City Reporter 

City Reporter

Redrawing the Lines

Legislative redistricting will squeeze Shelby incumbents.

By Jackson Baker

A backdrop to the just-concluded session of the Tennessee General Assembly is the question of legislative redistricting, which was both highlighted and complicated by the proceedings and their frenetic resolution.

First of all, there is the time factor. Each elected General Assembly is given 90 working days to conclude its business during the two-year term of its existence. In its ultimately fruitless efforts to reach a long- term budget solution, the 102nd General Assembly used up all but 29 days of its allotted time -- even after stringing things out for weeks by conducting only one formal session a week and holding committee meetings (which don't count against the total) the rest of the time.

Next year's truncated time frame will coincide with the need for the legislature to comply with a constitutional mandate to reapportion itself every 10 years in the wake of a fresh federal census. The just-concluded 2000 census contained the not unexpected news that the population of Nashville and its environs had outstripped that of Memphis and Shelby County.

The bottom line: Shelby County will likely have to surrender one of its current seats in both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives. Given the fact that Democrats will still constitute a legislative majority, that means that Republicans are the likely losers in the fallout.

Also given the fact that next year's legislature, which will also have to tackle once more the ever recalcitrant (and ever worsening) budget predicament, will have only the briefest spell to deal with redistricting, various formulas are already being considered.

In the House, there are several possible permutations, but the most likely is that freshman Republican Paul Stanley in District 96 (Germantown, Bartlett, Cordova) will find himself, as the newest elected member of the minority party and thus a convenient sacrificial lamb, folded into a district inhabited by another incumbent Republican -- perhaps Bubba Pleasant or Tre Hargett, his neighbors to the north, or maybe Larry Scroggs, who currently represents the district to the immediate south.

Stanley could get lucky in the latter case. Scroggs, a capable and ambitious man, has made no secret of his desire to move up the political ladder. In the last year or two, he has floated the idea of running both for Congress in the 7th District and for governor.

The congressional race is still a possibility if U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, currently considering his options, decides not to run for reelection. In that scenario, 7th District incumbent Ed Bryant is certain to seek the Senate seat, freeing his own for Scroggs or several other likely comers to pursue.

Even if that doesn't happen, Scroggs, aware that not all Republicans are keen on the gubernatorial candidacy of 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, is still keeping alive the idea of running for governor next year.

Whatever happens, Paul Stanley (if his indeed is the seat gerrymandered out) has made one thing clear: He will be running again in 2002 in whatever district the legislature accords him and against whatever opponent the fates provide.

In the Senate, the most recently discussed solution is that of locating freshman GOP Senator Mark Norris of outer Shelby County in the same district with Senate veteran Curtis Person, whose current district includes East Memphis and Germantown. Person, who has not even had an opponent since 1968, would be a formidable obstacle for Norris, but the envisioned new district would probably include more of Collierville resident Norris' hinterland than that of Person.

A Norris-Person race, matching an ambitious newcomer versus an established and respected veteran, could thus be a close one -- and one of the more interesting of the 2002 season.

Divisive Debate

Does the school board need a group hug?

By Mary Cashiola

It was almost nine o'clock at night. The Memphis City Schools board meeting had been going strong since just after 5:30 p.m., when the president called the meeting to order but had to recess until a quorum of commissioners was present.

The commissioners had voted on capital improvements for A.B. Hill Elementary. They'd discussed Commissioner Wanda Halbert's somewhat controversial proposal to provide separate legal counsel for the board and school administration. They'd even been presented with a comprehensive study of how consolidation occurred and worked in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

But after weathering those possible firestorms rather peacefully, the board got into a bit of a skirmish when Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson shared the proposal for a pilot math program.

The pilot program of "I Can Learn," an interactive multimedia approach to teach Algebra I, prompted debate from commissioners who wondered about the cost and segment of the population that would be reached.

Although the program was proposed once before under former superintendent Gerry House to the tune of $9 million, Watson's pilot proposal was much smaller, costing $300,000 and reaching 180 students.

