Archive for the ‘Memphis’ Category

Jeremy Jacobs: Hall of Famer

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

This is the third in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Southland Park Gaming and Racing, formerly known as Southland Greyhound Park, has been part of the Arkansas sports scene since 1956 when it became Arkansas’ only greyhound racetrack.

Originally owned by the Upton family and others, Southland has been owned for decades by the Delaware North Companies. The chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North, Jeremy M. Jacobs, is best known nationally for his role as chairman of the board of governors of the National Hockey League. Jacobs, though, long has been an important part of the Arkansas sports scene.

The Jacobs family was the original concession operator when Southland opened. West Memphis had a tradition of greyhound racing. The Riverside Kennel Club once had been at the Arkansas end of the Mississippi River bridge.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Jacobs will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Jacobs was born in January 1940 at Buffalo, N.Y. When he was just 16, Southland expanded its business hundreds of miles to the southwest in Arkansas. The dog track at West Memphis was the only legal gambling operation in the Mid-South and drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri.

When Delaware North bought the track outright in the early 1970s, it was one of the top dog racing operations in the country.

“Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southalnd.

“All that changed in 1992. To spur their local economy, residents of nearby Tunica County in Mississippi approved ‘riverboat’ gambling. They welcomed gaming establishments in the early 1990s as long as the casinos could show that they were at least in part physically housed on the Mississippi River. Large, nationally known resort casinos mushroomed around Tunica until it became the third-largest gambling venue in the country after Las Vegas and Atlantic City, drawing gamblers away from Southland.

“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500. Its annual revenues dropped from more than $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”

In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature approved a bill allowing Southland and Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs to install video games known as “games of skill” as long as local voters approved. Local approval was granted in both Crittenden County and Garland County.

Under Jacobs’ leadership, Delaware North began a huge renovation effort at Southland costing more than $40 million. A gaming room, an events center, a lounge with live music, a buffet and other restaurants were added. Since then there have been additional expansions.

Delaware North’s reach extends around the globe. The company is a global leader in the hospitality and food service industries with more than 55,000 employees serving more than 500 million customers each year. Annual revenues exceed $2 billion. The company owns Boston’s TD Garden, which is recognized as one of the country’s finest entertainment venues.

Delaware North traces its beginning to 1915 in Buffalo, where its headquarters remain. That was the year that brothers Marvin, Charles and Louis Jacobs established a popcorn and peanut vending business. They worked in theaters during the fall, winter and spring and then turned their attention to ballparks during the hot summer months.

Jeremy Jacobs is the son of Louis Jacobs.

Jeremy Jacobs’ three sons — Jerry Jr., Lou and Charlie — now hold executive positions with the company.

By 1926, the family-owned company had contracts with minor league ballparks in Buffalo and Syracuse. Four years later, it moved into the major leagues when an agreement was signed to handle the food service for the Detroit Tigers.

In 1939, the Jacobs brothers expanded into the racing business with the purchase of a thoroughbred track. By 1941, Delaware North also had moved into the transportation arena following a contract to provide food service at Washington National Airport.

Following his father’s death in 1968, Jacobs took over the company at age 28. Major developments under his leadership include:

– The 1975 acquisition of the Boston Garden along with Jacobs’ purchase of the Boston Bruins, one of the six original NHL franchises

– The 1987 acquisition of Sky Chefs to increase Delaware North’s airport business

– The 1993 awarding of a contract to provide visitor services at Yosemite National Park, moving the company into the parks and resorts business

– A 1995 contract to run the visitors’ complex at the Kennedy Space Center

– A move into the hotel business in early 2002 with the purchase of resorts at the entrance to Yosemite and in British Columbia

– The 2006 entry into the European market with a contract at Wembley Stadium in London

Jacobs’ company now has:

– Contracts at more than 50 professional sports venues for teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Bears

– More than 10,000 video gaming machines at tracks across the country

– Contracts at tourist attractions ranging from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls

– Contracts with airports from Los Angeles to Detroit to Buffalo

Jacobs ranks 151st on the Forbes 400 with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion. His Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 following a 39-year drought.

Jacobs also was a pioneer in the regional television sports industry, transforming NESN into a model for regional sports networks nationwide.

Southland has donated millions of dollars to charity in Arkansas through the years. Recent donations include $1 million to Mid-South Community College at West Memphis for the Southland Greyhound Science Center, $1 million to Mid-South for its hospitality program and kitchen incubator project and $250,000 to Mid-South to start an athletic program.

Jacobs also has been a tireless advocate for tourism in the United States. He served four consecutive terms on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. The board, appointed by the U.S. commerce secretary, created a national tourism strategy that has been championed by President Obama.

