Against a backdrop of clear blue sky, ironworkers balancing on beams up in the sky, hammers clanging against steel, whirring generators, and the traditional fir tree and American flag, the FedEx Forum was topped out Thursday. At precisely the same moment, Shelby County government’s relationship with city and state government leaders hit something close to rock bottom. The $250 million basketball arena, the largest public building project in Memphis history, is still several months from completion, but the exterior work is in the final stages. On a brilliantly clear day, well over 100 people gathered outside the arena to sign their names to a beam that would carry the fir tree and flag to the top of the structure. The celebration, however, was tempered by a nasty undertone of political threats and resentment directed at county elected officials, The Pyramid, and the ever unpopular “naysayers” and “small-minded” citizenry. The immediate cause was a county commission committee’s decision Wednesday to insist upon a $50,000 “value engineering” study of the project. At a meeting of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority just prior to the topping out ceremony, Chairman Arnold Perl and vice-chairman and State Sen. John Ford took turns beating up on various county officials, none of whom were present. Ford broke the ice by accusing County Mayor A C Wharton, County Attorney Brian Kuhn, and members of the county commission of “possible malfeasance” by letting the study go forward. The consultants, he said, “can’t tell us anything we don t already know.” Perl, a trial attorney specialist in labor law, vented his opinions next. Memphis, he said, “has one of the worst reputations in the United States to do public building projects . . . I don’t want to go into it, but they’re known.” “Ask any national contractor and they’ll tell you this is a bad place to do a project, he said. The FedEx Forum, by coming in on time, under budget, and in excess of expectations, can “change the image of Memphis, Tennessee.” He vowed that it would not become “Pyramid Two.” Then it was Ford’s turn to ratchet up the rhetoric another notch. He said the county has “messed up” the construction of the new jail and the convention center. “I have a long memory,” he said ominously, adding “some of us have the votes to do things you can’t imagine. I am suggesting, don’t rub us the wrong way.” Shelby County has to go to Nashville for state funding of many of its rograms. After the meeting adjourned to the building site, a nice-size crowd had formed as Mayor Willie Herenton stepped forward on the speakers’ platform to say a few words. After praising Perl, the building authority, and the contractor, he ripped into “naysayers, some of who are private citizens and some of whom are elected officials.” For 30 years, it has been traditional for city mayors from Wyeth Chandler to Dick Hackett to Herenton and county mayors from Bill Morris to Jim Rout to Wharton to come together to make nice at countless groundbreakings and dedications far less significant than the biggest public building project in local history. Yet among the notable absentees Thursday was Wharton, who was represented on the platform -- any closer to the edge and he would have fallen off -- by chief administrative officer John Fowlkes, silent as a cigar store Indian. Wharton’s absence signified both his growing estrangement from Herenton and the sea change in county government since Wharton replaced Rout 14 months ago and Rout’s senior aide and arena liason Tom Jones pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. When the arena was in the formative stages three years ago, Rout and Jones were closely involved, and it would have been unthinkable for an important meeting to have taken place without one or both of them. Now, in more ways than one, it is a new day.

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