Thursday, February 24, 2011

Take That, Commenters!

Posted By on Thu, Feb 24, 2011 at 11:23 AM

A local journalist and this publication are getting the respect they deserve from the national media for opinion mongering.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Comparing the Memphis Incentives

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2011 at 1:43 PM

Taking a cue from Mayor A C Wharton, here's a look at what some other Southeastern cities and states reportedly paid to land big manufacturing plants and major employers in the last 18 years.

On Tuesday Wharton suggested that critics of incentives for Mitsubishi Electric and Electrolux read up on what other cities offer. I looked at car manufacturers because Wharton specifically mentioned Nissan and Hyundai at his press conference.

Conclusion: Memphis paid less for less.

Numbers are easy enough to find since public expenditures must be disclosed. But comparisons are harder to make and quantify when other factors are considered. How many spinoff jobs and industries? What average wage? What's the inflation factor for an incentives package given years ago? And how desperate was the city and/or state for new jobs and a good story to tell?

And in this case we're not talking apples to oranges, but cars to appliances and transformers. Or first-round draft choices and third-round picks, if you prefer.

One thing is indisputable. You have to pay to play. As then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in icy-cold tones in Chicago several years ago when Memphis and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium finished out of the running for an expansion team, "You can win or you can be disappointed."

With those cautions, here's a look at some big car deals within 500 miles of Memphis and the two Memphis deals.

Continue reading »

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wharton to Memphis: "Read!"

Posted By on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 12:18 PM

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has some blunt advice for people who question the city spending money to attract new companies: get better informed about how the world works.

"Look at what the world is doing, take a global view," he said at a press conference Tuesday. "Read! Read! Look at what the world is doing."

Wharton is exasperated at critics of incentives for companies like Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric, who are locating new plants here in exchange for multi-million dollar tax breaks.

"It really does get to me," he said, noting that other cities give even more incentives to attract automakers such as Hyndai (Montgomery, Alabama) or Nissan (Nashville and Smyrna).

The press conference was called to announce that the state team tennis tournament is coming to Memphis in 2011 and 2012, but Wharton quickly shifted from tennis players to taxpayers. Asked about looming budget cuts and layoffs of city employees, he told a quick story about a woman from Orange Mound who rides a bus to her job cleaning houses in Germantown every day and has no benefits or health insurance.

He said he must consider "the hundreds of thousands of people who have to pay for what they don't even get."

Again, he noted that critics sometimes seem unaware the states and cities all over the U.S. are making drastic cuts to stay solvent. Preliminary budget projections show Memphis could have a $70 million deficit plus $57 million it owes Memphis City Schools.

Asked about the schools referendum, Wharton said he is concerned about the low turnout so far. Only some 3,400 people had voted as of Tuesday morning. Whatever the decision, he said, "I hope it will feel like a mandate."

He said Memphis will pay $78 million to MCS in 2011 no matter the outcome, and has paid roughly that amount to MCS in 2010 and 2009 also.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Video: Andy Roddick's Best Shot Ever

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 9:46 AM

Andy Roddick hit one of the greatest shots in tennis history Sunday at The Racquet Club.

It was match point in the third set when Roddick dived to hit a forehand down the line and win the match and the tournament.

Notice how the ballboy's open-mouthed "I don't believe it" expression matches Roddick's expression.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is It Worth It?

Posted By on Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 2:32 PM

The slogans and yard signs have come out. "If You Don't Know Vote No." And "Unity."

I think the "don't know" one is more effective. The anti-merger side has the easier job. Lots of doubts. The fact is nobody knows the answer to a dozen big questions. The pro-merger side has to choose between the symbolic feel-good message — unity — or the financial message — lower taxes — which is not at all certain.

Slogans aside, another way to look at the schools referendum is to ask this question: Is it worth it?

To answer that, we need to look at what can be changed and what cannot be changed by surrendering the MCS charter and merging the city and county school systems. And then we need to ask if the things that can be changed are more likely to be changed with or without a merger.

First, here's what I think can be changed:

The discussion. In 29 years in Memphis, I have never seen anything close to this much interest, publicity, serious discussion, and mixed alliances as I have seen in the last four months on the schools issue.

