Friday, January 16, 2009

Herenton and Justin Timberlake: Together Again?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 16, 2009 at 4:00 AM

One of the lowest moments of Willie Herenton's career as mayor came on a September morning in 2006, when he appeared on the nationally televised "Good Morning America" program with Memphis singer Justin Timberlake.

The program was televised live from Beale Street, and a young, mostly white crowd booed the mayor. Herenton, who graciously introduced Timberlake, was stung. So much so that he talked about the incident in 2007 at his victory celebration, after winning an unprecedented fifth term, mentioning both the rude spectators and the subsequent lack of outrage in the white community.

In a previously unreported angle on the proposed convention center and Beale Street stories, city officials secretly worked to bring Timberlake back to Beale Street as part of a management makeover and expansion. Correspondence obtained by the Flyer shows that Robert Lipscomb, Herenton's right-hand man for big developments, talked with Timberlake's father and with the Cordish Companies, a Baltimore development firm specializing in big urban entertainment projects such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor and a proposed Ballpark Village in St. Louis. Also included was a financing firm, Guggenheim Partners.

One of the people trying to bring the parties together was Rey Flemings, former head of the Memphis Music Commission and now working with Timberlake.

The dealings with Cordish and Guggenheim were going on at the same time that the city was giving Beale Street merchants the impression that they were close to reaching an agreement to replacing John Elkington and Performa with a new oversight committee of merchants and city representatives.

City inspectors measured the square footage in buildings and noted everything from faulty lighting fixtures and loose toilet seats. They also gathered sensitive financial information under a protective court order.

Merchants believed they were close to reaching a mediation agreement to remove Elkington and set up a new management panel. In fact, the city was courting more than one prospective partner and possibly sharing secrets.

Herenton himself had an option to buy the Greyhound Bus terminal on Union Avenue, a block from Beale Street. That was first reported by The Commercial Appeal last week. He sold the option and made $91,000, the newspaper reported.

In response to the story, Herenton said he is trying to promote minority economic development and did not do anything improper. But he did not address the investment specifically or say anything about trying to interest Cordish and Guggenheim.

In November, a delegation of Memphians went to Baltimore to visit with Cordish and see the Inner Harbor development.

"How much of the information below can you get us and how soon can we get it?" Flemings wrote to Beale Street Merchants Association leader Onzie Horne in an e-mail. Flemings included a forwarded message from Chase Martin of Cordish to Flemings and his partners seeking information about Beale Street leases, profit and loss statements, rents, and "any other similar information we can get from the city would be extremely helpful."

In another e-mail in July, 2008, Barry Klarberg of Guggenheim asks Flemings and Chase Martin of Cordish for more information about Performa and its leases.

"Have we been able to get any more information on the nature of the relationship between the city and the Proformas (sic)? What are those leases? Have we seen a P&L?"

Beale Street's sales taxes help fund the bonds that built FedExForum for the Memphis Grizzlies, who are last in attendance in the NBA. Its visitors also help support $80 million AutoZone Park and The Peabody hotel and Peabody Place retail. In the recession, if Beale Street founders, the repercussions will be felt all over downtown's sports and entertainment district.

The Flyer will publish more details on this story in its print edition next week.

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