are out of the loop," "wouldn't talk to me," "haven't made up their mind," or "I am so far ahead of this off-the-wall story that nobody has formed any opinions, much less a plan."

My boss just came by and said he is mulling our corporate future. Mull is mum's first cousin. He's been mulling. Now he’s mum. That can’t be good.

A cold night in January. Back in the frothy NBA Now days, I remember reading (and writing) that the true test for Memphis and the NBA would come on a cold night in January when the thrill was gone and the Grizzlies were playing a meaningless mid-week game against some no-names while the Tigers were on television and having a good year.

Well, on Wednesday night the Grizzlies mailed it in and lost 112-85 to Orlando in front of the proverbial "announced" crowd of 10,212, as the nationally top-ranked Tigers ran their record to 18-0 by beating Tulsa, with an 18,000-seat sellout coming up Saturday at FedExForum against Gonzaga. "We played them on the wrong day," said Griz forward Rudy Gay. No kidding. Unfortunately, there will be many more wrong days.

Until this year, Wilt Chamberlain was the worst free-throw shooter I ever saw, not counting Ben Wallace, who is so bad he doesn't count. Wilt hit .511 from the stripe for his career, using a granny shot that did nothing to diminish his reputation as the strongest man on the court and, by his count (20,000 plus), the greatest ladies man in history. Collectively, the University of Memphis is hitting .585, but Joey Dorsey is at .358, and that's without tournament pressure. Only two regulars are above .700. Granny it, Joey.

Political analyst Charlie Cook spoke at Rhodes Wednesday to about 200 people, most of them students, which is a very good turnout for a small college. At least, someone from the presidential campaign is coming to Memphis.

Cook, often featured on national news programs, has a daughter at Rhodes and a son entering in the fall. He thinks John McCain will get the Republican nomination, with a possible third-party challenge from super-rich New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Obama and Hillary still too close to call. Edwards probably out of it. In his 90-minute talk and Q&A, Cook didn't say anything, and nobody asked him anything, about Tennessee or Memphis, except for one dismissive comment about Fred Thompson, who is out of the race. Not so much as a by-the-way about campus activism, the dilemma of black Memphis Democrats who loved Bill Clinton, Fred Smith as a key McCain supporter, Tennessee Blue or Red, or early voting before Super Tuesday.

This was presidential politics as national spectator sport, with candidates and in-the-know commentators playing their rehearsed roles and then explaining it all for the rest of us. Well, there is another way to look at it. Democracy is a going concern and politics is a participant sport and everything is local. Check your local news media, websites, and blogs for that story.

Early voting has been light. According to the Shelby County Election Commission, only 642 people had voted at the commission's downtown office through the first seven days. It takes less than a minute. You declare your party, and make three choices -- presidential nominee, assessor, and General Sessions Court clerk. Eighteen other sites opened for early voting on Friday. The Tennessee Presidential Primary is Tuesday, February 5th.

Overblown media event of the week: Hillary Clinton’s Nashville office (press@hillaryclinton.com) attempting to make spot news out of the "unveiling" of her first television commercial in Tennessee and her "continuing momentum." The real news, announced Friday, was that Hillary herself would be in Nashville Saturday.

The eagles are coming. The birds, not the classic rock group. The bald eagle was delisted last summer and is no longer endangered, thanks to a successful hacking program that began in 1980. You might even see one in downtown Memphis if you look carefully. I saw one half a mile north of the M bridge a few weeks ago. Granted, I was in a boat.

Novice birdwatcher that I am, I excitedly called the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. An agent told me 187 eagles were counted two weeks ago between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River, and there are probably more than that. Sightings have been made all along the Mississippi from Memphis to Dyersburg and at Pickwick Lake. Who needs a two-hour drive to Reelfoot Lake? Eagle Lake, on the border of Shelby and Tipton counties, is just 30 minutes away.

