Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Motivational Lollapalooza

Colin Powell, Laura Bush, and a financial adviser with an attitude.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 10:24 AM

I went to the "Get Motivated" lollapalooza at FedExForum Monday. Sat through eight hours of speeches. These guys are good. Full house, 17,000 easy. Touches of Wrestlemania, church, infomercials, Republican national conventions, and a Michael Jackson concert. Cost me $1.95 and was worth every penny.

All the big guns showed up as advertised: Laura Bush, Colin Powell, Lou Holtz, Terry Bradshaw, and Rudy Giuliani plus Leigh Anne Touhy of The Blind Side, John Walsh of America's Most Wanted, a raunchy religious financial adviser named James Smith, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and more.

They each spoke for about 30 minutes from a platform in the middle of the floor, with ramped-up introductions and a burst of smoke and fireworks from the corners of the stage. At the end of the day, it felt like eating too much at a buffet.

"Have fun with what you're doing," suggested Holtz, the former football coach at Arkansas and Notre Dame.

Okey doke. Can you match the motivator with their signature line or story?

"The dollar should be as good as gold," says a) Colin Powell b) Steve Forbes c) Lou Holtz d) Rudy Giuliani.

A "turn around" became a life lesson for a) Laura Bush b) Leigh Anne Touhy c) Terry Bradshaw d) Steve Forbes.

This speaker's spouse calls the ranch "the promised land." a) Leigh Anne Touhy b) Laura Bush c) Steve Forbes d) Terry Bradshaw.

WIN equals "what's important now" is a favorite of a) Colin Powell b) Lou Holtz c) Steve Forbes d) Laura Bush.

A patriotic hot dog vendor refused payment and taught a lesson to a) Rudy Giuliani b) Colin Powell c) Steve Forbes d) Laura Bush.

Always be ready for "something frantic, terrible, and awful" says a) Steve Forbes b) Rudy Giuliani c) Terry Bradshaw d) Colin Powell.

"When you hear the word spending or stimulus, ask where the money comes from" says a) Steve Forbes b) Steve Forbes c) Steve Forbes d) Steve Forbes,

"Tom Brady is really handsome. If I ever cross over that line one time, Tom Brady is my guy," says a) Steve Forbes b) Terry Bradshaw c) Colin Powell d) Leigh Anne Touhy.

At the airport check-in, this speaker was "stripped, a dog smelled me, and a guy was wanding me like you wouldn't believe": a) Laura Bush b) Colin Powell c) Terry Bradshaw d) Steve Forbes.

The answer to each question is "b." Unless you count anything-goes James Smith, who apparently wandered over from Comedy Central.

"Close the book," he told people searching through the handout. "If you need that you're too dumb to learn anything." He made fun of people in the audience who looked "pissed off" at him, sports fans who wear team jerseys, and offered this nugget: "When you shave that skanky face of yours in the morning, you need to say, 'Dude, you're gonna rock the world today.'"

And, oh yes, you should invest in tax deeds and liens to make 17 percent a year.

The two financial guys apparently helped underwrite the event, because they pitched products from the stage and in the concourse. Otherwise there was no hard sell. I had a hard time buying Powell, the general and former secretary of state, as a regular guy, hard as he tried. Laura Bush seems like a genuinely nice person. Say what you will about Holtz, Giuliani, Bradshaw, and Forbes, they are terrific speakers.

Touhy is, if anything, even more glamorous than Sandra Bullock who played her in the hit movie. She skillfully worked the theme "get off Poplar Avenue and see what's out there and get out of your comfort zone." But she hit one off-note.

Attempting to explain her bond with her adopted African-American "son" Michael Oher, she said the giant professional football player went into a Taco Bell in Memphis and told the kid behind the counter to "put it on the manager's card, my dad's the owner." His "dad" is Sean Touhy, who owns franchises. The kid said "sure, and I'm the Queen of England," and Big Mike called his "dad" and told him to fire the kid.

This struck me as wrong on every level, especially when speaker after speaker emphasized kindness to the less fortunate. Why didn't Mike just fork over $10 cash like everyone else? If Peyton Manning or Jay Cutler did this, they'd be crucified on SportsCenter. If asking "Dad" to fire a kid making $6.50 an hour shows familial bonding, I'll take vanilla. Pro athletes should have manners. And pro speakers need editors.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ready, Set, Sue!

In schools merger, you can’t tell the players without a program.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 11:58 AM

Well, what do you know, everybody lawyered up.

Last week, there was a flurry of claims, counterclaims, and cross-claims in federal court over the pending merger of the city and county school systems. U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays drew the job of sorting it all out, starting with a scheduling conference Thursday.

