Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paula Deen and Tunica

Harrah’s Casino should give its restaurant partner a break.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2013 at 2:13 PM

citybeat_PaulaDeen.jpg

TUNICA — Luck turns on a dime.

A flip of the cards, a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel, a turn of the reels. One minute you're up, the next minute you're down, and that goes for slot junkies and high-rollers.

A slip of the tongue can do it too if you're Paula Deen. Paula Deen's Buffet opened in Harrah's Tunica Casino in 2008. Harrah's went all in. Getting Paula out of the casino would be like getting the butter out of a pound cake. Her name and likeness are everywhere.

On the sign at the entrance just off of U.S. Highway 61. On the cardboard cutouts at the restaurant with its homey white shutters and Paula Deen photo collage. On the tables with Paula Deen hot sauce and Paula Deen recipe cards for Mississippi Mud Cake, cheese biscuits, and hoe cakes. In the Paula Deen Gift Shop, you can buy Paula Deen pots and pans, books, knickknacks, aprons, candy, picture frames, and T-shirts ("Our hoes are complimentary").

The Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau website features a three-minute video of Paula taking a chowhound on a tour.

"Do you know why I was so excited about coming to Tunica, Mississippi?" she coos. "You've got to have cooks, and I knew that these women and men were good Southern cooks."

Then she autographs the host's forehead with a Sharpie.

Round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.

Last week, the Food Network announced that it is ending a partnership with Deen that began in 1999. On Monday, Smithfield Foods, known for its hams, dropped her as its spokeswoman. On Wednesday, she went on the Today show. Paula Deen's goose was cooked when a 2012 deposition became public earlier this month. She admitted using racial slurs in the past. No public figure can survive the "have you ever" question and the resulting media feeding frenzy. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni scoffed at suggestions that Deen, 66, is a product of her place and time.

"All of her adult years post-date the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she's a citizen of the world, traveling wide and far to peddle her wares. If she can leave Georgia for the sake of commerce, she can leave Georgia in the realm of consciousness."

Sounds like somebody's got a Georgia problem. Ever used the word "cracker," Frank?

Can Paula Deen hang on in Tunica County, where 73 percent of the population is black, or with Harrah's, the biggest player in gambling in the state of Mississippi?

A spokesman for parent company Caesar's Entertainment said "we will continue to monitor the situation."

When I visited the Paula Deen Buffet for lunch this week, a black woman at the hostess stand mumbled "all right, I guess" and let it go at that when I asked her how things were going.

The buffet was doing a good business at $14.95 a head. Answering duty's call, I started with a plate of fried dill pickles, fried catfish, and chicken gumbo, then attacked Bobby Deen's "healthy" kitchen for corn bread dressing, sliced ham, cheeseburger meatloaf, baked catfish, and a cheese biscuit before finishing strong with hot bread pudding with caramel sauce and a peanut butter "gooey" from the bakery.

Then I bought a Paula Deen "Queen of Southern Cuisine" picture frame for $4.95 in case there's a Twinkies effect.

Queen Deen has talked her way out of tight spots before, such as her belated disclosure of her Type 2 diabetes. Where Bruni saw a racist buffoon in her 80-minute interview with the Times before a live audience last year, I saw a woman who could make it as a stand-up comic with a blue streak in another life. Like Oprah and Ellen, her following bridges race. One fan, a black woman, calls her "one of my four vanilla mommas." Paula is clearly touched.

The question Harrah's should ask is this: If Paula Deen is a racist, has it come out before this in her daily and very public life? Harrah's pioneered customer research in its industry and has a racially mixed workforce of more than 3,000 people in Tunica. There's your focus group.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In the Swim of Things

From afraid-of-the-water to lifeguard, thanks to Memphis community pools.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2013 at 9:35 AM

Nobody goes into the water planning to drown.

Not Annazar Nazarov, a 44-year-old Memphian who got caught in a rip current off the beach near Destin earlier this month. Or William Haithcox, 48, who went in to rescue him. Or two other people on the same stretch of beach that week.

Or Demavius Bailey, 15, and Cameron Hogg, 13, who drowned on the same day in separate incidents in Memphis community center swimming pools five years ago.

And certainly not the dozens of kids at the Bickford Aquatic Center the other day who eagerly raised their arms when lifeguard Christian Kimble asked for a show of hands from those who could swim. Trouble was, several of the same hands shot up when Kimble asked "how many of you DON'T know how to swim?"

Kimble, an 18-year-old graduate of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, knows better. He learned to swim at a Memphis community center when he was 16.

"I used to be like that," he said. "I hated the water. I was afraid of it. A lot of people automatically say they can swim when you ask them, but my definition is swim competitive [on the club's swim team]."

Kimble was one of several instructors working with some 70 kids Tuesday at Bickford, one of 17 Memphis community pools, at what was billed as "The World's Largest Swim Lesson."

