Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Loeb Wants Decision on Overton Square in 2011

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 4:28 PM

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Robert Loeb says his company's redevelopment of Overton Square can move forward with or without an underground storm water detention basin, but he needs to know by the end of this year what the city is going to do.

Loeb Properties has a contract to buy the property that expires December 31st. The company proposes to spend $19 million on Overton Square. The city is considering spending up to $19 million for a parking garage, underground detention basin, and street improvements. The proposed investment has to clear the City Council, which has two more meetings this year.

Loeb said he has no preference between an $8 million detention basin and a smaller, less expensive one, but believes the smaller one — less than one tenth the size of the bigger one — wouldn't hold enough water to do much good.

"If the funds are in there it isn't my decision," he said. "But it works kind of hand in hand with the garage structure."

Without a garage, Loeb said "we'll have low-density, surface development" and shared surface parking with Playhouse on the Square and others instead of high-density development.

Overton Square and other Midtown developments with big parking lots such as the Home Depot at Poplar and Avalon contribute to the flooding problem during heavy rains. Detention basins (the soccer field at Christian Brothers University is one example) hold water temporarily, as opposed to retention basins that retain it. The city engineering department is considering several flood abatement options for Midtown, including the one at Overton Square and another one in the Snowden School playing field. A detention basin in Overton Park on the greensward was rejected because of public opposition.

"I'd like to be a good neighbor," said Loeb, who presented his company's plan earlier this year at Playhouse on the Square. It included restaurants, new and renovated retail spaces, and a new home for the Hatiloo Theater.

Flooding after heavy rains is a problem for residents in Midtown neighborhoods north and south of Overton Square. The total cost to protect them against a 25-year flood is estimated at $24.3 million.

Mary Wilder, cochairman of the Lick Creek Storm Water Coalition, has followed this issue for years and is also a Midtowner in the Vollentine-Evergreen Community Association (VECA). She sent me the article here. She makes a strong case for small-scale "green" measures that, if they catch on, can have a significant impact on flood abatement.

The coalition opposes detention basins in Overton Park and supports Loebs' project "as long as detention is part of it." She adds that even the largest detention basin under Overton Square "is not going to solve VECA's flooding problem" because Lick Creek picks up more water between the square and the VECA neighborhood. Wilder is frustrated that city engineers "start talking engineering to you" and have not been clear on why the cost of the proposed Overton Square detention basin suddenly went up so much. There is suspicion that Overton Park will come back in play as an alternative.

I am a shameless homer on this one. I live in Midtown, although not near Overton Square, and like driving five minutes instead of 20 minutes for dinner and a movie. I was for the Loeb-Henry Turley fairgrounds redevelopment, Fair Ground, that was rejected by the previous administration and the City Council. But the football crowd won that one, and the result, for better (Tiger Lane, Southern Heritage Classic, AutoZone Liberty Bowl) and worse (about 2000 people at the last Memphis home football game, acres of empty parking lots, nine events a year, and nothing at the old Libertyland site) is plain to see.

Low density or high density, Loebs' development would be a nice addition to a budding "theater district" hanging on to memories of better days in the Sixties and Seventies. I'd like to see an upscale grocery store in the mix and believe it could still happen. I question how much a relocated repertory theater company brings to the party and prime space on Cooper.

A $6 million parking garage? I don't know about that. Can't imagine it being free for long, if ever, and pay-to-park can be a deterrent when there are alternatives. If there are a few nights when the theaters are full and so are the bars and restaurants so parking is scarce, well, we should have more such problems.

As for the financing, I think the place in Memphis for a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) is Graceland. That's clearly other people's money, and Whitehaven and Elvis Presley Boulevard, as Councilman Harold Collins says, are overdue for attention. In hindsight, Whitehaven should not have hitched its wagon to Robert Sillerman's grandiose plans for Graceland.

The Fair Ground TDZ was tied to that specific project and it's gone now. Getting another TDZ is easier said than done. It took Turley's considerable reputation and political skill to get the first one.

