City Reporter 

City Reporter


MATA rail extension affects downtown businesses on Madison Avenue.

By Chris Davis

A number of businesses both large and small have complained that construction on the one-way stretch of Madison Avenue between Third and the Main Street Mall has seriously reduced the number of customers coming into the area.

"We hope as businesses look to the long-term results of this project, they will see a benefit," says MATA's Vanessa Young, who serves as construction manager for the project.

Business owners say they are looking to the future and that they do see the rail extension as a good thing. They just don't think their businesses can survive until the project is completed.

"Let me emphasize: I am all for the trolley," says Richard Alley, owner of the Tobacco Bowl, which has operated out of the same location for half a century. "But this is killing me."

Young claims that MATA has done everything it can to help the businesses, primarily by keeping them informed. She says letters were hand-delivered to each of the businesses, informing them when the street would be shut down. The first letters were delivered in December, just before the holidays. There have also been regular meetings set up for area business owners.

"It's not like they didn't know," Young says.

But business owners say it's just window dressing.

"The Tobacco Bowl has been around for 50 years, but I've only owned it for three," Alley says. "I'm still sitting on a whole lot of start-up debt. I have a five-year plan to get out of that, but this wasn't a part of that plan." Alley points out that while he hasn't had time to calculate exact figures his business is down between 25 and 50 percent. He says unless something changes the rail extension will force him to declare bankruptcy. Jack Yacoubian of Yacoubian Jewelers and Sandi Degasperis, owner of the Overstuffed Deli, have also expressed concerns that work on the site has been inconsistent. Each claims that more than a week at a time has passed without any work being done.

Young counters by claiming that weather is a factor as well as the availability of materials.

"Sometimes equipment isn't available," she says. "Sometimes you can't get concrete when you need it."

Young also notes that restaurants in the area should see a slight increase in business because of all the workers assigned to the rail extension project. It's an assertion Degasperis rejects.

"I get an occasional worker," she says, "but most of the workers pack their own lunch or they go somewhere else. My vendors have to park in the alleyways and carry all the deliveries to me. And deliveries have decreased by 50 percent, so that should give you some idea of how much business has been lost. I had two full-time employees. I had to lay off one and cut the other's hours back."

Young says she has been made aware of concerns expressed by the Tobacco Bowl and the Overstuffed Deli but says other larger and more established businesses on the street aren't experiencing the same kind of trouble.

Not so, according to Jason Ward, assistant branch manager at Union Planters Bank. He says business is down between 25 and 30 percent.

"It's one thing to block this lane of traffic," Ward says. "It's another thing when I come in here for a week-and-a-half and nothing is being done. That's just a slap in the face. Elderly people who get their Social Security checks can't get into the branch. People are either using other branches or they are using other facilities."

"We usually have a line to the doors on a Friday," Ward adds. "Sometimes it goes out the doors. Well, not anymore." Ward says Union Planters has not yet had to consider layoffs but they have had to cut back on the hours of part-time employees.

Alley has contacted the Center City Commission to ask that signs be erected at street corners instructing drivers and pedestrians that Madison Avenue businesses are still open and that the street is open to pedestrian traffic. He's not received any confirmation that this will be done.

"They say they are talking to their sign contractors," Alley says, "and they are getting around to it. But the Center City Commission says it's MATA's responsibility, MATA says it's the construction company's, and they say it's MLGW's."

Yacoubian and Degasperis both expressed concerns that even if such signs were put into place they would have little impact. Yacoubian points out that the one lane of traffic open between Second and Third is consistently blocked by cars and trucks that park on the street. Degasperis' concerns are with the sidewalks.

"They are just a mess," Degasperis says. "And when it rains they are a muddy mess."

Who Owes Who?

The Enron debacle leaves a trail in Tennessee.

By Rebekah Gleaves

It's got all the elements of a good scandal: lies, corruption, power, and lots and lots of money. Fallout from the Enron/Arthur Andersen debacle spread like Anthrax from Texas to Washington, D.C., eventually working its way into Congress and the White House. Now, with thousands of Enron employees and investors furious at what they perceive as intentional deception by both companies, those who accepted money from either corporation are finding themselves under the microscope of public scrutiny. But if misery truly loves company, they haven't got much to complain about.

