City Reporter 

City Reporter

Seeking Synergy

A new public-private coalition forms for community development.

by Tony Jones

Though he missed the two shots he attempted at a ceremony at Foote Homes announcing the opening of 13 refurbished basketball courts (paid for by Reebok and NBA superstar Allen Iverson), Mayor Willie Herenton's no-pressure visit to his old neighborhood last week was a well-orchestrated public-relations capper for what could prove a red-letter day for his administration.

The mayor feels that rejuvenating the Memphis Housing Authority and rebuilding better public housing is one of his administration's crowning achievements. With basketball coaching legend Larry Brown (substituting for Iverson, who was recuperating from elbow surgery) on hand to highlight the occasion, the B-ball press conference was the perfect impetus to underline the more daunting goal Herenton had announced that morning: a plan to align the city's public and private sectors more efficiently.

The first meeting for the citywide Strategic Planning Process drew about 100 of the city's top business and civic leaders to the Cook Convention Center last week. Nine committees combining talents within specified fields of expertise were brought together to "create sustainable, self-renewing, and empowered neighborhoods throughout the City of Memphis," as outlined in the information kit. The goal is "the creation of a broad-based collaborative community development plan."

The attendees were drawn from nine areas: Housing and Infrastructure; Economic Development; Information Sharing; Education/Workforce Development; Health and Human Services; Transportation; Safety/Security; Quality of Life/Amenities; Leadership and Race Relations.

Initiated by MHA executive director Robert Lipscomb, the plan seeks to create an interlocking network within the defined concentrations.

"We have all these different entities that relate to the same needs, but no one is communicating with the other," he said. "So we thought it best that they begin to talk to each other on a consistent basis. That way we can combine resources when necessary, but more importantly, save taxpayer dollars. You might have five different people going to five different meetings about essentially the same thing," he added. "It's better to combine that energy."

Herenton underlined the importance of the plan's dollars-and-cents goal.

"We already know that there will be fewer economic resources available to government across the board," he said. "So this is an intelligent way to prepare for budget constraints without severely diminishing service to citizens."

Taskforce administrator Beverly Robert-son, executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum, elaborated. "This is a three-step process," she said. "The individual committee members will identify the resources they have, find the holes we need to fill, then identify assets to help us close the gaps. We will meet at the end of each month for an assessment, with a final report to come January 10, 2002."

Order In the Court

Donald takes over Shelby County jail case -- temporarily.

By Mary Cashiola

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla had a reputation for no nonsense when dealing with the Shelby County jail case. Some even said he was the reason the five-year-old case got moving again.

So when he began a six-month suspension in August, there were some people who were concerned about how U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald, who is presiding over the case in McCalla's absence, would familiarize herself with the more than 500 documents in the case file. These include jail monitors' reports, jail compliance plans, documents from the Department of Justice, and several reports the county files on a monthly basis.

But during a status conference September 25th -- originally scheduled by McCalla -- the judge had each of the case's major players give her a summary of what has happened since the case's inception. She also told attorneys of her recent tour of the jail and asked questions about it.

"I intend to enforce the orders of the court and to keep this case moving as if McCalla was here," Donald said.

The judge also heard testimony from Dr. Arnett Gaston, about gang activity, and Chuck Fisher, the court-appointed special master to the jail. Fisher's report, which was scheduled to be discussed in more detail at the conference, was delayed until after the jail switches two floors of the facility to direct supervision.

"The deadlines Judge McCalla imposed are still in full effect," Donald said. "There is to be no backing away from anything."

The county's jail experts said they were still on track to switch floors five and six, which hold lower-classification inmates, to direct supervision on October 4th.

The court set a date in mid-December for their next status conference.

"I don't want to wait until the first of the year to see if this is working," said Donald.

The judge also seemed to be looking for some long-term answers but then remembered that McCalla will preside over the case when he comes back to the bench.

"I'd like to see where we're going," Donald said. "I may be concerning myself with things I don't need to be."

Strike Breakers

Postal workers rally to stop violence against them.

By Mary Cashiola

Maria Johnson should not be at a downtown rally today. She's ill and should be home in bed. But as president of the Memphis APWU (American Postal Workers Union) Local, she says it's important for her to be here to help stop the violence.

Employees with postal service contractors H.B. Phillips and J.E. Phillips and Sons have been on strike since April 4th. Since then, those employees on the picket line allege that workers brought in to replace them have committed numerous violent acts, including threats, shot-out car windows, and several hit-and-run attempts, including one that led to a striker's hospitalization.

"There has been all this violence going on during the strike," says Johnson. "It's time for the postal service to take a stand."

Both H.B. Phillips and J.E. Phillips are privately owned mail-hauling companies. The APWU was helping the companies' employees negotiate their first union contract with management at those firms until talks broke down on April 3rd. Employees decided to strike the next day.

"No self-respecting union would entertain what [management] offered," says Johnson. "They weren't making a good-faith effort."

At the rally held downtown on Monday, October 1st, "in the shadow of the post office," about 30 people held signs that read "Help Wanted: Stop the Violence." Whistles blew after each speaker.

Says Johnson: "We're blowing the whistle on them." She hopes the U.S. Postal Service will take notice when the union hands over 8,000 cards signed by postal service customers asking them to follow their zero-tolerance policies. U.S. postal workers are not allowed to strike.

"We want [the postal service] to do the right thing," says Johnson. "We want them to pull those contracts with H.B. Phillips and J.E. Phillips. And those drivers who committed violence should be fired."

Representatives from H.B. Phillips told the Flyer that the company was currently in negotiations and could not comment. Representatives from J.E. Phillips could not be reached.

city beat

Memphis In Denial?

