Fly on the Wall

Lanier, But Yet So Far

The hype is in. Monday, it spread like wildfire across Clear Channel’s local network of radio and TV stations. WREC-AM’s Kenny Bosak couldn’t stop talking about the fact that sister station WPTY “ABC 24” had tapes of convicted Dyersburg judge David Lanier having sex in his chambers. Channel 24’s early evening news hyped it with a snippet of tape, run in a loop, twice.

“At the very center of this almost surreal case is a simple question,” reported Wendell Stacy when 10 o’clock finally rolled around. “Did then-Chancery Judge David Lanier have sex in his chambers in Dyersburg? It’s been a question for six years. That is, until now.”

After that, the presentation of the tapes was far more surreal than what they depicted. Years of criminal proceedings flashed by, like death throes, in three minutes, punctuated by footage of a gavel, the “Justice” and “Authority” statues at the courthouse downtown, and what appeared to be a spinning globe representing Lanier’s flight to Mexico.

The tapes themselves – about 30 seconds – had no audio, although Stacy explained that it was the audio that was truly damning. Opinions conflicted, however, in Dyersburg’s corridors of power, as Leon Gray sought informed comment from people at what appeared to be a honky-tonk.

If it’s breaking news, you’ve got to report it. But if you really believe it’s breaking news, maybe you shouldn’t turn it into a to-be-continued two-parter. More of the tapes were scheduled to air Tuesday night.

Pan-demonium

“Imagine seeing four remote-controlled bedpans maneuvering around the pool trying to win the race.” Or, better yet, just feast your eyes on this:

Just a little preview of the floating, motorized bedpan races set to take place at the 34th Annual Mid-South Sport & Boat Show this weekend at the Agricenter. If you can tear yourself away from watching the construction-paper vomit fly on South Park, you’re sure to find it hi-larious. n

City Reporter

Environmentalists Oppose Lichterman Plans

by Debbie Gilbert

n February 1994, the Adirondack-style log structure that had been the heart of Lichterman Nature Center burned to the ground. Three months later, the Memphis City Council – prodded by the local environmental group Common Sense – unanimously passed a resolution that the building’s replacement should be an example of energy-efficient, ecologically correct construction – one that could be used as a teaching tool.

Interior rendering of planned visitor center at Lichterman Nature Center.

This April, Memphis Museums, Inc. – which operates Lichterman – will break ground on a new, 16,800-square-foot visitor center, launching Phase I of a two-part, $8.8 million master plan. Other elements of the project, which should be completed by the end of 1999, include a new greenhouse, wildlife center, events pavilion, amphitheatre, and a football-field-sized special-events lawn.

But the planned visitor center doesn’t much resemble the one envisioned in 1994, and environmentalists aren’t too happy about that. Among the objections cited by members of the local Audubon Society and Sierra Club chapters: that the building design uses too much glass, which hastens energy loss and poses a hazard to flying birds; that it doesn’t use renewable materials or low-impact construction; that it includes a restaurant, which creates waste-disposal problems; and that a widening of the entrance road off Quince and an expansion of the parking lot (from 75 to 127 spaces, plus two overflow areas) will involve cutting trees down.

“Personally, I’m most concerned about the loss of trees,” says Pat Ronan, who’s been a volunteer at Lichterman for the past three years. The cut trees, primarily hardwoods such as oaks, will be replaced with shrubby species such as dogwoods, which Ronan thinks is a bad idea.

“If we could do this and not cut a single tree down, we’d do it,” says museum-system director Doug Noble. “But you have to remember that this is a managed habitat. This property wasn’t virgin forest; part of it used to be a dairy farm.”

When museum administrators decided to renovate the 65-acre East Memphis park, they held seven focus groups with such demographic categories as senior citizens, educators, business-people, and African Americans.

