Wednesday, March 21, 2012

State of Denial

Predictions are dicey, but these nine are easy.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 21, 2012 at 1:54 PM

Football games at Liberty Bowl Stadium are not going to draw 55,000 fans unless Tim Tebow discovers some unused college eligibility and shows up in Memphis.

Large numbers of Memphians are not going to trade in their cars for bicycles and ride them to work.

The federal government is not going to give MATA a few hundred million dollars for a light-rail line from downtown to Memphis Not-Very International Airport.

Beale Street Landing will not bring Memphians back to the river or attract as many visitors as the brainy, welcome, and grateful American Contract Bridge convention going on this week at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. Bring THEM back.

A $30 million bicycle and pedestrian path from Main Street Mall over the Harahan Bridge to Broadway in West Memphis is not going to happen anytime soon.

The city of Memphis is not going to get out of a court-ordered $57 million payment to Memphis City Schools.

Memphis taxpayers are not going to avoid a supplemental property tax increase this year.

City of Memphis and Shelby County employees are not going to avoid cuts in their benefits, pensions, and pay.

Suburban communities are not going to join a unified school system rather than create their own municipal school systems.

I'm no prophet, but I'm pretty comfortable with these nine predictions. We are living in a state of denial in Memphis. And, what's more, our politicians and business leaders know it, from mayors Wharton and Luttrell and their division directors to FedEx CEO Fred Smith.

But not a month — sometimes not even a week — goes by that I don't see or hear some person or group state that each of these propositions is viable.

Football promoters and the University of Memphis routinely inflate their attendance numbers. Even with a new coach and Tiger Lane in full flower, it would be remarkable if average actual attendance were to exceed 30,000. There is no more loyal Tiger football fan than Fred Smith, but as he told me recently, there are simply too many entertainment options these days.

Gasoline costs about $3.75 a gallon, but the answer isn't bicycles and bike lanes. It's fuel-efficient cars, moving closer to where you work, eliminating discretionary driving, taking the bus, and car pools.

MATA persists in acting as though a light-rail line, estimated to cost $450 million in local and federal funds, is not as dead as winter. And the Airport Authority thinks its problem is bad media.

The riverfront was gorgeous last Saturday evening and packed with people, even though some call Tom Lee Park the worst riverfront park in America. But self-interested parties insist that massive capital expenses, like the ones that delayed the opening of Mud Island 30 years ago and that have delayed the opening of Beale Street Landing, are miracle cures. BSL's chosen restaurant operator Bud Chittom is a great guy who has made something out of nothing over and over again. But somehow that lesson has been forgotten. Chasing federal dollars for big riverfront deals is a sucker play. Make better use of what we have.

A C Wharton, a lawyer, has said several times that he is uncomfortable defying the court-ordered payment to the schools. But he and the city council have been in denial for three years. As early as this week, however, the council is likely to approve a property tax increase. And later this year it will have to cut public employee benefits. We are, as our city government reminded us a month ago, passengers on the Titanic and there are icebergs ahead.

A delay from 2013 to 2014 has been proposed for the merger of the city and county school systems. Supposedly this would allow for a fuller debate of the issues. But as some of the people proposing such a delay well know, there is no uncertainty at all on the part of suburban communities determined to form municipal school systems. They are ready to act now in preparation for 2013. Nor are private-school parents uncertain about their future school choices. Nor are optional-school parents. Memphis and Shelby County residents have been exposed to the consolidation debate for two full years now. Minds are made up.

Energy and interest don't increase after a story is two years old. They decrease, and apathy takes over. Anyone who has held public office or served on a committee or worked in the news business knows this. Do the plan, and let the chips, the dollars, and the students fall where they may.

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