City Reporter 

City Reporter

Court Battle

As the Appeals Court ponders its decision, others ponder what will happen if Ragsdale wins.

By John Branston

Three appeals court judges meeting in Memphis heard both sides of the debate over a publicly funded $250 million NBA arena for the Memphis Grizzlies this week.

Attorney Duncan Ragsdale made his now-familiar case that there must be a referendum before the city and county can pledge their credit for the project. Chancellor Walter Evans upheld that position in July and the city and county appealed.

Both sides agreed that an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely within 30 days of the appeals court's ruling.

Publicly, at least, the city and county have not indicated what would happen if the gist of Evans' ruling is upheld in both the appeals court and the Supreme Court. A referendum requiring 75 percent approval would almost certainly fail. The media portray Ragsdale as a gadfly, Evans as a maverick, and the city's attorney, Leo Bearman, as a super-lawyer, creating a feeling that the city and county will inevitably prevail.

Ragsdale isn't buying it.

"The public relations battle was won by the city and county," he says. "The legal battle is not over."

Both sides could find a historical precedent. A few years ago the Tennessee Supreme Court bailed the city of Memphis out of a potential mess by striking down the so-called toy towns statute. But in 1982 a long-shot lawsuit came through for underdog lawyer Dan Norwood when the high court said Mayor Wyeth Chandler's successor had to be elected, not appointed. A dark horse candidate named Dick Hackett won the special election.

City councilman Tom Marshall admits he has pondered the "what if Ragsdale wins" question.

"We've all been a little smug about this, but about 30 minutes after Chancellor Evans issued his ruling I started thinking, 'What if he is right?'" Marshall said. "If he is right, then what we have done is a terrible injustice to the taxpayers."

The appeals court hearing, which lasted about an hour, centered on the question of public or private purpose.

"Whatever purpose that exists is outweighed by private purpose," said Ragsdale. Almost all of the revenue sources from the proposed arena "have been bargained away to the Grizzlies," he said.

Bearman said the city and county properly complied with provisions of the Sports Authority Act in issuing bonds for the arena. He argued for a broad concept of public purpose, "not just what goes on at the footprint of the building."

The judges gave no indication of when they might rule.

Some of the judges' sharpest questioning seemed to favor the city and county. Justice Holly Lillard said building an arena, or even three of them, was clearly a valid public purpose if elected officials so decided.

"How is it my job to be a super-legislator?" she asked Ragsdale.

Justice Frank Crawford said the key question was whether there was compliance with the Sports Authority Act. If there was, he said, "then this thing is legal."

Ragsdale took the questions in stride. Asked how the judges might rule, he told reporters, "You can't tell. Their job is to to probe the weaknesses of both cases."

WCDC Wants Revitalization Of Whitehaven

By Chris Przybyszewski

"We would kill for a Starbucks," laughs Gerre Currie, vice president of the Whitehaven South branch of Union Planters Bank. Currie is also a board member of the Whitehaven Community Development Corporation (WCDC). Behind the joke, the frustration is evident. Though the WCDC has existed for 10 years under the leadership of various area business leaders and clergy, this part of Memphis has seen better times and has suffered from the departure of many businesses to greener pastures.

The WCDC wants to change that. "It's a challenge because Whitehaven has been seen for such a long time as a crime area," says Currie. "Once you have been labeled with that, it's very hard to get businesses to come back into the neighborhood.

"We [also] suffer from the perception that we are a low-end socioeconomic community, which is so far from the truth. We have quite a bit of money in Whitehaven, but since we are a stable community, we don't have a lot of housing starts. People tend to think we are stable, we're established, and we have no money [for growth]. And that's not the case." Recent census data centered on a five-mile radius from Whitehaven's Southland Mall upholds Currie's views. The median income for Shelby County grew 49 percent from 1990-1999, while Whitehaven's median income grew at a comparable 43 percent. In that same period, the population of the area did not significantly change.

The first step of the WCDC is a six-month economic study to see where Whitehaven stands. According to Cheryl Forbes, the executive director of the WCDC, her focus is on business and housing. "It's all bundled in how you create a healthy community," she says. "We're going to look at all those elements. Housing is one of them." Forbes says that the WCDC is most interested in creating "single families and multiunit housing, not Section 8 [government-funded] housing. There's a good, strong middle class in this community."

