Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Great Deal or "Get Real"?

Condos go for half-price in a unique Mindtown neighborhood.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 at 11:26 AM

Burned in stocks and bonds and bored by alternatives that pay 1 percent interest, I paid off my home mortgage last week, locking in a 5 percent return and assuring that the Deal of the Year would materialize the minute I wired my check.

Sure enough, the stock market rallied, shares of FedEx went up nearly 10 percent in two days, and 18 new condos in Cooper-Young, a one-of-a-kind neighborhood in Midtown, were auctioned off last weekend for as little as $50,000. When the 32 units were built in 2007, they were listed at $125,000 and up.

The two-story Pie Factory, named for the old Keathley Pie Company that opened in 1932, is two blocks west of the fairgrounds and four blocks east of the Cooper-Young business district. The units have big windows, secure parking, fancy floors and kitchens, and 11-foot ceilings. The neighborhood boasts an active residents' association, a festival, a farmer's market, a better-than-average public elementary school, a bank, Burke's Book Store, and restaurants such as Celtic Crossing, Java Cabana, Sweet Grass, Grace, the Beauty Shop, Young Avenue Deli, Tsunami, and Au Fond. Bike lanes are slated for Southern Avenue and Cooper.

The fairgrounds is about to get a Salvation Army Kroc Center for indoor fitness and youth sports, outdoor playing fields, and $16 million in publicly funded improvements to "Tiger Lane," the entrance to the football stadium off of East Parkway. Young Avenue is being extended into the former Libertyland site. If you're so inclined, you can walk from the Pie Factory to nine football games a year.

So how come the Pie Factory didn't take off? Was the auction a great deal or just getting real?

Emily Bishop, communications director for the Cooper-Young Community Association, has lived in the neighborhood since 1987. The Pie Factory, she said, was "an idea ahead of its time." She is disappointed that the commercial spaces on the ground floor are empty and wary of the units auctioned off to investors who may plan to rent them.

"One of our concerns when this project was proposed was that if they didn't sell well, it might become a bigger problem of rentals that were not maintained," she said.

Linda Sowell, a realtor whose office is in Midtown, said the auction prices "were lower than I would have thought." She thinks one problem with the condos is the lack of outdoor space. "People want a balcony or a courtyard or something." Meredith Smith, 25, an art teacher with Memphis City Schools who came here four years ago with Teach For America, said she loves living in Cooper-Young. She rents a small house near Cooper and likes the neighbors of different ages, the restaurants, and the funky ambience. She was not surprised, however, that the condos didn't sell out when they were listed for more than $100,000.

"Why would you buy a condo, when you can get a house here for the same price?" she said.

James Rasberry, co-developer of the Pie Factory, said that after 10 units initially sold for $125,000 to $150,000, sales "stopped cold" when the recession hit. The auction prices, he said, ranged from $50,000 to $82,000, with half the buyers being investors and half people who plan to live in their units.

Rasberry also represented the group that wanted to put a grocery store in Overton Square in Midtown but withdrew in the face of community opposition.

"The problem with Midtown is household income," he said. "A national company or developer looks at it as a fourth-tier or fifth-tier site compared to the Poplar and Perkins intersection in East Memphis or Germantown or Collierville."

My theory is that the Pie Factory looked good on paper. At half-price, it may pan out, especially if the fairgrounds achieves its potential. But it goes against the grain. Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods or New Urbanism or whatever you call it is one of those things, like supporting public education and reducing your carbon footprint, that is more praised in theory than in action. Good for someone else but not you. Until gas goes to $5 a gallon, most of us aren't going green, and we'll keep our cars and houses.

And as Sowell says about the current real estate market, the glass is not half-empty or half-full; the glass is too big. Even when bargains abound, Memphis needs more people with the ability to make a down payment, whatever and wherever they buy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Power Booster

Charles McVean bets on a hybrid recumbent bicycle.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 12:32 PM

When the Shelby Farms Greenline bike trail opens in October, don't be surprised to see a silver-haired septuagenarian cruising along on an electric-powered recumbent bicycle.

Memphis commodities trader Charles McVean is betting that the Aerobic Cruiser Hybrid Cycle will ride a wave of enthusiasm for the bike trail, going green, and alternative transportation.

The bicycles will be manufactured in Memphis and sold at a new bike shop in the High Point Terrace neighborhood where McVean grew up. The trail is about a quarter of a mile south of the store, which shares space in a small shopping center with a grocery store, pub, and dry cleaner.

