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2015: The Year Ahead in Memphis

A look at what's on the horizon for local business, politics, music, film, theater, gay rights, and more.

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Business

Bass Pro Shops: Last year, right here in this very same spot in this very same issue, we said you'd be doing your 2014 Christmas shopping in the Pyramid. 

It was the truth at the time, at least based on the information we had. But things change, and when it comes to Bass Pro, Memphians know schedules do, too. Now the new open date is May 2015.     

So, why the date change? Bass Pro officials said they wanted to open the entire establishment — the store, the restaurants, the hotel, the bowling alley, and the Ducks Unlimited Waterfowling Heritage Center — all at the same time. Here's how Bass Pro founder and CEO Johnny Morris explained it in November:

"This started off as kind of a bait and tackle shop. It's evolved to be considerably more than that. I just say from everybody in the company and all involved ... we're very proud of the progress that we're making and the grand plans that have been developed. It's an undertaking that's become probably larger than any of us probably envisioned at the outset. Partly, that's because as time's gone on we've become more and more excited about the potential of this facility here in Memphis."

Main to Main: Improvements will continue along Main Street in 2015, leaving the Harahan Bridge as the only piece of unfinished work for the (take a deep breath) Main Street to Main Street Intermodal Connector project. 

Sidewalks, gutters, and streets will all be fixed next year along the stretch of Main Street from Henry Avenue in Uptown to Carolina Avenue in South Main. The drainage system (including those unsightly boards) along the Main Street Mall will be fixed and new trees will be planted, too. 

Crews have been at work this year on South Main south of Talbot Avenue fixing what were nearly impassable sidewalks and repaving Main Street.

Work will also continue on converting one section of the Harahan Bridge into a bike and pedestrian pathway called Big River Crossing. But that work won't be complete until 2016.   

Memphis International Airport: Memphis International Airport (MEM) is going to feel smaller in 2015. That's because it will be smaller, a lot smaller. Concourses A and C will be closed. By late 2015, all gates, restaurants, bars, and retailers will be consolidated into Concourse B. (It's the one right in the middle of the ticketing area.)

This is all a part of the airport's $114 million modernization project. The plan underscores the need for the airport to get with the times. That is, the times after Delta Air Lines de-hubbed the airport, removing dozens of flights. Back in the Delta days, airport officials said MEM needed its 85 gates. Now, it needs about 25 (but will keep 45 total for future expansion).

Demolition is underway on parts of Concourse A and is expected to be complete by early 2015. Demolition on parts of Concourse C will begin after that, in late summer 2015. 

Guest House at Graceland: Will the new Whitehaven hotel be the hottest place Memphians will brag that they've never visited? 

We'll find out in late 2015, when the Guest House at Graceland opens its doors. Fueled with government financing, work is slated to begin on the 450-room hotel in early 2015. The project will cost somewhere between $121 million and $132 million. 

It is slated to be built on the same side of the street as Elvis Presley's mansion but farther north, on the corner of Elvis Presley Boulevard and Old Hickory Road. The Guest House will have two restaurants, meeting and event spaces, a pool, unique VIP suites designed by Priscilla Presley, a free airport shuttle, room service, and a 500-seat theater for live performances.  

AutoZone Park: Remember when we bought a baseball park this year? 

Even if you don't, we totally did. It was AutoZone Park, and it cost us $24 million. The St. Louis Cardinals bought the Memphis Redbirds, and they promised to keep the 'Birds here for another 17 years, and the Cardinals are going to run the park, too. No? Still, no. Well, the deal went down in early January 2014 and a lot has happened since then.

The city is in the baseball park business. One of things the city promised it would do was to spruce the place up. In fact, $4.5 million of that total $24 million price tag was to go to improvements on the park. 

The Cardinals have promised $15 million in stadium improvements to reach Major League Baseball standards (and those improvements will become assets of the city). These improvements include LED boards on the right field and left field walls, new grass berms, a new club on the suite level, ribbon boards (like those that run around the inside of FedEx Forum) down the right field and left field lines, a new bar in left field, and improved picnic areas.

Chisca Hotel: Something like a caterpillar in a cocoon, the Chisca has been wrapped in a layer of scaffolding for much of the past year. Once its $24 million redevelopment is complete later in 2015, owners say it will emerge like a butterfly: a 100-year-old, retro-modern apartment building with space for a few shops and a healthy, fast casual restaurant called LYFE Kitchen. 

