Behind the Headlines – March 8, 2019

Behind the Headlines – March 8, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like
you, thank you. – Tami Sawyer runs for mayor, the city and Graceland
reach a tentative deal, and much more, tonight,
on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, president
and executive editor of The Daily Memphian,
thanks for joining us. This week, we’ve got a
roundtable of journalists talking about some of the
biggest stories of the week. Toby Sells is news editor
at the Memphis Flyer. Thanks for being here. – Thank you, Eric. – Karanja Ajanaku, editor
of the Tri-State Defender. Thanks for being here again. – My pleasure, thank you.
– Along with Bill Dries, – reporter with
The Daily Memphian. Tami Sawyer, yesterday
as we tape this, Bill, on Thursday, she announced
her run for the mayor, mayor of city of Memphis
against Jim Strickland, the incumbent, and former
mayor Willie Herenton has also declared. How does this shape up? – This shapes up to be
a really good discussion among the mayoral candidates,
and it also amounts to some very different
views of the city’s future. Of course, the Strickland
campaign slogan has been Memphis Has Momentum. Sawyer thinks that the
city has some very serious problems that need
to be addressed. And Herenton’s
vantage point on this has been things were
fine when I was mayor, let’s do it again. – Yeah, Karanja, your thoughts. I mean, Tami comes
in part out of this kind of protest movement. I mean, she was on
the back of that, I think, got into
county commission, now looking at the
mayor’s office. I don’t know that people
were necessarily surprised that eventually
Tami wouldn’t run for one of the mayor’s
seat, but your thoughts? – We actually interviewed
her earlier in the week, so our story that’s
out today goes in depth in terms of why she’s
going, and one of the things that sticks out to me is
that she defines herself in this particular story as
a social issues candidate. And so I think her
point is that, hey, we appreciate the efforts
that people have done up to this far, but
we can do better, and we can do things faster,
and we need to change the tenor of the conversation and put social issues
at the top of the agenda and let that effect
policies and programs. – Social issues being,
an example being? – She talks a lot about
we need to make sure we look at what we’re
gonna do about recidivism and people coming out of prison and coming back into
the communities. She talks about the fact
that there’s so much poverty in Memphis, and she thinks
that that understanding about poverty, particularly
as it relates to children, should be paramount
in discussions. She talks about education,
and while the city doesn’t really fund
education directly anymore, she says that maybe
we need to take another look at that
because education ties into our ability
to attract industry. – Toby, your thoughts on
Tami Sawyer running for mayor? – I’ve seen her in action
at the county commission, one day when they
were talking about juvenile justice reform,
talking about the new building they wanted to build over there,
so I’ve seen her in action, and she does come from that
kind of activist world, grassroots world, but I think
it’s translated really well onto the other
side of that bench. She can talk the lingo,
she knows the issues, and she knows how to say it
but also what she wants to say, and she puts it together
in a really good package. – And it would be, we talk
about former mayor Herenton, we talk, you know, who
is a beloved figure and a controversial figure,
depending on who you talk to, Tami this kind of new generation
of Memphis politician, and then Strickland in that
mix is a little bit more the sort of, I wouldn’t
say conservative, but the more traditional
it seems like. I mean, it would be
a fascinating debate if we get to that, Bill. I mean, it would
be must-watch TV. – Well, and hopefully we
will have that debate, and probably right here. But yeah, I think
that Strickland, first and foremost, is the
incumbent who is running on his record of
the last four years. Aside from that, though,
this is very much, I think, a generational
mayor’s race. You have different generations, different priorities in this, and I think it has the
potential to be a really good discussion about
the city’s future. – Yeah, other thoughts on
this before we move on? – Well about the part
about generational, I think one of the things
that’s interesting to me about Sawyer’s
entry into the race is that it’s not just a
millennial kind of thing. I mean, if you look at
Sawyer and how she did in her particular district,
she has shown the ability to attract generations,
okay, and will, and I think that that
could potentially be a winning formula for her. – We’ve also got,
go ahead, Bill. – What I also see
happening in this is that four years ago,
we had a mayor’s race that was very much about
Memphians not being happy with where the city was
going, the execution of plans that were being made, too
much talk about plans. Jim Strickland didn’t invent
that, didn’t create that, but he certainly capitalized
it and rode that to victory. There is still that kind
of discontent out there. Maybe it’s at a different
level, but that kind of questioning of where the
city is and where it’s going and its long-term
direction is still present. – Yeah.
