Sunday, March 02, 2008

Shelby County Puts On The Ritz To Find Solutions

It’s often been said that there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage.

Apparently, that also applies to reaching agreement with Bass Pro Shop.

It appears that a liberal Democratic City Councilman – Shea Flinn – and a conservative Republican County Commissioner – Mike Ritz – may have finally injected some much-needed reason into the deliberative process about the future of The Pyramid.

Perhaps, if there’s no Republican or Democratic way to deliver public services, there’s definitely a businessman and a bureaucrat’s way. As a result, when Councilman Flinn and Commissioner Ritz tapped into their private sector experiences, they cut through the political-speak to ask the most pertinent questions and to suggest approaches that allow Memphis and Shelby County Governments to keep their options open and remain flexible.


That, in a word, is progress.

It was capped off by a new open-minded attitude by City Hall dealmaker and Bass Pro Shop’s biggest promoter, Robert Lipscomb, who appeared to welcome the elected officials’ business acumen. He readily agreed to Commissioner Ritz’s suggestion – that got a quick amen from Councilman Flinn - to bring a real estate attorney into the process aimed at finding a development project for The Pyramid.

In Commissioner Ritz’s mind, the experience and expertise of a real estate attorney who has negotiated and closed large, complex real estate transactions have been missing ingredients in the process, and that such a person is essential in negotiating the interests of local government.


But while his recommendation for a real estate attorney drew most of the headlines, his two-page memo to Memphis City Attorney Elbert Jefferson spoke to the refinements that are still needed in the draft development agreement between Memphis, Shelby County and Bass Pro Development Company LLC.

For example, Mr. Ritz pointed out that a change is needed in the 12th whereas clause in the agreement, a clause that reflects the public sector’s tendency to throw the kitchen sink at a project. In this section, the agreement states that funding for the project could come from a Tax Increment Financing District set up to fund the project – as well as Brownfields Economic Development Initiative Grant, New Market Tax Credits and a Tourism Development Zone.

“The Pyramid is in the Uptown TIF District,” Commissioner Ritz wrote. “Another project in the same district would conflict with the Uptown development.”

A Few Suggestions

In addition, he made several key suggestions:

• Increase interim rent to be paid by a tenant to $50,000 per month. City government proposed $35,000 for Bass Pro Shop

• Strengthen milestones to set strong default language for the sporting goods retailer

• Define all signage on The Pyramid that will be sought by Bass Pro Shop

• Add back the reference to Bass Pro Shop proving its financial capability that was in the previous draft

• Add the sales from all sub-tenants to determine rent

• Delete a section that gives a credit to Bass Pro Shop for taxes, because if property taxes, personal property taxes and sales taxes are added together, the store will never pay rent

• “Let Bass Pro put in $ as we (city/county) pay in $. We will have to borrow our contribution per this language.”

• Add language stating that the $30 million local contribution is not a direct appropriation from city and county governments

• Flesh out the building codes timeline, because they now call for permits to be completed although plans and specifications are not ready

There’s More

All in all, it was a reality check for this entire process and earned Commissioner Ritz his paycheck for the month. However, he was not done.

In the regular meeting of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners a few days later, he raised questions about a $460,000 contract with a local engineering firm to design a two-mile, four-lane Holmes Road between Riverdale and Hacks Cross in Southeast Shelby County.

After 25 years of county government reflexively funding road project after road project that fueled sprawl and exploded the county’s debt to almost $2 billion, it was an epiphany for the county’s legislative body. It would eventually pass 9-2, expanding Mr. Ritz’s reputation as the Oliver Wendell Holmes of county government (losing the battle now, but setting the context for future decisions).


For decades, four-lane roads have been the Holy Grail of county traffic engineers, although these days, our deep concern has been mitigated by Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes enthusiastic embrace of smart growth principles. For that reason alone, we are resisting our tendency to see this as yet one more of those expansive, unnecessary county roads, but whether it is justified or not, Commissioner Ritz’s warning shot was well-placed and overdue.

Safety issues and residents’ support for widening the road probably carried the day, but there’s little question that votes on public works projects in the future will be volatile and emotional, as shown by Mr. Ritz’s berating of members of the Wharton Administration to the point that the mayor himself stepped in to demand decorum.

Commissioner Ritz has earned his reputation as an aggressive advocate for his positions, at times taking on all comers in his politically quixotic campaigns. Ironically, he fully understands the hot seat that he’s creating for administrative staff, because back in the day, he was the first director of the newly-created division of planning and development.

Turning Up The Heat

We’re sure that when the smoke clears, he sometimes regrets the heat that he’s created and the hostile environment that can choke off the kind of open communications and honest opinions that good public decisions need.

His recent withering criticism was motivated by his concern about the $16.5 million budget deficit announced by Mayor A C Wharton for the upcoming budget and the need to cut expenses. In Commissioner Ritz’s way of thinking, the cost of the engineering contract for the new road is about one-third of one cent in property taxes, and in piecing together penny after penny, perhaps there is a way to avoid a tax increase in the coming fiscal year.

Actually, we doubt that it can be done without cutting essential services, but our issue about the road is more than budgetary. Few decisions by Shelby county Government fed the unsustainable sprawl in our community as much as the blind allegiance to road construction as a political strategy to keep white voters inside the county.

Political Calculations

The fact that the decision was made with full knowledge that it would drive up the county debt to potential bankruptcy levels makes it even more reprehensible. Because of this policy, a gift to influential developers and contributors, the area outside Memphis is laced with six-lane roads built in areas that are no longer hotbeds of development.

For that reason, we were just happy that the recent vote was for a four-lane road, considered a modest project by past county standards. But here’s the thing: it’s time for county government to quit building massive road projects to move traffic rapidly for 15 hours of rush hour traffic a week.

That seems to be taking place about a decade too late, but finally, budgetary constraints are shaping a public works policy that common sense has too long forgotten.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think people are becoming sick of Mr Wharton and Mr Fox,s lies and lack of ethics