The building will have about 160 units, a mix of one-bedroom loft units, two-bedroom loft units, and some two-story townhomes. Rent prices will range from $750 to $2,100. Leasing will likely begin early next year with late-2015 move-in dates.

Orpheum Theatre: The curtain will rise on the Orpheum's Performing Arts & Leadership Centre in 2015. 

The three-story complex is under construction on the piece of property adjacent to the theater's south side. The 50,000 square-foot building is estimated to cost $10.7 million. It will include a black box theater, a rehearsal hall, a commercial kitchen, dressing rooms, and classrooms for pre-show and post-show workshops. It will also feature office spaces and meeting areas.

Blues Hall of Fame: A brand new home for the Blues Hall of Fame is slated to open in mid-2015. The 12,000 square-foot site is located at 421 S. Main across from the National Civil Rights Museum. It will house the hall, of course, and the offices of the Blues Foundation.

Curators have been at work this year reviewing items for exhibits from performers including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Howlin' Wolf. Blues Foundation CEO Jay Sieleman said in October that he would step down from his role with the group sometime in 2015.  

Old Dominick Distillery: Spirits will flow from this brand new Memphis distillery next year (if all goes according to plan). Longtime beverage distributor and wholesaler D. Canale and Co. is behind Old Dominick, and the distillery will produce bottles of booze, of course, but will also feature a tasting room slated for a fall 2015 opening. 

Old Dominick will be located downtown at 301 S. Front Street, right across the street from Gus's Fried Chicken.   

Toof Building: Residents will be able to move into the long-blighted Toof Building on Madison in 2015. The five-story building is perhaps best known for the huge and colorful mural painted in 2008 that can be see at Memphis Redbirds games. The building is in the midst of a $5 million upgrade to transform the old print shop into 60 apartments and retail space. 

The Edge: No, it's not the U2 guitarist that needs the help of the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), it's The Edge neighborhood. DMC President Paul Morris said his group has had a laser focus on South Main for the past three years. With that neighborhood thriving, Morris said they'll divert their focus now to The Edge, which runs (basically) from Sun Studios to AutoZone Park and from Union to Madison.

The Horizon and One Beale: The recession halted work on two planned high-rise apartment buildings. But now they're back.

The Horizon has been an empty hull since the recession sapped its financing in 2009. Mississippi-based Dawn Properties bought the 16-story, 155-unit apartment building in October for more than $13 million. Work will continue next year to get it open and leased. 

Dirt never moved on the One Beale project, which was planned to sit below the bluff at the corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive. But the Carlisle Group (the same group behind the Chisca Hotel development) is making moves to get it off the ground. 

IKEA: Giant Swedish home-goods retailer IKEA will break ground (and Nashville's heart) on its massive new store next year at the corner of Germantown Parkway and I-40. The store is slated to open in 2016.

Also: Look for these other projects to get going or to open next year: the Hole In the Wall restaurant behind Ernestine & Hazel's (where chef Kelly English will reside as "director of taste"); the Agave Maria Mexican restaurant at Main and Union; Aldo's Pizza Pies Cooper-Young location; the Truck Stop restaurant/food truck hybrid; the Butchery at Bounty on Broad; big renovations at the Memphis VA Medical Center; new buildings at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital; a new emergency department at Methodist University Hospital; a new research building at UT Health Sciences Center; South Junction Apartments; and construction work on the Tennessee Brewery building. And work will continue on the Union Avenue Kroger, and scads of new apartments will open on South Main. — Toby Sells

Music

Big Legal Mess is completely out of control in the best way. I don't know what they got into down in Water Valley, Mississippi, but it's working. They started the year off with Leo Bud Welch's Sabougla Voices. Welch is not the force that R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough were. Maybe that's only because he was discovered so late in life. But his Hill Country jump gospel is completely captivating. We're lucky to have the record. Then they dropped the Designer Records collection of pay-to-play gospel soul cut by Style Wooten in the 1970s. The sounds here are exactly what was great about the classic era of soul music. The acts were working bands who had one shot to make a record. They sang their hearts out. In an era of off-puttingly over-produced music, this collection was like an oasis in the desert. See Local Beat (p. 29) for what we think of Alvin Youngblood Hart's 7-inch.

