It's no mystery why building new public buildings is easier than closing them. Construction means jobs, and closings mean lost jobs. What's surprising is the willingness of Memphis to continue to spend tens of millions of dollars to fix up old buildings and build new ones with no realistic possibility that they will be fully used.
The Unified School Board is meeting this week to consider closing six schools instead of the 21 closings recommended by the Transition Planning Commission. Memphis International Airport boasts a new seven-story parking garage even though Delta announced another cut in local service this week that will reduce daily departures from 115 to just 94 next year.
And last week the city of Memphis announced that it has agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to spend $12 million on Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, including the addition of 288 handicapped seats in the 61,000-seat stadium.
Justice is blind, really blind. Its standard for ADA compliance is 1 percent of the seating capacity, or nearly 600 seats and companion seats. Never mind that the stadium hasn't sold out since 1996, that the biggest crowd last year was 31,578 for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, that the current allotment of handicapped seats is way underused, and that the University of Memphis Tigers averaged slightly over 10,000 per game in actual attendance in 2011.
Actual attendance should not be confused with announced attendance, although it often is, because it makes coaches, athletic directors and bowl promoters look good. In 2011, the announced attendance (including tickets sold, discounted, and distributed but unused) for eight games at the stadium was 221,002, but the actual butts-in-seats attendance was 120,300. In 2012, the University of Memphis announced total attendance of 146,227 for six games, an average of 24,371. The U of M announced-attendance record, set in 2003, is 284,352, or 40,622 per game.
My efforts to get the actual 2012 attendance from the city or the stadium operators before our deadline were unsuccessful. But does anyone seriously believe that the opener against UT-Martin drew 39,076 fans?
The Tigers have a new football coach, new athletic director, new big-screen television scoreboard, a three-game winning streak, Tiger Lane, and a new conference affiliation starting in 2013. An attendance bump next year is quite possible. But the Big East is looking awfully similar to Conference USA with this week's addition of Tulane and East Carolina and the likely departure of Louisville and Connecticut. The 2013 Memphis football schedule has not been announced. It is likely to be short on marquee names and long on air travel.
In e-mails, Mayor A C Wharton and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb told me they cut the best deal they could with Justice, which they said initially recommended $40 million in improvements. Wharton did not dispute the fact that the stadium usually has thousands of empty seats, including many in the special sections, but figured he had to deal or risk litigation that would stall (as if it has not been stalled already) redevelopment of the Fairgrounds. Lipscomb cautioned that the enforcers at Justice are not to be taken lightly lest they decide to look askance at other proposals from Memphis.
"I am comfortable with the number we have reached," Wharton said. "By settling, we control the number. Litigation would have been a costly crap shoot."
Added Lipscomb, "This brings to closure an argument that has gone on since 2005, dramatically improves our relationship and perception of the city from the perspective of the DOJ and other federal agencies with grant dollars, saves legal fees that have been accumulating over seven years, and allows the city to move forward with the Fairgrounds Plan."
What is missing in this account are the voices of the football fans using and not using the handicapped seats at the stadium. Are the improvements so far insufficient? In what way? Are there too few seats? Have people been turned away because of a seating shortage or an access problem? If so, can it be remedied with something other than 288 new seats?
No wonder some Memphis state legislators, members of the school board, and neighborhood leaders are so opposed to closing 21 schools. In light of the charade of denial going on at the stadium and the airport, who's to say that a school that is half empty is not, instead, half full and, moreover, used 180 days a year?
This is the season when blockbuster movies are released, and movies based on actual events are among the most popular.
There's The Sessions, about a man in an iron lung's encounters with a sex therapist. Watching other people have therapeutic sex in this film is not to be confused with watching other people have sex for prurient reasons.
There's Argo, about Hollywood's semi-comic caper to get some Americans out of Iran right under the noses of the bamboozled Iranians, who were holding 52 other Americans hostage for 444 days. I knew nothing about this historical footnote until I saw the movie, although CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite ended each broadcast in 1980-1981 with "And that's the way it is, the [whatever] day of captivity for Americans in Iran."
And there's Lincoln, by director Steven Spielberg, which raised my appreciation for the 1990 Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, and the helpful commentary of historian Shelby Foote. Lincoln deserves an "R" rating for "Restricted: Under 17 not allowed without parent, tutor, and copy of the U.S. Constitution."
