Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In the Swim of Things

From afraid-of-the-water to lifeguard, thanks to community pools.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2013 at 4:01 PM

Nobody goes into the water planning to drown.

Not Annazar Nazarov, a 44-year-old Memphian who got caught in a rip current off the beach near Destin earlier this month. Or William Haithcox, 48, who went in to rescue him. Or two other people on the same stretch of beach that week.

Or Demavius Bailey, 15, and Cameron Hogg, 13, who drowned on the same day in separate incidents in Memphis community center swimming pools five years ago.

And certainly not the dozens of kids at the Bickford Aquatic Center the other day who eagerly raised their arms when lifeguard Christian Kimble asked for a show of hands from those who could swim. Trouble was, several of the same hands shot up when Kimble asked “how many of you DON’T know how to swim?”

Kimble, an 18-year-old graduate of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, knows better. He learned to swim at a Memphis community center when he was 16.

Kentarrius Braxton (l) and Christian Kimble. - ABBY WILSON
  • Abby Wilson
  • Kentarrius Braxton (l) and Christian Kimble.

“I used to be like that,” he said. “I hated the water. I was afraid of it. A lot of people automatically say they can swim when you ask them, but my definition is swim competitive [on the club’s swim team].”

Kimble was one of several instructors working with some 70 kids Tuesday at Bickford, one of 17 Memphis community pools, at what was billed as “The World’s Largest Swim Lesson.”

“We’re trying to change the culture,” said Anthony Norris, board chairman of sponsor Splash Mid-South. “Swimming is not common in the minority community, but Memphis has a long history of African-American swimmers. Tarik Sugarmon (attorney) swam in college, and Willie Gregory (director of community relations for Nike) was a lifeguard. So this is more of a renaissance.”

Fortunately, the swimming pools have been spared from city budget cuts. More than 5,000 Memphians have learned to swim in the last five years, and there has not been a drowning since the double fatalities that closed pools in 2008.

“Some of these kids are so frightened when they get in the pool that they start hyperventilating,” said swim coach Cynthia Dickerson of Splash Mid-South. “It may take them two or three days to put their head in the water. Some of the older ones are embarrassed and may not come back after the first day. And some go on to be on the swim team and work as lifeguards.”

Kimble’s method combines patience and persistence.

“Once they get in the pool, I don’t let them leave it,” he said.

He took a group of eight kids through five steps ­­— blow bubbles, submerge face, open eyes, bob up and down, and pick up a yellow plastic shovel underwater. Then the moment of truth: pushing off underwater from the side of the pool, arms extended with hands together, and gliding a few yards. A few kids froze and others came up sputtering. Kimble’s assistant, 12-year-old Kentarrius Braxton, demonstrated perfect technique with a powerful push and flipper kick that sent him nearly half-way across the pool. In two years, he has lowered his time to 1:13 in the 100 meters.

He grinned and nodded when I asked him if kids lie about being able to swim.

“I said that too,” he said.

This is not unique to children or the inner-city. When I was in Florida on vacation last week, I talked to former Memphian John Farmer, owner of Yellowfin Ocean Sports. I griped about the double-red flags on the beach, which meant swimming was prohibited even though the sun was out and the waves were only a couple feet high. Drive 600 miles and the blanking-bureaucrats threaten to fine you if you go in the blanking-ocean. An ambulance roared past, siren blaring, while Farmer rented me a kayak.

“That means they pulled someone out of the water,” he said.

“You think?”

“I know,” he said. “There have been four drownings in Walton County in the last 48 hours,” a statement confirmed by the local paper.

The all-time worst day was June 8, 2003, when eight people drowned. One of them was a lifeguard on vacation.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Budget Ideas

Wharton recalculates, council complains, commission sets a rate.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 4, 2013 at 4:06 PM

You ask for suggestions, you get suggestions.

City councilman Jim Strickland, chairman of the budget committee, invited colleagues to make suggestions for revising next year's budget. The state comptroller recently served notice that Memphis cannot balance its budget by shifting debt payments around.

Six members took Strickland up on his suggestion, with ideas ranging from cutting corporate subsidies and the animal shelter to restoring funds for city employees, community centers, and libraries. Three members pressed for more savings and lower taxes, and three recommended restoring services and employee pay and benefits previously cut.

Absent were the sort of extreme alternatives floated by Mayor A C Wharton last week, such as raising the property tax rate from $3.11 to $4.83 or setting the tax rate at $3.11 and laying off 3,250 employees. Wharton was bracketing the target. No one seriously believes either of those things will happen. The mayor's latest recommendation, presented to the council Tuesday, is a $3.51 rate with 400 buyouts and layoffs of employees. But several council members were not ready to sign on to the mayor's plan.

Kemp Conrad said reducing the solid waste budget by $17 million would save homeowners $60 to $85 a year in fees.

Edmund Ford Jr. suggested restoring $5 million for community centers, libraries, and code-enforcement workers and shifting $12 million for streetlights to Memphis Light, Gas & Water.

Harold Collins opted for eliminating the animal shelter and trimming police expenditures and funding for economic development to save $9.5 million.

Janis Fullilove opted for allocating $1 million for the YWCA's domestic violence program, $3.4 million for a parking garage in Cooper-Young, and $1.5 million for Southbrook Mall.

Lee Harris recommended cutting an International Paper subsidy of $3.5 million and $2.1 million for the Economic Development Growth Engine.

Wanda Halbert wanted to restore the 4.6 percent salary reduction to city employees with "absolutely no employee layoffs." And she wanted more information about any laws that prohibit transfer of operating funds to capital improvement funds and vice versa — a frequent disclaimer when such suggestions are made.

Halbert wants to revisit all sharing agreements with county government — a tall order for a fiscal year that ends June 30th. The Shelby County Commission tentatively approved a budget this week that raises the county tax rate from $4.02 to $4.38. It includes a $20 million increase in funding for the Unified School District, which is $10 million less than the school board requested.

Doing the math, the combined property tax rate for a Memphis homeowner looks to be around $7.89 heading into the late innings. But I wouldn't bet against $8 when all is said and done.

On closer inspection, savings often turn out to be illusory because they shift costs and responsibilities from the city to the county. The obvious example is school funding, with Memphis no longer paying $64 million a year because of the merger.

I asked interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson what impact charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District will have on the budget. There are 41 charter schools with approximately 12,000 students scheduled to be in the mix in August.

