Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Restaurant Impossible

Troubled Beale Street Landing loses its restaurant operator.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 2:12 PM

Somebody call Robert Irvine, the no-nonsense star of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible. Have we got a challenge for him.

Beale Street Landing needs help. Our $40-plus million riverfront gathering spot of the future lost its restaurant deal last week, days after the tables and chairs and bar were installed. Beale & Second Inc., with partners Bud Chittom, Kevin Kane, and Charlie Ryan — who have about 100 years experience in the Memphis restaurant and entertainment business between them — bailed out. These guys know something.

RDC director Benny Lendermon notified board members that Beale & Second Inc. "is no longer interested in pursuing the lease of the restaurant space at Beale Street Landing. Based on this discovery, Beale & Second Inc. should cease and desist all actives [sic] on the Beale Street Landing premises other than specific catering services that RDC may contract with you to perform."

Turn in your keys. Get your equipment out of there. Copy to the lawyers.

The Big Three were the only ones to respond to an RDC request for restaurant proposals.

Who says that if you build it, they will come? If you build it, they might not even open it.

I would resubscribe to my ripoff cable package to see Irvine's reaction to this. Usually, he takes on a struggling mom-and-pop restaurant in a hardscrabble location with operators mortgaged to the hilt and out of energy and fresh ideas. He did a show last year at Pollard's Bar BQ on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven.

Beale Street Landing is located where a world-famous street meets a world-famous river. It has gorgeous views and a steady stream of tourists. It has millions of dollars of infrastructure in, over, and around it designed by an architectural firm that won a competition. When the RDC needs more money, it simply blames circumstances beyond its control and asks the city council to write another check.

But as Irvine would quickly see, that is not all. When the RDC has a bad idea, it compounds it with another bad idea, like that giant Rubik's cube on top of the hill. The muscular Irvine would probably instantly demolish it with a sledgehammer. The matching color scheme inside would give any decorator ulcers. Beale Street Landing shares Tom Lee Park and Riverside Drive for part of the year with Memphis In May. And then there is the parking, or the lack of it.

Ryan, who helped develop the entertainment district in Cooper-Young in Midtown, said there were many "challenges, the main one being parking." Chittom declined to comment. Kane, who is head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, did not return calls.

"The deal is off," Ryan said, declining to go into specifics.

Jim Holt, executive director of Memphis In May, said the festival could have co-existed with a restaurant inside Beale Street Landing, which he noted was part of the original plan several years ago.

"We had worked out a plan," he said.

It isn't like there were no precedents for do's and don'ts of riverside restaurants in city parks. Mud Island River Park opened some 31 years ago with two full-service restaurants, one of them boasting linen tablecloths and the best views on the lower Mississippi. When they failed, "bad access" got the blame, even after the bridge from Front Street to Mud Island was opened and there was an acre of parking.

Isolation was more to the point. Tom Lee Park isn't an island, but it is separated from downtown by Riverside Drive and lacks sufficient parking in Ryan's view. And that was before a recent proposal from a consultant who recommended doing away with parking lots in the park and allowing parallel parking on Riverside Drive instead.

The most likely future for the indoor space at Beale Street Landing is joining the growing list of fancy places that can be rented for parties, weddings, and other special events. This is a far cry from the bring-Memphis-together gathering spot envisioned in the original plan. It also fails to meet the simple need for a place to escape the summer heat and get a sandwich, a cold drink, and a bathroom. Correction, there are a couple of bathrooms. We will see how long they stay open.

Sadly, food trucks and bottled-water vendors could have met this need for a fraction of the cost. Instead, we have a restaurant that never opened and a kitchen about to be stripped. Robert Irvine, where are you?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Forrest Rides Again

A poll on renaming three parks attracts — surprise! — Civil War buffs.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Well, the fans of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest have had their fun with park names. What now?

As if we didn't already know, social media and civics don't mix well. The online name-the-parks popularity contest was no contest. Either hundreds of Forrest/Davis fans voted to restore the original names or else a handful of hardcores from the Sons of Confederate Veterans voted multiple times.

The committee appointed to rename the three parks met Monday for 45 minutes but made no decisions. Members got handouts with the results of the web poll as well as a list of suggestions from the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

The former Nathan Bedford Forrest Park that triggered this exercise got 525 responses, with 481 of them favoring that name. Ida B. Wells, endorsed in some well-publicized newspaper columns, public statements, and blogs, was the second choice, with just three votes, the same as Civil War Park.

