Memphis loves its river. Or does it?
Just as the level of the Mississippi River on the Memphis gauge rises and falls from the near record 48 feet in 2011 to -10.7 feet in 1988, so do investment and interest in tourism and recreation along the river. This year, we're well above flood stage and approaching a record.
At the $42 million Beale Street Landing, the American Queen, which is being christened Friday, is bringing back overnight steamboat trips. A new restaurant at the landing will offer the river views that have been missing since the Pier and Landry's closed. Memphis in May is bringing the barbecue contest back to the river after the 2011 flood forced it to relocate to Tiger Lane at the fairgrounds. In June, Joe Royer is bringing back the Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race after a two-year absence. Bass Pro Shops is turning the Pyramid into a retail store and indoor swamp. And the Harahan Bridge Project will create a bike trail across the river.
Taken all together, the public and private investment in riverfront projects coming on line this year and next is well over $250 million.
But the excitement is tempered by experience — the delays and cost overruns at Beale Street Landing, the slow pace and high cost in public incentives of Bass Pro, the uncertain funding for the Harahan Project, and the barren landscape of Tom Lee Park after Memphis in May.
The Front Street public promenade, a gift to the city from its founders, is still dominated by parking garages. Mud Island River Park, which came out of hibernation this month, is 30 years old and nearly deserted on weekdays. The cobblestone landing next to Riverside Drive remains a stepchild of Beale Street Landing — mostly talk and no action. The unfinished Horizon high-rise on the South Bluff is a monument to bad investing, bad architecture, and bad planning.
"I don't have an easy river to work with," Royer told me while he explained why he pushed back the date of the canoe and kayak race. And that goes for anyone who tries to do something on or along the river. It's like the heroine in a noir movie or novel — beautiful, irresistible, and trouble.
After losing money two years in a row, Royer said he was ready to call it quits last year. The paddling scene, such as it is in Shelby County, had moved out east to Shelby Farms and the Wolf River. But a canoe or kayak on man-made Patriot Lake is a pretty ordinary picture compared to a flotilla of them coming down the river along Mud Island on a summer morning. The entry: $40. The experience: priceless.
Same goes for the barbecue contest. Diane Hampton, executive director of Memphis in May, said she really liked Tiger Lane last year "but it just wasn't the same as being next to the river." A survey of teams showed a clear majority in favor of coming back to Tom Lee Park, where the contest, the Beale Street Music Fest, and the Sunset Symphony will co-exist with the construction of Beale Street Landing.
Bud Chittom will operate the restaurant at the landing.
"Great cocktails, sunsets, good food, lovely veranda, and the only unobstructed view where you don't smell a paper mill," said Chittom, who was the only one to bid on the contract.
If the Pyramid comes back to life as a Bass Pro superstore, it will be because of the public incentives and the personal determination of Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris, who is calling all of the shots.
And if the Harahan Project comes to fruition, it will be due in large part to the efforts of Aerobic Cruiser hybrid bicycle entrepreneur Charles McVean. The vision goes back to at least 1976, when it was proposed in a Memphis magazine story on "bikommuting" to accommodate the estimated "283,000 admitted pedallers" in Shelby County.
Joe Royer is right. This is not an easy river. The Tennessee River in Chattanooga is easy. You can bike across it, walk across it, float it, build on both of its banks, and permanently dock a steamboat on it. This helped make Chattanooga "best town ever" in Outside magazine's singular estimation last year.
Our river is majestic but hard to work with. It is a photo-op. It is a challenge to our civic vision. We are often reminded how mistaken we would be to turn our backs on it. So we keep on keeping on.
"I get it" is the standard way of assuring others that you understand all the complexity and nuance of a controversial subject but disagree on some of the particulars.
Not me. No matter how much I read and watch and listen and reconsider, sometimes I simply don't get it.
I don't get the fuss over video boards or JumboTrons or whatever you call the giant scoreboards at stadiums. Liberty Bowl Stadium is getting a new one for $2.5 million, replacing a smaller one that is as dated as print papers. Video boards reinforce the view that the best seat in the house is at a sports bar or on a leather couch in your living room in front of a high-definition, 48-inch television with the NFL and SEC game packages. If you want to enhance the Memphis "game day" experience, just win more games, like they did at South Carolina, Alabama, Stanford, and Michigan State — none of which is in the Top 40 of largest video boards. Watching the Tigers once is usually enough.