The Aerobic Cruiser Hybrid Cycle is a rich ride. It will sell for $5,000, including $800 worth of lithium ion batteries, putting it in the price category of motorcycles and used cars. McVean plans to have them on sale before the Greenline opens October 9th. After the initial production of two-wheelers, he hopes to have a three-wheeler within a year.

"It's an alternative to a car if you have a safe place to ride," said McVean, founder of McVean Trading. "The biggest problem is the inability to get across I-240 safely. Now we go right under it on the bike trail."

Conventional recumbent bicycles have small wheels, a low profile, and an ample seat with a backrest to make pedaling easier on the knees. The electric hybrid can switch between pedal power and electric power and cruise at 15-20 miles an hour.

McVean got the bug a few summers ago when he was vacationing in northern Michigan. The countryside is hilly and windy. McVean was riding a high-tech semi-recumbent tricycle built in Montana and reading up on the lithium battery that will power General Motors hybrid cars.

"I was working out and along comes a guy in an electric car. He parks the car, goes inside the facility, and rides a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes, grimacing the whole time. Then he rides off in his electric car. It dawned on me that we could create a comfortable mobile exercise machine that gives the same workout while riding through the countryside at 20 miles an hour and making exercise fun."

McVean is always looking for useful ways to spend his money and energy. Six years ago, he decided that his college alma mater, Vanderbilt, had enough to say grace over and that his wealth would have a bigger impact at his old high school. He funded a foundation and peer-tutoring and cash-incentives program at East High that has helped many students graduate and go to college and graduate school. Other kids, however, hold up their end of the bargain and graduate but aren't college material and can't find a job.

McVean and his right-hand man, Bill Sehnert, are working with the vo-tech people at East and hope that eventually Aerobic Cruisers will provide some jobs and develop mechanical aptitude.

The High Point shop will have a service facility, food and beverages, "organized junkets" but not rentals, and high-end mountain bikes and road bikes as well as hybrids. The company is the title sponsor of the grand opening of the Greenline.

"The green wave is going to be a huge deal," said McVean, whose previous brainstorms included indoor horse racing with robot-mounted hackney ponies back in 1987 when Memphis had a serious flirtation with pari-mutuel betting.

Electric hybrid vehicles are getting serious attention from General Motors and FedEx, among others. Bicycles? Well, they led to bigger and better things for Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers. So if you're riding the Greenline this fall and get passed by an old guy on a rolling easy chair, remember he might be power-assisted.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Art of the Deal

LIke Couach Cal, LeBron took it to another city and another level.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 12:27 PM

How's your summer?

Jim Gray is getting grief for asking Lebron James that and other softball questions on ESPN's "The Decision" last week, before getting around, some 25 minutes later, to the subject of which team James will play for next season.

Big deal. The fuss over "The Decision," which NBA commissioner David Stern called "ill-conceived," is laughable. Some might say the NBA itself is ill-conceived, but that's another matter.

James monetized his talents and his future earnings. ESPN monetized its brand, scored a ratings coup, and provided some welcome programming and debate fodder between such classics as the NFL draft and the finals of the World Cup and baseball's All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby. Gray, who famously pressed Pete Rose about gambling in an interview during the 1999 World Series, played along. He is far from the first or the worst. In fact, as the winner of 11 Emmys, he's one of the best. He and ESPN didn't invent kissing butt for access.

Star college and pro players abandon their hometowns and old teams to join forces on other teams in all of the major sports. They also join forces with ESPN and their chosen interviewers and ghost writers. James took it to another level, as they say. What he did might be unusual now, but it won't be in a few years, just as teenagers jumping from high school to the NBA or holding press conferences to announce their college choice is no longer unusual.

"The Decision" did well in the ratings, with nearly 10 million viewers. That's all that matters to the NBA and ESPN and Team LeBron. As I watched Gray and James kill time, I realized I had seen this combination of polish, jock charisma, and good looks before. If James had decided to play one year of college basketball instead of going straight to the NBA in 2003, is there any doubt he would have gone to the University of Memphis? He would have been a perfect fit with Coach John Calipari and Athletic Director R.C. Johnson, just like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, slightly younger versions of James with a year of college ball behind them.

Calipari was the master of recruiting the one-and-done superstar. He gave Memphis nine years and a Final Four. James gave Cleveland seven years and one NBA Finals. By current standards, both of those are reasonably long tenures. Both Calipari and James were celebrated when they came and scorned when they left. So it goes, sports fans. You knew what you were getting.

And television viewers knew what they were getting with "The Decision." Gray's "How's your summer?" was not a bad icebreaker for someone charged with padding half an hour around the two seconds it takes to say "I'm going to Miami." Maybe not as good as "So Pete, isn't it time to come clean about this gambling thing?" or "Kobe, are you saying you had consensual sex with that woman in the hotel?" or "Mike, do you regret biting off the tip of Evander Holyfield's ear?"