And in one of the wonders of democracy, 150 people will be interviewed Wednesday by the Shelby County Commission for possible appointment to a new 25-member school board that may never meet. If it does meet, they will spend countless hours for next to nothing doing what attorneys get paid upwards of $250 an hour to do. Different strokes for different folks.

The impetus for all of this was the December 20th surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter by the school board and the March 8th approval of the Memphis referendum of the following question: "Shall administration of the Memphis City Schools, a special school district, be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?"

It was an expensive question, and not just because the election cost about $1 million. A referendum question should be clear and simple. Shall the drinking age be raised to 21? Shall beer be sold on Sunday morning? Shall the Jones Building be renamed the Smith Building? Ask a broad, open-ended question and you create a full-employment act for lawyers.

Based on court filings, here are the players and the positions.

Shelby County School Board — First to file, on February 11th, the same day that the Memphis City Council voted to accept the surrender of the MCS charter. And the same day the governor signed the Norris-Todd bill setting the terms for the transition. Legal team includes Chuck Cagle, veteran of school consolidations in Chattanooga, Knoxville, and other Tennessee cities.

The seven-member board sued the MCS board, the Memphis City Council, the U.S. Department of Education, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Key points: The surrender created a "chaotic and dangerous vacuum" to be filled by the county board without a transition plan. The task is "impossible," and the surrender should be null and void.

In a separate legal action, five members of the county school board claimed the right to serve out their four-year terms.

Memphis City Schools — Veteran school board attorneys Ernest Kelly Jr., Mike Marshall, and Dorsey Hopson say the December 20th surrender of the charter was valid. The Memphis City Council, however, acted contrary to the intent of the board by trying to impose its own transition period to "wind up" affairs.

The federal court should determine the effect of the Norris-Todd bill. The city of Memphis has no authority to run a school system that gave up its charter. The MCS board exists until transfer to the county board happens. MCS is entitled to all funds until then, including a $57 million back-payment it wants immediately.

City of Memphis — Attorneys Herman Morris and Regina Morrison Newman say the Shelby County school board has made no attempt to perform its duty to the children of MCS. MCS teachers are ready and able to teach under the administration of the board.

The Norris-Todd bill is unconstitutional and violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, because there is a "history of long-standing avoidance of integration" in Memphis and Shelby County schools.

Memphis City Council — Attorney Allan Wade says MCS and the school board dissolved on February 11th after the council approved the school board vote to surrender the charter. This put MCS out of business even without the referendum. Shelby County has a duty to manage the former MCS. The Tennessee Department of Education should make Shelby County do its duty.

Shelby County Commission — Represented by attorney Leo Bearman Jr., commissioners want to appoint a new 25-member school board. It is unclear if current county school board members would be on it. Some current members of the MCS board have applied to be on the new board.

The backdrop of this action is the commission's institutional memory. Mark Norris was a commissioner before he was a state legislator, and veteran commissioners are still sore about the county school board's resistance to giving Memphians a voice in Shelby County schools.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Bodacious Tax Grab

How taxes are funneled to the Fairgrounds, the Pyramid, and parking.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 16, 2011 at 1:03 PM

You have to be a code-breaker to understand economic development in Memphis.

It's a world of TIFs, PILOTs, CRAs, TDZs, CDCs, and HCD that makes high finance, the IRS code, or special school districts seem clear and reasonable. And that's the point. You, reader, are not supposed to understand this stuff. Because if you did you might get upset at how your taxes are funneled into various pet projects of dubious merit and jumbo price tags.

(For the record, the acronyms stand for tax-increment financing, payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, community redevelopment agency, tourism development zone, community development corporation, and the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.)

Consider the Fairgrounds, home of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Tiger Lane, the future Kroc Center, the shuttered Mid-South Coliseum, and several acres of parking lots and fields.

Under a plan being developed by HCD director Robert Lipscomb, the Fairgrounds will soak up millions more dollars in taxes from Midtown residents and businesses. The method is a TIF. Future tax revenues above a baseline amount within the TIF district would be used to back bonds to redevelop the Fairgrounds. In addition, part of the sales taxes generated by the new development goes to the city instead of state coffers.

The interesting thing about this TIF district: the boundaries. The proposed district is a chunk of Midtown and East Memphis bordered by North Parkway, Southern Avenue, Belvedere Boulevard on the west, and Goodwyn Street and Memphis Country Club on the east. On a map of Memphis, this is the donut hole. It includes the Cooper-Young district, Overton Square, Playhouse on the Square, miles of retail stores on commercial corridors Poplar Avenue and Union Avenue, the proposed Broad Avenue arts district, and parts of Central Gardens, the Evergreen Historic District, and Chickasaw Gardens.