He said that if the ASD takes over a school, "all our operational costs would go away but we lose the per-pupil funding" so it's a wash. If the ASD authorizes a charter school, "the charter gets the building for free, so there's a big advantage to working with ASD." Other charter schools have sharing agreements with the school system to pay to use vacant space in buildings where the district school continues to operate.

Five district schools are closing this summer, with 12 more under study for closing. The operating costs, Hopson said, are roughly the same whether a school is full or half-empty. Opponents of school closings say the savings are overstated, doom neighborhoods to further decline, and put students at risk in hostile settings.

Whether or not suburban high schools stay at capacity will depend on the municipal schools outcome and the treatment of students who live in unincorporated Shelby County. Germantown schools, for example, enroll a large number of students who don't live in the city of Germantown.

There are lots of uncertainties, but higher taxes is not one of them. That's a given.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kevin Kane’s Conflicts

Some realistic thoughts on conflicts of interest at the CVB.

Posted By on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 7:59 AM

Some people think Kevin Kane has a conflict of interest because he is head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and one of the owners of Club 152 and Blues City Café on Beale Street.

More accurately, he has a convergence of interest. The distinction is important and says a lot about cronyism in the nonprofit world and how business gets done in Memphis, whether you're talking about Beale Street, sports and entertainment, hospitals, or the airport.

The "news" that Kane is a part-owner of the clubs is no surprise. Kane has made no secret of it for years, and it has been the subject of several media reports.

"With the approval of the Executive Committee of the CVB's Board of Directors, I became a minority investor" in 1996, Kane said in a letter to his board last week, adding that he was "shocked" to hear Club 152 had been closed as a public nuisance. Less shocking, it reopened a week later in time for the biggest Beale Street weekend of the year.

The businesses, he said, were "underperforming assets" and he is a "passive investor." Club 152 grosses somewhere between $5 million and $10 million a year, according to a trade publication Kane referred me to. If you can invest worry-free in a $10-million-a-year business fueled by alcohol and after-hours parties, then you make good money in your day job, which Kane does. He earned $341,000, according to the CVB's most recent tax form, with a steady revenue stream of hotel industry taxes.

"I have worked hard and successfully to keep my job-related responsibilities and decisions separated from my personal investment decisions to preclude conflicts," he wrote. "Our internal systems validate our performance."

One of those internal systems, board chairman Harold Graeter told The Commercial Appeal he saw no cause for concern. As well he might. Graeter works for the Liberty Bowl Festival Association, which, like the CVB, is a nonprofit organization. Kane was listed as chairman of the board on the most recent tax form. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl doesn't disclose its salaries, but other bowl games pay their top guys $341,000 or more.

All that Kane seems to be saying is that he doesn't deprive the CVB of his full-time services. He has a convergence of interests, not a conflict. What's good for the convention and tourism business is good for Beale Street and vice versa, and the same goes for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, the Orpheum, the Riverfront Development Corporation, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority.

All of those are nonprofits, too. Their boards and executive ranks are dotted with familiar names of former public officials, consultants, and staffers at other nonprofits. Their top executives, like Kane, earn way more than the city mayor's $171,000. But not nearly as much as the top people at some local nonprofit hospitals, colleges, or private schools. I used to think disclosure would keep nonprofit salaries in check, but the opposite is true. Pay is measured against one's peer group. Sky's the limit.

Is Kane screwing other establishments on Beale Street and other parts of Memphis by channeling business to his joints? That's a tricky one. The CVB's direct bookings amount to a few thousand dollars worth of business, but Kane's oft-made claim that Beale Street is Tennessee's top tourist attraction could be seen as a soft sell. If he were showing favoritism, you would expect an outcry from other restaurants and club owners. Kane has been on the job for 20 years, long enough to remember that if Beale Street was ever an "underperforming asset" hard up for investors, that was long before FedExForum, the Westin, the Grizzlies, and ESPN cameras.

Kane also has a convergence of interest with the local media. He is a super salesman and quote machine who is usually easy to reach. He's photogenic. He's on the ball and in the know. He's helpful. He has been on the cover of Memphis Parent and Memphis magazine, both owned by the parent company of this newspaper.

So are we conflicted? I guess so, but the same could be said of media relationships with many newsmakers and advertisers. How would Kane divest himself of his Beale Street investments if he decided to do so? Certainly he would want his original stake back plus appreciation. I don't see that happening. Like the closing of Club 152, this too shall pass, soon.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Upscale Freakism"

Beale Street's Club 152 draws the late-night crowd and a drug bust.

Posted By on Wed, May 22, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Say this for Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich: She doesn't pull her punches. Or telegraph them.

After a seven-month investigation and a quick heads-up to the news media, the DA and Tennessee drug agents hit Beale Street where and when it hurts last week. They closed the highest-grossing club with the highest-profile owner in the middle of the Memphis In May barbecue contest and a week before the Grizzlies play San Antonio in the NBA Playoffs next door at FedExForum.


"It was like closing Macy's two weeks before Christmas," said attorney Ted Hansom, who represents Club 152 owners Charlie Ryan, Bud Chittom, and Kevin Kane, the head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Club 152 is near the western gateway to the Beale Street Entertainment District, but unlike most properties it is not owned by the city. It doesn't show up on the Shelby County Assessor's website. Kane, who coaches one of Weirich's children in youth sports, said he and his partners bought the club and the real estate in 2009 "as a pure real estate play" because it is next door to Blues City Cafe, which they also own. They bought it with Rusty Hyneman, but bought him out after a year.

"I'm one of the owners, but I don't run the place," Kane said. "We didn't know drug sales were going on for six months. We fire people every week, trying to get rid of bad employees. I'm outraged. I want Beale Street to be a positive, safe environment for everyone."

According to Nightclub & Bar magazine, Club 152 grosses $5 million to $10 million a year, which makes it one of the trade journal's "Top 100" for the last three years running. No other club in Memphis, and only two in the whole Southeastern United States, has made the list, which is dominated by clubs in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York. Club 152 touts "three floors of fun" serving up food, drinks, and deejays. A fourth floor is the stuff of urban legend but not on the website. It describes the after-midnight weekend offerings on the upper floors as "upscale freakism" but adds coyly, "You will have to be the judge of that."

Actually, Environmental Court judge Larry Potter will be the judge of that. A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in his court to decide if and when the club will reopen. The investigation by undercover agents documented the sale and use of marijuana, cocaine, Xanax, and Percocet at the club and a year-long history of more than 130 police calls, including more than 20 fights and 37 arrests.

Weirich may have been holding back some information for Tuesday's court hearing. If not, given Beale Street's history, it is tempting to say, "Is that all you got in seven months?" Back in 1917, W.C. Handy wrote these lines in the "Beale Street Blues."

