Several weeks ago, Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford met with a group of 15 East Memphis Republican women. Their message on the NBA arena: overwhelming opposition.
One week ago, the commission voted 10-2 (Wellford abstained on all NBA votes and debate because his law partner represents NBA NOW) for the new arena in front of a chamber packed with a couple hundred cheering NBA boosters in an apparent show of overwhelming support.
A miraculous turnaround? A seismic shift in sentiment? A grassroots groundswell?
None of the above.
Polls show that Shelby County residents support the NBA arena project by only a narrow margin and that support is hedged by several only ifs. The cheering crowd, if not the actual vote, was the product of an NBA-friendly venue and a massive public relations effort by a downtown lobby that has never been stronger. Call it democracy by booster organization.
The gallery was anything but a spontaneous outpouring of support from a cross-section of rabid NBA fans. It consisted mainly of employees of AutoZone, the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Center City Commission, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, Archer/Malmo Advertising, and hired lobbyists and attorneys. On the arena vote, NBA NOW proponents had a bigger advantage than Shaquille ONeill has over the Lakers ballboy in a game of one-on-one.
First, they had home-field advantage. Many of them simply walked a few hundred yards from their offices on Front Street or on the mall. The opponents had to drive downtown and find a place to park. Boosters got paid to play hooky and sit and watch the politicians work; AutoZoners were urged to attend by company founder Pitt Hyde, a proposed co-owner of the Memphis NBA team. The antis were mainly retirees and housewives such as referendum leader Heidi Shafer, whose 3-year-old daughter sat in the aisle of the commission chambers munching snacks. Finally, the downtown boosters hobnob with councilmen and commissioners at social and political functions all the time - - and with each other, for that matter, often serving on one anothers boards and scratching one anothers backs.
With or without a new arena, Memphis can bury that cliché about turning its back on downtown and the river. The booster business has never been better or more lucrative.
At half a dozen quasi-public or nonprofit agencies, top executives make almost as much or more money pitching downtown attractions and development as Mayors Willie Herenton and Jim Rout make ($140,000) for running the whole city and county.
The list includes the Center City Commission, the Memphis Development Foundation (which runs The Orpheum), the Wonders exhibition, the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Riverfront Development Corporation, and the Memphis Redbirds Foundation.
Those are just the starting players. Bench strength includes the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, with offices on Front Street and a staff that has been very much in evidence during the NBA drive; the twin towers, Jack Belz and Henry Turley; corporate benefactors AutoZone and Storage USA; and advertising firms Archer/Malmo, Thompson and Company, and Conaway Brown, all churning out the good news about downtown.
The long, hard hours that Herenton and Rout and their top aides put into endless meetings and negotiations gave new meaning to the words government service. For running Wonders, Dick Hackett makes more than he ever did as mayor. Benny Lendermon makes more as head of the Riverfront Development Commission than he did as city public works director watching over our roads and sewers. Dexter Muller, longtime director of the Office of Planning and Development, last year jumped to the chamber of commerce.
Focus, compensation, and a nice office arent the only benefits nonprofits can offer. They also operate with much less public scrutiny than their government counterparts. City council members have been ridiculed and taken to task for running up cell phone bills or requesting $75 for out-of-town meal allowance. Nonprofits, on the other hand, are usually accountable only to their boards. A nonprofit agency is supposed to make its tax form and salaries and expenses readily available for public inspection, but the only local media outlet that has ever reported on them is the Flyer.
Ironically, politicians are responsible for helping the nonprofits thrive. They provide facilities like The Orpheum, The Pyramid, and the Memphis Cook Convention Center as well as direct subsidies and dedicated revenue streams via downtown tax credits or tourism taxes.
After last weeks victory at the county commission, the NBA NOW team and its bandwagon adjourned to the Plaza Club for a celebration. The opponents just went home, vowing to fight again on another day, and, they hope, in another court.