Mrs. Smith went on the school board when it was majority white and majority male. The Memphis School System was majority black and trending moreso. One of the things I liked about her as NAACP secretary was that she worked out of a small office in a small building on Vance Avenue in a poor part of town. When I needed some historic photographs for a Memphis magazine story, she got up and dug them out of a file cabinet herself and gave them to me at no charge. We would have paid.
Desegregation was hard, even where it wasn’t violent. But there was a just goal that blacks and white rallied to. The age cutoff for people who remember separate "white" and "colored" public facilities and restaurants is about 50 now. Resegregation is harder in another way. Nobody has an answer. Nobody. There are no leaders because there are no followers who want to be led to a common goal, which is the definition of leadership.
Mayor A C Wharton suggested naming one of the parks for Maxine and Vasco Smith. That came up Monday at the meeting of the parks renaming committee. “Naming a park after her would not do her justice,” said Harold Collins, who suggested a school or school administration building might be more suitable down the road. Doug Cupples, who voted on the other side from Collins on the Confederate names, agreed it would be “premature” to name a park for the Smiths.
The pedestrian and bicycle path on the Harahan Bridge will be 10 feet wide or 12 feet wide, depending on how much planners want to pinch the budget. As an occasional bike rider, I say width matters on a path to be shared by bikes going fast and pedestrians with small children going slow. It is the main thing. Get the main thing right and spring for the extra bucks. The Greenline is 10 feet wide but there are shoulders on both sides most of the way. There will be no margin of error on the bridge path, just fences.
The bridge path from one side of the river to the other will be one mile long. One mile is about the distance from the eastern approach to the A. W. Willis Jr. Bridge to Mud Island to the entrance to Mud Island River Park. Try walking or biking it, there and back, some time on a 95-degree summer afternoon.
I watched the Grizzlies on television with friends in Michigan last weekend. They couldn’t believe that Marc Gasol was a good but hardly great player at a small private high school, Lausanne, and didn’t play college ball.
A year ago I flew Delta to Detroit for $415 round trip. This year it was $260 for the same itinerary. Go figure. And can someone explain why car rentals are so cheap? I got a car for three days for $51, tax included, and a month ago my gang and I got an even better car in Richmond, Va. for $11 a day.
"This is a number-one priority for us," Mayor A C Wharton said Monday in a briefing on the project that is now estimated to cost "more than $30 million" in local, private, and federal funds. It will tie Main Street in Memphis from north of the Convention Center to Main Street (Broadway) in West Memphis. The ten-mile project includes one mile of cantilevered boardwalk off the Harahan Bridge, 3.8 miles in Arkansas floodland and downtown West Memphis, and a little over 5 miles in downtown Memphis from desolate blocks of Main Street north of The Pyramid and convention center to South Main Street and a new pedestrian bridge over Riverside Drive at Channel 3 Drive.
Because $14.8 million in federal transportation funds are involved, all of this has to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Construction will begin in September and the bridge section should open in August of 2014.
The bridge section will be either 10 feet wide or 12 feet wide, depending on how much planners and funders decide to pinch the budget. There will be a high, unclimbable fence on the railroad side and a lower fence with a mesh screen on the other side to permit river views. The deck will be light-weight aluminum coated to lower the summer heat. New steel bridge supports are raising the project cost. The "boardwalk" will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and have security cameras and emergency telephones.
There will be a parking area on the West Memphis side close to the western entrance to the pedestrian bridge. The western approach is covered because it is lower than the train tracks.
Wharton said it is time to accept the Main Street Mall with its trolley tracks, empty buildings and vacant storefronts in downtown Memphis for what it is — a pedestrian and trolley mall where (most) cars are banned.
"What we need to do now is make it the absolute best we can and make it distinctly Memphis," he said.
A committee of citizens named to rename three parks split 4-4 Monday on a motion to go back to the original Confederate-themed names. In separate votes, the committee then, by split votes, chose new names for the parks. The recommendations are only advisory.
Forrest Park would become Civil War Memorial Park; Confederate Park would be Promenade Park (Naval Battle of Memphis Park was rejected); and Jefferson Davis Park would be Harbor Park (Wolf River Cobblestones Park was rejected).
In an ominous note, Councilman Harold Collins, a member of the renaming committee, requested an opinion from City Council Attorney Allan Wade on whether ithe council could rename Forrest Park and move the statue and the remains of the general and his wife. Short answer: Yes.