The former Jefferson Davis Park also got 525 responses, including 484 in favor of that name. Confederate Park got 463 votes, with Confederate Memorial Park the runner-up with 7 votes.

Each of the parks also got a sprinkling of votes for such hilarious names as Consolidator Park, William C. Boyd's Folly Park, and Lost Cause Park.

The cool cats at the Chamber of Commerce recommended the names Rock N' Soul Park for Jefferson Davis Park, Tiger Park for Confederate Park, and Volunteer Park for Forrest Park. Somewhere in there is a message of business development.

Committee members suggested there were some voting irregularities. Ballot-box stuffing in a web poll. What shockers are next? Happy Meals don't make you happy? Politicians lie? Contests that pick the "best" dry cleaner or barbecue sandwich are unscientific? Commenters use fake names?

Some members complained that responses came from people who do not live in Memphis. Unlike the public comments made in person at an earlier committee meeting, respondents did not have to provide personal information. Keith Norman said that factor and "the harsh tone may be some of the very reasons why we are here."

Well, nobody had a monopoly on rigging the poll. The Rock N' Soul fans and Ida B. Wells supporters could have done the same thing. A small number of people, it seems, care a lot about park names, while a large number of people don't care much, if at all. But the Civil War buffs overplayed their hand when they made personal calls to committee members on their cell phones. That is likely to backfire and strengthen any resolve to rename the parks, poll numbers and public comments aside.

For removing a fairly innocuous marker at Forrest Park two months ago, Memphis has earned unwelcome national publicity, a Ku Klux Klan rally that cost $177,000 in public services, and a controversy that won't go away.

What the renaming committee and the Memphis City Council should do now is leave the statues of Forrest and Davis — inscriptions and all — alone. Any talk of moving them or rewording them will prolong this foolishness and create an even bigger fiasco. Put up new signs renaming the parks, using the "placeholders" already approved by the council — Memphis Park for Confederate Park, Mississippi River Park for Jefferson Davis Park, and Health Sciences Park for Forrest Park.

Let the commenters and critics have their say. But no new statues. No more polls. No more renaming. Blander is better.

Racism in Memphis runs deeper than monuments and inscriptions erected 50, 80, or more than 100 years ago. The local history that makes it nearly impossible to develop the public Promenade on Front Street does not involve the Civil War. Downtown's resemblance to a daytime ghost town has everything to do with the consolidation of banks and brokerage firms and the convenience of suburban offices and nothing to do with Jefferson Davis. Baptist Memorial Hospital didn't leave downtown to get away from Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Write this unfortunate chapter off to experience and move on.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks On

A new club on Beale and the Beale Street Music Festival are on tap.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 at 2:33 PM

Jerry Lee Lewis - JOHN BRANSTON
  • John Branston
  • Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis, the last living member of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, sat beneath a photograph in his den of that signature moment in the history of rock-and-roll in 1956 and vowed to keep on rocking.

Now 77 years old and recovered from a broken leg that kept him out of last year's Beale Street Music Festival, he is touring again and will play the festival on May 4th. And on April 27th, he will be honored with a parade on Beale Street and cut the ribbon outside of Jerry Lee Lewis' Café and Honkytonk in the building that formerly housed Pat O'Brien's and Dancing Jimmy's.

Lewis, of course, is usually associated with the Sun Records Studio on Union Avenue, which was recreated in the musical Million Dollar Quartet that opened on Broadway in 2010 and recently finished its second run at the Orpheum. But he said that as a young man he often went to Beale Street.

"I think it's about time I should have a place up there," he said this week in an interview at his home in Nesbit, Mississippi. "I used to listen to a Dixieland jazz band down near the river. I don't think that's Beale Street now, though; it's all changed up so much."

Lewis was married for the seventh time last year. He and his wife, Judith, live in a red-brick ranch home with a lake on 30 acres. He is far from the cocky chatterbox portrayed in Million Dollar Quartet but his voice and handshake are strong, and he cracked up when his old friend J.W. Whitten produced a long-lost picture of Lewis and astronaut Neil Armstrong, who carried his music to the moon, and said, "Them Martians are rockin'!"

The man who has kicked over thousands of piano benches still has a trace of a limp.

