City Reporter 

City Reporter

Empty Nest

Commerce and insurance office leaves Shelby County.

By Janel Davis

Empty desks and chairs, vacant cubicles, and a single nameplate are all that remain of the office on the 12th floor. It's been a month since John Simpson packed up and left the building. Simpson, who has 45 years of experience between his private-sector work and state positions, was the former head of the West Tennessee regional Insurance Services office of the state's Department of Commerce and Insurance. He and his staff of two handled some 700 to 800 cases each year from Fayette, Shelby, and Tipton counties.

But the Memphis office, as well as two others in Chattanooga and Johnson City, were closed as a result of budget cuts ordered by Governor Phil Bredesen. The closings left seven displaced employees, who were all offered other positions in state government. Open cases were sent from those offices to Nashville.

Simpson is optimistic about his former job. "My opinion is that they will have to reopen our office and maybe some others," he said. "I don't know how they can handle everything in Nashville and Knoxville, especially with them not being here."

Not so, says department spokesperson Paula Wade. "We are struggling with the workload [from the closed offices] and how to redistribute it," she said. "But I don't see them being reopened as a possibility." By closing the offices and not filling several vacant positions, Wade said the department plans to save money.

Even though he wants his job back, Simpson understands the governor's plight. "I know he was under the gun and he had to cut the budget," he said. "We were just one of the many departments that happened to get cut."

"The closures left people with no recourse for health-insurance problems," said insurance agent Lawrence Geisewhite. "The people in Nashville don't understand what's going on down here [in Memphis]." Wade said the phone is still the best resource for answers to insurance questions, specifically the department's information line. The department's Web site is also being upgraded to provide more information to clients.

The Commerce and Insurance Department is the second-largest revenue producer for the state (behind taxes), bringing in more than $390 million in fiscal year 2001, with revenues exceeding expenditures more than sevenfold. The department is responsible for at least seven major agencies and regulations, including TennCare Oversight, Consumer Affairs, Securities, and Fire Prevention Divisions. The insurance division is responsible for enforcing insurance laws and supervising about 1,600 companies licensed to do business in Tennessee.

Yucky Yearbook

Parents not pleased with raunchy Kirby High School annual.

By Mary Cashiola

What do kids want to be when they grow up? According to a local high school yearbook, it's porn stars, strippers, prostitutes, and pimps.

Parents of Kirby High School seniors came before the Memphis City Schools board earlier this week, protesting the error-ridden and often offensive 2003 yearbook.

"There were a lot of misspelled words, blank pages, upside-down pictures," said parent Karen Hill. "It was like, You paid for it; here it is."

Hill and other parents were told earlier this week that the misspellings would be corrected and another book would be issued, but nothing would be done about the questionable content. The book contains sexually graphic quotes from seniors, as well as a section that listed their loves, their hopes, and what they were most likely to do in life, such as "get head."

Hill's daughter said she wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up; the yearbook listed her as most likely to be a porno producer.

"Now she has to go through life with this in her yearbook," said Hill. "These are supposed to be their senior memories. What kind of memories are these? This is nothing to be proud of, but the school doesn't seem embarrassed at all."

The yearbook was part of a $140 package that included the students' cap and gown and the senior banquet.

"There's even a dictionary section so you know what they mean," said Hill. The section included terms like "lil junt" (a stout girl who looks good) and "pimp juice" (something you have that someone of the opposite sex wants). "This is ridiculous," Hill said.

School board commissioners thought so as well. Commissioner Sara Lewis made a motion to investigate how "this kind of garbage" was printed and distributed to the students.

Commissioner Lora Jobe seconded the motion, which was later approved. "There's no accountability," she said. "Was there no principal? Was there no faculty? ... Now we have to see it here."

Said Hill: "What kind of message are we sending to our kids when they've gone to school all the way from kindergarten to the 12th grade and all they want to be is a pimp or a prostitute?"

New Brews

Coffee shop opens in old Map Room.

