All the big guns advertised on billboards and newspaper ads showed up: Laura Bush, Colin Powell, Lou Holtz, Terry Bradshaw, and Rudy Giuliani plus Leigh Anne Touhy of “The Blind Side,” John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted,” a ranting religious financial adviser named James Smith, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and a linguistic gymnast named Krish Dhanam who may have been the best of the lot.
They spoke from a platform the size of a boxing ring in the center of the floor. Each one talked for a half an hour or so and was greeted with a burst of smoke and sparks at the corners of the stage. At the end of the day, the overall effect was like eating too much at a buffet.
In April, the boarded up two-story brick units that once housed more than 2000 residents of Cleaborn Homes will be demolished. That will leave neighboring Foote Homes, which has lower-density but is of the same vintage and design, as the last of the housing projects built in the 1940s.
With its problems of crime, education, and public health, "this ZIP Code (38126) is the most challenging in the community," said Jennings.
The broader message was to praise the work Memphis has done under the leadership of Housing and Community Development director and MHA executive director Robert Lipscomb and partners to use over $100 million in federal "HOPE VI" funds plus $200 million in private capital to replace housing projects with modern mixed-income communities such as College Park, Legends Park, and Uptown.
"All I can say is Thank God for HOPE VI," said Lipscomb, noting that MHA was being threatened with a federal takeover 20 years ago. He said it has taken about 12 years to dismantle public housing, which took some 50 years to build, populate, and depopulate. Former residents have been dispersed throughout the city and county. And while crime and the problems of 38126 have followed them, there is general agreement that the city is better off than it was. Mayor A C Wharton and MHA board chairman Ricky Wilkins were among those praising Lipscomb's leadership.
Lipscomb said when the Cleaborn Homes is demolished he hopes Memphis "will eliminate public housing from our vocabulary."
Memphis Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb gave those numbers to members of the Memphis City Council Tuesday. He said Bass Pro executives wanted to "test the appetite" of the council before proceeding.
"I have not heard anything negative," said council chairman Myron Lowery.
The additional seismic protections were announced several weeks ago and are not in response to the earthquake in Japan, although Lipscomb did note that Memphis and Seattle have been mentioned as earthquake risk areas in recent media reports.
The first stage would be below ground and the second stage above ground in the building itself.
Responding to a question from a council member, Lipscomb said it would cost an estimated $6-8 million to demolish The Pyramid, less the salvage. He said Bass Pro is the only serious suitor for the iconic building.
On another subject, Lipscomb gave a status report on the fairgrounds redevelopment. He said several "quick wins" would set the stage for a developer to make it "an urban village" of retail and residential and a sports venue. The quick wins include $25 million worth of upgrades to the stadium, a pair of Jumbotrons for $3 million, demolition of the Coliseum for $2.2 million, and property acquisition on Hollywood and other streets bordering the fairgrounds.
Lipscomb hopes to get approval from the council on April 5th. In his proposal, the city would be project manager and solicit proposals from developers. An advisory committee of five to seven members would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.
The financing method would be some combination of tax-increment financing and Tourism Development Zone funds. Both of those use revenues generated by the project as well as incremental taxes from Midtown areas. That way they can be touted as not tapping money from the city's general fund in an election year.
Armstrong, 44, was introduced to the media by Mayor A C Wharton on Tuesday. He will begin his new job on April 14th. Armstrong previously worked in organized crime, robbery, and homicide, including the Lester Street murders. He was a fan favorite on the A&E television program The First 48.
He has been deputy director since April of 2010. Both he and Godwin grew up in North Memphis in homes without fathers. Godwin warmly embraced Armstrong and promised that there will be a smooth transition. Wharton recalled cross-examining Armstrong when the mayor was a defense attorney.
"He shot straight, and he's going to shoot straight in this job," Wharton said.
Armstrong thanked his mother and promised to enhance community relations. The department has 2,400 officers and a $200 million budget.
The well-known Memphis attorney and mediator has logged more than 80,000 miles and 14 Boston Marathons in his career. At 75, his heels finally failed him. The padding simply wore away, making it too painful to run. Cheered on by family and old friends, he took four more laps around the track at Rhodes College Sunday, finishing in just under nine minutes.
In his prime, Cody ran the mile in 4:24, the half mile in 1:56, and the quarter mile in 48.7 seconds. He was good enough to have competed at the highest levels of the NCAA Track and Field Championships but chose to go to Rhodes, then Southwestern, instead.
"My folks didn't have any money at all, and at East High School I wasn't even sure I was going to go to college," he said. "Back then you would be drafted if you were not in school. I thought I would have to go in the Army. East had no track so the coach would put me on the back of his motorcycle and take me to Southwestern so I could run over there. The coach there talked admissions into giving me a scholarship."
