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Federal Funds and Common Sense

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A little more common sense and a lot less "misrepresentation" would have served the city of Memphis well in a couple of projects funded with federal dollars.

In the case of FedExForum's parking garage, common sense dictates that the city does not need a second intermodal transfer facility (ITF) within a few blocks of downtown. It already has underused Central Station, which is five blocks away from FedExForum, not to mention a heavily used bus terminal on the north end of downtown near The Pyramid.

Common sense also dictated that when the Grizzlies agreed to come to Memphis if they got a new arena, that arena would need a parking lot. And the Grizzlies would need the revenue from it, plus operating control, in order to help pay the bloated salaries of their players and satisfy the large egos of their staff.

And that's where somebody put one plus one together to get three. Or should we say "free"? The lure of $20 million of "free" money for the garage from federal transportation funds was too much for the city and state to resist. Under pressure to finish the arena "on time and within budget," somebody, or more likely several somebodies, fudged drawings, plans, and applications.

A state audit report calls this "misrepresentation," among a lot of other unflattering things. An FBI investigation will wind up on the desk of the United States attorney, who will decide whether to prosecute anyone. All we can say is, if you're going to prosecute "misrepresentations" on county credit cards even if they are reimbursed, if you're going to criminalize high school football recruiting because of "misrepresentations" of $10,000 payments from a booster to a coach, and if you're going to set up a company to "misrepresent" itself as a computer recycler to catch crooked politicians padding their $16,000 salaries with some juice, then you have little choice but to prosecute someone for a $20 million misrepresentation.

Common sense -- and competent lawyers -- should have told the city and state that federal transportation funds are only to be used for transportation projects, not basketball teams. A private for-profit garage should be privately funded, and that's that.

Ironically, another city project involving federal funds shows a need for a different kind of common sense. Crump Stadium has been functionally useless as anything other than a third-rate high school football field for nearly 40 years. Tearing it down makes all the sense in the world, as Memphis Heritage executive director June West noted when she said this week that "the memories were in the ground."

But in this case, $975,000 in federal funds were scuttled at the 11th hour because the Memphis Landmarks Commission and a state of Tennessee preservationist decided Crump Stadium had historic value and could be shored up and saved. The courage to stand alone for a good cause is commendable, but in this case, the cause was not a good one. Memphis and Central High School will be better served by a new sportsplex.

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