– Sure. – We also, it’ll be
election, we’ll do a couple of the election updates and
move on, but city council races and so on, you wanna
give us an quick update, Bill, on how those are
shaping up this week. – Sure, all 13 of the
Memphis city council seats will be on the ballot
this year as well, and you have a lot
of action so far in the two Super
District 9 seats held by Kemp Conrad
and Reid Hedgepeth, who are term limited and cannot
seek another term in office. Chase Carlisle with
Avison and Young is considering running for one of the Super District 9 seats. You have Cody Fletcher
who is running for one of the super
district seats. You also have announcing
this week Jeff Warren, who was formerly on the
Memphis City Schools board who is running for
Super District 9, the position that
Hedgepeth holds. And on top of that,
former city council member Myron Lowery who left the
council at the end of 2015 says he’s done with retirement, and he will be running for
city court clerk this year. – All right, one thing
that certainly will be a topic in this whole
conversation of the mayor’s race and probably city
council is incentives, and Toby, you brought
up that Mayor Harris on the county side took
some jabs at incentives. He did that when he was running, he did that in his State
of the County address. Thoughts on the
role incentives play at an interesting
time where Electrolux, we mentioned on the show
with city council last week, they are leaving a
lot of frustration that there are no
clawbacks in place for a lot of the tax, the
cash payout incentives that were given to
them, some, you know, a lot of discussion about
how the PILOT tax abatement incentives worked
or didn’t work. How does this all play out? – It’s been interesting
since Electrolux left, and then that was kind
of a failure, whatever, but then just a few
days after that, FedEx announced
they were gonna move some of their offices Downtown. They got a huge
incentive package, and I think a lotta
people were kinda reeling between the two, like you
know, this thing didn’t work, and now we’re gonna do it again. It started a kind of
a debate, I think, that has been out there
kind of rumbled about but not had such a high profile. Again, candidate
Mayor Lee Harris talked about it in
his election run, but then in his
State of the County, he said I’m not even sure
that any incentive has ever, any public incentive has
ever created a private job. And it was enough of a
discussion were last Friday, Mayor Strickland put
in his weekly update a little explanation
about what PILOTs were, how they worked, you
know, TDZs and the TIFs and that kind of alphabet
soup of incentives. And then, in The Daily Memphian, Dan Conaway wrote a
column kind of criticizing some of these incentives and
said we need to help people, and that was enough
where Kyle Veazy wrote, who’s the COO of Memphis,
City of Memphis– – Deputy COO.
– Deputy COO. – Yeah, formerly communications. – And he wrote a column
kind of in response to that that explained a
lot of this stuff that said we’re not giving
cash to these big companies, it’s kind of a different thing. But I think that it shows
that the conversation about these incentives, it’s
getting larger and larger and more steam and
higher profile. I think it’s gonna be
something we’re gonna be talking about really soon. – Yeah, it was
interesting to talk to city council last week. Kemp Conrad, who
was on the council when the Electrolux
passed, and then two, the very new members, Cheyenne
Johnson and Sherman Greer, and their line was, and I
don’t mean that cynically, but their line was
that, well, that was, Electrolux was done at a
time when the economy was, it was the Great Recession,
we were just so happy to get any jobs,
and yeah, you know, we wouldn’t have
done that again, we wouldn’t do that now,
particularly without, particularly the
cash incentives. Because that’s the
thing, Karanja, that people get so angry about
is when these big companies with a lotta money
get cash incentives to move to Memphis
or move nearby, the people on the
other side of it, Kyle Veazy, for instance,
in his guest column that he wrote for us, talked
about how the vast majority of this really
just tax abatements where the city or
county gets more, is getting very little
tax, they could potentially get this tax, but to get
the building in there, they get this level of tax. That was Eric math right there. To what extent do you hear that? Do you hear criticisms,
these are frustrations, or is it not about that? Is it about the
social issues that for instance Tami
Sawyer talks about? – Well, I think
it’s all of that, but what I hear is an
evolving conversation that’s beyond incentives. I mean, incentives sort
of fits into this larger discussion about
economic development, what is economic development. When they say that things
are booming Downtown and there’s all of
this development, who is it benefiting? I mean, some would argue
that it’s benefiting a small group of developers,
and it’s not trickling down, that trickling down
doesn’t even work and that we need
to just reexamine how we’re going about
assessing economic development, and so that’s really the
