A good swimmer can cross the Mississippi River in 20 minutes at low water. An expert kayaker can make it from one end of Mud Island to the other in 15 minutes. A pair of paddlers in a canoe can do it in 25 minutes. And if you're game but inexperienced, the river can scare the fool out of you or even kill you.
The majority of Memphians, of course, never do anything more than look at the river. And the minority who actually get in it somehow or other probably owe a debt of thanks to Joe Royer, founder of the Outdoors Inc. Canoe & Kayak Race.
Royer has the evangelical itch. He will talk your ears off about the wonders of paddling a kayak or canoe on the river whether you are a newbie or a hardcore. His vision, money, and determination turned a personal hobby into a celebrated annual event that lets thousands of people safely paddle the river under the supervision of the Coast Guard.
But after 30 years, Royer has met his match. Neither the weather nor the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) has cooperated, so Royer says he's "permanently" ending the canoe race. Thunderstorms sank it last year, and projected near-record flooding that turns trees on Greenbelt Park into low-water strainers has forced cancellation of this year's scheduled May 7th event. The RDC has declined to rebuild a ramp at the north end of Mud Island that Royer says would have enabled him to move the race to June when the river is lower.
I think the race will be back, possibly in a year or two, probably on a smaller scale, and in summer at low water. Royer acknowledged the possibility when I talked to him this week.
"If the ramp were rebuilt, I would love to do it," he said.
He went out of his way to say he doesn't want to demonize the RDC, which has spent its time and treasure on other projects, including Beale Street Landing and another boat ramp at the north end of Mud Island used primarily by fishermen.
The RDC made the right call. Ramps are expensive to build and maintain, and fishermen outnumber paddlers. Determined paddlers will find a way to access the river directly or via the Wolf River or the harbor — and take the risks. Just over a year ago, a Memphis man, Grant Somes, drowned when his canoe capsized.
I admire extreme athletes like Royer, bravado and all.
"Afraid of the Mississippi River? Not the thousands of Memphians who participated in the race," he said.
He notes that people swim to Alcatraz and windsurf under the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, I say, people jump from it, too. There is a difference between fear and respect.
Kevin Adams is the CEO of CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate firm. In March, he spent 15 days by himself, paddling a 14-foot kayak from Memphis to New Orleans.
Adams, 50, is a former college athlete who swam across the Mississippi River 25 years ago. His latest challenge involved a year of planning and training.
"There is a learning curve as you actually experience the river," he said. "You have to be very focused. There is no time to relax. You are always looking for stuff way out in front of you. The river humbles you and makes you respect how relentless it is. I expected the trip would take me 21 days, and it took me 15 because the current was so much greater."
He camped at night and carried all of his food and water, along with a DeLorme GPS with a SPOT satellite communicator and a cellphone that didn't work much. He wore a life vest constantly.
He never spilled, but he had some close calls and pumped out a lot of water when the wind was strong enough to produce whitecaps that pushed him back upriver.
"On one of the clear days when the river was like glass, I was out in the middle listening to Johnny Cash when I saw a ripple that became an eruption of whitewater eight feet long, with a black fin," he said. "As it got bigger, I thought it was a whale or shark coming to eat me. It turned out to be a big buoy 10 feet across and 20 feet tall that had been tied down but submerged."
He's pulling for the eventual revival of the Canoe & Kayak Race. That makes two of us. Don't give up, Joe.
Shea Flinn says he doesn't care that much if he winds up being a one-term member of the Memphis City Council.
Paraphrasing a line from the television show Beverly Hills 90210, "May the fires from the bridges that I burn light my way home," he said, Tuesday, a few hours before he planned to propose a one-time 39-cent property tax assessment to repay an overdue court-ordered debt to Memphis City Schools.
"Make no mistake, this thing is going down in flames," he said of the prospects for his proposal. He also suggested he might form a "Kamikaze Party" to put forth budget alternatives that are unpopular but, in his mind, honest answers rather than evasions.
The Rhodes College graduate and son of former Shelby County commissioner George Flinn has been arguing for most of his four-year term that there are two ways to balance the budget and pay the schools obligation, neither of them attractive: a property tax increase or bigger spending and personnel cuts than the council and mayor have so far been willing to make.
Flinn and his fellow council members, along with Mayor Wharton, are up for reelection this year. Defying standard practice, Flinn said this is exactly the right time to make hard choices.
His proposed tax increase would raise $40 million, which, combined with other measures proposed by the mayor, would settle a three-year-old dispute with MCS. The shortfall was of the council's own making. When Flinn and other newcomers came aboard in 2008, they cut city supplemental funding for schools in hopes that Shelby County would take it over.
