Friday, February 29, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Encouraging Creativity By Design

This week's Smart City is an encore presentation of a show that first aired June 29, 2006.

How can the design of physical space and public policy encourage creativity and high performance? We put that question to our guests Clive Wilkinson and Steven J. Tepper. Clive is principal with Clive Wilkinson Architects based in Los Angeles. He has many significant projects to his credit including the new headquarters for Google, where bringing employees together at the right time and in the right space was crucial. The challenge was to use the work environment to encourage creativity.

Researching how to use the urban environment to encourage creativity is part of the work of Steven J. Tepper, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. Steven is associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, where he has been documenting what makes cities creative. The Curb Center is a research center dedicated to designing a new roadmap for cultural policy in America.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Phoning It In

It’s always easy in Memphis to know that four years have passed. Willie W. Herenton takes another oath of office as mayor and announces that consolidation is a top priority.

Five oaths of office later and in spite of his periodic attention, Memphis City Government is no closer to merging with Shelby County Government than when he first pressed for it almost a generation ago. Meanwhile, his proposal for consolidating Memphis and Shelby County school systems remains even more volatile although every other metro county in Tennessee has already done it.

Even his most fervent supporters concede that his bully pulpit isn’t strong enough to make it happen now. After all, on election day, 84 percent of Memphis voters either voted for someone else or didn’t bother going to the polls at all.

The Basics

If voters sent a message, it was this: they didn’t have confidence that anyone could make things better. Because of it, this time around, Mayor Herenton might forego big plans and do what the public wants most – a City Hall that gets the basics right.

Like all mayors beginning a new term, Mayor Herenton’s desk is covered with telephone calls, so here’s a few more for his “call list” that could create the kind of momentum that was noticeably missing during his fourth term:

Call Linda Gibbs, New York Deputy Mayor, (212) 788-3000. She runs an impressive anti-poverty program that’s showing success with disconnected youth, ex-prisoners, and the hard to employ. New York City also issues a report card of city government, service by service, neighborhood by neighborhood.

More Calls To Make

Call Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, (410) 974.3901. As Baltimore mayor, he developed CitiStat which produces exhaustive data about city services. In a warroom setting, he held his managers accountable, eliminated redtape, and fought a culture of excuses.

Call Kip Bergstrom at Rhode Island Economic Policy Council, (401) 521-3120. There’s no one smarter about what makes cities competitive and what a city’s economic development agenda ought to be. He explains why cities must innovate or decline, how low-skill workers become knowledge workers, and how a leader tells stories using data to change a city.

Call Tom Cochran at U.S. Conference of Mayors, (202) 293-7330. It’s time to get reintroduced to other metro mayors tackling common problems. Memphis’ longtime lack of involvement removes it from important national discussions, such as the 728 mayors who’ve signed onto the Kyoto Accords and are talking about ways to create “green jobs” in urban neighborhoods.

Complete And Green

Call Grace Crunican, Director of Department of Transportation in Seattle, (206) 684-4000. Seattle’s “complete streets” program requires all road projects to address the needs of bikers, pedestrians, and transit riders, not just cars.

Call Dana Levenson, Managing Director, North American Infrastructure Finance, Royal Bank of Scotland, (312) 922-5174. While Chicago Chief Financial Officer, he masterminded the $2.5 billion leases of an eight-mile elevated highway and city parking garages. He calls it a way to unlock capital from dead assets and shift future risk to the private sector, which operates the facilities better anyway.

Call San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, (415) 554-6141. He issued a directive to mandate that all city buildings must meet sustainable development standards, he set up an accelerated permit process for “green buildings,” and he appointed a director of greening strategies.

The Final Calls

Call Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, (214) 670-3296. She established a customer service department, a customer service pledge, and a secret shopper program that rates city services. It shows what’s possible when you treat taxpayers as customers.

Call Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton at 545-4500. There’s no more important meeting that Mayor Herenton can have, because it can lead to the elimination of the disincentive that Memphians pay to live inside the city limits. By moving regionally-oriented services – schools, parks, health care, museums, and arenas - to the larger county tax base, the Memphis property tax rate can be reduced until it’s comparable to Germantown’s.

Time For Revival

After these calls are made, there’s one last one - to Rev. Frank McRae, retired St. John’s United Methodist minister. He was by the mayor’s side when he won his historic victory in 1991, and he persuasively described the future in the “language of possibilities” shaped by Mayor Herenton’s strongly held faith.

It’s time for a revival in City Hall. After making these calls to gather information about effective programs working in other cities and reconnecting with his own motivations for running in the first place, the next four years could capture the promise that’s always been just out of reach for the Herenton mayoralty.

* This post was previously published as a City Journal column in Memphis magazine's January issue.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Charter Schools Get Support; Nashville Gets Real

Charter schools just got a late Valentine from state government.

It came in the form of an encouraging 40-page report by the highly respected Comptroller of the Treasury John Morgan.

The report called for loosening state restrictions that limit charter schools and for sharing charter school innovations so regular public schools “learn from charter schools’ most promising practices.”

Passing The Grade

Written by principal legislative research assistant Erin Do with the help of researchers at University of Memphis’ Center for Research in Educational Policy, the report points to the charter schools’ autonomy to select teachers and the additional flexibility given to teachers in return for more responsibility. Meanwhile, teachers rate the culture of charter schools more highly than regular schools.

However, to be a teacher, someone must first complete a rigorous review and be observed teaching a class prior to being hired and agree to a one-year renewable contract (or work without a contract), but in return, salaries are higher as teacher “continually earn the privilege of education the state’s children.”

While charters tend to use traditional methods of instruction and may appear on first look to be similar to regular schools, they have longer school days and additional school days which allow enrichment and remediation classes for students. “The established culture in each charter school allows for a higher level of student engagement,” the report said, noting that the charter schools have internships, field trips, guest speakers, small class size, additional teacher assistants, site-based decision-making and character education.

Loosen Up

Charter schools students academically outperformed similar students in regular schools on a roughly two-to-one basis, underscoring charter schools’ success in taking underachieving students and bringing them to grade level.

Tennessee state law regarding charters is one of the most restrictive in the U.S., because students must have attended a failing school, students must have failed the TCAP or Gateway exam. It is this restrictive law that threatens the future of charter schools in the state, while other states have open enrollment or gives preference to certain students but does not limit enrollment only to them.

The report also concludes that limited funding for facilities “compromises the continued viability of charter schools.” Although state law calls for 100 percent of per pupil expenditures for charter schools, Memphis City Schools calculates this formula in a way that withholds funds from charter schools.

The report suggests that the Legislature should precisely define funding responsibilities, but also, Memphis City Schools should allow charter schools access to unused or underused facilities and land.

The Big 6

According to the report, the elements of successful charter schools include:

• They are driven by mission and positive school culture

• They teach for mastery and focus on college preparation

• They innovate across the program

• They engage families as partners

• They value professional learning

• They hold themselves accountable

Anti-charter Fever

One statistic of the report jumped off the page for us. Nine of the state’s 12 charter schools are in Memphis, where they make up 2.1 percent of all public school students. It’s a modest number, particularly in the face of the strong resistance by some in the city district to charter schools themselves.

This anti-charter fervor has stepped up in Nashville as the exciting new mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, has called for more charter schools in response to his district being place on the high-priority list of the Tennessee Department of Education. Withering opposition comes from the teachers’ union, which takes an NRA approach to government lobbying.

To the union, there is no incrementalism; every change is a slippery slope toward greater accountability for teachers and more autonomy by principals to hire and fire them. If local government sometimes seems to be a parallel universe, public education is a galaxy far, far away. There, the emphasis seems to be as much on a jobs program as on students.

Stupid And Stupefying

While we’re on the subject of the Nashville schools being put on the high-priority list, it’s always surprising how little the mainstream media knows about public schools. The most stupefying example was when the Nashville Tennessean suggested that school officials there should visit Memphis City Schools to learn how it’s done so well in getting off the same list.

It would be comical if it weren’t so serious. As we’ve pointed out before, despite misleading media announcements by local and state school officials, the truth is that 100 city schools do not now meet state benchmarks.

It’s like the magician who diverts our attention with one hand while the real action is taking place in his other hand. While state and local school officials tell us about AYP, what we really need to be told about – and what ought to be reported - are the schools that don’t meet state benchmarks.

Final Thoughts

By the way, just for the record, although Nashville’s district is on the high-priority list, it outperforms Memphis City Schools on almost every major academic measurement, as shown in this revealing comparison.

But as you have learned about us, we have endless capacity to digress. Back to the subject of charter schools, they were created as laboratories for innovation and as an educational alternative for students. “A well-formulated system for dissemination of best practices would allow school districts and the state to learn from the successes of alternative approaches to teaching methods, school calendar, school governance and other elements,” the report said.

It also called for charter schools to be treated equitably: “Charter schools are no different from traditional public schools. Policymakers should ensure that all of the operations and activities that are ancillary to the primary educational function should be adequate and sustainable over time.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Bloggers' Editorial Judgment Comes Before Shields

Obviously, we think blogs are important.

We wouldn’t devote this much time and energy to our little corner of the digital world if we thought otherwise.