The tax imbalance between Memphis and the suburbs. Sooner or later Memphis will go bankrupt if a shrinking tax base has to support more services, and residents can opt to live in a neighboring suburb where the taxes are 20-40 percent less. It may be a slow death, but I don't think this can be avoided without consolidation.

School system and school district boundary lines can be redrawn. It's been done many times already, it just has not been implemented.

School board membership can change and the size of the board can be increased and the district lines can be redrawn.

Superintendents can be changed, just like coaches. Buyouts and hurt feelings come with the territory. If you are a Kriner Cash fan, vote "no" on school consolidation. Otherwise he's out of here within a year or so.

Openness and accurate, audited numbers. Taxpayers should not have to pay for phantoms. Audit the enrollment and the graduation rate, and the academic outliers. No shenanigans.

The acceptance of an ACT average score of 14, 15, 16, or 17, which is what most city high schools produce. A high school that boasts of increasing its graduation rate with graduates who make a 15 on the ACT— six points below the state average — is cheating those students and setting them up for failure.

The "Us and Them" reporting and grading system that makes Shelby County look so much better than MCS. Blended scores are the rule in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.

The uncertainty about what Memphians want. This is a city-only referendum. The turnout and the margin and the result will tell us something.

What can't be changed:

School choice. The choices are much broader than city schools or county schools. There are tens of thousands of kids in private schools in Shelby County and tens of thousands more in public schools in DeSoto County, Mississippi, minutes away. MCS has an open enrollment policy. And now MCS also has a couple dozen charter schools. The strongest force in the universe is a parent determined to get their kid into a good school. Boundaries are nothing.

Resegregation. There are not enough white kids in the combined city and county system — about 32,000 out of 150,000 — to have racially balanced schools. Racially unbalanced schools are a fact of life here. With a merger we might have unity in the sense of one public system instead of two, but probably not for long once municipalities set up their own systems, which I think they would do.

In-fighting on the school board. A bigger board would have fresh faces but democracy guarantees diversity and disagreement.

The suburban dominance of the state legislature. They have the numbers.

A long and difficult transition. A merger of two public school systems is not at all like a corporate merger. There are no lines of authority. No super CEO. No handpicked board. Nobody with a mandate to close schools and cut jobs.

The achievement gap between the very best schools and the worst schools. There will be and there should be a few college-prep public high schools like White Station, Houston, Collierville, and Central. That's smart policy for any school system, and it recognizes the clustering effect. It is simply not realistic to expect disadvantaged city schools to close the gap with White Station or Houston.

In summary, I think voters will be asking themselves what a merger can and cannot do, and whether some desirable results are more likely to be achieved with or without a merger. The outcome will influence what suburban residents and the courts do.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Memphis Facing $70-million Budget Deficit

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 9:24 PM

The city of Memphis is facing a $70 million budget shortfall, the mayor's office said Thursday. This is in addition to the $55 it million it owes Memphis City Schools in back payments.

Possible ways of closing the deficit include various combinations of several hundred job cuts, additional property taxes, selling off delinquent property taxes for $20 million, "monetization" of parking meter revenues for $10 million, and taking $20 million from the debt reserve fund.

Drawing on the city's $76 million reserve fund is not an option, the mayor's office said, because it is already below the recommended amount of $102 million needed to cover two months of operations.

The mayor's office released a "four-option budget contingency plan" with a statement cautioning that they are only planning scenarios and "It is in no way the mayor’s budget proposal or a final document."

The number of layoffs in the four scenarios ranges from 659 to 2110, or roughly 10 to 30 percent of the workforce. With public safety virtually off limits, cuts of this magnitude are unlikely.

The tax increase to cover the $55 million to MCS would be 18 cents, and it would be called a "restoration" of the amount the City Council cut three years ago. Some of the options propose a lower repayment or paying it off on in installments instead of in one year.

The budget deficit was not unexpected. Many states and cities are facing deficits. But it comes in the middle of the debate over MCS charter surrender, an issue so complicated that most politicians admit they expect it to be resolved somehow in court.