Jacobs received widespread national publicity during this season’s NHL lockout. At a news conference held when the lockout ended, he said: “I’m coming off winning a Stanley Cup. I’ve got a sold-out building. I have a financially sound business — no debt. I’ve owned the team for 37 years. I’m the last guy who wants to shut this down. … Unfortunately, I play in a league with 30 teams, and when I step back and look at what’s going on with the broadest sense of the league, I’ve got to play a role that is constructive.”

Jacobs has been playing constructive roles for decades now, including on the Arkansas sports scene. He’s a natural for induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

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The rampage of the mighty Mississippi

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Delta Council in Mississippi is a venerable (and powerful) institution.

Wealthy Delta planters organized the group in 1935 with a focus on three areas — agriculture, flood control and transportation.

During the years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I attended the annual meeting of the Delta Council each spring on the campus of Delta State University at Cleveland, Miss.

If you want to see a lot of people wearing seersucker suits, I direct you to two places — the downstairs dining room of Galatoire’s in New Orleans on a summer Friday and the annual Delta Council meeting in Cleveland.

Jim Barksdale, the Mississippi-born businessman who rose to the top of Netscape prior to its merger with AOL, was scheduled to speak Friday at the Delta Council annual meeting.

At the 1947 Delta Council meeting, Dean Acheson unveiled the outline for the Marshall Plan.

In 1952, William Faulkner spoke.

Other speakers through the years have included David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Werner von Braun.

Changing the speaker for the annual meeting at the last minute isn’t something the tradition-bound Delta Council does lightly.

But that’s just what happened last week for the 76th annual meeting. The day still ended, as it always does, with a catfish fry outside, but Barksdale was asked to come back another year. That’s so a flood update could be given by officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rare change in plans is a testament to the historic nature of the Great Flood of 2011.

The Delta Council president, Cass Pennington, said: “At a time when so many of our citizens and businesses are facing the greatest flood threat of their lifetime and their property and safety are compromised, it is imperative that we allow all members of the public to hear a thorough briefing from the Corps of Engineers and the emergency management agencies.”

Do you need another example of just how massive this flood is?

Consider this fact: Later this week, the Corps likely will open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for the first time since 1973, diverting huge amounts of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza Spillway is north of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Corps began opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway just north of New Orleans for the first time in three years.

Louisiana officials are even planning to move inmates from the famous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Here’s how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put it today: “If you got wet in 1973, you’ll get wet this time. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you’ll probably get wet this time.”

The governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist people from Vidalia south to the mouth of the Atchafalaya near Morgan City.

Once the floodway is opened, large parts of Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Iberville, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes will be covered with water. Five to even 25 feet of water will rush into some areas.

This flood leaves the Corps with little choice. If the spillway isn’t opened, the river could top the floodwalls that protect New Orleans and immense pressure could cause levees to break, resulting in a repeat of the floods we saw following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I spent part of the weekend reading a lengthy (almost 50,000 words) piece that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker back in February 1987.

That story — which led to a 1989 McPhee book titled “The Control of Nature” — chronicled the Corps’ efforts to keep the Atchafalaya from capturing the flow of the Mississippi.

“By the 1950s, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it,” McPhee wrote. “By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was 145 miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

“For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississsippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah.”

The Corps’ efforts to prevent this from happening are centered at Old River near Simmesport. The Corps dammed Old River back in 1963 to limit the flow of water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya.

“The Corps would have to build something that could give the Atchafalaya a portion of the Mississippi and at the same time prevent it from taking all,” McPhee wrote. “In effect, the Corps would have to build a Fort Laramie: a place where the natives could buy flour and firearms but where the gates could be closed if they attacked.”

The Atchafalaya had already captured the Red River, which had once flowed into the Mississippi, in the 1940s.

Would the Big Muddy be next?

There remain those who believe the day will come when despite all of the federal government’s efforts, the Mississippi will have its way during a flood such as this one and change course.

Bonnet Carre (pronounced Bonny Carey in south Louisiana) was the first of the major spillways constructed after the Great Flood of 1927. It was completed in 1931 and designed to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain.

What’s known as the Old River Control Structure upstream is constantly in operation to allow 30 percent of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya.

The Morganza Spillway, completed in 1954, extends for 20 miles  and is designed to be used far less frequently than the Bonnet Carre. The Morganza is for extreme emergencies. And this appears to be an extreme emergency.

Here’s how the news release put out by the Corps on Friday night stated it: “As floodwaters progress through the Morganza Floodway to the Gulf of Mexico, the height of the water could reach between 5 and upwards of 25 feet above ground elevation, causing widespread flooding and inundation.”

The head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said residents should expect to see bears, deer, wild hogs and other wildlife fleeing the dense Atchafalaya swamps.

“It’s like hurricane season,” Jindal said. “You hope for the best, prepare for the worst. We haven’t seen flooding like this in quite awhile. The water will be higher and the duration will be longer.”

