City Reporter 

Soulsville breaks ground, and other news.

Soulsville Breaks Ground At Stax Site

After forming two years ago to build the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a music academy, and performance center on the abandoned grounds of Stax Records, the nonprofit Soulsville USA is ready to break ground.

The organization will kick off construction of the project on Friday, April 20th, at 9 a.m. with a "Ground Shakin' Ground Breakin'" at the Stax site at 926 E. McLemore. The event is free and open to the public.

"We hope that all of Memphis will come into Soulsville USA to experience the community and what we're doing here," says Soulsville executive director Deanie Parker. "We're going to wake the community up with some familiar Stax hits."

Key figures in the development project and in the history of Stax records will be introduced at the groundbreaking. Students from a recent Stax music academy project, the Stax Academy Rhythm Section, will make their performance debut backing up singers from the LeMoyne-Owen College choral program and former Soul Children singer Anita Louis. Visitors will also be able to see an artist's rendering of the completed project.

Actual construction should begin soon after Friday's groundbreaking, and Parker says, "We are hopeful that sometime in 2002 we'll have yet another celebration, and that is the grand opening." According to Parker, the timing of this groundbreaking results from a variety of factors, including reaching a certain funding level, architectural readiness, and the recent unanimous approval of the project by the Land Use Control Board.

Soulsville has currently raised $14 million of the project's $20 million price, which includes an operational endowment for the organization. "We're stepping out on faith somewhat here," says Parker. "We had some discussions with the board about whether to wait for all of the funding or go ahead and stay on schedule. Based on a readiness recommendation from the design team and our current level of funding, we decided to raise the rest of the money during the building phase." The current $14 million has come from government sources, foundations, and anonymous donors. Last month Soulsville announced a Fund Development campaign to privately raise the remaining $6 million.

"We've got some wonderful financial supporters who are committed, and the community has not been given an opportunity to do their part, to express how delighted they are that Memphis is finally doing something to showcase this great cultural legacy," says Parker.

-- Chris Herrington

Council Mulls Hunting On Presidents Island

Memphians who might never have gone to Presidents Island before may have a reason to visit it in the near future. A resolution sponsored by Councilman Brent Taylor to allow primitive firearms hunting on the island will be presented before the Memphis City Council in upcoming weeks.

According to Taylor, "primitive firearms" primarily applies to muzzle-loaded guns -- that is, guns that require the shooter to load gunpowder and a bullet in the muzzle of the gun in order to fire it.

"Muzzle-loaded guns don't have the same range as rifles," says Taylor. "The range on primitive firearms is only about 150 yards, so hunters won't run the same risk of shooting someone who is out of their sight as they would with a rifle."

The county commission and the city council have already approved resolutions permitting archery and bow hunting on Presidents Island. Hunters will be allowed to bow hunt on the island beginning this fall. If the present resolution is passed, primitive firearms hunting will not be permitted until the fall of 2004.

Pete Aviotti, a member of the Memphis/Shelby County Port Commission and Mayor Willie Herenton's special assistant, says that the hunting seasons will not overlap.

"Archery season is longer," says Aviotti. "It starts at the end of September and runs through part of October. Primitive firearms season doesn't begin until later in October and runs through November."

According to Aviotti, only about 20 hunters each year will be issued permits to hunt on the island using muzzle-loaded weapons.

"We'll issue a notice and then everyone can send in a postcard with their name on it and we'll have a drawing to issue permits to about 20 hunters," says Aviotti.

Taylor, a self-described "gun advocate," says he decided to sponsor the resolution to help the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) combat the current overpopulation of deer on Presidents Island.

-- Rebekah Gleaves

Restoration Hardware Closes In Saddle Creek

Want the perfect Victorian clear-glass door knobs or a 20th-century heating register cover? Restoration Hardware in Saddle Creek could probably help, but after May, shoppers will have to resort to the catalog.

The upscale furnishings retailer, one of the larger stores at the Shops of Saddle Creek in Germantown, will close May 12th after almost three years in Memphis.

Store manager Vicki Harrison would not comment on the specifics of the closing, though she did say that the reason "was a combination of things."

According to her, the store was doing brisk business and is doing even brisker business now.

"Things are going fast, especially since we just found out on Friday," said Harrison. Right now, the store's goods are 20 percent off and will continue to be discounted even more in the coming weeks.

