Friday, September 27, 2013

Harold Ford Sr. Not Ready to Retire; Opens New Funeral Home

Posted By on Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 4:10 PM

It has been more than 30 years since there were more Fords in the funeral business than in the politics business.

But that's the case now that former congressman Harold Ford Sr., godfather of the most politically powerful family in Tennessee including his son, former congressman Harold Ford Jr., is opening Serenity Columbarium and Memorial Garden. The first phase, the Harold Ford Funeral Chapel, was the site of Friday's open house. The facility will employ approximately 100 people when completed.

The site is on Sycamore View in northeast Memphis between Interstate 40 and Summer Avenue. Ford bought it from Belz Enterprises and plans to expand beyond the present "Harold Ford Chapel" into additional new buildings on the property.

A columbarium is a place where ashes are stored in small "niches" for those who choose cremation instead of burial. Cremation generally costs less than half as much as burial but was slow to gain acceptance in Memphis and the South. Ford said 42-44 percent of people choose cremation today, compared to less than one percent when he started in the business as a college student 50 years ago.

"I don't think it was accepted at all," said Ford, 68, looking fit and healthy with more gray in his short hair than in his congressional days.

He plans to live in Memphis three or four days a week and spend the rest of his time at his home in Florida or opening some 15 other new Serenity facilities in Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities. They are not part of the big public companies that dominate the industry.

He plans to get out of lobbying in the next year or so.

"I'm not ready to go sit on the beach every day," he said. Asked if he misses politics, he said "I'm around it every day," but he did not plan to attend the Democratic Party roast for former Mayor Willie Herenton this weekend due to previous commitments.

"It's harder to get in and out of Memphis now because of the flight cutbacks," he said.

For nearly three decades, the Ford family boasted, at the same time, an influential member of Congress (Harold Sr. or Harold Jr.), the Tennessee General Assembly (Senator John Ford and Ophelia Ford), the Memphis City Council (James, Joe, Edmund Sr. and Edmund Jr.,) and the Shelby County Commission (James and Joe). Only Ophelia Ford, Edmund Ford Jr., and Justin Ford (son of Joe Ford) are currently in politics.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fairgrounds Redo: Will Third Time Be Charmed?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 12:59 PM

The 89-page Fairgrounds redevelopment plan released this week is the third major one since 2006 so I'm taking my time digesting it.

The Looney Ricks Kiss firm did one in 2006 that, obviously, didn't go anywhere. The RKG Associates consulting firm did a 2009 study as well as the one that came out this week. The 2009 study was pessimistic about the $125-million public/private financing proposal for a sports-oriented Tourism Development Zone. The current one is optimistic about a $233-million public/private proposal for a sports-oriented TDZ.

Same property, same qualified public use facility (Liberty Bowl Stadium), but different economy (recession then, comeback now), different mayor (Herenton then, Wharton now), different developer at risk (Henry Turley and Robert Loeb then, unnamed now), different master/enabler (a city-appointed Fairgrounds Reuse Committee then, Robert Lipscomb, head of the Division of Housing and Community Development, now) and different fate of Fairview school at the key corner of Central and East Parkway (out then, in now).

Turley's Fair Ground plan, which I wrote about here, is not mentioned in the 2013 RKG report despite the obvious similarities. Turley got state approval for a TDZ but ran afoul of the City Council and Lipscomb, who said his fees were too high, which Turley disputed. The new plan needs state approval, and a presentation is tentatively scheduled in mid-October. After that it will also need City Council approval.

In a supporting letter, Wharton wrote that "the fairgrounds project will also serve as the central hub of the city's family-tourism expansion through its developments at Graceland, Bass Pro at the Pyramid, and the Riverfront." He makes no mention of the proposed Crosstown project which is less than a mile from the edge of the Fairgrounds TDZ and is seeking $15 million in public funds. The Bass Pro Pyramid is part of a separate TDZ.

In short, Memphis is betting on a whole lot more free-spending tourists coming our way.

As the name suggests, the key to a TDZ is tourism spending as opposed to local spending that would have gone somewhere else but for the new development. In a TDZ, Memphis gets to keep the incremental increase in state sales taxes above a baseline number.

The baseline number is important in determining what "new" revenue can be used to pay off the bonds. From the new report:

"The analysis by RKG Associates concludes that the projected baseline retail sales are approximately $214 million, and as a result there are ample sales tax revenues — projected at $14.3 million yearly beginning in 2016 — to support the bond payments of $11.9 million annually."

And from the 2009 RKG report: "The estimated stream of sales tax revenue, while significant, is not necessarily new revenue. Additionally, under the assumptions of the bonding in this analysis, the projected stream of sales tax revenues is insufficient to retire $112,264,000 in bonding."