Actual quote from a review in The Boston Globe: "It's possible you may think Lincoln is too talky — too full of characters and ideas, too taxing to our Twitter-pated attention spans. Consider, then, that it may not be the movie that's unworthy of your time. You may not be worthy of it."
Well, excuse me for feeling confused and clueless.
Here are some other movie concepts "based on actual events" that should soon be in production.
The Moviegoer: a fresh take on the 1961 Walker Percy novel of the same title. This one's about a man with no discernible talent, training, or aptitude for, like, actual work, who finds employment going to movies and writing about them.
The Secessions: historical docu-drama, filled with political intrigue, about suburbanites in a Southern town who take matters into their own hands when a lame-duck school board surrenders its charter and consolidates school systems.
Denial: a political consultant, trailed by reporters and camera crews from Fox News, storms state capitals on December 17th, the day the Electoral College ratifies the results of the 2012 presidential election, and urges electors to go rogue. He insists that the results from Florida are not conclusive, Phythagoras only had a theory, math is suspect, and the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.
The Good Husband: a spinoff from the television series The Good Wife, this one's about a man married to a politician who has affairs with David Petraeus, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Dallas Cowboys. Kim Kardashian stars as a Tampa socialite.
Requiem for a Heavyweight, II: The 1962 original starred Anthony Quinn as an aging and overweight boxer who takes up wrestling. The remake is about an aging and overweight football coach in a Southern state who is forced to resign, then rehired after the two pretty boys who succeed him flop. Filmed in Knoxville.
Black Like Me, Too: Reporter John Howard Griffin wrote the original in 1959 about his adventures as a white man disguised to look like a black man. This adaptation, heavy on cutting-edge medical advancements and neurology, features a Southern congressman who one-ups Griffin and undergoes the first-ever racial transplant to become an African-American.
Bovina: Taking its cue from head-scratching one-word titles such as Avatar, this surefire smash is about a perky actress and the hardships she suffers as a flying nun, union organizer, wife of cross-dressing comedian, and neurotic first lady to find fulfillment as television spokeswoman for the poor, put-upon, and misunderstood pharmaceuticals industry.
The Hangover Four: A straight-arrow college basketball coach goes a little crazy and indulges in a super-sized Coke and an order of fries after winning the national championship over his former mentor, the evil Coach Caligula, and cannot remember a gosh darn thing the next day.
Cupcake: a nostalgic musical about America through the eyes of a worker at a bakery that makes sugary treats. When evil bosses threaten to close the factory, a divided town finds something everyone loves and rallies around the Twinkies.
Elvis, the Golden Years: Based on a 2007 Flyer story by Greg Akers and Chris Herrington, a cheeky look at the King and what might have been if he had survived to his 77th birthday this year.
The Club From Hell: I am not making this up. Ten squash players, including me, team up to write a group novel. Sex, athletes, athletic sex, exotic locations, and more loose ends than a cheap mohair sweater. You may not be worthy of it.
So much for the world-class unified school system.
By a 69-31 margin, voters put the final nail in that DOA concept last week, defeating a referendum that would have increased the sales tax to provide more money for schools.
Just over 250,000 votes were cast on the referendum, and Memphis was disproportionately represented, because suburban municipalities that approved a sales tax increase in November were excluded. The margin was all the more telling when you consider that Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett passed their tax bump in August by margins of at least 75-25.
Another half-penny on the sales tax, by itself, won't pay for new suburban systems or universal pre-kindergarten. But those things won't happen without additional revenue. The suburbs acknowledged that, and the majority of Memphis voters did not. In a sales campaign, backers of the countywide increase, including Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the NAACP (but not Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell), pitched half of it as a way to fund pre-K programs. Without breaking down the math, this was, in other words, spun as a vote for more funding for public schools. Voters did not say "no." They said "hell no."
One of the backers, city councilman Shea Flinn, said he would not rule out pushing for a Memphis-only referendum in 2013. Better focus, better sales pitch, bigger alliance, yadda yadda. More to the point, special elections get a tiny turnout compared to a presidential election, so, in effect, another referendum would be gaming the system.
Instead, backers of the failed referendum, myself included, have to acknowledge the obvious. A broad sampling of Memphians, in addition to that huge majority of suburbanites, don't buy the notion of a world-class Memphis public school system, much less a unified Memphis and Shelby County school system. A world-class crack-up is more like it. Consider what has happened in the last year or two.
The suburbs want separate school systems and school boards, if not in 2013 then in 2014. Most of the suburban members of the joint city and county school board have no intention of remaining in a unified system.
