Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking Back at 2012

Some predictions were on target, some missed by a mile.

Posted By on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 5:47 PM

Instead of predicting what will happen in Memphis in 2013, I’m cleaning out, wrapping up, and looking back at some personal hits and misses in 2012.

First, the misses. I missed by a mile on the sales tax increase referendum, which I said “has a real chance this year.” It lost 69-31 after it went from Memphis-only to countywide, but would have lost anyway.

I jumped on the Big East bandwagon in February. “Better late than never,” I reasoned. Maybe not, as the conference crumbles.

I thought and still think “able and willing” John Aitken, who is under contract until February 2015, would be a good choice for superintendent of the Unified School System, but the school board launched a search instead. And I praised board members for getting along even if they could not reach agreement on big decisions, singling out Martavius Jones and David Pickler, “who set the tone for frank but civil discussion.” A couple of weeks later, Jones submitted a resolution calling for the immediate resignation of Pickler “for failure to publicly disclose an apparent conflict of interest.”

A year ago, I wrote that “the city of Memphis is not going to get out of a court-ordered $57 million payment to Memphis City Schools.” Maybe not, but delay is a viable strategy, and MCS is still waiting for full payment of the old debt.

On the biggest story of the year, I wrote that “it could be that Judge Hardy Mays knows exactly what the legislature was up to but thinks it unwise to overrule the wishes of 85 percent of suburbanites” on municipal school systems. He left the ’burbs some wiggle room but he delivered a stinging rebuke.

I called the sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance “a media attention grabber” and “a solution in search of a problem.” The Memphis City Council passed it without much fuss.

As for bike lanes, I said, “If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that Memphis would reinvent itself as a bicycle town I’d have thought you were touched.” A few days ago, The New York Times ran a story about Memphis headlined “Sprawling Memphis Aims to Be a Friendlier Place for Cyclists.” Sometimes national attention is its own reward.

I thought the powers that be in Big Medicine would listen to transplant surgeon James Eason and Methodist University Hospital and help Memphis become a national center of excellence on liver and kidney transplants with “bragging rights” over Nashville and Vanderbilt for a change. No sale. Their pleas were rebuffed again this month, and their Transplant Institute is in jeopardy.

The predictions I got right were, honestly, pretty easy.

“Trouble’s coming,” I said about the appointed-not-elected Transition Planning Commission when it unveiled its plan last summer to unify the city and county school system. It still is.

The most obvious miscalculation was the recommendation to close 21 schools. Four or five is more like it. The lame-duck 23-member school board is built to fail because it will shrink to seven members this September.

Despite various public and private efforts, blight remains a huge problem for Memphis. “Blight gets a nice seat at the table and just sits there,” and so it will be in 2013.

The suburbs easily passed referendums on partially funding their dream of municipal school systems even though the issues of legality and cost of buildings are unresolved.

The concerts at the Levitt Shell are great, but free music comes with a price, and closing a venue such as the Hi-Tone Café is part of the price.

Facebook is no fad, but the privacy concerns are real and the price of the initial public stock offering was way too high. Not buying it was indeed “priceless.”

When the city and county gave tax incentives to lure Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric, it was only a matter of time before current corporate residents such as too-big-to-lose International Paper made their own value proposition and got more tax breaks.

The local tax structure based on Tourism Development Zones (TDZ) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) didn’t go off the rails in 2012, but it got the scrutiny and resistance it deserves, as downtowners said “not so fast” to a grand scheme called Heritage Trail.

Finally, really big deals take a really long time. It has been 1,630 days since construction began on Beale Street Landing and 1,530 days since Bass Pro Shops signed a development agreement for the Pyramid. Both projects are supposed to open in 2013.

Friday, December 21, 2012

How Much Is Enough?

Looking back on a year of big and not-so-big stories.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 21, 2012 at 1:22 PM

The headlines of 2012 would have been thrilling and exciting and heartening if only they had come, oh, about four years earlier.

Such as, "So Long, Suckers! U of M Leaving Conference USA for Big East."

And, "Taking Flight: Airport Expansion Adds Huge Garage to Accommodate All Those Delta Flights and Passengers."

And, "Bass Pro Founder Says Pyramid to Reopen Next Year."

And, "Calipari Captures Elusive National Title."

And, "New Football Coach Has Tigers Moving in Right Direction."

And, "Memphians Party at Opening of Beale Street Landing."

And, "School Leaders Say Unified System Eight Months Away."

