What snow? As of noon Monday, it was game on. With timely action on a schools bill expected in Nashville today, and possibly some court filings, counter-moves, or shenanigans elsewhere, there will be fresh red meat for a big crowd meeting on its home court in the belly of the beast.
It was a quiet weekend here in Lake Wobegon, also known as Midtown. The Super Bowl took airtime and print space and blogosphere energy from the schools story, which I sense is testing the patience and attention span of everyone involved in it. Sort of like the Black Eyed Peas halftime show.
And I think that is part of the strategy of merger opponents. Killing with delay, kindness, and confusion is a time-tested winner.
That goes for the white men in suits and boots in Nashville who dominate the legislature and the governor's office. As my colleague Jackson Baker has described in detail, Norris brilliantly crafted a bill that can and will be seen as giving away a lot while actually giving away very little, and assuring special school district status for Shelby County down the road, if not sooner.
Delay worked for annexation opponents a few years ago when Memphis was on the verge of taking in Southwind and a bunch of schools in southeastern Shelby County. The neighborhoods avoided higher taxes, and the county school system avoided losing so much of its black population that it's lopsided racial imbalance might have drawn renewed interest from the federal courts. Southwind is supposed to come into the city of Memphis in 2013. Where have we heard that year before? Oh yes, its the year that the city and county school systems will merge in Norris' bill. We'll see.
Delay works for Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. He can never seem to come up with numbers when the media and elected officials need them, whether it's the enrollment, the number of kids who fail to start school until after Labor Day, or the number of pregnant girls at Frayser High School. He talks vaguely about closing some schools, but doesn't look ready to identify specific schools on the chopping block. "Right-sizing" MCS is off the table at least until the referendum.
Last Thursday the Memphis City Council delayed, for a week, finalizing its support of surrendering the MCS charter. Harold Collins was pushing for final action, and when I saw him later that evening at a public meeting at Whitehaven High School he looked visibly distressed at the ability of Norris to persuade some city council members of his honorable intentions.
"Do you really trust him?" he asked me. Hey, I'm the one who gets to ask the questions.
I told Collins I thought he had no choice but to wait, given that five other council members — all the white guys, at that — were going to vote against it. Not a good outcome. Collins glumly agreed. The trouble is that the council's “nuclear” option may now be the nuclear dud. Defused. Outfoxed. Killed with kindness and confusion.
I disagree with some of my media colleagues who suggested that the moratorium on March 8th may be irrelevant. Symbolic is not the same as irrelevant. It is good to engage people, good to know how Memphians feel, good to follow through with what the school board started on December 20th, good to play by the rules. A split vote for surrender on the school board followed by a split vote for surrender on the city council without a referendum would have been a disaster.
Better to keep talking, have the referendum, get a big turnout, see what happens, then argue about what it means.
I ran into civil rights lawyer Richard Fields Saturday. He said he plans to file a lawsuit to enjoin the state from taking any action. Fields has the bona fides on this issue. We will see. If he does something, we shall report it.
The council acted in response to pending state legislation in Nashville aimed at avoiding or delaying a merger of the city and Shelby County school systems. The March 8th Memphis referendum will go on as scheduled, according to Council chairman Myron Lowery and council attorney Allan Wade.
The council voted to recess until Thursday, February 9th, but also served notice that it could come back on a day's notice before that if anything happens in Nashville that might be seen as hostile.
The Council previously voted to support the MCS board's action, but had not finalized that vote. The meeting Thursday would have done that if the council had not instead gone into recess.
The outcome satisfied Mayor A C Wharton, who attended the council meeting.
"The last thing we want is to be characterized in Nashville as a bunch of trigger-happy politicians," he said.
The city council and state legislature are playing cat and mouse, each watching to see what the other does day to day on the schools merger issue. The council felt there has been some compromise on the length of the transition period should the referendum pass. That, coupled with assurances that the referendum would be for Memphians only, was enough to buy more time.
Councilman Shea Flinn said "a tremendous amount has changed" on the details of a bill pushed by Sen. Mark Norris, and that "things are going in a positive direction."
But there was a little bit of drama in the meeting anyway. Flinn first proposed that there be one-day or three-day delays. Both of those votes failed 5-5. Then Councilman Harold Collins proposed the one-week delay and it passed 9-1.
Bass Pro Shops and Robert Lipscomb seem to be resigning themselves to what a lot of people have been saying for years: the Pyramid just doesn't work for a tenant that wants to put in a giant retail store and a hotel and get some use out of the observation deck and all that unused space in the lower level.
Seismic danger, "dueling building codes" and the bond market are getting blamed for the hit, but come on, this merry-go-round has been turning for six years. The Pyramid has become a symbol of failure, and apathy. FedEx Forum made it obsolete. The first question a visitor asks is "what's that?" and then you have to tell them, "Yes, but, it's empty."
"If it costs too much to stabilize it then you have to decide if it is usable for anything," Lipscomb said Tuesday.
It might be worth more as salvage material and bare ground. Then Bass Pro, if it is really committed to Memphis, could build what it wants instead of adapting to what is there. If the company wants a downtown presence at some other location, then Peabody Place has some space.
The status report that the city handed out Tuesday says:
"The Pyramid and Pinch District have received the most attention, but the City of Memphis redevelopment vision is much bolder. It is not about the addition of a retail magnet and a distinctive retail district, but more precisely, it is about building a thriving, active Convention Center District.
"The absence of this kind of district has always put Memphis at a competitive disadvantage in our ambitions for a successful convention center."
The city is going ahead with its plans to acquire property in the Pinch District and the Lone Star property between the interstate ramps.
If the Pyramid is shaky, then the ancient convention center is shakier. What the city seems to be suggesting is something on the order of the new convention centers in Nashville and Jackson, Mississippi. A hugely expensive project at a time when the municipal bond market, according to daily news reports, is comparable to the stock market or the real estate market two years ago, especially for issues that are not backed by taxing authority.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the Pyramid was called The Big Dig. The odds are getting better that we will see a Big Demo before we see a Bass Pro downtown.