20 Questions 

To kick off the Flyer's 20th anniversary year, our intrepid staff boldly answers 20 questions about the future — or at least the near future, namely 2009. You read 'em here first. — Bruce VanWyngarden

1. Will the downtown condo market come back?

Depending on whom you ask, downtown's real estate slowdown is either another sign of the American cash-crunch recession, a monument to the folly and overreach of local developers, or a hot iron just waiting to be struck by opportunistic buyers.

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Based on data supplied by Chandler Reports, 180 condo units were sold through November 2008, compared to 244 for all of 2007, down 26.2 percent. Prices were up 1.6 percent from 2007 to 2008.

According to the data from Bologna Consultants' "Downtown Condo Matrix," 1,297 new and renovated condo units were complete or under construction through the third quarter 2008. Of the 1,039 that are complete, 76 percent have a closed contract on them.

Based on these numbers and a few others, Bologna Consultants projects that "the projected sellout of completed and available units using the third quarter absorption rate is 1.92 quarters or 5.8 months." So, the inventory is still moving, albeit more slowly than in the salad days of a few years ago.

The game-changer could be the relocation of the University of Memphis' Cecil C. Humphreys Law School, which is moving into the remodeled historic Customs House on Front Street at Madison. The law school will begin offering classes downtown in January 2010. In addition to inhabiting a central downtown intersection, the law school will bring 500 students, faculty, and staff downtown daily, consuming food, drink, retail goods, entertainment, and — a developer or nine hopes — living spaces.

According to the Internet, it was Will Rogers who said, "Don't wait to buy land; buy land and wait." That may be the phrase that pays in 2009. — Greg Akers

2. Will the Memphis Zoo avoid controversy?

Not likely. In February 2008, the zoo managed to anger quite a few people by cutting down four acres of trees in its portion of the old-growth forest to make room for the new "Teton Trek" exhibit, slated for completion this year.

click to enlarge BY REGIS LAWSON

Though zoo officials have agreed to be more open to the public with future plans and have said repeatedly that its remaining 17 acres of old-growth forest will be used for a "low-impact" boardwalk exhibit, many local forest advocates don't trust them with the land.

When asked about the future of the remaining forest, zoo spokesperson Brian Carter said, "The forest will not be developed or touched at all until we are able to have all the plans put together."

The plans include an extensive survey and full inventory of plants, trees, and wildlife within the 17 acres. "I won't be able to say anything about any of those plans until that full survey is done," Carter said.

As long as the zoo retains that 17 acres of forest within its boundaries, there's a definite possibility for controversy in 2009. — Shara Clark

3. Will fans return to FedExForum

(for Grizzlies games)?

As of this writing, the Grizzlies rank last in the NBA in average home attendance. With the economy in the tank, attendance is down in a lot of NBA markets, but nowhere are crowds as sparse as in Memphis. This might change in the coming year, but, if so, it won't be until October, when the team gets ready to embark on the 2009-2010 season.

click to enlarge BY REGIS LAWSON

It's not hard to see why things are so bad at the gate for the Grizzlies: Over the past two seasons and change, the Grizzlies have amassed the NBA's worst record, a deadly blow to fan interest anywhere but especially in a city notorious for fair-weather fans. (See: Tiger basketball. See also: Tiger football.) Add to that dismal record the following factors: a terrible economy, a small market, an out-of-town owner who's alienated important segments of the local business community, a wildly successful in-building competitor in the form of the aforementioned college team, a casual fan base that still doesn't seem to appreciate the immense gulf in level of play between the college and pro games. It's a perfect storm.

With arguably the youngest team in the league and one year into an announced three-year rebuilding plan, the Grizzlies won't get back on the winning track until at least next season and maybe (probably) not until later than that. What they'll hope for is enough improvement later this season to provoke some interest heading into the summer to begin reversing the ticket-sales decline next fall.