John Barry, the author of ”Rising Tide,” an account of the Great Flood of 1927, is now the vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

In a piece last month for The Wall Street Journal, Barry wrote: “If recent events in Japan were not enough, the news of the past week has reminded us that nature can make our efforts to control it seem like nothing more than hubris. A historic swath of tornadoes has ripped across the South, and now a potentially major Mississippi River flood is gathering. The tornadoes have done their damage already. The rising waters of the Mississippi are about to test human judgment and engineering anew.”

Barry wrote his essay just before the Corps chose to blow up a levee at Birds Point, Mo., and flood much of the Bootheel in order to protect residents on the other side of the river at Cairo, Ill.

Barry called plans to dynamite the levee “one small piece of a carefully thought-out and engineered plan to control the immense forces of the Mississippi. The river drains 31 states and stretches from Olean, N.Y., to the Rockies, from North Carolina to Taos, N.M.”

This water from much of the nation eventually finds its way to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“A great flood can easily fill the entire 35,000-square-mile area with water,” Barry wrote. ”The last time the Mississippi did so was in 1927. … The problem of protecting against river floods is complex. It requires a broad view of the river system as a whole, a narrow focus on local protection and constant maintenance and monitoring down to almost infinitesimal detail.

“Nature is perfect; engineers are not. As recent experience in Japan demonstrates, if humans make a mistake against nature, nature will find and exploit it.”

It’s evident that the Mississippi desperately wants a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico — the Atchafalaya.

Will the works of man keep the Old River Control Structure in place and thus keep the river flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans?

A major test lies ahead.

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Dinner with Brett and George

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I spent a lot of time driving around the Arkansas Delta, the Mississippi Delta, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee.

Much of that time in the car was spent listening to WHBQ-AM, 560, in Memphis, a famous old radio station that has had an all-sports format for a number of years.

In the 1950s, though, WHBQ was famous for its music. It was owned by RKO General, and one of its disc jockeys was Dewey Phillips, who had a show each night known as “Red, Hot and Blue.” In 1954, Phillips played a recording by a young man named Elvis Presley. It was the first Elvis song ever played on the radio.

Phillips, who often went by Daddy-O, was a Tennessee native who began working at WHBQ in 1949 when he was just 23. He became legendary for his frantic delivery and his propensity for showcasing the music of both black and white artists.

Memphis was booming in those days, and musicians flocked there from rural towns in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Phillips introduced many of them to the listening audience. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up on his show, playing not only rhythm and blues but also country music and even jazz.

The station let Phillips go in late 1958 when it adopted a Top 40 format. He died in 1968 at the age of just 42 following years of alcohol and drug abuse.

WHBQ was a bit of a farm club for the bigger RKO stations. DJs such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale would pass through on the way to the company’s stations in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Boston.

RKO sold WHBQ to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988.

During those years I spent driving through the flat Delta cotton fields and listening to the sports talk on WHBQ, I felt as if I knew all of the station’s on-air personalities.

Fortunately, I actually do know some of them. Those of you who listen to my Sunday morning appearances with Bill Vickery on KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock know that a frequent guest on Bill’s show is Arkansan Brett “Stats” Norsworthy.

Brett began working on the air in Memphis with George Lapides in 1992 and has become a Mid-South radio fixture during the past two decades. He’s making the trip to Little Rock on Saturday to watch UALR’s 3 p.m. basketball game against Middle Tennessee State. We’ll then have an early dinner at Doe’s.

It will be great fun since Brett and I share the same interests — sports, politics, Southern culture and good food.

What could be better than eating tamales followed by a steak at Doe’s, discussing politics and maybe even telling some old Paul “Bear” Bryant stories?

That’s another thing we have in common: Coach Bryant was a childhood hero for both of us.

Even though he lives in Forrest City, Brett helps host the pregame and postgame shows on the Ole Miss football radio network. Nobody knows Southeastern Conference football better. If you’re headed east, you can hear him each Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on 560 AM.

I mentioned George Lapides, who’s indeed a Mid-South legend. Back in the fall, my friend Keith Ingram of West Memphis invited George and me to speak to a meeting of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce. George talked about sports. I talked about politics.

George could just as easily have talked about politics. He’s highly opinionated, well read, articulate and funny. We shared a delighful dinner afterward, which leads me to perhaps my most important point — George loves to eat out and knows the best restaurants across the South and in other major U.S. cities.

We each choose Galatoire’s in New Orleans as our favorite restaurant in the country.