One more negative note from the 2009 report: "By the very nature of retail there is always some degree of transferred retail sale. In the context of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, it is likely that the majority of retail sales will be transferred sales from existing merchants."

The 400,000-square feet of "destination retail" that would bring in new money in the current fairgrounds plan is not named. Nor is the operator of the "180-room hotel/conference center." The location would be north of Tiger Lane and south of Central Avenue. Obviously, it matters whether the retail is a destination for East Memphians or Nashvillians and Mississippians.

The report says "the Fairgrounds redevelopment is being driven by the City of Memphis as owner" and "based on the city of Memphis vision and design" the city will seek "a retail development company" for the property north of Tiger Lane and another developer/operator for the sports facilities south of Tiger Lane. There is no mention of fees.

However there is this statement:

"Using the TDZ as the vehicle for financing the Fairgrounds redevelopment and carefully calibrating a plan of redevelopment, the City of Memphis continues to build economic engines, as it has done with the redevelopment of The Pyramid into destination retail and a tourist attraction."

Well, let's hold that praise until after Bass Pro actually opens. As the report says elsewhere, "there is no assurance that actual events will correspond with the assumptions on which such estimates are based."

The proposed three-square-mile Fairgrounds TDZ would include big Midtown tax generators such as the Memphis Zoo, Overton Square, Union Avenue and the soon-to-be rebuilt Kroger, and Cooper-Young. The report doesn't flat come out and state cause and effect, but the assumption is that these things are tied somehow to the fairgrounds and the stadium and therefore their incremental tax revenues should be captured.

Again, the big question is what's the increment? That depends on what the baseline is. The lower the baseline, the bigger the increment. In this proposal, the baseline is 2012 sales tax collections, adjusted for inflation until 2016 when the retails sales stream starts flowing to the fairgrounds bonds.

RKG's 2013 optimism starkly contrasts with its 2009 pessimism about fairgrounds retail, which went well beyond the recession: "Approximately 80 percent of the sales that would occur at the fairgrounds would come from residents within the primary trade area. Most all of the sales activity would be reallocated sales already occurring elsewhere in Memphis."

Fairgrounds retail, RKG said then, "would fill a void in the local market area, however it lacks highway presence and the tenant mix to be a regional consumer draw."

That was then, this is now.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

ASD Makes Its Case in Frayser

Posted By on Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 10:56 AM

Chris Barbic makes his case
  • Chris Barbic makes his case
We're from the government and we're here to help you, really. This is not a funeral, this is an opportunity. Trust us. We're going to take your schools from worst to first.

That's what Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District, said at Denver Elementary School in Frayser Tuesday night. It was, and will be, a tough sell. Denver is one of eight Memphis schools that will join the ASD next year and be matched up with a charter-school operator.

The teachers and parents in the audience were wary. Who wouldn't be? Everything is harder at poor schools. There are security patrols instead of or in addition to booster clubs. Parents can't get child care to make it to meetings. Extra money for classroom expenses is hard to scrape up when residents struggle to make ends meet at home. The woman who drove me to the meeting works at an ASD school where the school bus didn't make a stop the other day because there was too much potential for violence. Better luck tomorrow, kids.

Deandre Brown, founder of Lifeline to Success and Frayser's "blight patrol", introduced Barbic and brought along 25 or so green-shirted members of the blight patrol.

Deandre Brown and Chris Barbic
  • Deandre Brown and Chris Barbic
"They (ASD) don't like the word 'takeover' " he said while inviting audience members to "ask the tough questions." Another ASD session Monday night at Carver High School resulted in a walkout and "unfavorable reports" on the television news.

"We won't have that tonight," Brown said.

Given the magnitude of the change being proposed, the questions were more like statements or multiple questions, and most of them came from teachers at Denver or Frayser High School. At the end of the 90-minute meeting, Brown held a handful of cards with written questions that he and Barbic promised would be addressed later.

The ASD both operates schools (including six in Frayser this year) and authorizes others to run them. Frayser High School, for example, will be MLK Prep next year, under the leadership of principal Bobby White, a Frayser native and community leader. On other ASD schools, Barbic and his staff are trying to thread the needle by announcing them two weeks ago but withholding details about who will run them and work at them until December, following more meetings like the ones this week at Denver and Carver.

"The headline is that there was not a lot of progress here last year," Barbic said. "We're not wagging a finger trying to make people feel bad."

