A little more than a year after it opened, the Memphis Skate Park in Tobey Park is fulfilling the dream of its driving force, Aaron Shafer.
"This feels good," said Shafer, as he surveyed the scene Sunday afternoon when some 70 people — all of them male and most of them teenagers or younger — enjoyed the park that opened in November 2011. Shafer, a California transplant, pitched the idea to city officials and anyone else who would listen, including skeptical journalists and sports traditionalists.
The newest attraction is "the wave," a curling silver ramp 20 feet high in the shape of a breaking wave. Daredevils slap stickers on the highest points of the curve before pivoting midair and coasting back down.
I did not visit the skate park to play cop or scold. I was doing an interview at the school board on the other side of the parking lot when I saw the crowd and walked over. The polite, friendly kids whose picture I took should be in a skateboard video celebrating the sport's ethnic diversity.
Skateboarding suits my libertarian preferences. I often bike without a helmet and slam a small rubber ball around an indoor court without wearing safety glasses. And, let's face it, doing tricks in midair over a bowl of concrete is risky any way you look at it. The more extreme stunts call to mind Jerry Seinfeld's joke about skydiving — "the helmet is wearing you."
But the skate park is in plain view, and the only thing scarcer than helmets was girls. (Shafer and his son wore helmets.) Shortly after the park opened in 2011, a 12-year-old kid was handcuffed by a cop and put in a squad car for not wearing a helmet. After that, the Memphis City Council passed a helmet ordinance that subjects violators to a $50 fine. A sign says so, just as another says skate and bike at your own risk. This legalistic straddle is confusing at best and negligent at worst.
"It's definitely common sense to wear a helmet for those of us with common sense, but teenagers don't have that," said Derek Kelly, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Campbell Clinic and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. "The simple stuff we can treat pretty successfully, but head injuries are permanent. I hate to shed a bad light on this, but at the same time we've got to protect kids."
So much for the lecture. The skate park is everything Little League baseball is not — no uniforms, coaches, teams, rules, or overprotective parents hanging around. These are break-the-rules sports that scream "Mine!" and "Bug off!" And, yes, "Death wish." The demographic and the rebel spirit have caught the attention of commercial sponsors and the Olympics, which had BMX racing in 2012 and is considering skateboarding in 2016.
The skate park was not an instant success, and there is no guarantee that its popularity will last or grow. But it's a nice addition to a budding Midtown sports complex that includes Tobey Fields, a rugby field, and the Fairgrounds within half a mile. Former Memphian and ex-big-league ballplayer Tim McCarver, 71, has pledged a donation for a baseball field or fields at the Fairgrounds.
His heart is in the right place, but the problem with inner-city baseball is not so much a lack of facilities as a lack of interest. The next sports wave could be the one old guys didn't see coming.
Jimmy Ogle is chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission and a Memphis history buff. He has led thousands of visitors on walking tours of downtown and provides commentary on riverboat sightseeing trips. So he has a keen interest in the controversy over Forrest Park that flared up again this year.
What grates Ogle almost as much as the frequent theft of historical markers is the amount of myth and misinformation about not just the park but downtown history in general, particularly in regard to the Civil War and civil rights. With his help, I compiled this list of the Top 10 Myths about downtown history.
1. There is a granite block from which slaves were auctioned in Auction Park near the bridge to Mud Island: Ogle says trolley drivers, carriage drivers, and motor coach tour operators help perpetuate this myth. Auction Avenue, renamed A.W. Willis Avenue, does indeed have a granite marker, but it was not placed there until 1924 by the Colonial Dames. "I do not think that Memphis was active in slave trading in that year, do you?" Ogle said.
2. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was originally buried in Forrest Park: He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in 1877 and moved to the park in 1904, along with his wife. Moving him back to Elmwood would be problematic, Ogle says, because the family plot has no space. It is crowded by a large magnolia tree and the burial place of Memphis historian Shelby Foote.
3. Forrest is the most prominent Southerner from the Civil War so honored in downtown: Arguably, the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is more prominent, as it stands on Front Street in Confederate Park in the heart of downtown. Another city park, Jefferson Davis Park, is just below that on Riverside Drive. Davis, who lived in Memphis after the war, has somehow remained largely unscathed in recent monument controversies.
4. Confederate Park has an identity crisis: This one is true but still confusing. Civil War cannons were removed from the park during a scrap effort during World War II. In 1947, they were replaced with World War II cannons. Those cannons were replaced with Civil War replicas during the sesquicentennial commemoration last year for the Naval Battle of Memphis.
5. Memphis was a Southern stronghold during the Civil War: In fact, Memphis was occupied by the Union Army for most of the war and served as a strategic outpost for generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
6. Union Avenue gets its name from the Civil War: This is an Ogle favorite. "The name had nothing to do with the Civil War Union occupation nor the merger with South Memphis in 1850," he said. Our city's original street names, including Union, are on the original survey and map of 1819 — more than 40 years before the onset of the Civil War. The main east-west streets honor the first five presidents and Memphis founders Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton.
7. Forrest and Davis are the only segregationists with a prominent public landmark named for them: The Clifford Davis Federal Building is named for KKK-member Davis, a city judge from 1923 to 1927, vice mayor 1928-1940, and congressman 1940-1962. The building was co-named for African-American federal judge Odell Horton in 2007.
8. Clayborn Temple across from FedExForum was the site of Martin Luther King's "I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech: King gave that speech at Mason Temple, which is about a mile south of Clayborn Temple. King led a march in 1968 from Clayborn Temple. In 2012, a segment of Linden Avenue was renamed to honor King.
9. The Pyramid was Sidney Shlenker's idea and he sold it to Memphis "hook, line, and Shlenker": The Texas promoter came on the scene to try, unsuccessfully, to develop the Pyramid after it was built. Memphis businessman John Tigrett was the driving force behind the Pyramid.
10. Hernando DeSoto discovered the Mississippi River in Memphis: A plaque in Chickasaw Heritage Park next to the National Ornamental Metal Museum says DeSoto "viewed" the river "in the area" in 1541. Note the careful hedging. Historians believe the more likely point of discovery was about 100 miles south, in Mississippi.
Now you know. What's more, Mud Island is not an island, the Pinch was first settled by "pinched-gut" Irish refugees from the potato famine, and downtown Memphis was not flooded in 2011, unless you count Riverside Drive. As ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer said then, all we can do is pray.