Cody was a one-man track team at a time when points were awarded for various events. Track was a big deal in the Fifties. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, and runners were regularly featured on the cover of a new magazine called Sports Illustrated. But the national running craze was still 20 years in the future.
"We hardly had a team at East," said Cody. "It was a bunch of us would couldn't make the baseball team."
Cody weighed 125 pounds, which gave him an advantage on banked indoor tracks where a mile was 11 laps. He could stay low on the turns and thereby shorten the distance. Outdoor tracks were made of cinders, and runners would often have to bring a little shovel to dig makeshift starting blocks. Cody's half-mile times might have been better if he had not typically run the mile earlier in the day, with a relay or two coming up. Still, his times would have made him competitive with any college in Tennessee except for UT-Knoxville, which was in a league of its own.
Cody was on the leading edge of the road-running craze that swept the country after the 1972 Olympics and the publication of books by runner/author Jim Fixx. His best marathon time was 2:48, when he was 45 years old. He starting keeping a personal running log in 1973 and kept it up until he closed the book on Sunday.
"There were hundreds of people on the track yesterday including lots of little kids," he said. "It's a whole different sport. It's good for fitness but it's not as serious."
Last year Cody told me a story about an old friend who tried one sport after another until he finally found his athletic calling and declared "I always knew there was a sport I was really good at, it just took me 50 years to find it."
Cody plans to get his exercise from now on in the pool or on a stationary bicycle. His good luck was to find his sport early on and pursue it for a lifetime.
Some people are saying that is abysmally low and signals a failing democracy in Memphis, apathy, confusion, ignorance, or all of the above. Some say that given the rain and the single-issue referendum, a turnout of 17 percent isn't too bad.
Well, "not too bad" is pretty faint praise. Rain? So what? Even if weather influences turnout whether it should or not, what about early voting? There were several sunny and warm days for early voting. People who didn't vote simply made a choice not to vote or didn't even know there was an election.
Historically, turnout in Memphis and Shelby County is trending downward since 1968, according to Shelby County Election Commission records.
For $1.95, I got myself a seat at FedEx Forum March 28th to hear Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Forbes, Laura Bush, Terry Bradshaw, Lou Holtz, Leigh Anne Tuohy and others speaking at the "Get Motivated Business Seminar."
"Get Motivated" has been running full-page ads in The Commercial Appeal as well as radio spots and billboard ads around town for a few weeks. The ads promise that all speakers are "live and in person, all in one day!" Pretty good deal when you consider most of these folks get at least five-figure speaking fees and probably don't need the extra cash from selling their books and tapes. I believe Colin Powell got $80,000 when he was here a few years ago for a talk.
I am fully aware of the power of salesmanship. And I have read skeptical reports about Get Motivated in other newspapers, claiming that if you sign up you subject yourself to a hard sell to buy various upgrades and accessories.
Fair enough. It's not like my email box is exactly pristine.
I bought my ticket, plus a workbook for $4.99, online. With 17 cents for taxes and facility fee, my total outlay was $7.11. I called the website's 1-800 number to confirm that all speakers would be here in the flesh, and was told by a female voice that indeed they would. After I placed my order, a man called to confirm it and repeat that assurance. He also told me I would be at FedExForum and not at the convention center, which will hold the overflow if any and get a satellite feed.
I plan to attend the motivational marathon with an open mind and a positive disposition, such as it is. I have listened to and written about Don Hutson, Cavett Roberts, Zig Ziglar, Holtz, Bradshaw, and other professional speakers before, although it is certainly debatable whether it did me any good. Granted, eight hours is an iron-butt assignment, but I am a veteran of school board meetings and have the right stuff.
If there are any shenanigans or no-shows before or during the event I will report them.
Aitken and Cash, along with members of their respective school boards, held separate press conferences. In tone they were different. A smiling Aitken arrived early, joked with reporters, offered to sing a few bars of "Ain't No Sunshine," and spoke informally with board chairman David Pickler at his side. For whatever reason, he is "John" to most media. Cash was ten minutes late and sat behind a row of desks and microphones with five board members and the board's attorney. He patiently answered questions for nearly an hour. For whatever reason, he is "Dr. Cash" to most media.
Both men stayed upbeat without understating the magnitude of the challenge of merging two school systems with 150,000 students. It was hard to tell that both of them had opposed MCS charter surrender for two months before the referendum. They expressed no hard feelings, promised to put students first, and said they will try to combine the best features of both systems. Several county board members attended the MCS press conference, and got polite recognition from Cash and the MCS board.
They also both finessed some likely sticking points that could make harmony short-lived.
Aitken said the appointment process for the 21-member transition committee, which is slanted against pro-merger forces and excludes Memphis Mayor A C Wharton among others, is "out of our hands." Then he yielded to Pickler, who said "we're going to follow state law." The Shelby County Commission has other ideas.