"We're trying to change the culture," said Anthony Norris, board chairman of sponsor Splash Mid-South. "Swimming is not common in the minority community, but Memphis has a long history of African-American swimmers. Tarik Sugarmon (attorney) swam in college, and Willie Gregory (director of community relations for Nike) was a lifeguard. So this is more of a renaissance."

Fortunately, the swimming pools have been spared from city budget cuts. More than 5,000 Memphians have learned to swim in the last five years, and there has not been a drowning since the double fatalities that closed pools in 2008.

"Some of these kids are so frightened when they get in the pool that they start hyperventilating," said swim coach Cynthia Dickerson of Splash Mid-South. "It may take them two or three days to put their head in the water. Some of the older ones are embarrassed and may not come back after the first day. And some go on to be on the swim team and work as lifeguards."

Kimble's method combines patience and persistence.

"Once they get in the pool, I don't let them leave it," he said.

He took a group of eight kids through five steps ­­— blow bubbles, submerge face, open eyes, bob up and down, and pick up a yellow plastic shovel underwater. Then the moment of truth: pushing off underwater from the side of the pool, arms extended with hands together, and gliding a few yards. A few kids froze and others came up sputtering. Kimble's assistant, 12-year-old Kentarrius Braxton, demonstrated perfect technique with a powerful push and flipper kick that sent him nearly half-way across the pool. In two years, he has lowered his time to 1:13 in the 100 meters.

He grinned and nodded when I asked him if kids lie about being able to swim.

"I said that too," he said.

This is not unique to children or the inner-city. When I was in Florida on vacation last week, I talked to former Memphian John Farmer, owner of Yellowfin Ocean Sports. I griped about the double-red flags on the beach, which meant swimming was prohibited even though the sun was out and the waves were only a couple feet high. Drive 600 miles and the blanking-bureaucrats threaten to fine you if you go in the blanking-ocean. An ambulance roared past, siren blaring, while Farmer rented me a kayak.

"That means they pulled someone out of the water," he said.

"You think?"

"I know," he said. "There have been four drownings in Walton County in the last 48 hours," a statement confirmed by the local paper.

The all-time worst day was June 8, 2003, when eight people drowned. One of them was a lifeguard on vacation.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In the Swim of Things

From afraid-of-the-water to lifeguard, thanks to community pools.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2013 at 4:01 PM

Nobody goes into the water planning to drown.

Not Annazar Nazarov, a 44-year-old Memphian who got caught in a rip current off the beach near Destin earlier this month. Or William Haithcox, 48, who went in to rescue him. Or two other people on the same stretch of beach that week.

Or Demavius Bailey, 15, and Cameron Hogg, 13, who drowned on the same day in separate incidents in Memphis community center swimming pools five years ago.

And certainly not the dozens of kids at the Bickford Aquatic Center the other day who eagerly raised their arms when lifeguard Christian Kimble asked for a show of hands from those who could swim. Trouble was, several of the same hands shot up when Kimble asked “how many of you DON’T know how to swim?”

Kimble, an 18-year-old graduate of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, knows better. He learned to swim at a Memphis community center when he was 16.

Kentarrius Braxton (l) and Christian Kimble. - ABBY WILSON
  • Abby Wilson
  • Kentarrius Braxton (l) and Christian Kimble.

“I used to be like that,” he said. “I hated the water. I was afraid of it. A lot of people automatically say they can swim when you ask them, but my definition is swim competitive [on the club’s swim team].”

Kimble was one of several instructors working with some 70 kids Tuesday at Bickford, one of 17 Memphis community pools, at what was billed as “The World’s Largest Swim Lesson.”

“We’re trying to change the culture,” said Anthony Norris, board chairman of sponsor Splash Mid-South. “Swimming is not common in the minority community, but Memphis has a long history of African-American swimmers. Tarik Sugarmon (attorney) swam in college, and Willie Gregory (director of community relations for Nike) was a lifeguard. So this is more of a renaissance.”

Fortunately, the swimming pools have been spared from city budget cuts. More than 5,000 Memphians have learned to swim in the last five years, and there has not been a drowning since the double fatalities that closed pools in 2008.

“Some of these kids are so frightened when they get in the pool that they start hyperventilating,” said swim coach Cynthia Dickerson of Splash Mid-South. “It may take them two or three days to put their head in the water. Some of the older ones are embarrassed and may not come back after the first day. And some go on to be on the swim team and work as lifeguards.”

Kimble’s method combines patience and persistence.

“Once they get in the pool, I don’t let them leave it,” he said.