One thing beyond more wins that could be a big factor: O.J. Mayo. Most local (potential) fans don't realize it yet, but the Grizzlies landed the biggest star they've ever had last summer. The 21-year-old guard has been the league's most prolific rookie scorer since Allen Iverson and, barring some unexpected setback, will be a dominant player for years to come. With so many locals tuned out, Mayo is likely to become a national star before he becomes a local one. But the national media will let Memphis know what it has. As we know from our music history, sometimes it has to work that way. — Chris Herrington

4. What's on tap for local music?

In local music in 2008, the year was bookended by new albums from the North Mississippi Allstars and Saliva, while the real story was the rise of Jay Reatard, who became an international indie-rock sensation via his never-ending touring and series of singles for Matador Records. But a lot of local music heavyweights took the year off. As a result, 2009 should be even more active.

The aforementioned Reatard is set to release his studio-album debut for Matador sometime this year, while his sidemen will step out as part of the Barbaras, one of the city's best up-and-coming bands, and release a full-length for stalwart California-based garage/punk label In the Red. Also on In the Red in 2009 will be the first new album in five years from the Reigning Sound, led by former Memphian Greg Cartwright.

Cartwright's former bandmate Jack Yarber will release a new album with his band Jack O. & the Tearjerkers on local label Goner, slated for March. The next month, Goner is scheduled to release the third proper album by local singer/songwriter/cult sensation Harlan T. Bobo.

Later in the year, look for the major-label debut from Lucero, who signed with Universal Records last year and should head into the studio early in 2009 to knock out their first record for the label. And local blues/jazz/soul ace Charlie Wood signed with Archer Records last fall and has a 2009 album in the works with producer Adam Levy, a Norah Jones collaborator.

The most interesting new development in local music this year, however, might be the long-delayed opening of Minglewood Hall, the concert/performance venue at the former Strings & Things location on Madison. In a bad economy and with most local venues light on national bookings, can this ambitious venture reverse the trend and shake up the local concert scene? — Chris Herrington

5. Will the Pyramid be a Bass Pro store?

Certainly not in 2009 and probably not ever. What seemed like a good idea in 2004 when it was proposed has become a lightning rod for criticism of the Pyramid, local government, tax giveaways, and "bait shops." Without a local champion with clout, Bass Pro missed its window of opportunity and ran into a wall instead, finally winning approval from the city and county in 2008.

In the most optimistic scenario, Bass Pro won't begin 24 months of construction of a retail store, hotel, and restaurants until 2010. If Bass Pro can't get it together in 2009, local governments get $920,000 in rent and penalties. If the project goes forward, it will need at least $37 million in tax subsidies. In a recession, it will be easier to bag a wild hog on Main Street than it will be to get Memphians fired up about a hunting and fishing retailer that already has a store here.

Then there's the likely uproar over the prospect of that giant logo on four sides of the Pyramid. It's lights out for at least another year for this unlucky landmark.

John Branston

6. Will the city pass a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity?

Gay rights advocates in California spent much of the fall fighting Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage after it had been legalized by the California Supreme Court. Though the California GLBT community lost that battle, it was a close election.

In Tennessee, an amendment banning gay marriage was added to the state constitution in 2006. The city of Memphis doesn't offer protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, though gay rights activists in Memphis have been pushing for such an ordinance for years. The movement gained momentum this year after the beating of a transgender woman by a Memphis police officer.

The beating brought the lack of a nondiscrimination ordinance to light once again. Jonathan Cole of the Tennessee Equality Project says pushing for a Memphis ordinance is one of the group's top goals for 2009.

The drafted ordinance will protect city employees, anyone using city services, employees of city contractors, and members of boards appointed by the city (e.g., MLGW, the Center City Commission, etc.). Cole says he's currently working with the City Council's personnel and governmental affairs committee and hopes to see the ordinance on a council agenda in the new year.

