Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nashville Visits Memphis

Karl Dean gets a first-hand look at Memphis.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Nashville mayor Karl Dean, who is up for reelection August 4th, and his wife Anne Davis, an instructor at Vanderbilt's law school, met with a small group of Memphians, including Mayor A C Wharton, at the Arcade for breakfast Tuesday. Dean was also the lunch speaker at Rotary.

The Deans' son Rascoe is a second-year Teach For America English teacher in the Memphis City Schools who learned last week that his job at East High is uncertain. It's a common predicament for young teachers in MCS because of an unstable population, declining enrollment, and the ongoing funding donnybrook. The president of the Memphis Education Association, Keith Williams, told the Memphis City Council last week that his son, a recent University of Tennessee graduate, lost his teaching job this year too.

Hard times, it seems, know no favorites in MCS.

Dean, like Wharton, is an attorney and former public defender. His city, I have to say after staying there last weekend, has an embarrassment of riches.

Dean said that funding for the consolidated Nashville/Davidson County public school system has increased 12 percent in the last four years, without a property tax increase. It has 71,700 students (about 32,000 fewer than Memphis) and a bigger tax base. Like Memphis, however, it is battling flight to neighboring counties and fast-growing cities such as Franklin and Murfreesboro.

Downtown Nashville is booming. The new $600 million convention center is taking shape and scheduled to open in 2013. It dwarfs both the Bridgestone Arena and Country Music Hall of Fame, which are immediately north and east of it. Upon seeing it, my first thought was that this is not a convention center, this is a Kennedy Center, and Nashville is competing not with Memphis but with Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Miami. A privately financed $260 million, 800-room Omni Hotel will complete the redevelopment package south of Broadway, with its country music bars.

"I knew we couldn't do a publicly financed hotel," said Dean, who has to contend with a 40-member metro council.

Cry him a river. Last week, the city learned that it lost a lawsuit over eminent domain and the land for the convention center, which will bump the cost considerably. That's a manageable problem in a city that's flush. At $7 to $10, downtown parking — if you can find it — costs more than the $6 "Stimulus Special" of a hot dog, can of Pabst, chips, and a Moon Pie at Roberts Western World honky-tonk.

Dean said Nashville is promoting bikes and walking and planning some kind of mass transit along the West End, Music City's version of Union Avenue. But bikes and shuttle buses were scarce last weekend, and light rail is years away.

Traffic in and out of Nashville can be a pain. The next time I want to explore downtown, I'll take Dean's advice and park next to the Titans' stadium in East Nashville and take one of the pedestrian bridges over the river.

click to enlarge Karl Dean
  • Karl Dean
Dean complimented Memphis on its downtown trolley, residential communities, riverfront, and sports teams, noting that the Grizzlies and Nashville Predators were both featured in the same issue of Sports Illustrated this spring. He and Wharton are Democrats with similar professional backgrounds and seem to be of the same mind on public education, the merits of charter schools, Republican governor Bill Haslam, and supporters and confidants such as Memphians Pitt and Barbara Hyde.

According to Nashville City Paper, Dean has "no serious opposition" for reelection for another four-year term. Victories by Dean in August and Wharton in October would give red-state Tennessee Democratic mayors in its two biggest cities.

Dean and Nashville hold the stronger hand and most of the high cards. If he wants to do something nice for Memphis, he could send us another thousand or so young college graduates like his son. If only we could find jobs for them.

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