Go to the website www.georgelapides.com. Ignore the fact that parts of the site haven’t been updated in years. Click on “Places To Eat” and enjoy yourself. You can find George’s opinion on restaurants in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Fayetteville, Houston, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Louisville, Mobile, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City (which George describes as a terrible restaurant city), Orlando, Oxford (the one in Mississippi, of course), Phoenix-Scottsdale, St. Louis (George shares my love for eating Italian food on The Hill), San Antonio, Shreveport and Tuscaloosa

The best part of listening to George from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. on WHBQ is hearing him do live ads for various Memphis restaurants. I’m always hungry when I turn off the radio.

Be advised that a few of the restaurants listed on the website are no longer in business.

In his Fayetteville listing, George says his favorite is Herman’s Ribhouse. When it comes to Fayetteville itself, I agree with him. Give me a single rib for an appetizer, a gear salad and a New York strip with hashbrowns at Herman’s. But as far as northwest Arkansas as a region, I’ll usually make the trip to Venesian Inn in Tontitown for fried chicken and spaghetti or to the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers for fried chicken.

When the Memphis Tigers came to North Little Rock to play in the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament, George became a fan of Capeo in downtown Argenta. We agree on that. He called it a “don’t-miss place.”

On the Little Rock side of the river, George likes Ferneau, Brave New Restaurant and Ashley’s.

Here’s how the WHBQ website describes him: “When you think Memphis and sports, you instantly think of George Lapides. George is a native Memphian, his parents were Memphians, their parents were Memphians and his great-grandparents were raised in the Mid-South. In fact, George was part of the first-ever graduating class at White Station High School. George attended the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis. There aren’t too many people who have the firsthand knowledge of the history of this area that George does.

“George has spent nearly 50 years in the sports business , whether as sports editor of the Memphis Press Scimitar or sports director at WREG-TV. … He is in his 40th consecutive year of doing sports talk on radio. It’s the longest-running sports talk show in the country and, according to some, the second longest-running radio show of any kind.”

Though the Press Scimitar is long gone, I still cherish my copy of the afternoon newspaper that came out the day of Bear Bryant’s final game as head coach at Alabama in the 1982 Liberty Bowl. George’s column ran on the front page that day.

In 2006, George donated his sports memorabilia collection to the University of Memphis

“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do something to which I first aspired when I was in the fifth grade at Vollentine School — that is, work in journalism,” George said at the time.

Here’s a sample of the kind of history George remembers. He was asked about his memories of Russwood Park on Madison Avenue in Memphis, which was destroyed by fire in 1960. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial had all played there at one time or another.

“It smelled,” George told The Commericial Appeal last year. “The minute you walked into the guts of the entry plaza, you could smell the hog dogs and the popcorn. I have two strong memories, and that’s one of them.

“The other memory is the unbelievable noise because everything was wood and when people started clapping for a rally, they also stomped their feet on the wood, and it was just unbelievably loud when they did that. They’d do this rhythmic clapping and stomp their feet.”

Good memories. Good stories. Brett and George — two Memphis radio personalities who make fine dining companions.

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Vision (or lack thereof) for Little Rock

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

I’m honored to have been invited to Chenal Country Club in Little Rock for Friday night’s 30th anniversary celebration of the Arkansas Preservation Awards. The event, presented by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, should be a nice one as legendary philanthropist and preservationist Theodosia Murphy Nolan receives the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement.

A number of other awards will be presented. I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that I had been chosen for the Outstanding Preservation Reporting in the Media Award for my efforts to save Ray Winder Field.

I would be less than honest, though, if I didn’t tell you I have mixed feelings.

I appreciate having the efforts of those of us who have worked to save Ray Winder recognized. But I feel I’m being honored for an initiative that failed. And that’s sad.

To be clear, no one at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has come right out and said there’s no way for part of the park to be saved. On the other hand, I certainly haven’t been given any encouragement. I’ve not found anyone in a position of influence at UAMS who shares my vision.

I’ve written about this subject before, and I won’t go on at length here. To sum up my feelings: UAMS is missing out on a golden opportunity to add something the campus badly needs – green space. Wrap a building around the current field from first base to third base. In left field (if indeed UAMS is successful in purchasing the Ricks Armory property), build up rather than out with that tall building looking down on the diamond.

Can you imagine the uniqueness of looking out of offices and clinics onto a baseball field — one that’s actually used for amateur games. When not being utilized for baseball, UAMS employees could take advantage of a walking trail that would be built inside the fence. The field itself could be used for various employee wellness programs. Think about the possibilities.

UAMS is supposed to be all about promoting good health, right?

I suspect all that will result for now is an ugly parking lot until UAMS can decide what else to do with the property. A great opportunity — one that could draw national media attention and win architectural awards — will have been wasted.

But we’re used to that in Little Rock, aren’t we?

Far too often, we settle for less than the best because of a lack of vision. We talk a good game about being the next great Southern city, but time after time our leaders fall short of the mark, taking the easy way out rather than tackling projects that require imagination, patience and perserverance.