Scary story last Sunday on 60 Minutes about all the things robots can do in manufacturing plants.
The little buggers were scooting like cockroaches all over the floor of a warehouse, faultlessly navigating traffic while carrying racks of stuff to humans who packed it into boxes to be shipped who knows where, maybe through Memphis.
A couple of smart guys from MIT and the head of the company that makes the robots told reporter Steve Kroft this could bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas, because the robots "make" about $3.40 an hour, comparable to workers in Asia. A robot, one of them noted, has already kicked some Harvard and MIT ass on Jeopardy.
Great. Just when Memphis joins the manufacturing party, humanoid employees take it on the chin from C-3PO. Tuesday was the media event at the new Electrolux plant on Presidents Island. Good news, for now at least: The humans are winning, but Nike and FedEx and Electrolux and all those warehouses off Lamar are the stage for this battle of the 21st century. I worked in warehouses for a couple weeks several years ago and can't remember a thing I did that could not have been done just as well by a machine.
The road from downtown and Interstate 55 to Electrolux takes you past the smokestacks of the steam plant, the signs for "Project 21," which is Mitsubishi Electric's future local offering, the fart smell of Ensley Bottoms, the yeasty olfactory relief of the grain operations, more smokestacks, then the gates of the Electrolux plant. The sprawling, low-slung buildings and parking lots (humans!) will be home to hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment.
Product starts rolling out in May. About 90 employees are already working, with 160 more to come later this year. Many of them came to the ceremony in their blue shirts and khakis to hear the good news. Something was cooking in the Electrolux ovens — rolls and sausages maybe? Anyway, it was the best-smelling media event of the year.
There were the obligatory introductions and remarks by politicos, including Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey from distant Bristol. The similarity to the automobile manufacturing process — a Southern business and manufacturing party at which Memphis and Shelby County are conspicuously absent — was mentioned at least half a dozen times. Then Jack Truong, CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, and plant manager George Robbins took over for the tour.
"Electrolux is leading the revolution toward manufacturing in Memphis," Robbins said.
The equipment is highly automated, high-tech, and highly monitored to assure a level of consistency and reliability that is as desirable in your household appliances as it is in your car.
At Stops One and Two, the giant yellow robotic arms and hands put on a little show for us.
"You can see them running through their paces," Robbins said.
At Stop Three, more yellow robot arms were doing their thing in a cage. A humanoid with a pole was standing outside the cage. If that thing escapes, I thought, you're gonna need a bigger pole, buddy.
Stop Four, the assembly line, is not yet operational. The massive space is where most of the 1,200 U.S. employees will work when the plant reaches full production in five years. It is lit by skylights for their good health. So are the cafeteria, meeting rooms, and offices. The robots presumably couldn't care less.
I asked Robbins how many robots will be working on the line.
"None," he said. "The products are put together by people. We don't rule out robotics in the future, in sub-assembly especially."
Stop Five was quality control, where a sample of finished products will be put through hundreds of tests to make sure humans and robots have performed their tasks well.
Excellent news all around. Jobs and return on investment coming our way. If we can keep the robots from taking over our factories and warehouses, maybe we enlist a few of them to invade Nashville and bring us some more business.
When I visited him in his office this week, Dr. James Eason was dressed all in black, which pretty much matched his mood.
His holidays were fine. What had him down was the news he got in December that the Methodist University Transplant Institute had lost another and probably final round to Nashville and Vanderbilt University over an organ-sharing agreement.
"This is very disappointing," he said. "Now people in Memphis and the Mid-South have access to only 25 percent of the organs from the state of Tennessee. We had been able to save an average of 11 patients a month through liver transplants because of the statewide agreement. Since December 5th we have been limited to four donors. That's what we're going to be dealing with."
Eason, director of the center, did a life-saving liver transplant for Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 2009 that extended his life two-and-a-half years. It was one of roughly 120 such transplants the center did each year under the old statewide organ-sharing agreement. When the Jobs story finally trickled out, it gave Methodist, the transplant center, and Memphis some bragging rights, especially against Nashville, which happens about as often as the University of Memphis rules the state in football.
In December, however, Eason was notified that the new sharing agreement, supported by the Department of Health and Human Services, Vanderbilt, and the Memphis-based Mid-South Transplant Foundation, was final.
"I believe a political decision was made, not an evidence-based decision," he said.
Meaning what? I asked.
"I will leave it at that. People in Nashville won at the expense of people in Memphis and West Tennessee. There was misinformation that confused and prevented the groundswell of community support."
Eason estimates that the number of liver transplants performed here each year will fall to 60 or less. Methodist and affiliated Le Bonheur Children's Hospital have been one of the top 10 transplant programs in the country for 40 years. That status, Eason says, is likely to end. The December fall-off is likely to continue. Meanwhile, Tennessee Donor Services based in Nashville had 14 liver donors. Nine of those went to Vanderbilt and five went out of state. In the past, Methodist would have split those with Vanderbilt.
"We have a young man, an adolescent, waiting at Le Bonheur since December 13th with the highest [eligibility] score in the state, but he can't get access to those organs unless they are turned down by Vanderbilt, which does not have a pediatric liver transplant program."
Eason was born at Baptist Memorial Hospital in downtown Memphis and grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. He looks like an actor that television producers would cast in the role of the chief doctor in a hospital drama. As the public face of the transplant center, he is not a self-promoter. I (and others) have tried for more than a year to get him to tell the Steve Jobs story in depth, but he won't do it.
Looking back on it, Eason said the Jobs story had mixed consequences because of perceptions that the wealthy Californian jumped the line.
"We are a center of excellence, and people who have a choice choose excellence," Eason said. "I think his transplant was used by some people to overshadow the fact that over 90 percent of our patients are from the Mid-South."
The doctor and his famous patient, whose stay in Memphis was cloaked in secrecy, formed an unusual bond. After the operation, Eason bought the house in Midtown where Jobs stayed.
"That's an old story," he said. "I still live there. I bought that house."
I asked him if he plans to stay in Memphis. Overachievers, whether they be entrepreneurs, doctors, or coaches, tend to go where the most action is.
"I have been approached by other programs," he said. "I am a native West Tennessean, but I also have to look at every option and opportunity where I can do the most good. Right now, my main consideration is providing transplants to the people we have here."