Need stimulus? Ninth District Representative Steve Cohen doesn't. Or at least not the recession-fighting handout Congress is contemplating for all Americans. "I don’t need a rebate," said the congressman, who thinks the money should be targeted to those who really do. Hey, I'll take yours, Steve.

So what will you do with your $300, if and when you get it? Blow it at Buster's? Buy two tickets and two snacks at a Griz game? Fight off foreclosure on your house? I'll pay my annual "Midtown Tax," which is the cost of replacing broken windows on my cars, courtesy of our local thugs.

Should homeowners go armed? The question always comes up at crime-focused meetings of my Midtown neighborhood association. Over the years I've detected a shift in the way cops answer. The official recommendation on "CyberWatch" is still to call the police when you see a crime in progress instead of taking matters into your own hands.

On Thursday evening, Inspector Mark Collins of the West Precinct told residents of the Evergreen Historic District meeting that if you decide to arm yourself, make sure you know how to handle the weapon and are prepared to use it. Otherwise it could be used against you. He suggested than an aluminum baseball bat might be more suitable for some people. But there was no attempt to persuade anyone to put away their guns because of what might happen later in court or inside your head. Or on your property if you shoot and miss.

Earlier that day, a Midtown man shot and killed an apparently unarmed burglar who broke into his garage. In less than 24 hours, the shooting was ruled justifiable. It was the third justifiable homicide out of 14 killings so far this year.

MLK 40th Anniversary and Sanitation Workers. "I’d sooner be called a garbage worker," says a city employee in the sanitation department. The employee, who requested that his name not be used, said the anniversary events overlooked the fact that, unlike other city employees, he and his colleagues still have no post-retirement health insurance or pension because unwitting union representatives signed them away in the wake of the strike in 1968. As a result, some "crew members" as they are called now keep working into their 70s. "The union that started it all gets nothing," he said.

Rumblings that resonate in Memphis. New York City Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a $58.5 billion budget for his city that cuts money to every agency, including core services such as police, fire, and schools. The cuts are because of the looming recession. Mayors Herenton and Wharton will propose their budgets in the coming months. Look for big cuts from both of them. And this time they will stick.

Engineering contractor Elvin Moon got a $300,000 contract from the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) that is now getting a close look by the FBI, according to The Commercial Appeal. Moon is of interest to the FBI because of his friendship and business relationship with Mayor Herenton. At MATA, blowing $300,000 is nothing. The agency spent nearly $75 million for a little-used trolley line between downtown and Cleveland Avenue in Midtown. And remember the $400 million "light-rail" line between downtown and the airport? That grand vision has been on hold for at least five years.

SkyTel tells all. Finally, to see what can happen when a major city and its mayor run off the rails, see last week's Detroit Free Press story about Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. For years, the young hip-hop mayor denied rumors about a sexual relationship with his chief of staff. Last summer they both lied about it under oath in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by two former cops who knew the score and said they were victims of mayoral retaliation.

Kilpatrick 'fessed up Wednesday after the Free Press obtained 14,000 text messages from the chief of staff's city-issued pager. As reporter Mike Wendland explained, the telltale pagers were SkyWriters, using a dedicated messaging device from SkyTel, which is headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi. Most text messages vanish, but SkyTel touts the "benefits of message archiving" in its system. That "clunk" sound you hear is public officials from coast to coast ditching their SkyWriter pagers.

("Memphis Week That Was" by John Branston is a regular Friday feature on Memphisflyer.com. Pass it on.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Great Debaters

Wharton, Herenton, Cohen, and Whalum talk it up on MLK Day.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

There was some fine oratory on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as that part of King's legacy was upheld by mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton, congressman Steve Cohen, and city school board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of them were on the speakers platform outside the National Civil Rights Museum for a 9 a.m. rally by the group Memphis Cares. About 200 people were there, a mix of adults and children, many wearing signs that said "I Am a Mentor" or "I Want To Be a Man." Speakers passed out mentoring applications asking for a 12-month commitment. A white woman standing near the back of the crowd handed out "Obama '08" stickers, but seemed out of place in a setting that was nonpartisan.