Lipscomb told me the "Fairgrounds TIF" would also pay for improvements to Overton Park, Overton Square, the Lick Creek drainage basin, and maybe a new parking garage. An update on the project was on the City Council agenda after our deadlines.

Here are a few potential sources of the "tax increment": a homeowner in Chickasaw Gardens who builds an addition that increases property value; the future CVS pharmacy at the site of the Union Avenue United Methodist Church; a new business on Poplar or Union; a new art supply store in Cooper-Young. At a time when budgets are being cut and Memphis is losing population and tax base, a TIF is one way of funding big projects without a politically unpopular tax increase.

One reason Memphis has the highest property taxes in Tennessee is the popularity of TIFs, TDZs, and PILOTs, which are dispensed like green beer on St. Patrick's Day. They support fiefdoms that gobble up tax money that might otherwise pay for schools and police officers.

The model for economic development by acronym is downtown. TIFs and TDZs support FedExForum, the convention center, Uptown and the proposed redevelopment of the Pyramid, Pinch District, and the area south of Beale Street that is sometimes called Triangle Noir. Agencies including the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Center City Commission (CCC), and Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) jockey for influence and funding for special projects.

The key player is Lipscomb. For developers, architects, philanthropists, bond underwriters, and consultants, he is the man to see. He has served under mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton for more than 20 years, with an interlude at LeMoyne-Owen College, his alma mater. He wears two hats and draws two salaries as head of HCD and the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), which oversees redevelopments of housing projects such as Uptown, Legends Park, and College Park. His influence extends from Whitehaven and Graceland to Soulsville to the Pyramid to the Fairgrounds and Overton Square.

During the debate over merger of the city and county school systems, we heard a lot about the implications of a special county school district and suburban school systems. With taxing authority, they might somehow, some day, some way, stop paying county taxes to support all public schools and instead support only the schools outside the city of Memphis.

If you don't have taxing authority, a guaranteed tax revenue stream will do just as well. Maybe even better in a budget crisis. Memphis City Schools and the code-breakers who work for and with the acronym agencies figured this out a long time ago.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Way Forward

After the schools referendum, look for a flight to stability.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 11:44 AM

Pass or fail, post-referendum Memphis is going to have a hard slog. We had to have this discussion about schools, but in the short run, it united the suburbs and divided thoughtful people in the city.

There will not be a mandate. The vote will be split and the turnout will be low. A majority of the Memphis City Schools board now opposes charter surrender, with the addition of new board member Sara Lewis. So did Superintendent Kriner Cash.

The Memphis City Council voted unanimously to support the board's surrender vote, but that vote masked underlying cracks. The council's white members wanted to go slow and negotiate. And Councilwoman Wanda Halbert, an African-American single mother, voted "aye" only to show solidarity with Memphis against actions by the General Assembly in Nashville. If the referendum fails, "it will be a little scary," she said. If it passes, county schools will be "forced to merge rather than choosing to."

Parents of students in the city and county systems are stirred up. There will be a flight to stability. The best-performing city and county schools will get better, and the worst will get worse. That's the price of open enrollment, school choice, and optional schools.

The charter schools in Memphis will attract motivated students and parents. They are already pulling in young teachers from Teach For America who are leaving MCS, veteran teachers and administrators looking for a second career, and local and national philanthropists. They will add more schools, more grades in each school, and more students in each grade. Charters have a built-in marketing machine in the documentary movie Waiting for Superman. Charters are fundamental to that particular view of school reform, and Memphis is ground zero in Tennessee.

There will be a brawl in Memphis over closing low-enrollment schools. That was bubbling up last year before charter surrender moved to the front burner. It can't be put off forever. The passion for "saving neighborhood schools" will be much greater than the tepid enthusiasm for merging systems.

A beneficial side effect of that gut-wrenching decision will be a demand for honest and accurate numbers. MCS and SCS have every incentive to maximize attendance, which is tied to funding, and graduation rate, which indicates performance. Tennessee's new governor, Bill Haslam, and his new commissioner of education, Kevin Huffman (Teach For America's executive vice president of public affairs), won't put up with shenanigans.

"With the First to the Top legislation and the Race to the Top awards, we as a state have an opportunity to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and Kevin is the person to make that a reality," Haslam said recently.

Look for Tennessee to imitate USA Today's investigation of standardized test scores.

The Memphis and Shelby County school systems will settle their long-standing boundary dispute, which was one of the things at the heart of this debate. Southwind High School, operated by the county but built by the city and county, will force the issue. Look for MCS to take it over, along with its feeder schools. Southwind High School is nearly all black, and the majority-white county system is inviting a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit if it holds on to it.