So, when rumors started to circulate that Big Legal Mess might be linked to a group, including Fat Possum Records and Audiographic Masterworks, that will start pressing vinyl records in Memphis, we freaking fainted. You can have the sugarplums; pressing records in Memphis is what keeps me up at night.

This year was impossibly hard on Ardent Studios, with the recent deaths of John Hampton and founder John Fry. We will closely watch what happens there. But over in Crosstown, Toby Vest of High/Low Recording and Pete Matthews, long associated with Ardent and his own PM Music, joined forces this year. With Fry, Ardent had technical excellence and an appetite for creative risk in one person. Fry, as we have said, is irreplacable. But the yin and yang between Vest and Matthews has a similar dynamic. Maybe it's unfair to compare them to Fry. Maybe they deserve it. Keep an eye on this pair. They offer more than a glimmer of hope after a cruel season.

As for artists, there are too many to mention. But our favorites are the ones who keep honing their craft. It's like making money with compound interest: not glamourous but very effective. Memphis artists play so frequently that you become numb to seeing their names. But what happens is a slow-burn process in which smart talent and regular audiences conspire to improve music and performance. See Local Beat (p. 29) for our take on Amy LaVere, a perfect example of this process.

Marcella René Simien had a banner year, and we are excited to see what she does next. Valerie June, about whom we all wondered if she'd ever get to the next level, sure as heck did get to the next level. Her voice is finally in its place. Can't wait to see where she's headed next. Watch out for other folks in this course of study: The Memphis Dawls, James & the Ultrasounds, and others we may not yet know about.

We lost Newby's, and folks are fretting (these people are always fretting) about the Hi-Tone, but rest assured that Memphis will have its live music. Lafayette's reached out to an under-served segment of the local audience. GPAC is having a heyday. Bar DKDC ripened into a perfect place to hear live music. The Bucc and Murphy's, our golden cockroaches, seem impervious to the goings on around them, as they should. You'll never do without live music in Memphis. We look forward to more. — Joe Boone

Politics

Between the forthcoming session of the Tennessee General Assembly, early, and the Memphis city election, later on, the political year 2015 promises to be chock-full. 

What the legislature will have to tangle with, right off the bat, is Governor Bill Haslam's just-announced "Insure Tennessee" plan, designed to allow the state to receive substantial benefits — estimated to be between $1 and $2 billion annually — for Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). The plan is Haslam's way of tapping into the ACA without seeming to be embracing the act, known more familiarly to the Republican super-majority that controls the legislature as Obamacare and almost universally scorned by GOP legislators. 

The plan, presented as a home-grown alternative to the ACA, offers two tracks to poverty-level recipients — vouchers for use with private insurors or participation in TennCare along with modest co-pays and premiums. Though a waiver from the federal government has apparently been assured in advance, the plan must also be endorsed by a majority of the members of both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.  

The plan has the public support of the state's congressional delegation and organized business groups, as well as of the state's hospitals, many of which are desperately in need of the ACA funds. Even the arch-conservative Lieutenant Governor/Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has expressed open-mindedness to it. But there still could be opposition from Tea Party legislators and other influential Republicans. State Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown is a likely opponent, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris has indicated his ambivalence.

Haslam has called a special session to deal with the matter on the eve of the regular legislative session, and consideration of the plan could take up most of January.

Once that matter is disposed of, the legislature has other thorny issues to deal with, among them the still unsettled one of educational standards  (the previously rejected "Common Core" having earned the same ill repute as Obamacare), the possible abolition of the Hall Income Tax on interest and dividends (stoutly resisted by the newly determined Haslam), and a variety of bills designed to impose new curbs on abortion, as permitted by the recently passed Amendment 1 to the state constitution.

By the time the General Assembly quits its run in April, the Memphis city election should be heating up. The Election Commission will start issuing petitions for municipal races on April 17th, with a filing deadline set for July 17th. Primary attention, of course, will be paid to the mayor's race, in which incumbent Mayor A C Wharton, given a boost by a string of positive-looking year-end actions, will be facing off against a set of opponents whose identities are still largely unknown. Among the possible challengers are Councilman Jim Strickland, Councilman Harold Collins, former School Board maverick and New Olivet Baptist pastor Kenneth Whalum Jr., and former County Commissioner James Harvey. Numerous others have floated trial balloons, including Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams, County Commissioner Steve Basar, former councilmember Carol Chumney, and, most recently, County Commission Chairman Justin Ford.