A smaller, racially mixed crowd met at MIFA to mark that group's 40th anniversary. Featured speaker Whalum was a 12-year-old student at Hamilton Elementary School in 1968. "I made up my mind the day he was killed that I'd do everything I could to make it up to him," says Whalum, who is supporting Obama. Whalum, who graduated from Melrose High School in Memphis and Morehouse College in Atlanta, gave an animated and energetic talk about the need to translate the rhetoric of King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech into action.

"It has been scientifically proven that if you are dreaming then you are asleep," he said. He contrasted the racial progress that has been made in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Mississippi since 1963 with the failure of urban school integration (he said the Memphis schools are 94 percent minority) and the struggles of black-owned businesses where, Whalum said, black consumers direct only one percent of their spending. "On Valentine's Day this year, buy your flowers from a black-owned business," Whalum said.

Whalum was introduced by Cohen, who was a student at Vanderbilt University in 1968. In his second year as a congressman, Cohen has kept a grueling schedule of public appearances and developed a fine sense of when to take the stage and when to yield it to others. He kept his introduction short and self-effacing. He had spoken earlier at a breakfast for the United Mine Workers of America and would speak again Monday afternoon, to warm applause, at Pastor Dwight Montgomery's Annesdale Cherokee Missionary Baptist Church before the Memphis Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Cohen's theme was economic injustice ("I don't need a rebate") and the need to shift federal spending from the war in Iraq to domestic needs. Cohen is staying neutral in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The other speakers at the SCLC event were Herenton and Wharton. Both were at their best, which is very good. Herenton, who is supporting Hillary Clinton, marched with striking sanitation workers in 1968 and wore an "I Am A Man" sign. His talk was brief, but he spoke with the gravitas of a man who has been there about his own spiritual orientation and connection to Dr. King. "Is America better off 40 years later? I'll let you answer that question," he said, somewhat enigmatically. I couldn't help thinking about the dust-up between Obama and Clinton over the respective contributions of King and former President Lyndon Johnson to civil rights policy. Herenton, it sometimes seems, is faced with the impossible task of playing both parts.

Wharton was living in Washington, D.C., in April 1968 and would be at Ole Miss in the fall. Forty years later, he said he sees more emphasis on service, personal commitment to King's ideals, and an encouraging number of children attending the day's commemorative events. Wharton said it is unlikely he will support a candidate before Super Tuesday: "As you well know, all politics is local, and I have got some hot political irons in the fire that I've got to deal with. Stay tuned. Things could change."

With the focus on the South Carolina primary and Monday night's Democratic candidate debate, none of the presidential candidates from either party were in Memphis Monday. Bill Clinton spoke at King-related events in Atlanta and at Fisk University in Nashville. Will Hillary Clinton and Obama court Memphis and its reliable Democratic voters, including the 42 percent who voted for Herenton? Does Tennessee matter this year, or is the price too high — a lost white or middle-class black vote for every vote from what Herenton has called the "real people"? As Wharton said, stay tuned.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Memphis Week That Was; MLK, Campaigns, Ethics, and a Postponement

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Memphis is a political Safe Zone for Martin Luther King week. State and national politicians of both parties can pop in for a photo or a speech at the National Civil Rights Museum or the NBA's sixth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day game on Monday. Republicans and mainstream Democrats can even rub shoulders with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Everyone can be for "civil rights" and against 1960s-style segregation and police brutality without having to step on the landmines of modern-day public schools, health insurance, unions, taxes, and broken families and all those other tough issues that Willie Herenton (who has endorsed Hillary Clinton) has to deal with every day.