Another funding alternative is a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. That captures the incremental growth in sales taxes and pours it back into project financing, but the proposed boundaries are bigger than Overton Square. I don't think higher tax revenue from a pizza joint on Union Avenue or small business on Central necessarily has anything to do with new investment in Overton Square. And TIFs strike me as very similar to special school districts.

Finally, or foremost depending on where you live, there is flooding. I would be going ballistic if I lived in one of the flooded areas in the big flood of 2010 or in a house where sewage came up through the basement drain and flooded my living room and the city was slow-walking flood abatement. There's a case to be made for bundling flood abatement and development of Overton Square, but there's a better case to be made for doing what's best for flood-afflicted residents regardless and paying for it out of general funds. Much as I wish the money could be taken away from boondoggles such as Beale Street Landing, that isn't going to happen. So we will see what the city council does in December, and Loeb will make its decision after that.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium

Posted By on Fri, Nov 18, 2011 at 11:31 AM

Larry Porter
  • Larry Porter
It can't get much worse than this for University of Memphis football. The Tigers lost 23-22 to Marshall Thursday night, falling to 2-9 on the season in front of about 2,000 fans. The margin of defeat was two missed extra points, and for the second week in a row the Tigers couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead.

Worst Tiger football team ever? Sadly, the answer may be "yes." Doubly sad because Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium inside and outside and its surroundings, including Tiger Lane, have never looked better and attendance has never been lower. On a 46-degree night, only a handful of the premium hook-ups in Tiger Lane were in use. Occupy Memphis has more tents downtown across from City Hall and is about as festive.

The university has run out of fixes, unless you count possibly firing head coach Larry Porter after his second season. Oh, there are some sponsorship opportunities too. You can, for instance, name the media room for $25,000. Somebody call The Commercial Appeal! Imagine Porter and R. C. Johnson being fired in the Geoff Calkins Media Room.

Except that Porter might not be the problem some detractors think he is. He didn't blow those two extra points. The Tigers played hard all night and didn't surrender a point after the first minute and a half until the middle of the fourth quarter. And even after they fell behind, there were three near pass completions in the last two minutes that could have led to the winning touchdown or field goal. They each missed by a yard or so.

Rick Hechinger (left)
  • Rick Hechinger (left)
I considered the "worst ever" label after attending the game with former Tiger lineman Rick Hechinger, my Midtown neighbor and owner of Blue Sky courier service. Rick played in the early 1980s when the team lost 17 straight. But he said the team wasn't as bad as you might think.

Memphis State, as it was known then, played Florida State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Tennessee, he noted. "I played against Herschel Walker."

You can look it up. The losses in the streak were respectable — 20-3 to Mississippi State, 10-5 to Florida State, 7-3 to Ole Miss, 17-13 to Virginia Tech, 14-7 to Louisville, 28-9 to Tennessee. The worst loss was 41-17 to Mississippi State. Compare that to this season's losses of 47-3 to Arkansas State, 42-0 to SMU, and 59-14 to Mississippi State. The 1982 Tigers broke the streak with a 12-0 win over ASU and opened the 1983 season with a 37-17 win over Ole Miss to start a 6-4-1 season.

Tragically, head coach Rex Dockery and star player Charles Greenhill were killed in a plane crash after that season. Hechinger said the Tigers had a remarkable number of good players, including future pros Tim Harris, Eric Fairs, and Derrick Crawford.

"Twelve players signed pro contracts one year and 13 the next year," said Hechinger, who had a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings as a lineman and long snapper.

There doesn't appear to be that kind of talent on the current edition of the Tigers. The fan base has deserted the team. In the suite where we were sitting, the hardcores were stoic after the first Marshall score, cautiously optimistic when the Tigers rallied to take the lead, and grumpy in the fourth quarter when they squandered it. They all left, along with most of the "crowd," before the final Marshall fumble and those desperate incomplete passes by the Tigers' backup quarterback.

