Catalyst, game-changer, kick-starter, transformer — I've seen all these words tossed around, and used them myself, to describe big deals in Memphis over the last 30 years. Cost aside, and this one didn't come cheap, what makes a deal transformative? I would say longevity, positive impact beyond the footprint of the project itself, continuous upside, and love, as in "I love taking people to so-and-so."
Here's how I would rate the T-factor of high-profile projects I've seen come to be since 1980.
The Peabody. Purchased by an Alabama developer for $2 million in 1974, the hotel closed in 1975. Later that year, Jack Belz, Philip Belz, and Edward Hanover bought it at auction for $540,000. Downtown was in the pits, and there was talk of tearing it down for a parking lot. Instead, the new owners lovingly refurbished it, and the Peabody reopened on September 1, 1981. It has been a classy Memphis landmark ever since. The Peabody Place shopping mall didn't work, but the offices on Main Street and the restaurants along Second Street are legitimate spinoffs, and the publicity is priceless.
FedEx Forum. No NBA team without it. It put our biggest corporate name on one of our biggest downtown buildings. Replaced a parking lot and The Pyramid, making sure not to repeat its mistakes. And maybe some day soon the Grizzlies will win an NBA championship and the Tigers will earn a championship banner they can hang with pride. From a real estate perspective, the lack of development south of the arena has been disappointing.
HarborTown and Mud Island residential. Mud Island went from practically zero residents to more than 5,000 of them in 20 years. There is not another Mississippi riverfront planned community like it. Huge assist from the Auction Avenue (A.W. Willis) Bridge.
St. Jude Hospital/ALSAC expansion. This one almost got away in 1985 when hospital officials announced plans to move to St. Louis. Memphis political and business leaders, along with then Governor Lamar Alexander, made a sales pitch to keep that from happening. Try to imagine downtown Memphis from Front Street to Danny Thomas without it.
AutoZone Park. Turned a sleazy, blighted part of downtown across from The Peabody into a showcase. Bigger than a ballpark, with offices, a parking garage, elementary school, and apartments. Attendance declined after the newness wore off, and the other side of Union Avenue hasn't come around.
Beale Street Historic District. The biggest tourist attraction in Memphis in terms of numbers, and source of the largest amount of visitor spending. There was nothing there but shells of old buildings and A. Schwab's in 1980 when redevelopment began. Struggles with vacancies and financial accounting.
Memphis Zoo. Continually reinvents itself and draws about a million visitors a year. But speaking as a nearby resident, its neighbor, Rhodes College, is a more important Midtown anchor.
Soulsville USA. The Stax museum is off the tourism beaten path, but the charter school looks like a future home run. The retail center is mostly vacant.
Mud Island River Park. A big deal when it opened 30 years ago, after years of construction delays and cost overruns. Replaced an old island airstrip at downtown's front door. But where's the love? And the wow? Perceived as hard to get to, even though that is no longer true, and a "so now I've seen it" mentality. Restaurants couldn't make it, and park is closed nearly half the year. And next year it will have more competition from Beale Street Landing.
Too early to tell
Shelby Farms has 4,000 acres and world-class ambitions.
The Harahan Project to add a bike lane across the Mississippi River.
Tiger Lane opened at the start of last year's football season, but a tailgating area can't be a game-changer without a team that, say, 35,000 pay to see each home game. The fairgrounds redevelopment, except for the Kroc Center, looks to be years away.
What I left out
They have to do with the timing of the convention center improvements, the development of the Pinch District, the acquisition of property in the Pinch, a $10.4 million annual "surplus" in the downtown Tourism Development Zone fund, a 400-percent growth in that fund in less than ten years, and the amount of money Bass Pro is putting into the deal.
The Shelby County Commission meets Monday to sign off on a $74.9 million deal that would transfer all of the debt as well as some well-stocked tax revenue streams to the city of Memphis. This is part of the widely reported $191 million financing package, which gives the impression that it includes the cost of improvements to the convention center. But it does not. That is Phase 2 of the project, along with a proposed $80 million development of the Pinch District, and is not included in the financing.
