Highs and Lows

Outgoing county mayor Jim Rout looks back on his 30 years in government.



Jim Rout won't say yet where he's going, but he's happy to talk about where he's been in 30 years of county government.

Rout leaves office at the end of August, having completed two terms as mayor of Shelby County plus stints as a county commissioner and county coroner.

"I don't anticipate being on the ballot again," said Rout, who turned 60 in June. He's headed for a job in the private sector but doesn't want to disclose his plans until the end of this week. He announced his retirement last year. In an informal meeting with Flyer reporters this spring, he said his -- at that time --prospective new employer was not anyone or anything that would pose a potential conflict to him as mayor.

Rout came to the mayor's office in 1994 as a commissioner known for happily immersing himself in the details of county government. He has spent most of the last two years, however, dealing with former corporate CEOs Pitt Hyde and Ron Terry on the NBA arena and Shelby Farms.

Friends say the long hours have taken a toll on him, and Rout doesn't disagree.

"No question, it has been a tougher period," he said. "When you work as long as we all did on the arena or as long as Ron Terry and I did for almost two years only to see [the Shelby Farms proposal] go down the tubes, sure, it is not as much fun. It's always more fun when you first start. That's why you see a lot of entrepreneurs move on after four or five years."

The failure of the Shelby Farms proposal, which Rout thinks will resurface next year, was the low point of his mayoral career, he said. He blamed "bad timing," although the proposed $20 million infusion of private money into the park failed to catch fire at the grassroots level, allowing several commissioners to safely change their yeas to nays.

The highlight is no surprise either.

"Less than two years ago, no one would have thought we would have an NBA team, a new arena under construction, and Jerry West living here," said Rout. Controversy be damned, "you've either gotta be big-league or bush-league."

The enthusiasm of Rout, a Pyramid opponent, for the publicly funded arena has to run a close second to Gov. Don Sundquist's support of a state income tax when some diehard Republicans talk about betrayals. But where Sundquist foundered, Rout succeeded, with the help of Hyde and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton as well as the commission and city council.

Rout and Herenton had "a little brouhaha" over toy towns in Rout's first term, but "we've gotten in rhythm" in the last few years. Yes, and Memphis has been having a little humidity lately. The conflict highlighted all of the fundamental problems with split government, suburban versus urban interests, and school funding which are still around five years later, despite the efforts of two special committees to resolve them. There was no open warfare, but there was no resolution either. Rout predicts there will be single-source funding for schools within the next two years. You might want to take some of that action if you run into him.

Rout and his family know firsthand the suburban growth that is putting pressure on politicians to come up with something. They moved from Parkway Village and Fox Meadows to the Richwood subdivision in southeast Shelby County 13 years ago when it was still uncrowded, even rural in places. Today, it is surrounded by new schools and homes, and by the end of this year, it is supposed to be annexed by the city of Memphis.

"Sprawl is a fact of life," he said. "We probably didn't do as well as we should have to attach appropriate fees or requirements on new development as it applies to schools. This is America, and people are going to live where they want to live. Maybe we need to tweak what we require to do development there."

Rout won his first election in 1972 (as coroner), but he traces his political involvement to 1967, when he helped organize his Parkway Village neighborhood in opposition to a plan to build 2,400 apartments on a site that would become the Mall of Memphis instead. He sold memberships to the upstart Cottonwood Civic Club for $3 by going door to door. When they needed a president, somebody said, "Jim, you've been real active. You run for it."

In a somewhat similar way, that's what happened again in 1994 when good old Jim got the nod from the Republicans by a two-to-one margin to run for mayor then prevailed in a six-candidate free-for-all general election. Democrats got their act together after that and started having primaries themselves. But then, Republicans like Rout and Sundquist started occasionally acting like Democrats and supporting new taxes and public subsidies to pro-sports teams, and the lines blurred again. Mayor-elect A C Wharton, a Democrat, comes into office by the same three-to-two margin as Rout did in 1994.

"It's been good. I've had a great run," Rout said. "I don't mean it as a reflection on anyone else, but there will never be, at least for a long time, a campaign like 1994, when we were able to win the primary two-to-one and the general 60-40 against six opponents."

At least not for Shelby County Republicans.

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