AutoZone Park has a new video board this season. I went to the Redbirds game Sunday and admired the 60'-by-60' picture as sharp as all outdoors. Ninety percent of the time, the big board showed a mug shot of the player at bat along with his stats. The rest of the time it showed couples kissing or fans taking part in on-field promotions involving costumes and sponsors.
I don't get it that, with a few exceptions, baseball doesn't show replays of controversial calls on the stadium big screen, although you can see endless graphics-enhanced replays of pitches, pickoffs, stolen bases, foul balls, and umps' blown calls on home television. If there had been a close play with a runner racing home from third, a throw coming in from the outfield like a laser, a stout catcher blocking the plate, a collision and a cloud of dust, followed by an umpire's call of "safe" or "out," and a manager charging out of the dugout to protest the call, the video board operator would have pretended that nothing had happened and flashed a head shot of the next batter.
The Redbirds and lovely AutoZone Park need a boost. The stadium holds 15,000; the generous attendance estimate Sunday was 5,000. A crawfish festival drew more people. Minor-league baseball should be the leading edge of experimenting with stadium replays because there is so little action relative to football and basketball. But that wouldn't be baseball. God forbid that an umpire's judgment should be second-guessed by technology.
No other sport is so sensitive. At the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships tennis tournament at the Racquet Club this year, the "Hawk-Eye" system was installed so players could challenge the calls of linesmen. In professional football, instant replay and "the coach's challenge" have become integral parts of the game. For several years now, a college or pro football player who commits a penalty is identified by his number. In the NBA, fans can see the good, the bad, and the ugly over and over at the game, on ESPN, or on YouTube or a smartphone.
I don't get University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson being celebrated for doing a great job and being underappreciated for success in minor sports and student GPAs. Football and basketball are the standards for success in NCAA Division-I programs and the reason that so much money goes into them. The football program is a mess. The last coach was a disaster. The coach before him said the program was a disaster. The basketball team is the epitome of one-and-done "student athletes" and had to give back its 2008 Finalist banner for NCAA violations. The thanks for fund-raising success should go to the boosters and corporate sponsors, not the athletic director.
I don't get Kriner Cash's contract extension until the school systems merge in August 2013. The extension, given by the now-defunct Memphis school board in March 2011, was supposed to provide continuity and stability during the transition. It was not — nor could it be — a promise of the top job in the unified system. Midway through the transition, Cash's running buddy, Irving Hamer, behaved badly at a cocktail party and was forced to quit. Cash applied for the superintendent's job in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and made the final three. If he gets the job, the extension is meaningless. If he doesn't get the job, why would anyone in Memphis or Shelby County look to him for stability?
So Kriner Cash is planning his exit strategy. Join the club, Dr. Cash. Let those who have not considered charter schools, private schools, optional schools, Mississippi schools, or suburban municipal schools for their own children cast the first stone.
Cash is one of three finalists interviewing this week for the superintendent's job in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. He survived the cut in an initial field of 89 applicants and will be a strong contender as the only minority candidate and the only candidate with experience in a system with more than 100,000 students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has approximately 140,000 students and is majority-minority.
Cash, remember, was opposed to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter, and his side lost by a single vote on the board of education. Unification through hostile surrender was not his baby. If he gets the Carolina job, he could plausibly argue that he is not leaving MCS so much as MCS left him.
Superintendents of big school systems are like high-profile coaches in this respect: They are celebrated when hired, scorned when they depart, and there is almost always someone ready to rehire them and wipe the slate clean.
Cash is in his fourth year on the job in Memphis. If he were in high school, he would be graduating. That's the same length of tenure as his predecessor, Carol Johnson, and a year longer than her predecessor, Johnnie B. Watson.
Superintendents are unlike coaches in this respect: They don't leave anything as clear-cut as a win-loss record.
So how do you determine whether someone has been a good superintendent? There are several ways.
Johnson got an offer from the Boston public schools — a smaller system but a higher-paying position than Memphis. Watson was well liked, but that was partly because he didn't close any schools, knowing from painful experience that closing schools is a recipe for ulcers and a career killer. His predecessor, Gerry House, was national Superintendent of the Year in 1999, an award sponsored by ServiceMaster, a company that had contracts with MCS. Her predecessor, Willie Herenton, had a schools offer from Atlanta and serious interest from New York City.
A reporter in Charlotte asked me this week if Cash has done a good job. I dodged the question and said he would present a hell of a resume. The Obama visit to Booker T. Washington High School. The Gates Foundation grant. The steadfast superintendent of a soon-to-be-dissolved system not of his making. The ability to say "you can't throw anything at me that I haven't seen in Memphis." No personal scandals; Cash apparently explained the resignation of his right-hand man, Irving Hamer, to the satisfaction of the search committee at a secret meeting of semifinalists at the Charlotte airport, post-Hamer.