Sorry, but in terms of modern relevance, the NBA's MLK game is an airball. It should draw a nice crowd, and honorees Bob Lanier and Kareem Abdul Jabbar seem like the most dignified and thoughtful of former athletes. I was a Detroit Pistons fan when Lanier and Dave Bing were all the Pistons had going for them.

So we're all agreed that Dr. King was a great American and his assassination was tragic. What does support for "civil rights" mean in Memphis in 2008? I wonder what King, who stayed at the Lorraine Motel and dined on soul food potlucks and marched with the poorest of the poor would think of the modern NBA, and pro sports in general. Memphis gets "honored" with King-related events in basketball, baseball, and on the upcoming 40th anniversary of his death. And it is scorned as Tennessee's problem child and black eye the rest of the year.

It was stunning that Hillary Clinton's Tennessee campaign last week put out a "statewide" list of "women's council" supporters without the name of a single Memphian on it.

Memphis Women Who Are Not on Hillary's List includes teachers, principals, city division directors, prosecutors, directors of nonprofits, and recent candidates for city mayor and city council. Some are constrained from making endorsements, but most are not. And the argument from Hillary's Nashville-based headquarters that Memphis was slow to respond is nonsense. You don't wait for endorsements, you go get them.

Wouldn't you love to be running Barack Obama's campaign now that he has opened up an office. Suppose he shows up in person between now and Super Tuesday (February 5th) and Hillary doesn't. "My friends, as I stand here in the city where Martin Luther King was assassinated, I ask you why my opponent ... ." Or maybe that would just remind people that he is black.

Remember, Memphis Democrats handed Tennessee, and therefore the 1996 presidential election, to Bill Clinton and Al Gore by voting precinct margins of -- these are actual numbers from Election Commission returns -- 753-3, 482-1, 1009-8, 1040-5, and 362-0. Clinton won Tennessee over Bob Dole by 45,616 votes. Clinton won the 9th Congressional District by 86,897 votes. Without it, Clinton loses Tennessee.

Tennessee went Republican in 2000 and 2004. Gray Sasser, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, says 25.9 percent of voters in the Democratic primary are black. Statewide, voters aren't asked about race when they register (although they are in Shelby County), so the number is an estimate based on key Zip codes.

The party's dilemma in Tennessee 2008?

Finding common cause for lower-income African Americans who ride MATA, go to public schools, use the free-lunch program, and often come from single-parent homes with college-educated blacks and whites who don't use public services and who like Bill, Hill, and Oprah but aren't sure what to think about a place like Memphis.

Postponed in Nashville. Since Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has been in contact with Gov. Phil Bredesen's office for months, suspicions fall on his colleague, Mayor Herenton, for deciding to postpone their meeting on schools. Herenton sent out a statement saying more due diligence is needed. That seems like something you would do before setting up the meeting in the first place, which is essentially what Wharton said after the postponement.

You don't get to see the governor often to ask his help, and when you do you don't want to squander it by not having the specificity that he needs," Wharton said. "On my end, I am burdened with the cost on the three-for-one funding formula. I have made it clear throughout that I would not seek nor support any larger role by county government."

The postponement followed a meeting last week between Herenton and school board chairman Tomeka Hart, who has emerged as one of the system's stoutest defenders on the pages of this newspaper in an exchange of opinion columns with former city councilman John Vergos.

"He didn't give me any indication he was changing his mind because of our meeting," Hart told me. She said she can live with an appointed board or an elected board, just so it's effective.

"Government should be run more like a business." Don't hear that one much any more, do you? What business? Merrill Lynch? Citigroup? First Horizon? Bankers who couldn't say no to unqualified borrowers were partly responsible for the current mess, including First Horizon's 65 percent stock plunge and $248 million quarterly loss reported last week.

A contrarian at another financial firm in Memphis says a turnaround could be a year or two away, but First Horizon's bond department and capital markets division had a good month because of lower interest rates and refinancings. The mystery, this source says, is what took them so long to cut the dividend.

