Monday, November 29, 2010

Robust Retail?

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 4:03 PM

Last weekend saw one of my favorite holidays ... Black Friday, of course.

And what a Black Friday it was. (Watch for Cyber Monday figures tomorrow.)

For the last few weeks or so, I've helped a few friends update their wardrobes and it's meant that I've been shopping pretty much every weekend. And I cannot believe how many people have been out and about.

True, I've hit a bunch of sales, but this has been incredible. Lines six people deep. Cashiers at every register. It certainly looks like something is going right with the economy.

ShopperTrak says early November sales might have stolen some sales from Friday — and really, can you blame people for shopping early when we start seeing the candy canes come out before the Halloween candy? — but even so, there was a slight increase in the number of shoppers out from last year.

Guess we'll see what happens the rest of the holiday season ...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vancouver Deputy Manager Focuses on Environment/Economy Overlap

Posted By on Mon, Nov 8, 2010 at 12:26 PM

“Here’s what I want you to think about: How can all of our efforts solve three or four problems at once?”

So said Vancouver deputy city manager Sadhu Aufochs Johnston at Livable Memphis’ 4th Annual Summit for Neighborhood Leaders Saturday morning at Bridges.

“Let’s rethink how we’re doing what we’re doing in cities,” he said. “We don’t have the money to do one-off solutions anymore.”

Johnston focused on Chicago and Vancouver, two cities that have a goal of being the greenest city in the world, and ideas whose solutions overlap between the environment and the economy.

In Chicago, a 40-acre brownfield site that had been vacant for 30 years was rented to the utility company for a solar power system that can generate enough power for 10,000 homes.

"If we cleaned it up, it would be worth $2 million, but it was going to cost $30 million to clean it up," Johnston said. "After installing the solar system, the phones starting ringing off the hook. People and companies wanted to be near this thing."

Continue reading »

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Big Short

Posted By on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 10:51 AM

I'm one of those people fascinated by the mortgage/foreclosure crisis: how it happened, how it was allowed to happen, the resulting effect on Americans and their communities ...

So I've recommended Michael Lewis' The Big Short to a lot of people. Lewis is one of these talented writers who can take a sprawling, complicated issue and make it easily digestable. In this case, he focuses on the six or so people who saw the bottom coming and bet against the American mortgage machine. By doing so, he encapsulates exactly what was going on and how things were slipping through the cracks.

Fresh Air's Terry Gross also focused on the "complex foreclosure mess" last night with New York Times financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson.

One of the things that both Morgenson and Lewis talk about is how a bunch of risky loans would be pooled together — and because that seemed to equal a diverse portfolio — it would be given a better rating.

From Fresh Air:

"Thousands of them would go into one security, like say 10,000 mortgages, from a variety of places. They were trying to achieve diversification in these pools so as to diminish the risks associated with them.

And so you would have varying economic ability to repay in the loans. You would have very high-grade loans, you would have subprime loans, you would have a variety of loans from different geographic areas. And so this would, you know, it was hoped, be put into a security that would perform well over time and, you know, where people would repay the mortgages. And at the end of the line, the owner of the securities, and there were many of them because they were sliced up into varying risk degrees, okay. But in case, the idea was that everyone pretty much would get repaid at the end of the line.

Well, what was happening that many people did not recognize was that the types of loans were poisonous, toxic as you describe them, made to people who could not repay them, carried interest rates that would ratchet up dramatically after a few years, thereby making certain that they couldn't be repaid."

Lewis goes even further, talking about how loans were made to people who had very little credit history (thin credit files). Say, recent immigrants to the country. Because they had no previous credit history, it was easy to manipulate a high credit score. These loans would then be used to help achieve a certain average credit score in the pool of mortgages, making them appear to be less risky.

So if you're interested, both Lewis' book and Gross' interview are worth a look.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pinnacle Destination: Downtown

Posted By on Wed, Oct 6, 2010 at 3:35 PM

Pinnacle Airlines is not taking off. So to speak.

After being wooed by Mississippi and then by local leaders in Shelby County, Pinnacle has decided to relocate to One Commerce Square.

“I am so happy to welcome Pinnacle Airlines and their employees to downtown Memphis. They have been terrific corporate citizens of Memphis for many years, and their belief in our city is truly inspiring," Memphis mayor A C Wharton said in a statement. "I know that they were considering several extremely enticing offers, including at least one that would have taken their corporate headquarters out of Tennessee altogether. This decision speaks volumes about our downtown business community’s long-term strength."

After what Wharton called an "unprecedented" joint effort by the Memphis City Council, Shelby County Mark Luttrell, the Center City Commission, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, the airline will take over 12 floors in the downtown building.

