So it didn't work out after all. That's the indisputable bottom-line fact about Networx, the much-ballyhooed MLGW-backed enterprise that got under way back in 1999, funded partly by some blue-chip local investors but mainly — to the tune of some $29 million — at taxpayer expense. Most of that money has now gone south, thanks largely to the dot-com boom petering out just as the millennium turned.
But there were also some doubts, even at the time, about the wisdom of the telecommunications venture from both financial and technological viewpoints. That such concerns were not heeded — or for the most part even heard — owed a great deal to an unprecedented P.R. push for the investment. World-class entrepreneurs like Fred Smith, Pitt Hyde, William B. Dunavant, and the late Willard Sparks were enlisted as Networx partners, and, by lending their names and reputations (rather more than their pocketbooks), they gilded a very problematic lily.
Meanwhile, the taxpayers, who footed the bill, were never adequately consulted or informed.
The fact remains that some of the rationale behind the project was probably on target. One of the topics mentioned at the well-attended Conference for Media Reform, which met here last January, was the need for universal access to broadband technology. Critics of Networx have made an issue of the fact that its books were not made accessible to the public. Though that objection related mainly to the way the venture was managed, we would carry the logic of it a step further:
Perhaps the chief flaw in both the conception and execution of Networx lies in the way it was structured. In our time, Internet technology is as much a part of the fabric of life as light, gas, and water. What Networx should have been all along, perhaps, was a public utility itself, and in the wake of its failure, as well as the well-founded concerns attending the Hoops-FedExForum-Grizzlies issue, maybe it's time for a long, close look at the question of public ownership in general.
A Seat at the Table
One of the most frequent allegations we hear at local political forums is the lament that the county wheel tax, originally earmarked for education during the administration of former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris, has been used to fund a variety of other purposes over the years.
Certainly the proceeds of the wheel tax were redirected this year, as several representatives of the city and county school systems noted Monday during a meeting of the Shelby County Commission. What the commission did, faced with an unexpected surplus, was divert some $11 million of already committed school operating funds to a separate fund for future capital improvement programs.
As all parties eventually agreed, the school systems were not robbed (indeed, they ended up better financed than earlier foreseen), but there were problems, both in the ex-post-facto nature of the reallocation and the lack of prior input solicited from the educators themselves.
"Give us a seat at the table," several of the school spokespersons asked. We agree.