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The New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority goes on the road this week to Indianapolis to visit that city’s fancy new arena for the Indiana Pacers, taking nine Grizzlies fans and assorted media with them to check out the leg room, the sight lines, the luxury suites, and the refreshments. Whatever they like will find its way into the new $250 million Memphis arena that begins construction next year. Meanwhile, the Riverfront Development Corporation will crank up its efforts next month to win support for a master riverfront plan, including a land bridge to Mud Island. Both of these potential signature projects for the city came out of agencies that were specially created to take over functions that once belonged to government. Frustrated for years by stagnation and missed opportunities, local government gladly turned over some of its authority in Mayor Willie Herenton’s third four-year-term and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout’s second and final term. The Riverfront Development Corporation took custody of several downtown parks including Mud Island and commissioned the development plan whose centerpiece is the land bridge. The New Memphis Arena Public Authority will pick the team to design, promote, and build the facility that will replace The Pyramid. Modeled in part after the Memphis Airport Authority, which successfully built and manages the largest cargo airport in the world, the PBA (chaired by Airport Authority board member Arnold Perl) and the RDC (chaired by Morgan Keegan executive John Stokes) can tap talent from the private sector, leverage public money with private contributions, and supposedly move faster and more efficiently than government. Fresh horses, bold ideas, and a certain gravitas are side benefits. Leaders aren’t immune to criticism, but Stokes and Perl won’t get beaten up in the newspaper for installing a phone in a bathroom or spending $100 for dinner on an expense account as City Council members have been. But a look back at the first year of operations for the PBA and RDC suggests they have some of the same problems as government, and they create some new ones. For one thing, they don’t always get their way. Politics and compromise are still paramount. The arena site is a compromise between the Union Avenue location favored by Rout and PBA members and the Linden site preferred by Herenton. On the riverfront, brothers Kevin and Rusty Hyneman own a key piece of undeveloped property on Mud Island between Harbor Town and the entrance to the river park. Their suburban track record of dense, low-cost housing doesn’t fit the RDC’s vision, but, for now at least, they’re partners. Far from taking politics out of big projects, agencies like the PBA and RDC can simply turn politicians from decision-makers into lobbyists, making sure their pals are awarded contracts. The politicos approve board appointments, and a one-of-ours, one-of-theirs (or one of us in the case of legislators who insist they be appointed to the boards themselves) mentality still prevails. PBA executive director Don Smith was selected at the urging of Sen. John Ford and others over Mike Ritz, who had the endorsement of Herenton and the PBA construction committee. And when it came time to choose a public relations firm, the PBA simply chose two of them, one white and one black, at a total cost of up to $320,000. Authorities like the PBA and RDC neuter government. Whatever its merits may prove to be, the Grizzlies’ arena was a cram-down by a small group of men and women with money and clout. Some key political backers, notably Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout and some county commissioners, won’t be around to answer for it. If the RDC goes ahead with the proposed land bridge, it will also be a cram-down. The idea was unheard of before the RDC consultants hatched it even though downtown already has acres of empty space on Mud Island and plenty of empty buildings that could be torn down to make more. By taking the arena and the riverfront off its table, three big-ticket items are now in the hands of people outside the control of city and county division directors. The council and commission already must deal with school budget requests not of their own making. After sports, the riverfront, and education, what’s left? Bit parts, often Ñ cell towers, redistricting, or the Communist slogan at the library. Granted, those are roles some politicians seem to relish, but it does a disservice to others and to the legacy of public servants like Lewis Donelson, Mike Cody, Vasco and Maxine Smith, Jesse Turner, J.O. Patterson Jr., Gwen Awsumb, and Frances Coe. They fought the great battles over desegregation, busing, roads, and downtown, but they engaged the small ones too. They sat through their share of zoning cases and award ceremonies and their perspective was better for it. An authority, by definition, has one focus and one focus only. Make a splash. Build that arena. Fill that harbor. It’s not the end of democracy as we know it. But it is a different way of doing public business, and the shortcomings may become more apparent next year.

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