"If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk, married men would have to take their beds and walk.

"You'll meet honest men and pickpockets skilled. You'll find that business never ceases 'til somebody gets killed."

Kane said he visits Club 152 about five times a year but not much after midnight. He predicted the club would open within a week.

"It draws a diverse crowd," he said. "It is not some rogue, dark, seedy, terrible environment. We'll deal with it."

On Monday, he wrote a letter to his board members saying his role in the club has been overstated in the media but giving no details of his financial stake.

Hansom questioned the timing of the bust and the magnitude of the problem, if it was allowed to go on for seven months.

"The club has been under investigation since last November," he said. "What occurred in the last two weeks that didn't occur two months ago, or what was happening that they couldn't have waited until June 1st?"

The bust comes as the city is looking for new management for the Beale Street Historic District, and the Grizzlies' new ownership is closely following what's happening in their neighborhood. Beale Street has defied the best efforts of accountants and attorneys to document its financial history ever since former Mayor Willie Herenton commissioned an audit 20 years ago that netted little, other than a $600,000 legal bill.

It's Beale Street — unique, rowdy, and inscrutable, where opportunity knocks and the players know nothing and know everything at the same time.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Grizzlies Eye Beale Street

This is a match of neighbors that the city should make happen.

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Memphis stars of the NBA Playoffs so far: Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Beale Street.

The neon lights of B.B. King's Blues Club and other clubs and restaurants — and by extension downtown Memphis — are getting an advertising bonanza from ESPN and TNT thanks to the Grizzlies' run into the second round and, so far, five home games at FedExForum.

An alley is all that separates FedExForum from Beale Street. And there is an opportunity to connect these two large dots.

The Grizzlies have controlled events in FedExForum since day one. They have new majority owner Robert Pera (and a local minority ownership group), a long-term lease on the arena, a season that lasts from October to June, and a desire to broaden the fan base regionally. The city of Memphis owns most of the properties in the Beale Street Historic District and has been looking for a new manager to replace John Elkington and Performa Entertainment Real Estate.

The obvious question: Should the Grizzlies take over Beale Street?

"In our discussions with the city and the mayor, we expressed our interest in participating in the continued growth of Beale Street and downtown Memphis," said John Pugliese, vice president of marketing communications and broadcast for the Grizzlies. "We understand how important Beale Street is, and, as a key stakeholder, we want to be part of the process."

One of the organization's new hires, Jason Wexler, brings a background in development with the Henry Turley Company in Memphis. And ex-ballplayers Penny Hardaway and Elliot Perry are other team members with Memphis roots and upside on the business and entertainment front.

I know our history. Sometimes the "obvious" answer is the wrong answer. In 1989, sports and entertainment entrepreneur Sidney Shlenker, after making his mark in Houston and Denver, came to Memphis as Man of the Hour to develop the Pyramid and Mud Island River Park. "Shlenkered" became a verb for suckered.

And consolidations have not gone well in Memphis in recent years. But this is one consolidation that ought to happen sooner rather than later. Beale Street needs fresh horses. B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Silky Sullivan and the Hard Rock Café are not getting any younger.

Memphians may shun Beale Street as dangerous or a tourist trap, but ESPN and TNT love those nighttime shots of the neon signs and the Elvis statue. Beale Street was rocking Saturday night, hours after the Grizzlies game was over, with live music on the sidewalk, Handy Park, and clubs from B. B. King's to the New Daisy Theater. At midnight, there were hundreds of people in line at the security checkpoints waiting to join the party.

Which, of course, is both a problem and an opportunity. You don't get carded and frisked on Bourbon Street, in Times Square, or on Lower Broadway in Nashville. Managing Beale Street or any place where alcohol is served in super-sized cups on the sidewalk is as hard as guarding Kevin Durant. The businesses that are there have long-term leases and owners who are used to doing things a certain way. Could some cash-and-carry transactions go unreported to the agencies that are supposed to collect taxes or a share of profits? Stranger things have happened. The Beale Street Merchants Association, you may remember, was once led by Rickey Peete.

Besides, what do the guys from California who run the Grizzlies know about managing an entertainment district, much less one freighted with so much Memphis history? They have their hands full with hoops and less than a season worth of experience at that. One thing at a time?

No. It is time to multitask and go for the big one on the court and on the street.

If not the Grizzlies, then who? Former Center City Commission president Jeff Sanford and a 31-member committee named by Mayor A C Wharton spent several months working on a report about the future of Beale Street. It was finally turned over in March. The generic recommendation was for either a business-improvement district, much like the current Downtown Memphis Commission with a city-appointed board, or a for-profit developer and management company funded by rental revenues.

"No small challenge," the report says of balancing Beale Street's history and its future as an entertainment center.

As Sanford told me this week, "Logic would suggest that the Grizzlies would have a strong interest in Beale Street, for better or worse, because they are part of it."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Grit ’n’ Grind

Toney Armstrong defends budget; Judge Mathis in Memphis.

Posted By on Tue, May 7, 2013 at 2:52 PM

Memphis police director Toney Armstrong won Round One in budget negotiations with the city council, where he found support for a 4.6 percent raise for employees.


Armstrong was the main event in a morning of budget hearings Tuesday. A majority of budget committee members voted in favor of his proposed budget, which includes the pay increase for 2,348 police department employees. Mayor A C Wharton has proposed a 2.3 percent increase. The final budget decisions are still a few weeks away, but the committee's budget cutters — Jim Strickland, Shea Flinn, and Harold Collins — were outvoted roughly two to one.

Chief administrative officer George Little shook his head after the vote was tallied.

"It doesn't add up," he said. "We either have to raise taxes or go back to employees and cut raises."

He called Wharton's proposed 2.3 percent raise "affordable."

Armstrong said the budget he presented "didn't have any fluff," and 87 percent of it "is for personnel and keeping boots on the ground."

Sixty cents of every dollar the city administration spends is for public safety, and three out of every four general fund employees work in police or fire divisions. The proposed fiscal year 2014 budget is $622.5 million.

Strickland and Flinn said a 4.6 percent raise (restoring a cut made in 2012) would increase the property tax rate from $3.39 to $3.51.

"We are about to tax our city out of existence," Flinn said.

Strickland questioned whether police officers have to take a "full service" approach and respond to every car wreck, house alarm, or barking-dog complaint. But Councilman Joe Brown countered that "we never know what is on the other end" of such calls, and "process servers or rent-a-cops can't handle it."