Or maybe the "run more like a business" disciples mean the airline industry, where Northwest is looking at a merger with Delta. Except they both of them went bankrupt first. On second thought, maybe that is what it will take to consolidate city and county schools and governments -- for one of them to go bankrupt first.

On a brighter note, Pinnacle Airlines CEO Phil Trenary said the Memphis airport should be fine even if Northwest merges.

"We manufacture connections, and we can manufacture them at a lower cost than anyone else," Trenary said. "One misconception about our hub is that it is a weak hub. It was weak at one time. It is a small hub, but by having a mix of regional carriers and Northwest it has really changed the complexion and made it more successful financially."

Best Recycled Political Slogan for 2008: "It's the economy, stupid!"

Ethics in Gray Areas? In a Flyer interview last week, Shelby County Commissioner David Lillard talked about ethics in government. Here's my question: Obviously, if a commissioner or city council member has first-hand knowledge of criminal activity by a colleague then they should report it. But what about those gray areas? Should elected officials openly question their colleagues, or at least press them for more complete disclosure of potential conflicts?

Surely, Lillard and Diedre Malone had some knowledge of their colleague Bruce Thompson's consulting work that finally got him indicted in 2007. Thompson went so far as to get a letter from Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn on the matter.

I think Thompson's current legal problems could have been avoided by full disclosure and discussion of his arrangement with school contractors, including the ballpark amounts he was being paid and by whom. It would have been a tough thing to do, and might well have cost him the business, but it might have saved him some grief later on. But a collegial courtesy pass was ultimately no favor at all.

When reporters want to check an elected official's financial statements they fill out a form and the official is notified. Why not have the commission and council give the media preemptive notice as standard procedure when one of their own officially declares or seeks clarification of a conflict of interest?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Disarray and Memphis

Times are tough now, but new leaders will move Memphis forward.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2008 at 4:00 AM

An editor at another newspaper asked me this week to summarize the position of the "influential" Ford family relative to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

My first reaction was, "Got about five minutes and/or 400 words of space?" Because with two Harolds, two Edmunds, John, Ophelia, Joe, Jake, three indictments, one hospitalization, one trial, three candidacies — where do you start?

Besides, the Tennessee presidential primary isn't until February 5th, although early voting began at the Election Commission office downtown on January 16th and at 18 other sites on January 25th. Tennessee's time to share the spotlight will come but not for a week or two.

But I cobbled together a long, complicated answer and sent it along, under the heading DISARRAY, which describes our city as well as the Ford family.

Our political scene is in disarray. We elected a mayor, Willie Herenton, with 42 percent of the vote and a congressman, Steve Cohen, with 31 percent. We have nine new members on the 13-member Memphis City Council. We have an interim city schools superintendent and may soon have a proposal for a mayor-appointed school board along with a consolidation proposal. We have ongoing federal investigations of political corruption.

Our economy is in disarray. If Memphis is in the national business news, it's apt to be for something bad. This week, it was the 10 percent rental vacancy rate, highest among metro markets. Housing starts are down, and foreclosures are up. "We have never been here before," says suburban developer Jackie Welch. "It doesn't matter who you are — closing attorney, surveyor, agent, or builder. If you are dealing with real estate, you are feeling the pain." There is a financial earthquake coming when the city and county come to grips with lower tax collections and property reappraisals.

Rich people are not as rich as they were a year ago. Profits and stock prices are down at FedEx Ground, First Horizon, Regions, and many other "stocks of local interest," shedding billions of dollars in personal net worth. When a global company like Citigroup posts a $9.8 billion loss and cuts its dividend 41 percent because of losses on mortgage-related investments, can it be long before the regional banks follow suit? Airline passenger traffic is up, but the Memphis hub is endangered if Northwest Airlines merges with Delta. That possible marriage was reported last week.