What effect it will have on the March 8th referendum remains to be seen, but both sides are certain to bring it up. At a town hall meeting Thursday night, Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle said Memphians are overtaxed already and the Republican-supported bill on schools that passed this week will make things worse. Opponents of school system consolidation outside Memphis don't get a vote, but they will likely join their allies within the city in denouncing the city's fiscal responsibility.

Vania King Is As Good As Lebron James

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 2:25 PM

Vania King
  • Vania King
There are some world-class athletes in Memphis this week, and they're not basketball players.

They're professional tennis players, and what's more, some of them are women. And one of them, Vania King, gets my vote as the best women's doubles player in the world.

Pound for athletic pound, I'll put her up against Lebron James, who is all over the Internet and SportsCenter this week for his 90-foot alley-oop pass and catch with Dwayne Wade.

King is 5 feet 5 inches tall, and can't weigh much more than 100 pounds. She is fit but not muscular. James is 6 feet 8 inches tall and 240 pounds and looks like a bodybuilder.

King won the doubles championships at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2010. She and her partner, are entered in the doubles at the Cellular South Cup at the Racquet Club this week.

Here's my case for King:

She has to react to a tennis ball coming at her at a speed of more than 100 miles an hour from a distance less than the pitcher's mound to the batter's box. Imagine a big-league pitcher throwing a ball at you from half that distance and you get a rough idea of the reflexes required to play pro tennis at the net.

Then she has to do something with it — either volley it back or return it in the court out of reach of the players on the other side.

In basketball and football, the players get bigger but the size of the playing field or court doesn't change, and the ball stays the same. In tennis, everything changes, place to place and year to year.

The surface changes from grass to clay to outdoor hardcourts to indoor hardcourts, and the speed and bounce of the ball changes accordingly. But the biggest change is the racquets and the string. The new "big banger" string enables women today to hit the ball as hard as men did 20 years ago when Andre Agassi was coming up and much harder than men did 30 years ago when John McEnroe was in his prime. Watching a tape of a pro tennis match in 1980 is like watching a different game. I bet McEnroe hits harder now on the seniors tour than he did when he was number one in the world.

Vania King and the other pros in Memphis this week all knock the crap out of the ball. Not because they are brute strong, but because their technique, timing, and coordination are perfect. And their racquets are so powerful. And they've been playing since their could walk.

Women's doubles is the sleeper event at this tournament even though there are no headliners. Women don't serve many aces, so the ball is usually in play. There's usually one player up and one back on each team, with the player at the net trying to cut off the crosscourts and still cover lobs too.

In basketball, the players spend too much time sitting around. The dreaded free-throw shooting contest is the ending of many a game. As the saying goes, if I have one minute to live let it be the last minute of a close basketball game. There are fewer pauses in the action in a tennis match. In doubles, the deciding point in a game is do or die because of the no-ad scoring system.

A tennis player must hit a serve hard enough to create an advantage or end the point outright or return a spinning serve going at least 100 miles an hour and put it in play without the opponent at the net picking it off.

The best doubles players are usually not great singles players, but they get first serves and returns in when it matters. And their reflexes are phenomenal.

Vania King, for my money, does this better than any woman on the planet.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Another Way Memphis Could Buy Business

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 10:01 AM

First comes the party. Then comes the price.

That's how it works in economic development. Like other cities, Memphis has to pay to play to attract companies like Mitsubishi, Electrolux, and Bass Pro Shops. The price is millions of dollars in tax breaks plus public improvements in exchange for jobs, investment, spinoff businesses, and a positive story to tell.

Electrolux and Mitsubishi are good catches. The total number of jobs will be around 1,500, and the combined investment will be more than $600 million. Big deals, but not quite as big as the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga (2,000 jobs), the Toyota plant near Tupelo ((1,350 jobs), the Amazon distribution facility in Chattanooga (1,400 jobs), the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi (3,300 jobs) or the Nissan plants in Smyrna (6,700 jobs since 1983) and Decherd (1,300 jobs since production started in 1997) in Middle Tennessee. But certainly preferable to the loss of 1,900 in Union City in West Tennessee when Goodyear pulls out.