"In our opinion, the Council's authority over the renaming of the park, relocation of the statue, and re-internment of the remains of Mr. and Mrs. Forrest has a sound legal and political foundation."
The remains of Forrest and his widow were moved from Elmwood Cemetery to the park in 1904.
"We have been advised that the Forrest family burial plots still exist at Elmwood Cemetery and that there is adequate room for the reinternment of Forrest and his wife. We have also been advised that there is also room for the Forrest statue."
In order to reinter Forrest, the city would have to initiate a Chancery Court lawsuit, which would keep the controversy alive indefinitely.
Last week, RDC director Benny Lendermon notified board members that restaurant operator Beale and Second Inc. "is no longer interested in pursuing the lease of the restaurant space at Beale Street Landing." Beale and Second consists of Bud Chittom, Kevin Kane, and Charlie Ryan, who also own Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. The group was the only one to respond to an RDC request for restaurant proposals.
"Based on this discovery, Beale and Second Inc. should cease and desist all actives (sic) on the Beale Street Landing premises other than specific catering services that RDC may contract with you to perform," the memo says.
"You should turn in the keys to the premises to our manager Jimmy Ogle. Any access to the premises to remove equipment or supplies belonging to you should be coordinated with Mr. Ogle. We are disappointed that this didn't work out but certainly understand that you have to protect your financial interests."
I say we should be so lucky. Gentrification, a fancy word for raising property values and the quality of neighborhoods, is a good thing, not a bad thing. If the Crosstown planners who want to turn the Sears building into a vertical urban village can't understand that then I don't know why they're fooling with this monster.
My perspective on the Sears building comes, daily, from the front door of my house in the Evergreen Historic District three blocks from Sears, where the summer sun sets behind the tower. My wife and I bought our house in 1984, raised our children here, sent them to Snowden school down the street, and have welcomed and said good-bye to a succession of mostly exemplary neighbors. Friends who live in East Memphis or the suburbs or other cities say we live on a good street. We agree.
We paid $86,500 for the house. The county appraisal we got in March values it at $204,200, an average annual increase of 3 percent over 29 years in which we put on a few roofs and added a new garage, central air, and a bedroom-to-bathroom conversion. This compares to the nearly 9 percent annual return on the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same period of time. If only . . .
Granted, I have taken pains to keep the county appraisal low because it means lower property taxes, and we don't plan on moving any time soon. On the other hand, this is a big chunk of our retirement plan, and if we did decide to move we would want to get top dollar.
My friend Carol Coletta, a Memphian who studies and speaks about cities for a living, says "cheap cities are cheap for a reason." Memphis is a cheap city. Nashville isn't. We could use some Nashvillization in our neighborhoods. I am not at all sure that Midtown needs more housing on the scale the Crosstown planners envision. A case can be made that it needs less housing. There are good, 1999 houses with 1700 square feet of living space two blocks from Sears Crosstown on the market today for $118,000 and older houses selling for much less than that.
The neighborhoods around Sears Crosstown are affordable. They are not in any danger of becoming unaffordable due to gentrification. That is as wild an exaggeration as the fear-mongering stories about Kroger's at Poplar and Cleveland where many of us shop. Granted, 28 years ago there was a bombing at the old Kroger's across Poplar where Walgreen's is now, but, hey, stuff happens.
Seriously, rising property values, blight reduction, and increased home ownership are good things for neighborhoods and for Memphis at large. If this is gentrification, bring it on.
The committee appointed to rename the three parks met Monday for 45 minutes but made no decisions. Members got handouts with the results of the web poll as well as a list of suggestions from the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.
The former Nathan Bedford Forrest Park that triggered this exercise got 525 responses, with 481 of them favoring that name. Ida B. Wells was the second choice, with three votes, the same as Civil War Park.
The former Jefferson Davis Park also got 525 responses, including 484 in favor of that name. Confederate Park got 463 votes, with Confederate Memorial Park the runner-up with 7 votes.
Each of the parks also got a sprinkling of votes for such names as Consolidator Park, William C. Boyd's Folly Park, and Lost Cause Park.
The Chamber of Commerce recommended the names Rock N' Soul Park for Jefferson Davis Park, Tiger Park for Confederate Park, and Volunteer Park for Forrest Park.