Our sports scene is in disarray, with an empty Pyramid, thousands of empty seats at Grizzlies game, a stadium proposal going nowhere, and the development of the Mid-South Fairgrounds and Kroc Center still on hold. And if Bass Pro ever moves into The Pyramid, the Mississippi River may be bass-less, thanks to the accidental infestation of those high-jumping and ravenous Asian carp.

Our print media companies are ripe for change. The Commercial Appeal is cutting costs and changing its business model to adjust to declining readership and the Internet. So is Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of this newspaper. The Flyer will put out its 1,000th edition this year, and Memphis magazine will be 32 years old.

Our city and county public school systems are polar opposites. The Shelby County system brags, with justification, about making all "A's" on the Tennessee Department of Education's Report Card. The city system, with justification, is forever explaining the difficulty of educating so many low-income and special-needs students. The county builds new schools like Southwind High School in heavily populated areas once targeted for annexation but no more. The city rebuilds underpopulated schools like Manassas, which had 38 graduates in 2007. The people running and attending Shelby County schools are understandably opposed to consolidation, as Mayor A C Wharton has admitted.

One of the things the Flyer tries to do is give alternative points of view. If the prevailing mood is boosterism, then there is probably something to be said for skepticism, and vice versa. So here's an optimistic prediction. Out of our current disarray will come the future leaders and fresh ideas that will move Memphis politics, business, and education forward. The survivors and big winners will be the people who throw caution aside, reinvent themselves, and bet on the right horses, either through analysis or luck or more likely a combination of them.

Memphis leadership is ripe for turnover. All of the following people are over 60 years old: Willie Herenton, A C Wharton, Fred Smith, Allen Morgan Jr., Jack Belz, Henry Turley, Michael Heisley. By 2011 or sooner, there will be different leadership in city and county government. Within a year or two, there could be a new face in the Ninth Congressional District seat, the Memphis Grizzlies ownership group, the ownership and management of the daily newspaper, and one or more of the local television stations.

In politics, I think there will be a swing to Barack Obama starting next week. There are always more outsiders than insiders, and the upside is higher with an outsider.

Memphis Democrats delivered Tennessee, and Tennessee delivered the election to Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1996. Herenton is supporting Hillary this time around. But the 70-member Clinton Tennessee "steering committee" includes only three Memphians — insiders Gale Jones Carson, Sidney Chism, and Beverly Marrero. And the newly minted "Tennessee Women for Hillary" announced Tuesday doesn't include a single Memphian.

Obama's supporters include pastor and city school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., who says there is "a little bit of disgust in the black community with the Clintons, especially with people who say Hillary is entitled to the nomination." Congressman Cohen is staying uncommitted, although he has been wooed by both candidates or their representatives. Cohen's straddle makes sense for a white guy who has to run for reelection in a predominantly black district in November. But in his younger days, I bet a rebel like Cohen would have broken for Obama, and I think modern-day Cohens will too. After the presidential election, a Memphis variant of Obama, with no StickUm to Herenton or Wharton, will emerge and politely say "enough" to dwelling on 40th anniversaries and 25th anniversaries and get people looking ahead instead.

In business, if Northwest merges with Delta, I still think the eminently accessible Memphis airport will be fine. Two things you can't change about Memphis are mild weather and location. If Phil Trenary and Pinnacle Airlines don't reinvent the airport and passenger travel and logistics, then someone else will.

The next big bank is out there somewhere, maybe Independent Bank under Susan Stephenson and Chip Dudley, who largely avoided the perilous mortgage business. As national columnist George Will has said, America is awash in money relative to our forefathers and the rest of the world, and lending for construction and new businesses and homes will revive. Stand outside of Malco's Paradiso multiplex movie theater on a Saturday night and look at the cars, clothes, cell phones, and lines and tell yourself Memphians don't have any spending money.

Despite crime problems, some older neighborhoods will come back as people deal with $3 or $4-a-gallon gas and traffic. The downtown medical centers, more shopping, and a redeveloped Mid-South Fairgrounds will help pull them in.