That’s just what Little Rock city government did when it came to Ray Winder. A private foundation had been formed to help the city operate the historic facility for the residents of a place that’s horribly lacking in sports facilities for its youth. But City Hall took the easy way out — sell it to UAMS, take the money and run. Operating a ballpark would have actually taken some work, you see.

I fear we’re facing the same situation with a much newer facility, the 15-year-old Aerospace Education Center. It recently was announced that the nonprofit Arkansas Aviation Historical Society was closing the center because it could no longer afford large annual deficits.

To my knowledge, no one has yet stepped forward to say: “This is an important part of the city’s cultural fabric, and we’ve come up with a creative way to save it.”

As is the case with Ray Winder, that would take some hard work.

Last week, I wrote a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which I suggested that the embattled Little Rock Airport Commission use the Aerospace Education Center to turn the tide of public opinion and better position Little Rock National Airport in the public’s mind as an economic engine for our state.

Here are four steps the commission should take:

1. Take over the Aerospace Education Center. Allow the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society to sell its collection to pay off debts. Replace the old exhibits with exhibits that tell the story of the work being done adjacent to the airport by Hawker Beechcraft Corp. and Dassault Falcon Jet Corp. Despite layoffs during the Great Recession, these two companies still employ almost 3,000 people in Little Rock. Erect additional exhibits on the companies that operate in the nearby Little Rock Port Industrial Park.

2. Enter into agreements with Hawker Beechcraft, Dassault Falcon, the industries at the port and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to help operate the center in exchange for publicizing the work private companies do. Continue to show films in the IMAX theater and operate the domed Episphere planetarium as a way to draw visitors, but focus the exhibits on the economic engine that the airport, the port and the businesses that operate there have become.

3. Work with the Little Rock School District, the Pulaski County Special School District, the North Little Rock School District, Pulaski Tech and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to ensure a steady stream of people who will come to the facility to learn about the jobs available in the area.

4. Use the center as a marketing tool to attract new businesses. Tell them, “If you put your facility near the airport, we’ll publicize you each day inside the Aerospace Education Center.”

As I noted in the newspaper column, Memphis has done a far better job than Little Rock in marketing its airport as an economic development powerhouse, not just as a place to catch a plane. Memphis now describes itself as America’s Aerotropolis.

“All of this emerged in a haphazard fashion,” Arnold Perl, the chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, told the Memphis Business Journal last year. “We’ve had these different modes, but they’ve been silos. They haven’t been connected. … To me, aerotropolis is a compelling world brand. It visualizes the greater Memphis region in the 21st century.”

Andy Ashby of the Memphis Business Journal wrote last year: “In 2009, the Greater Memphis Chamber started changing marketing efforts from America’s Distribution Center to America’s Aerotropolis. In fact, it has trademarked the logo and phrase Memphis: America’s Aerotropolis. … Several cities worldwide have seized on the aerotropolis concept for their economic identity. In March, economic development officials from France, including some from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, came to Memphis for a three-day tour of the area’s four transportation modes.”

In addition to having the busiest cargo airport in the world, Memphis boasts five Class I railroads, the fourth-largest inland port in the nation and the third-busiest trucking corridor in the country.

While Little Rock is no Memphis in that regard (remember, we let Fred Smith and FedEx get away), we are the place where Interstate 40 and Interstate 30 meet, we’re on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and we’re well-served by Union Pacific. There are some similar distribution advantages.

Here’s how the head of the Memphis Chamber, John Moore, put it: “People who come to visit the community have to have a first impression and last impression of our community. Those are important to the chamber because we need positive impressions in order to attract attention to our community, to get people to come and recognize our brand and see what we can do for their business.”

What kind of impression will we be making in Little Rock if we allow the Aerospace Education Center to sit empty?

What if we were to use it as the platform to promote the things being accomplished in that part of the state’s largest city?

Does anyone on the Little Rock Airport Commission, which has been bashed so relentlessly in recent weeks, share the vision?

Anyone?

Anyone?

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The most Southern city

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Errol Laborde is among my favorite New Orleans writers.

I have long subscribed to both New Orleans and Louisiana Life and enjoy reading Laborde’s work  in those magazines (he edits both). I’m also signed up to get his columns e-mailed to me each week (www.myneworleans.com).

Last week, Laborde made some interesting points about south Louisiana.

He notes that Time was planning a special issue about the South several years ago and invited readers across the region to send in brief essays about what the South means.

Laborde says he saw it as an opportunity to boost his writing career until “I sat and thought about the proposition. The South, I realized, is just not something I relate to. That was not meant to be a putdown but just an acknowledgment that New Orleans is a cultural experience in its own. I feel more New Orleanian than I do Southern. I could write volumes about what New Orleans means to me — but the South, to me, is a distant place.”