In August, the City Council approved $18 million in economic incentives for Pinnacle, including $3 million from a city economic development fund.

The Center City Commission (CCC) is hosting a welcome pep rally for Pinnacle employees this Friday, October 8th, at Main and Monroe from 8:45 to 9:15 a.m.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Marketplace Takes On Memphis

Posted By on Tue, Sep 21, 2010 at 9:40 AM

Memphis — and its lawsuit against Wells Fargo — were featured on American Public Media's Marketplace last night.

Jeremy Hobson and local attorney Steve Barlow drove through Orange Mound, and they estimated that a third of the neighborhood's homes have gone into foreclosure.

In the lawsuit, the city alleges that Wells Fargo violated the Fair Housing Act by engaging in what some call "reverse red-lining," targeting African-American families and neighborhoods for sub-prime loans. For more on that, click on this earlier story.

From Marketplace:

Attorney Steve Barlow says many of the former owners of these homes were doing just fine until lenders came along and convinced them to refinance or take on a second mortgage. An adjustable-rate loan that meant more cash in their pockets right away in exchange for a sky-high mortgage rate later. What's left for all to see is foreclosure after foreclosure.

Memphis mayor A C Wharton was quoted as saying the foreclosures have caused a big loss in property tax revenue. The piece also cited a statistic that between 2005 and 2008, the city lost 7,000 homeowners, two-thirds of them due to foreclosure.

Closer to home, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center has begun filming what it calls "Blightwatch."

In this particular video, Peace & Justice showcases a home at 1253 Capital now owned by JP Morgan Chase. But the firm hasn't paid city or county property taxes on the home in the last three years, a debt that amounts to $2,099.27 in unpaid taxes.

That might not sound like a lot, but multiply that by the number of similar foreclosures and it starts to add up.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The First 100 Days

Posted By on Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 2:05 PM

It might still be summer for many of us, but class was definitely in session this morning.

With LeMoyne-Owen College president Johnnie Watson and U of M basketball coach Josh Pastner in attendance, Leadership Memphis kicked off its 100 Things in 100 Days initiative today at Christian Brothers University.

Part of the Memphis Talent Dividend's College Attainment Initiative, 100 Things aims to have 100 commitments from organizations and individuals of quick things they can help more people in the region graduate from college.

The talent dividend's overall goal is to increase college attainment by just 1 percent in Shelby County. According to research by Joe Cortright, that could mean an economic impact of $1 billion locally.

Local institutions are also eying the more immediate impact.

Watson noted that all the area college presidents are involved in the initiative.

"I'm committed because I'm selfish," he said. "If we can increase enrollment by 10 students, that means $100,000 for LeMoyne-Owen."

To give participants an idea of what 100 Things could mean, scholarship programs and corporate tuition reimbursement programs flashed on the screen behind co-chairs Tomeka Hart and Kathy Buckman Gibson.

But a more personal idea came from Owen Phillips, a professor at UT who teaches at the Med. Her idea for a "Tiger Parent" program, which would pair students from the University of Memphis' Fresh mentoring program with a local family.

The idea was spawned after she saw a NYT article that talked about how hard colleges work to recruit freshman, but don't do as much to recruit — or retain — sophomores.

"Whey they really need is a Tiger family, a Memphis family," Phillips said. "We're looking for professionals, empty nesters, maybe just people with a little energy. Once a month you touch base with the student and their peer mentor."

Another thing is a college fair being held this Friday, August 13th, at the main library from noon to 5 p.m. So far, more than 20 college and universities are scheduled to attend.

In fact, the talent dividend has already garnered more than 60 commitments for "things," but is looking for at least 40 more. For more info, visit Leadership Memphis' new talent dividend website.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Peace & Justice's Take on Foreclosures

Posted By on Thu, Aug 5, 2010 at 10:46 AM

If you couldn't make the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center's forum on foreclosures and blight several weeks ago, they've been gracious enough to post a five-minute presentation on the subject to YouTube.

You can also read some of my more recent pieces on foreclosures and its effect on the local community here and here.

Thanks, PD!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bankruptcy Courts and Foreclosures

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 10:08 AM

Every time I write about foreclosures and the mortgage crisis, I feel like I have to leave a bunch of stuff out. This week was no exception.

Last Thursday, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center held a summit about combating blight in local neighborhoods as part of its Issues First campaign. Then Monday, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen hosted a subcommittee meeting about foreclosures at the U of M law school.

One thing panelists talked about were proposed changes to the federal bankruptcy code that would allow judges to modify mortgage loans. Currently, filing Chapter 13 allows for the adjustment of debts, with the exception of a mortgage loan for the debtor's primary residence.

There’s some concern that that would mean more bankruptcy filings, but David Kennedy, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee, testified that wasn’t the case.