With or without a new football stadium, the University of Memphis and its surrounding neighborhoods will prosper because the secret of success for most cities is colleges, not pro sports, which will prove to be unsustainable in all but the largest markets. And if you make B's in high school, tuition at the U of M is practically free because of the lottery scholarships. But someone better come up with different eligibility standards, because in 2007 only 862 Memphis high school graduates (14 percent) accepted a lottery scholarship, and, if form holds, half of them will lose it before they finish college.

In elementary and secondary education, after consolidation officially flops, the search will start for other solutions. The answer will be deconsolidation, more charter schools, expansion of idealism-driven programs like Teach for America, and smaller, not larger, governance.

Print newspapers will survive. Older people still read them, and it's hard to take a laptop to the bathroom. More cuts are coming, but good reporters and editors work best when they are busy and challenged. They will figure out a way to make their work better, profitable, and relevant. Somebody, maybe at the Tri-State Defender, will put out a profitable and consistently high-quality black-owned newspaper in Memphis. Bloggers with good journalism skills and instincts will thrive because they really like what they do and because eventually name-calling, scare-mongering, and hate speech get boring.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Smarter Than Who?

Wanted: a Gateway test and Traveler IQ Challenge for candidates.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2008 at 4:00 AM

This is how I happened to take the Gateway math test that Tennessee high school students must pass to graduate.

Four of us were watching the presidential debates last week. The campaign has become so long and is so thoroughly covered that it verges on reality television — American Presidential Idol or Are You Smarter Than a Candidate for President?

If we don't remember the candidates' carefully crafted positions on health care, Iraq, and immigration, we know their quirks, personalities, and prior lives.

Hillary Clinton can cry.

Barack Obama resonates with Oprah and can shoot jump shots better than a writer for Sports Illustrated who challenged him to a game of one-on-one.

Mike Huckabee can hold his own with Jay Leno and play the electric bass guitar.

Fred Thompson can act but can't act like he really wants to be president.

John McCain can pilot a jet.

Ron Paul can deliver a baby.

Rudy Giuliani's mouth looks like it is upside down.

Mitt Romney has five sons who are as preternaturally well-adjusted and good-looking as he is.

Dennis Kucinich saw a UFO.

All this exposure makes the candidates seem less presidential and more like the rest of us. Which inevitably invites comparisons from the rest of us, or at least among the four of us who were watching the debates last week.

As hard as Chris Wallace and the other debate moderators tried, we missed the unpredictability of the CNN/YouTube debate a few weeks ago that was moderated by Anderson Cooper, with questions submitted electronically by people around the country. They were blunt, original, funny, and revealing. You can, for example, waffle on the issue of gun control, but you either have guns in your home or you don't, and one way or another that says something about you.

In the spirit of CNN/YouTube, we offered our own ideas. A presidential candidate Scrabble tournament, one of us suggested. Or make candidates go to Travelpod.com and take the Traveler IQ Challenge and see if they can locate Prague, Moscow, Beijing, Brasilia, the Taj Mahal, and the Whitney Museum on the world map. I bet the results would be surprising.

I want a nominee who knows public policy and history and economics in a broad sense, but I also want a nominee with a higher Traveler IQ than I have. I want a nominee who can pronounce and spell "nuclear" correctly. And I want a nominee who knows, within 20 cents, the price of a gallon of milk and a gallon of gasoline at the convenience stores in his or her hometown.

Which gets me to the Gateway test.

Start running your mouth, and sooner or later someone is going to tell you to put up or shut up. One of our foursome, an algebra teacher in the Memphis City Schools, had a copy of the Gateway practice test in her car. Pencils ready, begin.

There are 62 questions on the test. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to answer them. I cruised through algebraic expressions (2x + 8 = -26), correctly calculated pizza sizes, pay rates, and price-per-pound in the lives of Shelby, Shradda, and Shamika, but stumbled when it came to graphing equations and inequalities. And, sad to admit, I confused the terms mean and median. That's one reason why we have dictionaries, computers, and editors here at the Flyer.