Will it pass? It's anybody's guess, but new council members seem more open to gay rights issues. Hopefully, they'll give the green light to this long-overdue ordinance. — Bianca Phillips

7. What's the Upshot of Republicans Taking Over Both Houses of the Tennessee Legislature?

Well, "upshot" is one way to put it, in that the state GOP, like the Republican Party nationwide, is considered more friendly to pro-gun legislation than Democrats (though, in Tennessee, even most Democrats profess loud loyalty to the Second Amendment). In practical terms, that means an already liberal ... er, make that permissive set of laws governing the rights of gun-owners will become more so, allowing floor votes on issues like the right to tote a gun into a bar.

The so-called social issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.) are sure to draw more explicit attention in the 2009 legislative session with greatly enhanced prospects for passage of a long-blocked constitutional amendment that would nullify a 2000 state Supreme Court decision on abortion. That decision actually granted more protection for abortion rights in Tennessee than pertain in the rest of the nation under federal law.

Tort reform (especially lowering awards on malpractice judgments) will be high on the legislative agenda, as will further reductions in workmen's compensation awards. In general, business interests will benefit vis-à-vis those of consumers and labor.

Legislation favoring charter schools and homeschooling will have better chances of passage under Republican control.

The fact that the election commissions in all 95 Tennessee counties will henceforth consist of three Republicans and two Democrats, rather than the other way around, could have effects subtle and large. In Shelby County, the suburbs may get more early voting locations relative to the inner city. And statewide, the Republicans will doubtless be listed first on the ballot in general elections. Everywhere there will be more restrictive atttitudes to eligibility on voter lists.

The most important consequence of the changeover likely will be that the Republicans, if they can hold on to their current edge in the 2010 elections, will be able to reapportion all legislative and congressional districts at maximum advantage to themselves. — Jackson Baker

8. Will the Memphis Police Department hire enough officers to cut down on crime?

Memphis once again made the FBI's "most dangerous cities" list in 2008. And we wouldn't be surprised if 2009 looks the same.

In the fall, the Memphis City Council voted down a measure to further reduce residency requirements by allowing Memphis police officers to live within a 20-minute drive of Shelby County. Black councilmembers, who all voted against the measure, claimed the Memphis Police Department (MPD) wasn't doing a very good job hiring qualified black applicants.

Whether that's true or not, the MPD will have to stick to hiring candidates who live inside the county. And statistically, most of those who apply for the job will be turned away. Officer Vince Higgins once told the Flyer that only 10 percent of applicants qualify for the police academy. The initial recruitment process — background checks, interviews, and physicals — can take three to six months.

Once candidates are accepted, they attend the police academy for five to six months. According to Higgins, a percentage of those officers will fail, either in firearms or academics. In a class of 150, Higgins said 125 might make it to graduation.

Once hired, new officers enter a year-long probationary period, during which they ride with a partner for nine months and are monitored for three. So, it'll take a long time before any new hires are even qualified as full-time patrol officers.

Given the recruitment problems the city is having now, we doubt the MPD will ever reach a full complement without the City Council further relaxing residency requirements. — Bianca Phillips

9. Will the Greater Memphis economy really tank?

Layoffs and salary cuts were announced at International Paper and FedEx in December, and job losses are likely at Delta (formerly Northwest Airlines) and in the housing, casino, and retail sectors.

On the other hand, the big presence of government jobs in Memphis and Shelby County — one of the direct effects of having separate city and county governments and school systems instead of consolidated government — is a plus. Still another is the strong medical sector, which includes UT, Baptist, Methodist/Le Bonheur, and ALSAC St. Jude Children's Research Center. — John Branston

10. What is going to happen to Overton Square?

Overton Square was once a thriving entertainment district and the heart of Midtown, where promoters would pull stunts like bringing in snow machines at Christmas to turn the area into a winter wonderland. The days of Bombay Bicycle Club, Lafayette's Dance Hall, and artificial flakes are long gone, but Overton Square is still an entertainment district, home to a number of Midtown's best-known restaurants, two (soon to be three) live theaters, and a movie theater. But many of the area's prime spaces have stood vacant for years. Things are about to change.