Between 1989 and 2001 Enron contributed $6 million to national parties and candidates. More than $2 million of that took place during the 1999-2001 campaign cycle. Arthur Andersen contributed $5.2 million in soft money to PACs (Politcal Action Committee) and individuals over the past 12 years. Both companies favored the GOP, with Enron giving two-thirds of its contributions to Republicans and Andersen giving more than half. Andersen made contributions to more than half of the members of the House of Representatives and to 94 of the Senate's 100 members. Enron gave money to 71 senators and 186 house members.

Perhaps Tennesseans -- at least those who aren't mourning the loss of thousands of dollars in Enron stock -- can take some comfort in the knowledge that, comparatively speaking, Tennessee's elected officials stayed above the fray.

During the dozen years that Texas senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) and Phil Gramm (R) each accepted more than $100,000 in Enron money, Tennessee's senators, Fred Thompson (R) and Bill Frist (R), received none. Thompson did accept $8,800 from Andersen in his capacity as a ranking member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. While Texas representative Ken Bentsen (D) took in $44,000 and Texas representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D) accepted $39,000 from Enron, Tennessee's representatives took in far less.

Over the last 12 years Tennessee representative Ed Bryant (R), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accepted $1,500 from Enron and $5,500 from Andersen. His fellow committee member, Representative Bart Gordon (D), accepted $1,500 from Enron and $8,000 from Andersen. As a member of the House Government Reform Committee, Representative John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R) accepted no money from Enron and $5,000 from Andersen. Likewise, as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, Representative Harold Ford Jr. (D) accepted no money from Enron and $2,000 from Andersen.

The Enron debacle hit home on another level for Memphis attorney Joseph Barton, who says he lost money when he relied on the information supplied by Andersen in his purchase and holding of Enron stock. Last week Barton became the first person in West Tennessee to file a lawsuit against Arthur Andersen for its role in the Enron case.

"I'm hoping for a settlement that mitigates my losses -- before they are completely bankrupt," says Barton, who is seeking $17,762 in General Sessions Court.

"When I found out they were destroying the documents, that was the trigger I needed to file. They wouldn't destroy beneficial documents. This was an active misrepresentation as to the value of the company," says Barton.

Barton says that had Andersen accurately represented Enron's financial situation, he would not have continued to be an Enron investor.

The Letter Of the Law

MCS to vote on in-house counsel proposal.

By Mary Cashiola

Things are changing at the Memphis City Schools. The school board commissioners are each chairing new committees established by board president Michael Hooks Jr. to help improve student achievement. They're in the process of approving a policy to review all their policies. And now they're thinking about bringing their own lawyer on board full-time.

In a presentation Monday night, the board's Legal Representation Committee recommended establishing an in-house Division of Legal Services. The office would create three positions: a lawyer, a paralegal, and a secretary.

"The division would provide counsel for the board of commissioners and the district and would approve contractual agreements," said Commissioner Wanda Halbert, chair of the Legal Representation Committee.

The school district currently uses the firm of Stokes, Bartholomew, Evans, and Petree, and Halbert said that under the committee's recommendations, the district would continue using outside counsel but that "everything would be channeled through general counsel."

The issue of separate counsel for the board and the school system was first questioned by Halbert when the district was looking at bringing the KIPP Academy to Memphis. Halbert wondered if the district's counsel was serving the interest of the superintendent or the board, prompting her to chair the committee and study whether other school boards had separate legal counsel.

Because the committee's proposal would take time to implement if approved by the entire board, other members worried they needed to formalize the current relationship with Stokes, Bartholomew, Evans, and Petree as their appointed counsel.

"We always make it official at the first of the year," said Commissioner Hubon Sandridge, and he moved to vote on the firm's representative, Percy Harvey, as the board's official representation.

At the same time, Halbert said that the records would reflect that "there was no set formality with this process ever. We looked back at several years. Some years we did it, some years we didn't."

After a five-minute recess and a discussion with the board's parliamentarian, the board voted to suspend the rules and voted unanimously to appoint Stokes, Bartholomew, Evans, and Petree as their attorney until there is a resolution to the committee's recommendation.

The board will vote on the in-house attorney proposal at the next board meeting, Monday, February 4th.

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