Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lunker or Clunker?

Bass Pro Shops preaches to the choir and several empty seats.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 28, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Bass Pro Shops president Jim Hagale started talking about the dangers of over-expansion and brands gone bad. I thought, uh-oh, where's he going with this?

He mentioned Krispy Kreme Donuts and Planet Hollywood, but he could just as easily have added Tower Records, Peabody Place, Pat O'Brien's, or Bennigan's. Or Hard Rock Café — the Bass Pro Shops of 1988 — when the Pyramid was going to be the coolest arena on the planet. Hard Rock, once a hot publicly traded stock and a must-have T-shirt, is now just another restaurant on Beale Street.

Hagale didn't go there. He was in Memphis Monday to announce a development agreement for the Bass Pro Pyramid. The presentations to the City Council and County Commission by Hagale and the city's Pyramid point man, Robert Lipscomb, were an earnest attempt to put lipstick on a white elephant.

"An Engine for Commerce, Conservation, Environmental Education, and Tourism," as the thick handout says. World peace will apparently have to wait, but look for ammo and camo and rods and reels over in aisle one.

The timing was horrible and the pitch is shopworn after three years, with at least three more years before a grand opening. Working Memphians are struggling to pay their mortgages and bills, not splurging on bass boats. The biggest threat to the Bass Pro Pyramid isn't an earthquake, it's a recession. "Creative financing," also known as getting something for nothing, is what got us into this mess. Only five council members showed up; several others are in Denver for the Democratic National Convention. Hagale and Lipscomb were preaching to the choir and a bunch of empty chairs.

The council's approval isn't needed at this point anyway, and the county's $5 million debt share of the Pyramid is likely to be bought out by the city, simplifying things down the road. This is a Willie Herenton-Lipscomb deal. The mayor, who is neither a hunter nor fisherman, said it was a great day, one "the citizens of Memphis have been waiting 20 years for." The Bass Pro Pyramid will be a 365-days-a-year attraction. The bond lawyers, architects, developers, financiers, professional downtowners, and county government expatriates enlisted to speak for the project applauded. But by the time they were supposed to give their endorsements the chamber was nearly empty, and the speeches were scrapped.

Hagale thanked Lipscomb, "who took most of the arrows for me." He apologized for delays, but said "there has never been a point where Bass Pro became disinterested in the Pyramid project." Nor, it seems, has there been a point yet where Bass Pro became totally committed to it. Hagale showed a video that emphasized Bass Pro's affinity with NASCAR and featured good old boys in camouflage and former President Jimmy Carter, looking younger and unpresidential, as a Bass Pro pitchman. Bass Pro loves the synergy with Ducks Unlimited, FedEx shipping, pro fisherman Bill Dance, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. But Hagale didn't say why the Pyramid, a challenge since the day it opened, makes sense for a company that prides itself on doing things its own way in places like Springfield, Missouri and Pearl, Mississippi.

The agreement gives Bass Pro another year to do studies and make plans while paying $35,000 a month. If it's a go, construction of a store, aquarium, hotel, and restaurants would take two more years. The cost to the city and county: $30 million, plus the remaining $9.9 million of debt on the Pyramid. Various experts explained that the $30 million would not come out of property taxes or general fund revenues, which would be political suicide. The found money is something called new market tax credits and the Tourism Development Zone taxes that also financed FedEx Forum and the convention center. The financing depends on "tourism" dollars and hotel taxes to produce a surplus beyond the current tax take, which is rebated by the state.

Hagale said he is "very disappointed when we are designated as a big-box retailer." That would be one of the kinder depictions. Local know-nothings seem to prefer "bait shop" or "gun store," which is as inaccurate as the hype. Bass Pro Shops is nothing more or less than the best deal out there for a downtown whose future is entertainment and conventions. It would be tantamount to landing a medium-sized company headquarters. A $30 million ante — if that's really the cap — is appropriate for a company that would employ 600 people and promises to be an exemplary corporate citizen.

Bass Pro Shops: Back to the Future?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 28, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Bass Pro Shops president Jim Hagale started talking about the dangers of over-expansion and brands gone bad. I thought, uh-oh, where's he going with this ...

Read the rest of John Branston's City Beat.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Flat World, No; Flat Field, Yes

Councilman Lowery was kidding, but conventions really are a joke.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Myron Lowery is not running for president.

As a gag, the Memphis city councilman sent out an e-mail purporting to distance himself from an upstart "Myron Lowery For President" movement at the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday in Denver.

"I'm trying to stop some of my friends from placing my name in nomination for president," Lowery says in the e-mail. He is a superdelegate to the convention.

The do-it-yourself video link — variations of which have been circulating for several weeks — features a bogus television reporter for "News 3" talking about "a growing grassroots movement born on the Internet to elect a virtual unknown to the office of president."

The video clip has all the requisite features, including a talk-show host and former model, mock political analyst Dr. Arnold Franklin, a reporter spouting inanities about "people from all walks of life," and a grandmother who turns her butt to the camera and displays a "Lowery for President" tattoo on her bare lower back.

