Thursday, May 1, 2008

Party City

Wanted: office buildings and stores to subsidize a "world-class riverfront."

Posted By on Thu, May 1, 2008 at 4:00 AM

If only it was as easy to recruit blue-chip companies to downtown Memphis as it is to recruit blue-chip board members.

John Calipari joined the board of the Riverfront Development Corporation this week, filling the Celebrity Basketball Guy chair formerly occupied by Jerry West.

No offense to Calipari, whose charisma and salesmanship are unmatched, but what downtown and the riverfront really need are a few more Ron Terrys and First Tennessee Banks.

Terry is the former longtime chairman of the bank, back when it was the biggest downtown private employer and known for its stability, corporate citizenship, and 400 consecutive quarterly cash dividends instead of its sinking stock price, bad mortgage loans, layoffs, and diluted stock dividends that will be as worthless as Confederate States of America scrip if trends continue.

Terry's name came up at the RDC meeting Monday. Ron Terry Plaza, funded with $400,000 from Terry and First Tennessee, was supposed to overlook the cobblestones next to Riverside Drive. Then the RDC and the grand Riverfront Master Plan came along in 2000, and the relatively modest plaza got put on hold. Benny Lendermon, head of the RDC, said this week that it might be modified or moved to make way for a $6 million overhaul of the cobblestones.

Corporations and private development are the key to the RDC's goal of a "world-class riverfront." The RDC and its consultants expect three to four times as much private investment as public investment.

"The estimated $292 million public cost of the plan will spur $1.3 billion in private investment in real estate alone," says the master plan, which anticipates four million square feet of new office space and 21,000 new downtown jobs.

The time frame is 50 years, which, of course, makes accountability impossible. But it took less than six years for the plan to become irrelevant. Four things happened that planners didn't anticipate. The Grizzlies came to town, and The Pyramid was abandoned. The proposed Mud Island land bridge and lake that are the plan's centerpiece were scrapped by the RDC board in 2005. The heirs and defenders of the public promenade on Front Street are as opposed to private development as ever. And the low interest rates and residential building boom of a few years ago became today's overbuilt condo market and mortgage crisis.

The land bridge and the promenade were supposed to provide the choice waterfront building sites for the ground leases to private developers who would build the offices and stores that would pay the property and sales taxes to fund the public improvements. Greg Ericson's proposed theme park and a Bass Pro store in The Pyramid are not exactly what the planners had in mind.

You might call the new plan for downtown Memphis Party City or New Orleans North. Its elements will include Memphis In May, Beale Street, Mud Island River Park, Beale Street Landing at Tom Lee Park, residential development, the convention center, FedExForum, AutoZone Park, the University of Memphis law school, and maybe Bass Pro and developer Gene Carlisle's hotel at Beale and Riverside Drive.

It is a nice enough place to entertain, play, live, and visit. But most of it is publicly funded, and without more offices and businesses it seems artificial. Projects seem driven by the RDC's skill in acquiring public funding instead of demand and common sense. How many Memphians would choose to spend $6 million on cobblestones and another $29 million on a boat dock while closing neighborhood libraries and community centers and cutting summer jobs programs for kids?

One of the selling points of having an RDC with a leader who makes more money than the mayor was that its nonprofit structure would enable it to raise private money, leverage public money, and eventually generate a surplus. But the most recent financial report shows that the RDC gets $480,000 from foundations, $1.5 million from park operations, and $2.3 million from the city to manage and maintain 11 parks.

If I'm a City Council member in budget talks, I want to know when to expect that surplus. If I'm Director of Parks Services Cindy Buchanan with 167 parks, 34 community centers, 25 summer camps, and Liberty Bowl Stadium to worry about, I want a raise. And if I'm Ron Terry, I want my plaza or my money back.

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