As an example, Laborde addresses kudzu and sweet tea.

“Throughout the woods in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the vine covers fallen trees, abandoned Chevys and anything else that did not move fast enough to get out of the way,” he writes. “Yet in Louisiana, kudzu hardly grows at all, as though there is an invisible shield along the Pearl River stopping its spreading. Nature concedes that Louisiana is a place apart.

“Why kudzu stops at the border is a mystery — another mystery is sweet tea. Travel east of New Orleans and order iced tea at a restaurant, and the waiter will invariably ask if you want the tea sweetened or unsweetened. Real Southerners, I suspect, always get their tea presweetened without flinching. Louisianians traveling through the South, however, are more likely to ask for unsweetened, just because that’s what they are used to, as they reach for the pink or blue packets next to the real sugar.”

Though Laborde refers to Louisiana as a whole, I think he’s really talking about south Louisiana, which indeed is a world apart.

North Louisiana is just like southwest Arkansas, where I grew up. In fact, I always figured that southwest Arkansas, east Texas and northwest Louisiana should be its own state with the capital at Shreveport or Texarkana.

Each state provides stark contrasts.

East Texas towns such as Tyler and Longview are without a doubt Southern (remember that Lady Bird Johnson Southern accent? She was from east Texas). But the South ends somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth as you head west.

We’ve debated where the South ends in Arkansas on this blog. Little Rock is without a doubt a Southern city. Fayetteville maintains a few Southern tendencies. But Rogers and Bentonville are the Midwest.

In Louisiana, I used to think about how things changed when I would cross the O.K. Allen Bridge over the Red River between Pineville and Alexandria. To the north were pine forests. To the south were fields of sugar cane and cotton. To the north were rolling hills and red clay. To the south were cypress swamps and rich, black soil. To the north were lots of Baptists. To the south were lots of Catholics. To the north were barbecue and fried catfish. To the south were gumbo and boiled shrimp. To the north it was, yes, sweet tea. To the south it was Dixie and Jax.

Laborde says a prominent Southern writer once told him that the sweet tea areas of the country were those areas filled with Baptists.

“He explained that since Baptists do not drink liquor, they have more of a fondness for sweetened drinks,” Laborde writes. “There was a sense of discovery at the dinner table as it was noted that the presweetened tea states tend to have larger Baptist populations than does Louisiana, where the Catholic culture sees wine as a sacrament, not a sin. In Louisiana it is perfectly normal to sell bourbon at a drugstore; in Mississippi it is a crime. The South is identified with mint juleps sipped on a veranda or at the racetrack, but for poor folks after those sweltering Southern days of working the red dirt soil, a chilled sweetened tea was their champagne.”

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world. But Southern port cities like New Orleans are a world apart from the inland South. I also love Savannah and Charleston. All of those cities exhibit some Caribbean and even Mediterranean characteristics. Like I said, port cities are different.

So let’s put them in their own category.

And then let’s decide what’s the most Southern inland city of any size.

Little Rock? Birmingham? Jackson? Nashville? Montgomery? Lexington? Columbia? Richmond?

All are Southern.

Atlanta?

No way.

Remember the words of the late, great Lewis Grizzard, who said Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent.

My vote goes to Memphis.

Despite the crime, the history of crooked politicians and the pothole-filled streets, you have to love Memphis if you love the South.

Another of my favorite writers is Greenville, Miss., native Julia Reed. She recently published a piece at www.wowowow.com about her frequent trips to Memphis as a child.

“The Delta probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse,” Reed writes. “Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north toward home, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.

“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’

“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”

Wasn’t it the late Willie Morris who said the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans?

If I can’t be eating dinner at Arnaud’s, Antoine’s or Tujague’s in New Orleans, then just place me in the Peabody lobby at Memphis.

Reed describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”

So my vote for the most Southern city goes to Memphis.

How do you vote and why?

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The Great Delta Bookstore Tour

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I’ve led my own version of the Great Delta Barbecue Tour several times. You can never get enough barbecue, after all.

I’ve also led my version of the Great Delta Tamale Tour (I hope you saw the feature on AETN regarding that memorable trip with Kane Webb and Bill Vickery).

Next, I want to do the Great Delta Bookstore Tour.

There’s something special about independent bookstores. And we’re blessed with some fine ones in the Delta. Along the way, we can also eat barbecue and tamales. A man has to eat while visiting all of these bookstores, right?

Here are our stops:

1. We’ll start in Blytheville at perhaps my favorite bookstore of all, Mary Gay Shipley’s That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay opened her store in 1976 in historic downtown Blytheville. There are 2,400 square feet of space and about 25,000 titles in stock.

As her website points out, “Browse while sipping a cup of coffee. You can relax in a rocking chair next to a wood stove, engage in conversation about the book you’ve just read or enjoy a spontaneous reading of the new favorite children’s book of the day.”