Other council members suggested chipping away at details of the police budget such as lawsuits, helicopters, and guns and ammo, but Armstrong gave up no ground. The lawsuits, he said, stem mainly from traffic accidents, and the department has to maintain the four aging choppers it has because a new one would cost about $3 million. The cost of weapons and ammo has been driven up by war, he said.

The director, 46 years old and a 24-year veteran, also threw retirement decisions into the mix. Officers with similar experience, he suggested, might decide to stay or go based on the 4.6 percent pay increase, and that would have a trickle-down effect on staffing and experience throughout the force. Several times he used the phrase "need to be proactive" to parry suggested cutbacks.

Bottom line: Round One to Armstrong.

Earlier in the committee meeting, Linn Sitler of the Film and Television Commission broke a little minor news. A BET production crew has been filming episodes of the reality television program Judge Mathis in Memphis for several months. Greg Mathis is a retired judge from Detroit whose courtroom program has run for 14 years.

"They didn't even want a kickoff," Sitler said of the low-key project.

The new episodes apparently will depart from that formula by having homicide detectives investigate cold cases and work the streets instead of featuring Mathis dispatching cases in a courtroom. Mathis will seek help from the Memphis community to, in Armstrong's words, "bring closure to the families."

Armstrong, himself a former star of another reality cops program, The First 48, in his pre-director days, said producers contacted him and Mayor Wharton last year.

"They reached out to us and asked for a meeting," he said, adding, "I won't be featured." Instead, the stars will be "seasoned veterans" from the homicide division who "know their way around an investigation and a camera."

Sitler, who sailed through her hearing unscathed in a couple of minutes, said the success of the television series Nashville might loosen the purse strings in state government for doling out incentives for film and television projects in other parts of the state.

With bigger fish to fry, Little seemed less exuberant and said he had only attended one meeting about Judge Mathis.

"We're open to it," he said. "It's better than Memphis being filmed in Georgia," an apparent reference to TNT's since-canceled Memphis Beat, which was filmed in New Orleans.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Restaurant Impossible

Troubled Beale Street Landing loses its restaurant operator.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 2:12 PM

Somebody call Robert Irvine, the no-nonsense star of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible. Have we got a challenge for him.

Beale Street Landing needs help. Our $40-plus million riverfront gathering spot of the future lost its restaurant deal last week, days after the tables and chairs and bar were installed. Beale & Second Inc., with partners Bud Chittom, Kevin Kane, and Charlie Ryan — who have about 100 years experience in the Memphis restaurant and entertainment business between them — bailed out. These guys know something.

RDC director Benny Lendermon notified board members that Beale & Second Inc. "is no longer interested in pursuing the lease of the restaurant space at Beale Street Landing. Based on this discovery, Beale & Second Inc. should cease and desist all actives [sic] on the Beale Street Landing premises other than specific catering services that RDC may contract with you to perform."

Turn in your keys. Get your equipment out of there. Copy to the lawyers.

The Big Three were the only ones to respond to an RDC request for restaurant proposals.

Who says that if you build it, they will come? If you build it, they might not even open it.

I would resubscribe to my ripoff cable package to see Irvine's reaction to this. Usually, he takes on a struggling mom-and-pop restaurant in a hardscrabble location with operators mortgaged to the hilt and out of energy and fresh ideas. He did a show last year at Pollard's Bar BQ on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven.

Beale Street Landing is located where a world-famous street meets a world-famous river. It has gorgeous views and a steady stream of tourists. It has millions of dollars of infrastructure in, over, and around it designed by an architectural firm that won a competition. When the RDC needs more money, it simply blames circumstances beyond its control and asks the city council to write another check.

But as Irvine would quickly see, that is not all. When the RDC has a bad idea, it compounds it with another bad idea, like that giant Rubik's cube on top of the hill. The muscular Irvine would probably instantly demolish it with a sledgehammer. The matching color scheme inside would give any decorator ulcers. Beale Street Landing shares Tom Lee Park and Riverside Drive for part of the year with Memphis In May. And then there is the parking, or the lack of it.

Ryan, who helped develop the entertainment district in Cooper-Young in Midtown, said there were many "challenges, the main one being parking." Chittom declined to comment. Kane, who is head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, did not return calls.

"The deal is off," Ryan said, declining to go into specifics.

Jim Holt, executive director of Memphis In May, said the festival could have co-existed with a restaurant inside Beale Street Landing, which he noted was part of the original plan several years ago.

"We had worked out a plan," he said.

It isn't like there were no precedents for do's and don'ts of riverside restaurants in city parks. Mud Island River Park opened some 31 years ago with two full-service restaurants, one of them boasting linen tablecloths and the best views on the lower Mississippi. When they failed, "bad access" got the blame, even after the bridge from Front Street to Mud Island was opened and there was an acre of parking.

Isolation was more to the point. Tom Lee Park isn't an island, but it is separated from downtown by Riverside Drive and lacks sufficient parking in Ryan's view. And that was before a recent proposal from a consultant who recommended doing away with parking lots in the park and allowing parallel parking on Riverside Drive instead.

The most likely future for the indoor space at Beale Street Landing is joining the growing list of fancy places that can be rented for parties, weddings, and other special events. This is a far cry from the bring-Memphis-together gathering spot envisioned in the original plan. It also fails to meet the simple need for a place to escape the summer heat and get a sandwich, a cold drink, and a bathroom. Correction, there are a couple of bathrooms. We will see how long they stay open.

Sadly, food trucks and bottled-water vendors could have met this need for a fraction of the cost. Instead, we have a restaurant that never opened and a kitchen about to be stripped. Robert Irvine, where are you?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Forrest Rides Again

A poll on renaming three parks attracts — surprise! — Civil War buffs.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Well, the fans of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest have had their fun with park names. What now?

As if we didn't already know, social media and civics don't mix well. The online name-the-parks popularity contest was no contest. Either hundreds of Forrest/Davis fans voted to restore the original names or else a handful of hardcores from the Sons of Confederate Veterans voted multiple times.

The committee appointed to rename the three parks met Monday for 45 minutes but made no decisions. Members got handouts with the results of the web poll as well as a list of suggestions from the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

The former Nathan Bedford Forrest Park that triggered this exercise got 525 responses, with 481 of them favoring that name. Ida B. Wells, endorsed in some well-publicized newspaper columns, public statements, and blogs, was the second choice, with just three votes, the same as Civil War Park.

The former Jefferson Davis Park also got 525 responses, including 484 in favor of that name. Confederate Park got 463 votes, with Confederate Memorial Park the runner-up with 7 votes.