The WCDC hopes to use the area's chief economic generator -- Graceland -- as an attraction for other businesses. "It's like downtown with Peabody Place," Forbes says. "Once you have that anchor, people will start to see that development happening, and other businesses will come."

Conversely, according to Currie, downtown's development has made gaining the notice of city government difficult. "I will go on record to say that we have been neglected," she says. "I can applaud Mayor Herenton's initiatives to develop downtown. A nucleus of any city should be its downtown area. But one of the promises he made as a part of his second foray into the mayor's race was his desire to revitalize other areas of town, one of them being Whitehaven. I think it's ironic that he lives in Whitehaven and he has not taken a vested interest in Whitehaven."

Forbes does not disagree, but she adds, "It's more than one person. It's very hard to bring those pieces of the puzzle together. And people have their own agendas. That's why the WCDC is so powerful, because you are bringing in a collective voice."

In addition to trying to convince developers and businesses to come to Whitehaven, the WCDC has created a number of events to benefit the community's residents. One example is a recent back-to-school health fair in which area students received dental screenings, immunization shots, diabetes screenings, eye exams, and physicals. The event also featured performances by local organizations such as the Police Boys Choir and the Graceland Co-Acts. The WCDC will also sponsor its ninth annual golf classic at North Creek Golf Course on Monday, October 15th.

Tennessee Nursing Homes Facing Troubled Future

Tennessee nursing homes are in trouble. With the state's rising senior citizen population, an additional 52.3 percent more nurse's aides will be needed by 2020 to keep up with the growing demand for care, nursing-home advocates say.

On day 30 of its 50-day national mobile petition tour, "Drive for Quality Care" made a stop in town last Friday to address Tennessee's nursing shortage. At the King's Daughters and Sons Home, nursing-home residents, staff members, family members, and concerned citizens from the Memphis area signed their names to a 30-foot-long petition calling on President Bush and Congress to address the problem.

The petition calls for the government to help ease the shortage of front-line caregivers by passing legislation that helps recruit, retain, and train nursing-home workers.

"[The caregivers] need a career path for advancement," says King's Daughters and Sons Home administrator Ron Arrison. "Right now there is no legislation in place to provide for promotions or higher levels of distinction for aides with years of experience."

Recruitment programs would include scholarships, welfare to work, school partnerships, and assistance with transportation and childcare. Mentoring, career ladders, and wage pass-throughs were cited as examples of retention efforts. Health service corps and curriculum development would be included in training programs.

Strict and numerous government regulations, the strenuous requirements of nursing-home employment, and low unemployment levels are also to blame for the shortage of workers.

"It's hard to find people in Memphis who need jobs. Almost everyone here is working," says Arrison. -- Janel Davis

Try To Remember

Workman witness says he's not certain what happened.

Harold Davis can't seem to make up his mind.

First he said he saw Philip Workman kill Lieutenant Ronald Oliver. Then he said he didn't. Then, yes he did. Or maybe not.

It's a frustrating Ping-Pong game the state's so-called star witness continued playing in a courtroom Monday. Before Memphis judge John Colton, Davis testified that he perjured himself during the 1982 trial that sent Workman to death row. His announcement was a surprise to the prosecution, who had tracked the vagabond drug addict down in a Jacksonville, Florida, correctional facility. After years of not knowing his whereabouts, the state attorneys brought Workman to Memphis because he assured them that he would take the stand and swear that he in fact did see Workman kill the officer. It would have been a perfect coup for the state, which has been battling the defense for nearly two years after Workman was originally scheduled to be lethally injected at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville.

"It was a real shock to everyone because no one was expecting that," says Jefferson Dorsey, one of Workman's attorneys. "The prosecution brought him in so we thought he was going to say the opposite."

Dorsey was the first attorney to find Davis. He tracked him down in a Phoenix hotel room in 1999 and videotaped Davis recanting his trial testimony. But courts would not accept the videotape and the state complained that without being able to cross-examine Davis the tape was useless. No one was underestimating Davis' presence in Monday's hearing, which was granted after Workman received a stay March 30th -- less than an hour before his scheduled execution.