Blogs increase understanding, encourage conversation and contribute to the democratic principles. Most of all, as news organizations have cut back on their reporting staffs and have come to avoid complex coverage, bloggers often fill in the gaps.


At least that’s our view of the best of them, and we suspect that opinion is shared by the tens of millions of other people who take the time to regularly post their opinions on a range of subjects that seem to defy human imagination.

Despite this opinions, we still think that it’s too early to say that the laws that protect media reporters also apply to bloggers.

We know that journalism embraces a range of publications that run the gamut from the New York Times to the National Enquirer. As a result, it also runs the gamut of the highly respected to the gossipy, so it’s not the caliber of professionalism that becomes the basis for the legal dividing line.

We’re Not Saying

That said, there’s just too many remaining practical and legal questions to suggest that we deserve the special government protection given to journalists.

This isn’t to say that many of us aren’t just as serious about what we write or as sincere in our commitment to illuminate important issues as reporters for the mainstream media.

This isn’t to say that many of us aren’t sharing critical information about public issues.

The Reader’s Lens

It’s just to say that special government protection seems premature and imprecise.

After all, shield laws for journalists were not enacted simply because reporters are serious and informative. More to the point, they are anchored in the premise that there are shared values and special training that form the basis for reporting and editorializing.

Of course, we’re not saying that there are not some glaring exceptions, but overall, when we read a news story, all of us read them through a common lens – one based on a presumption that some general professional principles are being followed – objectivity, two sides of an issue and the pursuit of accuracy.
In addition, when we read or see a news account, we also know, or can easily determine, the organization behind it – notably, who owns it, who pays for it and who vouches for the people who write for it.

Clearing The Hurdle

It’s the lack of this general code of professional behavior that’s the biggest obstacle to bloggers being covered by shield laws for journalists.

All of this isn’t based just on the philosophical issues being debated in light of the announced investigation of a leak of a non-public Memphis Police Department document to a local blogger. It’s the practical dimensions of this issue that seem most relevant.

At a time when every teenage boy can crank up a blog to rant about his favorite subject or to degrade his latest scapegoat, it’s just hard for us to suggest that every blogger deserves legal protection? Heck, if this is the case, every one in American should sign up this afternoon on blogspot, because it is their protection for saying anything they want to say about someone else. It is the trump card for libel and defamation.

Shifting The Burden

That’s because extending shield laws to bloggers automatically shifts the legal burden to the aggrieved party to prove malice and willful disregard of the truth, a higher bar.

Of course, these days, journalists for mainstream media aren’t particularly secure in their protection any way. In recent weeks, a state judge has ordered a reporter to reveal his sources or go to jail and another court in another state has softened the shield law protection for a reporter with information investigators want.

Perhaps, bloggers may eventually deserve legal protection, but it seems to us that it would be predicated on some editorial judgment and a professional framework that guides the publishing of the information. Right now, it’s about as scientific in its definition as pornography: We’ll know it when we see it.

Two Worlds

At this point, it feels like bloggers have one foot in two worlds. On one hand, we are having conversations, while on the other side, we want to be citizen journalists. Because of this bipolar personality, bloggers often want the protection of shield laws as a journalist while they don’t want the bother of fact checking because “it’s only a blog.”

The days when bloggers were lonely commentators writing personal essays about everything from their dogs to their cities is over. Now, blogs are influential, relied on by public officials and quoted in the mainstream media. By and large, they are heavy on opinions and light on facts, reflecting a fact of life of the blogosphere itself.

One thing is inarguable: It is indeed a brave new world, and on one thing all bloggers can agree: there’s nothing quite as exciting as exploring it, because at this point, essentially anything goes, and we can make our own rules.

The 5th Estate

Because of it, it seems to us that rather than trying to fit uncomfortably as part of the Fourth Estate, perhaps the better course would be to determine how we create the boundaries, conditions and criteria for a Fifth Estate of our own.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pyramid Paralysis Hits Analysis

Even a novice to the ways of government could interpret the signs, so they are painfully obvious to someone with the level of experience possessed by Greg Ericson. He’s getting the runaround.

Even to people just casually acquainted with city government’s obsession with a Bass Pro Shop store inside The Pyramid, City Hall’s recent “Analysis of Redevelopment Proposals” was wince-provoking.

Even supporters of the city’s position are privately conceding that the report was amateurish and one-sided and sends the unfortunate (and hopefully unfounded) message that games were afoot in the single-minded presentations last week to Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Analysis In Name Only

At best, it’s abundantly clear that city government advocates for Bass Pro Shop are unable at this point to even see the playing field, much less make sure that it is level. The pointed criticisms of the Ericson team, who are pushing for a theme park in The Pyramid, have approached the threshold for a lawsuit for defamation.

If there is anything clear about the Bass Pro Shop project at this point, it isn’t that it’s the perfect fit for The Pyramid, but that all of this is now perfectly personal. That’s why Mr. Ericson should know by now that the heat on him will be turned up every time he aggressively campaigns for his development project. And it does.

The double standard used for evaluating the two most publicized Pyramid options leaps off the pages of the 50-page “analysis.”

Hard Sale

It seems to accept numbers from Bass Pro Shop as if they are gospel, but consistently refuses to accept the Ericson Group’s word for anything. For example, there is a letter from the chairman of The Pyramid Re-use Committee stating flatly that the store has a “demonstrable ability to attract between 2 and 4 million visitors a year” and stating later in the same letter that the store “can unquestionably guarantee a draw of 2-4 million visitors a year.”

We’ve written previously about the silliness of labeling fishing store customers as visitors, so we won’t belabor that point again, but if in fact Bass Pro can “unquestionably guarantee” 2-4 million customers a year, let them. Let’s write that threshold into the budget as a performance standard that the store has to reach and its rent will be based on its delivering on that promise.

Our confidence in the report was shaken when one of its first pages said The Pyramid was “totally funded by the city and county.” Of course, that’s not true. About $15 million of the building’s roughly $65 million construction price came from State of Tennessee with University of Memphis as the conduit. It also said that the building contains more than 300,000 square feet, another questionable statement.

Ericson Frustration

While pounding its point that theme park performance is weak, the report glosses over some growing softness in the fishing and hunting store retail sector. Interestingly, in the past, Bass Pro Shop has even called itself a theme park for outdoor enthusiasts, but this contradiction in terms gets no mention.

The “Analysis of Redevelopment Proposals” appears to consist of some rehashed reports by a consultant to the reuse committee and other authorities who receive their checks from city government. All in all, it was breath-taking in its lack of objectivity and basic fairness.

Following presentations before city and county legislative bodies by Bass Pro supporters, Ericson forces were noticeably upset and could quickly rattle off what they called a couple dozen errors of fact. In fact, in their opinion, the misinformation was so pervasive and so premeditated that they were left perplexed about how to correct the errors.

Checking The Source

So, they began with an email to RKG consultant Richard Gsottschneider, who was hired to help The Pyramid Reuse Committee several years ago. In the email, Mr. Ericson asked the source of the data used to reach some of the firm’s conclusions. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, and it’s hard to understand why a firm of RKG’s reputation wouldn’t welcome the chance to respond.

In particular, Mr. Ericson was curious about the source of theme park data since he didn’t think he had been asked for this information. Mr. Gsottschneider replied that Mr. Ericson should send requests for information to Mr. Robert Lipscomb, the city official leading the battle for Mr. Ericson’s competitor.

After receiving an email from Mr. Ericson, Mr. Lipscomb - to his credit - said it would not be a problem and asked his interim administrator for compliance and reporting to take care of it.

Call Forwarding

At one minute before five o’clock Friday afternoon, that administrator emailed Mr. Ericson: “Your request for information must be made through the City Attorney’s Office. You may contact Bridgette Handy-Clay in order to make your request. The City Attorney’s Office telephone number is 576-6614.”

At this point, it’s hard to convincingly argue with the Ericson Group that it’s not getting the runaround. We’re hoping that it’s just another example of the bureaucratic nature of the public sector at its worst. After all, it’s one thing to advocate a specific position; it’s another thing altogether to stonewall and play games with your own taxpayers, even those who disagree with you.

In an age where transparency and accountability are reasonable expectations by citizens for their government, the handling of the Bass Pro Shop project has been disappointing.

Destination Retail

Increasingly, City Hall insiders say that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton himself shakes his head about all this, but in keeping with his hands-off style of management, he’s letting the process run its course. His strongest hint that he may not share the enthusiasm by some of his highest aides was in his offhand comment several weeks ago that perhaps The Pyramid should just be torn down.

Meanwhile, the safety valve for this spectacle is the fact that Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton has strong reservations about the Bass Pro Shop project and the process to determine the best development option for The Pyramid. At least, that top-level reticence seems to inject some much-needed objectivity and maturity into the process.

In the short term, however, get ready to hear an overdose of the term, “destination retail.” That’s the drumbeat that’ll be used to describe Bass Pro Shop, summoning up for us memories of previous silver bullets like “pedestrian malls,” “festival marketplaces” and “downtown aquariums.”


Regardless of what is finally decided, we can only hope that the way that the process is handled doesn’t further erode the public’s support for the final decision that is reached.

Of course, for The Pyramid, public support was fragile on its best days. From the time that it opened to a couple of years before it closed, there was never a professional poll that didn’t show that Shelby County was split down the middle on the arena.