At a December meeting of Memphis Heritage, Jackie Nichols, the founder and executive producer of Playhouse on the Square, shared some good news. He told the group that a convenience store would soon replace the boarded-up gas station at Cooper and Union, across the street from where his new $10 million theater is scheduled to open in 2009.

"The ballet and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra will also be using our facility," Nichols said. "We expect it to bring an additional 40,000 to 50,000 people to the square every year."

Although the district's south side is getting a facelift and its north side is populated with businesses, the area's mid-section is largely empty. Area residents and business owners fear that Fisher Capital, the square's out-of-town ownership group, is going to sell much of the square's acreage to a big-box grocery chain.

By this time next year, the Overton Square likely will be a very different place. How different remains to be seen. — Chris Davis

11. What will happen to the International Goat Days Festival?

First held in 1991, the International Goat Days Festival has become an annual event in Millington, drawing around 30,000 people each year. The festival was the brainchild of W.S. "Babe" Howard, a Millingtonian who owned the Millington Telephone Company, built a local baseball stadium, restored some of the town's oldest buildings, and helped the community any way he could. Howard passed away last July at the age of 82, and the future of Goat Days is up in the air. According to Janis Rogers, a spokesperson for the event, the festival, which includes goat chariot racing, goat milking, a best-dressed goat contest, and several goat-cooking contests, is set to be taken over by the city of Millington, although exact arrangements have not been finalized. — Shara Clark

12. Can the Memphis Tigers finally win it all?

For three straight years, the Memphis Tigers basketball team has gotten at least as far as the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. In 2006, the U of M was bounced by eventual runner-up UCLA in the Elite Eight. In 2007, it was eventual runner-up Ohio State doing the honors. Last year, the Tigers destroyed Texas in the round of eight, then squashed UCLA in the national semifinals before losing in heartbreaking fashion to Kansas in the finals. You may have read about that one.

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The 2008-2009 incarnation of the Tigers is unburdened by similar expectations. The team has lost its three best players: freshman guard Derrick Rose (the top NBA draft pick), senior forward Joey Dorsey (second-round pick), and junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts (also drafted in the second round).

Replace those three with returning forward Robert Dozier and guards Willie Kemp and Antonio Anderson, add freshman stud Tyreke Evans, academically approved forward Matt Simpkins, and giant guard Wesley Witherspoon, and you've got a fine, mid-level Top 25 team.

It's the kind of team that underscores how far the Tigers have come under the guidance of Coach John Calipari. If this is an off-year, Calipari's doing just about everything right. And with the signing of prep superstar Xavier Henry, who will suit up in 2009-2010, this year looks to be a lull between two powerhouse squads. But, for this season, the numbers don't add up for a national championship run. — Greg Akers

13. What are the chances of a major earthquake striking Memphis?

Ever since a discredited scientist named Iben Browning predicted that "The Big One" would demolish Memphis on December 3, 1990 — news flash: it didn't happen — we've gotten very nervous about earthquakes, especially considering our proximity to the New Madrid Fault.

But actually, the chances of a major quake in Memphis are pretty slim. Not next year and not in the next half a century.

"Based on the last 1,500 years — which is actually a short period of time to build statistics for geologic processes — there is a 7 to 10 percent chance we would have a major earthquake in a 50-year time window," said Gary Patterson, a geologist with the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis. "There have certainly been smaller ones, but basically we have had only three large earthquake sequences in the past 1,500 years, and the most recent one was in 1810."

Patterson admitted, however, that earthquakes in Memphis are hard to predict. "It's more difficult here," he said. "We know in California that the tectonic plate is sliding northwest at about an inch and three-quarters a year. They can look at that like a rubber band. Tension builds up, it stretches, breaks, BANG, and then you start all over again, every 60 to 80 years."