Student performance measures are another matter. The state of Tennessee toughened up its standardized testing evaluations after Cash arrived in Memphis, so what was "proficient" in 2007 is no longer "proficient." Again, Cash and MCS could only react.
Graduation rates in MCS have supposedly improved while dropout rates have declined. This was the centerpiece of the Obama visit to BTW. But there are two problems with graduation stats. First, a graduate with a 15 or 16 on the ACT (a typical score at Memphis high schools) is not college ready. Second, Tennessee, unlike other states, doesn't report the number of students who graduate or are eligible to graduate from each high school year over year.
It's interesting that Cash is applying for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg job because four representatives from that system, including former Superintendent Pete Gorman, came to Memphis in December to meet with the Transition Planning Commission.
No matter which of the three finalists gets the Charlotte job, I think Gorman did them a favor by lowering expectations. He was pretty candid in his Memphis comments.
"Progress has been painfully slow, and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed," he said. He also said "you can't close schools well" and questioned whether the task is "physically possible."
Ann Doss Helms, a reporter covering education for The Charlotte Observer, told me Gorman was sort of "a rock star" superintendent in his early years. He didn't sound like a rock star when he came to Memphis. He sounded like a man who has learned from hard experience that there are few if any real rock stars in public education and that fame and popularity are fleeting.
No issue mobilizes public school parents faster than school choice and pupil assignment. The Transition Planning Commission is going to push those hot buttons this week.
Topics will include the Memphis City Schools (MCS) optional program, charter schools, and transfer requests in both the city and county systems. Demand typically exceeds supply for spots in the most desirable schools, and that means some unhappy parents.
"I would estimate that the county schools get about 2,000 transfer requests each year and that five or six are turned down for every one that is accepted," said David Pickler, a member of the Transition Planning Commission (TPC) and the unified school board. Shelby County Schools does not have optional schools but has two International Baccalaureate high schools.
In the MCS optional schools program, 80 percent of the available spaces in the most popular schools are filled on a first-come, first-served basis of qualified applicants. The remaining 20 percent of the spaces are filled by a computer-generated random sample, subject to sibling considerations.
"There are still a lot of students who don't get in," said Linda Sklar, head of the MCS optional program.
According to the TPC agenda, "potential recommendations" include implementing a lottery system for optional, academic, and choice transfers when demand exceeds spots available.
The MCS optional schools program was started in 1975 in the wake of busing for desegregation and white flight of some 35,000 students in three years. One of its proponents was former superintendent and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who readily admitted it was designed to keep white students in the city schools.
By the 1980s, getting into schools such as Grahamwood Elementary and White Station middle and high school became a ritual for parents, who camped out at the board of education office to get a spot.
In the pre-Internet days, the particulars were pretty elaborate. At first, applicants had to be in line the whole time to hold their space, but that was modified to an initial muster of the troops followed by a succession of pre-dawn roll calls. Both of these were tough on working single parents. Over the years, "the line" started by parents gave way to bar-coded applications and a more systematic ticketing system administered by MCS.
But while that cut down on campouts, it started a new line ahead of a new start time, just like an advance sale of tickets for a hot concert or ball game. The idea of throwing all applicants into a lottery has been proposed a few times over the last 30 years but has never been adopted despite turnover on the school board and in the superintendent's office. Getting a place near the front of "the line" is the ultimate in parental involvement. A parent determined to get a kid into the school of his or her choice is a force of nature.
Charter schools aim for a different clientele but, like optional schools, are seen by their customers as a better alternative to the student's assigned regular school. They operate pretty much on an every-school-for-itself philosophy, with the founders knocking on doors to make their case to parents and prospective students. At least in terms of enrollment, a charter school's gain is some other school's loss. One of the things the TPC is studying is charter management organizations, which aim to blend the benefits of school districts with autonomy and entrepreneurship.
Kenya Bradshaw is on a TPC committee that has held several meetings with parents all around Shelby County to find out what they want from a unified system. The fairness of a lottery versus a line hasn't come up much, she said.
"Parents want access to rigorous programs at all schools, especially in art and music, gifted and talented, and special education," she said.
The TPC meets Thursday. Pickler said the goal is to have a student assignment plan by April 19th. The plan will be passed along later this year to the joint school board which could accept it, modify it, or discard it.
Meanwhile, the suburbs think they have another answer to school choice. It's called municipal school systems.