Even after years of The Pyramid serving as the “Tomb of Doom” for visiting teams tackling University of Memphis’ basketball team, the polling results showed that 50 percent of the public thought the new arena was a good idea and the exact same percentage thought it was not.

It would be interesting to know where the public stands these days on the various plans for the building; however, as is often the case in projects like this, no one seems particularly interested in knowing what our own people think.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Grizzlies Contract No Barrier To Pyramid Development

In answer to a question by Bob, we’ve re-read the contract between Memphis and Shelby County Governments, and here’s the short answer:

The contract with the Memphis Grizzlies is not an impediment to development of The Pyramid.

While the “Use and Operating Agreement” between the team owners and city and county governments gives the NBA team the right to use The Pyramid, it is of course based on the presumption that The Pyramid even has an arena in it.

The part of the contract that has been held up as a possible deal killer for Pyramid development plans is found in the section called “Destruction or Damage.” It sets out the team’s options in the event that FedEx Forum is damaged so severely that it is unusable by the team.

The Grizzlies of course wanted the option to use The Pyramid if this kind of disaster occurs, but the contract actually says The Pyramid “or some other location acceptable” to the Grizzlies. As Hurricane Katrina proved in New Orleans, the options can take several forms depending on the severity of the problem shutting down the new arena.

But to make sure there’s no dispute about the interpretations, Grizzlies negotiator extraordinaire Stan Meadows has even said the team will release any requirements under this section of the contract so there is no obstacle to future plans for The Pyramid.

In other words, The Pyramid does not have to be maintained as an exclusive back-up site for the FedExForum, and there are no problems caused by the contract between the Grizzlies and city and county governments.

Friday, February 22, 2008

This Week On Smart City: On The Riverfront

The redevelopment of riverfronts has been one of the drivers of urban revitalization in many U.S. cities. This week's guests are working to bring new life to two of those riverfronts.

Benny Lendermon is leading the effort to bring Memphians to the Mississippi River. Benny is president of the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation, a public-private partnership charged with making the stretch of the Mississippi River at the city's front doorstep more people-friendly.

Cathy Hudzik is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's point person for building a river-walk along the sometimes-forgotten Chicago River. Her responsibilities include efforts to improve water quality, increase public access, protect wildlife habitat, and enhance neighborhood life along the Chicago River.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Going To War Against Bigotry

Maybe we were out of town and missed the press conference.

Surely, there was one called by religious leaders to condemn the grotesque anti-Semitism in the flyer attacking U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen by a doctrine-starved Middle Tennessee preacher.

Surely, our religious leaders – the majority of whom are either Jewish or worship a Jew – spoke out against the ugly hate in our midst.

Surely, our Christian ministers and priests – whatever their color – took the opportunity to explain why the flyer is a blasphemous deconstruction of their faith.

Intolerant Of Intolerance

Surely, our faith community signaled that our city will take a no tolerance approach to any kind of hate – race or religion.

Unfortunately, we fear that our ministers, priests and rabbis squandered a perfect opportunity to stand together and send the message that hate-filled behavior and rhetoric will not be tolerated in Memphis.

It wasn’t that many years ago that these same kinds of tactics were used to slander and malign African-Americans running for office here. If they were wrong then, they are wrong now.

Ghost Of Falwell

Unfortunately, a double standard often seems to apply to Rep. Cohen. We understand that there are some African-American ministers who feel strongly that whoever is their congressman needs to share their skin color. We understand also that there is the unfortunate attitude these days that there are no rules in political campaigns: anything goes.

It’s inarguable – at least to us – that we’ve allowed too many people already to cross the line on what should be considered unacceptable behavior in Memphis. Perhaps, that’s even why a misguided Murfreesboro minister could reach the conclusion that his inflammatory flyer about Rep. Cohen would find a welcome home in Memphis.

After all, it’s been only a few months ago that a group of African-American Baptist leaders channeled a brand of intolerance and misinformation that would have made the late Jerry Falwell proud as Congressman Cohen tried to explain a hate crime bill.

New Maturity

Some ministers in attendance were just as embarrassed by their colleagues' rude behavior as any other Memphian of good will, but most held their tongues as the congressman was chastised, scolded and upbraided by members of the Baptist Ministerial Association.

It's a troubling trend in our city these days. Moderate and progressive African-American leaders often seem unwilling to call down the unreasonable, outrageous comments of the few, whether it is the Ministerial Association, Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

We seem to still be in a period of transition in Memphis as mainstream African-American leaders come to grips with a central fact of life - they are now in charge – and because of it, when they criticize someone of the same color, it is not an act of treason but a test of mature leadership.

Jesus For Jews

Most troubling to us at the time was the undertow of gangrenous anti-Semitism in it. One Ministerial Association member had even told his congregation that "someone who doesn't believe in Jesus shouldn't be representing us." Of course, the fact that Jesus was a Jew seems to elude him as much as the basic knowledge of his own religion’s tenets.

Oddly enough, in Revolutionary America, it was the Baptist clergy who called the loudest for the separation of church and state and who stood against religious tests for office. Now, just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have mistakenly said that God takes sides in presidential elections, our own Baptist ministers mistakenly believe that he has taken sides in Memphis Democratic politics.

We sure hope that God is spending his day on more important issues. To most of us who become spectators to these kinds of events and pronouncements, we simply feel like they trivialize our faith and that our faith is being stolen. It’s time to reclaim it.

The Essence

That’s because this is about something much more important than politics or elected officials. It is the essence of who we are as a people.

We remember a few years ago when Goals for Memphis led a campaign for Memphians to take a pledge that they would be no longer remain silent in the face of racial jokes, racial invective and racial prejudice. It was a refreshing call to arms for tolerance, the most frequently missing virtue in our city.

Perhaps, we need to ramp the pledge campaign again, and this time, we should include religious tolerance.

While we’re at it, let’s even apply a political tactic – the war room. Let’s develop a rapid response team that refuses to let any slur pass and to remain silent about hate-filled rhetoric and behavior. In addition, we need to call on every candidate to take the pledge to refrain from any campaign tactics that attack a person’s race, religion or sexual preference.

Fight The Good Fight

It’s blindingly obvious that Rep. Cohen will be opposed by Pinnacle Airline executive Nikki Tinker in the upcoming Congressional race, and although she was excruciatingly slow in renouncing the anti-Semitic flyer, she finally did so firmly and even promised that she would never engage in this kind of politicking.

That’s a major step forward, so we think that she and Congressman Cohen should be the first people to sign up for our war room against bigotry.

Perhaps, that more than anything would send the uncompromising message to the rest of the country that the times are changing in Memphis, because we simply will not allow racial and religious hatred of our neighbors and fellow citizens to go unanswered.

In a city where race and politics are inextricably linked – and where we never tire of talking about it – we can start by getting the tone right. In so doing, we serve notice to the rest of the country that it’s a new day in Memphis.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Not A Whole Lot Shaking At The Pyramid

So, after four years of supposed serious interest in opening a megastore in The Pyramid, Bass Pro Shop discovers that Memphis sits on a fault zone.

Due diligence sure must mean something different in Springfield, Missouri.

That said, it was curious to us that using this sudden seismic concern as justification for why Bass Pro Shop won’t sign a binding letter of intent wasn’t made by Bass Pro Shop officials themselves.

Witness For The Defense

Instead, it was advanced by City Hall officials who appear to be clinging to any defense for why Bass Pro Shop has delivered so little for so long.

Of course, the store has played the same game in Buffalo, New York – six years and counting as our New York fellow sufferer waits for Bass Pro Shop to match its rhetoric with a binding agreement. And Buffalo doesn’t even have the New Madrid Fault as an excuse.

We don’t mean to insinuate that we know what the sporting goods retailer is thinking. So far, they have been as inscrutable as Buddha.


Their continued silence – in the face of a blizzard of questions about their commitment to the project in the old downtown arena – seems to be the loudest statement that they could make about their seriousness in Memphis.

There’s little in the store’s behavior that indicates that it’s working as a partner in this project. To some, its lack of comment feels an awful lot like stonewalling.

We’re not sure of that, but it sure doesn’t feel like we’re expecting too much when we look for an official statement of continued commitment to the project, or even a “feel good” statement generated by the chain’s public relations department.

Whole Lot Of Shaking

Can they at least throw a line to their Memphis advocates who seem to be fighting tirelessly the store’s battles?

It’s disconcerting to see our city officials doing all the heavy lifting to salvage such a major project with such an absence of help from its chief beneficiary. It just speaks to how strange this project has been from the beginning, and why it finds such lack of enthusiasm by much of Memphis.

As for The Pyramid itself, it is not a “seismic building.” It was intended to be, but as part of the cost-cutting that seemed to be such a part of the building’s history, seismic protection was cut out of the budget early on.

Cold Comfort

In particular, former City Council member Barbara Sonnenburg emotionally pleaded with her colleagues to require that the building have seismic protection. She had recently visited Reelfoot Lake where she looked over the earthquake-created landscape and had a premonition of what could happen to The Pyramid.

However, at the time, engineers on the project said: “If there is an earthquake, the building will crack, but it will stand. It will not be destroyed.”