A score of 39 is passing. I got 53 right, thanks to my high school algebra teacher, Miss DeJong, known as "Ma" because she had also taught some of our parents. In those days, we didn't need a Gateway test to prove our competence. Ma DeJong made sure of that. She would pick up a piece of chalk, wind up her right arm like a propeller, and draw perfect circles on the blackboard before our astounded eyes.

I will remember her passion for algebra as long as I live. On a Friday afternoon in November 1963, I was taking a test in her class. The intercom came on with a news bulletin, but she made us finish. I don't remember how I did, but I'll never forget where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

In Shelby County Isolation Trumps Consolidation

Posted By on Thu, Jan 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

To call consolidation a tough sale is an understatement.

Crime and fear of crime, bad schools, higher taxes, lost jobs and fear of lost jobs, old grudges, apathy, suburban (or urban) opposition, political cowardice, the "King Willie" factor, questionable "efficiencies" -- any one of those could sink it.

There's another problem that is not so obvious. In his state of the city speech, Mayor Willie Herenton urged residents of Memphis and Shelby County -- black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban -- to pull together for their common good. But the prevailing spirit for at least the last 25 years in Memphis has been anything but "all for one and one for all."

It has been just the opposite. It is the spirit of isolation, not consolidation. Consider:

Me and mine first, as evidenced by all the elected and appointed officials who, legally and illegally, gamed the system and padded their paychecks.

Self-segregation in schools, churches, and even sporting events and entertainment has replaced legal segregation.

Gated communities from South Memphis to South Bluffs to Southwind.

"Special" taxing districts or TIFs that get dedicated tax streams that would otherwise go into the general fund.

"Special" tourism development zones or TDZs around FedExForum, Graceland, the convention center, and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium that, when implemented, further erode the general tax fund unless they attract new money.

"Special" incentives in the form of tax freezes given to businesses that promise investment and new jobs, whether they actually deliver them or not. These also erode the tax base. No other city in Tennessee grants nearly as many of these as Memphis does.

"Special" boards and commissions like the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and Center City Commission (CCC) that are narrowly focused to develop and oversee choice pieces of downtown Memphis.

"Special" building authorities for big projects like FedExForum.

Selective annexation of Cordova, Countrywood, and Hickory Hill which didn't mobilize opposition quickly or effectively enough, while savvier, wealthier, and more politically powerful areas like Southwind and Southeast Shelby County got a reprieve.

As a reporter covering government, this is the biggest change I have seen in Memphis since I moved here in 1982. Not only are city and county government often not in synch, the elected officials in both governments have willingly given away much of their authority in the name of expedience and efficiency.

The pay has gone up 300 to 500 percent but the job description has shrunk. The City Council and County Commission, which theoretically represent all city and county residents, are often not where the action is any more, or at least not to the extent they once were. To attempt to effectively cover "government" nowadays means to go to meetings or keep tabs on the Sports Authority, RDC, PBA, CCC, CVB, MLGW, Industrial Development Board, Agricenter, Airport Authority, and various nonprofits.

They're all in their own, often isolated worlds, sometimes for better and sometimes worse. They come to the mayors or council members and commissioners when they need a fix, and if they can do it quietly and out of the public eye, so much the better.

Obviously, in a city of 675,000 people and a county of more than 850,000 people, there's something to be said for specialization, and maybe a lot. If you want to run an airport, build a FedExForum on a schedule, or attract the big convention of square-dancers, you need focus and partners from the private sector.

But there's a price for all of this specialization, and it's not just the bruised egos and additional bureaucracies and lost taxes. It's the loss of community and the idea that we’re all in this together. As citizens and elected officials in Memphis and Shelby County, we reap what we sow. And what we have sown are the seeds of separation and isolation, not consolidation.

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