Willie Herenton, Master Builder 

Having just been treated to the latest installment of Mayor Willie Herenton's annual visionary moment, delivered not via an end-of-year philippic this time but in a low-key address on Tuesday to the members and guests of the Memphis Rotary Club, we are sure of one thing: The mayor's generous and doting mother, whom he proudly re-introduced to the public during his swearing-in ceremony earlier this year, just had to have made a point of keeping young Willie in new Tinkertoy sets each Christmas.

What else could account for the mayor's fascination with new buildings? Last year saw him float the ill-fated (and somewhat amorphous) proposal for a new football stadium as the keystone of a new and wholly revamped Fairgrounds. Nothing came of that one — although His Honor told the Rotarians that Fairgrounds proposals from two different development groups are expected within the month. As for the stadium itself, however, Herenton formally buried the idea Tuesday, suggesting instead that major improvements be made to the existing Liberty Bowl facility. This, of course, was what many people acquainted with the city's needs (and its means) had been advocating all along.

Ah, but an unborn master architect still lurks within Herenton's persona, for he sprung yet another major building proposal on his Rotary audience Tuesday — elaborating on it further at a subsequent press conference. This was for a new convention center. Perhaps in view of his experience with the stadium proposal (and with the still unachieved city/county consolidation that Herenton has been seeking for years), the mayor left himself an out by appearing to allow for mere renovations of the current convention center, which still has the new-car smell from the massive, and expensive, reconstruction effort performed on it earlier this decade.

But Herenton's actual intent can best be fathomed from the way his eyes lit up when asked by a reporter at the press conference afterward if it wasn't the case that the current facility is awkwardly bound in on three sides, a circumstance that would not suggest mere renovation as a remedy, especially when the mayor is also talking up an ancillary 1,000-room hotel as part of the deal. Herenton made a point of arguing that the Cannon Center, crown jewel of the Cook Convention Center, could easily continue to prosper as a freestanding facility. He wants to build, pure and simple, and he made it clear that several sites have been looked at and are in the running for what would amount to an ambitious new convention center to be built somewhere "in the entertainment district." Herenton said further that he would be appointing a new convention-center committee within the month.

It remains to be seen whether the convention-center proposal meets the same fate as did the one made a year ago for a new football stadium. Concerning the latter, he attempted a modest admission at the press conference that was meant to suggest a new humility but was transformed into something else by a verbal snag that seems to have been a bona fide Freudian slip. "We're all infallible," said the mayor with a diffident shrug. Well, no, actually, we're not, not even His Honor, but we're keeping an open mind on his proposal all the same.


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