A lot of people in Memphis are probably thinking either, "I hope I get one of those jobs" or else "I hope the people who get those jobs buy a house in my part of Memphis."

We have a bad housing market. Memphis is certainly not alone in that regard, but our problem is compounded by low density — a population of 670,000 and a city of more than 320 square miles.

Two things are slowly killing Memphis. One is the "For Sale" signs all over town, indicating the outmigration of our population and the difficulty of selling a house when there is a glut of housing. The other is the tax imbalance between Memphis and its suburbs in Shelby County, where property taxes are as much as 40 percent lower and signs in front of subdivisions near annexation boundaries proclaim "No City Taxes."

The city of Detroit is taking an aggressive approach to its glut of housing and scarcity of residents, as described this week in a story in The Detroit News. In addition to giving incentives to businesses to move to Detroit, the city gives incentives to young people and police officers to move into neighborhoods such as Midtown, an older part of the city.

The program is called "15 by 15," and aims to attract 15,000 new residents by 2015. It has the backing of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

I live in Midtown Memphis. I confess to a little envy when I read about corporate welfare, and I suspect I am not the only one. No, we're not job creators, but we're taxpayers of several years, owners and customers of local businesses and public services, and our small businesses pay full freight. Houses aren't selling, and the only "incentive" anyone is offering is the lower price accepted by the homeowners who do sell. No homeowner gets a PILOT.

So, welcome employees of Electrolux and Mitsubishi and, possibly, Bass Pro Shops. Live up to the bargain. Live in Memphis, not DeSoto County, Mississippi or Fayette County or Tipton County Tennessee. Remember who is giving you the incentives to be here. And tell your friends to come too.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Mitsubishi's "Project 21" Memphis Valentine

Posted By on Mon, Feb 14, 2011 at 11:16 AM

Memphis pulled out all the stops, from Rudy Gay to a strolling jazz musician at the Peabody Skyway, to announce that Mitsubishi Electric will build electric transformers at a new $200 million plant south of downtown.

Brian Heery, president of Mitsubishi Power Products, said the transformers will supply U.S. factories and electric utilities. Two current customers are MLG&W and TVA.

He said the 350,000 square-foot facility will employ 90 people to start, then build up to around 275 "very good-paying jobs." The majority of them, he said, will be hired in Memphis.

"It's fair to say that Memphis is on a roll," said Gov. Bill Haslam, who was joined at the announcement by Gay, mayors Wharton and Luttrell, former U.S. Senator Howard Baker, and various officials from the chamber of commerce and state department of economic development.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Wharton Comes Out Fighting

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

Sounding more like the captain of the underdog team than the law professor or the honest broker of compromise, a fired-up Mayor A C Wharton on Friday vowed to fight for the children and voters of Memphis against the will of the state legislature on school system consolidation.

And, if anyone has any doubts, he is officially on record now saying he will vote "for" the referendum on March 8th.

Wharton held a press conference at City Hall to respond to Gov. Bill Haslam's signing a bill setting the terms for the transition period and merger of the city and county school systems. He said Memphis is under-represented on the transition committee as the legislation now reads.

"This bill was flawed from its inception," he said, because "it changed the rules in the middle of the game."

He said he is determined to see "that this does not stand," and he is working with the city attorney and the city council's attorney on a lawsuit.

Wharton said the city school board acted within its rights to surrender the charter — likening its action to returning children to their rightful parents — and the City Council has now affirmed that action. Council chairman Myron Lowery and several Democratic members of the Shelby County legislative delegation joined Wharton in a show of support.

He said this is not about his right as mayor to pick representatives on the board but, rather, the right of 103,000 students in Memphis City Schools to have some representation. He said he and Haslam can still have a good relationship on economic issues.

"On things economic, we can remain one," he said.

Wharton had tried to remain neutral before the legislature took action, but no more.

"When you get to a point like this you can't be neutral," he said.

Pressed a bit, he finally said, "I'm gonna vote yes" and ended the press conference.

At an earlier press conference, state legislators from Memphis said they will continue efforts to convince their colleagues to reconsider their vote this week and side with Memphis. They plan to introduce several of their rejected amendments as bills next week.