“People in mortgage trouble are already in bankruptcy court. They will give up their cars, their pets, they’ll forgo buying medicine. They will do anything to be able to keep their homes,” Kennedy said. “I don’t believe there will be a flood of new filings, because these people are already in the courts. We just can’t help them.”

Continue reading »

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Foreclosure Summit Today

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 10:38 AM

As part of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center Issues First campaign, they will host a neighborhood and community action summit tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church to talk about how the community can combat blight in a comprehensive manner.

Memphis has been hit hard by foreclosures, especially in traditional African-American neighborhoods.

"Not only will reducing blight improve the quality of life of thousands within our community but can also save tax payers millions of dollars," says Brad Watkins, organizing coordinator of the summit.

A Peace & Justice Center study has found that fires in vacant homes cost the city anywhere from $1.3 million to $6.8 million in fire suppression, investigation, and property maintenance and demolition.

Many are set by squatters.

About 1,300 vacant homes have been boarded up, at a cost of $600 per property. By contrast, a fire in that same property (that hasn't been boarded up) can cost the city $17,500.

map courtesy Mid-South Peace & Justice
  • map courtesy Mid-South Peace & Justice

They expect 2010 county mayoral candidates Joe Ford and Mark Luttrell to attend, as well as sheriff candidate Randy Wade, county commissioners Steve Mulroy and Henri Brooks, and other elected officials.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

DFS Pamper Party

Posted By on Wed, Jun 16, 2010 at 8:30 AM

In our print edition this week, I wrote about one of my favorite organizations — Dress for Success — and an event they held last week at True Salon.

(You might remember, if you read my Style Sessions blog, that a few months ago, Dress for Success partnered with the Flyer for our Swap & Shop event.)

The staff and ownership of True Salon wanted to give back to the community and donated their services to 12 of Dress for Success' Professional Women's Group members, including hair cuts, coloring, hand massages, etc.

Here's my friend Johnnie Hatten with True Salon owner Amy McMurtrey. (Johnnie has the most infectious and omnipresent smile.)


Also, I couldn't figure a way to get this into my column exactly, but right now the Dress for Success closet has a bunch of rolling racks for all their suits and assorted work attire. But they are kind of hoping someone might want to donate the materials and time to put up permanent clothing racks. So if anyone is interested in that, please contact Tiffany Smith at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fast Tracked

Posted By on Wed, Jun 2, 2010 at 4:09 PM

When Leadership Memphis began its first season of FastTrack, a two-month program aimed at emerging leaders in 2008 — the same year the organization turned 30 — I wrote about it.

"It is targeted to a younger and more up-and-coming leadership group," Leadership Memphis president David Williams said of FastTrack. "The executive program is targeted at proven leaders, those people already in senior leadership positions."

"For the last four years, with our executive program, we've been talking about the importance of recruiting and retaining talent in Memphis," Williams says. "We said let's see what we can do, and voila."

Earlier this year — full disclosure — I went through the program myself.

Now, I don't see how Leadership Memphis could find a better group of talented, wonderful, socially conscious, community-oriented, and fun individuals than they had in the FastTrack program this past spring, but they seem bound and determined to do so.

From now until June 30th, Leadership Memphis is taking nominations for the FastTrack 2010 Fall program, which begins in August and ends in November.

During the program, participants will learn about leadership skills and about Memphis. There are even field trips! (Just like in grade school, but without the boxed lunch or the bus driver.)

For more information about the program, visit or call Leadership Memphis at 901.278.0016. To nominate someone (including yourself), send name and contact information to:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Local Economy Fun Fact

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 2010 at 12:30 PM

Fun fact I didn't get to use in this week's column about diversifying both transportation options and, to a lesser degree, Memphis' logistics based economy:

One in three local jobs are tied to the airport.

So, no offense UPS (b/c I know you have a base here, too) but I think I have to side with FedEx on the whole strike-limiting labor law thing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Balanced Budget

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2009 at 2:26 PM

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton told the City Council's executive committee this afternoon that the budget he plans to present April 21st will include no property tax increase, no layoffs, and a three percent raise for city employees.

"If you have any anxieties about our budget next year, I hope I can relax you," Herenton told council members.

Herenton recently attended the national conference of mayors and said he listened to horrible budget woes other cities were facing.

"I ask you not to look at Memphis in isolation, look at Memphis in the global economy," he said. "I felt good being the mayor of Memphis as compared to Atlanta or Philadelphia."

In the last two weeks, Herenton has been meeting with the city's bargaining unions; he has already assured those groups that there will be no city employee layoffs.

"We're not closing fire stations; we're filling police classes," he said. "This is a strong city, even in a declining fiscal condition."

Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware called the news "a sigh of relief."

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