"I had that broken leg operated three times before the plate was removed," he said. "That kind of took the wind out of my sails."

The den is decorated with a Yamaha piano, gold records, album covers, and photographs, including two copies of the famous one with Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at the piano in Sam Phillips' studio. Elvis died in 1977, Perkins in 1998, and Phillips and Cash in 2003. Lewis recorded "Last Man Standing" in 2006.

He didn't bite on a question about competition and who influenced whom the most. "It went both ways," he said. "I always held my ground." He has fond memories of that day at Sun Studio.

"I remember the day that picture was made very well," he said. "Elvis' girl was standing to the right of him, just out of the picture. I was looking straight at her, and she was looking straight at me. I never knew it would turn into something like that, but you never know what's going to happen."

He saw Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway.

"I thought it was great," he said. "They had me come out onstage. The drummer had a hard time keeping up with the beat."

In 2010, he made another album of duets called Mean Old Man, but he disavows the title.

"I'm certainly not a mean old man," he protested.

"Why, he's an angel," Judith added.

A halo on Jerry Lee Lewis? Great balls of fire! I asked about performers he especially admires ("this guy Elton John is pretty good") and the young bands in the festival.

"They're fans of mine and friends, but as far as getting together and playing, I don't see that happening. Like that picture of me in the Million Dollar Quartet, we didn't know what was going to happen, and you never know what's going to happen with the younger generation."

My time was up. "Thanks, killer," he said, and stuck out his hand. No, thank you, Killer, from a grateful Memphis.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I Like Spike and Luke

A pair of subs shine and deliver in college basketball’s big game.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 10, 2013 at 5:48 AM

For one night, all was forgiven.

The March Madness and bracketology hype. The 8:30 p.m. starting time. The endless television commercials, especially the one with Charles Barkley producing a hot dog from the vicinity of his left armpit. The football venue. The thinly disguised NBA development league for student athletes. The disappointment of my rooting interest.

It was all overshadowed by 40 minutes of great basketball in Louisville's 82-76 win over Michigan in the NCAA men's final Monday night. As every fan knows, two substitutes played like stars. Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half for Michigan and consistently broke Louisville's press with his dribbling until the magic wore off four minutes before the end of the half. Louisville forward Luke Hancock did even better, with 22 points including four three-pointers in two minutes at the end of the half that got his team back in the game.

Neither of these long-range bombers had a single dunk, and neither player was a star during the regular season. They proved the prediction by Michigan's coach John Beilein that some "outlier" might be the key player in the game.

The quality of the game, the huge audience, and the special players on both teams ensures that several trends in sports will be accelerated.

The 20-year-old freshman: Albrecht and Hancock might have looked like throwbacks to another era of college basketball, but they did not exactly come out of nowhere. Although they were not highly recruited, they both went to prep schools for a year after graduating from high school to improve their chances of getting a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Like Albrecht's teammate Mitch McGary, another story line of this year's tournament, they are or soon will be 20-year-old college freshmen. Whether at Michigan, Louisville, or Memphis, today's big-time college athlete is likely to be a year or two years older than his classmates. The same goes for star players in high school and middle-school who are "red-shirted" to give them time to bulk up, develop their skills, and maybe accumulate enough credits and a high-enough ACT score to be college-eligible. Rare is the 17-year-old high school senior who can compete at the highest level in basketball, football, or baseball.

Basketball in indoor football stadiums: The Final Four and two of the Elite Eight games were played in indoor football stadiums. This means thousands of empty seats at some venues, when fans of losing teams go home, but it sure didn't deter a reported 74,000 people from showing up Monday night at the Georgia Dome to party, squint at the floor, and watch the action on the big screen. The chances of the Final Four returning to a basketball arena are remote.

Commercials rule: A couple of minutes of television commercials used to be interspersed with several minutes of game action. Now it's just the opposite. Several times during Final Four games there would be only a few seconds of "action" between commercials. Players call time-outs when they can't inbound the ball, and coaches call those dreaded "20-second time-outs" that freeze the action and kill momentum at the end of the game. Cut to another commercial of Alec Baldwin and Charles Barkley or a CBS promo. Basketball's television timeout at the eight-minute mark has become as institutionalized as pro football's two-minute warning.