Members of the committee complained that many of the responses to the web survey came from people who do not live in Memphis. Keith Norman said that factor, along with "the harsh tone may be some of the very reason why we are here." It is not clear how the home towns of the respondents were determined in the web survey. Unlike the public comments in an earlier meeting, respondents did not have to provide an address.
"Our high property taxes are one reason people are leaving our city." — Memphis City Councilman Jim Strickland.
These are the two main positions on the budget talks that will play out over the next several weeks. Keep them in mind and you will miss many a pearl and many a pain but you will "get it" for the most part.
Lipscomb is right. You can't do nothing and let Raleigh, Whitehaven, downtown, Midtown, the fairgrounds, Frayser, or Whitehaven deteriorate. You have to build on what's there, give comfort to the community groups and residents who stayed, nurture the anchors, connect the dots, tear down the blight or build something better.
Strickland is right. You can't raise Memphis property taxes that are already the highest in the state and lower than the surrounding suburbs that are growing at its expense. You have to turn the tide, hold the line, cut the fat, make the tough cuts in the sensitive areas. People of means will make a flight to quality and vote with their taillights.
Lipscomb is wrong. You can't save the malls. In the era of online shopping, even Wolfchase Galleria, Collierville's Carriage Crossing, and Oak Court Mall in East Memphis are fighting for crowds and business. You can't say yes to every council member and neighborhood group with a sad story in a city that is full of them. You can't say yes to a parking garage in Overton Square without saying yes to a parking garage in Cooper-Young, yes to Madison Avenue in Midtown without saying yes to Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven and Austin Peay Highway in Raleigh.
Strickland is wrong. The overall tax burden in Tennessee is one of the lowest in the nation because there is no income tax. Memphis property taxes are high but valuations are low. The property tax disproportionately hurts homeowners but the 9.25 percent sales tax disproportionately hurts poor people.
Lipscomb is right. If basic services decline there will be more flight. Public investments can be an incentive to private investments. See Uptown, or AutoZone Park or Bass Pro and the Pyramid.
Strickland is right. Public investments can be wasteful. There is no guarantee that private investors will appear, or that they will deliver the goods if they do appear. AutoZone Park is too big, Beale Street Landing is behind schedule, over budget, and even its defenders are criticizing its appearance. In the fourth month of the year it is supposed to open, Bass Pro is the quietest $200 million game-changer you ever saw, showing all the urgency of a man fishing on a lazy summer afternoon, making barely a ripple much less a splash.
And Mayor A C Wharton is right. As he said in his budget presentation Tuesday, "Sixty cents of every dollar the administration spends is for public safety, and three out of every four general fund employees works in public safety."
There are 3,032 employees in police services and 1,830 in fire services, for a total of 4,862 of the city's 6,290 employees. Add another 2,000 employees of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, and that makes 6,862 people with salaries, benefits, and pensions in the broad category of "public safety" which is not exactly accurate when you're talking about, say, secretaries, but very effective when you're defending your budget to the city council and the county commission. You want to keep criminals off the streets and knock down house fires and rescue people from flooded homes and yet you say you want to cut budgets? Huh? Are you crazy? How dare you!
When I read or hear these public safety numbers I flash to two mental pictures: the daily emergency preparedness briefings for the Great Memphis Flood of 2011 and the overwhelming police response to the Ku Klux Klan rally downtown three weeks ago.
As it turned out, both non-events did not live up to their hype. Both mobilized the forces of public safety to prepare for the worst and put them on display in a sort of trade show for law enforcement. So many mobile command buses, amphibious vehicles, SUVs, Humvees, motorcycles, horses, patrol cars, chief cars, SWAT teams, weapons, shields, vests, computers, GPS systems, radios, laptops, smart phones, satellite trucks, all of it state-of-the-art or close to it because firepower, hardware, and communications technology keep getting bigger and better or smaller and better or faster and better or more powerful and better and who wants last year's model anyway when the guys on the other side of the mall or the law have this year's? Especially if you're the one getting mugged or robbed or your house is flooded or burning. Plus salaries and pensions and overtime. To protect a bigger coverage area while billing it to a smaller tax-paying population.
Can't close schools, they're the lifeblood of communities and our children are our future.
Can't let malls close, they're the lifeblood of our communities and as the mall goes so goes the neighborhood and besides it's already in the budget a year or two from now.