Each of the parks also got a sprinkling of votes for such hilarious names as Consolidator Park, William C. Boyd's Folly Park, and Lost Cause Park.

The cool cats at the Chamber of Commerce recommended the names Rock N' Soul Park for Jefferson Davis Park, Tiger Park for Confederate Park, and Volunteer Park for Forrest Park. Somewhere in there is a message of business development.

Committee members suggested there were some voting irregularities. Ballot-box stuffing in a web poll. What shockers are next? Happy Meals don't make you happy? Politicians lie? Contests that pick the "best" dry cleaner or barbecue sandwich are unscientific? Commenters use fake names?

Some members complained that responses came from people who do not live in Memphis. Unlike the public comments made in person at an earlier committee meeting, respondents did not have to provide personal information. Keith Norman said that factor and "the harsh tone may be some of the very reasons why we are here."

Well, nobody had a monopoly on rigging the poll. The Rock N' Soul fans and Ida B. Wells supporters could have done the same thing. A small number of people, it seems, care a lot about park names, while a large number of people don't care much, if at all. But the Civil War buffs overplayed their hand when they made personal calls to committee members on their cell phones. That is likely to backfire and strengthen any resolve to rename the parks, poll numbers and public comments aside.

For removing a fairly innocuous marker at Forrest Park two months ago, Memphis has earned unwelcome national publicity, a Ku Klux Klan rally that cost $177,000 in public services, and a controversy that won't go away.

What the renaming committee and the Memphis City Council should do now is leave the statues of Forrest and Davis — inscriptions and all — alone. Any talk of moving them or rewording them will prolong this foolishness and create an even bigger fiasco. Put up new signs renaming the parks, using the "placeholders" already approved by the council — Memphis Park for Confederate Park, Mississippi River Park for Jefferson Davis Park, and Health Sciences Park for Forrest Park.

Let the commenters and critics have their say. But no new statues. No more polls. No more renaming. Blander is better.

Racism in Memphis runs deeper than monuments and inscriptions erected 50, 80, or more than 100 years ago. The local history that makes it nearly impossible to develop the public Promenade on Front Street does not involve the Civil War. Downtown's resemblance to a daytime ghost town has everything to do with the consolidation of banks and brokerage firms and the convenience of suburban offices and nothing to do with Jefferson Davis. Baptist Memorial Hospital didn't leave downtown to get away from Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Write this unfortunate chapter off to experience and move on.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks On

A new club on Beale and the Beale Street Music Festival are on tap.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 at 2:33 PM

Jerry Lee Lewis - JOHN BRANSTON
  • John Branston
  • Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis, the last living member of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, sat beneath a photograph in his den of that signature moment in the history of rock-and-roll in 1956 and vowed to keep on rocking.

Now 77 years old and recovered from a broken leg that kept him out of last year's Beale Street Music Festival, he is touring again and will play the festival on May 4th. And on April 27th, he will be honored with a parade on Beale Street and cut the ribbon outside of Jerry Lee Lewis' Café and Honkytonk in the building that formerly housed Pat O'Brien's and Dancing Jimmy's.

Lewis, of course, is usually associated with the Sun Records Studio on Union Avenue, which was recreated in the musical Million Dollar Quartet that opened on Broadway in 2010 and recently finished its second run at the Orpheum. But he said that as a young man he often went to Beale Street.

"I think it's about time I should have a place up there," he said this week in an interview at his home in Nesbit, Mississippi. "I used to listen to a Dixieland jazz band down near the river. I don't think that's Beale Street now, though; it's all changed up so much."

Lewis was married for the seventh time last year. He and his wife, Judith, live in a red-brick ranch home with a lake on 30 acres. He is far from the cocky chatterbox portrayed in Million Dollar Quartet but his voice and handshake are strong, and he cracked up when his old friend J.W. Whitten produced a long-lost picture of Lewis and astronaut Neil Armstrong, who carried his music to the moon, and said, "Them Martians are rockin'!"

The man who has kicked over thousands of piano benches still has a trace of a limp.

"I had that broken leg operated three times before the plate was removed," he said. "That kind of took the wind out of my sails."

The den is decorated with a Yamaha piano, gold records, album covers, and photographs, including two copies of the famous one with Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at the piano in Sam Phillips' studio. Elvis died in 1977, Perkins in 1998, and Phillips and Cash in 2003. Lewis recorded "Last Man Standing" in 2006.

He didn't bite on a question about competition and who influenced whom the most. "It went both ways," he said. "I always held my ground." He has fond memories of that day at Sun Studio.

"I remember the day that picture was made very well," he said. "Elvis' girl was standing to the right of him, just out of the picture. I was looking straight at her, and she was looking straight at me. I never knew it would turn into something like that, but you never know what's going to happen."

He saw Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway.

"I thought it was great," he said. "They had me come out onstage. The drummer had a hard time keeping up with the beat."

In 2010, he made another album of duets called Mean Old Man, but he disavows the title.

"I'm certainly not a mean old man," he protested.

"Why, he's an angel," Judith added.

A halo on Jerry Lee Lewis? Great balls of fire! I asked about performers he especially admires ("this guy Elton John is pretty good") and the young bands in the festival.

"They're fans of mine and friends, but as far as getting together and playing, I don't see that happening. Like that picture of me in the Million Dollar Quartet, we didn't know what was going to happen, and you never know what's going to happen with the younger generation."

My time was up. "Thanks, killer," he said, and stuck out his hand. No, thank you, Killer, from a grateful Memphis.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I Like Spike and Luke

A pair of subs shine and deliver in college basketball’s big game.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 10, 2013 at 5:48 AM

For one night, all was forgiven.

The March Madness and bracketology hype. The 8:30 p.m. starting time. The endless television commercials, especially the one with Charles Barkley producing a hot dog from the vicinity of his left armpit. The football venue. The thinly disguised NBA development league for student athletes. The disappointment of my rooting interest.

It was all overshadowed by 40 minutes of great basketball in Louisville's 82-76 win over Michigan in the NCAA men's final Monday night. As every fan knows, two substitutes played like stars. Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half for Michigan and consistently broke Louisville's press with his dribbling until the magic wore off four minutes before the end of the half. Louisville forward Luke Hancock did even better, with 22 points including four three-pointers in two minutes at the end of the half that got his team back in the game.

Neither of these long-range bombers had a single dunk, and neither player was a star during the regular season. They proved the prediction by Michigan's coach John Beilein that some "outlier" might be the key player in the game.

