Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Next Storm

In the spirit of the season, a reader pick-'em poll of potential trouble spots.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 24, 2006 at 4:00 AM

"That was the trouble with corruption. The bigger the players who went down, the bigger the headlines got and the worse the city looked. So it was always the little ones -- the ones mixed up in things they didn't necessarily ask for, the ones who wouldn't be missed -- who were sacrificed. And the big fish eased back under their rocks to let the storm blow over."

That passage is from T. Jefferson Parker's new novel, The Fallen. The setting is San Diego, and the sordid backdrop -- that city's public pension-fund scandal -- could be taken right off the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Where will the next storm in Memphis come from? Pension plans? Tennessee Waltz? The Memphis City Schools? Election problems? Mayor Herenton's reelection? The Memphis Charter Commission? In the spirit of the college football polls, here are six candidates for you, the readers, to rank.

The next chapter of Tennessee Waltz. Now that Michael Hooks Sr. has pleaded guilty and Roscoe Dixon has been convicted at trial, what will John Ford and Ward Crutchfield do? Ford and Crutchfield were the longest-serving and most powerful politicians indicted in Tennessee Waltz, and both have so far indicated that they will go to trial. But Dixon's trial was brutal and will probably get him a longer sentence than Hooks. If Dixon, Hooks, Ford, or Crutchfield decide to unburden their conscience, or maybe even if they don't, there will be more indictments.

PSPB stands for public-sector pension burden. Get used to seeing it. Pension problems threaten to bring down General Motors and Ford and reached scandal status in San Diego, a city much richer than Memphis. Memphis appears to have its pension plan adequately funded, but there are warnings -- pension concerns were the original impetus for the Memphis Charter Commission, and the city's bond rating was lowered last year.

Without a whistleblower like the insider who exposed the problems in San Diego, PSPB problems stay under the radar. They're not media-friendly, and the feds can't "get a wrench around it," as former federal prosecutor Hickman Ewing Jr. used to say. But the basic problem of funding retirement benefits with taxpayer money is nationwide.

Election problems. Remember when elections consisted of 60 percent turnouts, decisive victories, and gracious concession speeches? The norm in Memphis these days, it seems, is a turnout of 25 percent or less, a victory margin of less than 1 percent or a "winner" with one-third of the vote, and a post-election challenge by the loser. And three weeks after the election, the Shelby County Election Commission is still going over the votes and hasn't come out with a Voter Turnout Report.

The Memphis Charter Commission. Direct democracy has come to Memphis. Will the seven commissioners play it safe, or will they present voters with one or more blockbuster referendums in the October 4th, 2007, city election? Activist agendas around the country include term limits, no tax increases without voter approval, and, in Arizona, a $1 million lottery award to encourage voting.

The Memphis City Schools. Another one of those big-picture stories that is hard to get a wrench around. Memphis is pulling for Superintendent Carol Johnson, but the top assistant she brought with her from Minneapolis suddenly left last month, and recent headlines included classrooms without schedules or textbooks, a principal resisting arrest on Beale Street, and a fight between a parent and student and a police officer.

A fifth term for Willie Herenton? Harold Ford Jr. will get the headlines until November, but after that, attention will shift to Herenton, who runs in October 2007. Steve Cohen's victory with 31 percent in the 9th District Democratic congressional primary gives hope to others with limited but loyal followings in a multi-candidate field.

Herenton is well entrenched with operatives, including spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson on the state Democratic Party executive committee, all-purpose special assistant Pete Aviotti, newly elected Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, MLGW president Joseph Lee, and city attorney Sara Hall. He remains the heavy favorite.

Correction: I mistakenly reported last week that Pat Kerr Tigrett's Waterford Plaza penthouse is for sale. Another Waterford Plaza penthouse is for sale. I regret the error.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Ham-Sandwich Factor

Downtown's One Beale is delayed at least 30 days, but do Memphians care?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

You're in the way.

Pat Kerr Tigrett, you're in the way of a zoning change needed for Gene Carlisle's $175 million Number One Beale. Gene Carlisle, your 30-story building is in the way of the view from Pat Kerr Tigrett's Waterford Plaza penthouse.

Carlisle was visibly shaken last week after the Land Use Control Board decided to delay a final vote on his project for at least 30 days. "There's nothing more I can do to change the design," he said. "They want me to not build it."

Tigrett, who spoke against the project, was her usual unflappable self, suggesting at the meeting and in a subsequent letter to The Commercial Appeal that a compromise could be reached on a "splendid project."

Two Memphis downtowners who go back 40 years are at odds. Two tough negotiators. Something and somebody's gotta give. It's an interesting clash of personalities, but I suspect that most Memphians are not all that worried about One Beale or Court Square Center, another proposed downtown project that made headlines last week. They'd like to see something other than a vacant lot at Beale and Riverside Drive or an abandoned building next to Court Square, but when architectural renderings make the front page, it usually means there is not much going on.