That was Plan A.
Not so fast, said MCS. You owe us the money.
Plan B was going to court. Three courts restated the city's duty to "maintenance of effort" in school funding.
Plan C was negotiating a lower amount or paying it win installments. No dice, said MCS. We need the money and we need it yesterday.
Plan D was surrendering the MCS charter, which the city council, MCS board members, and Memphis voters approved in separate actions over the last five months. But the outcome of that will be decided either in court or in mediation.
Now that it is time to set the budget, Flinn has seen and heard enough. A special tax assessment would settle the MCS back payment once and for all. Then the council could have an honest debate about the budget and taxes and future payments to MCS.
"Everybody knows taxes are going up, and they're trying to get through this election year without doing it," he said.
Alternately, he believes, the council must privatize the sanitation department or make cuts in the fire department. The council has not been willing to do either of those things in the past.
Wharton hopes to balance the budget with layoffs of 125 employees, benefit cuts, and reduced hours at some public libraries and community centers. Also on the table are a couple of transactions involving selling the city's delinquent tax rolls and parking meter revenues for a one-time payment. The mayor was scheduled to make his budget presentation to the full council on Tuesday afternoon. He was not expected to recommend a tax increase, although he has previously said that a special tax assessment might be required to pay the MCS bill.
The current city tax rate is $3.19, so 39 cents would be a 12 percent increase. Memphians pay a combined city and county tax rate of $7.21, compared to $4.13 in Nashville/Davidson County, $5.46 in Germantown, $5.20 in Collierville, and $5.51 in Bartlett.
"How much higher can our taxes be than Nashville's and we still survive?" Flinn asked.
He may not care whether he stays on the city council, but Memphians should. Flinn is one of the council's best, brightest, and bravest members. The city can't balance its budget with pawn-shop financing, 125 layoffs in a workforce of over 6,500 employees, trying to buy time and concessions from MCS, or waiting for a federal judge or mediator to order Shelby County to take on more funding.
Hard choices have to be made, and this election year is the time to do it.
There are three ways of looking at the past and future growth of cities: through the eyes of chief executives, through the eyes of demographers and scholars, and through your own eyes.
On Tuesday, I went to the Peabody for a taste of the Airport Cities World Conference and Exhibition to get the CEOs' view. Fred Smith of FedEx and Richard Anderson of Delta Airlines were onstage with John Kasarda, a professor and author who coined the term "aerotropolis." Memphis is an aerotropolis city because of the airport cargo and passenger hubs.
The questions to Smith and Anderson from Kasarda and members of the audience were friendly. This was not Meet the Press. Anderson didn't talk about Delta's recently announced cutbacks in service in Memphis. He said the future of passenger aviation holds continued consolidation, high fuel prices and higher fares, fewer trade barriers, and little if any growth in employment.
Still, he said, "I think the winners are cities like Memphis," because of companies like FedEx and Medtronic, which is "a gem." He praised Memphis International Airport for its investments in the ramps, runways, and terminal.
"We probably have the lowest operating cost of any airport in the United States," Anderson said.
Other places he did not name are "eight to 10 times more expensive and the quality may not be better."
Smith was bullish on the long-term outlook for international trade, aerotropolis cities, and FedEx but only made a couple of general comments about Memphis. He cited a study showing that one out of three jobs in the metro area is tied to the airport and said there are some 40,000 jobs in bio-sciences alone. Memphis, of course, is in the big leagues of aerotropolis cities like Hong Kong, Beijing, Amsterdam, and Paris only because of FedEx.
"The best place to locate is next to one of these locations, where you can have access on an eight-hour or 24-hour basis to everyone on the planet," Smith said.
The statistician's view of Memphis and Shelby County is not so bullish. The University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research has done population projections for the next 20 years for every county and city in Tennessee. They are posted on the state's official website.
Shelby County, population 910,776, is projected to decrease to 875,972 in 2020 and go to 905,818 in 2030. The forecasters predict that Memphis (population 680,276) will lose 23,000 residents in the next 10 years.
Davidson County (Nashville), population 641,948, is projected to grow to 736,606 in 2020 and 764,142 in 2030. The fastest-growing areas of Tennessee are Rutherford County (Murfreesboro) and Williamson County (Franklin), south of Nashville in the center of the car industry. Rutherford County's population is projected to grow from 251,596 to 420,465 by 2030 while Williamson County's projected growth is from 174,485 to 318,873.