conversation that I hear more and that we need to have
that at a higher level. – And I’ll say that we
have a show next week talking about
neighborhood level efforts with blight remediation and
community revitalization, and you know, Bill,
it was interesting ’cause we pre-taped that
show that’ll air next week, when we talk about
these big projects, you know, FedEx moving
Downtown and multi-millions or Union Row, this proposed
massive redevelopment right Downtown and
the kind of, you know, what Karanja’s talking about,
so to talk to those people who work on the
neighborhood level, it’s lot by lot,
five lots together, converting those,
rehabbing those, I mean, this sort of, the
contrast is really stark, and not necessarily
in a bad way, but it’s very stark
of what it takes at the neighborhood level
in impoverished areas and abandoned areas what
it takes to rebuild them is more than just money
and tax incentives, it’s all this incredible
amount of work. – Right, and we hear so
much about this money is in this pocket, and it
can only be used for this, but also you think about the
amounts that are involved in the incentives,
and you look at, I mean, I think it’s
a natural tendency, I think it’s a healthy
tendency to look at those amounts of
incentives and think, okay, if we put that into
neighborhood revitalization, if we could, if there
weren’t the pockets that everybody talks about,
what would we be able– – Right.
– To do if that money could be allocated for that. The only, the other note
about the incentive discussion is that Electrolux
announced it was moving just ahead of FedEx Logistics moving into the
Gibson guitar factory, and the problem with
Electrolux was that the amount of incentives was pretty close
to the amount of investment– – That’s right.
– That Electrolux was going to do originally. And as it turns out,
the amount of incentives for the FedEx Logistics
move are actually greater to some degree
than the investment that FedEx would make
in the building itself. – Right.
– Now, the salaries that FedEx would pay at
the Logistics headquarters are much higher than
the Electrolux jobs, but the timing of
these two things, Electrolux and FedEx
kind of worked– – Right.
– To bring this discussion up again. – One last thing, at least
specifically on incentives, it’s interesting, I
mean, even just this week we wrote about some
very small incentives given in Whitehaven and some,
the whole effort by EDGE, which does these
incentives and the city, Mayor Strickland has
rolled out this idea of doing neighborhood-level
tax incentives, particularly in
underserved areas. And it’ll be interesting to see just from a pure
campaign point of view how much he leans on that
and then how much money really is going into
these smaller projects, not the big FedEx-level projects
or the Union Row projects but neighborhood-level
restaurants and so on. I’ll segue a little
bit to the city, as I mentioned at
the top of the show, city of Memphis and Graceland, speaking of incentives and
public-private partnerships and all that sort of
stuff, have announced a tentative deal to move forward with a lot of development
in the Graceland area, and they basically,
as I read it, and I don’t know who
wants to take this, Bill maybe start, that
have tabled the whole controversy about the arena. They have not settled the
controversy of an arena, which gets back to
the whole non-compete with the Grizzlies
and no private, or excuse me, no public
assistance of any sort for an arena over 5,000
seats which Graceland would like to do, but
they’re gonna move forward on some other things,
is that right? – Yes, they’re
gonna move forward on more space for sound stages. They’re gonna move
forward are some cabins, relocating the RV park. They’re also going
to move forward on a manufacturing
facility that will not be on the Graceland campus but
will be somewhere in Whitehaven. Joel Weinshanker,
the managing partner of Graceland Holdings
also owns the company that makes Chia Pets
and The Clapper. – This is true. – This is true.
– Wow. [laughing] – And so it is, his idea is
move the manufacturing of that and some other products
similar to that to Whitehaven and
sell the products in a number of places,
obviously around the world, but also sell it at a Made
in Memphis retail center that is part of the
Graceland complex. – We have officially
blown Toby Sells’ mind. You apparently did not
know about the Chia Pet connection to Graceland.
– Yeah! It did, it takes a lot
sometimes to blow my mind, but that’s the first time
[Eric laughing] I’ve ever heard those
things together, and that was a great
moment for me, thank you. – So in this
manufacturing plant, which on the serious
side is 1,000 jobs– – Yeah. – That are involved,
Whitehaven residents would be given first
preference on the jobs. The pay scale is supposed to be a living wage for those jobs. The city will back
Graceland’s application for new-market tax credits
and other incentives specifically for
the manufacturing. – Thoughts on this one? – Yeah, along that line, I mean, as I understand it,
there’s like a community business agreement, right?
