Friday, January 25, 2013

Wharton Speaks to Friends, Employees, and a Stuffed Polar Bear

Posted By on Fri, Jan 25, 2013 at 1:40 PM

How many times do you get to write a headline like that? Not many. Mayor A C Wharton gave his state of the city speech Friday in the foyer of the Pink Palace mansion where he stared down a snarling stuffed polar bear along with a bunch of television cameras.

Wharton, a master of such occasions after a decade of city and county mayoral years, managed to give an upbeat speech despite the bear, the rain outside, the cramped venue (the closet must have already been booked) and the crummy headlines about Pinnacle Airlines and police shootings in the morning paper. He talked for 36 minutes, or twice as long as President Obama last week in his inaugural address. He tempered that factoid by noting that his wife reminded him to slow down.

Wharton got his biggest round of applause when he appealed for a cease fire on gun crimes. "We won't rest until gunfire is no longer the accepted sound track for far too many of our citizens," he said. The mayor and Police Director Toney Armstrong scheduled a press conference Friday afternoon to tout a new program.

He didn't mention Pinnacle and the as many as 500 jobs that will be leaving downtown Memphis for Minneapolis. Instead he plugged Electrolux, Mitsubishi Electric, and "jobs coming on line this year." He said they were "real jobs for real people located in the real city of Memphis" lest there was any confusion.

"The best is yet to come when it comes to jobs for the people of our city," he said.

He also gave props to the City Council for reducing the city tax rate without going into the messiness of overdue bills to the former Memphis City Schools or the impact of shifting the city payment to county government after this year. As he has said many times, he supports a half-cent increase in the city sales tax if it goes into a trust fund for pre-K and property tax reduction.

His second-biggest applause line, by my unscientific estimate, was a pledge aimed at the airport authority, on which his wife serves as a board member, that "we will succeed in bringing in other carriers and bringing down the cost of flying."

The rest of his remarks were about such chestnuts as Bass Pro (attention shoppers, half the space will be devoted to conservation exhibits), bike lanes, conventions ("our facilities are inadequate"), the river ("we need to reconnect") and job training.

As for the bear, it has dual significance as a big-game trophy and a reminder of the fate of Clarence Saunders, the entrepreneur who built the Pink Palace. He went broke after betting the wrong way in a big stock-market bet but his fame endures as one of the inventors of the modern grocery store and such names as Piggly Wiggly and Keedoozle.

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