That’s probably cold comfort to anybody looking to invest tens of millions of dollars in the building (although it’s not dissuaded theme park developer Greg Ericson), but engineers pointed out that about 1,600 pilings were being driven at various depths to keep the arena in place in lieu of a complete seismic design.


Or as one member of the Pyramid Building authority, in the midst of a discussion about the arena collapsing into the Mississippi River, joked: “At least we know we’re not building an arena for New Orleans.”

Of course, when that Richter Scale-busting day comes, the condition of The Pyramid will be the least of our worries.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Help Wanted

A key to living and working downtown is a sense of proportion.

We’ve been clear that we have a no tolerance attitude toward panhandlers. We are flexible about the homeless.

That’s why we had no problems with the man earlier this year who slept on the sidewalk in front of our place. He cleaned up after himself, he never threatened or panhandled, and he even got up early so he wouldn’t be in the way of people going to work or visitors walking to the river. In other words, he was a good neighbor.

The new neighbor that moved in a couple of weeks ago is something altogether different.

Looking out on Union Avenue, our view is now akin to overlooking a mobile trash heap. The woman now sleeping on the Union Avenue side of the Memphis Fire Department headquarters regularly surrounds herself with newspapers, magazines and tourism brochures.

On occasion, hidden beneath a tattered blanket covered with paper, she suddenly jumps up to the dismay of tourists walking by. Often she begins a rant that takes her unexpectedly into traffic swerving around her.

While the debris is unsightly and irritating, at this point, we’re more concerned about her safety and need for medical attention. Unfortunately, we’ve largely been greeted with shrugs from city officials who have been contacted in hopes that she can be provided with a shelter and mental health attention.

So far, we’ve had no success in getting her help. If you have any suggestions, we’d appreciate them.

Memo To News Editor

Someone emails with this question:

How come the stun gun incident involving 2 middle school students in the County Schools attacking another student and the brawl across the street from Houston High School don't get reported in the press?

If only it had been Memphis City Schools.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Pointed Questions About Pyramid Future

Finally, someone is asking the right questions about The Pyramid.

Someone is stepping back to ask the “real” question about its future.

Someone is willing to consider that the two best ideas for the darkened arena may not just be the ones that coincidentally walked through the door.

Someone is willing to suggest that it’s not simply a choice between Plan A and Plan B.

Someone is willing to speak the truth: we are having the wrong conversation, and in doing so, we limit our own possibilities.

Someone is willing to consider that the land occupied by the project could be put to a higher and better use than remaining as a perpetual monument to our civic sense of unworthiness.

Amen And Amen

That someone seems to be City Councilman Shea Flinn, and all we can say in the wake of his questions about the proposed uses for the old arena is, “Amen.”

As Councilman Flinn said to The Commercial Appeal: “We need to see what else is out there, so we can test the market and see what the market says about it.”

Only to those fixed in their position and fixated on the building itself does this sound revolutionary. To the rest of us, it just sounds like good business.

An Iconic Failure

As he logically puts it up, when we couple The Pyramid site and Mud Island, we open up new possibilities that we may not even have imagined at this point. Heck, maybe there’s even a way that the land could be used for the best of all worlds – in a way that could draw on the Riverfront Development Corporation’s idea from a few years ago for new, high-quality development along the river and Friends for our Riverfront’s positions about green space.

If the site could become the answer to ending the kind of controversy that has nagged us for too long, The Pyramid could actually become a symbol of a growing maturity in its very absence.

The notion by some – notably The Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck yesterday – that The Pyramid is an architectural signature for Memphis is on its best days simply ludicrous. On its worst days, it’s the kind of misguided thinking that got us in this mess to begin with.

Symbol For What?

Mr. Peck, who often seems to have a tenuous grip on what makes Memphis tick, sees The Pyramid as Memphis’ answer to the Eiffel Tower, the St. Louis Arch and other comparable city landmarks. But the truth is that those icons are reflective of those city’s ambitions, successes and aspirations.

The Pyramid is just the opposite - a constant reminder of the price we pay for low expectations, lack of ambition, lack of national standards for public investments and an Elvis-like tendency toward kitsch.

I guess that’s why the notion of demolishing The Pyramid has never upset us. To us, it’s never been an architectural gem – the design is too pedantic, the building materials too cut-rate and the setting too depressing – and because of it, The Pyramid stands as a symbol all right - our tendency to settle for cheapness in a world where successful cities are being defined by quality.

Fish Photos

Mr. Peck’s clincher for his argument for The Pyramid is that there are 1,500 photos of the deserted arena on Flickr. We just couldn’t help but wonder how many photos will be taken if there’s a 50 x 60 foot leaping bass added to all four sides?

But maybe Mr. Peck’s instincts are right. There are 12,330 photos of Paris Hilton on Flickr, so maybe someone in City Hall should contact her for exclusive rights to her museum for her career, a Pyramid scheme if there ever was one.

As for us, we prefer to think that if we’re looking for the iconic symbol for Memphis, it’s the river, stupid. It’s still the most visited and most photographed site in our city, and frankly, we think the view is improved if the jarring presence of The Pyramid was gone for good.

DeSoto County Needs Good Neighbor Policy

And officials in DeSoto County wonder why we often have so little positive feelings toward them.

Sometimes, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are circling our community like vultures, looking to pick off our companies and our jobs.

We thought of this in the wake of the apparent destruction of the former Coors Beer bottling plant, now the Hardy Bottling Company owned by one of Memphis’ most impressive success stories, Carolyn Hardy.

When the Coors beer plant she managed shut its doors, she put all of her money at risk to buy the plant and put 120 people back to work. It was courageous on her part, and it was starting to pay off as she won more contracts and planned to increase her workforce by 66 percent.

But, recent tornado damage is not fully covered, and it’s questionable if she can get the plant back on line.

In the midst of the catastrophic damage to the plant, our neighbors from the south called up and offered incentives to get her to move operations across the state line. It reminded us of the time when a prominent county elected official died and half the people at the visitation were trying to cut deals for his job.

Perhaps, in this case, DeSoto County’s interest was purely charitable, but in light of its regular forays into Shelby County to poach our businesses, it’s not likely. For too long, rather than develop their own prospects which could end up creating a net positive impact on our region, DeSoto County and Mississippi officials have set the targeting of Memphis businesses as a main plank of their economic development plans.

If there’s 10 Commandments for a successful regional economy, the first one should be: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s businesses.

Until DeSoto County acknowledges the fact that we’re all in this together, it will always encounter prevalent descriptions of it in Shelby County as a parasite that lives and preys on the county whose success is instrumental to its own.

Residency Requirements Hit Close To Home

New City Councilman Jim Strickland recently learned a key lesson about local government – many elected officials essentially see government as a jobs program.

On its face, Councilman Strickland’s proposal to allow emergency workers to be drawn from a 100-mile radius of Memphis made perfect sense. After all, we’re already lowering educational credentials in hopes of finding candidates for police jobs.

Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that taxpayers don't really prefer to lie in bed at night feeling safe, rather than to lie in bed at night with the secure feeling that only Shelby County residents are patrolling the streets. Unfortunately, despite the obvious logic of his proposal, Councilman Strickland could only coax one additional vote to support his change.

That’s too bad, because in painting itself into a corner, Memphis City Council are guilty of putting political interests ahead of public safety. However, while many observers saw it as a city versus suburbs issue or a white versus black issue, it was in truth more of an economic issue.

That’s why change is resisted so vehemently, not only in City Hall but in other places like Memphis City Schools. It is these government jobs that anchor the black middle class in Memphis. At a time when African-Americans could find little openings in the private sector, it was the public sector that provided the pathway to decent jobs, as shown by the fact that almost two out of three employees of county government are African-American.

As a result, any suggestions that can attack the stability of these jobs are always met with fierce resistance. As a result, any discussion about reducing residency requirements need to start with this in mind.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Education Shapes The Herenton Legacy

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton has sent two strong signals that he intends to get more involved in the affairs of Memphis City schools.

One was as he assertively and decisively brushed aside district indecision and took charge of school safety. The other was a letter that he mailed about the same time to the board of commissioners that signaled his deep concern about the district.

All in all, it sent the message that if the five-term mayor is focusing these days on his legacy, he’s defining it in terms of Memphis City Schools.

Closing The Loop

It brings a distinct symmetry to the Herenton public career, which began as a elementary school teacher in Memphis City Schools in 1963, as the youngest elementary school principal at the age of 28, and finally as deputy superintendent and superintendent where he served for 13 years.

These days, his 16 years as mayor overshadow his 29 years as an educator, but it’s worth remembering that in those days, he was considered a hot prospect for most major urban districts searching for new superintendents.

It seemed apparent to his closest advisors that he was channeling his earlier educator’s experience last week when he announced that he would put metal detectors and more policeman in city middle and high schools. And, by the way, if any principals had a problem with it, they were had better get out of his way.

Best Of Times And Worst Of Times

It was an impressive performance and reminded us of what Mayor Herenton looks like at his best. Unfortunately, it came within hours of a reminder of what he looks at his worst with a series of questionable key appointments used as rewards for political loyalists. Perhaps, the defiance (some say arrogance) that rests at the center of his personality were at the heart of both, but at least in the case of school safety, he cut through school board politics to mandate a policy to combat the recent school shootings.