The third view, from the streets, is not as scientific. I spent three days in Nashville last weekend, including several hours in a honky-tonk called Roberts Western World on Broadway under the influence of a little alcohol and a lot of country, rockabilly, and bluegrass music. One of the stars was bass player Joe Fick, known to Memphians as a member of the Dempseys.
The place was packed. So were most of the other bars and sidewalks on lower Broadway and the streets around the Ryman Auditorium and the convention center. How many of those people were locals and how many were tourists I can't say, but there were thousands of them, and they were overwhelmingly white. I mean like Master's at Augusta National crowd white.
My unscientific view, based on living in Nashville and Memphis for many years, is that cities, like schools, self-segregate, assuming that there are employment opportunities. Over time, they become more of what they are. Nashville is not an aerotropolis city but it is a capital city with car factories, transplanted Midwesterners, a big-name hospital and university, and a lot of old money.
Politically, Middle Tennessee is the well-tuned hub of a growing red state, and the home of the blues, as in music and politics, is 200 miles away.
"What would you do now?"
A friend asked me that question last weekend. We were talking about school consolidation and got off on a conversation about Memphis in general.
We have both lived in Memphis a long time and have seen many of its hits and misses up close. We know that Memphis is losing population and that its story line for the past 40 years can be summarized as "White Flight Plus Blight."
This was his premise: Apart from reducing crime and improving schools and short of attracting a major corporate headquarters to Memphis, what would you do now that would make a significant difference and generate popular support?
I bought time for a few seconds — "Yeah, well, uh, the stock market has come back, so I guess there's more money out there and good people willing to spend it for the benefit of the city" — and so on. I'll get to my answer in a minute.
But first I made a mental list and, later, a written list of things Memphis already has done in the last 20 years, and it's pretty impressive. There's no easy answer, no low-hanging fruit.
Major-league sports? For years, this was the mantra. Now Memphis has the Grizzlies, bound for the NBA Playoffs.
Other pro sports? Memphis has a high-level pro tennis tournament at the Racquet Club and a PGA golf tournament.
AutoZone Park, which replaced Tim McCarver Stadium at the fairgrounds, is the most expensive minor league park in the U.S.A.
A first-class arena? FedExForum put that argument to rest, along with the Pyramid and Mid-South Coliseum.
Mike Rose Fields is as good a soccer complex as you'll find anywhere. My old friends from Michigan drive 600 miles to use it.
First Tennessee Fields gave Memphis and Shelby County a destination baseball complex to compete with Snowden Grove in DeSoto County, Mississippi.
College football? Tiger Lane is a big improvement over the cow barns at the fairgrounds a year ago.
Sports and fitness for the underprivileged? The future Kroc Center, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and Streets Ministries.
Family-friendly recreation on a budget? Shelby Farms, with a playground opening that sounds so advanced it should come with a manual. Or the new bike trail, with a link to the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River in the making.
Memphis music? Soulsville USA and jazz-man Kirk Whalum. Plus Beale Street. Plus Memphis, the musical, at the Orpheum and a smash on Broadway. Plus outdoor summer concerts at the Memphis Botanic Garden. And Minglewood Hall. And the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. And the Levitt Shell.
Brains over brawn? The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library is 10 times the size of the old main library at McLean and Peabody.
Consolidated government? Voters rejected it last year.
A big stage for live theater? That would be the new Playhouse on the Square in Midtown.
A big-name University of Memphis basketball coach and a Final Four? John Calipari and Derrick Rose, at a price, in 2008.
A zoo? Memphis arguably has the best one around.
A trolley? Got it. I didn't say it worked.
Riverfront living and parks? Miles of them. Check out the 1993 movie The Firm to see how barren Mud Island was 20 years ago.
Dressed-up gateways to the city? See Danny Thomas Boulevard north of North Parkway, Sam Cooper Boulevard east of Overton Park, and Poplar Avenue at Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital.
Aerotropolis? New control tower, a world airport conference here in April, and a new entrance and garage under construction.
I probably left something out. We can argue over the timing, execution, players, and particulars, but Memphis has not been standing still. Most of this has been done in the last 10 years.
To get back to the original question, my two-part answer, such as it was: a university medical center on Union Avenue that looks more like the ones in Nashville, Birmingham, and Jackson, Mississippi. And 50 small things instead of one big thing.
On further reflection, I can see a case made for an NFL team and a new stadium if teams in Buffalo or Jacksonville bail. Or a new convention center if Bass Pro comes to the Pyramid. Or casino gambling, although I think Tunica got the easy money.
Anyway, it's your turn. Try it yourself. What would you do?