Sounds like heaven.

2. We head south from Blytheville and cross the Mississippi River to Memphis. The destination is Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. Its oldest book in stock is from 1866: Two volumes written by Bayard Taylor titled “Northern Travel: Summer and Winter Pictures.”

Cheryl Mesler and her husband, author Corey Mesler, own Burke’s. They are only the fourth family to have owned the store in its 135 years of existence. Bill Burke was the third and final member of the Burke family to own the store. Diana Crump (got to have a Crump in there somewhere when you write about Memphis) owned the store from 1978-84. Harriette Beeson owned it from 1984-2000.

“Independent bookselling is never an easy thing to do, but we love it,” Cheryl recently told the Memphis Flyer.

The Flyer goes on to report, “The Meslers met in the store when both were staff members in the late ’80s and bought it in 2000. Though Burke’s has carried a variety of products over the years — toys, newspapers and literary journals and magazines — the Meslers have expanded what they feel is at the core of the business: buying and selling used books. … Their devotion to old books has served them well, as has the store’s most recent move, from a building on Poplar at Evergreen.”

The move to the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood gave them foot traffic again. People spend hours browsing there.

“Though they do stock some new books and magazines, it’s the couple’s attention to customer service that is a focal point,” the Flyer reports. “Burke’s carries textbooks for three local private schools, devotes an entire section to Southern writers and buys all their used books from people in the community.”

“I have no fear that the printed word is going to go out,” Cheryl says. “My husband says it’s the perfect little invention. You can’t improve on that.”

3. Our next stop is Square Books in Oxford. OK, OK, I realize that Oxford isn’t in the Delta. It’s in the north Mississippi hill country on the edge of the Delta. But it’s close enough for our purposes. The town square in Oxford is quite simply one of the best places in the South to spend the day.

Square Books was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth, who had worked for two years at the Savile Bookshop in Washington, D.C., before returning to Richard’s hometown.

Here’s part of the history as published on the Square Books website: “While the Square Books customer base was centered in the Oxford and university community, the selection and display of books was focused upon literature about Mississippi and the South. Customers were pleased to find such books as a hardover edition of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ or Shelby Foote’s ‘Civil War,’ books that at the time were not commonly available in a retail setting anywhere. Square Books also hosted book signings and readings as soon as the store opened. …

“Around the same time Square Books opened, Bill Ferris came to Oxford as the first director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, immediately creating great enthusiasm for academic and cultural interest in the South and Oxford. Ferris was a great friend of Square Books and was key in bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley and Alice Walker to the store for readings and book signings.

“Willie Morris became writer in residence at the university in 1980 and also was a great friend to the bookstore who brought to town William Styron. … In 1981, Barry Hannah moved to town, a writer who was to literary fiction as Morris was to literary journalism. Hannah had an enormous effect on his students — Donna Tartt among them in those early days — and many writers came to town to visit Hannah and thus Square Books.”

The store expanded to its current location, the former Blaylock Drug Store, in 1986.

4. Returning to the real Delta, the next stop is Turnrow Book Co. on wonderful Howard Street in downtown Greenwood. You should spend the night just down the block at the Alluvian Hotel, visit the Viking store across the street and make an appointment at Viking’s spa while you are there. There also are antique stores and furniture stores on Howard Street. Head to Lusco’s for dinner and let them pull the curtain on your booth.

5. Head next over to Greenville and McCormick Book Inn. I discussed this delightful store in a previous post that I hope you’ll read if you have not already done so. While you’re in the store, make sure and ask Mr. McCormick what he thinks of John Barry’s “Rising Tide.”

6. Go south on U.S. Highway 61 to Vicksburg and spend some time at Lorelei Books on Washington Street in the historic downtown district. Stay at one of the bed-and-breakfast inns in Vicksburg to end your tour — Anchuca or Duff Green perhaps.

I’ll close with something that’s posted on the Lorelei Books website. It’s part of what novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote about independent bookstores:

“A good independent bookstore always puts good books and good customers ahead of the bottom line. Interestingly, by doing so, passionately and knowledgeably, many (though, sadly, not all) independent bookstores have managed to stay in business in this economically depressed era when even chain stores are suffering.

“Of course, one of the reasons that chain bookstores are having their own difficulties is that many of them do not place a top priority on books and customers. In fairness, though, I have to say that, from time to time, in chain stores, I meet very independent booksellers who love books and respect customers and like to match them up.

“Good independent bookstores — like Tolstoy’s families — are all different. But they are very happy places. When I walk into one, the colorful jackets of books that are my old friends or may become new friends excite me the way walking out of the dim concourse of a major league baseball stadium onto the bright, geometrical familiarity of the diamond below excites me.