The quality of the game, the huge audience, and the special players on both teams ensures that several trends in sports will be accelerated.

The 20-year-old freshman: Albrecht and Hancock might have looked like throwbacks to another era of college basketball, but they did not exactly come out of nowhere. Although they were not highly recruited, they both went to prep schools for a year after graduating from high school to improve their chances of getting a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Like Albrecht's teammate Mitch McGary, another story line of this year's tournament, they are or soon will be 20-year-old college freshmen. Whether at Michigan, Louisville, or Memphis, today's big-time college athlete is likely to be a year or two years older than his classmates. The same goes for star players in high school and middle-school who are "red-shirted" to give them time to bulk up, develop their skills, and maybe accumulate enough credits and a high-enough ACT score to be college-eligible. Rare is the 17-year-old high school senior who can compete at the highest level in basketball, football, or baseball.

Basketball in indoor football stadiums: The Final Four and two of the Elite Eight games were played in indoor football stadiums. This means thousands of empty seats at some venues, when fans of losing teams go home, but it sure didn't deter a reported 74,000 people from showing up Monday night at the Georgia Dome to party, squint at the floor, and watch the action on the big screen. The chances of the Final Four returning to a basketball arena are remote.

Commercials rule: A couple of minutes of television commercials used to be interspersed with several minutes of game action. Now it's just the opposite. Several times during Final Four games there would be only a few seconds of "action" between commercials. Players call time-outs when they can't inbound the ball, and coaches call those dreaded "20-second time-outs" that freeze the action and kill momentum at the end of the game. Cut to another commercial of Alec Baldwin and Charles Barkley or a CBS promo. Basketball's television timeout at the eight-minute mark has become as institutionalized as pro football's two-minute warning.

So long, CBS and Final Four. CBS has broadcast the NCAA men's final for more than three decades, but it could go to a cable station as early as next year. Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting now shares the rights to the last three rounds, but several media outlets have reported that Turner could take over in 2014 instead of 2016. More games on cable means more advertising slots, more revenue, and higher bills for bundled cable packages for consumers who want to watch sports.

Newspapers say "thanks." College and pro basketball and football aren't the only things keeping print newspapers and their websites and pay walls going, but they're big attractions for readers and, therefore, advertisers. More and more, sports stories, pictures, and columns aren't just on the front page, they are the front page.

Good news for Josh Pastner, the University of Memphis, and FedExForum. Especially if they can keep Louisville on the schedule and win a couple of games each year in the tournament, Memphis and its well-paid coach, first-class arena, and short-term players should prosper in the brave new world of college hoops.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Superintendent Search

What to expect — and not expect — in the field of finalists.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 3, 2013 at 10:03 AM

After watching the coming and going of five Memphis school superintendents, I can't say I know how to pick the next one, but I know a little about how NOT to do it.


The Unified School Board has a little over a month to come up with a name or a bunch of names that will be interviewed before the winner is chosen. The next superintendent will preside over the first year of the unified county school system after Memphis City Schools goes away July 1st and possibly the first year of the aftermath of separate suburban systems, if they start up in 2014.

Pretty hard lines, I would say.

Meanwhile, Dorsey Hopson and David Stephens are acting superintendent and deputy superintendent. Hopson is former legal counsel to Memphis City Schools, and Stephens was an administrator in the Shelby County Schools. He is also the son of O.Z. Stephens, the co-author of the Plan Z busing in the 1970s. The unified system could do a lot worse than retaining these two gentlemen for at least a couple of years, but the search goes on.

Don't expect much of anything to come out of the series of community meetings now being held around the city and county to get citizen input. Search firms do this as part of their checklist and make a fuss over writing everything down. Last time, before Kriner Cash got the Memphis job, a handful of people showed up at most of them. People respond to specific candidates and controversies more than they do to "what qualities do you like?" surveys.

Don't pay too much attention to candidates with big awards on their resumes. The cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools is the big story in education now.

Former superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted last week on racketeering charges. Hall was the American Association of School Administrators' superintendent of the year in 2009, and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, hosted her at the White House. Former MCS superintendent Gerry House won the award in 1999, left the next year, and has not held a job in public education since then. Carol Johnson, MCS superintendent from 2003 to 2007, was named superintendent of the year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators in 2008.

Don't expect candidates to brag about big increases in student test scores. Such claims are suspect, if not toxic, these days. The Atlanta indictments, coupled with the federal indictments in Memphis of several people involved in a teacher certification scam, indicate that some teachers will cheat to get a job or bonus.

Don't expect the next superintendent to have a bonus clause in his or her contract. Hall earned more than $500,000 in bonus pay, because Atlanta students supposedly scored so highly on standardized tests. Cash's contract paid him $290,479 this year and had a clause in it that allowed the school board to award him a performance bonus of up to $10,000 annually, but "I don't think the board ever awarded Dr. Cash a bonus," Hopson said.

Don't be surprised if the next superintendent earns more than Cash, who was not the highest-paid school administrator in Tennessee by a long shot. According to public records, William Moseley, head of the private K-12 Ensworth School in Nashville, earned $700,133 in 2010-2011.

Don't expect Hopson and Stephens to have smooth sailing if they are the default choice. The last insider to serve as MCS superintendent, Johnnie B. Watson, was so exasperated by board member Sara Lewis (now on the unified board) that he filed a harassment complaint against her. The Memphis Education Association and Shelby County Education Association will oppose any superintendent who favors more school closings and major revisions to the teacher-pay structure.

Don't expect a long-term relationship. Superintendents are a little like college football coaches. The scrutiny is constant, the pressure is intense, and the odds of them leaving if they're unpopular or being hired away if they're successful are overwhelming. The average tenure of the last four Memphis and Shelby County superintendents was four years.

Finally, don't be surprised if the finalists include at least one 30-something hard-charger from the "school reform" movement with a background in Teach For America. That fits the profile of Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman and Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic. Such a candidate would win favor from the Gates Foundation and board members like Tomeka Hart (now working for TFA) and Martavius Jones. In a time of guaranteed upheaval, why go old school?

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Free Agency in Education

More options than ever for teachers, students, and administrators.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 3:59 PM

John Aitken could be the most heavily recruited big guy from around here since Penny Hardaway, and the former Shelby County schools superintendent hasn't worn a basketball uniform in years.

We are in the era of free agency in primary and secondary education. Who could have predicted three years ago that Aitken and Kriner Cash would be out and Willie Herenton would be back in? Nobody, but with Aitken's buyout last week, Herenton, who will lead a group of charter schools, is the only person in this game with experience as a school superintendent.