Five Frayser teachers who got to the microphone begged to differ. They said that Denver absorbed hundreds of new students from a neighboring school and made gains anyway, and that Frayser High School was a "takeover" without adequate notice. Barbic nodded sympathetically to some comments and took the microphone to clarify that the process began three years ago.

"At some point we have got to see bigger gains," he said.

The pressure on the ASD and charter operators is tremendous. Moving schools from the bottom five percent in the state to the top 25 percent without cheating or culling low-scoring students is unprecedented. Reading scores have been especially problematic for the ASD. Teachers like the ones who spoke at Denver Elementary are skeptical that outsiders can do a better job than dedicated veterans.

The teaching insurgents are looking at some long days. After dropping me off at home last night, my friend — a member of the first Teach For America corps in Memphis — declined a dinner invitation. She had to go back to work.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pension Zombies Threaten Memphis!

Posted By on Tue, Sep 17, 2013 at 11:39 AM

The news gods have not been kind to Memphis the last few years. We've had endless budget stories, tax stories, the school system merger and un-merger, six-hour board meetings, five-hour City Council meetings, the preternaturally calm Mayor Wharton, and petty political grievances.

Now comes the public pension "crisis" and a fat file of "valuation and projection assumptions" and alarming claims from budget hawks and union leaders that Detroit-style doom is near and, depending on your point of view, either pensioners or the city administrators are as dangerous as zombies.

Pensions are extremely interesting to the people who are receiving them or are about to receive them. Otherwise, who wants to do the math? Pensions are probably what Robert Penn Warren was thinking of when he wrote in "All The King's Men" that a politician working a crowd should "make 'em cry, or make 'em laugh" but "don't try to improve their minds" because "it breaks down their brain cells."

The trigger for the latest pension blast, first reported by Jackson Baker, was a speech and accompanying report from chief administrative officer George Little about the state of the pension plan. I'll spare you the details, but the 40-page report, highlighted in red lest anyone miss the point, concludes that the "unfunded actuarial accrued liability of the current plan" is trouble. Union leaders responded by asking if Memphians really want to have "80-year-old fire fighters" and fireman-flight if the pension plan is changed.

As one who gets paid to follow this stuff, a few comments.

First, if a fireman has been working 50 years until he's 80 years old then he is either really bad at saving money or enjoys the excitement and camaraderie of the fire station more than the golf course. A senior fire fighter makes well over $50,000 a year according to city figures. A savings rate of 5 percent would create a nice sum, apart from a pension. Tennessee has no state income tax, and Memphis has no payroll tax. The cost of living is among the cheapest in the nation.

Just a guess, but I would say the public is tired of hearing police and firemen threaten to move out of the city (in greater numbers than ever) or, worse, put up billboards claiming Memphis is unsafe as a negotiating strategy.

Wharton did not say anything about a pension crisis when he spoke to reporters earlier this summer to assure us that Memphis is not going bankrupt, ala Detroit. Just the opposite. He said the pension plan is much better funded here but some tweaking would be needed. The report that came back last week seems to suggest this will happen sooner rather than later.

The city finance department assumes the pension fund will grow 7.5 percent a year. Standard assumption, they say. But is it? What conservative investor wouldn't be thrilled to get a safe 4 percent, much less 7.5 percent on his or her retirement savings the last five years? By the compounding rule of 7 and 11, money doubles in 11 years at 7 percent and in 7 years at 11 percent. You wish.

True, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index has averaged a return of 8.6 percent over 20 years, 7.3 percent over 10 years, 7 percent over 5 years, and 18 percent over 3 years. But timing is everything. If you took your nest egg out in 2009 after the stock market crash, you "lost" half of it.

Here's an illustration. One investor, Miss Mattress, had $100,000 under a mattress in 2009 and kept it there. Another investor, Mr. Market, had $100,000 in the stock market and kept it there. Mr. Market lost 50 percent in 2009 and gained 18 percent a year for the next four years. Historically, that is like winning the lottery four years in a row.

Who has more money today? Miss Mattress has $100,000. Mr. Market has about $97,000. A city pension plan has to try to take care of both of them.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Another SNAFU at Beale Street Landing

Posted By on Thu, Sep 12, 2013 at 11:32 AM

Benny Lendermon
The American Queen won't be docking at Beale Street Landing when it comes to Memphis Friday. Instead the luxury river cruise boat will tie up at the north end of Mud Island for the second summer in a row, as will other visiting cruise boats.

The mooring arms of the 400-foot dock at Beale Street Landing are being detached this week because of low water at the mouth of the harbor. The daily excursion boats can still use the dock. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not dredging the harbor this year due to budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the Riverfront Development Corporation's contract runs out at the end of October. The RDC was on one-year contracts the last two years. The most recent one expired at the end of June — days before the big Fourth of July fireworks show on the river — so it was extended four months. Benny Lendermon, head of the RDC, said he is optimistic it will be renewed.