“A major concern we’ve had is that the primary constituency of Lichterman has been almost exclusively schoolchildren and a few interested individuals,” says Noble. “We hired an outside consultant to do the focus groups, and we asked, ‘What kinds of things would you like to see or expect to see at a nature center?’ People expressed an interest in being able to go out and spend a day, having a food service. There was strong support for special events and outdoor festivals.”

Thus, the facility is being designed so it can regularly host weddings, family reunions, business conferences, and the like. But environmentalists are troubled by this: Should a nature center be a place to have parties, buy souvenirs, and dine in a restaurant? Or should it be a place where one gets in touch with the outside world?

“The way I look at it,” says activist Scott Banbury, “if people don’t want to come to nature unless there’s a lot of consumables available, then they don’t need to come.”

Noble finds that attitude unrealistic. “I think the trick is to get people there, and then make them nature-center fans,” he says. “That’s the same reason we have, for example, an Elvis laser-light show at the Pink Palace.”

When the renovation is completed, Noble projects attendance of 100,000 a year. But first he’ll have to acquire the money needed to finish the work. The museum system is about halfway through a capital campaign, but it must raise the entire $8.8 million (including an endowment to serve inner-city youth) by August 31st in order to be eligible for a challenge grant offered by an unspecified donor.

“They want to improve [Lichterman] – and we all agree that that’s necessary,” says Ronan, “but I think these are things that should be above and beyond the profit motive.”

“We would be irresponsible if we did not acknowledge the financial aspect,” says Noble. “There were cost concerns and functional concerns involved [in deciding not to make the visitor center an environmental-demonstration building]. We cannot in good conscience spend the kind of money we’re going to spend and not have a financially viable entity. Lichterman’s visitorship had been declining even before the fire. There is a need for earned income.”

As for concerns about a full-service restaurant generating litter and traffic, Noble says: “The restaurant will be more like a snack bar. But we’ve got to have a catering kitchen, open seven days a week, for events. If this building at Lichterman gets minimal use, it’s a waste. So we want people there all the time, including at night.”

Environmental activists question whether the surrounding habitat can withstand the impact of so many visitors and cars. And they’re upset that the general public wasn’t given an opportunity for input on the renovation plans. “I’m willing to take this to the city council and say, hold on a minute here – there was no public process,” says Banbury.

“To me, we’ve gone about this thing the right way,” says Noble. “We’ve given this an enormous amount of thought and planning, and involved an enormous number of people.” n


Arts Group Fight Property Tax

by Jacqueline Marino

Jackie Nichols

These are trying times for the state’s nonprofit arts groups. Not only is government supporting the arts less. It’s making the arts support it more.

Since National Endowment for the Arts funding has decreased over the last few years, local arts groups have struggled to find new sources of revenue. Now they have another financial obstacle to overcome: a state-levied property tax.

Arts organizations in Tennessee enjoyed property-tax exemptions until 1996, when an administrative judge for the Tennessee State Board of Equalization decided they were mainly in the business of entertainment, not education or charity.

The taxes apply to new properties only. As a result of the ruling, Circuit Playhouse and Playhouse on the Square had to pay $7,000 in taxes last year on two of its properties, Theatre Works on Monroe and a storage building on Broad. Executive producer Jackie Nichols says the theatres paid the taxes “under protest” and hope to eventually reclaim the money.

“The judge says that the arts are not educational,” Nichols says. “But most of the arts groups are carrying the burden of art, music, and theatre that the school board used to carry.”

While the Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville is appealing the Board of Equalization’s decision, arts groups are attacking the tax issue on the legislative front as well. Earlier this month, State Senator Steve Cohen introduced a bill that would exempt nonprofit community arts organizations from paying property taxes on “public museums, art galleries, and auditoriums and theatres used for the performing arts.”

“Tax exemption is something they’re used to,” Cohen says. “This [property tax] puts them at an economic disadvantage.”

If Cohen’s bill becomes state law, city and county governments can expect to lose about $250,000 in tax revenue, according to Kelsie Jones, executive secretary of the Board of Equalization. Shelby County would lose about $10,000.