Can't cut public safety because it's public safety, stupid.
Welcome to another budget season.
The proposed budget is notable for three things.
It covers the first year in which Memphis is not obligated to support schools. It is the first time in modern history that overall property values have dropped. And it restores half of the 4.6 percent pay cut city employees took in 2011.
The current fiscal year budget is $648.9 million. The city operating budget is only part of the Memphis financial picture. Still to come are the capital improvements budget and the Shelby County budget.
Wharton said there will be no net savings from getting out from under the school funding obligation because the funds, averaging about $60 million in recent years, came from non-recurring sources.
"These funds must now be restored," he said. "For example, $22 million must be returned to the budget to pay for Pensioner's Insurance costs this coming fiscal year. Additionally, the police department budget has increased by more than $43 million since fiscal year 2008. Also in FY 2008 the property tax rate was reduced, resulting in a revenue loss of $33.6 million."
The city currently has 6,290 employees but proposes to cut that to 6,170. The greatest number of employees are in police (3032) and fire (1830.).
"The drop in assessed property values will not generate the same amount of revenue necessary to cover the operations outlined in this budget," said Wharton. "Not at the current tax rate. I mention these things because it better frames the existing options. While the administration is open to alternatives to this budget, I ask that you be mindful that we cannot meet ongoing financial demands by drawing on non-recurring revenue as we've done in previous years."
Tellingly, it was former Mayor Willie Herenton who first broached the idea of a new stadium, in a surprise announcement during a press conference on New Year's Day that wasn't even staffed by the daily paper. At no time after that do I remember the university's A-List donors to the athletic department publicly clamoring for a new stadium to be built on campus or anywhere else. Rather, there was support, admittedly tepid, for keeping the home field in the Liberty Bowl Stadium and fixing it up. If Mike Rose, Fred Smith, and Brad Martin had joined Harold Byrd in his call for a new stadium then Raines would have signed on too, I believe. Instead she threw it to a committee. Big deal, that is pretty standard procedure.
The biggest disgrace of the last 12 years was the Derrick Rose entrance exam farce. All he had to do was give a sample of his handwriting, which he refused to do, to clear up the matter. So the university athletic department leadership and administration including Raines backed Rose's sham play and jumped on the NCAA and the testing services. Rose was soon gone, with John Calipari following, and the NCAA sanctions at about the same time. The administration's response should have been, "Young man, make what choices you must, but if you are part of this university know that we will in no way be complicit in any shenanigans or cover-up involving your entrance tests."
My visits to the university for academic affairs were few and far between, but I always thought the campus looked very nice and I would have been proud to have sent my children to school there if that had been their desire. Dr. Raines has a couple more months before she leaves, and it isn't realistic to expect current faculty and staff to objectively evaluate her years. So I asked my friend Bob Levey, the former Washington Post columnist who held the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism, for his thoughts. This is what he wrote.
“During Shirley Raines’s ten years as president, The University of Memphis could have slid toward becoming a community college. The deck was totally stacked. UM didn’t have the right friends in Nashville. It didn’t do as well as it might have in fundraising. And its students didn’t seek the liberal arts curriculum as much as they should have. President Raines fought valiantly—and quite successfully—against all three of those problems. She shored up departments like art, journalism and history when so many were saying that they didn’t produce jobs (they have, they do, they will). Besides, she steadied the ship during a recession that really socked UM students and the city. I give her very high marks.”
Morrison, Mayor A C Wharton, Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb, and architect Tom Marshall presented the plan to about 225 people at The United Methodist church in Raleigh Thursday night. The crowd filled the sanctuary, which was a welcome sight to the church's minister John Holt, who is used to seeing half that many people at Sunday services.
"There is hope," Holt said of the latest plan, which has been revised several times in the last three and a half years. The racially mixed crowd applauded speakers several times, and leaders of the Raleigh Community Council, a longstanding neighborhood association, are enthusiastic. Morrison lives in Raleigh, and Marshall grew up there, giving the meeting something of a homecoming atmosphere.
The plan calls for partial demolition ($7 million) and phasing out existing businesses over the next few years, construction of a public library, police precinct and traffic station to replace existing ones ($23 million), and construction of a lake and a large fountain recognizing the history of Raleigh Springs ($6 million). It is hoped that this would attract private development, but no names of interested investors were mentioned at the meeting. A story Friday in The Commercial Appeal put the total price at $60 million including private investment, but that number did not come up at the meeting.