After commissioners questioned the program, Watson brought up his eight strategies to raise student achievement. "I would like the opportunity to implement them," he said.

But as the talks raged on, seemingly over smaller issues such as using the word "pilot," Commissioner Hubon Sandridge began to take the board to task.

"We're going to have to get our heads together," Sandridge said. "We're sending the wrong message out there."

Sandridge brought up the board's retreat at the beginning of the year when they vowed to enter into "dialogue, not debate."

"It's not about $9 million, it's about the children," says Sandridge. "If I have a concern, I call the superintendent on the phone. We're making the debate public."

Commissioner Sara Lewis then uttered, "That's an assumption."

"Well, it's my assumption and I don't interrupt you when you talk," said Sandridge. Shortly thereafter, he gathered his things, put on his cap, and walked out of the meeting.

Other stunned commissioners said they were not trying to bring the board into a debate and didn't want their actions to be seen as divisive.

MHA Moves Forward With Hurt Village Plan

Hurt Village, the 450-unit public housing project at the corner of Danny Thomas and Jackson Avenue, has, as of July 1st, finally been vacated. The doors and windows have been boarded up. Within the next two weeks the property, already the target of vandals and vagrants seeking shelter, will be fenced in. Provided things go smoothly, demolition of the property will begin in the next year and a half.

The plan is to create a fully integrated mixed-income neighborhood -- a true marvel in a city where residential neighborhoods have traditionally been stratified by both race and income.

"It's a tough issue," says MHA director Robert Lipscomb of battling Memphis' housing inertia, "but it has worked in other cities. It's been tried and proven in other places and it must be done here. It's a big opportunity for downtown, our common ground, our living room to the world."

Lipscomb is backing his rhetoric with a comprehensive plan that includes job training for the former Hurt Village residents who have either received Section 8 vouchers or have been relocated into the newly revamped Foote Homes.

"People who live in public housing are beat down and beat down," he says. "They don't realize that there is opportunity. Hopefully, with these job training programs, we'll see people returning to the neighborhood as working folks when the project is complete."

A team of researchers at the University of Memphis hopes to track dislocated residents in order to determine the success of the project. Meanwhile, a neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of Section 8 housing and its relationship to schools, bus lines, and fast-food restaurants compiled by the U of M's Criminal Justice Department is helping MHA determine which neighborhoods are best equipped to handle an influx of the city's working poor.

"The biggest concern is that homeowners [in the Hurt Village area] are going to be able to retain their property," Lipscomb says, noting that as the area improves property values and taxes will increase. "This is especially difficult for older people. We don't want people who bought their home for $15,000 to be forced out because it's now worth $150,000 and they can't pay the taxes."

To combat this Lipscomb is putting together a panel to study the plausibility of tax freezes as well as other options for protecting the rights of homeowners.

"You can't avoid all gentrification," Lipscomb says, "but [in order for this project to be a success] we have to protect the homeowners." -- Chris Davis

New River Bridge, Super Rail Hub Proposed

A new bridge across the Mississippi River and a new "super rail hub" in Memphis will be announced Thursday as two of the recommendations of a two-year study conducted by the Governor's Alliance for Regional Excellence (GARE), according to Allan Hester, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.

Governors from Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi are expected to attend a press conference on July 19th that culminates two years of research by Charlotte-based consultant Michael Gallis. According to Hester, GARE grew out of the Memphis 2005 program started in 1996.

"When 2005 was launched, we talked about how to grow the economy," Hester says. "It became obvious you can't confine it to Memphis and Shelby County." According to Hester, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of the NAFTA agreement, the world economy has surged. That surge has resulted in more emphasis on seeing regions -- not cities -- "as a single economic unit."

The report published by GARE will focus on 10 different areas, such as education, research, the environment, entertainment, and transportation. According to the Chamber, the new bridge will connect Mississippi and Arkansas in southern DeSoto County, providing another link between the two states. Also, since the new bridge will be earthquake- resistant, it will provide another alternative for traffic and rail access should an earthquake occur in the Memphis area.

