[CityBeat] Two Americas, Two Downtowns 

The FedExForum is finished on time, but is the timing right for a celebration?

The FedExForum will be "substantially complete" by the end of July. As I drove around it Tuesday morning, workers were putting up the big letters "u" and "m" in the word "forum" on the building's east side. Um. My thoughts exactly.

As nice as it looks, is this, um, what Memphis ought to be doing now?

Congratulations are in order for M.A. Mortenson construction, its employees, and the Public Building Authority (PBA), which got the job done on time and on budget -- something the main library, convention center, and city schools could not do. But, um, might not some of those projects have been finished under budget too, if their budget had been $250 million?

On time is one thing. Timing is something else. Time will tell if this is the right time to celebrate the completion of the most expensive publicly funded building in Memphis history for the use of the most highly paid athletes in Memphis history. Yes, I know the University of Memphis will use it too, but this wasn't their idea. A Memphis Grizzlies benchwarmer makes about $5 million a year. The salary structure of the NBA and other major-league sports is made possible, in part, by new publicly built facilities such as the FedExForum. Meanwhile, the Memphis and Shelby County school superintendents are in tears over the budget cuts they're being forced to make, and every politician I've talked to believes there will be more cuts or a tax increase next year.

The streets around the FedExForum have been freshly paved and landscaped. How about the, um, streets and public parks in your neighborhood? We are told that the money that went into the FedExForum would not have gone into schools and parks. Well, it wouldn't have gone into an arena either without special diversions from MLGW, downtown sales taxes, and hotel and motel taxes.

In Boston, Democrats are batting around the themes of "two Americas" and "the middle-class squeeze" at their national convention. In their view, one America reaps gains in the stock market. The other America works at Wal-Mart, which happens to be the largest corporate employer in Tennessee. But how can you get into the "corporate greed" theme when homegrown FedEx provides good-paying jobs, insurance, and retirement and education benefits for some 30,000 Memphians?

Whatever your view of the Democrats and their slogans, if you do not work or live downtown, you owe it to yourself to come and look at the FedExForum, Beale Street, Peabody Place, AutoZone Park , the riverfront, The Pyramid, Mud Island, Wonders, the convention center and Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, and the blighted sections too -- and there are still lots of them. The FedExForum's neighbors include the long-abandoned Chisca Hotel to the west and public housing projects to the south. Come basketball season, the contrast could be a little jarring for fans unaccustomed to navigating downtown streets who stray too far in search of a parking place. Two Americas indeed.

Much of downtown has never looked better, thanks to all the public and private money invested in the last 20 years. The FedExForum flows seamlessly into Beale Street, which meshes nicely with Peabody Place, which is a short walk from AutoZone Park. All in the space of a few blocks, with another hotel likely to be added to the mix in a year or so.

The riverfront, from Martyr Park to Tom Lee Park to the Mississippi River Greenbelt on Mud Island, is a more or less continuous band of manicured grass, sidewalks, and flower beds. Mud Island River Park is now accessible by bicycle, and parking is free. You can ride a bike into the park, get on the elevator to the walkway over the monorail, and bike back to Front Street. Riverside Drive is a boulevard, giving pedestrians a fighting chance against the traffic if they take one of the new white stone stairways from the top of the bluff to Tom Lee Park. The Riverwalk in front of South Bluffs is lined with million-dollar homes and, to put it nicely, eclectic architecture. Mud Island now has a population of about 5,000 people.

When it comes to riverfront parks, Memphis has an embarrassment of riches, which is probably one reason why there is no urgency to do something about the Promenade.

But the Memphis landscape is also dotted with monuments to bad timing and big ideas whose time has past. The Pyramid is the most obvious example, facing a dim future 14 years after it was opened. Mud Island River Park and its outdoor amphitheater, monorail, and museum opened 22 years ago when Tom Lee Park was a third its current size and the Auction Street Bridge to Mud Island didn't exist. The main library opened when the Internet was making libraries less important. Agricenter International is a 30-year-old idea. The Mid-South Fairgrounds is a garage sale of discarded, underused, and underfunded facilities.

Four years ago, Sports Illustrated and sportswriters such as Frank Deford were questioning whether the NBA could hold on to its audience and why anyone would pay $200 million for a team. There were predictions that the FedExForum would be one of the last, if not the last, publicly funded major-league facility in the country.

Now it's here, on time and on budget, we hope. So come downtown and walk or drive around it even if you can't go inside. You and our visitors are paying for it. And with city and county budgets tapped out, there probably won't be another big public building project in Memphis for a while. n

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