If there was ever a dichotomy of leadership, it was the difference between Mayor Herenton’s take charge attitude and Memphis City Schools Commissioner Kenneth Whalum call a few hours earlier to shut down Memphis’ schools. We could only assume that if he were the mayor and were faced with crime problems, he’d simply put Memphis on lock down.

If Memphis City Schools was unsure that Mayor Herenton was trying to send a message, that was resolved when the school officials received one of the mayor’s rare letters. In it, according to school officials, he left no doubts that he’s not satisfied with the district and that he intends to get more involved.

Education Mayor

Meanwhile, 210 miles to the east, the new mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, is becoming the quintessential education mayor. Since taking office, he has demanded greater academic strides in his city’s consolidated system, he has called for a voice in the selection of the new superintendent, he has hinted at changes in the operations of the Nashville district, he has held town hall meetings on ways to improve schools and he has almost daily kept public education at the top of his city’s agenda and on the front page of his city’s newspapers.

Perhaps, Mayor Herenton is warming up for his final act by doing the same. It would be hard to watch his performance and read his letter and believe that he’s not deadly serious about one thing: that Memphis City Schools is adrift and in need of strong leadership if it is to improve the academic performance of its 115,000 students.

In taking a more assertive approach toward the school district after 16 years, Mayor Herenton need only look to Chicago to see that it can be done. There, Mayor Richard M. Daley – in his sixth term and 19th year – aggressively urged school leaders to challenge the status quo.

Six-term Enthusiasm

“There is much more to be done before our parents, taxpayers, business and community leaders are confident that Chicago’s public education system is producing the workers and leaders of tomorrow that they, and our city, need. Today, instead of patting ourselves on the back, I want to re-challenge every one in the school system to accomplish even more for our students over the months and years ahead.”

And that’s coming from a mayor who essentially transformed the entire school district of his city, installing a mayor-led district and an appointed school board. If he can continue to be motivated by the potential for improvement, it’s hard to argue that Memphis should not be doing the same.

Hopefully, another benefit of Mayor Herenton driving a stake in the ground on school security is that any discussion about a Memphis City Schools Police Department is now dead. The Memphis City School’s 61-page “Feasibility Study on the Creation of a Memphis City Schools Police Department” is a feasibility study in name only.

A Preconceived Conclusion

Because it apparently was to become the basis for proposed state legislation allowing the district to create its own police department, the feasibility study was a conclusion in search of a justification. In pursuit of it, the report selected so-called comparable districts that all just happened to have police departments – Austin, Baltimore, Dallas, Duval County (FL), Indianapolis, San Diego and Pinellas County (FL).

It offered up the size of budgets and the size of the departments. Glaring in its omission was any evidence that the police departments reduced crime and increased school safety, or of any alternative approaches used in other districts.

The report called for doubling the number of officers in city schools – taking them from security guards to police officers – and increasing the security budget by 50 percent to $10.4 million.

Making The Real Deal The Real Deal

It all sounds eerily similar to the justifications used in Shelby County Government when it added its own police department. Based on the budgetary track record of that decision, the district should assume that its budgetary projections are significantly too low.

At the end of the day, it just seems that at a time when Memphis City Schools should put all of its attention on attacking the problem of 100 schools that do not now meet state benchmarks, the last thing it needs is another operational distraction. In fact, based on the controversies that plague its operational departments now, school officials would be wise to consider contracts with other public entities for all support operations.

That way, the district could keep a laser-like focus on the academic achievement of its students. After all, its ultimate success will be determined by how well it prepares students for work and life, not how well nutrition services is run.

Perhaps, Mayor Herenton would be interested in being part of that conversation, too.

This Week On Smart City: Main Streets

This week's guests are on the frontlines of making cities sustainable with their work on housing, mixed use development and Main Streets.

Jonathan Rose has been called the father of the green affordable housing movement. His projects in the South Bronx and in Harlem are showing how green buildings ought to be for everyone. The national real estate firm he founded, Jonathan Rose Companies, collaborates with cities, towns, and nonprofits nationwide to develop projects that are both green and socially responsible. Its mission is to repair the fabric of communities.

Brian Goodman is renewing Boston's neighborhood commercial districts through its Main Street program, demonstrating that old does not necessarily mean disposable. Brian manages Mainstreets WiFi and Boston Community Change and he has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, an entrepreneur, and an MBA student at Babson College.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Question Of The Week: What Would You Be Running On The Front Page?

We wrote yesterday about The Commercial Appeal using some of Memphis’ most precious real estate – its front page – for its weekly “single mother counter.”

We also suggested some other facts, trends and information that we thought merited front page attention. Some of ours include:

• The number of new jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

• The number of students in Memphis City Schools who drop out or who get a degree but still aren’t proficient on state tests.

• The number of college-educated 25-34 year-olds who are moving out of Memphis compared to the number moving in.

• The increase in the average salary of Memphis workers.

• The gap between the average income of an African-American and a white Memphian.

So, here’s the question of the week:

If you were the editor of The Commercial Appeal, what statistic would you be running on the front page instead of the number of single mothers?

Maybe There Needs To Be A Memphis Condom

To follow up the topic of contraception in our latest post, we think the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department should follow the lead of its New York City counterpart and develop its own condoms.

To read more about the New York City condom, click here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Single Mother Counter Ticks Away Chance For Important Discussion

With column inches in increasingly short supply, The Commercial Appeal uses its prime real estate on the front page to herald this bulletin – 1,024 children have been born to single mothers this year.

Actually, it’s not really a fact, because the number isn’t based on actual 2008 births. Rather, it is based on previous data trends that are extrapolated to the present.

In its own unique way, the “single mother ticker” is perhaps the clumsiest, most inept attempt to illuminate a serious public issue in recent memory.

It fails on so many levels that in the end, it actually obscures the serious debate it is designed to enlighten. Worse still, it devalues the importance of the research and insight under way at Urban Child Institute.

Another Line

It’s all too bad, because the counter runs the serious risk of becoming another unneeded racial dividing line in our city. To many African-Americans, this is yet the latest proof that white people just don’t understand how statements like this are interpreted when filtered through the experience of the majority race in our city.

It’s a little reminiscent of the confused looks that come over the faces of white guys as their comments about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are heard through the filter of gender and racial politics. Suddenly, comments that seem so well-intended and reasonable to white men are received as insensitive, demeaning or patronizing to women and African-Americans.

This seems to be the case of the “single mother counter,” which is seen by many African-Americans as one more symptom of the racial code language that hides beneath a thin veneer of civility in Memphis. To many, it also sends the unmistakable message that the white power structure still controls the conversation and discussion in our city.

All of this is lamentable, because all of the researchers at the Urban Child Institute are deeply passionate and personally invested in attacking the interwoven problems that trap too many of our fellow citizens into lives of poverty, dependency and hopelessness. Based on our reading of their definitive research reports (which are must reading for anyone interested in the future of Memphis), it is hard to conclude that all of those tables, graphs and rows of statistics boil down to say that single mothers are the greatest cause of Memphis’ problems.

Symptoms, Not Causes

More to the point, single mothers are more a symptom of the problems of our city than their cause. We understand what Urban Child Institute is really trying to say: children in families with two incomes have more opportunity, more access to educational enrichment programs and more support for their schooling.

We understand that we live in a media world where simplistic answers are emphasized at the expense of the in-depth discussion that is needed on questions like intractable poverty in too many of our neighborhoods. The “single mother counter” feels an awful lot like a glib marketing response to complex, interlocking public policy issues.

We know many of the people who labor at Urban Child Institute to get out the most reliable data in Memphis and who care deeply about the future of Memphis’ children. We just think that the CA’s counter does a disservice to the equality of their work, and relying on education rather than titillation is the best way in the long run to spark the conversation that we need on the serious web of poverty-related problems in our city.

While the Urban Child Institute is thankfully exploring tactics and cataloguing successful programs in other cities to address the residual damage of these trends in Memphis, it would be encouraging if Memphis at large would place more emphasis on good old-fashioned sex ed. Now, one of four of the births headlined on the CA’s front page is to teenagers. Any notion that state-mandated (and politically driven) abstinence-focused classes are the answer to this has been put to rest once and for all.

Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

According to the always reputable Mathematic Policy Institute Inc., students who participate in sexual abstinence programs are just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not, and one in four had a similar number of sexual partners as those who did not take the abstinence classes.

We know that as a culture, we have difficulty grasping the realities of teenage sexuality, but it is a fact of life. Thinking that abstinence-based curriculum masquerading as real sexual education is the same as doing something productively is inane. (How is it that as soon as people get into policy-making positions on this issue, their personal memories are wiped out and they act as if they weren’t doing the same things when they were teenagers?)

Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools are essentially teaching abstinence with some cautionary information about sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV. Of course, the real problem, according to our friends at Planned Parenthood, resides with women in their 20’s who have multiple children (too often with multiple fathers) and with little interest in birth control.

Maybe, just maybe, if we started talking to them about birth control and self-esteem in middle schools, there would be better prospects for slowing the trends highlighted on the front page. What educators report is that having babies is many times a validation of self-worth.

Get Real

Here, we wonder why we don’t get serious and hand out condoms and birth control prescriptions at home room each day? Or while schools unwisely focus on abstinence as the answer, how about designing cool birth control patches and sending health department educators to hand them out to students just off school property?