A county commission committee voted 6-1 last week to go ahead with the deal. To some members eager to shed all things Memphis, the deal is "a no-brainer." But members were given only an overview of the project and no time to study the financials in detail. The Memphis City Council approved it 12-0 on the basis of recommendations from Mayor A C Wharton, Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb, and a slide presentation showing how Bass Pro could transform downtown.
That presentation, along with a study by the city's consulting firm RKG Associates, raise some important questions.
In the RKG report, finished in mid-July, Bass Pro's contribution to Pyramid reconstruction is $81.5 million, including a 80-room hotel. The public contribution is $50 million, plus another $25 million for seismic protection. But there was nothing in the council presentation about a Bass Pro contribution other than the rent of $1 million a year or 2 percent of sales.
The RKG report says Bass Pro sales will be about $106 million a year. It says a Tourism Development Zone will capture the 9.25 percent sales tax (less 8 percent of that) for debt service. The estimated debt service from Bass Pro sales taxes is $9 million a year. A "TDZ surplus" of $10.4 million a year is also included as a source of debt service. It is not clear what the surplus comes from.
The TDZ was set up in 1998, specifically for the benefit of the convention center. The Pyramid is considered an ancillary facility even though Wharton and Lipscomb are acting like it is the other way around. But the improvements to the exterior and interior of the convention center don't happen until "Phase 2" of the project, and it is not clear when that occurs. All of the work in Phase 1 is on the Pyramid or the land south of it, including acquisition of the Lone Star property for $15 million. If the main entrance to Bass Pro is on the south side (the Lone Star side) and not the Pinch side (as in the rendering with this blog post), then why would a developer want to invest in the Pinch side without a cleaner connection?
Reports show that the TDZ fund was collecting about $3.3 million in 2002 — the base year to establish the tax increment — and that the fund collected more than $14 million in 2010. How that has happened, particularly during a recession since 2008, is not explained.
The city has not acquired the land in the Pinch District, much of which is vacant or blighted. The RKG report says it will be the future site of a collection of outlet shops. But there is no private developer, and there are physical barriers between the Pyramid and Pinch including a train track and a steep grade change. Nor is there an expressway ramp leading into the Pinch District. The current ramp swings south into downtown.
The TDZ is a huge area stretching from Crump Boulevard to Chelsea to Danny Thomas. It is much bigger than the traditional skyline picture. The rationale for capturing the sales tax revenue is that it would otherwise "go to Nashville" and allows downtown projects to be funded wthout tapping property taxes.
The expansion of the Marriott Hotel is scheduled for 2016. But without work on the convention center and in the Pinch District, why would Marriott expand?
There are probably fewer than a dozen insiders working on the project who know the answer to these questions. And there may not be a single council member or county commission member who knows them, yet they are the ones who have to approve the deal.
The city council this week voted 12-0 (Kemp Conrad recused himself) to move the Pyramid/Pinch District/convention center project along. A committee of the county commission voted 6-1 to let the city buy the county's share of the Memphis Cook Convention Center for $74.9 million, which is one of the key ingredients in the deal.
The "no" vote was cast by committee chairman James Harvey, who is running against Wharton for Memphis mayor in October. Wharton called the deal "transformative" and "a game changer."
After listening to a summary of the project by a county finance official Wednesday, Harvey opined "If Mayor Wharton said it probably no one is going to believe it." Later in the meeting Harvey said he is concerned that the deal is a good one for the county but not the city, where he lives, because it will increase the debt load.
Other members of the committee were supportive of the convention center debt deal, if not the general project.
"This makes great business sense," said Terry Roland.
"I have never seen anybody pay us anything for anything," said Sidney Chism. "We need to move."
"From the county's perspective this is a no-brainer but as a city resident I have real concerns about the whole scheme," said Heidi Shafer.
"I am going to defer to the judgment and wisdom of the city," said Walter Bailey. He called the Bass Pro deal "a blind bet."
"I'm just not jumping up and down just because Bass Pro wants to jerk my chain," said Henri Brooks, who, along with Steve Mulroy, abstained on the vote.
The full commission will take up the matter next week.
Slaughter came out as rock-and-roll Elvis in a pink suit jacket, followed by a crimson jacket and, for the finale, a white jacket. He defeated nine other finalists at The Orpheum Friday night — eight of them wearing white jumpsuits. It was a good night for rock-and-roll Elvi. The runner-up, Ben Klein, wore a gold jacket and also had some nice moves, but his comedy routine went on too long and fell flat. The jumpsuit ETAs were hard to tell one from another, and their preference for covers of "My Way" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" couldn't compete with good old rock 'n roll.