The Memphis center does liver, kidney, and pancreas transplants. The team includes five surgeons and 10 doctors in all, as well as support personnel.
"Everybody in the center is more experienced, from surgeons to nurses to allied health providers," he said. "And it is easier to recruit the best and brightest to a program that is doing a lot of transplants."
First, the misses. I missed by a mile on the sales tax increase referendum, which I said “has a real chance this year.” It lost 69-31 after it went from Memphis-only to countywide, but would have lost anyway.
I jumped on the Big East bandwagon in February. “Better late than never,” I reasoned. Maybe not, as the conference crumbles.
I thought and still think “able and willing” John Aitken, who is under contract until February 2015, would be a good choice for superintendent of the Unified School System, but the school board launched a search instead. And I praised board members for getting along even if they could not reach agreement on big decisions, singling out Martavius Jones and David Pickler, “who set the tone for frank but civil discussion.” A couple of weeks later, Jones submitted a resolution calling for the immediate resignation of Pickler “for failure to publicly disclose an apparent conflict of interest.”
A year ago, I wrote that “the city of Memphis is not going to get out of a court-ordered $57 million payment to Memphis City Schools.” Maybe not, but delay is a viable strategy, and MCS is still waiting for full payment of the old debt.
On the biggest story of the year, I wrote that “it could be that Judge Hardy Mays knows exactly what the legislature was up to but thinks it unwise to overrule the wishes of 85 percent of suburbanites” on municipal school systems. He left the ’burbs some wiggle room but he delivered a stinging rebuke.
I called the sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance “a media attention grabber” and “a solution in search of a problem.” The Memphis City Council passed it without much fuss.
As for bike lanes, I said, “If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that Memphis would reinvent itself as a bicycle town I’d have thought you were touched.” A few days ago, The New York Times ran a story about Memphis headlined “Sprawling Memphis Aims to Be a Friendlier Place for Cyclists.” Sometimes national attention is its own reward.
I thought the powers that be in Big Medicine would listen to transplant surgeon James Eason and Methodist University Hospital and help Memphis become a national center of excellence on liver and kidney transplants with “bragging rights” over Nashville and Vanderbilt for a change. No sale. Their pleas were rebuffed again this month, and their Transplant Institute is in jeopardy.
The predictions I got right were, honestly, pretty easy.
“Trouble’s coming,” I said about the appointed-not-elected Transition Planning Commission when it unveiled its plan last summer to unify the city and county school system. It still is.
The most obvious miscalculation was the recommendation to close 21 schools. Four or five is more like it. The lame-duck 23-member school board is built to fail because it will shrink to seven members this September.
Despite various public and private efforts, blight remains a huge problem for Memphis. “Blight gets a nice seat at the table and just sits there,” and so it will be in 2013.
The suburbs easily passed referendums on partially funding their dream of municipal school systems even though the issues of legality and cost of buildings are unresolved.
The concerts at the Levitt Shell are great, but free music comes with a price, and closing a venue such as the Hi-Tone Café is part of the price.
Facebook is no fad, but the privacy concerns are real and the price of the initial public stock offering was way too high. Not buying it was indeed “priceless.”
When the city and county gave tax incentives to lure Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric, it was only a matter of time before current corporate residents such as too-big-to-lose International Paper made their own value proposition and got more tax breaks.
The local tax structure based on Tourism Development Zones (TDZ) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) didn’t go off the rails in 2012, but it got the scrutiny and resistance it deserves, as downtowners said “not so fast” to a grand scheme called Heritage Trail.
Finally, really big deals take a really long time. It has been 1,630 days since construction began on Beale Street Landing and 1,530 days since Bass Pro Shops signed a development agreement for the Pyramid. Both projects are supposed to open in 2013.
The headlines of 2012 would have been thrilling and exciting and heartening if only they had come, oh, about four years earlier.
Such as, "So Long, Suckers! U of M Leaving Conference USA for Big East."
And, "Taking Flight: Airport Expansion Adds Huge Garage to Accommodate All Those Delta Flights and Passengers."
And, "Bass Pro Founder Says Pyramid to Reopen Next Year."
And, "Calipari Captures Elusive National Title."
And, "New Football Coach Has Tigers Moving in Right Direction."
And, "Memphians Party at Opening of Beale Street Landing."
And, "School Leaders Say Unified System Eight Months Away."
And, "States and Congress Agree on Need for Stricter Gun Control to Avoid Mass Shootings at Schools."
Instead we got, well, you know what we got.
Many of my working hours this year, maybe too many, were spent in public meetings. The ongoing schools story was the main culprit, with the city council running second.
Looking back, I see a common theme: How much is enough?
That goes for big stuff like schools, police and fire stations, pre-kindergarten programs, and Liberty Bowl Stadium improvements as well as little stuff like bike lanes and public golf courses.
A routine year-end meeting of the parks committee of the Memphis City Council last week showed how controversial even seemingly minor decisions can be — which does not bode well for big decisions on budgets, the Unified School System, school superintendents, and school closings in 2013.
Council members spent nearly an hour rehashing golf courses. Earlier this year, the council agreed to close three money-losing courses for the winter months. The discussion, accompanied by spreadsheets and some hard questioning of parks director Janet Hooks, was about whether a fourth course in Whitehaven was going to be closed permanently.
"We're not going to close any golf courses," said Councilman Joe Brown, with the emphasis on "any."
If you play golf or live in Whitehaven, this might interest you. If you play golf and live in Whitehaven, it might interest you a lot. Otherwise, not so much.
Next, council members turned to Liberty Bowl Stadium and the number of wheelchair-accessible seats. The city administration has made a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to spend $12 million to increase the number of such seats to 564, to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. City officials said that, otherwise, DOJ "could shut the stadium down." Such a deal. When this job is finished, the Liberty Bowl will have roughly as many ADA seats as 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium, the largest in the country and usually sold out.
The night before the council met, I attended a community meeting about closing Humes Middle School, which is using only 17 percent of its capacity. Enrollment has fallen from 900 to 190 in a decade. School officials recommend "closing" the school next year and reopening it (also next year) as a music and arts optional school.
The next night, the Unified School Board met. One of the things on its wish list is pre-kindergarten classes. How much pre-K is enough? Universal pre-K is, of course, the most popular recommendation.
