Robert Lipscomb's Influence and Playing the Gamble 

In this week's cover story, we, like the rest of the Memphis media, have begun to scratch the surface (and, for once, that oft-used cliché seems to be the right metaphor) of an ongoing problem in city government.

Yes, we mean the Lipscomb affair, for sure — a saga, rivaling anything in Sophocles or Shakespeare, of a sudden and dramatic fall from the heights of power to the depths of apparent ruin and disgrace. And one, moreover, that leaves a slew of unanswered questions in its wake: How was one man allowed, through two successive city administrations, to accumulate so much power and influence that, to all intent and purpose, he was unbossed at City Hall, able not only to chart his own course but, it would seem, to decide the direction of city government itself in matters of development?

It was Lipscomb single-handedly who came up with the Bass Pro solution to the riddle of an empty but debt-consuming Pyramid. He committed the city to sticking with that strategy in the face of other suggestions, some of which might have had merits of their own, and through year after year of what seemed never-ending delays. As of now, it appears that Lipscomb was right, that his gamble paid off. (Ask us again in 10 years.)

Other projects, like the apparently abandoned Heritage Trail TIF (Tax Increment Financing) proposal of a few years back, would have put enormous swaths of the city in potential hock to pay for what seemed, finally, disproportionately modest developments within a limited geographical area. The purpose, to pay homage to the city's civil rights legacy while upgrading a depressed area, was fine, but the whole thing seemed out of scale, and it would have involved the disingenuous premise of having the entirety of downtown — which, all things considered, has been enjoying a boom — classified technically as a slum.

That project, like Bass Pro, might have paid off, too, but it ultimately seemed too much a gamble — one in which the ante seemed out of scale with the potential payoff.

The jury is still out (another cliché that somehow seems wholly appropriate) on another Lipscomb leftover, an ongoing Fairgrounds TDZ (Tourism Development Zone) proposal, which the administration of Mayor A C Wharton evidently still hopes to win state approval for, though there have been abundant objections to it from citizens' groups and preservationists.

Don't misunderstand. Lipscomb had a certain genius for dreaming up these projects, all of which aimed artfully at snagging state or federal monies (or both) that our cash-poor city would have trouble coming up with otherwise. Maybe Memphis needed — and needs — to take a few risks.

But it now seems clear that some obvious cautions are in order, as well. When we mentioned scratching the surface of a problem, we didn't mean the Lipscomb affair alone. We meant that civic tendency, so much in evidence that a state comptroller was forced to upbraid us for it not along ago, to live entirely at risk, without sufficient oversight, like a giddy Mr. Micawber with a habit for playing the lottery.

We can still dream; we just need to have enough wakefulness about us to know what's going on in reality.


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