Slaughter, from Harrison, Arkansas, looked like a dead ringer for the Elvis ads on the billboards for Graceland. He looked more like Elvis than the other contestants and easily had the best dance moves. He won $20,000 in the contest, which started with 350 tribute artists.
We celebrate the bass — Bass Pro, etc. We celebrate the catfish — farmed in Mississippi and fried in Memphis. Why not the silver carp that will leap into your boat or your face if you motor through the shallow backwaters of the Mississippi River near downtown in a john boat.
A story by David Lepeska in the New York Times today describes the commercial carp fishing in the Illinois River by Schafer Fisheries.
"In the last year, Illinois has handed out nearly $6 million to increase the catch of Asian carp in the Illinois River, including a $2 million grant to the Big River Fish Corporation, of downstate Pearl, to expand operations and ship up to 50 million pounds a year to China," the story says.
Opportunity knocks, Memphis. We have the greatest river in the United States. My fisherman son and I can personally attest that it holds plenty of carp. We have 11 percent unemployment. We have shipping know-how. We have ports, roads, railroads, and an airport. We have sport fishermen who go after bass and catfish. We will sooner or later have a Bass Pro superstore in The Pyramid. We have members of Congress who know how to fish for and land federal grants.
What's more, the Asian bighead and silver carp were first introduced in southern ponds in the 1970s and swam up the Mississippi River to get to Illinois and possibly into the Great Lakes if something isn't done about them. So in a way, they're our problem.
Or not. Time to go fishing. The Chinese are ready, waiting and apparently hungry.
Meeting on Wednesday for about 20 minutes, the board and Superintendent John Aitken said the ruling by U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays vindicates three of its main points: the Memphis and Shelby County school systems were lawfully consolidated, state law provides for an orderly transition culminating in a merger in 2013, and the Shelby County Commission cannot replace the existing county school board with a new 25-member board.
No one used the word "unconstitutional" or made reference to that part of Mays' ruling. The judge said the current county board fails to represent citizens of Memphis, in violation of the principle of one-man one-vote and therefore does not pass constitutional muster.
The transition from the current county board to a new county board that includes Memphis is uncertain. Mays is meeting Friday with attorneys for all parties in the schools case.
Meanwhile, Aitken said he intends to carry on.
"My family just got bigger," he said, meaning the combined school systems. He intends to remain superintendent "until someone or something outside my control changes that."
I asked him if he would be willing to be superintendent after the merger in 2013.
"Sure," he said. "The question is 'if asked.'"
School board chairman David Pickler said "we have been given directions from the judge to get to work."
The board unanimously passed a 20-point resolution requesting that MCS turn over financial, enrollment, student, teacher, and other information.
The financial records are necessary, the resolution says, "to perform a forensic audit of the financial records of MCS."
MCS board member Freda Williams, who attended the meeting Wednesday, said that would be no problem.
"Of course," she said. "That is information that has to be handed over. It is appropriate for them to begin this process."
One possibility: The roles of the suburbs and the city of Memphis, at least as far as taxes, are reversed in three years. Memphians would pay a single county tax for schools and no longer pay a city property tax for schools. Residents of, say, Germantown would pay the county tax and a separate municipal tax for a Germantown school system.
The county school tax would spread the tax burden over a wider base, so it would be lower for Memphis and higher for the county outside of Memphis. We don't know what the cost of starting a suburban special school district would be, but let's say for the sake of discussion that it raises the tax rate $1 to pay for buildings, transportation, teachers, etc. No way they get their buildings for free. Memphis residents such as school board member Martavius Jones will demand just compensation for their share of tax support.
That makes two tax hikes for the suburbs if they go to special school districts. Residents with children in private schools would pay three times for schools. Residents with no school-age children might decide to move somewhere with lower taxes. Residents with children in the newly created special school district would get the benefits, whatever they are, and the bills.