If the school board in Portland, Maine, managed to vote in favor of making contraceptives available to middle school students, only the imagination limits what we should be doing here. However, the most obvious is to put health clinics in every middle and high school and give the nurses the power to offer serious birth control services unlike the school clinics in the past.

In other words, if we’re really serious about the issue of single mothers, we’d be even more serious about the need to deliver comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception.

All that said, births to single mothers seem more like a symptom than the fundamental problem of too many people living in poverty. More to the point, we have to come to grips with environments where violence is common place, where parental validation is sparse and where residents are sent the message every day – in poor schools, in poor housing and in high crime rates – that they are not valued by the city in which they live.

Sending A Message

Unfortunately, to many, that is the primary message sent by the CA’s single mother counter – just one more reminder to them that they are seen as a problem, that they are stigmatized and that they are vilified. It’s too bad, because it’s a lost opportunity to have a data-driven conversation that crosses racial lines and produces new understanding and a renewed commitment to solving these issues.

In the meantime, we hope the single mother counter will be short-lived. If it is, here are a few other things we’d be interested in reading on the CA’s front page:

• The amount of public tax money given away in tax freezes.

• The number of new jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

• The ratio of public money spent on poverty prevention and prisons.

• The number of students in Memphis City Schools who drop out or who get a degree but still aren’t proficient on state tests.

• The number of college-educated 25-34 year-olds who are moving out of Memphis compared to the number moving in.

• The increase in the average salary of Memphis workers.

• The number of members of the middle class moving out of Memphis.

• The number of new houses built in Memphis and the number of vacant buildings demolished.

• The gap between the average income of an African-American and a white Memphian.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

192021 Cities

If you're interested in cities, you'll be interested in this program. To learn more, click here.

Voting For An Exciting Weekend Of Creativity In Memphis

Memphis is blowing away the competition.

This time, it’s not college basketball, but the vote for a Startup Weekend.

It’s a fascinating – not to mention fun – process, because within 52 hours in one weekend, a tech start up company will be created and launched from scratch.

There are 35 cities vying to be the site for the kind of energy and creativity that often percolates just below the surface of Memphis.

When our friend Jenny Howard of MPACT Memphis tipped us off to this vote Thursday, Memphis was #5 in the balloting, but right now, it’s running away with the election with 10 times more votes than the second place city. In fact, Memphis has more votes than the rest of the cities combined.

It’s the latest encouraging indication of an enthusiastic group of Memphians who are searching for a way to connect and create. That’s certainly consistent with the purpose of Startup Weekend, which has been held previously in places like Boulder (home base for Startup Weekend), Toronto, Hamburg, New York, Boston, Chapel Hill, Atlanta, London, Seattle and San Francisco.

The weekend starts at 6 p.m. on a Friday and winds up at midnight Sunday. There is a facilitator, but there is no CEO or other titles at the event. What’s been interesting in other cities is watching natural leaders emerge and watching the camaraderie gel in ways that bring the project from an concept to fruition.

The best ways to incorporate the new company will be considered and shares will be awarded and based on the level of participation by each person.

To vote for Memphis, click here.

To read a Washington Post article about that city's Startup Weekend, click here.

We’re not sure what else takes place at these weekends, but there’s one thing that needs to happen for sure. Someone needs to be there taking down the names of every one who shows up, because they’re exactly the kind of people we need to get involved in the public boards and activities of our community.

Memphis' Unworthiness Gives Power To Pyramid Projects

It seems that we're about to add another verb to our uniquely Memphis vocabulary: to be "Bass Pro'ed."

Previously posted March 7, 2006:

It all feels eerily familiar – the politicians’ self-congratulations, the civic hyperbole, the bureaucrats leading the rounds of applause, the army of cameras and reporters.

It’s one of Memphis’ favorite pastimes – another development plan for The Pyramid.

This time, it was Bass Pro Shop that is the answer to realizing the building’s potential. Or will it become the latest grand idea laid to rest in the Tomb of Doom along all the others?

Noun To Verb

It all began in the late 1980’s with the unforgettable Sidney Shlenker. His promises ended up as elusive as a realistic financial plan for his grand vision for The Pyramid.

In the course of a few years, he went from Memphis’ “Man of the Year” to a verb:

shlenker (SHLINK-ur), v., 1) to dupe. 2) to fool. 3) to take advantage of people with too little self-esteem to say no. (From Southern, unknown derivation, possibly river-related.)


Shlenker is now the stuff of mythology, relegated to stories of a modern Carnival huckster who hypnotized the city and county into giving him control of their sparkling, new signature building. Forgotten these days are some interesting facts: one, he owned a National Basketball Association team in Denver, he had been CEO of the Houston Astrodome, he had co-founded Pace Entertainment (the largest live entertainment company in its day) until bought by the ever-hungry SFX and most remarkably of all, he was a banker. Two, his credibility was vouched for by one of Memphis leading citizens, John Tigrett. Three, after years of searching vainly for bank financing, at the 11th hour as his contract was being voided, he found the money for his project in a French bank, but the deal fell quickly apart when the bank received an anonymous, explosive letter attacking him, postmark: downtown Memphis.

No, we’re not defending Shlenker, but it’s just a little hard to place all the blame on the pickpocket when you put his hands in your pocket.

In that same time period, there was the Isaac Tigrett announcement that The Pyramid would boast Memphis’ long-awaited Hard Rock Café, but the deal fell apart when his board complained that they had not approved it and they had no interest in opening here.


Then, after a lengthy process of city and county government, there was the selection of gifted Memphis photographer Marius Penczner to add his eco-theme park, Island Earth, to the building. However, Mayor Herenton jerked his support from the project at the last minute, and Mr. Penczner went on to film and produce award-winning commercials for the Clinton/Gore campaign and was media adviser to the Gore for President campaign. With the inescapable feeling that he had been repudiated by his hometown, he moved to Nashville.

Then there was the on-again and off-again flirtation with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for the Grammy Hall of Fame, or some permutation of it. Renderings were produced, committees were formed, endless meetings were held and mayors’ blessings were bestowed. The only thing missing was the money to do it.

So, now we’ve moved to Bass Pro Shops as Memphis again searches for the elusive answer to the mystery of The Pyramid’s future. While there’s nothing definite and there are no signatures on the dotted line, it appears that it will happen.

Asking Right Question

If city and county governments’ question is, “How can we get a tenant so we can keep The Pyramid open,” they’ve come up with a winning answer. After 15 years of various schemes and plans (and the building still without even the inclinator to the apex), the special task force on Pyramid reuse seems to have a proposal that can get done.

However, if the question is, “What can be done with The Pyramid that enhances Memphis’ national image and attracts the young professions that we so desperately need,” Bass Pro Shop misses the mark. Widely.

At a time when Memphis lacks any cohesive economic plan, and these days that especially means a talent strategy to attract 25-34 year-old knowledge economy workers, it is hard to imagine that the giant fish retail theme park will be a plus.

It's Talent, Stupid

It’s ironic that Memphis led the nation in research into this key demographic, which is determining which cities fail and which cities succeed. And yet, armed with definitive recommendations from the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, the results of the Memphis Manifesto Summit and the data of the Young and Restless studies, Memphis has never been able to leverage this knowledge into a strategy that can work.

Already, we know about Memphis’ drawbacks from major corporate recruiters in Memphis and members of the young professionals’ demographic group. In the eyes of these workers, Memphis is seen as provincial, slow-moving, dull and a big country town. They want to live and work in cities that are vibrant, have a visible creative culture and opportunities for unique, memorable experiences.

With the pressing need to correct these misperceptions and communicate a new image, city and county governments are turning over the region’s signature building to Bass Pro Shop, a highly successful company with quality leadership. But the question remains: is this the best use of The Pyramid and will it create a buzz about Memphis as a vibrant, 21st century city teeming with creativity?

Symbols Matter

When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to symbolize our confidence in the future of Memphis. Today, its reuse should symbolize our confidence that we will be a city competitive in the new economy.

As we said, the committee that did a fine job in luring Bass Pro Shop to The Pyramid answered the question that they were given. We just wonder if it was the right question.

And, what did we learn from Memphis’ Shlenker Era? It’s simply this - it wasn’t his cleverness or his charisma or his glibness that conned us into giving him the keys to the Pyramid. Rather, it was our own neediness and feeling of unworthiness, which manifests itself in the deadly notion that we don’t deserve the best, that whatever we get is good enough and that we’re lucky to get it.

The good news is that Jim Hagale, president of Bass Pro Shop, is no Sidney Shlenker. Here's hoping we're not the same old Memphis.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Welcome To Memphis

Maybe the writing over the door says it all: "Welcome Fishermen, Hunters and Other Liars."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

20 Years Of Pyramid Curses

Maybe the truth is that The Pyramid is just cursed.

No, we’re serious.

From native American warnings to Isaac Tigrett’s crystal skull to former Shelby County Commissioner Vasco Smith’s foreboding feelings about the site that he called “evil,” The Pyramid has been a reliable tomb of doom for any big ideas for its use.

The only thing more consistent than failure is the hyperbole that characterizes each of them. We thought of this when a leading Memphis businessman and promoter of the Bass Pro Shop told The Commercial Appeal:

“We know that Bass Pro will draw 3 to 4 million tourists (annually) to Memphis."