I gave up trying to tout or shoot down downtown real estate deals several years ago after getting snookered for at least the tenth time by a developer with "vision," a set of pretty pictures, and a lot of confusing double-talk about financing. Separating the real deals from the impostors was harder than picking stocks or the next Super Bowl winner -- and a lot less interesting.

The notion that downtown is the common ground or gathering place of Memphis is a charming piece of propaganda tinged with nostalgia. Any number of locations, from Cooper-Young to Malco's Paradiso to Wolfchase Galleria, could make a stronger claim. I have been walking and biking downtown from South Bluffs to Harbor Town five or six days a week for years, and, except for special events, the only place I regularly encounter pedestrians is on the sidewalk along the Greenbelt on Mud Island.

Jeff Sanford, the head of the Center City Commission, was quoted as saying that the incentives-laden financing package for Court Square Center was the most complicated he has ever seen. It will put tenants in the Lincoln American Tower and the Rhodes Jennings Building. If those names mean anything to you, chances are that you live or work downtown.

I have developed a much simpler real estate indicator called the ham-sandwich factor. If your project or mixed-use development or neo-traditional neighborhood or whatever you want to call it can't support a place that sells a simple ham sandwich, then you probably have trouble.

The part of Peabody Place that faces Front Street is vacant and counts a grocery store and deli among its ex-tenants. Another grocery failed on the mall side of Peabody Place, as did the basement food court and, most recently, the Holiday Ham store that sold the best pimento cheese in town.

The intersection of Union Avenue and the Main Street mall features vacancies on all four corners now that the smoothie store has closed. The big hole in the ground next to Royal Discount Furniture on the mall looks like it will be there awhile, since a developer backed away from an apartment project. The two blocks of Front Street between Union and Madison, with an unobstructed view of the river, is mostly vacant.

Unlike the Front Street Deli, the Little Tea Shop, Miss Cordelia's at Harbor Town, the Rendezvous, the late Jack's grocery store next to Court Square, and Alice's on South Front, the failures can't pass the ham-sandwich test.

Number One Beale and Court Square Center are all about luxury. The developers of Court Square Center plan to put in a New York-style Italian grocery. Carlisle wants to blow away the competition with a four-star hotel and $2 million condos.

I wouldn't bet a ham sandwich on either one of them.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Parachute Journalism

Two takes from the national media on Kroc Centers and Libertyland.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 10, 2006 at 4:00 AM

My friend and fellow columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson uses the term "parachute journalism" for when out-of-town reporters do their take on a story that may or may not be hot news, then leave.

Two stories in national newspapers last week focused on the past and future of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. First The New York Times did an overview of the Salvation Army and the Kroc Centers funded by McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and his wife. A $1.5 billion gift to the Salvation Army will fund recreation centers for low-income and middle-income residents in 30 to 40 cities. A $48-million Kroc Center gift was awarded to the Salvation Army in Memphis, provided that a suitable location can be found and private funding can supplement it. The top site contender is the fairgrounds.

The second story was in The Washington Post, about the closing of Libertyland amusement park.

Outside perspectives can add important context to a local story or trivialize it by falling back on cliches. The Times story, which did not specifically mention Memphis, reported that some leaders of the Salvation Army are troubled by the "commercial mindset" of the Kroc Centers and worry that they give the impression that the Salvation Army is "a flush charity that operates sleek recreation complexes rather than a frugal church that devotes itself to serving the needy."

The Post story, on the other hand, was a classic piece of parachute journalism, complete with the obligatory Elvis angle, in connection with the Zippin Pippin. The notion that Memphis lives and breathes a daily diet of Elvis, barbecue, and nostalgia is a staple of parachute journalism.

"The closure of the park left an unexpected void in Midtown Memphis," the story said. "Just about every Memphian has a Libertyland story, park supporters say."

Just about every Memphian has a story about eating too many hotdogs, getting overheated in July, and shopping at the Mall of Memphis, but what's the point? Libertyland had a 30-year run and outlived Nashville's Opryland amusement park. It was getting too expensive to operate, and there are other uses for the fairgrounds, of which it is but one piece.

The Midtown void was not unexpected. The fairgrounds used to boast a minor-league baseball park, a swimming pool, a robust annual fair and livestock show, and sold-out University of Memphis basketball games at the Mid-South Coliseum. All of that is in the past. But unsuspecting Post readers might think the city is in mourning for Libertyland.

In fact, a handful of supporters are in mourning for Libertyland. One of them is apparently Steve Mulroy, who leveraged his support into publicity that helped elect him to the Shelby County Commission last week. I voted for Mulroy, but it distresses me that he used his talents on this lost cause and that he used the cause as a springboard to elected office. I wonder how Commissioner Mulroy will handle appeals from special interests at budget-setting time.