"We are in negotiations for a long-term contract," he said in a dockside interview Thursday.

The RDC is also negotiating with a restaurant operator for the landing after no bids were received following the broken deal with the previous operator. The new prospect is said to be Beale Street restaurateur Tommy Peters.

The $42 million riverfront project has been plagued with problems and controversy almost since its inception. Here's a snapshot history in Memphis Flyer photos.

Mooring arm of BSL dock
  • Mooring arm of BSL dock
The mooring arms raise and lower the dock, which consists of two 200-foot-long barges. They are being temporarily disconnected this week. The river is within five feet of a record low. Lendermon said it would have been possible but costly to design the dock for minus-15 feet on the river gauge, well below the record low. The RDC fired the dock contractor and a lawsuit is pending.

This plywood section of sidewalk from the shady space outside the future restaurant to Riverside Drive and Beale Street was supposed to be decorative tile. Another contractor screw-up.

Restaurant partners Charlie Ryan and Bud Chittom decided in May not to go ahead with a much-needed food and beverage oasis, one of the main reasons for building the project in the first place. Ryan says there is not enough parking. A venue for parties and special events is one possible outcome. The only business inside the building is a gift shop and ticket office for daily excursion boats.

The multicolored elevator shaft, also known as the Beale Street Landing Rubik's Cube, is the focal point of the project, to the dismay of some local urban design critics. It is supposed to represent . . . oh, never mind. It speaks for itself.

The American Queen, whose regular visits were supposed to partially justify the cost of Beale Street Landing, will tie up at the north end of Mud Island Friday, just as it did last June when the water was low. Passengers get a bonus tour of Mud Island and Harbor Town by bus or limo enroute to downtown and their hotel. Lendermon said the dock at Beale Street Landing could be back in business for the big boats before the end of the cruise season in November.

The black fence between the landing and the parking lot is supposed to come down within a week, making it easy for visitors to Tom Lee Park to climb the grassy hill to the top and the fine view of the river. It will also make it possible for some crazy vandal to drive up the hill. There will be a gate of some kind, like the ones currently in use at the parking lot entrances. As for the parking lot next to the landing, it is either not big enough (for a restaurant) or unsightly and unnecessary (design critics and proponents of a more pedestrian-friendly riverfront) because it separates the landing and the rest of Tom Lee Park.

So near yet so far. A decent high-school quarterback could chunk a football from the dock to the southern tip of Mud Island River Park, but, alas, there is no close connection. To get to both, you have to walk or drive to or from the Mud Island entrance either at the parking garage across from City Hall or the parking lot at the north entrance to the river park.

Jobs, as always, were one of the justifications for the project. Beale Street Landing was envisioned as a $20-$30 million project and grew to a $40-million-plus project. The grand opening date, pushed back several times, is some time in 2014. Will Memphians embrace it, or shun it as they did Mud Island River Park? Readers of this blog know I have been critical of the overdo, design, and buck passing, but the view is really nice, visitors won't care about the back story once it opens, and I hope it works now that we have it. See for yourself, but bring your own snacks and drinks.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Achievement School District Getting Bigger, Maybe Better

Posted By on Wed, Sep 11, 2013 at 1:00 AM

The Achievement School District for low-performing schools in Shelby County will have eight or nine new members next year, including one high school that was targeted for closing.

The Innovation Zone, another new wrinkle in public education, will have five new schools.

The I-Zone schools are run by the school district. The ASD is a statewide, special school distrct. The I-Zone is a special group of schools, still under the auspices of the Shelby County school district, and run by its innovation department.

The new ASD schools include four elementary schools (Coleman, Denver, Springhill and Westwood), two middle schools (Southside and Wooddale), and two of these three high schools (Carver, Fairley, and Frayser). The two high schools were not identified. Carver has been targeted for closing due to low enrollment.

The Innovation Zone schools are Vance Middle, Grandview Heights Middle, Melrose High School, Hamilton High School, and Trezevant High School.

The announcement was made with some delicacy. Reporters were alerted Tuesday morning but asked to hold the story for release until Wednesday so that parents and faculty and staff at the targeted schools could be told first. The charter operators have not been chosen.

Both groups take schools in the bottom five percent in Tennessee for academic achievement. The goal is to move them into the top 25 percent within five years. Faculty and administration have to reapply for their jobs and may or may not be rehired. Families can opt out and attend another local public school instead. If they do nothing, they are assured of a spot in the ASD or Innovation Zone school in their attendance zone.