Shoppers As Tourists

Of course, we know no such thing. And the continued description of its shoppers as “tourists” is misleading and unsupportable. We’ve not heard anything about a definitive, impartial market study for Bass Pro Shop, and we suspect that the generous projection of “tourists” actually comes from the company itself. Next, Bass Pro Shop backers will be referring to the store’s yearly “attendance.”

All this sounds so familiar. Accompanying every half-baked plan for The Pyramid has been a different batch of indefensible numbers justifying their claim to the city’s most prominent building. Ironically, the grand plans of Sidney Shlenker and John Tigrett also projected three million visitors to The Great American Pyramid – a prediction that now seems as ludicrous as the claim that $39 million would get Memphis a “state of the art” arena.

If Bass Pro supporters are going to bandy about claims of 3 to 4 million shoppers (oh, sorry, tourists), they need to reassure an anxious city. That can be done by releasing the data to back up such an extravagant claim, by determining how many come from our market, and how much is “new net money” and not just money moved from other retailers to Bass Pro Shop.

But back to the curse. The most ominous warning was given by Isaac Tigrett following the removal of the crystal skull that he had secretly riveted to the steel superstructure of The Pyramid apex. The small black box was spotted by a maintenance man about a year after the arena had opened.

Cosmic Imbalance

Pried from its secret place, the box was opened with great ceremony in a conference room in the bottom of The Pyramid, and inside the velvet-lined box and covered with gauze dusted with a fragrant powder was a small crystal skull. There was little question who had put it there, because of Isaac Tigrett’s interest in Eastern mysticism.

Although the skull seemed to have more in common with those found in Mayan archaeological sites, city and county officials were told that the skull had materialized in the hands of Mr. Tigrett’s guru, Sathya Sai Baba, during a conversation. The founder of Hard Rock Café and House of Blues had a special debt to the Indian mystic, who protected him during a devastating car wreck in California. Hurtling off the road in his sports car, Mr. Tigrett said that Sai Baba appeared in his car, put his arms around him and protected him from harm. The car was destroyed.

In other words, the crystal skull’s connection to the religious leader and guru gave it special power, which was amplified by the additional force of the pyramid itself, according to Isaac Tigrett.

“You don’t have any idea what you have done,” he said upon being told that the crystal skull had been removed. He added somberly that the cosmic balance of the earth could be disturbed as well.


By that time, suggestions that removal of the skull could curse The Pyramid were laughable. After all, with the crystal skull in place, little had gone right.

If Memphis had been interpreting signs, perhaps there wasn’t one delivered more forcefully than the thunder storm that postponed the “Big Dig” extravaganza to kick off construction. A native American telephoned city and county officials with a warning - the Pyramid site was sacred and that the rain was an omen of worse things to come.

Officials joked about the warning for days. Two years later, no one was laughing. Construction had been delayed, the price had increased, and the shape-shifting Shlenker/Tigrett development was no closer to coming into focus.

The Great American Pyramid plan was essentially dead. So was the Hard Rock Café; the glass inclinator to the apex; the perverse mutation of of Egyptology and rock music into Rakapolis; Dick Clark’s American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a re-creation of the Cavern, ground zero for Beatles fans, and priceless Stax Records artifacts; an Omnimax theater; a light and music spectacle in the arena on non-event days; a radio station on the top of the building beaming shortwave Memphis music; and what became called the “scheme du jour,” ideas that often became inoperable before the end of the business day.

Flush And Flood

The private partnership finally cratered and the public sector scampered to get The Pyramid opened in time for Memphis State University basketball. But first, there was the grand opening. Once touted by Mr. Shlenker as Luciano Pavarotti in Aida, complete with elephants and grandeur, the opening instead starred the Judds, who came all the way from Nashville.

Although arena officials had been referring to opening night as their “baptism by fire,” because of the rushed opening, it was a more traditional baptism – by water. When the packed house stormed the restrooms and flushed the toilets at the same time, it was too much for the city sewer transfer station, which flooded the arena floor with water of varying degrees of sanitation, giving birth to the so-called Pyramid test now conducted in all new arenas.

From the beginning, it was clear that the seats were too narrow (required when the arena capacity was increased by 2,000 seats to get the deciding vote from County Commissioner Pete Sisson), the angle of the upstairs seats was too severe (a pregnant woman fell down the darkened, unlit aisles), the track seating adjacent to the floor seats wasn’t used in arenas any more and conjured up images of rodeo seating; the private suites were on the public concourse which devalued their exclusivity, and the sound was in a word, atrocious.

The gallows humor at The Pyramid was that a concert ticket was a bargain, because you got to hear two concerts for the price of one – the actual concert and the one that bounced off the ceiling about 15 seconds later. A lawsuit and millions of dollars later, the acoustics were improved, but not before some promoters decided that there was a hex on the building.

Death By Pyramid

A door at ground level was cut into the south side of the building for disabled guests. Technically, the ramps into the building met building code, but after a Pyramid manager was unable to move up the ramp on a wheelchair, the new entrance was added and handicapped parking was redesigned.

In addition to basic acoustics, the sound system and lighting for basketball games had to be upgraded. More than once, it was muttered that the building was cursed, particularly after someone fell to his death from the rigging and a gunman holed up in the ground floor.

But the dream of a Pyramid attraction doesn’t die easy. Island Earth was killed off by politically connected Herenton supporters who didn’t like the idea of a eco-attraction (which now seems to have been ahead of its time) and other pleas for development plans to major theme park operators and developers only drew shrugs. As a result, the Wonders exhibit seemed like a godsend when it moved to the north wide of The Pyramid from the convention center. Within a few years, it shut its doors with a debt of more than $1 million.

Now, about 20 years after The Great American Pyramid was first proposed, the curse seems as active as ever, bringing Bass Pro Shop as our latest, greatest magic answer to making the building the 365 day a year attraction that was always envisioned.

If there is anything that should be clear by now, it is that some things just aren’t meant to be.

Friday, February 08, 2008

This Week On Smart City: The Performance Of Cities

The world is obsessed with measurement, especially it seems when it comes to cities. We have the best city for lovers, the best city for families, the healthiest city for women - and men.

The Conference Board of Canada has introduced its own ranking of Canadian cities and compared their performance with key cities in the U.S. This week we'll talk to the man who led that study, Mario Lefebvre. Mario was project director of City Magnets: Benchmarking the Attractiveness of Canada's CMAs.

Also with us is Dr. Bridget Jones, who has put together a remarkably broad and effective coalition of elected officials, hunters, farmers, and traffic officials in Nashville and Middle Tennessee for smart growth and sustainability. Bridget is Executive Director of Cumberland Region Tomorrow.

Smart City
is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit the website.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ethical Commitment Is To Public, Not Bass Pro Shop

It’s one strange relationship that Memphis city government has with Bass Pro Shop.

Over the past 38 months, there’s nothing in any of the four agreements they have signed that binds the store to anything. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising since three of the agreements actually bore the adjective, non-binding, in their titles.

And yet, city government officials contend that the agreements bind them - to only talking to the big box retailer.

Horns Of Dilemma

Today, we felt like we had a peek into this parallel universe when City Hall lead negotiator Robert Lipscomb said:
“I can’t negotiate with that person (any one other than Bass Pro Shop), because that would violate every ethical thing I can think of.”

The horns of this ethical dilemma surfaced when theme park proponent Greg Ericson announced that he will submit his own development agreement (complete with financing and a plan of action). That’s a gutsy strategy and actually helpful in clarifying these issues (we just hope it doesn’t include Mud Island).

There is no question that Mr. Lipscomb is serious about his ethical standards. However, that’s not what this is all about. It’s about acting in the best interests of the taxpayers of Memphis and Shelby County.

No Real Risk

After all, what’s really at stake for Mr. Lipscomb in negotiating with someone else? The risk that Bass Pro Shop may cancel an agreement that doesn’t mean anything anyway?

If Mr. Lipscomb feels that he and city government can’t negotiate with anyone but Bass Pro Shop, we don’t understand it, but we respect it.

But there’s no reason Shelby County Government can’t, and for that matter, there’s really nothing stopping the Pyramid Public Building Authority, which is the owner of The Pyramid in the first place.

Tunnel Vision

We respect Mr. Lipscomb not only for the sincerity that he exudes in his projects to improve his hometown, but for being one of the rare sources for new thinking in city government. We’ve agreed with him on some, and we’ve disagreed on others.

In this case, however, he seems to have fallen prey to one of those peculiarly public sector syndromes: He seems so determined to prove that city government can close a deal that he’s developed a tunnel vision that undermines all that he is doing.

For that reason alone, it is a good time for some fresh eyes to look at this issue. After all, Mr. Lipscomb has invested three years of his life in the futile hope that he can get Bass Pro Shop to ink a substantive agreement. We understand how hard it must be to admit that he’s fallen short of his goals, but there is no logical basis for Bass Pro Shop to be given exclusive control of The Pyramid for the next 18 months while it determines if it wants to move ahead.

Fresh Eyes

It seems to us that county government can provide this fresh look. City officials even seemed peeved that Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn rightly (not to mention ethically) ruled that the draft development agreement was a public record. Mr. Lipscomb, on the other hand, called it a “working document” which should not have been released to the public.

