Thursday, June 7, 2007

Are You Wasting Words?

Former politicians discuss the prospects for four proposed public projects.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2007 at 4:00 AM

It's a long road for big public projects. The ones that make it to the finish line — Mud Island, expansion of Liberty Bowl Stadium and skyboxes, The Pyramid, FedExForum, AutoZone Park — have a prime mover, state and private-sector support, and good timing. Getting built, of course, is no guarantee of success, but that's another story.

Four multimillion-dollar proposed projects are in various stages of development as Mayor Willie Herenton and members of the City Council enter the home stretch of their four-year terms. They include Beale Street Landing, turning The Pyramid over to Bass Pro Shops, expansion in and around Graceland, and a new football stadium.

How likely are those things to happen, given a possible changing of the guard at City Hall? And what are the key factors that will make or break them? I asked four former Memphis politicians with combined experience of more than 40 years in local government — former mayor Dick Hackett and former council members TaJuan Stout Mitchell, John Vergos, and Jerome Rubin. Mitchell now works full-time for city government. Hackett is director of the Children's Museum. Rubin works for the Center City Commission. And Vergos is in private business.

The odds are that one or more projects will falter in Memphis or Nashville. All of them except Beale Street Landing require hefty state tax rebates. The total cost of all four projects, based on published estimates, could easily exceed $200 million.

"On the council, there is collective memory loss about prior projects," Vergos said. "Each one is a new project with no relevance to fiscal responsibility."

Beale Street Landing. The $29 million Tom Lee Park riverfront project, financed with federal and local funds, has been in, out, then back in the budget. City Council members were expected to vote Tuesday afternoon.

"It's on go," said Mitchell. "The council made it clear it wants to see that project." (At least three members have opposed it.) Hackett agreed it is likely to get built because it complements other downtown investments. "The riverfront has to always be one of the significant priorities, whoever is in office," he said. Rubin agreed the project is "very likely," in part because so much money has already been spent on it. Vergos called it "somewhat likely" if backers can show that tour boats would otherwise bypass Memphis.

Bass Pro in The Pyramid. The hype and the local private-sector involvement faded last year. Mitchell remained bullish that "we will see a happy conclusion of that project sooner than we think." Vergos rated it highly likely, if Bass Pro assumes the debt on the building. Hackett, who was mayor when The Pyramid was built, called the marriage "somewhat unlikely" because "from the outside looking in, there appears to be lukewarm interest on Bass Pro's part, although I would love to see it happen." Rubin rated it somewhat likely that Bass Pro will fulfill its end of the tentative deal.

Graceland expansion. Elvis Presley's name and home were in the news last week when investor Robert S.X. Sillerman announced his plan to take Graceland operator CKX Inc. private. In an interview with The Commercial Appeal, Sillerman said the plans for a new hotel, visitors center, and other improvements depends on public investment.

Mitchell, who represented Whitehaven for eight years, called that scenario "somewhat likely" but only "if Tourist Development Zone legislation gets passed so we get resources from the state." Rubin, a self-described "big fan" of Whitehaven, called it "not very likely" and said the key issue is "What is the connection between [CKX's] interest and the public assistance?" Hackett, who grew up in Whitehaven, called it somewhat likely "if the city and Graceland can document some payback to the city." Vergos rated it highly likely because "cleaning up Elvis Presley Boulevard is a city obligation."

New $150 million stadium. Mayor Herenton unveiled the idea on New Year's Day, but five months later, nobody of much influence has seconded the motion. Hackett, Vergos, and Rubin said it is unlikely to happen. "It's strictly a question of affordability versus other priorities," Hackett said. "State funding is key." Rubin said the limited usage of the stadium, which hosts nine or 10 events a year, is the problem. Vergos said the key is an independent estimate of making the existing stadium compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Mitchell, the city's administrator of intergovernmental relations, discreetly said, "It's too early to call."

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