– Yes. – And that there is
an element of money that comes from the development that is then funneled
back into the community. And there’s supposed
to be creation of, or selection, of
a non-profit group that the city council
would designate that would oversee
that element of it. And so that would be
interesting to see what the non-profit
group would be. But I do find it intriguing,
this idea about designating a pool of money
from the development that you’re gonna funnel
back into the community. – Who holds them
accountable on that? – It’s $750,000 over five years, and a non-profit would
basically administer the use of these funds. – Who would hold them, to
what Karanja just said. I mean, a lot of this thing,
a lot of this frustration is, you know, about these incentives
and these partnerships and this government
support of these companies is about that accountability,
again, back to Electrolux that there were not
clawback provisions, no provisions that if
they left before a certain period of time, you
could get the cash back. So what are, what’s
the accountability built into this Graceland deal? – There are some
specific timelines when it comes to the
manufacturing facilities that you have to have
it ready to build by a certain date,
which I think that is at the end of the year. It has to be open and producing at the job level
promised, I believe it’s by the end of 2023 for that.
– Right. – One other note of
interest, what also is not in this agreement is a
deal on the expansion of Guest House at Graceland. Guest House at Graceland,
the resort hotel, the third-largest
hotel in the city, wants to build another wing. We’ve had the mayor
on the show before saying that he does not
believe that incentives are necessary from
local government since the resort hotel
is doing so well. That is not a part
of the agreement. There’s nothing
that bars Graceland from doing that on its own, but that’s not mentioned
in the agreement. – And to be clear, they
can build their own arena without public
incentives, right? I mean, no one can stop
them from doing that. It’s all, a lot of
this is that question of public incentives, right? – And that is before the state
appeals court at this point, and both sides have agreed
that that will determine what happens in
the future on that. – On the accountability
thing, too, gets back to us
in large measure. I mean, when I say
us, I mean the press. – (Eric) Yeah.
– I know that we’ve taken a more aggressive
posture in terms of how we’re gonna go about
covering business, put more people on it. I think just generally speaking, the press in Memphis
has to drill down on this and a lot
of other issues. – Well, and one last note,
just on going to Graceland and incentives and
the whole thing, I think that’s where
people get confused. You know, you’ll hear the
mayor say we have momentum, and yet we still need to
give all these incentives to, you know, and he’ll say to keep
that momentum going, right? And then he can pick
and choose and say, well, we don’t need
to give it Graceland because they’re already
doing great, you know? And then who do we
give these things to? I think that becomes kind of
a part of the conversation that confuses people and
makes ’em question it. – Well, the thing,
too, about momentum is, I mean, momentum
suggests movement, but all movement
isn’t progress, right? And so I think,
again, it gets back to what I was
saying that our job relative to the
media is to examine these statements about momentum and be able to write
and talk about them in such a way that
people can make good decisions
come election time. – Well, you talk about
kind of a, I’m gonna take a sidenote here, you and
I had dinner recently with folks from, Bruce
VanWyngarden from the Flyer, Madeline Faber, who’s often
on the show from High Ground, Wendi Thomas from
MLK50, Mark Russell from The Commercial
Appeal, Joanna Crangle from the Memphis
Business Journal, and Jacinthia Jones
from Chalkbeat. And it was really
cool, and we didn’t, it was all off the record,
and it was just us talking, but it was actually
really interesting that there’re that
many independent, you know, there’s partnerships, but basically independent
new organizations were all there all talking
about issues like this and what, you know, how we
hold people accountable. And so it was an
interesting note, and when you talk about
the role of the press, there’s been so much talk
about the death of the press and cutbacks, and
it has been brutal, but it was a heartening
moment, I thought, you know, in terms of the
lively and active press, the independent press–
– Sure. – That does exist in Memphis. – Well, while we swore
our blood oath not to give the specifics too much,
[panelists laughing] but one of the things
that we did talk about was that we’re not
starting from scratch in terms of the conversation
and that you can look at Philadelphia
and what they’re doing with one of their sort
of collective projects, and they take a project,
and then this consortium writes and does
broadcast about it, and then they could put them
on their individual sites. And it’s very possible
that we could do that here. – Yeah.