And, "States and Congress Agree on Need for Stricter Gun Control to Avoid Mass Shootings at Schools."

Instead we got, well, you know what we got.

Many of my working hours this year, maybe too many, were spent in public meetings. The ongoing schools story was the main culprit, with the city council running second.

Looking back, I see a common theme: How much is enough?

That goes for big stuff like schools, police and fire stations, pre-kindergarten programs, and Liberty Bowl Stadium improvements as well as little stuff like bike lanes and public golf courses.

A routine year-end meeting of the parks committee of the Memphis City Council last week showed how controversial even seemingly minor decisions can be — which does not bode well for big decisions on budgets, the Unified School System, school superintendents, and school closings in 2013.

Council members spent nearly an hour rehashing golf courses. Earlier this year, the council agreed to close three money-losing courses for the winter months. The discussion, accompanied by spreadsheets and some hard questioning of parks director Janet Hooks, was about whether a fourth course in Whitehaven was going to be closed permanently.

"We're not going to close any golf courses," said Councilman Joe Brown, with the emphasis on "any."

If you play golf or live in Whitehaven, this might interest you. If you play golf and live in Whitehaven, it might interest you a lot. Otherwise, not so much.

Next, council members turned to Liberty Bowl Stadium and the number of wheelchair-accessible seats. The city administration has made a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to spend $12 million to increase the number of such seats to 564, to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. City officials said that, otherwise, DOJ "could shut the stadium down." Such a deal. When this job is finished, the Liberty Bowl will have roughly as many ADA seats as 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium, the largest in the country and usually sold out.

The night before the council met, I attended a community meeting about closing Humes Middle School, which is using only 17 percent of its capacity. Enrollment has fallen from 900 to 190 in a decade. School officials recommend "closing" the school next year and reopening it (also next year) as a music and arts optional school.

The next night, the Unified School Board met. One of the things on its wish list is pre-kindergarten classes. How much pre-K is enough? Universal pre-K is, of course, the most popular recommendation.

How about those bike lanes on city streets? Memphis suddenly has miles of them, and some advocates want to add lots more even though many of the ones we have are lightly used. How much is enough?

"If you build it, they will come." That's often the rationale and a cliché from a movie, Field of Dreams, that was new 23 years ago. Or this will make Memphis "a world-class city" or "a model for the nation." Or "the business community is solidly behind this." And if we don't do it, Memphis "will lose federal matching funds."

Except they might not come. And keeping pace with Nashville and Louisville, much less the world, is hard enough. And International Paper and Electrolux expect tax breaks to stay here or come here. And a charter school dedicated to science and engineering and located in what used to be the medical center has such a poor record after 10 years that it might be closed, because what really counts is on-site leadership and teaching. And federal funds come with strings attached and the feds play rough.

So it went in 2012. Wait until next year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Elvis Was Here

A sparsely attended Memphis school hopes to avoid closing.

Posted By on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 5:48 PM

Humes Middle School, it is safe to say, is the only school in America with an Elvis Room. It is on the first floor of the three-story building in a poor neighborhood on the north side of downtown. There are photographs of Elvis Aron Presley and the Humes High Class of 1953, Elvis buttons, copies of his diploma, the graduation program, yearbook, and some cheesy wall hangings and posters. In one corner, there is an old metal locker with a pair of retro football hip pads, shoulder pads, and shoes. In fact, Elvis played sandlot football but was not on the varsity team, and his yearbook entry says his main extracurricular activity was shop.

No matter. When legend clashes with fact, go with the legend.

Elvis became famous in 1956. He died in 1977. But Memphis City Schools hopes some Elvis luster will help save Humes Middle School and give it a new life. The Transition Planning Commission recommended closing 21 schools, and at a glance Humes looks like a prime candidate. It was built in 1925 for grades 7-12, with a capacity of 1,500 students. Many Humes families, including the Presleys, lived in nearby housing projects and worked at factories, now closed, in North Memphis. By 2002, its enrollment had shrunk to 900, and this year it has about 190 students who share the building with a charter school. The building needs at least $9 million in repairs, according to MCS.

"It is as beautiful a middle-school structure as there is anywhere," said Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash at a community meeting at Humes this week, where about a dozen parents, students, and staff met in the cafeteria. Joining them were supporters who hope to "repurpose" Humes as an all-optional school focused on arts and music and, in Cash's words, "recapture market share."