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Withers Documentary Draws a Crowd

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2011 at 12:09 PM

An overflow crowd came to see a sneak preview Thursday night of CNN's upcoming documentary on Ernest Withers, "Pictures Don't Lie."

The upstairs viewing room at the National Civil Rights Museum was full so latecomers watched the 30-minute segment in the downstairs auditorium. The total crowd was well over 100 people. The documentary will debut on Sunday, February 20th, on CNN. It is narrated by Soledad O'Brien.

Only part of the documentary was shown Thursday so it is hard to review it. But I can say that it doesn't seem to pull any punches. There are gruesome pictures of the murdered Emmitt Till. And Withers' role as an FBI informant, which was reported last year by The Commercial Appeal, is addressed head on. Dick Gregory says that calling Withers a Judas to the civil rights movement might be unfair to Judas.

King biographer David Garrow tells O’Brien, “There is no doubt whatsoever, the available documentary evidence, which includes both Mr. Withers’ name and his informant coding number — that matches up with dozens of FBI documents — nails it, 100 percent — case closed.”

The family of Withers disagrees. They are interviewed in the documentary, but that section was not part of the sneak preview. The view that Withers got a bad rap has gained traction. After the viewing, Beverly Robertson, executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum, said Withers may or may not have been an FBI informant. Also speaking Thursday was Dr. Suhkara Yahweh, formerly known as "Sweet Willie Wine," a member of the Invaders in 1968.

One thing the documentary makes clear is that Withers was an extremely hard-working photographer who chronicled the civil rights movement like no one else. Don't miss it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Name Game

Posted By on Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 10:49 AM

Remember Bob, Mary, Martha, John, Tom, Dick, Harry, and Betty?

If you do you are either over 45 or thinking of your parents. Those names are as gone as 45 rpm records.

In The Flyer's excellent Hotties 2011 issue out this week, here are some of the names of the hotties: Chase, Whitney, Iyona, Shayla, Shiraz, Martavius, Alex, Cyndii, Jittapong, and Holly. There is one David and one James. So much for retro.

Continuing with the French theme in this issue, the featured tennis player is Gael Monfils. Memphis, we are the world.

Always ready to spot a trend, I declare that the letter "i" is the new "y," as in Cyndii (with two "i"s) and Wendi, as in Wendi Thomas, also known as newspaper columnist Wendi C. Thomas. The addition of a middle initial is now fairly standard Columnist 101 but I came in on the back end and it is too late.

My daughter's name is Katy but had she come along a decade or so later my wife and I might well have considered Kati, or the more formal Katherine as her walking-around name. It's her call now.

The hot names for hotties reflects the diversity of our fair city. Go Memphis! Go Memphians! Go Memphi! Or Memphii.


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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Germantown Likes Idea of Municipal School District

Posted By on Tue, Feb 8, 2011 at 10:43 AM

Sharon Goldsworthy
  • Sharon Goldsworthy
Germantown would love to be a municipal school district and some residents think the time to start working on it is now.

Continue reading »

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Forbes Strikes Again: Memphis 6th in Misery

Posted By on Mon, Feb 7, 2011 at 4:57 PM

Memphis is the sixth most miserable city in the United States, according to Forbes magazine.

Memphis made the Top Twenty between Sacramento and Chicago, but is more miserable than Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, Washington D. C. and Jacksonville, among others.

Memphis has finished in the Top Ten in the magazine's survey twice before. Someone please call our friend and former colleague Mary Cashiola, now the city's brand manager.


Germantown Teen Gets Tennis Bid

Posted By on Mon, Feb 7, 2011 at 4:33 PM

Germantown teenager Catherine Harrison has been given a wild-card into the Cellular South Cup pro tennis tournament next week.

Harrison will play her first match Sunday or Monday, said tournament director Peter Lebedevs. She played in the qualifying tournament last year and reached the finals of the Orange Bowl, one of the top junior tournaments, this year.

She will be the first Memphis-area singles player in the pro tournament for men or women since Keith Evans, also of Germantown.



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