If only they had been caught. If only the refs had called pass interference on the final play. If only the kicker had a chance for redemption with a miraculous field goal from 50 yards in the last seconds.

Then the Tigers would be 3-8 instead of 2-9, and maybe the worst ever. The last game on the schedule is highly regarded Southern Mississippi. Then we'll see if Porter gets to work for the third year of his contract or gets a buyout. Given that Rex Dockery went 2-20 in his first two seasons, Porter could hang on. As for Liberty Bowl Stadium, Memphis is stuck with it for better or worse. An on-campus stadium will always be the dream for some fans, but with all the money that has been poured into it recently, the big sombrero is too big to fail even though it's failing.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Insider Trading by Congress

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Tim Walz
  • Tim Walz
Did you see the "60 Minutes" story on insider trading by members of Congress last Sunday? It's getting a nice afterburn, even among members of Congress who sense a hot-button issue for fed-up voters.

The story, as reported by Steve Kroft, told how Democrats and Republicans in Congress bought or sold stock based on non-public information — usually legislation that would help or hurt some company or industry. Some of the worst abuses came during the 2008 financial crisis, when rumors could drive the market into 300-point swoons in an hour or two.

The main interview was with former congressman Brian Baird (D-Washington), a renegade who authored a bill to crack down on the practice but was only able to get six cosponsors. A version of the bill known as the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) was reintroduced in March by Congressman Timothy Walz (D-Minnesota). Walz also had a hard time getting support before the "60 Minutes" piece. Prior to November 4th, he had nine consponsors. He now has, as of Thursday, more than 20 supporters including Memphis congressman Steve Cohen, who weighed in with this press release.

As the Washington Post wrote, the original source for uncovering the abuses is Peter Schweizer, whose book came out this week.

I haven't read it yet but it sounds like good stuff. Anyone who dabbles in the market has the feeling now and then that insiders routinely trade on information that falls into a gray area as far as being "material." Initial public offerings that start out as private stock are particularly suspect. This is good legislation and good work by Schweizer, "60 Minutes," and Baird and Walz.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hugh Freeze Is The Best Bargain in College Football

Posted By on Sun, Nov 13, 2011 at 9:40 AM

Hugh Freeze
  • Hugh Freeze
’Tis the season of churn in the college football coaching ranks. Houston Nutt is on the way out at Ole Miss, Larry Porter is shaky at Memphis, and Hugh Freeze is probably getting itchy at Arkansas State.

Nutt has not won a game in the Southeastern Conference in two seasons. After Saturday' collapse against UAB, Porter’s record is 3-19 in his two seasons.

You may not have heard of Freeze. He doesn’t fit into the standard football coaching myths. His team is 8-2 this year, including a 47-3 win over Memphis. Freeze’s salary from all sources is $210,000, good money in Jonesboro but chump change in the world of big-time college football. Arkansas State’s $2.7 million football budget ranks 119th out of 120 schools in the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision.

Continue reading »

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Shelby County Schools: The Hard Questions

Posted By on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 at 11:30 AM

John Aitken
  • John Aitken
Shelby County Schools put its best foot forward Thursday, and it was an impressive step, but a timid one.

Superintendent John Aitken and assistant superintendent Lois Williams made a polished power-point presentation to the transition planning team overseeing the merger of the city and county schools.

They knocked down some myths about diversity and innovation. SCS was 80 percent white in 2000 but is 52 percent white today. It had 9,000 applications this year, hired 319 new teachers, and its teacher retention rate is 91 percent.

And they gave credit where it is due to the 62 percent of graduates who score 19 or better on the ACT, qualifying them for state lottery scholarships for college.

Aitken is easy to listen to, and he speaks from 29 years experience. But the transition team should consider inviting a few other experts on county schools who might expose some of the fault lines and sensitive subjects that didn't make it into yesterday's presentation. Here are five of them:

Jackie Welch, the suburban developer who sold SCS nine school sites in 15 years, which in turn dictated where the subdivisions would be built that populated the schools. Welch is plain spoken and an expert on suburban growth.