How about those bike lanes on city streets? Memphis suddenly has miles of them, and some advocates want to add lots more even though many of the ones we have are lightly used. How much is enough?
"If you build it, they will come." That's often the rationale and a cliché from a movie, Field of Dreams, that was new 23 years ago. Or this will make Memphis "a world-class city" or "a model for the nation." Or "the business community is solidly behind this." And if we don't do it, Memphis "will lose federal matching funds."
Except they might not come. And keeping pace with Nashville and Louisville, much less the world, is hard enough. And International Paper and Electrolux expect tax breaks to stay here or come here. And a charter school dedicated to science and engineering and located in what used to be the medical center has such a poor record after 10 years that it might be closed, because what really counts is on-site leadership and teaching. And federal funds come with strings attached and the feds play rough.
So it went in 2012. Wait until next year!
Humes Middle School, it is safe to say, is the only school in America with an Elvis Room. It is on the first floor of the three-story building in a poor neighborhood on the north side of downtown. There are photographs of Elvis Aron Presley and the Humes High Class of 1953, Elvis buttons, copies of his diploma, the graduation program, yearbook, and some cheesy wall hangings and posters. In one corner, there is an old metal locker with a pair of retro football hip pads, shoulder pads, and shoes. In fact, Elvis played sandlot football but was not on the varsity team, and his yearbook entry says his main extracurricular activity was shop.
No matter. When legend clashes with fact, go with the legend.
Elvis became famous in 1956. He died in 1977. But Memphis City Schools hopes some Elvis luster will help save Humes Middle School and give it a new life. The Transition Planning Commission recommended closing 21 schools, and at a glance Humes looks like a prime candidate. It was built in 1925 for grades 7-12, with a capacity of 1,500 students. Many Humes families, including the Presleys, lived in nearby housing projects and worked at factories, now closed, in North Memphis. By 2002, its enrollment had shrunk to 900, and this year it has about 190 students who share the building with a charter school. The building needs at least $9 million in repairs, according to MCS.
"It is as beautiful a middle-school structure as there is anywhere," said Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash at a community meeting at Humes this week, where about a dozen parents, students, and staff met in the cafeteria. Joining them were supporters who hope to "repurpose" Humes as an all-optional school focused on arts and music and, in Cash's words, "recapture market share."
Nostalgia aside, market share is a problem for several schools in North Memphis. Northside High School is at 24 percent capacity, Frayser High School at 54 percent, and Manassas High School — built seven years ago at a cost of some $30 million — is at 78 percent. Humes is a feeder school that was supposed to help fill Manassas, but Cash said "that hasn't happened as fast or as quickly as city planners and maybe some business investors hoped it would."
So while the Unified School Board contemplates school closings, MCS is scrambling to save Humes by "closing" it and immediately reopening it with a new mission. The cause has enlisted some standout music teachers from other Memphis schools as well as artists, architects, and people in the music business from Ardent, Delta Arts, Arts Memphis, Memphis College of Art, and churches. Ken Greene, a music teacher who worked for eight years at Ridgeway Middle School, is now at Humes and spoke at the meeting. He described a vision of studios in the school and a curriculum based on the arts that goes against the grain of test-oriented instruction in reading, writing, and math.
Regional superintendent Catherine Battle, a former principal at Snowden Elementary and Middle School in Midtown, said potential community partners "are coming out of the woodwork." Humes would not have athletics. It would be open to any child in the unified system. Admission would require a minimum score on the TCAP exam. The school would be all-optional, unlike arts and music-oriented optional schools within schools at Overton High School and Colonial Middle School. Some current employees would stay. The school would need custodians and cafeteria workers. Federal grants might pay for some improvements.
It was a blue-sky scenario in a blue-sky presentation. A "Hail Elvis" version of football's last-minute "Hail Mary." The school board, if it is in a mood to make them when it meets next year, will have some hard choices. It is one thing to volunteer at a school, another thing to staff it seven hours a day for 180 days a year. The projected student-teacher ratio at the new Humes would be as low as 12-to-1 and even 8-to-1 at a time when crowded high schools such as White Station and Germantown are cramming 35 or more students into science classes and labs.
As for Elvis, his name is not always magic, as Beale Street, the Pyramid, and Whitehaven have learned. If Humes is "repurposed" then, the Elvis Room will be a casualty. Plans call for moving it to a separate building across the street.
You're welcome, Nick Saban and Les Miles, the highest-paid football coaches in the South. Glad to help you out with that move from Wisconsin to Arkansas, Bret Bielema, and welcome to the Southeastern Conference. No need to thank me, Tommy Tuberville, now that you got that new job and fat paycheck at Cincinnati. And it was really nothing, Derek Dooley, to make a small contribution to your buyout.
College football may be crazy and salaries for head coaches stratospheric, but we have no one to blame but ourselves. I did my part to support this All-American enterprise, because I subscribe to ESPN in my telecom package from AT&T. I get the mid-priced 270-channel television package for $79 a month, the cheapest package that includes ESPN. The "family" package would save me $20 a month and the "basic" package of local channels only, guaranteed to shame you before your friends and family, costs $26, or $53 a month less than I now pay.
The must-have channel in the $79 package is ESPN, because I'm hooked on sports although far from a fanatic. There are at least 200 channels in that 270-channel package that I never watch, and there are probably only 20 channels I watch more than once a week. But I pay for all of them, because that's the only way to get ESPN. Sorry, Giada and Guy and the rest of the stars of the Food Network, I'm just being honest here.
College football, as ESPN freely admits, is a gold mine. We watch it in real time instead of recording it and viewing it later. That means we even watch the commercials instead of fast-forwarding through them. We watch games on the West Coast and the East Coast, because they have implications for the national rankings and the bowl games and the future playoff system to determine the national championship. And for this privilege we pay.
"Because of college football's widespread popularity and the incredible passion of its fans, few events are more meaningful than these games," said ESPN president John Skipper in a recent announcement about a 12-year championship games rights deal for $470 million a year. "We are ecstatic at the opportunity to continue to crown a college football champion on ESPN's outlets for years to come, the perfect finale to our year-round commitment to the sport."
The $636 a year I pay for ESPN instead of "basic" is not chump change. It's more than the failed half-cent increase in the local sales tax would have cost me. It's more than the city property tax reduction I'm getting due to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter and merger with Shelby County Schools. And it would buy me good seats at 10 Grizzlies games.