The super rail hub comes out of Memphis' status as a central hub for railroad transportation. Every day hundreds of rail cars come into Memphis. If any of the rail companies need to exchange cargo, the current system requires inner-city transport of goods and materials using outside truck operators, creating a strain on Memphis traffic as well as a shortage of qualified drivers. With a hub, trains would be able to unload and then load materials at the same location.

According to Hester, "These two are in [the report] but there are five others" in the transportation section alone. In addition, Hester points out that GARE has already produced some significant impact, noting that the planned bio-research park at the downtown Baptist Hospital site came out of this endeavor. -- Chris Przybyszewski

city beat

Strikes and Strike Outs

Downtown draws the crowds to nouveau bowling and baseball.

by John Branston

The new bowling alley at Jillian's in Peabody Place is a nice place for people who don't really like bowling.

This is in keeping with the commitment of Memphis and other cities to build baseball stadiums for people who don't really like baseball, basketball arenas for people who don't really care about basketball, etc.

Hi Life Lanes takes the sound and light show that goes by the name "cosmic bowling" at other lanes and turns it up a notch. A computer keeps score and displays the scores on a monitor. That solves a problem for people who know a spare is 10 plus your next ball but can't program a VCR and, on the other hand, technically astute types who aren't sure how to add strikes and spares. It also eliminates cheating, but what's a little cheating when the lanes can be programmed so that neon-lit bumper guards automatically pop up in the gutters, turning gutter balls into bogus strikes and spares? Judging by the evidence of a recent visit, this feature is not just for kids.

An overhead monitor shows the pins left standing, the best way to knock them down, and the degree of difficulty. One of the pins glows yellow, and if you get a strike when it is in the head-pin position you win a prize, or so someone said. The ball returns and the pin sweepers actually work every time without having to push the reset button. The lanes are a little oily, which is supposed to improve scores but also makes the first few frames sort of like venturing out on glare ice in December. The rental shoes are new and they fit, the food is good, the bar has mixed drinks and a nice selection of draught beers, and the beer bottles are shaped like bowling pins.

The evening lighting ranges from dark to not quite so dark but you get used to it. Loud music, with a heavy dose of disco by Donna Summer and Patti LaBelle, thumps through the speakers. The bowling balls are swirls of candy colors, clear, orange, glow-in-the-dark, anything but black. Huge screens over the pins show something-for-everyone clips of major-league baseball games, women's fast-pitch softball, Mick Jagger with a good haircut, some nice cleavage, various music videos of girl groups, and a young Muhammad Ali knocking down someone who looked like George Foreman but could have been Ernie Terrell or Floyd Patterson.

The truth is that bowling is fun and baseball is boring. To their credit, the people at Jillian's and the Memphis Redbirds have recognized this. Jillian's took bowling away from its past incarnations, including television's ultraserious announcer Whispering Fred Wolf, lowlifes Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces, Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, and wholesome Tom Cavanagh in Ed, and made it hip. If you're going to stand around in a dark, loud, crowded room with a drink in your hands you might as well bowl. The Redbirds took baseball away from creaky old Tim McCarver Stadium and put it in beautiful AutoZone Park and surrounded it with food and concourses and a grassy berm and indoor suites. If you're going to go to a baseball game, you might as well mix and mingle and eat and drink.

It's called broadening the base, and it's about time. Bowling shouldn't have to suffer just because of Polish jokes, oversized shirts, and funny-looking shoes. And it's not baseball's fault that it's so beloved by George Will, nostalgia nuts, and people who keep score on those intricate play-by-play pads that are becoming obsolete.

So down with the polka, black bowling balls, and those stubby little pencils on a string. Here's to Donna Summer, flashing lights, and balls that look like lollipops. Down with the major leagues, televised baseball, and the hallowed Hall of Fame in Cooperstown that draws half as many people as Graceland. Up with the minors, AutoZone Park, barbecued nachos, and the air- conditioned concourse.

But can we please do away with the push-button gutter guards?

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