D.O.A. for Lipscomb Project? 

The “Heritage Trail” TIF would appear doomed on the Shelby County Commission.

Mayor A C Wharton may have given his imprimatur to city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb's proposed "Heritage Trail" TIF (tax increment financing) project. But whatever members of the city council think of it — and the prospectus there would seem uncertain — enough influential members of the Shelby County Commission have weighed in against it to seemingly render it dead on arrival on the county side.     

click to enlarge Robert Lipscomb
  • Robert Lipscomb

A typical response was that of District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy, an influential voice among the commission's majority Democrats. "It's asking too much of too big an area for too long for too small a target zone" was Mulroy's preliminary take.

Lipscomb's proposal would have virtually all of downtown declared a slum so as to set aside sales-tax receipts for a 20-year period for the sake of a new development where Foote Homes is now.

Mulroy expressed doubts, too, that residents of Foote Homes would want to be turned out for the uncertainties of resettlement elsewhere.

A similar point was made by Steve Basar, a Republican representative of the commission's District 1 and chairman of the body's economic development committee. "The people there are not for it, and it's so disproportionate as to be a huge waste of resources."

Basar was an early opponent of the TIF proposal and began communicating his opposition to it upon first learning of it last month. Commission chairman Mike Ritz made a point at last week's commission meeting of praising Basar for his resistance to the project and expressed solidarity with his GOP colleague.

Ritz has opposed TIF arrangements in the past and noted at last week's meeting that a Highland Street TIF approved by the commission in 2007, but dissented from at the time by Ritz himself, had not resulted in the promised construction of a proposed lifestyle center project by the Poag & McEwen firm, presumably as a result of the subsequent recession.          

The project, which involved the purchase of the former Highland Church of Christ property and subsequent razing of it, was heavily supported by the University of Memphis, which envisioned turning the nondescript Highland Strip into an impressive new gateway to the university area.

Back then, Ritz noted that TIFs are normally used for clearly public projects such as housing developments, street and sewer improvements, lighting, and parks. He saw the Highland project as a "gift" to the developers and said, "There has been no analysis done on this project, and it contains no performance requirements."

Last week, the moribund Highland TIF served as fodder for a new warning from Ritz about the advisability of ambitious TIF projects like the one currently proposed by Lipscomb. The commission chairman, a first-termer and something of an outlier back then, may be preaching to the choir this time around.

A quick canvas of other commission members indicates that a majority of them, even some who normally split with the chairman on the currently volatile issue of schools, concur.

Opposition may be developing on the city council, too. Council members contacted so far are either noncommittal or have expressed disapproval of a sort unusual on that body for a Lipscomb project.

It may never get that far.

After Lipscomb discussed the plan at a well-attended meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency last week, Chairman Michael Frick assured those present, including several opponents, that the plan was still in the early stages of consideration and was unlikely to move forward to either the council or the commssion anytime soon.

Serious opposition to the TIF has developed among agencies and individuals concerned with downtown development, especially after two recent Flyer articles by my colleague John Branston gave wider exposure to the proposal. • Informal remarks emanating from Governor Bill Haslam and Lieutenant Governor/Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey continue to provide useful information as to the likely shape of legislation in the forthcoming session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Press reports from Nashville and East Tennessee indicate that a guns-in-parking-lots bill, which caused a major schism in Republican ranks in the 2012 legislative session and never got to the floor, may be cocked and ready for passage in 2013.

Haslam was quoted last week as saying that he expects to see a compromise measure passed in the forthcoming session of the General Assembly but one that precludes storing firearms in vehicles on college campuses. The governor continues to oppose the idea of guns on campuses.

A bill allowing guns to be kept in locked cars in parking lots was vigorously pushed by the National Rifle Association in the 2012 session but encountered stiff opposition from major business interests in the state, including FedEx in Memphis, and was never called up for a vote. State representative Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville), then the GOP caucus chair, was blamed by the bill's supporters for blocking it in the House, and the NRA played a major financial and organizational role in getting Maggart defeated for reelection in this year's Republican primary.

Meanwhile, Ramsey told educators at a luncheon meeting in Blountville that he expected a guns-in-parking-lots bill to pass in 2013.

Hank Hayes of the Kingsport Times-News quoted Ramsey as saying, "I've already got it drafted. ... The [newspaper] headline will be 'Guns on Campus,' but that's not what we're talking about. Something is going to pass this year. I want to put this behind us and forget about it."

Ramsey spoke to the terms of a likely compromise. "We may exempt out schools, that's fine, but even then we're talking about public parking lots. ... There's got to be a way to keep it in a car legally."

There may still be serious opposition among lawmakers in the Republican majority to a guns-in-parking-lots measure, however. As state senator-elect Frank Nicely (R-Knoxville), who was regarded as one of the more conservative members of the House during several terms there, said, "If a property owner tells someone you can't bring a yo-yo on his property, much less a gun, you can't bring it on that property."

• On another front, Haslam ended several weeks of suspense by announcing Monday that Tennessee would not operate its own health-care exchange under the Affordable Care Act. The governor maintained that his was a "business" decision, not one based on political considerations.

Haslam's action does not mean that the elements of the act will not be accessible in Tennessee, only that they will be operated exclusively under federal auspices and under federal regulations.

In a news release explaining his decision, Haslam said he had never been a "fan" of the Affordable Care Act, viewing it as "harmful for small businesses and costly for state government and the federal government," but had given serious consideration to the formation of a state exchange to administer the act: "I've said that I think Tennessee could run a state exchange cheaper and better, and my natural inclination is to keep the federal government out of our business as much as possible."

But, he said, "The Obama administration has set an aggressive timeline to implement exchanges, while there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the process will actually work. What has concerned me more and more is that they seem to be making this up as they go. In weighing all of the information we currently have, I informed the federal government today that Tennessee will not run a state-based exchange."

Haslam left a hedge, though: "If conditions warrant in the future and it makes sense at a later date for Tennessee to run the exchange, we would consider that as an option at the appropriate time."

• FedEx founder Fred Smith, a significant donor to Republican causes and candidates, has been one of the key voices urging a shift in the congressional GOP's resistance to raising tax rates. In an interview with CNN last week, Smith had this to say:

 "There's a lot of mythology in Washington, such as, it's small business that creates all of the jobs in the United States, and if you raise the rates on the top 2 percent, you'll kill jobs. The reality is, the vast majority of jobs in the United States are produced by capital investment in equipment and software that's not done by small business. It's done by big business, and the so-called gazelles, the emerging companies like the new fracking oil and gas operations. It's capital investment in equipment and software that's the solution to our economic problems, not the marginal tax rates on individuals."

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    • In Sync with the Season

      The Shelby County Commission defers action, political parties party, and two candidates make their move.
    • State Democrats Down But Not Out

      The tiny but reorganized Democratic leaderships in the House and Senate could be just the help that Governor Haslam needs.

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