It has been said many times that television rules sports — that television is driving the break-up of conferences like Conference USA and the Big East and the formation of super-conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC. The University of Memphis and its struggling football program are caught in the middle of this. Television made the Big East less relevant if not irrelevant, which makes spending money on Liberty Bowl Stadium a dubious proposition and the celebration over Memphis joining the conference look silly.
It is also true, however, that sports rules television. An episode of The Good Wife or CSI loses nothing whether it is watched now or later. But a football game on tape, when you more than likely know the outcome, is another matter.
When I signed up for AT&T U-verse last year, my monthly bill for television, internet, and a telephone land line was $120. Pegging the monthly cost of bundled services is like trying to predict the weather or the stock market. A fee here, an equipment charge there, and 16 months later my bill is $158 a month and going up next year.
I have cut my phone service to the bone and settled for the less-than-optimum $49 wireless internet package. The biggest component of the bill is television, and the driver of television, as AT&T well knows, is ESPN. I expect to hit $200 a month next year.
When that happens, I hope I have the intestinal fortitude to cut the cord. It's not like there's no college football on the local stations. And I have a feeling that Nick, Les, Tommy, Bret, and the rest would be just fine without me.
A downtown resident with some experience in local politics once told me "A C is the second mayor to work for Robert."
"A C", of course, is Memphis mayor A C Wharton. "Robert" is Robert Lipscomb, the director of the division of Housing and Community Development and executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority. The other mayor is Willie Herenton, who made Lipscomb a division director 20 years ago, fell out with him for a while, then rehired him and gave him some new duties.
Longevity, ambition, and know-how make Lipscomb the man to see. Downtown is Mr. Robert's neighborhood, from the Bass Pro pyramid to the housing projects south of FedExForum. The Heritage Trail redevelopment plan is a proposed 20-year plan for downtown including the Beale Street Entertainment District, the South Main District, the downtown core, and the Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes housing projects.
The master plan would have a master developer. This does not sit well with some downtowners of the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom school.
"Downtown Memphis is known for its diversity, and if they do this then I can see development coming to a crawl," says Terry Woodard, a past president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and, with her husband Phil, owner of a company that has been developing in downtown since 1996. The Woodard's home, with its glass walls, high roof like a ship's prow, and contemporary architecture, is something of a landmark on the South Bluff.
The Woodards and other downtowners plan to meet Thursday with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a city-county board that is the funding gateway for Heritage Trail. By the magic of tax-increment financing (TIF), the CRA could capture sales and property taxes downtown as well as federal funds.
The catch is that in order to do that, downtown would be declared a slum, blighted, and a growing menace. The best of downtown, of course, is no such thing as evidenced by some favorable recent publicity in National Geographic Traveler, but in the wacky world of federal funding, sometimes it pays to look poor. Think "a wink and a nod," as Judge Hardy Mays recently described another gambit in the schools case.
"It makes no sense," said Woodard, a founding member of the South Main Association and the Art Trolley Tour. "It is only to get money from the federal government."
This power struggle won't go away anytime soon. Everyone who does downtown development has some kind of deal going — usually a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes for a certain number of years, or some smaller version of the incentives package given to Bass Pro. Beale Street and FedExForum generate millions of dollars a year in sales taxes. A TIF is a way to capture the cash for a specific area as opposed to general city and county uses.
The Downtown Memphis Commission is not taking sides but is serving as a conduit for gripes and information. A memo it sent out in November gives the main one:
"It is projected that 98.7 percent of this future, incremental TIF revenue will be generated by private properties primarily in the downtown core outside the Focus Area of the planned improvements. The Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments are expected to generate 1.3 percent of the TIF revenue over 20 years.
"To pay now for the Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments, the CRA would borrow money against the future projected downtown TIF revenue by issuing revenue bonds."
Woodard says she's not to trying to pit the haves against the have-nots of Foote and Cleaborn Homes.
"I believe that they deserve better housing and I also believe they need to remain in the area so that they can continue to be connected to the people and programs that can help them," she said in a letter to CRA board members.
Whether the remaining buildings are demolished and the residents relocated, as other public housing residents have been, is an open question. A group called the Vance Avenue Collaborative, with support from planners at the University of Memphis, is pressing that issue with the Memphis City Council.
The underlying issue is Lipscomb and his growing empire, which extends to the Fairgrounds and another TIF encompassing Overton Square and much of Midtown. One would-be developer sees him as a combination of Godzilla and Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City in the mid-20th century.
Adds another source who has watched Lipscomb operate inside City Hall: "Generally, when Robert has swung for something big he's gotten it."
It's no mystery why building new public buildings is easier than closing them. Construction means jobs, and closings mean lost jobs. What's surprising is the willingness of Memphis to continue to spend tens of millions of dollars to fix up old buildings and build new ones with no realistic possibility that they will be fully used.
The Unified School Board is meeting this week to consider closing six schools instead of the 21 closings recommended by the Transition Planning Commission. Memphis International Airport boasts a new seven-story parking garage even though Delta announced another cut in local service this week that will reduce daily departures from 115 to just 94 next year.
And last week the city of Memphis announced that it has agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to spend $12 million on Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, including the addition of 288 handicapped seats in the 61,000-seat stadium.
Justice is blind, really blind. Its standard for ADA compliance is 1 percent of the seating capacity, or nearly 600 seats and companion seats. Never mind that the stadium hasn't sold out since 1996, that the biggest crowd last year was 31,578 for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, that the current allotment of handicapped seats is way underused, and that the University of Memphis Tigers averaged slightly over 10,000 per game in actual attendance in 2011.
Actual attendance should not be confused with announced attendance, although it often is, because it makes coaches, athletic directors and bowl promoters look good. In 2011, the announced attendance (including tickets sold, discounted, and distributed but unused) for eight games at the stadium was 221,002, but the actual butts-in-seats attendance was 120,300. In 2012, the University of Memphis announced total attendance of 146,227 for six games, an average of 24,371. The U of M announced-attendance record, set in 2003, is 284,352, or 40,622 per game.
My efforts to get the actual 2012 attendance from the city or the stadium operators before our deadline were unsuccessful. But does anyone seriously believe that the opener against UT-Martin drew 39,076 fans?