James Mitchell and James Anderson, the former SCS superintendents with whom Welch dealt. Mitchell is now a consultant and has been hired by suburbs considering forming their own muncipal school systems. The transition team should talk to him.

Bernice Donald, the former federal judge in Memphis (now on the Court of Appeals), who ruled that SCS needed to redraw its school boundaries to eliminate racially identifiable schools. Her ruling was overturned, but not before it threw a scare into SCS.

Ernest Chism, the former principal at Germantown High School and current member of the school board. Another straight talker with a vast store of experience and information in the real world. During his career, Germantown schools went from majority white to majority black (and back, in some cases), and Germantown built Houston High School (where Aitken formerly was principal).

The past and present principals of Southwind High School, an all-black, relatively new county school. How did that happen in a system that is 38 percent black, and what's the deal with turning county schools over to Memphis City Schools?

If the transition team wants to be relevant and informed (as I believe it does), it needs to move beyond power-point presentations to the players and story tellers. Who really gives a hoot what happened in Chattanooga or Nashville or Charlotte years ago? This is our stew. The more uncomfortable it makes them, the better. If the discussion gets a little heated, fine, they're getting somewhere in that case. This process is hard, and there are no shortcuts to good results.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Freeze Those Fees

Posted By on Tue, Nov 1, 2011 at 1:31 PM

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No fees, please. Make that "hell no."

Bank of America is the latest institution to feel the wrath of customers over fees. Regions and SunTrust banks previously announced that they would back away from new monthly fees for using debit cards. Regions is the parent company of Morgan Keegan, and SunTrust acquired Memphis-based National Bank of Commerce.

Airlines, telecom companies, and governments still bedevil us with fees for everything from luggage to preferred seating to premium channels to car registrations. We appear to be stuck with those. But I think they're partly responsible for the backlash against the banks, who were late to the party. And I don't know if the Occupy Wall Street protests had anything to do with this but I suspect they didn't hurt.

Rationally or not, many of us see fees as sneaky, greedy, and unnecessary — a cost above and beyond what we expect to pay. I know I often overpay for restaurant meals, tickets for sports events, and probably in property taxes on my house, but I accept those things as normal. But I detest paying fees to Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, MLGW, Delta Airlines, and Bank of America, even though the bank's tellers and managers provide excellent customer service. The (now aborted) $72 a year ($6 a month) in debit card fees is a tiny fraction of the money I lost in the stock and bond markets since 2008, but it's the principle of the thing. Fees are in the fine print. Fees go up without notice. Fees add up. Fees are a nuisance. Fees are an insult.

Every reporter learns pretty quickly that complicated big-picture stories are less likely to get attention and generate outrage than simple stories about relatively small corruption that can be tagged to a specific individual or individuals. The term paper on highway spending versus the human interest story about the clerk getting kickbacks for bypassing car inspections. There's a similar psychology of costs and fees.

On a somewhat related topic, I have no problem at all with The Commercial Appeal charging for online services by requiring a subscription to the print newspaper, as it began doing this month. As I've written before, news gathering costs money for people and infrastructure. Reporters are valuable and should be paid for their work. Paying $2.50 a week or $10 a month for the Sunday paper and online content is a fair deal.

Most of the time, The CA does a good job of gathering local news, although it has gone easy on the financial firms and ignores nonprofits even when they pay top executives seven-figure salaries. The days of 36-percent profit margins are over. We love our readers and advertisers, but a weekly paper such as the Flyer, which is supported solely by advertising, cannot duplicate that broad coverage. And television news, which now includes several hours a day of local news and features, is not free since the days of rabbit ears and antennas even if you have a bare-bones cable package. You are paying a monthly bill to some company or other that is probably loading you up with fees.

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