The schools have longer school days by an hour or more and some Saturday sessions. The pay scale for teachers is not based on tenure or experience but on student performance on tests. The pupil-teacher ratio is generally 25-1 or lower.

The inclusion of Carver is likely to raise issues about closing low-enrollment schools. The ASD could become a lifeline for such schools. Before it went out of existence, the Transition Planning Commission recommended closing 20 low-enrollment schools and identified several other candidates. The school board closed four of them.

(THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN CORRECTED: An earlier version incorrectly stated that I-Zone schools will become charter schools.)

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

University of Memphis Has $20 Million "Gap"

Posted By on Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Every once in a while, the college football or basketball season and the 24/7 recruiting wars are rudely interrupted by a public service announcement from an appendage otherwise known as the university.

The University of Memphis has such an announcement, and it concerns a $20 million “gap” in its finances due mainly to declining enrollment and reduced state revenue.

“We don’t have a deficit,” said David Zettergren, vice-president for business and finance. “We are not allowed to have a deficit. We had a balanced budget in the spring and we will have a balanced budget in the fall.”

He described the situation as a “gap” instead and said the university is doing several things to “shore it up” including restructuring workloads, voluntary buyouts, and “efficiencies” on the administrative side.

“We have done voluntary buyouts in the past, but we need to do more,” he said.

University faculty and staff were made aware of “the gap” this summer. On Tuesday, an email from interim president Brad Martin went out.

“A reconfiguration is required to address the funding gap and meet community work force demands, while also ensuring that tuition remains as low as possible,” it said.

“Beginning immediately, all vacant positions (including faculty, staff, part-time instructors and temporary appointments) will be subject to a strategic hiring review process. This review will evaluate whether to move forward with filling positions based on the implications for enrollment growth, productivity and overall institutional efficiency . . . Some vacant positions will be filled, but many others will be eliminated or combined in conjunction with reconfigurations of the work within some areas."

The announcement comes in Martin’s third month on the job and when the financial fortunes if not the won-loss ratings of the football team are on the rise. Despite losing 28-14 to Duke, the Tigers drew an announced crowd of more than 40,000 to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in head coach Justin Fuente’s second season. Fuente and basketball coach Josh Pastner are the university’s highest paid employees.

Academia, however, does not have the luxury of television money and boosters to pay for buyouts and more English professors. And, as the football program has shown, it is risky to raise prices for something people don’t want at the old price. In June, the Tennessee Board of Regents raised 2013-2014 tuition and fees at UM to $8,666, highest among the six universities it governs, including Middle Tennessee State, Saturday’s football opponent.

“Enrollment is down a bit, and that impacts our budget,” said Zettergren. “It is a critical piece of the revenue stream.”

Enrollment fell 2.7 percent last year, to 20,901. Zettergren did not have an exact number for this fall, but in a meeting last week with Mayor A C Wharton, President Martin said enrollment was lower than it was in 2009. A university spokesperson said Tuesday the decline this year is about 4 percent.

Student tuition and fees account for two-thirds of revenue and state appropriations for one-third, Zettergren said. A tuition increase is not seen as a good idea at a time when enrollment, especially among males, is declining. The university’s focus is on retaining and graduating more students, which triggers more state funding that is now based on graduation rates and outcomes, just like public elementary and secondary education.

“As state money has decreased we have had to increase tuition,” he said. “We are in the middle of our peer group and feel like tuition is still a good deal. We really want to hold the line.”

Martin’s executive team, he said, does “not want to alarm people” but does want to communicate the seriousness of the situation to the broadest audience in a campus forum “in the next few weeks” according to Martin’s e-mail.

The University of Memphis is participating in “Graduate Memphis,” a project started in 2012 by Leadership Memphis and the Memphis Talent Dividend to increase the number of adults with college degrees.

The thrust of the program so far has been on the benefits to individuals and the city. The new message, with some urgency, is on the benefits to the universities, and our biggest one in particular.

Now back to our regular programming.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Watching Sports Requires an Iron Butt

Posted By on Mon, Sep 9, 2013 at 10:58 AM

Notes from a heavy sports weekend:

Time required to watch a professional tennis match in a major tournament: Four hours. Time required to watch a major-college or pro football game from start to finish: Four hours. Time to watch a football game, tailgate, and drive to and from: Eight hours.