So long, CBS and Final Four. CBS has broadcast the NCAA men's final for more than three decades, but it could go to a cable station as early as next year. Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting now shares the rights to the last three rounds, but several media outlets have reported that Turner could take over in 2014 instead of 2016. More games on cable means more advertising slots, more revenue, and higher bills for bundled cable packages for consumers who want to watch sports.

Newspapers say "thanks." College and pro basketball and football aren't the only things keeping print newspapers and their websites and pay walls going, but they're big attractions for readers and, therefore, advertisers. More and more, sports stories, pictures, and columns aren't just on the front page, they are the front page.

Good news for Josh Pastner, the University of Memphis, and FedExForum. Especially if they can keep Louisville on the schedule and win a couple of games each year in the tournament, Memphis and its well-paid coach, first-class arena, and short-term players should prosper in the brave new world of college hoops.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Superintendent Search

What to expect — and not expect — in the field of finalists.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 3, 2013 at 10:03 AM

After watching the coming and going of five Memphis school superintendents, I can't say I know how to pick the next one, but I know a little about how NOT to do it.

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The Unified School Board has a little over a month to come up with a name or a bunch of names that will be interviewed before the winner is chosen. The next superintendent will preside over the first year of the unified county school system after Memphis City Schools goes away July 1st and possibly the first year of the aftermath of separate suburban systems, if they start up in 2014.

Pretty hard lines, I would say.

Meanwhile, Dorsey Hopson and David Stephens are acting superintendent and deputy superintendent. Hopson is former legal counsel to Memphis City Schools, and Stephens was an administrator in the Shelby County Schools. He is also the son of O.Z. Stephens, the co-author of the Plan Z busing in the 1970s. The unified system could do a lot worse than retaining these two gentlemen for at least a couple of years, but the search goes on.

Don't expect much of anything to come out of the series of community meetings now being held around the city and county to get citizen input. Search firms do this as part of their checklist and make a fuss over writing everything down. Last time, before Kriner Cash got the Memphis job, a handful of people showed up at most of them. People respond to specific candidates and controversies more than they do to "what qualities do you like?" surveys.

Don't pay too much attention to candidates with big awards on their resumes. The cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools is the big story in education now.

Former superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted last week on racketeering charges. Hall was the American Association of School Administrators' superintendent of the year in 2009, and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, hosted her at the White House. Former MCS superintendent Gerry House won the award in 1999, left the next year, and has not held a job in public education since then. Carol Johnson, MCS superintendent from 2003 to 2007, was named superintendent of the year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators in 2008.

Don't expect candidates to brag about big increases in student test scores. Such claims are suspect, if not toxic, these days. The Atlanta indictments, coupled with the federal indictments in Memphis of several people involved in a teacher certification scam, indicate that some teachers will cheat to get a job or bonus.

Don't expect the next superintendent to have a bonus clause in his or her contract. Hall earned more than $500,000 in bonus pay, because Atlanta students supposedly scored so highly on standardized tests. Cash's contract paid him $290,479 this year and had a clause in it that allowed the school board to award him a performance bonus of up to $10,000 annually, but "I don't think the board ever awarded Dr. Cash a bonus," Hopson said.

Don't be surprised if the next superintendent earns more than Cash, who was not the highest-paid school administrator in Tennessee by a long shot. According to public records, William Moseley, head of the private K-12 Ensworth School in Nashville, earned $700,133 in 2010-2011.

Don't expect Hopson and Stephens to have smooth sailing if they are the default choice. The last insider to serve as MCS superintendent, Johnnie B. Watson, was so exasperated by board member Sara Lewis (now on the unified board) that he filed a harassment complaint against her. The Memphis Education Association and Shelby County Education Association will oppose any superintendent who favors more school closings and major revisions to the teacher-pay structure.

Don't expect a long-term relationship. Superintendents are a little like college football coaches. The scrutiny is constant, the pressure is intense, and the odds of them leaving if they're unpopular or being hired away if they're successful are overwhelming. The average tenure of the last four Memphis and Shelby County superintendents was four years.

Finally, don't be surprised if the finalists include at least one 30-something hard-charger from the "school reform" movement with a background in Teach For America. That fits the profile of Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman and Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic. Such a candidate would win favor from the Gates Foundation and board members like Tomeka Hart (now working for TFA) and Martavius Jones. In a time of guaranteed upheaval, why go old school?

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