Five other Restoration Hardware stores are closing nationwide, the first of which will be the company's store in New York City on April 28th.

The California-based chain was founded by Stephen Gordon in 1980, four years after he began restoring his Queen Anne house. Company lore says that he spent days hunting for authentic hardware and, after talking to other people going through the same frustration, opened a store of his own.

Restoration Hardware has faced difficulties in the last two years. Gary Friedman, considered the brain behind Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn, was named CEO of the company in March. At the time, Friedman talked about possibly paring down the mix of goods the store carries.

But if the corporate office wanted to close the store at Saddle Creek, they weren't the only ones.

Cindy McCord, regional manager for Saddle Creek, says, "We initiated it. Restoration Hardware is not performing well at a number of locations around the country. We worked it all out." Poag McEwen Lifestyles Shopping Centers, the company that owns Saddle Creek, has already signed a new retailer for the space.

McCord says Saddle Creek will announce in May who will take over the space and says, "They're new to Memphis and they are a very big name." Another new-to-Memphis retailer which will take over the space next to J. Crew will be announced later this week.

--Mary Cashiola

Flinn Shuffles Sports Talk Talent

Recently WMC-AM79 radio announced that it would be changing to an all-sports talk format. And while Bill Graffman, program director for Flinn Broadcasting, which up until now monopolized sports-talk radio in Memphis, doesn't really view WMC as competition, a number of changes are being made at Flinn's Sports56 and AM1210 stations. Graffman says of WMC, "They are going to have more national shows while we will still cover a lot of local events. It's not going to affect our programming content."

As of April 30th, the Rainman, whose gaming advice show has been a morning fixture on Flinn's FM sports channel Sports56 WHBQ, is moving to the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot at the station's AM affiliate 1210. .

Pete Cordelli, assistant coach for Christian Brothers High School, will keep the 6 to 8 a.m. time slot on 56 and will be joined by weekend sports jock Chris Vernon.

Press Box, the noon to 2 p.m. show on 1210 AM, has been canceled. Press Box host Jake Lawhead will be moving to Sports56 to join Dana Kirk, the controversial former basketball coach at the University of Memphis.

"There are two shows, one with Greg Gaston and Michael Eves, which is very informative but dry," says Lawhead, "and then there is the Jeff and Jack show which is like Andy Kaufman doing sports radio. We want to be somewhere in between." -- Chris Davis

Update: "Perfect Storm" Continues For MLGW Customers

The lights in Mamie Parker's house are on, but she doesn't know for how long. The 34-year-old single mother of three was mentioned in last week's cover story in the Flyer because she was not able to participate in any of Memphis Light, Gas and Water's bill payment programs.

Parker told MLGW representatives about her 19-month-old son Keith's severe asthma and his reliance on an electricity-powered breathing machine during attacks. Knowing this, MLGW nevertheless has already turned off her power once and has told Parker that it will be turned off again if she doesn't pay the $400 balance soon.

Things haven't gotten any better for Parker since last week's story. When she visited MLGW's offices again to ask about participating in one of the utility's payment plans, Parker was once more told that the plans do not exist.

"I spoke with one of the counselors there in the office and she said that she really can't stop it from happening," says Parker. "She said that if they're going to cut off my power, they'll cut it off anyway."

Councilman Rickey Peete, who helped the utility craft the payment plans, is calling for MLGW to be investigated.

"I think it is a travesty of justice for a utility to make a commitment to assist customers with the programs it agreed to implement and then abdicate its responsibility to implement those programs," says Peete. "There needs to be an investigation by the appropriate authorities not only as to the programs but as to the validity of the 'energy crisis' at its purported extremities."

Problems with the payment plans, and several other factors, were highlighted in last week's Flyer. The story discussed the "perfect storm" of events at MLGW this winter which caused Memphians to pay their highest utility bills ever. The other factors detailed in the story were:

· MLGW billed its customers 25 percent more than the national average for gas this past winter. When asked by the Flyer to explain the overbilling, MLGW officials could not justify the amount.

· The Purchase Gas Adjustment (PGA), used to determine the amount MLGW bills for gas, allows the utility to adjust the amount customers are billed up or down to cover the utility's gains and losses, alleviating a major incentive for MLGW to purchase gas at the lowest prices.

· MLGW executives ignored the warnings of Walter Zimmerman, a national expert paid by the utility to consult on these matters. Zimmerman warned in November 1998 there would be a national gas crisis this past winter. MLGW executives did not take his advice to secure enough gas futures contracts to insulate the utility from this year's rising gas prices.

· MLGW neglected to warn customers about the higher bills in time for customers to plan. Other gas companies, like Mississippi Valley Gas, began warning customers in September that their bills could be double and triple what they were last year. MLGW did not issue an official warning until January, days before customers would begin receiving the high bills.

· Many of those responsible for gas purchasing and supply planning for MLGW have very little experience in those fields. Herman Morris, an attorney appointed by Mayor Herenton to be president of the utility, had experience only as legal counsel before taking the top post. Since 1996, Morris has, in turn, replaced the experienced executives and managers with less experienced ones. Insiders insist that cronyism, rather than merit, controls promotions.

· Henry Nickell, formerly the department manager responsible for gas purchasing, left the utility in April 2000 and filed a lawsuit against MLGW alleging that Morris and other executives took specific and dramatic actions to make it impossible for Nickell to do his job. Nickell was replaced with Lee Smart, who had no prior experience in gas purchasing. -- Rebekah Gleaves

Chamber's "Conservative" NBA Impact: $880 Million

Not wanting FedEx to be the only one to throw around big numbers in Memphis' bid for an NBA team, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce did its own number crunching on a team's overall impact to the city and came up with a whopping $880 million.

Larry Henson, the chamber's vice president for research and the man who led the study, calls the number "conservative."

According to Henson, the chamber decided not to use so-called multipliers such as gate receipts, broadcast revenues, tourism growth, concessions, parking, or area retail shopping in its research. Instead, he says, "We decided to make this experiential instead of forecast," using provable numbers based on the other cities with existing franchises, such as the Charlotte Hornets, one of the two franchises applying to Memphis for relocation for the 2001-2002 NBA season.

Those multipliers, according to Henson, can double or triple the estimated economic impact. However, they are also subject to debate by experts. Henson says, "That's one reason we did not want to do that. What if we did, and it still doesn't answer the questions? We don't need to inflate. The numbers are enormous." As noted below, the chamber did use one such multiplier in arena construction economic impact.

The chamber based its impact study on a variety of contributing factors. One is a $48 million direct team impact which includes contributions from both home and visiting teams, referees, and scouts in terms of money they spend in Memphis, as well as the money spent by those attending the game. The chamber based this estimate on the numbers of the Charlotte Hornets, adjusted for inflation.

The second is a one-time arena construction impact, assuming a $250 million arena in downtown Memphis. The chamber estimates that building the arena will generate over $432 million for the city in terms of paying contractors and builders. The chamber did use one multiplier here, supplied by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Henson says the numbers generated "specifically ... work for Shelby County." Included in that $432 million is the city's stated goal of 25 percent minority business contribution, generating $58 million in that sector.

Another is an estimated $165 million in capital improvements to the land surrounding the new stadium. The chamber estimated this number based on improvements around AutoZone Park, which equaled roughly 66 percent of its total construction costs.

The study also focused on the amount of money that the team could bring into Memphis and lure away from Tunica. The chamber took the amount that the casinos win from gamblers as well as the amount each person spends in non-gambling costs (e.g., food, tickets for shows) -- an estimated $10 a person. That number equals $1.3 million a day going outside of Shelby County for entertainment. The chamber estimates that if the team can "recapture" 10 percent of that amount during the 41 home-game dates, then the city would take in $5.3 million a year.

In addition to drawing money from Tunica, the chamber estimates that visitors coming into Shelby County from surrounding states will generate $16 million annually in terms of hotel and food costs, other entertainment costs, and merchandise.

Finally, the chamber added $213 million in earnings from national and international TV, radio, and newspaper coverage, hits on the NBA.com Web site, licensed merchandise, and total image/name recognition value.

Since learning of Memphis' potential for an NBA team, debate has focused on the relative economic benefits versus the costs of building a new arena for that team. The NBA pursuit team, headed up by J.R. "Pitt" Hyde III, has been wooing public and private support for this venture and has achieved mixed results. While local and state government leaders have expressed guarded enthusiasm, there has also been a call for hard numbers on the financing of an arena as well as the economic impact of the team.

Memphis NBA hopefuls now wait for official word from the league's board of governors, who are expected to accept Memphis as a relocation city and to name which franchise will be permitted to move here.

-- Chris Przybyszewski

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