An Unbelievable Future 

Ponder those three words spoken by outgoing Shelby County mayor Jim Rout in what was billed as a "farewell address" to the members of the Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday. This -- the eighth and final installment in the annual addresses Rout has been accustomed to making to his fellow Rotarians -- was, quite properly, an occasion for summing up the developments (no pun intended) of his two terms in office.

Understandably, the mayor chose to point with pride rather than view with alarm. And, no, he did not back off from his support of using public money to build the ever more controversial arena that will, perhaps, house the Grizzlies. Indeed, he reaffirmed his belief that the edifice would in fact be built, and, like any local sports enthusiast, sang the praises of Pau and Shane and Jason.

It was vintage Rout -- or the Rout we have grown accustomed to in his mayoral years, anyhow. His prognosis was as upbeat as his manner was sunny. Those in his audience with long memories (and, in that venerable organization, such are surely quite numerous) might recall a different Rout -- the cost-conscious county commissioner who, as budget chairman, was parsimonious to a fault concerning publicly financed projects like The Pyramid and the various incarnations of the Mid-America Mall and Mud Island.

That was then, though, and this is now, and, for the last eight years, Jim Rout has been, in theory and in fact, responsible to an entire county and not to the predilections of a single suburban district where would-be commissioners run for office in opposition to what their constituents are presumed to see as white elephants for downtown. On Tuesday, Rout was geographically balanced in his citation of praiseworthy new parts to the county's infrastructure. He spent much time basking in the fact of the county's suburban soccer complex (and in the significant contributions of Mike Rose, the corporate captain whose efforts and personal contributions made it possible). But he spent as much time -- perhaps more -- reveling in the glories of the new downtown. And he made the striking statement, when speaking of AutoZone Park, that this jewel of a baseball park would never have been built -- not where it is, anyway -- if it had been subjected to a popular referendum.

That was a shot across the bow of those who -- having missed their first chance to blow the arena project out of the water -- are taking new aim.

Rout's critics increasingly maintain that he is responsible for allowing developments of all kinds to proceed pell-mell in Shelby County, with disastrous expenses and dislocations resulting. Almost no commission wannabe in this newest electoral season has failed to note the $1.3 billion debt now being run by the county. In his enumeration of eight years' worth of numbers ("115,000 new net jobs," billions of dollars' worth of new private development, etc., etc.), the ultimate custodian of Shelby County's finances did not shy away from mentioning the shortfall. Though he tried to lay off a goodly portion of that on jail problems (and thereby on the separately elected sheriff), Rout explained the debt away as growing pains, the inevitable consequence of all the remarkable new development.

His speech was a tour de force, and the next several years will determine whether the three words cited in the title above will have the figurative meaning that an optimistic Mayor Rout intended while using them or the wholly literal -- and ironic -- one that he didn't.

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