  • Justin Fox Burks

And what a game it is, with the Unified School System, charter schools, private schools, the Achievement School District, and probable future municipal school districts. Conference realignment in college sports looks simple by comparison.

Tuesday's Unified School Board meeting was the first one Aitken has not attended since this saga began in 2010. If he decides to get back in the game, Aitken would be an attractive catch because of his experience as a coach, teacher, principal, and superintendent in the Shelby County system. It is hard to imagine anything anyone anywhere could throw at him that he hasn't seen.

Free agency used to refer to professional sports, when players finally got the right to negotiate contracts with any team. When I was a boy, my favorite pro athletes were bound to their Detroit masters. I remember when Al Kaline, a Hall of Fame baseball player, finally earned the headline-making sum of $100,000 a year. If he had been born 30 years later, he could have added two zeroes to that.

In college football and basketball, star coaches like John Calipari hop from school to school, players (excuse me, "student athletes") go pro after a year, and universities jump from one conference to another. The University of Memphis, which is leaving Conference USA, is reportedly willing to renegotiate its $800,000-a-year contract with Josh Pastner to keep him as basketball coach.

Free agency has come to private and public elementary and secondary schools, where the top salaries are lower but the stakes and budgets are higher. Tennessee is the national laboratory for school experimentation, and Memphis is the test kitchen.

This is the big churn. Teachers, principals, administrators, and students — especially talented minority students — will have more options than ever if there are municipal school systems and tuition vouchers for private schools. Some local private schools already pay more than $2 million a year in grants and scholarships. Charter schools and the Achievement School District are the sweet spot for hundreds of Teach For America teachers and alumni. Herenton, who predicted the break-up of the public school monopoly 20 years ago, will get his share of teachers and students.

Not everyone will get a better deal, of course. There will be some have-nots after the shakeout. Depending on how willing they are to raise taxes and how much they have to pay for their buildings, the chances of long-term survival for all six proposed Shelby County suburban school systems could be slim. Some of the charter start-ups will likely merge or fail. It took influential backers to save the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering charter school this year, and that is one of the longer-running ones.

There was a time when public schools and private schools were separate realms for the most part. That is no longer so. Go to a game or concert at one of the private schools and you will see athletes and talented students who formerly went to city or county schools and either opted out or were recruited and given a scholarship. One of the most notable Memphis private school products is Michael Oher, the star football player and reclamation project in the movie The Blind Side. Oher graduated from Briarcrest Christian School. The Briarcrest principal, Steve Simpson, formerly worked for Memphis City Schools and in Hernando.

There are big bucks for public education from local and national foundations. And money usually comes with strings attached — a voice in policy. We are seeing that in Memphis with the Gates Foundation grants and the debate Tuesday over paying teachers based on student test performance or teacher experience and educational degrees.

The search is on for a new superintendent. If form holds, there will be a public hue and cry about the "six-figure salary package." Cash was making $290,479 a year. Principals in MCS make up to $112,000. "We may have to pay up," said board member David Pickler. "And include combat pay."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fixing the Riverfront

Author and urban expert revisits Memphis — and has some ideas.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 9:52 AM

Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, suggests six quick fixes for Memphis' riverfront.

As the title suggests, Speck has a bias toward pedestrian-friendly projects. At the request of Mayor A C Wharton, Speck reviewed some 20 Memphis riverfront plans dating back more than 30 years. That fact alone says a lot about riverfront development, but Speck gave it a good shot.

He gave a 90-minute talk to about 125 people at the Memphis Cook Convention Center Monday, showing familiarity with the past, present, and future of the riverfront. He was here for an extended visit in 2008, when he made "12 suggestions to make Memphis great." City of Memphis development czar Robert Lipscomb and Riverfront Development Corporation head Benny Lendermon were at Speck's presentation, but they did not speak.

"The last thing the city needs is another plan," Speck said.

He was generally positive in his presentation. He likes the Pyramid, predicted that Beale Street Landing "is going to be spectacular," and had nice things to say about the Harahan Bridge Project and Mud Island River Park. He passed on the current controversy over Confederate-themed park names and kept his criticisms gentle and impersonal.

He broke up the riverfront into six areas. Here are his suggestions, followed by my comments.

The Pyramid: Its connection should be to Main Street, not Front Street. The Pinch District should focus on attracting people from conventions, not travelers getting off the interstate. Bass Pro Shops "still has a long way to go" to understand the city. Speck suggests selling off four acres on Bass Pro Boulevard (the southern entryway next to the state visitors center) for private development and turning the boulevard into two or three lanes of car traffic and a lane for bikes and pedestrians.

I watched the Tunica casinos come out of the ground in 1994-1995. There was an incredible sense of urgency. The Bass Pro Pyramid does not have that. After all these years, I wonder if they really want to do this. The boulevard is small change.

Mud Island River Park: Still disconnected from the rest of downtown; needs stairs to the monorail from the visitor center. Speck suggests a water taxi from Beale Street to the tip of the island. He thinks the park should be open year-round.

Visiting experts often overestimate Mud Island River Park. Memphians are bored by it, and it attracts very few tourists. It is closed six months of the year for a reason.

Riverside Drive: Shrink it from four lanes to two or three lanes. Include a buffered bike lane and a lane for parallel parking. Take the parking lots out of Tom Lee Park. Keep Memphis in May in the park. Break the park up into small areas separated by trees.

A $42 million landing/restaurant and no parking lot? Yikes.

The Cobblestones: Speck said it is about impossible to make it usable and historically accurate at the same time, given the demands of accessibility and preservationists. He said the RDC should finish the project and add light structures "draping" it.

The man has done his homework.

The River Walk: By this he meant the sidewalks and Bluff Walk going from the Pyramid to Martyrs Park. It now leaves the riverfront and goes behind the law school and into South Bluffs residential development. Speck suggests making it more linear and extending it between the Church of the River and Channel 3's offices to the French Fort area south of the Harahan Bridge.

I like the dogleg through shady South Bluffs. Those who want to stay in sight of the river can take the 84 steps down from the Bluff Walk to Tom Lee Park at Huling or Butler and follow the sidewalk south to where it ends near the church.

Beale Street to Beale Street Landing: Needs "edging" — development along Beale Street by the parking lots near the river, once envisioned as the site of One Beale, a tall hotel and condo. The Harahan Project needs something on the West Memphis side in the floodplain, maybe just a loop trail and a pavilion, because Main Street West Memphis (the other half of the "Main Street to Main Street" idea) is pretty far away.

