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.

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