The New Madrid Fault, however, doesn't seem to work that way. "We're not on a plate boundary — the broken edge of the earth's crust — like California," Patterson said. "The movements from one side of the fault to the other are relatively low. The rubber band here — did it break? Or is it still partially stretched after those three major earthquakes?"

So, even though Patterson believes the chances of a major earthquake in 2009 are very low, "there are still many things we don't know," he admitted. — Michael Finger

14. Will Midtown get a new shopping center?

The prediction is yes. There will be a firm commitment by a major national retailer to anchor a new shopping center, either at the old Mid-South Fairgrounds or at Poplar and Watkins. But it won't be open until 2010 at the earliest.

Fair Ground is led by Memphis developer Henry Turley. The developer of the other site is WSG Development, based in Miami.

The Miami group has acquired several acres of property southwest of the Evergreen Historic District in Midtown and boarded up dozens of apartments and houses in the blighted area. Construction is supposed to begin in the spring, with two retail anchors. But the recession could delay that date. Still, this site looks closer to happening than Fair Ground, which is a much more ambitious and complicated public-private partnership including the Liberty Bowl, the Mid-South Coliseum, and the old Libertyland site.

If it is the nature of developers to develop and retailers to expand into new markets, then the competition could be good for Midtown, which has a solid neighborhood residential base but no national retailers like Target or Wal-Mart.

John Branston

15. Last year, UrbanArt celebrated its 10th anniversary with several temporary installations, at least one of which now seems permanent. Can they top it 2009?

The writing is literally on the wall. Under new executive director John Weeden, the UrbanArt Commission is heading several new mural projects, including one near AutoZone Park. Others are ongoing in Frayser, Midtown, East Memphis, and Westwood.

"Murals are something that people automatically respond to. ... In the very beginning, people started drawing on cave walls," Weeden said. "We have a lot of blank spaces that could easily go into blight, and murals are one powerful and relatively swift and lasting way to address those blank spaces."

In addition to all their other activities, in November, UrbanArt hosted a "Show and Tell" event. For adults! At a bar! Will they recreate it? No doubt. Each session gives the show-and-tellers six minutes to talk about their eclectic interests.

But perhaps the most intriguing rumor from the area's talking heads is whom the commission may bring to town as part of a partnership with the Eggleston Trust. In addition to that visiting artist — recently praised for a temporary citywide exhibit in New York — and others, we predict the commission will host some very interesting events, at some very signature buildings, over the next year. — Mary Cashiola

16. Can Kriner Cash and the Miami Mafia make a change at Memphis City Schools?

Early in his tenure, Kriner Cash's deputy superintendent of academic operations, Irving Hamer, identified a districtwide problem: a sizable percentage of the system's students were overage for their grade.

In August, Hamer called MCS' 9,000 overage elementary school students "a ticking bomb," telling school board members, "I can practically say categorically that these students do not graduate."

In all, the district has about 31,000 students — or 28 percent of its total enrollment — who are overage by one to three years. These students contribute to school discipline problems, low graduation rates, and sagging test scores.

Beginning in January, the district plans to begin the MCS Prep Academy for students 14 years and older who are at least one year overage for their grade. The academy will initially enroll 200 students per location — 800 in all — before beginning a wider, and much-needed, reach in the 2009-2010 school year.

Students at MCS Prep Academy will have an extended day and school year, attending classes 11 months of the year, will follow individual learning plans, and through Internet classes and dual credit programs, will accumulate credits quicker than their counterparts.

The district also has a plan to defuse those "ticking bombs." Between February and April, college students will tutor overage elementary school students as part of an intensive 10-week program.

So, can change come to MCS? It certainly looks promising.