"I was so glad they are not going to remodel the mall," said Imogene Tisdale, president of the association.
Joy Jefferson, a Memphis police officer, Raleigh resident, and head of the neighborhood watch, said "we're going to take Raleigh back, and Frayser."
The mall is more than 40 years old and has lost its anchor retail tenants and movie theater. Marshall called its condition "deplorable" and said there are about 32 small businesses still operating. The owner of one of them, Averill Brittenum, who has operated a custom air-brushing shop for 19 years, was not pleased with some of what he heard.
"I was surprised at how the community was so in favor of it being destroyed," he said. "I had an eerie foreboding of the destruction of my business. When they talked about Mom and Pop stores it makes me feel expendable. This is my livelihood."
Morrison promised to fight for funding and said some of it is already in capital improvements budgets going out as far as 2018. "We deserve this," he said. The plan, he said, "gives us a fighting chance to bring businesses and families back to Raleigh."
The project, however, faces competition for funding from other big public projects in Midtown, Whitehaven, downtown and other council members' districts. When the lake feature of the mall came up, there was an echo of the parking garage under construction in Overton Square. Marshall said the low areas on the mall site "might open the door to stormwater funding." The Overton Square garage covers a stormwater retention pond.
Lipscomb mentioned several of the other public projects underway around the city, and said the administration's strategy is to fund anchor developments and "connect the dots."
"You cannot cut your way to prosperity," he said. "Austerity does not equal prosperity."
Working the crowd like a veteran politician, Lipscomb said "I am not a czar, I am a public servant. My problem is I can't say no."
I think I hung that one on him, and he might want to get a second opinion. When you tell people you're going to give them lots of nice new things with tax money you influence they usually smile, applaud, and call you blessed. That's politics.
Like the former St. Louis Cardinal slugger, the park is gigantic and juiced.
This week the national media rediscovered a story that has been around for more than a year about the likely future of the ballpark and the Memphis Redbirds. My colleague Frank Murtaugh interviewed John Pontius a year ago. Frank also wrote this story about the park's financial plight before other local and national media jumped on it.
McGwire was juiced on steroids when he hit 70 home runs in 1998, setting the all-time single-season record, and when he appeared in Memphis with the Cardinals at the opening of AutoZone Park in 2000. The ballpark was juiced on hype and an unsustainable financing plan.
AutoZone Park has more than 14,000 seats plus a left-field berm and right-field picnic area and cost $80 million. It was a thrilling sight to see when more than 15,000 people came out to see the Cardinals and McGwire open the stadium with an exhibition game in 2000, just as it was thrilling to watch McGwire break Roger Maris's home run record and match Sammy Sosa home run for home run during the 1998 season.
By the same token, it was sad to see the crowds decline to a couple thousand or so, and McGwire descend into disgrace.
Thirteen years later, AutoZone Park is still a beautiful sight but too big and expensive by half. There are 44 luxury suites, many of them rarely used, whose leases expire after next year. Meanwhile, newer minor-league parks have no suites. The math on $80 million simply doesn't work.
McGwire was a very good ballplayer who juiced to become a muscle-bound behemoth and a great home run hitter. The ballpark failed its bondholders. McGwire failed his fans, and fell well short of the number of votes needed to get into the Hall of Fame again this year.
A no-juice major-league hitter does very well to hit 35 home runs year in and year out. A no-juice minor-league baseball stadium does very well to draw 7,000 fans per game year in and year out. Double those numbers and something's not going to add up.
The Memphis Redbirds open the 2013 season tonight with a double-header and, Murtaugh says, a line-up of future stars.
AutoZone Park was a case of Memphis thinking big but not being able to meet expectations; FedExForum was a case of Memphis thinking big and rising to expectations. Some of the credit for the latter must go to the former. The optimism was contagious, and spread to an ownership group and pursuit team determined to build a major-league stadium and attract a major-league team and a city and region willing to support it.
AutoZone Park was part of a development package that included the apartments to the east, the downtown elementary school, and the renovation of the William Moore office building. It replaced a blighted empty building, a porno theater, a mule barn, and parking lots on the corner across from The Peabody, downtown's most enduring commercial landmark. Sooner or later, the city will make a deal to buy the ballpark for a fraction of what it cost, as it should.