Let's say that Bartlett and Collierville also start special school systems. Would the three suburban sisters not wind up competing with each other — and with the private schools nearby? I believe they would. And they would be competing for a limited pool of potential students. Greater Memphis, remember, is not growing much, if any. Suburban growth is driven by flight.
My guess is that there is room for one suburban special school district but not three. A high-performing municipal school system in Germantown would be a strong selling point and potentially a magnet for flight to quality. The undercurrent would be that the system is far apart from the "madness" or "chaos" of the giant county school system and all those Memphians on the new school board.
I see Collierville remaining pretty much as it is, post merger. I see Bartlett losing students to Arlington and other schools. I see private schools recruiting public school parents to offset enrollment declines driven by the economy and the high price of private school.
The Shelby County school board meets Wednesday afternoon. Will the board say to the federal court ruling "hell no" or will it decide that appeals are fruitless and resolve to make a good faith effort to make the merger work? We should know more after that meeting.
Judge Hardy Mays said the issue of special school districts in the municipalities was not yet ripe. But, as my colleague Jackson Baker said to me this morning, it is like a peach on your windowsill that is about to get ripe real soon.
State of Tennessee. Got it right: Norris-Todd bill rules. MCS is a special school district. The transition committee rules. The existing school boards continue to exist during the transition. GRADE: A
Memphis City Schools. Got it right: MCS does not answer to the Memphis City Council. The city's "maintenance of effort" funding must continue until the merger. Shelby County schools will succeed MCS upon the court's order and Norris Todd. Got it wrong: The school board charter surrender WAS VALID as was the city council's acceptance of it, as was the referendum. GRADE: B
Current members of the Shelby County Board of Education, including chairman David Pickler. Got it wrong: the current electoral districts are unconstitutional, and the members have no property right to their seats. Got it right: the Shelby County Commission does NOT have the right to hold new elections to expand the board to 25 members. GRADE: D
The city of Memphis: Got it wrong: Norris-Todd is NOT unconstitutional. The Shelby County Commission does NOT have the authority to create a new school board. Got it right: MCS has been abolished for all purposes except the winding down of its operations but school board will not cease to exist until the start of the school year in 2013.. GRADE D
The Memphis City Council: Got it wrong: MCS IS a special school district. The transition committee DOES have authority. The city of Memphis and the Memphis City Council have no authority to oversee MCS during the wind-up period or oversee the transfer of administration. All funding amounts owed to MCS remain due. Got it right: The charter surrender was valid. GRADE C
Shelby County schools: Got it right: Norris-Todd is binding. MCS board should continue to exist during orderly transition. MCS is a special school district. Shelby County Commission can't legally make a new board. GRADE A
Shelby County Commission: Got it right: Current county school board does not represent Memphis and is unconstitutional. Got it wrong: MCS IS a special school district and its board IS NOT powerless during the transition. The commission lacks authority to expand the county school board or create 25 electoral districts. GRADE C
Exclamation mark is right! Sarah Palin (Paul Revere's Ride) and Michelle Bachmann (Pilgrim's Landing) aren't the only ones who need a history lesson. This metaphor is as hopelessly fouled up as the debt deal itself. As us Americans who studied the works of Cream ("Tales of Brave Ulysses") and Homer (CliffsNotes) know, this is not at all how it went down on the Plains of Troy in 1200 B.C., just five millennia after the world was invented by God.
Steve Cohen may be, along with George Will, Washington's foremost authority on Minnie Minoso and ballplayers of the Fifties. Steve is the guy I'd bet on in Jeopardy if the category was "Tennessee Politics For $1,000" or "Songs of the Sixties for Final Jeopardy."
But when it comes to the Trojans, he has made a classic (get it?) goof, or gaffe as we reporters say. Better that he should have said the debt deal was "a Liberty Bowl Stadium with Vanderbilt and University of Memphis inside!" or "a voting booth with Ford and Herenton inside!"
The Trojan Horse, said by Homer to be "impregnable" and hence the trade name of the popular prophylactic, was filled not with Scylla and Charybdis but with scores of sweaty, foul-smelling, heavily armed, and bad-tempered Greeks — sort of like some members of Congress. The unsuspecting Trojans pulled the thing into their walled city, and the rest is history.