Kriner Cash can't stay in limbo. He is the MCS board's only employee. The board voted itself out of existence. Cash has no chance of being superintendent of a merged system. He has every right to demand a buyout or a contract extension from MCS or its successor. "For a long time, the community has been saying they want him gone," said Halbert, a former school board member. "They may get their wish."

Finally, the rhetoric will have to change. Some scholars and preachers who know better attempted to rally support to the merger side by saying schools are "separate but unequal," that the 70 percent of children in Shelby County who attend Memphis schools are uniformly poor economically and that this is "a civil rights issue." Compared to the Sixties, it is no such thing.

This is a losing game and a dead end. There are black elected officials, ministers, and activists on both sides of this issue. Memphis has a substantial black middle class as well as a substantial underclass. MCS has scores of relatively new, well-equipped schools. The Shelby County school system is more than 40 percent minority and will probably be majority-minority soon.

If nothing else, the charter debate and those forums all over town made this clear. The sooner we admit it, the better off we'll be.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Planes, Boats, and Trains

They’re BAAACK! Aerotropolis and steamboats in the news.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 10:55 AM

And now for a word about the Memphis economy.

Actually several thousand words. A new book, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, devotes a chapter to Memphis and FedEx. The Wall Street Journal included Memphis in a weekend story about airport hubs called "Cities of the Sky." Mayor A C Wharton urged critics of incentives for Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric to take a look at competing cities. And the Riverfront Development Corporation said it has a steamboat prospect for Beale Street Landing.

Each report contains a mixture of hype, error, and fact. Since aerotropolis is the biggest deal, I'll start there.

Greg Lindsay, the co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next (with John Kasarda, who coined the word), also wrote the article in The Wall Street Journal, which puts Memphis in the same league as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and Bangalore because of the FedEx superhub.

An aerotropolis, he writes, "can be narrowly defined as a city planned around its airport." An aerotropolis "is an amalgam of made-to-order office parks, convention hotels, cargo complexes, and even factories, which in some cases line the runways" as well as "world-class architecture" and huge private investments.

Memphis International Airport is certainly easy to get in and out of, but mainly because it is not crowded. Passenger counts are off 25 percent from pre-9/11 levels. The architecture, including the future passenger transfer building and parking garage, is nice enough but hardly world-class.

Of course, it is their cargo hubs for FedEx and UPS that make Memphis and Louisville the envy of would-be aerotropoli (sic).

From the article: "Not so long ago, those cities were Southern Rust Belt towns. They have been saved by companies like Amazon and Zappos, which set up shop around the air hubs."

Southern Rust Belt? I think that would be Birmingham. Zappos is an online shoe company with a facility 12 miles from the airport in Louisville. Amazon announced last year that it will build a big distribution center that will employ 1,400 people in Chattanooga, 300 miles from Memphis. But Memphis does have big distribution centers for Nike and scores of other companies. Point granted.

Lindsay paints a more accurate picture of Memphis in the book. He actually spent time driving around the airport, and his observations are spot on. He notes the "rusting industrial parks clinging like barnacles to the airport's west side." He gets a tour of Whitehaven and Brooks Road and learns about our ever-expanding circle of sprawl and low-end jobs.

This particular aerotropolis, in his words, "still has a long way to go." When the Airport Cities World Conference & Exposition comes to Memphis in April, guests will convene at the Peabody.

Giving his own take on economic development, Wharton last week told critics of incentives to "read" and quit yapping. A review of the big catches and incentives in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama in the last 20 years shows that Memphis paid less to get less and is still not in the car manufacturing game.

Mitsubishi Electric and Electrolux are third-round picks compared to first-round choices like Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. The cities and states in the Southern car empire paid dearly to play but got thousands of jobs in return: Mercedes in Alabama, $253 million; Nissan in Mississippi, $363 million; Nissan in Middle Tennessee, $197 million; Volkswagen in Chattanooga, $577 million; Toyota in Tupelo, $296 million; Hyundai in Montgomery, $234 million. Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric, which will build their plants near Presidents Island and the river port, got about $170 million combined in incentives.

Finally, the Great American Steamboat Company might be coming to Memphis. Possibly 250 to 500 jobs! Scenic paddlewheelers disgorging tourists flush with cash on our shores! A majestic Beale Street Landing for a bargain price of under $40 million!

Except there is no company currently plying the waters of the Mighty Mississippi. Paddlewheelers are nostalgic, pretty to look at, a fine place to have a drink, expensive to insure, and have small rooms with low ceilings. See the Delta Queen, moored on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga.

Only a cynic would suggest that this announcement was timed to coincide with Memphis City Council capital-improvement budget discussions and the fact that the Riverfront Development Corporation needs $8 million to finish Beale Street Landing and would like taxpayers to fork it over.

So call me a cynic.

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