One contest is now over -- that between the adherents of building a new arena in Memphis for the soon-to-be-transplanted Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association and the opponents of such an arena (or at least of the public financing of it).
Through vigorous efforts on the part of Mayors Herenton and Rout and numerous influential private citizens, solutions were found to the most vexing issues raised by the opposition. What these came down to were doubts about tying the county's property tax to the project via general obligation bonds and concerns about getting more private money into the arrangement.
Both objections were dealt with -- the former by a decision to shift the local-government burden from G.O. bonds to revenue bonds, which do not directly involve the taxpayer, and the latter by pledges from local citizens, both members of the proposed ownership group and others, to pony up for season-ticket commitments and a share of the arena financing.
With that, the previously unknown Heidi Shafer, an ad hoc activist who had started vigorously promoting a petition drive to force a referendum on the subject of the arena, threw in the towel. As she noted, her reason for carrying on the fight no longer existed, and she wondered out loud about the switch to revenue bonds: Why wasn't it done that way in the first place?
The answer to that, we suspect, lies in a phrase used -- in a wholly different context -- by Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, another arena opponent. "Bait and switch," charged Bailey about the shift to revenue bonds, but his focus was on the local taxpayer, not the current Vancouver Grizzlies ownership and the NBA, who were the real foils in that maneuver. Whether intentionally or not, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and league officials were baited with general obligation bonds and switched over to the riskier (for them) revenue bonds once they had virtually set up camp in Memphis and it was difficult, if not virtually impossible, for them to turn back.
The fact is, the bait-and-switch aspects of the deal, improvisational and inadvertent as they no doubt were, proved to be indispensable to its completion. It is hard to imagine any other way in which the local opposition, which was beginning to be considerable, could have been stilled. In that sense, Shafer and her fellow grass-roots operatives were not losers but winners, in that they forced an arrangement far more advantageous to Memphis and Shelby County.
The same can be said of the indefatigable Bailey, who promised -- once a commission vote to approve the arena project seemed certain -- to do his best to make sure the whole thing "works out." His way of doing that, most recently, was to keep bearing down on the local donors who have promised financial input to make sure they follow through. With that kind of hard-nosed watchdog on our case, who among us would not do just as he had promised?
The Baileys and Shafers and other skeptics are a large part of the reason we can all celebrate the outcome. We think the city and county have come out ahead, and we look forward to the Grizzlies' first games here this fall at The Pyramid and the beginning of a new season in which all of us are finally on the same side.