The Memphis members of the unified school board and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association (MEA) want all the autonomy, perks, power, and jobs they had before the 2011 merger, plus universal pre-K. At the last school board meeting, MEA passed out an 11-page, point-by-point critique of the TPC recommendations. The groups are miles apart.
Among other things, the union says "MCS has a school closing policy that has worked effectively," and it opposes displacing current teachers with newcomers, giving principals the power to fire tenured teachers, and basing teacher pay on merit instead of academic degrees and experience.
The Transition Planning Commission recommended that a superintendent for the future unified system be hired this fall. The school board cannot even agree on where or how to search for one.
The Tennessee Department of Education and Commissioner Kevin Huffman want to expand charter schools and the Alternative School District, which operate apart from the current Memphis system and unified school board. The vast majority of the young college graduates who came to Memphis with Teach For America as change agents and stayed in public education in Memphis after their two-year commitment are working in charter schools or the Achievement School District.
Parents of students in Memphis optional schools and the CLUE program have made it clear at school board meetings that they will only stay in the system if those programs are preserved.
Depending on how the federal court decides the constitutional questions about municipal school systems, by the start of the 2013 or 2014 school year this is what we are looking at: a unified system with fewer than 100,000 students; an expanding state-run Achievement School District with its own superintendent and 15 or more schools; an expanding charter school network with 30 or more schools; and five or six suburban systems with their own school boards and superintendents and 20,000 or more students in all.
There may be some world-class schools in that mix, but to call it a world-class system is delusional. My guess is that if a referendum were held to undo the 2011 MCS charter surrender and put the toothpaste back in the tube, it would pass in both the county and the city, by a margin of about 69-31.
Fairly or not, and whether it goes or stays in Memphis, International Paper is going to be known as the Fortune 500 company that raised the ante on corporate tax incentives.
The company that said "me" when others were saying "we."
The company that wants to inoculate itself against property tax hikes for 30 years.
The company that responded to hard times and a call for community engagement with a threat to disengage.
Some of this is not IP's fault. IP is following the lead of Electrolux, FedEx, Mitsubishi, Belz Enterprises, and numerous other companies that have tax freezes, which are a Memphis specialty of long standing. And let's say it was just bad timing that IP made its "tax-freeze-or-else" request at the dawn of the feel-good "Robert Pera era" of new ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies and while Shelby County residents, some of them anyway, were voting on an increase in the regressive sales tax.
But people get paid good money to create and polish a corporate image. And CEOs have a skill set that includes community engagement. On that score, IP is conspicuously inconspicuous. Yes, it is a top-three corporate giver to Mid-South United Way, and many of its 2,000 local employees doubtless participate in all kinds of community projects. What's missing is a signature project like this:
The Salvation Army Kroc Center and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc; the Peabody hotel and Jack Belz and family; FedExForum; AutoZone Park; the Memphis Redbirds and Dean and Kristi Jernigan; First Tennessee Fields and youth baseball and the First Tennessee Memphis Marathon from 1987 to 2000; Justin Timberlake and Miramichi; the late Abe Plough and the Plough Foundation; J.R. "Pitt" Hyde and the Hyde Family Foundation; "NBA Now" and Staley Cates and Mason Hawkins of Southeastern Asset Management; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and public education; the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and men's pro tennis; Cellular South and women's pro tennis from 2003 to 2011; the FedEx St. Jude Classic and pro golf; Shelby Farms and the Lucius Burch State Natural Area; the Levitt Shell and the Mortimer Levitt Foundation; downtown development and the Henry Turley Company; the Mike Rose Soccer Complex.
Some of these people and companies aren't even in Memphis, but their names are still associated with something good.
Lest anyone doubt the power of getting on the right side of community engagement, here is a sample of the love in one newspaper column this week about Robert Pera and the opener: "historic day ... glorious ... self-effacing ... triumphant ... a day of transition and celebration ... crank up the joy ... splendid ... for the goosebumps not the tax write-offs ... dazzling."
Image polishing is not everyone's cup of beer. Frauds like Allen Stanford can blow into town and throw around other people's money while anonymous donors give away millions. A low profile can be a sign of character. The Memphis CEOs, politicians, and heads of charitable organizations that I talked to about IP were wary of being judgmental or speaking on the record.
"It's a pretty big ask," said one businessman who is familiar with local tax incentives. A political veteran said "it would send a terrible message" to other companies who might follow suit. George Little, chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, was not able to produce a document detailing IP's specific request but told me "it's very much a work in progress."