Of course, this prediction, like many of the others, just might blow up in our face. — Mary Cashiola

17. Will there be a tax increase?

No. Mayor Willie Herenton told City Council members in 2008 that he will not propose a tax increase in 2009, and he will keep that promise.

click to enlarge BY JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Here's why. The city is in decent shape financially, with an "A" credit rating and a "rainy day" fund of over $80 million. Despite the rise in foreclosures, the fact is that most homeowners and businesses pay their taxes, the delinquency rate is under 5 percent, and Memphis has by far the highest property tax rate in Tennessee. City Finance Director Roland McElrath said in December that the best guess is that the tax base will remain steady or decline only slightly after the 2008 property reappraisal.

Even if thousands of homeowners appeal, it will take several months, assuming some of the appeals are successful, for the impact to be felt. Local sales tax revenues are projected to decline about $6 million, but that is only about 1 percent of the 2009 operating budget of $580 million.

Taken all together, that means a tax increase in 2010 to restore the tax base is more likely than an increase in 2009 in the depths of the recession. — John Branston

18. Who's Going to Be the Next Mayor — and when?

Perhaps that should be "Who Are Going To Be the Next Mayors — and When?"

Well, the "next" mayor — for the first time in memory of the easily distracted among us, as well as all those Memphians who were infants or toddlers a generation ago — won't be Willie Herenton (or W.W. Herenton, as he called himself for a term or two).

With apologies to former city councilwoman Carol Chumney and current city councilman Myron Lowery, both of whom hanker to be the city's chief executive, the chances are quite strong that current Shelby County mayor A C Wharton will have that honor instead. In his two races for county mayor — in 2002 and 2006 — he dusted off, first, Chumney (primary) and current county commissioner George Flinn (general), and, four years later ... Lawdy, who was his major opponent the last time? Oh, John Willingham? Of course. (It was an election year, wasn't it?)

The margins weren't even close any of those times. And, despite the fact that Wharton has been an active collaborator with Herenton — to the point of helping orchestrate Herenton's abortive bid to regain the city's school superintendency in early 2008 (as a preliminary, most likely, to getting the city baton via hand-off) — the current county mayor has somehow avoided the taint of the current city mayor's unpopularity.

In 2010, Wharton will be closing out his county tenure (unless he's already ascended to the city job via a special election) and hopes to see a successful referendum for city/county consolidation that year. Meanwhile, for what it's worth, such worthies as Sheriff Mark Luttrell (Republican) and county commissioner Deidre Malone (Democrat) are the best bets in that year's county mayor race. — Jackson Baker

19. Will a major movie be filmed in Memphis?

After Tom Cruise and other big-name stars came to Memphis to film The Firm in 1992, Memphians grew spoiled about our city's "next big thing." And over the years, thanks in good measure to the hard work of the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission, the Bluff City has been used as a setting for almost 30 other productions, ranging from John Grisham epics like The Client to more offbeat films like Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan.

So what's ahead for 2009?

"My feeling is that the stars are aligning so we will have another big year in 2009," said Linn Sitler, head of the film commission. "I don't really know how much more specific I can get, because there are too many variables involved — I mean, right now, we have the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] strike pending and other issues."

Sitler said she has been using Nothing But the Truth, a film loosely based on the outing of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame, with certain scenes shot here in 2007, as a marketing tool to convince directors and producers to use Memphis as a locale even if the film is not actually set in Memphis. She seems confident of the success of those efforts.

"My psychic gut feeling is that, yes, we will have a significant feature film in Memphis in 2009," Sitler said. "But so far, title: unknown. Story line: unknown." — Michael Finger

20. Will the Memphis Flyer have a good year?

No, the Memphis Flyer is going to have a great year! It's our 20th anniversary, for one thing, and after two decades (and 1,035 issues), we think we have a pretty good idea of how to succeed — in good times and bad.

We were founded in February 1989, at the end of a recession that had put many popular magazines of the time out of business. From humble beginnings (36-page issues, with little advertising support), we have grown into what we like to think is a Memphis institution. We're not going anywhere. In fact, unlike other print media, we're even growing our circulation in 2009.

Stick with us. It's going to be a great year. — Bruce VanWyngarden

click to enlarge Carol Chumney - BY JUSTIN FOX BURKS

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