Who knew Jim Rout was such a good closer?
In an hour or so of straight talk with the Shelby County Commission, Rout didn't use the line, "What'll it take to put you in this new $250 million NBA arena today?" But if that tire-kicking bunch of commission doubters and naysayers votes yes on the arena next week, as seems likely, then Rout will deserve a lot of the credit.
In 16 years as a commissioner and seven years as mayor, Rout has done his share of ducking and double-talk, but he was about as eloquent as they come Monday, sitting calmly in front of a skeptical board of commissioners. Blessed with the best speechwriter in town, mayoral aide Tom Jones, Rout dropped his prepared remarks several times to make points or answer questions. He never stumbled. He never lectured. He never raised his voice.
You want numbers? He gave them numbers. You want sentiment? He invoked his 82-year-old mother, who was alarmed at first but now thinks her boy is doing the right thing. You want applause lines? He got the admittedly pro-NBA audience clapping twice with lines about AutoZone Park and "a vibrant downtown and a vibrant total community."
Maybe it was those years as a Xerox salesman way back when in his business career. Maybe it was all the practice he's had over the last three months of the NBA debate. Or maybe it is just that the job of mayor, like the job of governor, brings out leadership qualities and crystallizes thinking in a way that being a legislator or a commissioner or a councilman doesn't.
"As a commissioner you might be a little bit for something and a little bit against something," he said after the four-hour meeting. "As mayor you've got to take a side."
Rout showed a lot of sympathy for commissioners who may well find themselves saying yes to the NBA next week and no to full funding for county schools a week or two later. If the "No Taxes NBA" crowd really wants to turn up the heat, they'll give up their seats at next week's commission meeting to county school teachers, principals, and students.
"I have to think about your role," Rout told the commission, and "the tremendous responsibility you face."
Does he ever. Thirteen years ago, as a county commissioner, Rout was in the minority that voted against The Pyramid. At the time, hopes were every bit as high for The Pyramid as they are now for the NBA arena. It was the talk of the town. There were comparisons to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. There were blue-chip business leaders like Fred Smith pushing the deal. Sidney Schlenker, the promoter who often gets blamed for The Pyramid's shortcomings, was not yet in the picture. He came later. There were no easy excuses for voting no, but Rout did. The Pyramid, he said, was not part of his vision for a better Memphis.
Eight years ago Rout was a commissioner planning a race for mayor when the city and county political leadership sent Smith, Billy Dunavant, and Pitt Hyde to the NFL meetings in Chicago in search of an expansion franchise, armed with a $25 million retrofit of Liberty Bowl Stadium to compete against new or like-new stadiums in Charlotte, Jacksonville, and St. Louis.
Well visions change, for mayors just like for the rest of us.
If the county commission follows the lead of the city council and approves funding for the NBA arena, Rout will have left a lasting mark on both downtown and suburbia. In addition to the arena, he was an early backer of boyhood friend Dean Jernigan's downtown plans for AutoZone Park when there was a real possibility of building a new baseball stadium on Germantown Road.
Rout is also, in the opinion of suburban developer Jackie Welch, the main force behind Cordova High School, the Grey's Creek sewer extension, and Welch's highly successful career as a school site salesman for Shelby County.
"Every time I sold a school site, I called and thanked Commissioner Rout for having the foresight," Welch said recently in an interview for Memphis magazine.
It's interesting that Rout has a well-earned reputation as a details man, stemming from his years as chairman of the commission's budget committee, his talkative nature, and his willingness to dive into piles of research material. Now he's the visionary on two of the biggest and toughest issues facing public officials. There are plenty of pitfalls ahead, before and after the actual votes on the arena and funding for schools. But judging by his performance this week, Rout seems comfortable at last in his not-so-new role as leader.
You can e-mail John Branston at email@example.com.