Tennis first. The Novak Djokovic semifinal Saturday went five sets and tested the stamina of the fans as well as the players. Today’s U.S. Open final between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal looks like a potential four-hour affair because the players are evenly matched, they hang tough in long rallies, and they take their time when it is their serve. I preferred the Serena Williams match in the women’s final Sunday because it was best of three instead of best of five. It went the distance, and was over in about two and a half hours, including a close tiebreaker in the second set and some face time for lean-and-grey Bill Clinton who got the biggest celebrity ovation of the day. The second set was suspenseful because it was a potential decider with multiple match points. In a five-setter, the early sets are often just building blocks to the good stuff in the fourth or fifth sets — like the first three quarters of an NBA game. Walk the dog time, make a sandwich time, get a life time.

Now for football. A week ago I was in Nashville to visit a friend who went to the Vanderbilt-Ole Miss game. The game was a thriller, with hot action in the last few minutes, but all my friend could talk about was how long it took to get to that point: an 8:15 p.m. kickoff dictated by ESPN, a game crammed with television timeouts, and a conclusion well after midnight.

Four hour games are the norm. Super Bowls used to be completed in less time. I watched part of the Michigan-Notre Dame game at Jack Magoo’s sports bar Saturday. Another screen was showing other, lesser games at the same time, and I would swear there was twice as much action in the lesser games and twice as many commercials in the big game. What a pay day it was for Michigan and Notre Dame, with 115,000 people in the stands in Ann Arbor and a national television audience. And what a late night for fans who sat through the whole thing and had to drive home after it was over.

There was a very good crowd, by recent University of Memphis standards, at the Liberty Bowl Saturday for the opener against Duke. In fact, it seemed to overwhelm the parking lot attendants on Central Avenue and the concessions in the stadium, where at least one of them ran out of cold soft drinks at half time. You can see why Memphis football boosters keep giving it a go. The upside is considerable, and the infrastructure is already there — the big stadium, the jumbo scoreboard, the parking lots, the access streets. If there were 35,000 people there Saturday, that’s 25,000 more than most games drew the last few years, at roughly $50 a head for tickets, parking, and concessions including $7 beers. Lot of money changing hands. If Memphis ever uncovers another DeAngelo Williams . . .

It’s water under the bridge, but the stadium renovation mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) looks so unnecessary. ADA seating now basically encircles the stands at the middle level. Most in evidence within my view on the west sideline were, in order, empty spaces, fans in portable companion chairs, fans in walkers, and fans in wheelchairs. The DOJ, which strong-armed Memphis into compliance and expansion, should take a more scientific survey.

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Problem with Quick Consensus

Posted By on Thu, Sep 5, 2013 at 11:11 AM

Don't let it go to your head, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Six votes ain't a landslide. Anyone who says, as a certain newspaper did, that "many applaud" your swift appointment has a bit of a counting problem. Six people quoted in an article, two of whom are current school board members, is not that many, and yes, I know headlines are shorthand and I have been guilty of this myself. "Many" times.

Take it from a veteran of the scribbling class: If someone says you're wise or smart or insightful it means they agree with you, no more.

The 23-member unified school board was a circus, for sure, as those who attended the 5-hour meetings well know. But that stage of the process probably had to happen. Birthing a baby often takes hours, and, I am told, is quite painful.

Hopson never would have gotten the job a year ago or two years ago, much less a week ago. I thought he was a cold fish, but I was wrong. He was doing his job as general counsel the way he was supposed to do it. Now that I have gotten to know him a little bit I think he's a swell guy and right for the job. (That means he agrees with me.)

A 23-member board is too big, but a six-member board, in addition to being an even number, is too small. That's one board member for every 24,000 students in the system. That doesn't square too well with the theory that school governance should be as close to the people as possible. In the six future municipal school systems, assuming they happen, there will be five board members, for a ratio of 2,000-1 or less. And notice that most of those positions are going to be contested races. There is always disagreement.

If quick consensus is such a great idea then why not just have 3-member boards? The former Shelby County school board had 7 members. For most of the board's existence, all of the members were white and male, even though the county system had thousands of black and female students. No wonder there was so much harmony and consensus, as board members endlessly reminded us dysfunctional Memphians.

I rarely covered the old county board but I knew one of its customers, developer Jackie Welch, well. As he told me once, he "kinda had the market" on new schools and the subdivisions that fed them for several years. It's hard to get that kind of clout in a place like Memphis where there is/was more diversity and scrutiny.

Hopson, as he knows, is in the honeymoon period. Let's see how much consensus there is when the size of the board is finalized, members are elected or appointed, and the tough issues come down the pipe. Like who gets the buildings and the students, and at what cost.