The Post's story concluded with a tear-jerker from a 9-year-old Libertyland fan who reportedly said, "I wonder what Elvis would think about them taking this place down."

Sadly, we'll never know. Maybe someone will poll all the Elvis impersonators in town this month and draft an Elvis-impact statement and stall the redevelopment of the fairgrounds for another 10 years.

Memphis is trying to move ahead. That means finding new uses for key pieces of public property and making hard decisions without benefit of counsel from either Elvis or 9-year-olds. The serious issues at the fairgrounds include the location and components of the Kroc Center, the Salvation Army's role, the private sector's role, the kind of housing that might be developed, the aging football stadium and coliseum, the vast empty parking lots, the fate of Fairview Junior High School, and the relationship of the whole thing to Orange Mound, Cooper-Young, the Children's Museum of Memphis, and Christian Brothers University.

It's a complicated job that has nothing to do with Elvis. He's been dead nearly 30 years, and we're over it. Except during Elvis Week, of course.

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Thursday, August 3, 2006

Garage Gate, Part Two?

The rationale for building Beale Street Landing is slipping away.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 3, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Ever taken a ferry-boat ride from Memphis to Arkansas?

Neither has anyone else. Memphis doesn't have ferry service to Arkansas, Tunica, Mud Island, or anywhere else. But that didn't stop the city of Memphis and the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) from putting the bite on the Federal Highway Administration for $1.8 million in 2005 Ferry Boat Discretionary Awards for Beale Street Landing, the proposed $27 million improvement to Tom Lee Park.

The Federal Highway Administration, you will remember, is the agency that financed the FedExForum parking garage, which was supposed to be an inter-modal transfer facility for buses, cars, and trolleys. Except it turned out that the garage was really for the exclusive benefit of the Memphis Grizzlies and did not serve any mass-transportation purpose. So Memphis had to give back $6 million.

The phantom ferry could be Garage Gate, Part Two. Once again, Memphis is playing with fire for the sake of a downtown project driven not by popular demand but by the powers that be -- this time at the RDC, along with their consultants, would-be contractors, and architects.

The grant to Memphis, which was reduced to $1.28 million "after obligation limitation lop-off and takedown" (how's that for jargon?), is the largest on the awards list. And it stands out like a broken bridge. The other grants are to places such as San Francisco and New York City, which actually have working ferries and water taxis. Beale Street Landing, on the other hand, is a combination of cobblestone improvements, high-concept architecture, underground parking garage (cue the ominous music from Jaws), restaurant, and boat landing for tourists. A ferry it ain't.

The RDC describes Beale Street Landing as "the first piece of the puzzle" in its master plan, but one by one, the reasons for building it are crumbling like a sandy riverbank in a flood.

First it was the price tag, which made the project and its "floating islands" seem extravagant in light of the city's strapped budget and short-lived freeze on capital spending in the summer of 2005.

Then it was the elimination of the land bridge from the riverfront master plan. The land bridge would have shrunk the harbor and cramped the docking space for the tour boats that cruise the Mississippi River. Without the land bridge, boats ranging in size from the Memphis Queen to the Mississippi Queen can dock comfortably at either the cobblestones or the Mud Island boat ramp.

Now another leg of the table has been knocked out. The latest change involves the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, owner of three steamboat replicas that cruise the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. This week, Delta Queen is closing its last operations and administrative offices in New Orleans. Using the proposed Beale Street Landing as an incentive, Memphis made a pitch for Delta Queen's headquarters. RDC officials also warned that Delta Queen boats might abandon Memphis without a better dock.

Nonsense. Delta Queen, soon to be renamed the Majestic America Line, needs Memphis more than Memphis needs Delta Queen. The company was hardly in a position to command incentives from Memphis or any other city. It has been through a bankruptcy and has had three owners in five years. Hurricane Katrina crippled its operations last year, but there were only 126 employees in New Orleans before the storm. In April, Delaware North sold it to California-based Ambassador International, which is moving the cruise-ship division headquarters to Seattle.

"They're moving out of New Orleans," said Lucette Brehm, whose last day as spokeswoman for Delta Queen was Monday.

"An operations-support office will be maintained in St. Louis," said Annmarie Ricard, spokeswoman for Ambassador International. "There will not be any office in Memphis. All three of Delta Queen's ships will continue to call on Memphis."

So the Beale Street Landing economic-development fantasy slides into the river along with the land bridge. The city and the RDC should scale back Beale Street Landing to the cobblestones replacement and make some modest improvements to Tom Lee Park such as sprinklers, shade trees, more water fountains, and a concession stand. But don't bet on it. When there's "free" federal money at stake, the tail often wags the dog.

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