By Mary Cashiola

John Gasquet opens his Empire Coffee Company in the old home of the Map Room this week, offering espresso, coffee, and a no-smoking environment in place of the live-music venue.

Gasquet designed computer systems for coffee companies in Seattle before an earthquake in February 2001 forced him from his home. He moved to Las Vegas, but after September 11th, the Central High alum moved back to Memphis.

"I was working with computers and coffee, but I wasn't having fun with the computer part of it," he says. "It must have been the coffee."

A coffee lover from early on, he opened up a small coffee kiosk in Southaven and for the last seven months has been planning an expansion into downtown Memphis. He first tried for a spot on South Main, but when that didn't work out, turned his attention farther north.

The Map Room was closed by the Tennessee Department of Revenue earlier this spring for failure to pay state taxes.

Gasquet plans to add a walk-up window, Internet access, and possibly a restaurant downstairs. He is also thinking about naming one of his blends "20 Naked Ladies" in homage to the mermaids gracing the old building's molded and hand-painted ceiling.

"I'm keeping the ceiling the way it is," says Gasquet. "Don't worry. No one cares if my business is a success, but everyone wants to know about the ceiling."

Smart Shopping

New shopping technology premieres in East Memphis.

By Bianca Phillips

Images from The Jetsons of people moving from place to place via conveyor belt may still be a far cry from reality, but it would seem we're getting closer as a Memphian unveils the first fully automated convenience store. SmartMart, at Park and White Station, operates like a giant vending machine, with virtually no human interaction and no need for shoppers to leave their cars.

Up to 1,800 products are set up on a system of conveyor belts and computers inside a long, narrow building. Shoppers drive up to one of four touchscreen-computer shopping ports, push the image of the desired product(s), place their money or credit card in a slot, and the items are delivered into a door near the car's window.

"The beautiful thing about this is, when they're shopping, they're having a blast. When that [delivery] door slams open, they act like they've won the lottery," said owner Mike Rivalto, who's been working on the idea for 11 years.

Alcohol and tobacco products are also available, but those sales are monitored by a clerk inside a separate building known as the call center. Shoppers place their ID into a slot that takes a photo of it, and another camera is positioned to shoot the prospective buyer's face. If they don't match up, there is no sale. And Rivalto says he may begin mailing a copy of the still shot, using the address on the ID, to the parents of minors who attempt to make illegal purchases.

The call center is currently located on-site, and an attendant is on hand to help shoppers with the system. Rivalto says as stores are set up in other cities, there will be one call center to take "help" calls from all over the country. He has patented the idea in the U.S. and 26 foreign countries and plans to open more stores when all the kinks are worked out in the prototype. The Park Avenue store is currently open in a testing phase from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. but will go 24/7 when everything is running smoothly.

"We're in the process of trying to change from a caterpillar to a butterfly," said Rivalto. "But I think we've got a winner here."

Looking for a Leader

Associate head resigns at St. George's Memphis campus.

By Mary Cashiola

A school that opened two years ago as an urban expansion to a suburban private school found itself without a leader last month.

Dr. Angela Webster, associate head at St. George's Memphis since it opened, announced her resignation May 15th.

Rick Ferguson, head of schools for St. George's day schools in Memphis and Germantown as well as the new high school in Collierville, said he was both surprised and disappointed by Webster's resignation.

"We're aggressively pursuing our next associate head," said Ferguson. "We want to find someone with all the great qualities that Angela brought to the public ... someone who relates well with the families and the children and the staff, for example."

Two years ago, St. George's added an urban campus to attract students who live in Midtown and downtown. After an anonymous donation of $6 million, the school opened on Kimball Avenue.

Ferguson said a search committee began meeting last week and hopes to have a new associate head by next fall, if not sooner. "Anytime schools lose people who do a good job it's more than a blip on the radar," he said, "but we have to keep moving forward."

Webster's last day is June 30th, and she did not want to speak about her resignation until then.

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