Ford, though, is likely to be fully occupied attempting to consolidate his authority as chairman against persistent challenges from the venerable Walter Bailey and other Democrats concerned about fellow Democrat Ford's working alliance with the Commission's Republicans. That should keep things interesting.

Jackson Baker

LGBT Rights

Nationally, 2014 was a landmark year for marriage equality. Same-sex couples have the freedom to marry in 36 states, and in four other states, including Arkansas and Mississippi, judges have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but those rulings are stayed as the cases proceed to appellate courts.

But 2014 wasn't Tennessee's year. At this time last year, a lawsuit had been filed seeking recognition for three Tennessee same-sex couples who had legally wed in other states. The hope was that the case would get taken up by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. It seemed like a shoo-in since every other federal appeals court had ruled in favor of overturning same-sex marriage bans.

But the Sixth Circuit's three-judge panel ruled in favor of marriage bans in Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. While, on its face, that seems like a blow to the marriage equality movement, it might turn out to be a good thing.

The Sixth Circuit's split from the other appeals courts means the issue could now be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. At their January conferences, Supreme Court justices are expected to discuss whether or not they will take up the Sixth Circuit case. If they do, a ruling could come down by June 2015.

"If the Supreme Court takes up the case and we get a positive ruling, that will help settle things for everybody," said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP).

On a local level in 2015, TEP will again push the Shelby County Commission to pass more specific wording for its non-discrimination ordinance protecting county employees. The current ordinance has vague language that protects employees based on "non-merit factors." But the commission voted down adding "sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression" to the ordinance this year.

On a state level, Sanders said they're watching out for a possible comeback of what they labeled last year the "Turn the Gays Away" bill, which would have allowed persons or religious organizations (both for- and non-profit) to deny services or goods in conjunction with a civil union, domestic partnership, or gay marriage. That state bill was introduced in 2014, but it was later dropped.

"I think with the coming decision on marriage, legislators are going to look for ways to opt out people who don't want to deal with married, same-sex couples," Sanders said.

Both TEP and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition (TTPC) will be pushing for a comeback of what they call the "Dignity for All Students Act," an anti-bullying bill that would include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, etc. in a list of things children could not be bullied for in public schools. That bill was sent to study last March. It does have bipartisan support, just not enough. Sanders expects it will be back.

TTPC is pushing for the General Assembly to pass legislation in 2015 that would allow transgender people to change their gender on their birth certificates. "Tennessee is the only state with a law that bans gender changes on a birth certificate," said Marisa Richmond, secretary and lobbyist for the TTPC.

TTPC is also pushing a statewide non-discrimination act that would protect LGBT people in areas of employment, housing, financing, and public accommodations, and they're seeking the addition of "gender identity and expression" to the state hate crimes law. Currently, with regard to LGBT matters, Tennessee only includes "sexual orientation" in its hate crimes law. — Bianca Phillips

Film

Assuming Hollywood survives the North Korean cyberwar, there are a lot of films to look forward to in 2015.

In January, there are a bunch of good end-of-the-year Oscar hopefuls going into wide release that will hit Memphis theaters. Chief among them is Paul Thomas Anderson's Thomas Pynchon adaptation, Inherent Vice, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Selma, the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic Civil Rights march, starring David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, is also gathering good buzz.

February starts with a new sci-fi epic from the Wachowskis, Jupiter Ascending, starring Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis, which was delayed from last summer, meaning either it could be a dud or they were really working on the special effects. Perhaps both. The Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation will be hitting theaters shortly afterwards, which is the definition of "highly anticipated," but there is little hope of it rising above its source material.

The summer blockbuster season looks fairly promising, kicking off with the next big Marvel superhero fest, Joss Whedon's The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has the same great cast, plus James Spader as the artificially intelligent robot villain. Australian director George Miller returns to the post-apocalyptic turf he pioneered with Mad Max: Fury Road, which is looking incredible right now in previews, starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.

Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles, whom I will always follow eagerly, teams up with George Clooney and Hugh Laurie in Tomorrowland. The Jurassic World trailer, starring Starlord himself Chris Pratt, ginned up some excitement earlier this month. Pixar's internal monolog movie Inside Out looks to be a return to form for the animation powerhouse, but the troubled Ant-Man production could prove to be a Marvel misstep. Later in the summer, 20th Century Fox will try again to make a decent movie out of Fantastic Four starring Miles Teller as Reed Richards.

On a more human scale, Amy Schumer will be stepping into the leading role for the first time with Judd Apatow's comedy Trainwreck, and the summer closes out with Straight Outta Compton, the NWA story that has both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as producers.

The holidays will see the closing chapter in The Hunger Games four-part trilogy, which, judging by Mockingjay — Part 1, could be the strongest film of the franchise. Quentin Tarantino will have a new postmodern Western The Hateful Eight ready by the end of the year with Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kurt Russell.

But by far the most anticipated movie of the decade so far is the first non-George Lucas Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens. Set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, Director J. J. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan will bring back Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford for one last galavant around the galaxy. Will The Force be with them? Here's hoping.

Chris McCoy

Crime and Public Safety

Homicides are up, residential and business burglaries are down, and the amount of forcible rapes in Memphis is neck and neck with last year.

Nevertheless, serious crime in Memphis as a whole has declined slightly. And the Memphis Police Department (MPD) anticipates this trend will continue on into the New Year.

In 2014, through December 15th, there were 45,914 part one crimes committed in the Bluff City, according to MPD data. Part one crimes include offenses like murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, automobile theft, and larceny.

Over the same period in 2013, there were 46,533 crimes committed — a 1.3 percent decrease.

However, if you look at the number of part one crimes committed in the city in 2006, through December 15th, it's evident that crime has experienced a significant drop.

In 2006, the year Memphis' metropolitan area was ranked as having the second-highest rate of violent crimes in the U.S., there were 65,783 part one crimes. Since then, the number of serious crimes committed in Memphis has decreased more than 30 percent.

But crime still remains an issue in Memphis. According to MPD data, this year, through December 15th, the number of homicides, automobile thefts, and robberies of individuals and businesses has increased. But burglaries of both residences and businesses, and larceny and aggravated assault as a whole have slightly declined.

And, in comparison to recent years, the number of police-involved shootings also declined in 2014. From January 1st to December 15th, there were nine police-involved shootings in Memphis, none of which were fatal.

In 2013, over the same time frame, there were 14, seven of which were fatal. And in 2012, there were also 14 shootings involving MPD officers, in which six were fatal.

The MPD's efforts to combat crime were impacted in July, when more than 500 Memphis police officers called in sick to protest the Memphis City Council's vote to cut health-care benefits of current and retired city employees. At press time, there was no data to show the impact, if any, the absence had on local crime stats.

Looking forward into 2015, the MPD says it's determined to continue lowering crime through community interaction and policing, as well as by utilizing various crime reduction initiatives such as the Community Outreach Program and Blue Crush.

"We will continue to be enthusiastic and committed to fighting crime utilizing all of our resources and technology," said MPD Sergeant Alyssa Macon-Moore. "We want to build an even stronger relationship with citizens of this great city."

Louis Goggans

Theater

When Playhouse on the Square opened its new facility at the corner of Cooper and Union in 2010, Overton Square was in serious decline. By the time the Hattiloo Theatre opened its new, custom-designed space on Cooper and Monroe in 2014, the entertainment district was in the midst of a full-fledged renaissance. Next year promises even more growth for the local performing arts community, which will see the opening of new facilities and new plays.

In March, The Orpheum broke ground on its new 39,000-square-foot, $14.5-million Centre for Performing Arts and Education, which is being built over the parking lot on the south side of the theater. When it opens, the new space will include classrooms, an additional performance hall, and rehearsal space.

Orpheum president and CEO Pat Halloran has also announced that he will end his 30-year run and retire at the end of 2015.

Memphis audiences will be treated to more original work in 2015. In 2013, Playhouse on the Square began an ambitious push to find new playwrights and produce their work. That endeavor starts paying dividends in the new year when We Live Here, the winner of the first NewWorks@TheWorks new play competition, opens at TheatreWorks on January 2nd. The Hattiloo is also currently rehearsing fresh material. Hoodoo Love, a new play by celebrated Memphis playwright Katori Hall, whose previous works include Hurt Village, and The Mountaintop opens January 15th. — Chris Davis

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