One more note. The details of Hopson's contract are being worked out. That presumably includes his pay, which is likely to be higher than the pay of the city and county mayors. Anyone alarmed by that should take a peek at the publicly available tax forms (form 990, available on line at of local private schools that are about one percent the size of the unified system but pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to their leaders.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hopson and Pickler on New Board and Superintendent

Posted By on Wed, Sep 4, 2013 at 3:08 PM

Dorsey Hopson
  • Dorsey Hopson
If he has any qualms about being chosen as "permanent" Shelby County Schools superintendent by just 6 of the 23 board members he worked with for the last two years, Dorsey Hopson wasn't talking about them Wednesday.

Asked if he could do a brief telephone interview, Hopson replied by email:

"I am deeply honored and humbled by the confidence that the board has shown in my leadership. We have so much work to do and I am excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity to lead and serve our community. We will have many challenges ahead but we will face them in a transparent and responsible way. I look forward to working with our board and the entire community."

Hopson was legal counsel to Memphis City Schools under Dr. Kriner Cash and interim superintendent for a year. His contract details have yet to be worked out.

In its first meeting, the new "seven-member board" that is actually only six members until the seventh slot is filled, unanimously chose Hopson and told the superintendent search firm — which concluded after two months that a viable candidate could not be found given the uncertainty — the deal was done. One week ago the board had 23 members, and within a year it could have 13 members.

The ratio of students to board members in the county system is roughly 24,000-1.

David Pickler
  • David Pickler
The day after the superintendent selection, board member David Pickler was at a meeting of the National School Boards Association to discuss, among other things in the media announcement, "the lack of flexibility local public schools currently face." He is president of the association.

Pickler said school boards in the association range in size from 3 to 23 members. He said the "ideal" size would be 5 to 9 members.

He said Hopson should have "at least a two-year contract and preferably three or four years."

He said that if the suburbs leave the county system his district should still have representation on the county board because it includes parts of Cordova and the Southwind area that are not in Germantown. Pickler's term ends September 1, 2014.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

A Pick (Guns) and a Pan (Bill O'Reilly) in New Books

Posted By on Mon, Aug 26, 2013 at 1:50 PM

One winner and one loser, which is about my usual batting average, from my weekly haul at the public library.

"American Gun" is well worth reading, whatever your views on gun control. Author Chris Kyle takes a gun-centric view of American history focusing on ten innovative firearms from the Kentucky long rifle to the M16. A brilliant idea, well executed, by telling the story of the gun's invention and manufacture and then highlighting its game-changing importance in gunfights, battles, and wars.

History, not to mention folklore, might have been different, Kyle convincingly argues, if General George Armstrong Custer and his men had packed a couple of Gatling guns instead of single-shot 1873 Springfield carbines against the Indians' Winchester repeaters at Little Big Horn; if Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and Machine Gun Kelly (Memphian and Central High School product George Celino Barnes) hadn't fallen in love with Thompson submachine guns; if 18th-century American sharpshooters had not killed key British generals with Kentucky rifles; and if GIs in World War II had not carried what General George Patton called "the greatest battle implement ever devised," the M1 Garand rifle.

If you're a gun lover, you'll appreciate the mechanical details. If not, you'll still love the stories about Wyatt Earp, the Texas Rangers, buffalo hunters, and Sgt. Alvin York. I'm in the latter category, although a scary incident involving my daughter and a mountain lion has me wishing I had known enough to school her in firearms before she moved to Montana and started hiking the backcountry.

Sadly, Kyle, a much-decorated former Navy SEAL, died earlier this year. Coauthor William Doyle completed the book.

I can't say much for Bill O'Reilly's "Keep It Pithy" from the dismal shelf of celebrity and self-improvement nonfiction books which all seem to somehow be "#1 New York Times Bestsellers." I figured it would take a couple of hours to read it, but I plowed through its spare 142 pages in less than an hour. O'Reilly is an entertainer and shameless self-promoter who is never at a loss for words or certainty. Fair enough, Job 1 is to put on a show. This mini-book, however, a fair amount of which is recycled material from his columns and programs, is little more than a commercial and some quick bucks for O'Reilly and his publisher.

"I know that sometimes I come off as "all about me" he writes in conclusion. "But I think you know that's not why I am in business. It's about you."


There's good pithy, which O'Reilly can be in his no-nonsense interviews, and there's bad pithy, which O'Reilly can also dish out. At his worst is his "secular Ten Commandments" which purports to "expose" the "explicit agenda" of secular humanists and people who do not share his traditional views of organized religion. Look it up if you must. It is one thing to state your own pithy convictions, another to misstate the convictions of those who do not agree with you.