The Tigers have a new football coach, new athletic director, new big-screen television scoreboard, a three-game winning streak, Tiger Lane, and a new conference affiliation starting in 2013. An attendance bump next year is quite possible. But the Big East is looking awfully similar to Conference USA with this week's addition of Tulane and East Carolina and the likely departure of Louisville and Connecticut. The 2013 Memphis football schedule has not been announced. It is likely to be short on marquee names and long on air travel.
In e-mails, Mayor A C Wharton and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb told me they cut the best deal they could with Justice, which they said initially recommended $40 million in improvements. Wharton did not dispute the fact that the stadium usually has thousands of empty seats, including many in the special sections, but figured he had to deal or risk litigation that would stall (as if it has not been stalled already) redevelopment of the Fairgrounds. Lipscomb cautioned that the enforcers at Justice are not to be taken lightly lest they decide to look askance at other proposals from Memphis.
"I am comfortable with the number we have reached," Wharton said. "By settling, we control the number. Litigation would have been a costly crap shoot."
Added Lipscomb, "This brings to closure an argument that has gone on since 2005, dramatically improves our relationship and perception of the city from the perspective of the DOJ and other federal agencies with grant dollars, saves legal fees that have been accumulating over seven years, and allows the city to move forward with the Fairgrounds Plan."
What is missing in this account are the voices of the football fans using and not using the handicapped seats at the stadium. Are the improvements so far insufficient? In what way? Are there too few seats? Have people been turned away because of a seating shortage or an access problem? If so, can it be remedied with something other than 288 new seats?
No wonder some Memphis state legislators, members of the school board, and neighborhood leaders are so opposed to closing 21 schools. In light of the charade of denial going on at the stadium and the airport, who's to say that a school that is half empty is not, instead, half full and, moreover, used 180 days a year?
This is the season when blockbuster movies are released, and movies based on actual events are among the most popular.
There's The Sessions, about a man in an iron lung's encounters with a sex therapist. Watching other people have therapeutic sex in this film is not to be confused with watching other people have sex for prurient reasons.
There's Argo, about Hollywood's semi-comic caper to get some Americans out of Iran right under the noses of the bamboozled Iranians, who were holding 52 other Americans hostage for 444 days. I knew nothing about this historical footnote until I saw the movie, although CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite ended each broadcast in 1980-1981 with "And that's the way it is, the [whatever] day of captivity for Americans in Iran."
And there's Lincoln, by director Steven Spielberg, which raised my appreciation for the 1990 Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, and the helpful commentary of historian Shelby Foote. Lincoln deserves an "R" rating for "Restricted: Under 17 not allowed without parent, tutor, and copy of the U.S. Constitution."
Actual quote from a review in The Boston Globe: "It's possible you may think Lincoln is too talky — too full of characters and ideas, too taxing to our Twitter-pated attention spans. Consider, then, that it may not be the movie that's unworthy of your time. You may not be worthy of it."
Well, excuse me for feeling confused and clueless.
Here are some other movie concepts "based on actual events" that should soon be in production.
The Moviegoer: a fresh take on the 1961 Walker Percy novel of the same title. This one's about a man with no discernible talent, training, or aptitude for, like, actual work, who finds employment going to movies and writing about them.
The Secessions: historical docu-drama, filled with political intrigue, about suburbanites in a Southern town who take matters into their own hands when a lame-duck school board surrenders its charter and consolidates school systems.
Denial: a political consultant, trailed by reporters and camera crews from Fox News, storms state capitals on December 17th, the day the Electoral College ratifies the results of the 2012 presidential election, and urges electors to go rogue. He insists that the results from Florida are not conclusive, Phythagoras only had a theory, math is suspect, and the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.
The Good Husband: a spinoff from the television series The Good Wife, this one's about a man married to a politician who has affairs with David Petraeus, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Dallas Cowboys. Kim Kardashian stars as a Tampa socialite.
Requiem for a Heavyweight, II: The 1962 original starred Anthony Quinn as an aging and overweight boxer who takes up wrestling. The remake is about an aging and overweight football coach in a Southern state who is forced to resign, then rehired after the two pretty boys who succeed him flop. Filmed in Knoxville.
Black Like Me, Too: Reporter John Howard Griffin wrote the original in 1959 about his adventures as a white man disguised to look like a black man. This adaptation, heavy on cutting-edge medical advancements and neurology, features a Southern congressman who one-ups Griffin and undergoes the first-ever racial transplant to become an African-American.
Bovina: Taking its cue from head-scratching one-word titles such as Avatar, this surefire smash is about a perky actress and the hardships she suffers as a flying nun, union organizer, wife of cross-dressing comedian, and neurotic first lady to find fulfillment as television spokeswoman for the poor, put-upon, and misunderstood pharmaceuticals industry.
The Hangover Four: A straight-arrow college basketball coach goes a little crazy and indulges in a super-sized Coke and an order of fries after winning the national championship over his former mentor, the evil Coach Caligula, and cannot remember a gosh darn thing the next day.
Cupcake: a nostalgic musical about America through the eyes of a worker at a bakery that makes sugary treats. When evil bosses threaten to close the factory, a divided town finds something everyone loves and rallies around the Twinkies.
Elvis, the Golden Years: Based on a 2007 Flyer story by Greg Akers and Chris Herrington, a cheeky look at the King and what might have been if he had survived to his 77th birthday this year.
The Club From Hell: I am not making this up. Ten squash players, including me, team up to write a group novel. Sex, athletes, athletic sex, exotic locations, and more loose ends than a cheap mohair sweater. You may not be worthy of it.
So much for the world-class unified school system.
By a 69-31 margin, voters put the final nail in that DOA concept last week, defeating a referendum that would have increased the sales tax to provide more money for schools.
Just over 250,000 votes were cast on the referendum, and Memphis was disproportionately represented, because suburban municipalities that approved a sales tax increase in November were excluded. The margin was all the more telling when you consider that Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett passed their tax bump in August by margins of at least 75-25.
Another half-penny on the sales tax, by itself, won't pay for new suburban systems or universal pre-kindergarten. But those things won't happen without additional revenue. The suburbs acknowledged that, and the majority of Memphis voters did not. In a sales campaign, backers of the countywide increase, including Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the NAACP (but not Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell), pitched half of it as a way to fund pre-K programs. Without breaking down the math, this was, in other words, spun as a vote for more funding for public schools. Voters did not say "no." They said "hell no."