But it wasn't that bad.

Believe me, breaking the ice and beating around the bush before asking the Big Question is harder than it looks. I once blithered for a minute before the advertising executive I was interviewing interrupted to point out that my socks were too short and I was showing too much hairy leg and then asked me to repeat the question.

The Lebronathon was at least as suspenseful as the primetime telecast of the New York Jets' 29th pick of the NFL draft or the first 110 minutes of Spain against the Netherlands or the come-from-behind victory of David Ortiz over Hanley Ramirez in the Home Run Derby. And it was a lot more exciting than the Memphis Grizzlies' press conference to announce the signing of Rudy Gay a week after it was already known.

Purists, may you spend a year dealing with Arkansas Highway Patrol officers who think reporters should be shot on sight, Rebuild Government meetings, school board meetings, jocks who say "we need to step up," corporate flacks who sit in on their boss's interviews, and government officials who are "not at liberty to say" a damn thing.

So "way to go," Jim and ESPN. I'll take canned LeBron any day. Good luck in Miami, and I look forward to watching LeBron and Bosh and Wade and the Heat at FedExForum. Meanwhile, you made this summer a little more interesting.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Compulsive Reading

The public library, for better or worse, as a book delivery system.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 7, 2010 at 11:39 AM

"He walked on. The old limestone building was a library. That's OK, he thought. Librarians are nice people. They tell you things, if you ask them." — from One Shot, by Lee Child

Librarians are indeed nice people, and libraries are among my favorite places, but I wonder if libraries are history.

I eat lunch once a week with a friend who complains constantly about the small type in this newspaper but reads books on a handheld device that is not much larger than a cellphone. I'd rather read on the walls of caves, but my friend is the future, and I'm the Neanderthal.

Libraries managed to survive this round of city budget cuts earlier this year, but it's probably just a matter of time. The main library on Poplar is an architectural behemoth in the age of Kindle and the iPad. Branch libraries are often little-used and expensive to operate. They'll be back under the gun next year or the year after that.

This is a shame, because if you enjoy reading, then libraries are about the most bang for the buck of any public service. Memphis libraries do so many things right and are putting up a good fight. Their public computers are great equalizers. Both the main library and branch libraries are stocking more copies of more new books and making them easier to browse and check out.

My mother was a librarian who used to bring home a half-dozen books and leave them on the coffee table, figuring I would read one or two of them eventually. It became a habit. I rake four or five books a week off the shelves of new releases at the downtown library. It could not be easier. Two librarians, no waiting. Me and the homeless guys. Ten minutes, and I'm out of there. Typically, I read two of them, browse one, never open the fourth, return them late, pay a few bucks in fines, and repeat.

There are disadvantages to letting someone else select your book menu. Some popular writers are so good that if I pick up one of their books and take it on a road trip, I won't read anything else. When there are so many good books, why are there so many bad movies? Why reinvent James Bond and Jason Bourne when Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Loren Estleman's Amos Walker, and Nelson DeMille's John Corey deserve some screen time?

I probably know more than anyone needs to know about the marriage problems of John and Elizabeth Edwards, thanks to Game Change and The Politician. And about South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and his wife Jenny (beautiful and principled but flat-chested and spurned for a South American cutie) thanks to Staying True. And about Elizabeth Gilbert and Felipe thanks to Committed. But reading about other people's screw-ups makes you feel better about your own.

And reading about self-improvement is easier than actually doing something about it. I devoured Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Drive by Daniel Pink, and The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande but remain a forgetful slacker. Fortunately, there's a book for that, too — try My Footprint by compulsive eater Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David's manager on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Why do we read what we read? For one thing, because it's available. In reading as in retailing, shelf space matters. The beauty of the new-releases section is convenience and variety. Like a traveler, you get out of your ruts and meet people you wouldn't meet otherwise.

Sloane Crosley (How Did You Get This Number) is young and funny. Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) shows how people who do things out of the ordinary are not like the rest of us. Christopher Hitchens (Hitch-22) is interesting whether he's writing about God or himself. Andre Agassi (Open) is several cuts above the average ex-jock as an author. Sebastian Junger (War) brings home the war in Afghanistan.

Would I have read these if I had had to prowl the library stacks with a copy of The New York Times Book Review in my hand? Maybe, but I doubt it. The Dewey Decimal System is a mystery. If something is on the upper floors of the main library, just ask one of the librarians to help you find it. They're nice people, and they tell you things if you ask them.

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