The hearing was set for April, but Judge Colton postponed it, instead issuing a gag order (meaning no one involved with the case could talk to media) after someone made anonymous death threats to an expert witness for the prosecution. Though Colton did not name the witness, the order came on the heels of threatening letters sent to Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith.

Also at issue during the hearing is the defense's contention that the prosecution acted improperly when it did not tell the defense Davis had been found.

"They did it without going through the court system," Dorsey asserts. "We want to know how they did that and if it compromised Philip's case at all."

Whether Davis' testimony will have much impact at this point is unclear. He told the court Monday that he had lived a life "on the street" during the past two decades and his memory is poor. He was charged with shoplifting in Florida. -- Flyer staff

city beat

Rock and Soul

Jason D. Williams plans to team up with Isaac Hayes.

by John Branston

Jason D. Williams can do a lot of tricks with a piano, like playing it with his feet and elbows, sliding across the top and playing it backwards, and generally getting more noise out of it than a jackhammer.

But lately he's been doing a really hard one: trying to get casino gamblers to stop and watch him.

Slot players rank slightly behind the catatonic and the hypnotized in their single-minded attention span. In casino lore, there are stories about players ignoring fires, fights, and paramedics while they keep plugging away. The bells and whistles and the general din of a crowded casino are part of the game. For a performer, simply being loud isn't going to do it. Loud is normal. Live entertainment in a casino is usually so much background noise, which is why most casinos put it in a separate room.

Add to this the fact that Jason D.'s act is almost 20 years old. The Eldorado, Arkansas, native started playing Memphis at Mallard's in The Peabody. His uncanny resemblance to the young Jerry Lee Lewis and his antics gave credence to the myth that he was the Killer's illegitimate son. The Son of Jerry Lee act, which Williams nurtured, limited his ability to make records but didn't hurt his appeal as a live performer. He does nearly 200 dates a year all over the world.

Now almost 39-and-holding, Jason D. is his own man, with a three-piece backup band that has been with him for several years, a line of patter that is part Robin Williams and part out-of-control Bible salesman, and the same energy he had 15 years ago. Dressed in black shirt and pants and red shoes, leering at the crowd, he approaches the piano like a man who is about to grab a hot electric wire and pounds the hell out of it.

At Bally's in Tunica, where he plays on an open stage behind a bar in the back of the casino, he filled the seating area for two shows and had another 100 or so gamblers crowded around the bar to have a look. What they saw and heard was a wild man who, as the mood strikes him, might decide to tap dance, play a Jewish wedding song, spit, discuss the sexual proclivities of John Wayne, slide across the top of the piano backwards, or pound the piano with his feet from a position that would test the skills of a gymnast. His slow-it-down speed is anyone else's grand finale.

Between numbers Saturday, Williams told the crowd he'll be returning to Memphis and Peabody Place this fall to play at Rialto, the current incarnation of a troubled restaurant location on the mall. He also said he will team up with Isaac Hayes, the Stax performer, Academy Award-winning singer of "Shaft," deejay of "hot-buttered love songs," and voice of Chef on TV's South Park. The ebony-and-ivory combination of rockabilly and soul will join a big-name downtown roster that already includes B.B. King's and Elvis Presley's, just in time for the Memphis NBA coming-out party.

Hayes previously announced plans to open a restaurant and club called Isaac Hayes -- Music, Food, Passion in Peabody Place in the rounded tower space opposite Handy Park. Hayes opened a similar restaurant in Chicago in June in partnership with Lifestyle Ventures and Famous Dave's Legendary Barbecue, a Minneapolis-based chain with several locations in the Midwest.

The current issue of Forbes magazine has an article about Famous Dave's which questions the wisdom of expanding into the blues-and-barbecue big leagues of Tennessee and Georgia. Famous Dave's is named for founder Dave Anderson, described by Forbes as a "Chicago-bred Native American who made his fortune running reservation gaming concern Grand Casinos."

Famous Dave's and Rainforest Cafe, another restaurant chain Anderson helped start, were part of the theme restaurant fad that captivated many an "urban entertainment district" and made them depressingly alike. Downtown Memphis and Beale Street have achieved a nice mix of famous names and homegrown ones and some, of course, that are both. Regular appearances by Jason D. Williams, the imitator who is so good he's an original, will be a welcome addition.

You can e-mail John Branston at branston@memphisflyer.com.

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