Nobody plays the community engagement card more skillfully or more frequently than the owners and promoters of sports teams and games. AutoZone Park was too big, too expensive, and ran afoul of the IRS, but all that was masked in the glow of 2000. Tiger Lane, a sop to the football crowd, was sold as a 365-days-a-year playground. Michael Heisley got his price from Pera and friends, who, presumably, are not in business to lose money.
John Faraci, the CEO of International Paper (who makes less than Rudy Gay), told me in an interview earlier this year that IP's signature Memphis project is the National Civil Rights Museum. All right, but get in line. A natural fit for IP and Greater Memphis would be Overton Park or Meeman-Shelby Forest with its 13,467 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, lakes, trails, ball fields, boat ramp, and swimming pool.
Unlike Overton Park, Meeman-Shelby Forest is remote and a bit of an orphan and could use a corporate angel now and then. And IP could use some cover. Better late than never.
It was Lance Armstrong, the great cyclist who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
I'm not even a cyclist, just a guy who occasionally rides a bike and became an Armstrong fan when he overcame cancer and won the only bicycle race that gets any television time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to Memphis from India. Just before he flew home, he asked me to do one thing: take him some place where he could buy a yellow Livestrong wrist band in honor of Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong made fans of non-fans and believers of professional skeptics. I read his book, watched his press conferences, and argued with friends who called him a doper. I flipped positions after I saw the interviews with rival pros who finally broke down and said that they and Armstrong had cheated.
That made the story sleazier but no less interesting. If everyone else was doping, then was Armstrong, as he surely believes to this day, not still the champ? How much of an edge does the blood-booster erythropoietin, known as EPO, give you? Would it work for ordinary athletes in other sports? A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times did a story about a 33-year-old competitive runner who was not quite world-class but still good enough to win nearly $40,000 in prize money in more than 75 cherry-picked races. He 'fessed up to using EPO he bought in Tijuana.
I wondered how competitive athletes in Memphis felt about Armstrong's story.
"I've known Armstrong since he was a teenager and have been in races with him," said Joe Royer, founder of the Outdoors Inc. Cyclocross Championship. "I always was suspicious of him. I'm disappointed, because he would have had a great career anyway."
He thinks the cover-up was aided by Armstrong's commanding personality. "If he rode off a cliff, then his team would ride off a cliff," Royer said.
As for ordinary athletes, "Yes," Royer said, "they could get a boost, and it's unfortunate that a great time could arouse suspicion. I feel terrible about that."
Paul Rubin, past president of the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, agreed that Armstrong didn't have to cheat.
"He was a hero and role model," Rubin said.
But Rubin lost faith after fellow cycling pros accused Armstrong of doping. He recalled the time seven years ago when a semi-pro rider spoke to the Hightailers and was asked about dope.
"They all cheat," the speaker said.
Lisa Overall, president of the Memphis Runners Track Club, said there are still "a lot of things we don't know" about the evidence against Armstrong. An attorney, Overall noted that some of the accusations come from admitted dopers.
"It seems strange to me that he could be tested that rigorously and only have one positive test," she said.
The St. Jude Memphis Marathon coming up in December offers a total of $2,000 in prize money. The registration form says participants may be subject to formal drug testing.
Kevin Adams, who rides in regional bicycle races and completed a 16-day solo kayak trip on the Mississippi River, says competitive athletes are always looking for an edge. Armstrong, he says, is still "an amazing athlete" and was not the only one doping.
"I absolutely believed him," he said. "My issue now is that he continued to lie."
Peter Lebedevs, triathlete and director of the professional tennis tournament at the Racquet Club, "wanted to believe Armstrong, but the sport was so rife with it that it was hard to believe he wasn't involved."
Tennis has had a rigorous drug-testing program for years. Tournaments are randomly selected, and Memphis was chosen twice in the last four years, Lebedevs said. No one flunked.
A teaching pro himself, Lebedevs believes ordinary athletes could probably get stronger and faster but that drugs would not improve hand-eye coordination. As for triathlons, he has not heard any buzz about banned boosters in local races.
"The prize money kind of dictates how much you will risk your body," he said.
I'm not so sure about that. Sports have a powerful hold on all of us, and it's mostly about ego and competitiveness. If I could just get to a few more balls somehow, I bet I could beat Lebedevs next time we play squash. Somehow. Hmmmm.