The fact that there is basically nothing on the bluff at the corner where Beale Street meets the Mississippi River, a pretty famous American intersection, is sad. Like the Pinch on the north end of downtown, this area actually had more activity 30 years ago when Captain Bilbo's and Number One Beale were around.

To learn more about Speck and his observations and proposals, visit the city of Memphis website.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Judge on the Spot

How high school and desegregation shaped Samuel H. Mays Jr.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 4:13 PM

Fifty years ago, Samuel H. Mays Jr., United States judge for the Western District of Tennessee, was a star student at all-white White Station High School during the years of token school desegregation. When he finished law school at Yale in 1973, Memphis was being torn apart by federal court-ordered busing and white flight.

Now Mays is overseeing the largest school system merger in U.S. history as the majority-black Memphis City Schools and the majority-white Shelby County School system become a unified system of 146,000 students in August. So far, it is unified in name only.

The merger is running out of time. The Memphis City Schools system officially goes out of existence July 1st. Concerned about the pace of the merger, Mays last week appointed Rick Masson, a former chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, as special master with orders to get back to basics.

"The Court's purpose in entering this order is not to assume the management of the two school systems or to make decisions about the transition," Mays wrote, but he is "prepared to expand the duties of the special master and to make such decisions as may be necessary to enforce the Consent Decree."

Before August, "students will know the school they will attend and how they will get there, have a safe and clean place to learn, have teachers prepared to teach them, and have an established curriculum."

Known to friends as "Hardy," Mays has firsthand experience with the go-slow and go-fast approach to school desegregation ordered by his judicial predecessors. Public schools in Memphis were integrated in 1961, one grade at a time, starting with a dozen first-graders. In 1963, Mays was a freshman at White Station in a class that included actress Kathy Bates and writer Alan Lightman.

"He was always the smartest kid in the class," said classmate John Vergos, who has known Mays since seventh grade. "He was popular and interested in politics. If there was anyone I thought would become president, it was Hardy."

There were no black students in the graduating class of 1966, and the school's sports teams did not play black schools. In Memphis, racial tensions would boil over in 1968 with the strike by sanitation workers and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"We were the last of a generation that was pretty isolated," Vergos said.

Memphis was torn apart by busing in 1973, when some 30,000 white students fled the system for private schools or the separate Shelby County school system. The federal judge who ordered the busing plan, Robert McRae, said in retirement that he was the most famous graduate of Central High School since the gangster Machine Gun Kelly.

Mays joined the Memphis law firm now known as Baker Donelson after its two eminent Republican partners, former U.S. senator Howard Baker and Lewis Donelson. From 1995 to 2000, he was legal counsel and chief of staff to Tennessee's Republican governor Don Sundquist. Mays was appointed to the federal bench in 2002.

"He came from a totally political background and never lost his Ivy League accent," said former federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza. "Yet, I don't think I've ever seen a judge with so much sense of what the common citizen goes through every day. He brings common sense to very complicated matters."

In his ruling on the constitutionality of 2012 state legislation on the creation of new municipal school systems, Mays wrote that lawmakers acted with "a wink and a nod" to target Shelby County and Memphis. Again and again, he has tried to get the parties in the lawsuits to resolve things through negotiation. Naming a special master is the last card. The 23-member school board, he said, must not be political as it picks a superintendent, closes schools, trims budgets, and outsources jobs.

It is not known whether he said that with a wink and a nod.

White Station is the only Memphis public high school that sustained its academic excellence after the Isolated Class of 1966 graduated. Last year, it had 22 National Merit Semifinalists, but as an optional school it cannibalizes other schools, and, partly because of that, its success has not been replicated.

Friends describe Mays as an intellectual. He is taking an adult education course at Rhodes College this spring called "Constitutional Controversies." Among the topics are "the problem of diversity, elitism, and representation" and "the threat of judicial imperialism in power of judicial review."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Trashy Problem

Beale Street Landing battles trash and delays as cruise season opens.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 4:27 PM

If you only get one chance to make a first impression, then the $42.5 million Beale Street Landing could be in a tough spot this Saturday, when the American Queen steamboat with 430 passengers aboard visits Memphis from New Orleans.

They might need to be issued mud boots and blinders. The project, which the Riverfront Development Corporation says on its website (a response to its critics called "The Truth About Beale Street Landing") was supposed to be finished in the summer of 2011, is far from finished today.

The gift shop and main building opened last Friday, and the steamboat is scheduled to make its first visit of the 2013 season Saturday. Barring a massive cleanup, passengers will step on to the new floating dock and see several months' accumulation of trash trapped in the backwater around the dock and cylindrical ramp.

Jimmy Ogle, newly appointed general manager for Beale Street Landing, was at the park Sunday and Monday when I visited it and said he hopes at least some of the trash can be removed before the boat lands. His first thought was using john boats, but he says "we can't get them in there," so he hopes that long rakes might work instead.

The big logs that washed up on the banks will remain there for a while, said Ogle and Benny Lendermon, director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, who was also at the site Monday morning. Lendermon said the new completion date is November or December of this year, with a grand opening next spring.

An eddy in the river at the southern tip of Mud Island forces water and debris back toward the dock and ramp. Lendermon said the long-range solution is a screen or boom to block debris from reaching the landing. The former director of the city's division of public works has reminded Memphis City Council members, RDC board members, and the general public many times about the difficulty of building anything on a river with a rise and fall of 50 feet.

But the floating dock and cylindrical ramp aren't the only pieces of the project with problems. The restaurant is not open, and a walkway from the ramp to Riverside Drive that is supposed to have decorative tile is covered in plywood. The giant "pods" north of the building are under construction. And rebuilding of the cobblestones landing on the harbor appears to be at least a year or two away. The Memphis Queen line tour boats still tie up at the cobblestones, but they move to the new dock for boarding.

Appointing Ogle was a good move. He is as pleasant, resourceful, and knowledgeable an ambassador as any city could have. When he wasn't cutting up logs with a chain saw last week he was stocking up on square Kleenex boxes that resemble Beale Street Landing's multicolored, "pixilated-sunset" elevator shaft.

If you think anyone at the RDC was held accountable for the mess, think again. According to latest tax filings, Lendermon earns $230,549, up from $221,562 the previous year, and Dorchelle Spence was making $121,502 before her promotion from spokeswoman to vice president of the RDC two weeks ago. The RDC plans to hire an events coordinator to assist Ogle and Spence. Beale Street Landing is a tax-funded project, most of it approved by the council.

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