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Broken Windows at Sears Crosstown

Posted By on Mon, Aug 26, 2013 at 12:24 PM

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a renovation of a building with a thousand windows begins with five of them on the fourth floor of Sears Crosstown in Midtown.

"It's not construction, it's due diligence for the window companies," said Todd Richardson, spokesman for the project.

Still, it's something for a blighted building that has been closed for years. The five windows on the south side of the building were removed so that bidders could do a mock up. About 65 percent of the building is windows, Richardson said.

The cost of replacing them will be several million dollars because they must comply with historic guidelines to insure tax credits and be more energy efficient than the originals.

"It's going to be an interesting bid process," said Richardson.

Asked if this indicates that the project is moving forward, he said "work is ongoing."

Plans call for a mix of educational, medical, commercial and residential users.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Downtown Parking Reign of Terror

Posted By on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 10:52 AM

If the odds of getting a parking ticket on any given day are one percent then put me down for two of them a year.

That's $42 if paid on time, and $186.75 and/or a court appearance if one of them is unpaid due to negligence, willful or otherwise.

The new meters the Memphis City Council approved this week in their ignorance will cost at least $1.7 million and produce, allegedly, $892,000 a year in new revenues. The new parking rate, payable by change or plastic, will be $1.25 an hour.

No problem, says the city engineer, because parking fees and fines underwrite this daisy chain "so that the taxpayers don't have to." Except that Memphians are taxpayers and Memphians who work and get out and about downtown are especially likely to get parking tickets and pay the fines for procrastination.

The parking ticket, of course, is just the ante. The big money comes from the fines. If it takes one mugging to make a Memphian avoid a neighborhood, two or three parking tickets should do the job.

And why set the bar at $892,000 in new money? Why not $1,892,000 or $2,892,000? Only a matter of time in a for-profit enterprise like this. Same goes for those drone cameras in school zones and red lights and speed traps.

The city operating budget is over $600 million a year. Nickel and diming citizens won't balance it, nor will it benefit downtown where meters will still be located selectively, malfunction occasionally, and disadvantage downtown against the rest of the city. To make a struggling downtown more attractive, parking rates and fines should be going down, not up.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Praise for Elmore Leonard

Posted By on Tue, Aug 20, 2013 at 12:28 PM

Elmore Leonard wrote so many great lines that would work on his tombstone if he has such a thing.

Leonard, who died Tuesday, made the hard job of writing dialogue look easy. Memphis and Mississippi figure in a few of his books, including "Tishomingo Blues" which features a high diver, casinos, Civil War reenactors, and naughty-child pie. His adopted home town was Detroit, which a writer for the Detroit News called "the gift that keeps on giving" to him.

“I like it,” Leonard said in 2012 of the Detroit area. “Great music ... lot of poverty. I wouldn’t move anywhere else. Now, it’s too late. I'd never be able to drive in San Francisco or Los Angeles.”

The friend who introduced me to his books 30 years ago said Leonard was a writer of Westerns like "Hombre" and "Three Ten to Yuma" who shifted to urban Westerns in a modern setting. The heroes were iron workers and such and the bad guys were sadistic but often amusing whackos. There was always a showdown at the end. As the saying goes, his books, all 45 of them, were hard to put down.

A few of those tombstone worthy lines:

(to aspiring writers) "Leave out the parts readers skip." (This applied to chapters, sentences, and even phrases such as WTF which he usually wrote as simply "The fuck?")

"We all die, just a question of when." (the 1967 movie version of "Hombre")

"Mister, you got a lot of hard bark on you." (Bad guy Richard Boone to Paul Newman in "Hombre")

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Monday, August 19, 2013

A Top Ten List Worth Reading

Posted By on Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 12:10 PM

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is August 28th. The publicity has already begun, but unless you are at least 60 years old you probably don't remember the historic event and march that drew more than 200,000 people.

What was it about? Media accounts will focus, understandably, on Dr. Martin Luther King's speech, the crowds, President John F. Kennedy who would be assassinated three months later, and the music of Peter Paul and Mary and Marian Anderson. But there is no better answer than the organizing manual for the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" and its list of ten demands. Here they are:

1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.

2. Withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.

3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.

4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised.

5. A new executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.

6. Authority for the attorney general to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.

7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.

8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this.)

9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.

10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

There was also this footnote: Support of the March does not necessarily indicate endorsement of every demand listed. Some organizations have not had an opportunity to take an official position on all of the demands advocated here.

The organizers were Cleveland Robinson and Bayard Rustin. King was one of ten chairmen along with Mathew Ahmann, Eugene Carson Blake, James Farmer, John Lewis, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young.


Buttons were a quarter.

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