One of the backers, city councilman Shea Flinn, said he would not rule out pushing for a Memphis-only referendum in 2013. Better focus, better sales pitch, bigger alliance, yadda yadda. More to the point, special elections get a tiny turnout compared to a presidential election, so, in effect, another referendum would be gaming the system.
Instead, backers of the failed referendum, myself included, have to acknowledge the obvious. A broad sampling of Memphians, in addition to that huge majority of suburbanites, don't buy the notion of a world-class Memphis public school system, much less a unified Memphis and Shelby County school system. A world-class crack-up is more like it. Consider what has happened in the last year or two.
The suburbs want separate school systems and school boards, if not in 2013 then in 2014. Most of the suburban members of the joint city and county school board have no intention of remaining in a unified system.
The Memphis members of the unified school board and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association (MEA) want all the autonomy, perks, power, and jobs they had before the 2011 merger, plus universal pre-K. At the last school board meeting, MEA passed out an 11-page, point-by-point critique of the TPC recommendations. The groups are miles apart.
Among other things, the union says "MCS has a school closing policy that has worked effectively," and it opposes displacing current teachers with newcomers, giving principals the power to fire tenured teachers, and basing teacher pay on merit instead of academic degrees and experience.
The Transition Planning Commission recommended that a superintendent for the future unified system be hired this fall. The school board cannot even agree on where or how to search for one.
The Tennessee Department of Education and Commissioner Kevin Huffman want to expand charter schools and the Alternative School District, which operate apart from the current Memphis system and unified school board. The vast majority of the young college graduates who came to Memphis with Teach For America as change agents and stayed in public education in Memphis after their two-year commitment are working in charter schools or the Achievement School District.
Parents of students in Memphis optional schools and the CLUE program have made it clear at school board meetings that they will only stay in the system if those programs are preserved.
Depending on how the federal court decides the constitutional questions about municipal school systems, by the start of the 2013 or 2014 school year this is what we are looking at: a unified system with fewer than 100,000 students; an expanding state-run Achievement School District with its own superintendent and 15 or more schools; an expanding charter school network with 30 or more schools; and five or six suburban systems with their own school boards and superintendents and 20,000 or more students in all.
There may be some world-class schools in that mix, but to call it a world-class system is delusional. My guess is that if a referendum were held to undo the 2011 MCS charter surrender and put the toothpaste back in the tube, it would pass in both the county and the city, by a margin of about 69-31.
Fairly or not, and whether it goes or stays in Memphis, International Paper is going to be known as the Fortune 500 company that raised the ante on corporate tax incentives.
The company that said "me" when others were saying "we."
The company that wants to inoculate itself against property tax hikes for 30 years.
The company that responded to hard times and a call for community engagement with a threat to disengage.
Some of this is not IP's fault. IP is following the lead of Electrolux, FedEx, Mitsubishi, Belz Enterprises, and numerous other companies that have tax freezes, which are a Memphis specialty of long standing. And let's say it was just bad timing that IP made its "tax-freeze-or-else" request at the dawn of the feel-good "Robert Pera era" of new ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies and while Shelby County residents, some of them anyway, were voting on an increase in the regressive sales tax.
But people get paid good money to create and polish a corporate image. And CEOs have a skill set that includes community engagement. On that score, IP is conspicuously inconspicuous. Yes, it is a top-three corporate giver to Mid-South United Way, and many of its 2,000 local employees doubtless participate in all kinds of community projects. What's missing is a signature project like this:
The Salvation Army Kroc Center and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc; the Peabody hotel and Jack Belz and family; FedExForum; AutoZone Park; the Memphis Redbirds and Dean and Kristi Jernigan; First Tennessee Fields and youth baseball and the First Tennessee Memphis Marathon from 1987 to 2000; Justin Timberlake and Miramichi; the late Abe Plough and the Plough Foundation; J.R. "Pitt" Hyde and the Hyde Family Foundation; "NBA Now" and Staley Cates and Mason Hawkins of Southeastern Asset Management; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and public education; the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and men's pro tennis; Cellular South and women's pro tennis from 2003 to 2011; the FedEx St. Jude Classic and pro golf; Shelby Farms and the Lucius Burch State Natural Area; the Levitt Shell and the Mortimer Levitt Foundation; downtown development and the Henry Turley Company; the Mike Rose Soccer Complex.
Some of these people and companies aren't even in Memphis, but their names are still associated with something good.
Lest anyone doubt the power of getting on the right side of community engagement, here is a sample of the love in one newspaper column this week about Robert Pera and the opener: "historic day ... glorious ... self-effacing ... triumphant ... a day of transition and celebration ... crank up the joy ... splendid ... for the goosebumps not the tax write-offs ... dazzling."
Image polishing is not everyone's cup of beer. Frauds like Allen Stanford can blow into town and throw around other people's money while anonymous donors give away millions. A low profile can be a sign of character. The Memphis CEOs, politicians, and heads of charitable organizations that I talked to about IP were wary of being judgmental or speaking on the record.
"It's a pretty big ask," said one businessman who is familiar with local tax incentives. A political veteran said "it would send a terrible message" to other companies who might follow suit. George Little, chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, was not able to produce a document detailing IP's specific request but told me "it's very much a work in progress."
Nobody plays the community engagement card more skillfully or more frequently than the owners and promoters of sports teams and games. AutoZone Park was too big, too expensive, and ran afoul of the IRS, but all that was masked in the glow of 2000. Tiger Lane, a sop to the football crowd, was sold as a 365-days-a-year playground. Michael Heisley got his price from Pera and friends, who, presumably, are not in business to lose money.
John Faraci, the CEO of International Paper (who makes less than Rudy Gay), told me in an interview earlier this year that IP's signature Memphis project is the National Civil Rights Museum. All right, but get in line. A natural fit for IP and Greater Memphis would be Overton Park or Meeman-Shelby Forest with its 13,467 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, lakes, trails, ball fields, boat ramp, and swimming pool.
Unlike Overton Park, Meeman-Shelby Forest is remote and a bit of an orphan and could use a corporate angel now and then. And IP could use some cover. Better late than never.