– But I just know that we have to step up– – Yes.
– As a press. – Yeah, six minutes left here. You wanna talk about
Governor Bill Lee, the session, the legislative
session is in full force, lots of bills
being talked about. It’s that strange time
where things are floated and behind the scenes
they have no chance and things that are
actually really priorities are kinda moving
in stealth mode, but just some things that
have caught your eye, Karanja. – Sure, I think three
areas caught my eye. One was what he’s
talking about relative to criminal justice reform. You know, his position
seems to be there’s a, that we gotta do
something, first of all, but that there’s a
way to move smartly and just at the same
time, and he has some things there he’s proposing. We talked about he
has a big interest in vocational education,
and of course, he comes out of that world. But maybe the most
controversial deal is gonna be this whole education
process, the parental choice. It’s sort of his version
of how we’re gonna go about this voucher situation.
– Yeah. – And as I understand this one, it provides a parental choice. They would get, students
from certain districts would then be able
to go to independent schools of their choice. You would get this
sorta like debit card with $7,300 that you
could apply toward that. Well, that’s untested
in a lot of areas, and when you do the math
on it in terms of how many students would be eligible
the first year and $7,300, it sorta comes out more [laughs] than what he’s set aside
for the program as a whole. So there’s some questions there, but he seems bent on
trying to move forward this voucher conversation
which has failed consistently over the years.
– The bills that have been brought up. As Brian Kelsey, state
senator, who’s been on the show from Germantown has
brought one up, a very, there’s a lot of variations
on these voucher programs and different names for them,
so it will be interesting. I mean, they’ve got
their, the Republicans have a big majority, Bill
Lee’s making a priority of it, but it’s just
never gotten there, and it’ll be curious if
even on the pilot level if they can pull that off. We have a couple minutes left. There is a cannabis discussion, as always, legislation, I think, discussion at the state level.
– Right. – Also at the city
council level, Toby Sells. – There’s a couple bills up, I think sponsored, both
of ’em are sponsored by Senator Sara
Kyle from Memphis. One would decriminalize
possession of certain amounts of marijuana. I think it’s under
an ounce or something around in there,
I can’t remember. The other one would
drop any kind of arrest or anything like that
from people that have medical marijuana,
say, in Arkansas. If you’re found
with it in Memphis, then they wouldn’t
prosecute you. The Memphis City
Council voted last week. It was a split decision, but
they voted in a resolution to support any kind of cannabis
legislation in Nashville. It goes some pushback,
understandably. I know the director,
Michael Rallings, doesn’t like any kind of medical or any kind of
marijuana legislation, so it’ll be an
interesting discussion as it goes on to see if
this really legs this year. – And you talked about
criminal justice. I mean, for a lotta people,
we make a bunch a jokes, and I’m refraining from
making jokes about this, I might later, but it
is, for a lotta people, this decriminalization of
small amounts of marijuana and even just legalization,
it is a criminal justice issue because that is the
first point of entry for so many people
with small amounts of marijuana entering the
criminal justice system. So there’s a lot more
to it than just letting people smoke pot.
– Right. Right, and then there’s
also just the whole issue of the people that
we put in jail that’s beyond the whole
sort of cannabis deal, and so people argue that
we’re putting people in jail that really
don’t need to be there and that there’s
some other options for being able to handle
their transgressions, and I think that discussion
needs to be looked at in depth. – With just a minute left, Bill, I think it was your story about, but we did a story
about this conversation about affordable housing
going into Uptown, Uptown just north of Downtown. There’s already some
subsidized, what I would call subsidized housing,
some affordable housing. There was a proposal
that went to council for another project
to go in there, and Berlin Boyd, former chair
who represents that district spoke passionately and adamantly against allowing more
because of problems that came from the affordable
housing that’s there. – And the council
actually voted down this development by
Elmington Capital, which is a group
out of Nashville, and the story actually
was by Tom Bailey. – That’s right, yeah.
– But the rents here would’ve started at
about $700 a month. The average rents in Downtown
on a fair-market basis are about $900
to $1,000 a month, and Boyd put the weight
of being that district councilman behind it.
– Yeah. – And the project went down,
and it was an interesting moment in the
development of Uptown. – It really was an
interesting debate, a very good story
that was handled by, as you said, Tom Bailey. We’ve run out of time. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for joining us,
and join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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