Don't be thrown by the headline, composed in honor of Mayor AC Wharton's latest ideas for bootstrapping our city upward. We're for the mayor's thinking this time, not against. We had gotten pretty wary after several years of
hearing about ambitious TDZ or TIF projects, most of them containing expensive catch clauses and most of them doomed to oblivion once that fact was realized. So it was something of a relief to hear the mayor get down to earth and, in a luncheon speech to the Memphis Rotary Club on Tuesday, talk about slapping together some ad hoc things, a piece at a time, to upgrade our status as a tourist draw (or as what former Mayor Willie Herenton called a "destination city").
Before the mayor got to that point, he did a brief review of the city's pension dilemma, concentrating on what he insists is $700 million worth of unfunded liabilities. That figure is roughly commensurate with the estimated cost of building a brand new state-of-the-art convention center, one big and shiny enough to keep pace with such regional bully boys as Nashville and Atlanta, both of which cities have constucted model facilities in recent years.
"We don't have the money. That's the bottom line," Wharton said, pointing out the obvious. And anyhow, he said, "I don't want to be Nashville or Atlanta." He thereupon proposed a method of taking the best advantage of the "legacy" assets our city already has and connecting them in such a way as to be competitve in the tourist and convention markets without breaking the bank.
On the north end of downtown, the mayor noted, Bass Pro will shortly be occupying a revamped Pyramid. An expenditure of some $40 to $60 million, which the city could surely manage to scrape together, the mayor said, and would do a satisfactory rehab on the nearby existing Convention Center. As for the south end, which already boasts the state-of-the-art FedExForum and a new hotel and has room for more, an impressive facade is in place, the largely vacant Peabody Place. According to Wharton, it could be upgraded with private funds to constitute, along with a somewhat refurbished Peabody Hotel, a second convention-center nexus. A little tweaking of the trolley system would serve to connect north and south, and — voila! — there you have it, a new convention center complex done on the cheap.
And did the mayor overlook the most impressive pre-existing downtown asset the city has? He did not. The river is also prime tourist bait, and, as Wharton talked further about the advantages of this loosely connected open-air complex, basically turning all of downtown into a venue, it began to kind of make sense.
"Folks get tired of being shut up inside," he said, conjuring images of happy visitors rambling around downtown, strolling and hopping trolleys from Bass Pro to Beale Street to the riverfront and back again, enjoying a tourist mecca that could soon be at hand, if only we had the vision. It's just crazy enough to work.