It was Lance Armstrong, the great cyclist who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
I'm not even a cyclist, just a guy who occasionally rides a bike and became an Armstrong fan when he overcame cancer and won the only bicycle race that gets any television time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to Memphis from India. Just before he flew home, he asked me to do one thing: take him some place where he could buy a yellow Livestrong wrist band in honor of Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong made fans of non-fans and believers of professional skeptics. I read his book, watched his press conferences, and argued with friends who called him a doper. I flipped positions after I saw the interviews with rival pros who finally broke down and said that they and Armstrong had cheated.
That made the story sleazier but no less interesting. If everyone else was doping, then was Armstrong, as he surely believes to this day, not still the champ? How much of an edge does the blood-booster erythropoietin, known as EPO, give you? Would it work for ordinary athletes in other sports? A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times did a story about a 33-year-old competitive runner who was not quite world-class but still good enough to win nearly $40,000 in prize money in more than 75 cherry-picked races. He 'fessed up to using EPO he bought in Tijuana.
I wondered how competitive athletes in Memphis felt about Armstrong's story.
"I've known Armstrong since he was a teenager and have been in races with him," said Joe Royer, founder of the Outdoors Inc. Cyclocross Championship. "I always was suspicious of him. I'm disappointed, because he would have had a great career anyway."
He thinks the cover-up was aided by Armstrong's commanding personality. "If he rode off a cliff, then his team would ride off a cliff," Royer said.
As for ordinary athletes, "Yes," Royer said, "they could get a boost, and it's unfortunate that a great time could arouse suspicion. I feel terrible about that."
Paul Rubin, past president of the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, agreed that Armstrong didn't have to cheat.
"He was a hero and role model," Rubin said.
But Rubin lost faith after fellow cycling pros accused Armstrong of doping. He recalled the time seven years ago when a semi-pro rider spoke to the Hightailers and was asked about dope.
"They all cheat," the speaker said.
Lisa Overall, president of the Memphis Runners Track Club, said there are still "a lot of things we don't know" about the evidence against Armstrong. An attorney, Overall noted that some of the accusations come from admitted dopers.
"It seems strange to me that he could be tested that rigorously and only have one positive test," she said.
The St. Jude Memphis Marathon coming up in December offers a total of $2,000 in prize money. The registration form says participants may be subject to formal drug testing.
Kevin Adams, who rides in regional bicycle races and completed a 16-day solo kayak trip on the Mississippi River, says competitive athletes are always looking for an edge. Armstrong, he says, is still "an amazing athlete" and was not the only one doping.
"I absolutely believed him," he said. "My issue now is that he continued to lie."
Peter Lebedevs, triathlete and director of the professional tennis tournament at the Racquet Club, "wanted to believe Armstrong, but the sport was so rife with it that it was hard to believe he wasn't involved."
Tennis has had a rigorous drug-testing program for years. Tournaments are randomly selected, and Memphis was chosen twice in the last four years, Lebedevs said. No one flunked.
A teaching pro himself, Lebedevs believes ordinary athletes could probably get stronger and faster but that drugs would not improve hand-eye coordination. As for triathlons, he has not heard any buzz about banned boosters in local races.
"The prize money kind of dictates how much you will risk your body," he said.
I'm not so sure about that. Sports have a powerful hold on all of us, and it's mostly about ego and competitiveness. If I could just get to a few more balls somehow, I bet I could beat Lebedevs next time we play squash. Somehow. Hmmmm.
Unscathed. And pandered to. That's how I felt as one of "the American people" after watching three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.
Nobody told me or my Baby Boomer generation cohorts to expect less in the way of Social Security benefits and Medicare no matter which candidate wins the election next month. Nobody asked us to work longer, delay our eligibility, or pay more taxes to compensate for our expected longer life span and the shortfall in funding.
Nobody asked American high school and college graduates to do a mandatory two years of national service in either the military or a civilian program, even though applications for the Peace Corps and Teach For America are up, due to a combination of idealism and pragmatism, when the jobs picture is bleak.
Nobody said clearly and unequivocally that in order to bring spending in line with revenues "the American people," all of them, will have to expect less from government.
Instead, they blamed the rich 1 percent or the doctors or the insurance companies or loopholes or inefficiency or the takers or the lack of competition and then cynically suggested that the problem can be cured without general sacrifice by the American people. All of us.
Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney told us what we know — that the choice is reduced services and benefits or higher taxes. Or probably both. In a close race, they fear that they might lose "the undecideds" by telling it straight.
We heard all those personal anecdotes about running into an ordinary, hard-working American in a factory, in a small town cafe, or on a college campus. But we did not hear a single one about a Baby Boomer who has had it pretty good and has an eye on a place in Florida or the Ozarks but is going to have to wait one more year for retirement benefits, pay more for them, and maybe get by with less.
Nobody wants a political leader who's a scold, but is it so hard to say what most of us know full well already — that we have been spoiled by big houses, big cars, cheap gas, easy mortgages, credit cards, must-have gadgets, and budgets built on debt that someone is going to have to pay?
Politicians assume we want easy answers. Sacrifice is a loser. All those carefully crafted questions from the debate moderators and the undecided voters in the audience and not one candidate who said, "American people, hear this. Expect less or pay more. As you probably already know, the gravy train has come to the end of the line."
In Memphis and Shelby County, expansion of pre-kindergarten classes might not happen with a half-cent sales tax increase, but it certainly won't happen without it. And pre-K won't be "universal" without a firm commitment from the school board and supporters willing to pay for it if the half-cent sales tax increase falls short or gets spent somewhere else.
Closing 21 schools, as the Transition Planning Commission recommended, might not balance the unified school system's budget, but there is no way the budget can be balanced without closing schools.
Want suburban school districts? Prepare to pay for them with property tax increases as well as a sales tax increase.
Want more charter schools? One school's gain is another's loss, so face the consequences of reduced enrollment in already half-empty traditional schools and don't expect "community centers" to magically fill them at no cost.
In our daily lives, we know that goods and services cost more and that free is not really free. That holiday package with "free shipping" is going to cost more. That daily newspaper delivered to your home won't be around much longer, unless more readers pay $156 a year instead of poaching it off the internet. The no-money-down sofa comes with an installment plan. That free cell phone or tablet comes with a service plan and a contract.
So here's to politicians and leaders who tell us there are no easy answers but only hard choices, that the other side is right about some things, that all must sacrifice something, and that anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth.