City Reporter 

City Reporter

Road Rage

City council ponders a plan to widen Walnut Grove near Baptist East.

By Rebekah Gleaves

"Don't split Shelby Farms" stickers have adorned the bumpers of vehicles all over town for several years now. But if a proposal for widening Walnut Grove is approved by the Memphis City Council next week, Councilman John Vergos thinks those stickers might be rendered irrelevant.

Next week the council is scheduled to vote to allocate approximately $2 million to purchase the right-of-way for the proposed widening of Walnut Grove Road beginning at the current I-240 interchange, past Baptist Hospital East, over the Wolf River, and stretching an additional 1,100 feet past the river into the Lucius Burch Jr. Natural Area.

According to city engineer John Conroy, if implemented this proposal "would take Walnut Grove in the air and over Humphreys Boulevard -- identical in concept to Walnut Grove over Germantown Parkway."

Conroy stated at last week's meeting that, though planning on this and future roads in the Shelby Farms area has not been completed, the council needs to approve funding for the purchase of the right-of-way as soon as possible so that planning can continue. However, once the money is approved, the city will relinquish much of the control over the project to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. For this reason, council members agreed to delay a vote on the issue until next week's meeting.

Conroy later told the Flyer that "we require this project regardless of whatever, or never, happens with the road through Shelby Farms."

There is little argument from anyone that the area around Baptist East has become a traffic quagmire. Even a spokesperson for the Friends of Shelby Farms (FOSF), which has sued the city in the past over proposed road projects through the park, agrees that something must be done about the traffic problem in the Baptist East corridor, though the spokesperson (who asked not to be named) believes that the current piecemeal planning is unwise.

"Whatever they do on Walnut Grove would be foolish without a plan for I-240. The current issue is who pays for the right-of-way. We know that section of Walnut Grove will have to be widened, and the doors to having a road through the park have already been opened. But we cannot reinstate our lawsuit until the construction begins on Kirby or on Alternative F," the FOSF spokesperson says, referring to the plan for a north/south road through the park.

The current proposal would affect a mile-long stretch of Walnut Grove and require the construction of a 10-lane road at the I-240 interchange, which would taper down to eight lanes at the Baptist East/Christian Brothers High School interchange. It would further taper to a new six-lane bridge over the Wolf River and 1,100 feet into the northern unit of the Lucius Burch Jr. Natural Area, which abuts Shelby Farms, a park that, at 4,500 acres, is the largest urban park in the United States. The two-lane interstate on and off ramps at the eastern end of the project will pass over the "white trail" -- a mixed-use hiking, biking, and horseback riding trail in the natural area.

However, Councilman Brent Taylor, who represents many of the motorists who drive Walnut Grove daily, does not believe this plan would adversely affect Shelby Farms.

"I think it will have minimal impact on Shelby Farms," says Taylor. "This proposal doesn't have anything to do with the widening of Walnut Grove in the park. [Councilman] John Vergos thinks this puts the pieces in place to have to widen Walnut Grove through the park. But this is needed irrespective of what may or may not happen in the park. I'm opposed to the widening of the road in the park and I always have been. But the council members who are opposed to the north/south road can support this proposal."

Indeed Vergos, who has been active for more than 10 years to keep Shelby Farms from being split, does believe that this plan is the unofficial "phase one" to an eventual north/south road through the park.

"Right now, for legal reasons, this is just the segmented version of the total project," Vergos insists, referring to the plan for a 16-lane road through the park -- a plan that has since been modified several times and, according to Vergos, has not been officially withdrawn from consideration.

Publicly, city engineers and other supporters of the current plan have stated that this proposal is nothing of the sort.

However, Conroy, who proposed the plan to the council last week, told the Flyer that "this project has always been considered the first phase of whatever happens in that area."

The I-240/Baptist/Wolf River proposal is controversial for several reasons, though most of the debate in last week's council meeting was focused on the construction requirement that the city purchase the right-of- way from Baptist Hospital. At the meeting several council members said they felt betrayed last fall when the hospital decided to close its Medical Center hospital and reneged on a promise to operate a smaller hospital in Midtown.

In 1998, Baptist Hospital got council approval for a land-use change to allow construction of a women's hospital at the Baptist East campus, at the time promising a smaller Midtown hospital. These council members said they felt that much of the traffic woes now plaguing the area around Baptist East -- requiring the Walnut Grove widening -- can be credited to the hospital's $200 million expansion.

Others, like Vergos, are concerned that expanding the section of Walnut Grove west of the park will force the city to widen roads in and around Shelby Farms in the future. Vergos believes that after the city allows the widening of the stretch of road west of the park, new road projects in and around the park would have to be undertaken. In other words, once the I- 240/Baptist/Wolf River area of Walnut Grove is widened there will be nowhere for the traffic to go.

Even Conroy, in talking to the Flyer, admits that widening Walnut Grove from Baptist East and across the Wolf River will create a traffic slow-down once motorists near Shelby Farms.

"For now, the traffic would funnel back onto the existing Walnut Grove," says Conroy. "Will that create a slow-down? Of course. But there's already a slow-down now."

The Last Play

School board hands suspension to Trezevant assistant coach.

By Mary Cashiola

Lynn Lang. Milton Kirk. Tim Thompson. Tied to a high school football scandal, their names are notorious. Their alleged actions even more so. Taking money orders from university football programs. Trying to sell a student athlete for cash and one, maybe two, Ford Expeditions.

After an investigation came to light earlier this year, Melrose High School coach Thompson was given a three-year suspension without pay in July. Trezevant coach Lang was relieved from coaching in April for using ineligible players during the 2000 season and later resigned from the school system. The saga was supposed to end at the Memphis City Schools board meeting Monday night at the tenure hearing for former Trezevant assistant coach Milton Kirk. He was given a one-year suspension without pay and the loss of coaching privileges within MCS, but it didn't end the questions. Instead, it may have raised larger ones.

It began almost like a scrimmage on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Everyone in attendance assumed it would be quick and easy: Kirk, the whistle- blower, would tell his story, a story he made public in the press earlier this year, and then the MCS board would decide whether or not to take mercy on him.

Wearing a bright-blue pinstripe suit, Kirk first read from a prepared statement. He mentioned his 29 years as a teacher, his love of the profession, and how he came forward on his own, knowing that by telling he was risking his situation.

"I humbly ask you to reinstate me as a Memphis City Schools teacher," he said.

But as board members and attorneys began asking questions, and Kirk's testimony stretched on, the former coach's statements seemed to confuse those in the room. The lazy scrimmage had turned into a perplexing scramble, as if everyone had piled on the ball and no one knew exactly who had it.

Earlier testimony from Ricks Mason, the school system's personnel director, indicated that Kirk had been a willing participant in the scheme to market student Albert Means to the highest collegiate bidder. Mason also indicated that Kirk had come forward because Lang had reneged on the bargain and had not given Kirk his share of the money.

When asked by the board's attorney, Ernest Kelly, whether he thought Mason's statements were accurate, Kirk asserted that, yes, they were. But when Kirk told his own version of events, the two stories didn't quite match.

Saying he had never asked for a dime, Kirk told the board that he had not helped mastermind the scheme or participated actively in it.

"We did not sit down and plan that I would do this and he would do that, like it was a bank robbery or something," he says. "We didn't plan."

Putting the brunt of the allegations on Lang, Kirk said, "Some things I knew about beforehand; some things I found out about from recruiters who came to me. It was like a chess match and everybody had a move.

"I could've and should've come forward when it first happened. I waited and that's the error in judgment I made."

Kirk also testified that he never saw Lang receive any payments, but he knew the pay-off had occurred because of changes in Lang's spending habits. And he said he did not blow the whistle because he didn't get his share of the money.

"The true reason I came forward is because Albert came to my home and asked me to help him. The second reason was to save Albert's career. I met with the NCAA four times before January 10th about recruiting in Memphis. The NCAA people still believed that Albert and his mother were aware of what transpired and I, for a fact, know they were not," he said.

But that wasn't the last surprise Kirk had in store. Not only did he say that such practices were widespread in the city school system, but he revealed that the principal at Trezevant knew about Lang's deal.

After the motion was raised by Commissioner Hubon Sandridge to sustain the charges of conduct unbecoming a teacher and suspend Kirk for one year without pay, there was no discussion. The board voted unanimously for the motion.

"He came to the board and asked for mercy in a humble fashion," said Patrice Robinson, after the hearing. "Our mayor has asked us to give ex-felons a second chance. He's our employee and he asked us for a second chance."

As for Kirk, he said afterwards that he expected the board to penalize him.

If it had been a football game, he said, "it was the last play, the score tied, and no time on the clock."

And it was also a game with winners, only losers.

All Washed Up

Flood ruins many books and computers at U of M law library.

By Mary Cashiola

The first week of law school is typically described as grueling, stressful, even ulcer-inducing. For students at the University of Memphis law school, however, the first week was marked by unpleasant odors, sticky floors, and the constant hum of dehumidifiers.

The law school library suffered a flash flooding August 12th, giving staff members little time to clean up the mess before classes started a week later. Water was pumped out. Carpet was pulled up, leaving a sticky residue on the floor. Hot, dry air was pumped in.

"We closed the library until school started," says Gregory Laughlin, University of Memphis law school associate dean for informational resources and law library director. When classes began, most of library level B, as well as levels C through E, were reopened. However, the basement level A, home to most of the library's primary source material and one of the school's two computer labs, had been hit hardest by the flood and remained closed.

"It's been challenging," says law professor David Romantz. "The most critical part of the library got hit the hardest."

The damage to the library, originally estimated at 1,700 books, now appears to be more extensive.

"It's about 2,500 to 2,800 volumes based on the boxes of books they took out," says Laughlin. In order to salvage the books, many of them will be freeze-dried, but Laughlin says they won't know if the process worked until November or December. If it works, however, it will save a considerable amount of money.

"I recently ordered 25 volumes and it would have cost $3,300 retail," says Laughlin. "We got a discount from the vendor, but extrapolate that by 2,500."

But while the monetary cost may be high, school administrators say that the effect on students has been minimal so far.

Romantz, who teaches Legal Methods to first-year law students, hasn't had to change his syllabus ... yet.

The first week of classes, he says, focuses on the foundations of law: court systems, judicial opinions, and how lawyers analyze legal issues. But soon, those students will be getting involved in research assignments, exercises in which the A level library material is integral.

"In two or three weeks, it's going to be important to have the library up," says Romantz. And if it's not? The law professor says he and the students will just have to muddle through.

"The goal is to navigate through various sources. It might get tricky. But I'm writing the exercises so I'll know to direct them to the sources we have here."

But that doesn't mean the new students are getting an easier ride than their older counterparts.

"Absolutely no breaks," says Romantz. "This is law school."

But for the more seasoned law students, research is often done via computer database. And at a recent University of Memphis bar night, current students said their main complaint, other than the smell, was the lack of computer access.

Laughlin is familiar with the problem. The basement-level computer lab, and the 22 new computers it housed, were ravaged by the water. Now they're waiting to see if any of the 22 machines can be saved.

"We only have 18 computers for about 450 students," says Laughlin. "We lost over half our computers."

The other lab, located on another floor of the library, is the training lab and provides less access for students.

"We're trying to salvage the computers," says Laughlin, "but we're getting new ones. If the computers can be salvaged, they'll go to other places. We can't wait for the salvage process to proceed."

"We're planning for this to happen again," he says. "If it doesn't, great. If it does, we'll be prepared."

As for the basement library stacks, they should be back in business the Tuesday after Labor Day. Just in time to provide those first-year students with the grueling boot camp they deserve.

city beat

The Big Time Of

Small-Fry Sports

Other towns clobber Memphis in youth sports facilities.

by John Branston

ABC Television, Southaven, Mississippi, and the Choctaw Band of Indians in Central Mississippi have something in common. They've discovered that amateur sports for kids can be profitable as well as popular -- a fact that Memphis has been slow to grasp.

If you watched ABC in prime time Sunday night, you didn't see a blockbuster movie or an NFL preseason football yawner. You saw a bunch of 12- year-old boys playing in the finals of the Little League World Series, with Brent Musberger providing the analysis and 40,000 people in the stands.

Southaven's answer to the Little League World Series is Snowden Grove, a new 17-field lighted baseball complex on Getwell that hosted 10 age- group "World Series" of its own this summer plus 11 invitational tournaments, attracting a total of 1,300 players from 28 states. Scotty Baker, manager of the municipally owned complex, says it drew rave comparisons to Disney World and Cooperstown.

In Neshoba County, Mississippi, near Philadelphia, the Pearl River Resort, a casino complex owned by the Choctaws, plans to add a regional amateur sports complex with championship facilities for baseball, soccer, stickball, and swimming and seating for 10,000 spectators. No one who has seen the Choctaws' phenomenally successful Silver Star Casino, two PGA-quality golf courses, and partially completed second casino and hotel sells them short.

Rusty fences, peeling paint, dim lights, and overgrown playing fields are a thing of the past -- unless you're talking about Memphis, that is. While Memphis builds yet another arena and mothballs the Defense Depot, Tim McCarver Stadium, and the Mid-South Coliseum, surrounding small towns from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Collierville to Southaven have invested millions in bigger and better youth sports facilities.

And they're having a Wal-Mart effect. Baseball isn't just vanishing from the inner city, it's vanishing from the city, period. The only sizable tournament held inside the Interstate 240 loop is the Pendleton Tournament at Colonial School, an unlighted complex of four small, uneven fields. Most competitive tournaments are now played at Snowden Grove.

The Mike Rose Soccer Complex near Collierville now attracts games and tournaments that used to be played on inferior (but more centrally located) fields at Shelby Farms, May Field, and various Memphis churches, schools, and public parks.

Jonesboro has poured $5 million into its new Joe Mack Campbell Park, consisting of 18 soccer fields and 14 baseball fields, most of them lighted. Jason Wilkie, interim director of parks and recreation, says, "We want to be a regional sports center" for teams as far away as Little Rock, Memphis, and St. Louis.

Young athletes who aren't old enough to drive travel with their parents instead, staying at local motels and eating at local restaurants.

"We do see a benefit from tournaments in terms of rooms and number of nights booked," says Lindy Frizzell, general manager of the Hampton Inn Southaven.

Parents spend so much time transporting their children to games and tournaments in the 'burbs that it makes little sense to live anywhere else. The flight to quality in athletics is as much a factor in school choice as the flight to quality in academics. City and suburban schools are so unequal in baseball and soccer that they rarely play each other anymore.

Memphis has made its biggest sports investments in college and professional venues. But there's a dawning awareness of the importance of youth sports to the civic psyche, evidenced by the recent BRIDGES Kickoff Classic which raised $10,000 for the charity. Kevin Kane and the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau are pursuing Spring Fling, the Tennessee prep spring sports jamboree that is up for bids in 2003.

"We think this is a huge opportunity for Memphis," says Kane. "It's something we desperately want."

Clout and salesmanship will help. But it will take better facilities to put Memphis in the big time of small-fry sports.

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