He took a group of eight kids through five steps ­­— blow bubbles, submerge face, open eyes, bob up and down, and pick up a yellow plastic shovel underwater. Then the moment of truth: pushing off underwater from the side of the pool, arms extended with hands together, and gliding a few yards. A few kids froze and others came up sputtering. Kimble’s assistant, 12-year-old Kentarrius Braxton, demonstrated perfect technique with a powerful push and flipper kick that sent him nearly half-way across the pool. In two years, he has lowered his time to 1:13 in the 100 meters.

He grinned and nodded when I asked him if kids lie about being able to swim.

“I said that too,” he said.

This is not unique to children or the inner-city. When I was in Florida on vacation last week, I talked to former Memphian John Farmer, owner of Yellowfin Ocean Sports. I griped about the double-red flags on the beach, which meant swimming was prohibited even though the sun was out and the waves were only a couple feet high. Drive 600 miles and the blanking-bureaucrats threaten to fine you if you go in the blanking-ocean. An ambulance roared past, siren blaring, while Farmer rented me a kayak.

“That means they pulled someone out of the water,” he said.

“You think?”

“I know,” he said. “There have been four drownings in Walton County in the last 48 hours,” a statement confirmed by the local paper.

The all-time worst day was June 8, 2003, when eight people drowned. One of them was a lifeguard on vacation.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Budget Ideas

Wharton recalculates, council complains, commission sets a rate.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 4, 2013 at 4:06 PM

You ask for suggestions, you get suggestions.

City councilman Jim Strickland, chairman of the budget committee, invited colleagues to make suggestions for revising next year's budget. The state comptroller recently served notice that Memphis cannot balance its budget by shifting debt payments around.

Six members took Strickland up on his suggestion, with ideas ranging from cutting corporate subsidies and the animal shelter to restoring funds for city employees, community centers, and libraries. Three members pressed for more savings and lower taxes, and three recommended restoring services and employee pay and benefits previously cut.

Absent were the sort of extreme alternatives floated by Mayor A C Wharton last week, such as raising the property tax rate from $3.11 to $4.83 or setting the tax rate at $3.11 and laying off 3,250 employees. Wharton was bracketing the target. No one seriously believes either of those things will happen. The mayor's latest recommendation, presented to the council Tuesday, is a $3.51 rate with 400 buyouts and layoffs of employees. But several council members were not ready to sign on to the mayor's plan.

Kemp Conrad said reducing the solid waste budget by $17 million would save homeowners $60 to $85 a year in fees.

Edmund Ford Jr. suggested restoring $5 million for community centers, libraries, and code-enforcement workers and shifting $12 million for streetlights to Memphis Light, Gas & Water.

Harold Collins opted for eliminating the animal shelter and trimming police expenditures and funding for economic development to save $9.5 million.

Janis Fullilove opted for allocating $1 million for the YWCA's domestic violence program, $3.4 million for a parking garage in Cooper-Young, and $1.5 million for Southbrook Mall.

Lee Harris recommended cutting an International Paper subsidy of $3.5 million and $2.1 million for the Economic Development Growth Engine.

Wanda Halbert wanted to restore the 4.6 percent salary reduction to city employees with "absolutely no employee layoffs." And she wanted more information about any laws that prohibit transfer of operating funds to capital improvement funds and vice versa — a frequent disclaimer when such suggestions are made.

Halbert wants to revisit all sharing agreements with county government — a tall order for a fiscal year that ends June 30th. The Shelby County Commission tentatively approved a budget this week that raises the county tax rate from $4.02 to $4.38. It includes a $20 million increase in funding for the Unified School District, which is $10 million less than the school board requested.

Doing the math, the combined property tax rate for a Memphis homeowner looks to be around $7.89 heading into the late innings. But I wouldn't bet against $8 when all is said and done.

On closer inspection, savings often turn out to be illusory because they shift costs and responsibilities from the city to the county. The obvious example is school funding, with Memphis no longer paying $64 million a year because of the merger.

I asked interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson what impact charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District will have on the budget. There are 41 charter schools with approximately 12,000 students scheduled to be in the mix in August.

He said that if the ASD takes over a school, "all our operational costs would go away but we lose the per-pupil funding" so it's a wash. If the ASD authorizes a charter school, "the charter gets the building for free, so there's a big advantage to working with ASD." Other charter schools have sharing agreements with the school system to pay to use vacant space in buildings where the district school continues to operate.

Five district schools are closing this summer, with 12 more under study for closing. The operating costs, Hopson said, are roughly the same whether a school is full or half-empty. Opponents of school closings say the savings are overstated, doom neighborhoods to further decline, and put students at risk in hostile settings.

Whether or not suburban high schools stay at capacity will depend on the municipal schools outcome and the treatment of students who live in unincorporated Shelby County. Germantown schools, for example, enroll a large number of students who don't live in the city of Germantown.

There are lots of uncertainties, but higher taxes is not one of them. That's a given.

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