Local officials are still confident in the NBA arena to be built here.

by John Branston

Reports to the contrary, the world has not changed -- at least to the extent that local government officials still believe the $250 million Memphis NBA arena can be financed by highly unpredictable travel and tourism taxes, sales-tax rebates, and state assistance.

The financing projections for the arena were made last spring, months before the terrorist attacks of September 11th devastated the passenger airline and tourist industries and threatened to throw the economy into a recession. But while economists, investors, and state budget experts are full of gloom and doom, there has been only silence in Memphis about a controversial project whose solvency depends on tourism and business travel.

"We're still comfortable with our projections in the long-term," says Rick Masson, the city's chief administrative officer.

The financing plan for the arena for the Grizzlies spans the years 2002-2028. It includes $57 million in tourism taxes, mainly on hotel and motel rooms. Another $25 million comes from rental-car surcharges specifically aimed at tourists and business travelers. State government is being counted on for $40 million of assistance and $70 million will come out of the pockets of people who attend the games and buy related merchandise.

Unlike general obligation bonds, the revenue bonds for the arena will depend entirely on consumer spending, not taxing authority. If the projections are wrong and the funds are insufficient, then the city and county cannot use property taxes to cover the shortfall.

"At the end of the day we're going to have a solid bond issue," says Joseph Lee III, director of finance and administration for the city of Memphis. "Ultimately it will be received favorably by investors."

Such confidence may seem surprising to anyone who has ever applied for a home mortgage or car loan and undergone the third degree on their personal finances. Virtually every assumption in the arena financing package has been shattered by recent events, although nobody knows if the impact will last one year or several years.

Marlin Mosby, the consultant with Public Financial Management hired to work with the city and county, says no meetings have been scheduled to reconsider the projections and none are planned.

"It's way too early to tell if this is a permanent fall-off," says Mosby, noting that 2001 revenues have no impact on the arena, which doesn't go on the books until next year.

Most Memphians were skeptical of the financing projections even before the terrorist attacks and the economic downturn. In a Princeton Survey Research Associates poll in June, 70 percent of Shelby County residents said the projections were too optimistic.

Since then, Northwest Airlines announced it is cutting capacity 20 percent and laying off 10,000 workers. Tennessee Finance Commissioner Warren Neel estimated the terrorist attacks will cause $100 million in lost state revenue, on top of earlier predictions of a $100 million shortfall in tax collections. The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau expects the slump to last at least well into next year because of canceled bookings and delays in opening the Memphis Cook Convention Center, which is also relying on tourism taxes to pay for an overhaul that could cost $92 million because of delays and overruns.

Cities that rely on travel and tourism are "just getting creamed," economist Mark Zandi of economy.com told The Wall Street Journal this week.

The state's $40 million contribution is now being soft-pedaled as something less than that. Masson says the state is contributing "infrastructure improvements in line with what they did for the Titans in Nashville." He says that could include a parking garage and road improvements but declines to be more specific because Duncan Ragsdale's lawsuit is still pending and the project architect has not been hired.

The next critical date for the project is October 16th, when the Public Building Authority will name its financial adviser for the bond underwriting.

"They will take the package developed for us by Public Financial Management and take those numbers, see what we have obtained already since July 1st, then go forward with any adjustments they need to do in those projections," says Lee.

The bonds are expected to be sold late this year or early next year. They will not be insured, Masson said. Interest rates have fallen nearly two points since last spring, which lowers the cost of borrowing. However, revenue bonds carry a higher interest rate and low-rated bonds an even higher rate. Masson is confident the bonds will be placed.

"Most people in the bond business are in it for the long haul," he said.

You can e-mail John Branston at branston@memphisflyer.com.

The Man At The Med

Foundation welcomes new executive director.

By Janel Davis

Known by most of his friends simply AS "John T," former car dealer John T. Fisher has been named executive director of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis (The Med) Foundation.

"My job is to raise and invest money for the foundation. What I bring to the position is that I know a lot of people in Memphis," says Fisher. "I've lived here long enough to understand this community and I plan to put that knowledge to good use."

Fisher's Memphis roots go deep. He is a native, attended city schools here, and for years operated a Chrysler dealership started by his grandfather. In 1964 Fisher moved his dealership to Union Avenue. The building has since become the Memphis Police Department West Precinct headquarters.

After leaving the car business, Fisher started the Planned Maintenance Program in 1978, a firm that conducts owner follow-up for automobile dealers. He ran the company until May of this year when his son took the helm as president.

"My son started out working for me, then I worked for my son," says Fisher. "Then he told me to go find something else to do."

Fisher is only the third executive director in the foundation's history. He replaces Mearl Purvis, a former television newscaster who held the position just over a year. He will be responsible for managing a staff of four and for finding money to fund projects at The Med's five Centers of Excellence: the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center, the Wound Care Center, the Firefighters Regional Burn Center, the High Risk Obstetrics Center, and the Newborn Center, as well as a variety of specialty care programs.

Funding for these programs comes from private and corporate gifts, planned giving, fund-raisers, community-awareness events, and the MedPRIDE campaign. Almost 700 Med employees annually donate to the foundation through the MedPRIDE program, making them the largest contributors to the fund.

"There is a stigma that most people have about the Med. It is still seen as a poor people's charity hospital," says Fisher. "That stigma is not well-founded."

Fisher hopes to improve that image by creating better communication with the community concerning Med activities and achievements, building a better internal structure, and doubling the existing $2.6 million fund.

"I stay in this position until I'm voted out by the board," he says, "so I have to let my successes keep that from happening."

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