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The Memphis Week That Was

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A new book highlights a famous Memphis sporting event. No, not the Tyson-Lewis fight or the Memphis Tigers run to the NCAA Final Four or Michael Jordan's impersonation of a minor-league baseball player at Tim McCarver Stadium. Crazy Good, by Charles Leerhsen, is about Dan Patch, a horse that ran several times at the Memphis Trotting Association's track some 100 years ago.

Hype for the book calls Dan Patch "the country’s biggest celebrity." This was, of course, before the automobile and Sex and the City. According to The New York Times, Dan Patch trotted the fastest mile ever by a horse in harness in Memphis in 1903 before 5,000 fans. The time was 1:56, or about twice as fast as modern two-legged track stars cover that distance. Dan Patch, in memory at least, had a very brief revival in 1987 when Richard "Sonny" Bauman was pushing for a thoroughbred racetrack in Memphis and took some pains to point out our city's equine-racing past. The racetrack dream died, but the fame of Dan Patch lives on if Simon & Schuster has anything to say about it. I smell a movie, but if you can imagine a blockbuster about harness racing then you can do something I cannot.

Questions, questions, and more questions came up when Mayor Herenton went to a City Council committee meeting on the budget this week. The mayor seemed to suggest, in a tentative way, that if the City Council decides not to allocate $93 million for Memphis City Schools things might eventually work out for the best. But, as the mayor admitted, there are an infinite number of "what ifs" involved in this decision that touches the city school board, county government, state government, the state attorney general, and the search for a new city superintendent.

What was remarkable about the meeting was how little anyone in the know knows for sure. That includes the mayor (and former superintendent), director of finance Roland McElrath (who has also worked for the school system), council members (including former school board member Wanda Halbert), and City Council attorney Allan Wade. And the deadline is near. The council has to pass a budget in June, and the school board wants to hire a superintendent in June. Herenton is determined to keep the pressure on, and points out that he has been seen as crying wolf on school funding for at least 10 years. The council is not going to pass a 54-cent property tax increase. The school board is not going to dissolve. But someone has to blink.

Detached is the word RDC head Benny Lendermon used to describe Mud Island River Park, and he's right. You can't hardly walk there, especially if you're a visitor staying in a downtown hotel, unless you're healthy and hearty enough to hike the crosswalk over the monorail. But Hilton Head is detached. Staten Island is detached. Pensacola Beach is detached. Lots of places are detached, but crowds of people still go to them. In fact, the detachment can be part of the attraction. That was the whole point of the monorail. Mud Island River Park attracted a nice crowd over Memorial Day weekend and it looks great. But it is detached in the same sense that Tom Lee Park and the rest of downtown are detached from most of Memphis.

Except during special events such as Memphis In May or big games and concerts at FedExForum and other venues, most people find parks and passive entertainment closer to where they live. As anyone who lives or works near the bluff knows, Tom Lee Park, which is not detached, gets very little traffic when there are no special events. I don't see a $30-million Beale Street Landing changing that a whole lot after the newness wears off, but we won't know for a while. The project is scheduled for completion in 2010.

Medicine and hospitals have replaced financial institutions as the big employers and economic drivers of downtown Memphis. St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is the best story Memphis has to tell. It has transformed the north end of downtown. Methodist LeBonheur is building a new $325 million hospital and related facilities on Poplar Avenue. And the Memphis Bio Works is underway on Union Avenue where Baptist Hospital once stood. Throw in the University of Memphis Law School on Front Street, scheduled to open in 2009, and there's reason for downtown optimism despite the loss of flagship banks.

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