The godly Athena hatched the plan, along with Odysseus, setting up the famous battle between the Trojans and their star quarterback Hector (Kirk Douglass) and the Greeks and their talented but injury-prone quarterback Achilles (Brad Pitt).
To make a long story short, the Greeks carried the day and, following a period of rape and pillage, boarded their boats to sail home. It was on this voyage, or "Odyssey" as the ancients called it, that Odysseus encountered Scylla and Charybdis, six-headed monsters who were nowhere near the Plains of Troy during the big game and were much too water-loving, large, and cranky to fit inside a wooden horse.
So there, congressman. For further information, see Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly" or James Joyce's "Ulysses" or Steely Dan's "Home At Last."
Schools will open on August 8th, as scheduled.
"We will be able to move forward expeditiously with the start of school," said Superintendent Kriner Cash, who attended the meeting.
Two weeks ago the school board and school administration threatened to delay the start of the school year indefinitely over a $55 million funding issue and payment schedule. The threat, which got national attention, was defused by a payment schedule that front loads the city's contribution to the MCS budget. Tuesday's council vote was the final action needed.
The operating budget includes $78 million from the city, but only $68.4 of that will count as "maintenance of effort" funding. The remainder will come from two sources: $5.8 million out of the city operating budget previously approved and $3 million paid to MCS last month.
City Councilman Shea Flinn proposed the resolution that was approved by a 10-0 vote.
"They care about the $78 million and we care about how it is classified," said Flinn.
Maintenance of effort funding cannot be reduced unless enrollment falls. MCS told the council last week that enrollment is down 2,508 students, which is how the $68.4 million figure was arrived at.
Here they are:
I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.
I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.
I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.
And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am ... can be tested.
I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.
I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.
I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.
I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.
This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.
So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. ... Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.
AT&T and Comcast seem to be waging a war for dominance of Memphis, or at least the part of Midtown where I live. For months, our mailboxes have been stuffed with three or four mailers a week from each company plugging their bundled service packages of Internet, land line, and television.
Before last week I had AT&T (Bell South) Internet service and land-line service and Comcast cable, for a combined monthly bill, including taxes, of about $125.
In a moment of weakness, curiousity, or longing for wireless, I took a cold call from an AT&T representative pitching U-Verse one evening about a month ago. Some 45 minutes later, I signed up. I was sold by the salesman's pitch on the benefits and the competitive price of about $125 a month for the first year.
Several months ago we signed up for U-Verse but AT&T's techs, despite working at our house for half a day, were not able to install it. This time the two technicians finished the job in about five hours. You have to be in the house the whole time. It happened to be my birthday so I was off work, but this was no party. The techs sure earned their money, especially the one who had to crawl into the basement crawl space.
I'm a first-grader when it comes to technology and a cheapskate when it comes to household finance. I asked the tech guys here at the office of Contemporary Media what they thought of U-Verse, and they said, unconditionally, "go for it."
So far, my wireless connection has been flawless and has allowed me to move my laptop computer from upstairs to downstairs. Speed is noticeably faster, especially on videos, even though I did not order the fastest package. I have not yet figured out how to reconfigure my printer.
As for television, there are now not two but three remotes on my living room table, or four if I misplace the one for the stereo tuner. Of course I get more TV garbage than ever, but it is easy enough to find the 10-20 channels my wife and I watch regularly. We spent a little time last weekend watching the Tennis Channel, which we did not get in our Comcast package. We also watched the "fart mask" segment from Jackass. Yes, we are living on a doomed planet. We don't have the desire or patience so far to record programs but I suspect we will sooner or later. I like the music channel and played around with it for a while. Surfing one click at a time now wastes even more time than before and leaves me muttering to myself "Get a life."
Telephone service is the same, except for the pause and hiccup of a few seconds before there is a dial tone. I wonder how many other fogeys can't give up their land lines.
Canceling Comcast was simple enough. One phone call, no argument, no hassle, no balance due. I got a $50 Visa credit from AT&T, which took about 15 minutes to register and will activate in 30 days.
I guess if I ever sell my house or rent it to boarders I can brag about the "free wireless" like a Hampton Inn. I expect to have to go to the mat with AT&T a year from now over new taxes and higher rates, but that was probably coming anyway with my old combo package.
Any suggestions welcome, but remember, speak slowly and use one syllable words if possible.