The arts groups should not be exempted from paying property taxes just because they provide educational programs, says Bob Patterson, Shelby County trustee.

“Any time you set a class out that doesn’t have to pay taxes, others have to pay more taxes,” he says. “Senator Cohen and I both are interested in art, but I don’t think people who aren’t interested in art should have to pay for it.”

Several other arts groups expect to be affected in the next few years, including Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis. The ballet never factored a $48,000 tax bill into its funding plan for a new $2.5 million studio and office building, says general manager Walton Griffin.

In the next two years, Opera Memphis is also planning to build a new $2 million facility with rehearsal and performance space, as well as a shop operation.

Both groups expect to do more fund-raising and increase ticket prices if they have to pay the taxes on those buildings. n


AutoZone Park Is On Schedule

by Jacqueline Marino

Although the financing deal for AutoZone Park hasn’t been finalized yet, the construction plan for the new downtown ballpark remains on schedule.

At a press conference last week, Allie Prescott, president and general manager for the Memphis Redbirds, announced a $375,000 renovation to Tim McCarver Stadium, where the Redbirds are playing this year. He also offered this update on the ballpark: More than $75 million has been committed, and construction should be finished in time for the 1999 season.

AutoZone pledged $4.3 million last month to secure the naming rights for the $46 million ballpark, which is being built at Union Avenue and Third Street. But the Redbirds are still working to solidify other long-term financial contracts, especially those guaranteeing advertising revenue.

That’s what’s been holding up the final financing deal with NationsBank, which is expected to back the bonds for the ballpark’s construction, says bank president J. Bryan Miller. The deal was expected to be closed three months ago.

So what’s the latest time frame?

“The second week in March,” Prescott says. “We expect the bonds will be sold by then.”

In the meantime, Prescott says $8.5 million donated by the city and county is paying for ongoing work, including excavation and wall shoring. To keep the ballpark construction on schedule, owners Dean Jernigan and his wife Kristi have also contributed. n


City And County Work On Differences After Chapter 98

by Phil Campbell

Committees from the Memphis and Shelby County governments are meeting on Friday to iron out some of their differences in the aftermath of Chapter 98, the state incorporation law that created so much acrimony last year.

Relations between the two governments – and, specifically, between Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout – seem to be warm again. It’s been months since Herenton has accused Rout of being weak, likewise with Rout calling Herenton an “emperor.”

“We’ve always worked together, but we haven’t always agreed on certain issues,” says Herenton spokesperson Carey Hoffman.

Herenton and Rout found themselves on opposite sides of Chapter 98, which allowed small towns to incorporate next to big cities like Memphis, thus blocking growth. Heren-ton, who fought the law in court, was mad that Rout wouldn’t take a position on the issue. Ties were severed as the city vowed not to extend sewer lines into the eastern part of the county, an area called the Grays Creek Basin.

Sewage extension was part of an agreement between city and county called the “balanced growth plan.” Basically, the city would put its sewers into the part of the county outside the city. In return, Memphis got a number of concessions from the county that would indirectly but pro-actively encourage residents to move back into Memphis.

The county had agreed a year and a half ago to demolish vacant or dilapidated commercial buildings inside the city, contribute money for sewer extension for developments inside the city, and join the city in a community-development fund that private banks would administer.

When Chapter 98 came along, things came to a halt. Sewer extension was threatened, and the county demolished only one building, at 2117 Florida Street. The county also wouldn’t pay its half of the $300,000 for infrastructure improvements to make Diamond Estates, a middle-class development, possible. The city ultimately paid the county’s half, and now hopes to get the county’s promised money, or have the county fund something else, says Dexter Muller, head of the Office of Planning and Develop-ment.

Now that tensions have eased (Chapter 98 was declared unconstitutional in the Tennessee Supreme Court), those issues are back on the table. The city and county will also continue to meet over Mayor Herenton’s “formula for fairness” plan, which calls for a redistribution of city and county property taxes, according to Muller. n


This Week's Issue | Home