Nostalgia aside, market share is a problem for several schools in North Memphis. Northside High School is at 24 percent capacity, Frayser High School at 54 percent, and Manassas High School ­— built seven years ago at a cost of some $30 million — is at 78 percent. Humes is a feeder school that was supposed to help fill Manassas, but Cash said "that hasn't happened as fast or as quickly as city planners and maybe some business investors hoped it would."

So while the Unified School Board contemplates school closings, MCS is scrambling to save Humes by "closing" it and immediately reopening it with a new mission. The cause has enlisted some standout music teachers from other Memphis schools as well as artists, architects, and people in the music business from Ardent, Delta Arts, Arts Memphis, Memphis College of Art, and churches. Ken Greene, a music teacher who worked for eight years at Ridgeway Middle School, is now at Humes and spoke at the meeting. He described a vision of studios in the school and a curriculum based on the arts that goes against the grain of test-oriented instruction in reading, writing, and math.

Regional superintendent Catherine Battle, a former principal at Snowden Elementary and Middle School in Midtown, said potential community partners "are coming out of the woodwork." Humes would not have athletics. It would be open to any child in the unified system. Admission would require a minimum score on the TCAP exam. The school would be all-optional, unlike arts and music-oriented optional schools within schools at Overton High School and Colonial Middle School. Some current employees would stay. The school would need custodians and cafeteria workers. Federal grants might pay for some improvements.

It was a blue-sky scenario in a blue-sky presentation. A "Hail Elvis" version of football's last-minute "Hail Mary." The school board, if it is in a mood to make them when it meets next year, will have some hard choices. It is one thing to volunteer at a school, another thing to staff it seven hours a day for 180 days a year. The projected student-teacher ratio at the new Humes would be as low as 12-to-1 and even 8-to-1 at a time when crowded high schools such as White Station and Germantown are cramming 35 or more students into science classes and labs.

As for Elvis, his name is not always magic, as Beale Street, the Pyramid, and Whitehaven have learned. If Humes is "repurposed" then, the Elvis Room will be a casualty. Plans call for moving it to a separate building across the street.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Football Fanatics

ESPN and AT&T have us by the short hairs so we pay and pay.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 10:21 AM

You're welcome, Nick Saban and Les Miles, the highest-paid football coaches in the South. Glad to help you out with that move from Wisconsin to Arkansas, Bret Bielema, and welcome to the Southeastern Conference. No need to thank me, Tommy Tuberville, now that you got that new job and fat paycheck at Cincinnati. And it was really nothing, Derek Dooley, to make a small contribution to your buyout.

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College football may be crazy and salaries for head coaches stratospheric, but we have no one to blame but ourselves. I did my part to support this All-American enterprise, because I subscribe to ESPN in my telecom package from AT&T. I get the mid-priced 270-channel television package for $79 a month, the cheapest package that includes ESPN. The "family" package would save me $20 a month and the "basic" package of local channels only, guaranteed to shame you before your friends and family, costs $26, or $53 a month less than I now pay.

The must-have channel in the $79 package is ESPN, because I'm hooked on sports although far from a fanatic. There are at least 200 channels in that 270-channel package that I never watch, and there are probably only 20 channels I watch more than once a week. But I pay for all of them, because that's the only way to get ESPN. Sorry, Giada and Guy and the rest of the stars of the Food Network, I'm just being honest here.

College football, as ESPN freely admits, is a gold mine. We watch it in real time instead of recording it and viewing it later. That means we even watch the commercials instead of fast-forwarding through them. We watch games on the West Coast and the East Coast, because they have implications for the national rankings and the bowl games and the future playoff system to determine the national championship. And for this privilege we pay.

"Because of college football's widespread popularity and the incredible passion of its fans, few events are more meaningful than these games," said ESPN president John Skipper in a recent announcement about a 12-year championship games rights deal for $470 million a year. "We are ecstatic at the opportunity to continue to crown a college football champion on ESPN's outlets for years to come, the perfect finale to our year-round commitment to the sport."

The $636 a year I pay for ESPN instead of "basic" is not chump change. It's more than the failed half-cent increase in the local sales tax would have cost me. It's more than the city property tax reduction I'm getting due to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter and merger with Shelby County Schools. And it would buy me good seats at 10 Grizzlies games.

It has been said many times that television rules sports — that television is driving the break-up of conferences like Conference USA and the Big East and the formation of super-conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC. The University of Memphis and its struggling football program are caught in the middle of this. Television made the Big East less relevant if not irrelevant, which makes spending money on Liberty Bowl Stadium a dubious proposition and the celebration over Memphis joining the conference look silly.