Cash, who had warned three months ago that his board was foolishly picking a fight with Shelby County, said he was satisfied with the two-to-one vote to surrender the charter and suggested that energy can now get behind his school reform agenda and "a better-than-ever unified school system."
"We now have the vote and the mandate to get it done," he said.
Asked if he plans to stick around to see that happen, he said "I do. I would like to stay in this work here because I think it is unfinished." Cash has 18 months left on his contract.
"It is not time yet to move along," he said.
Cash scolded the Memphis City Council for stripping funding from MCS in 2008 and said the system badly needs the back payment and continued funding to the tune of $78 million a year. That payment is no longer assured, however, since MCS is surrendering its charter.
Exactly when that will happen, however, is uncertain. Board attorney Dorsey Hopson emphatically stated that the city school board still exists and will be around during the transition period that, by state law, could last two and one-half years. "Absolutely yes," he said. That view will be challenged politically and in court.
Cash also brought up the subject of school closings. He said he never said 50 schools would be closed, but thinks the number is more like 6 to 12 schools. And he hopes to replace those schools with charter schools so the neighborhoods are not abandoned. He said that could save $2-3 million per school, or $36 million on the upside if you do the math. That will soothe some neighborhoods but it will do little to address the "huge, huge budget shortfall" Cash described.
Asked if the transition committee and the superintendents can really give it their best shot when the possibility of a separate Shelby County special school district at the end of that time is built into the state legislation, Cash yielded to merger proponent Tomeka Hart. She said the systems will be merged first and left it at that.
It was that sort of morning, with everyone on their best behavior for the time being, minimizing the major differences of opinion, philosophy, needs, and outlook for the future that got us here.
The speakers at the news conference at Metropolitan Baptist Church next to LeMoyne-Owen College included men, women, blacks, and whites, young and old. But the turnout fell short of the "close to 50 diverse clergy" touted in the press release put out by former Shelby County Commission member Diedre Malone, who is working on the pro-merger side.
Memphis ministers appear to be as divided as other groups on the issue. The Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association opposes the proposed surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter. Early voting ended Thursday. The rule of thumb is that early voting accounts for half the final vote. If that holds, then a turnout in the vicinity of 15 percent is likely. Activists on both sides are gearing up get-out-the-vote efforts, rallies, and 11th hour advertising.
A rally Friday evening at New Olivet Baptist Church led by anti-merger board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., drew a crowd of about 200 people, including several AFSCME members and board members Jeff Warren and Sara Lewis.
"We are called to point people in the right direction and then encourage them to go there," said Reginald Porter, senior pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church. "We cannot allow those who promote fear, divisiveness, and misinformation to win."
Several speakers, including Keith Norman of First Baptist Church Broad Avenue, said "this is a civil rights issue of our day and time."
"If we don't get this right we will find the city back in 1963 with separate but not equal," said Stacy Spencer, pastor of New Direction Christian Church in Hickory Hill.
In a pitch for black and white harmony, Former Memphis City Council member and pastor James Netters joined Maxie Dunnam, former pastor of Christ United Methodist Church.
"I marched with Dr. King and I know his philosophy," said Netters. "His philosophy was not one of division but one of bringing people together." Dunnam said what Memphians do next week will determine whether the city fulfills its potential. "This is a justice issue," he said.
Frank Thomas, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, urged Mempians to "vote yes because we know that separate but equal does not work."
Noel Hutchinson Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church Lauderdale, offered a slogan to counter the anti-merger "If you don't know, vote no." His suggestion: "You don't have to guess, vote yes."
Steve Montgomery, pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Midtown, said he urged members of his church, which includes residents of Memphis and suburban cities, to "make a decision based on hope, not fear. I don't know how they'll vote but that message has been warmly received."
At least not well. The acoustics in public and private facilities range from great to awful. As a patriot once said, I may not agree with a word that you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it so long as you say it clearly and limit your remarks to two minutes.
I am a little fanatical on the subject of clarity. My job depends on getting it right as far as "Jim" or "Tim" or "$5 million" or "$5 billion" or "6 p.m. Tuesday" or "6 p.m. Thursday a week from now."
For several years I refused to get a cellphone for that and other reasons. But "call me on a land line" is no longer an option. So my typical conversation with friends, family, and newsmakers includes several "I'm sorry could you please repeat thats." On an assignment for an out-of-town newspaper, I once had a conversation with an editor that went something like this:
Me on a borrowed cellphone with the wind blowing and truck engines whining in the background: "I am in Dyersburg and the police are saying the hostages are okay but there have been shots and they are still negotiating. What is your deadline?"
Editor in New York: "So ..... there are many dead ... and shot in the head .... and no longer negotiating ..... ... have given them a deadline ... and your source is a sheriff named ZXXBXBDL! Can you have that for the early edition?"