I confess that it didn't seem implausible. Lowery, a former television news reporter and anchor, has run or thought about running for political positions including convention delegate, council member, Charter Commission member, and mayor.

The list of people who really sought or are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination this year includes (in addition to Barack Obama) D.R. Hunter, Willie Carter, Randy Crow, Lee Mercer, Frank Lynch, and Grover Cleveland Mullins. And, of course, Stephen Colbert. Why not Myron?

"You were not alone," Lowery told me this week. He said he showed the spoof to fellow council member Janis Fullilove, and "she looked at it and her mouth dropped."

Lowery has been to every Democratic convention but one since 1988. He has been a delegate four times. Next week he is supporting Obama, although he began the year as a Hillary Clinton supporter.

"I will not be voting for her" when her name is placed in nomination, despite several entreaties from Hillary diehards to remain true, Lowery says.

In a way, that's too bad. National political conventions need some drama and unscripted suspense. There used to be actual battles over who would get the nomination, what the platform committee would do, whether a peace plank would be adopted, and whether some state's delegates would walk out.

Now the conventions are giant four-day parties for political insiders. They're programming for television between the Summer Olympics and the start of the new fall shows. Watching them is a little like attending the Memphis in May barbecue contest as a spectator and watching the tents full of people drinking, cooking, eating, and having fun.

If the Democrats or Republicans want a plank for their platform that really gets people excited, they should support moving up the opening weekend of the college football season to the first week of August, damn the heat, baseball, and summer vacation. Give red-blooded Americans what we want.

We've overdosed on the Olympics, and there is almost another week to go. We know way too much about Shawn Johnson's quest for the elusive gold, about Misty and Kerri and Phil and Todd and beach volleyball, about synchronized diving and the secret to Chinese dominance.

I don't want to read another Geoff Calkins column about the danger of cycling in Beijing, the brilliance of the Chinese in ping-pong, or the lovable losers of swimming. I don't want to watch Bob Costas, with the seriousness of a judge at a murder trial, question Bela Karolyi about the unfairness of gymnastics judging or see Brian Williams and Katie Couric coming to you from the Bird's Nest.

I don't want to watch conventions orchestrated in every detail as the culmination of an endless campaign to pick the leader of the free world, appease the Clintons, and choose a running mate for a job once compared to "a bucket of warm spit."

I don't want a flat world and global marketing and China against the U.S.

I want a flat field and Ole Miss against Memphis, surrounded by a crowd of people screaming about something that pretends to no more or less importance than first downs, interceptions, touchdowns, and bragging rights.

Let the real games begin.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Back To School

The only thing missing in some new Memphis schools is students.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 14, 2008 at 4:00 AM

City and county public schools opened this week, and students aren't the only ones who could use an orientation.

Kriner Cash, his staff, and members of the Memphis City Council and school board should climb on a yellow bus and check out three new high schools their predecessors left them — and taxpayers — at a cost of nearly $100 million.

Each of the schools — Southwind High School, Douglass High School, and Manassas High School — comes with the latest furnishings and technology and some important unfinished business. Taken together, they offer a lesson in school choice, city-county politics, urban renewal, flight from the inner city, and the underpinnings of the current conflict between the Memphis school board and the City Council.

Southwind, located in an unincorporated area of suburban sprawl between Germantown and Collierville, opened in 2007 as a Shelby County school but will become a city school when Memphis completes a politically touchy annexation of the adjacent area. The school has 1,484 students this fall in grades 9-11 and will add the 12th grade in 2009. More than 90 percent of the students are black. U.S. district judge Bernice Donald has ordered Shelby County Schools to make all of its schools within 15 percent of the system's overall 35 percent minority enrollment. The school system has appealed the order, and a decision is expected later this year.

Manassas, which opened in January, is in a blighted neighborhood near the abandoned Firestone manufacturing plant about two miles north of downtown. Famous as the city's original high school for African Americans, Manassas graduated just 38 students in 2007 before the new building was completed. Capacity is 800 students. Current enrollment is just over 500, according to Principal Gloria Williams.

Douglass, located in a hardscrabble industrial area of North Memphis dotted with small businesses on Chelsea Avenue and single-family homes, is one of the feel-good stories of the year. It was closed in 1981 and rebuilt in 2007 and 2008. On Monday, alumni from as far away as California came to a 7 a.m. dedication ceremony called "Coming Home and Giving Back."

"It's all about school and community pride," said Principal Janet Ware Thompson.

Completion of the gym and auditorium are behind schedule, however, and the school opened Monday with about 350 students, well below its capacity of 800 students.

Douglass and Manassas are touted as prototypes of smaller neighborhood high schools. Their revival is due to dedicated alumni and political muscle. Former Memphis school board member Sara Lewis championed Manassas, her alma mater, and city councilman Barbara Ware, a Douglass graduate, did the same for her old school. Even if Douglass and Manassas reach their capacity, their enrollment will be about a third of the largest and most overcrowded high schools in Memphis — Cordova and White Station — which each had more than 2,200 students last year.