It is also true, however, that sports rules television. An episode of The Good Wife or CSI loses nothing whether it is watched now or later. But a football game on tape, when you more than likely know the outcome, is another matter.

When I signed up for AT&T U-verse last year, my monthly bill for television, internet, and a telephone land line was $120. Pegging the monthly cost of bundled services is like trying to predict the weather or the stock market. A fee here, an equipment charge there, and 16 months later my bill is $158 a month and going up next year.

I have cut my phone service to the bone and settled for the less-than-optimum $49 wireless internet package. The biggest component of the bill is television, and the driver of television, as AT&T well knows, is ESPN. I expect to hit $200 a month next year.

When that happens, I hope I have the intestinal fortitude to cut the cord. It's not like there's no college football on the local stations. And I have a feeling that Nick, Les, Tommy, Bret, and the rest would be just fine without me.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mr. Robert’s Neighborhood

A blockbuster plan for downtown and its author, Robert Lipscomb.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 9:31 AM

A downtown resident with some experience in local politics once told me "A C is the second mayor to work for Robert."

"A C", of course, is Memphis mayor A C Wharton. "Robert" is Robert Lipscomb, the director of the division of Housing and Community Development and executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority. The other mayor is Willie Herenton, who made Lipscomb a division director 20 years ago, fell out with him for a while, then rehired him and gave him some new duties.

Longevity, ambition, and know-how make Lipscomb the man to see. Downtown is Mr. Robert's neighborhood, from the Bass Pro pyramid to the housing projects south of FedExForum. The Heritage Trail redevelopment plan is a proposed 20-year plan for downtown including the Beale Street Entertainment District, the South Main District, the downtown core, and the Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes housing projects.

The master plan would have a master developer. This does not sit well with some downtowners of the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom school.

"Downtown Memphis is known for its diversity, and if they do this then I can see development coming to a crawl," says Terry Woodard, a past president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and, with her husband Phil, owner of a company that has been developing in downtown since 1996. The Woodard's home, with its glass walls, high roof like a ship's prow, and contemporary architecture, is something of a landmark on the South Bluff.

The Woodards and other downtowners plan to meet Thursday with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a city-county board that is the funding gateway for Heritage Trail. By the magic of tax-increment financing (TIF), the CRA could capture sales and property taxes downtown as well as federal funds.

The catch is that in order to do that, downtown would be declared a slum, blighted, and a growing menace. The best of downtown, of course, is no such thing as evidenced by some favorable recent publicity in National Geographic Traveler, but in the wacky world of federal funding, sometimes it pays to look poor. Think "a wink and a nod," as Judge Hardy Mays recently described another gambit in the schools case.

"It makes no sense," said Woodard, a founding member of the South Main Association and the Art Trolley Tour. "It is only to get money from the federal government."

This power struggle won't go away anytime soon. Everyone who does downtown development has some kind of deal going — usually a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes for a certain number of years, or some smaller version of the incentives package given to Bass Pro. Beale Street and FedExForum generate millions of dollars a year in sales taxes. A TIF is a way to capture the cash for a specific area as opposed to general city and county uses.

The Downtown Memphis Commission is not taking sides but is serving as a conduit for gripes and information. A memo it sent out in November gives the main one:

"It is projected that 98.7 percent of this future, incremental TIF revenue will be generated by private properties primarily in the downtown core outside the Focus Area of the planned improvements. The Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments are expected to generate 1.3 percent of the TIF revenue over 20 years.

"To pay now for the Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments, the CRA would borrow money against the future projected downtown TIF revenue by issuing revenue bonds."

Woodard says she's not to trying to pit the haves against the have-nots of Foote and Cleaborn Homes.

"I believe that they deserve better housing and I also believe they need to remain in the area so that they can continue to be connected to the people and programs that can help them," she said in a letter to CRA board members.

Whether the remaining buildings are demolished and the residents relocated, as other public housing residents have been, is an open question. A group called the Vance Avenue Collaborative, with support from planners at the University of Memphis, is pressing that issue with the Memphis City Council.

The underlying issue is Lipscomb and his growing empire, which extends to the Fairgrounds and another TIF encompassing Overton Square and much of Midtown. One would-be developer sees him as a combination of Godzilla and Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City in the mid-20th century.

Adds another source who has watched Lipscomb operate inside City Hall: "Generally, when Robert has swung for something big he's gotten it."

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