Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tommy the Terrible

A disillusioned downtowner says "so long."

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2009 at 4:00 AM

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After serving a stint as president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), Tommy Volinchak has had a bellyful of cliques, preservationists, bake sales, and delayed projects.

"Downtown is a white, cliquey suburb," says Volinchak, 54, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, whose father worked in the steel mills all his life. He and his fiancée are moving to East Memphis when he sells his house on Mud Island.

Dressed in jeans and a black bowling shirt with "Tommy" stitched on the front — one of several in his collection — Volinchak sipped a cup of hot chocolate at an outdoor café in Harbor Town this week and discussed his downtown disillusionment. A frequent letter writer and e-mailer, whose pronouncements range from caustic to bombastic, he is mellower in person, even to a reporter who has been on the receiving end of his missives and hails from the dreaded state of Michigan.

"I never hold back," he says. "When the people you're leading and you don't see eye to eye, then you're beating your head against a brick wall. The DNA was a bit of a social clique. You saw the same people, and they all seemed to look alike."

Volinchak stands out in a Memphis crowd. He is the size of a football lineman. He is of Ukrainian heritage. He plays the accordion, guitar, and several other instruments. He hopes to make the senior bowling tour. A self-described bull, his heroes "are guys like Patton, Noah, and Moses." He has a college degree in biology and a water purification business and is writing a book on contemporary music for the accordion.

"I had a lot of support and a lot of detractors," he says of his tenure as head of the 500-member DNA. "You're either going to love me or hate me."

Volinchak came to Memphis in 2001 from Ohio, drawn by the music scene and positive reviews of downtown from his friend Carol Coletta, a former downtowner who is now head of the group CEOs for Cities in Chicago. He joined the DNA, which he thought spent too much time on home tours and not enough time on political nitty-gritty and establishing its clout in support of big-ticket projects such as Beale Street Landing and Bass Pro in the Pyramid. His views, he says, were formed by seeing the deterioration of towns like Youngstown in industrial Ohio. He has served on the board of the Riverfront Development Corporation and Mayor Herenton's convention center advisory committee.

As a resident for eight years, he found downtown more effete than melting pot.

"I used to go to the movies at Peabody Place three to five times a week," he says. "I could count on my hands the DNA members supporting that venue. Crazy kids with their hats on sideways ... to me, that is life. People my age are not the future of downtown."

As a DNA officer, he quickly ran out of patience with town hall meetings, which he calls "mental masturbation" in which opposing sides often "came together to make new enemies." Preservationists, cobblestones proponents, reporters, politicians opposing the Bass Pro/Pyramid deal, and the group Friends For Our Riverfront often drew his fire.

"Memphians spend an enormous amount of time cherishing, protecting, and fondling what Memphis once was," he says, mentioning the cobblestones and the Front Street cotton business as examples. "There is no good outcome for that mentality."

He is a staunch proponent of Bass Pro because "big projects make small projects possible," and he laments the criticism of its fish-on-a-hook sign and proposed Pyramid redesign. A registered Democrat, he says he is on good terms with Mayor Herenton and has thought of getting into politics himself but only "in a position that would allow me to lead and cause a ruckus." Youngstown, he scoffs, "makes Memphis look like Romper Room. When we had a sting, we netted congressmen, judges, and gangland hits."

He makes no apologies for the caustic tone of his writing.

"America has grown complacent," he says. "Hypocrisy is rampant. I don't write anything I wouldn't say to your face. Bipartisanship and compromise is a sign of a man who's not firm in his convictions."

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