Southwind is likely to be at its capacity of 2,000 students by 2009. Super-sized Southwind sprawls across a 62-acre site jointly approved in 2006 by the city and county school boards and purchased for an eye-opening $5.2 million. At 325,000 square feet of space, Southwind is tied with its design twin, Arlington High School, as the biggest public school in Tennessee. Neighboring subdivisions along Hacks Cross and Shelby Drive boomed before the subprime mortgage crisis came along and are still marked by signs that say "NO CITY TAXES."

Most City Council members and MCS leaders were not in office when construction of these three schools was approved. Cash succeeded former Superintendent Carol Johnson in July. Nine of the 13 members of the City Council are newcomers this year, and that number will rise to 10 when Scott McCormick resigns in two weeks. Former school board member Wanda Halbert moved over to the City Council, and Lewis was named to a full-time city job.

At a Southwind High ribbon-cutting ceremony last week, there was little recognition of its city-county parentage. City officials were invited, but only school board member Betty Mallott showed up. The City Council voted against completing annexation of the Southwind area in 2007 (shopping centers and commercial areas have been annexed but not schools and houses), and another push could be five years away, according to Shelby County Schools superintendent Bobby Webb.

The Central Nutrition Center is the symbol of excess in Memphis City Schools. But pricey catering and spoiled food are small potatoes compared to the cost of new high schools. Shelby County, with city and county tax money and the blessing of the Memphis school board, built near suburban subdivisions where population is increasing. MCS builds in declining neighborhoods as a catalyst for redevelopment. Either way, it's an expensive proposition.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Politics and Prosecutors

David Kustoff talks about his 26 months as United States attorney.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Former United States attorney David Kustoff says politics did not influence decisions made in the Memphis office during his 26-month tenure, despite an inspector general's report that criticizes a Bush administration appointee in Washington for applying a loyalty test to job applicants.

Kustoff resigned in June to enter private law practice with city councilman Jim Strickland. Kustoff previously ran for the Republican nomination for the 7th District congressional seat and was Shelby County Republican Party chairman and director of George W. Bush's campaign in Tennessee in 2000 and 2004.

"There are no political considerations made involving the investigation or prosecution in any case," Kustoff said in an interview Tuesday.

A harsher view of the U.S. Justice Department under former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, however, is contained in the inspector general's report released last week. It says that White House liaison Monica Goodling routinely asked potential federal prosecutors such questions as "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" and "Why are you a Republican?" and "Aside from the president, give us an example of someone currently or recently in public service who you admire."

She also asked 34 job candidates for their views on abortion and 21 candidates for their views on gays, according to the report.

Kustoff was one of three candidates for the job in 2006, after United States attorney Terry Harris resigned to take a job with FedEx. Kustoff said he was interviewed in Washington by career Justice Department employee and former organized-crime prosecutor David Margolis and three others.

"I think Monica was in part of one of the interviews, but she did not ask any questions," Kustoff said.

He said he was asked about his ethics and priorities but was not asked about Operation Tennessee Waltz, which had received national media attention by then.

In the Flyer interview, Kustoff would not comment on specific cases during his tenure, but he said he was involved in "any and all major and minor decisions." He did not personally try cases, leaving that job to career prosecutor Tim DiScenza and others. The Tennessee Waltz indictments had already been handed up and some of the defendants had been prosecuted or pled guilty when Kustoff took over the office.

Kustoff also oversaw the investigation known as Main Street Sweeper, which resulted in a split decision. Former city councilman Rickey Peete pleaded guilty, but former city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. went to trial and was acquitted days before Kustoff left office. After the trial, a separate indictment against Ford and former MLGW chief executive Joseph Lee was dropped.

All of the Memphis public officials indicted in Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper were Democrats.

Asked if the feds' credibility has been damaged by reports of political interference in the hiring and firing of prosecutors, Kustoff said, "In the Western District of Tennessee it did not affect morale within the office or anyone's job performance. From a national perspective, no doubt it did not look good, but it did not affect our operation.

"We have the best law enforcement in this district," he said. "I base that not only on working with all facets but in talking to my fellow United States attorneys. They would talk about problems and issues they would have with law enforcement or local district attorneys. We had none of those issues here. [We] really came together to effectuate some really good investigations like Main Street Sweeper and Operation Last Call."

Kustoff said he hired "three or four" assistant prosecutors, but they were only interviewed locally, not in Washington. He recalled his own decision to apply as being influenced by extensive conversations with Harris and Shelby County district attorney general Bill Gibbons. The president appoints U.S. attorneys based on recommendations from the state's senators and governor if they are from the same political party. If not, then congressmen could have a voice.

There is likely to be a new U.S. attorney in Memphis next year no matter which party controls the White House. Career prosecutor Larry Laurenzi has the job on an interim basis for the second time.

Kustoff said he has no immediate plans to reenter politics.

"I am very happy practicing law and raising my family," he said.

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