As for us, it’s immutable that on a matters of this importance, local government should always err on the side of public disclosure. The public deserves to see the details of the “development agreement” and they shouldn’t have to rely on city negotiators to spoon feed the information.

In light of the move to change the Tennessee Sunshine Law to allow a return to the days of backroom deals, we are thankful for the unshakable clarity of the Tennessee Public Records Act. As Mr. Kuhn understands and ruled, there is no exception for “working documents.”

An Easy Call

It’s actually so easy that even a non-lawyer can make the call: A public document is any document sent to a public official by someone outside of government. (We would even argue that it applies to any document sent by someone within government to another department of government, but we’ll save that more aggressive argument for another day.)

Suffice it to say, if ethics is the rules of conduct recognized for specific kinds of actions, Mr. Kuhn’s decision was anchored in the first rule of public ethics: The public’s right to know what is being done in their names. It is this transparency that lies at the heart of ethical government.

Back to The Pyramid: When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to become the physical symbol of our confidence in the future of Memphis. It was supposed to mirror our greater ambitions.

Tomb Of Doom

Time after time, The Pyramid’s big promises have collapsed and promises have gone unmet. The Memphis Pyramid has buried more big dreams than its Egyptian predecessors buried kings. There’s been the Hard Rock Café, the inclinator ride to the apex, the American Music Experience, the NARAS museum, Island Earth, the Wonders exhibit, and finally, the arena itself.

Today, it’s not too late for The Pyramid to symbolize our confidence and speak to our ambition. Can we really say that our city’s ambition is truly captured in a Bass Pro Shop in the signature building on our doorstep?

What should we have learned from from Memphis’ Shlenker Era?

Sending A Message

It’s simply this - it wasn’t his cleverness or his charisma or his glibness that conned us into giving him the keys to the Pyramid. Rather, it was our own neediness and feelings of unworthiness, which manifested itself in the deadly notion that we don’t deserve the best. Instead, good is always good enough for Memphis, and we think we’re lucky to get it.

Our city fathers profess to have great ambitions for Memphis. This is our chance to aim high. Right now, with the push for Bass Pro shop, it unfortunately us beginning to feel like the same old Memphis to us.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Bass Pro Shop Agreement Is No Development At All

Memphis’ proposed deal with Bass Pro shop reminds us of the punch line from that classic joke: “O.K., we’ve determined what you are. Now we’re just haggling over your price.”

Apparently, we’ve now established that our price is $420,000, and what we are is desperate.

That’s the only way to explain the proposed “development agreement” between Bass Pro Shop and Memphis and Shelby County Governments. Normally such agreements look like the results of a poker game with each side winning some and losing some.

Straight Flush

That’s sure not the case with this agreement, because all the cards are squarely in the hands of the sporting goods store. That’s why we predict that the 20-page draft agreement will have trouble clearing three formidable hurdles that lie ahead – approvals by Memphis City Council, Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton.

The mantra for every successful negotiation is: “You have to be willing to walk away.” This proposal sends an unmistakable message that not only were City Hall negotiators unwilling to leave the negotiating table, but they seemed willing to give the store more and more until it ended up with a strangle hold over the signature building on our riverfront.

So, what does Memphis get in return for its largesse? Precious little - unless you are excited by $35,000 a month in rent payments. Keep in mind: city and county governments spend that much money every 20 minutes, every hour of every day.

Guilty as Charged

This would be a great time for city/county truth in advertising requirement. This agreement is anything but a “development agreement.” There is nothing in the entire document that requires Bass Pro Shop to ever do anything in The Pyramid.

In fact, the “development agreement” isn’t binding or requires any specific actions from the national hunting and fishing retailer.

And yet, in exchange for about $1,200 a day in rent, Bass Pro Shop would be given exclusive control of The Pyramid until summer, 2009. All in all, it’s a testament to Bass Pro Shop’s well-deserved reputation for masterfully stringing along governments on its timetable.


If you are unsure that Bass Pro Shop is in the driver’s seat, just consider a few gems sprinkled through the proposed agreement:

“The lease…will provide that if the Partner Developments are not secured to the satisfaction of Bass Pro, Bass Pro shall have the right to terminate the project without further obligation or liability.”

“It is understood that if Bass Pro is not satisfied with the results of its investigations, studies and planning, for any reason and at any time, Bass Pro is not obligated to execute any other document or continue to pursue the project, and it may terminate this Agreement without any liability or obligation effective fifteen (15) days following written notice to the City and County.”

“Provided that this Agreement has not been terminated during the Planning Phase, Bass Pro shall give notice to the City and County when Bass Pro has developed a plan for the project that it believes to be feasible and economically viable.”

“It is understood that if Bass Pro is not satisfied with the progress or results of the permitting process for any reason and at any time, Bass Pro is not obligated to execute any other document, or continue to pursue the project, and it may terminate this Agreement without any liability or obligation effective fifteen (15) days following written notice to the City and County.”

Got it?

Driving The Deal

The message is unmistakable: Bass Pro Shop is in the driver’s seat. It can pull out whenever it wants (with 15 days notice) and for whatever it wants, and city and county governments have no recourse to do anything about it.

And for this, local government is supposed to be willing to give this store exclusive control over The Pyramid?

Or as the legal wordsmiths put it, “…in consideration of the payment of the monthly fee…City and County (and their respective representatives) shall deal exclusively with Bass Pro on all matters pertaining to the development and use of the Pyramid during the Development Period, and neither the city nor County shall, and no person or entity shall on either the City’s and County’s behalf, negotiate, correspond or enter into any written document or agreement whatsoever (whether binding or non-binding) with any party regarding the prospective use of the Pyramid.”

In a city with a history of the public getting outnegotiated by private sector lawyers, this agreement sets a new standard. Never have so many words been used to give so little to so many people in Memphis.

Special Designs

According to the agreement, Bass Pro Shop deserves this special consideration because it has “devoted substantial internal resources and undertook a preliminary design of the project, and Bass Pro hired various consultants to study various aspects of The Pyramid.” That seems to be an especially curious claim considering that the first official from the company toured the old arena little more than two months ago.

We’re excited that Bass Pro has allegedly done so much to put together an exciting design for The Pyramid. That’s why it seems even stranger that no company official was willing to make a public statement about this project and their excitement over the prospects for the future, or best of all, just show us their designs for the future.

That future, according to the agreement, will see The Pyramid – unless “the Partner Developments are not secured to the satisfaction of Bass Pro” – become home to a hotel, aquarium, restaurants, traveling exhibits, conference space, additional retail, museum and boat showroom.

Bigger And Better

In other words, it will be a regular Bass Pro Shop writ large.

But, if the prospects of this fishing store as the welcome mat for Memphis don’t fill you with civic pride, there’s always the company’s leaping bass logo - all 3,000 square feet of it – that will be affixed to each of The Pyramid’s four sides.

It must have swelled the breasts of city negotiators, because, if and when the company develops The Pyramid, Bass Pro Shop has the contractual right to be the tenant for 55 years.

Special Purpose Indeed

Curiously, the agreement calls for creation of the “Memphis Special Purpose Entity,” which will act as landlord and enter into the agreement with Bass Pro Shop. It adds a new layer to the building’s operation, since the Pyramid Public Building Authority – the city-county agency created about 20 years ago to build the arena – still exists and must sign off on any proposed deal.

To get all this done, city and county governments will put $30 million of public money into the megastore, and it likely will come from yet another special tax district, this time, a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) District and Pyramid Tourism Development Zone.

In the end, the combination of Bass Pro Shop’s skills at political foot dragging and the reality of “government time” could mean that we could be years away from knowing if the store really plans to develop The Pyramid.

The Clock’s Ticking

After all, it was summer, 2001, when we all learned that the Grizzlies would be prime tenants of The Pyramid until 2004, when the building’s future would become uncertain. Despite the knowledge that the building would be closing, city and county governments waited three years to form the Pyramid Reuse Committee, and it was summer, 2004, when Bass Pro Shop began discussions with the powers-that-be about their ambitions for the building.

In December, 2004, the store signed its first of three non-binding letters of intent, and at a press conference in February, 2005, officials with Bass Pro Shop said they would take control of The Pyramid in six months. We’re still waiting.

We are now 79 months from the time when we learned that The Pyramid would be shut down. We are now 42 months from the time when Bass Pro Shop said it planned to put a megastore in The Pyramid. And yet, the clock is still running on a definitive agreement from the sporting goods store.


It seems likely to us that the city and county legislative bodies – if not Mayor Wharton himself – will have little patience with the suggestion that this “development agreement” really means anything and may well insist on a level playing field that gives both Bass Pro Shop and Ericson Group an equal chance to put up or shut up.

Secondly, it appears more and more likely that the same criticisms that were made about the public concessions to Michael Heisley’s Grizzlies are about to erupt in the wake of the proposed agreement with Bass Pro Shop. There are some of the same opponents to FedEx Forum who believe that although the Bass Pro Shop is on a smaller scale, it is based on similar principles to FedEx Forum.

In other words, there may be a “development agreement,” but it may well take more time than Bass Pro Shop thought to pull in its latest catch.