“Good independent bookstores are always welcoming. Customers are invited to browse. Booksellers make time to talk about — books! Go into any university English department at the end of the day. All you hear is people grousing about poor students, parking restrictions, pay freezes. Booksellers should be so lucky. Still, they’re as enthusiastic about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and the new Raymond Carver collection at the end of the day as at 10 a.m. They just plain love books.”

At all of the above stops, you’ll find people who indeed love books.

These are six excellent independent bookstores in six historic, interesting towns.

Happy travels and happy reading.

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A barbecued bologna sandwich

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

It was time for lunch, we were in downtown Memphis and I was hungry for some barbecue.

It dawned on me that my wife and two sons had never had the pleasure of eating at Cozy Corner, the little place at 745 N. Parkway, just off Interstate 40 near the empty Pyramid (Bass Pro, where are you?).

Cozy Corner is different.

Yes, you can get pulled pork.

Yes, you can get beef brisket.

But after the ribs (which are excellent, by the way), the top-selling items are the smoked Cornish game hens, the bologna and the chicken wings.

I considered ordering the Cornish game hen dinner (the most expensive dinner on the menu at $11.75). But I decided I wasn’t quite that hungry. A bologna sandwich was calling my name for just $3.75. And I could get a side order of the restaurant’s barbecued spaghetti for $1.25.

Melissa tried the sliced pork sandwich for $4.95. Evan had the sliced beef sandwich for $5.15. And Austin went for the wing dinner for $7.95.

Everyone left happy.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that the weekend section of Friday’s Commercial Appeal had included a short feature on Cozy Corner.

“When I think of Cozy Corner, I think of Cornish game hen,” Michael Donahue wrote. “This is the only barbecue restaurant — or anywhere else for that matter — I know of that serves them.”

Owner Desiree Robinson and her late husband, Raymond Robinson, began eating Cornish game hens at a Denver restaurant when they lived in Colorado. They later opened their own restaurant, known as Ray’s BBQ, in Denver.

They bought Cozy Corner in Memphis in August 1977, the month Elivis died. They kept the name.

“They also kept the old place’s phone number and furniture,” Donahue wrote. “Her husband didn’t like to spend money. ‘He would hold a nickel until the eagle faded off.’ Desiree doesn’t know what the old Cozy Corner was.”

Suffice it to say that it was a “joint.”

“The last time I was in there, I saw a woman sitting up on the counter shooting dice,” a customer told Desiree.

There was, however, a Chicago-style barbecue pit, which is still the one that’s used. A Chicago-style pit places the charcoal further away from the grill than a conventional pit.

Asked by the reporter why the Cornish hens are so popular, Desiree answered, “First of all, it’s so pretty. Look at that. Isn’t that cute?”

I’ve had the game hens before. And I’ll likely have them again. But I’ve always liked bologna, and the smoked bologna was what I wanted Saturday.

I was reminded how much I miss the old Coy Po’ Boy Supper, once an annual event during the heat of August in which the late Charles “Chicken” Jeans of England (a former Lonoke County road supervisor) would serve his version of barbecued bologna. When “Chicken” died, the Po’ Boy Supper died along with him.

“Chicken” also would host regular barbecued bologna luncheons during the rest of the year, which I often would attend when I worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and in the governor’s office. A favored location for these luncheons was a dive on U.S. Highway 70 in North Little Rock known as Drover’s. The lights were so dim and the cigarette smoke was so thick that it was hard to find your table some days.

As for Cozy Corner, the bologna sandwich goes high on my list of favorite Memphis dishes, right up there with the barbecued spaghetti at Interstate Bar-B-Que on South Third Street.

Famed food reviewer Michael Stern of www.roadfood.com wrote this gushing review last year: “If you have time for just one barbecue meal in Memphis (or anywhere on earth), go to Cozy Corner. It is a hazy storefront shop with a self-service counter, a smoker in the vestibule and blues music playing in the small dining room to the side. Presiding over this small, sweet-smelling empire is Desiree Robinson, widow of the founder, Raymond Robinson, who had been the city’s supreme pitmaster for more than two decades until his passing in 2001. Mrs. Robinson and her children are maintaining the Cozy Corner exactly as it was when Raymond was boss, and it remains THE place to go for unsurpassed barbecue in a city that is full of great barbecue parlors. Virtually everything you can order off the wall-mounted menu is ecstatically wonderful.”

Reviews don’t get much more positive than that.

Here’s how Stern described the bologna sandwich: “Understand that this is no paper-thin slice of precut baloney like you buy in a pack from the cold cut rack of the supermarket. It is a thick slab that gets dry-rubbed with pepper and spice, charcoal cooked, then sauced and put into a bun with coleslaw: a delicious piggy mess.”

He added, “When it’s properly barbecued, as it is in many Memphis smokehouses, baloney trancends its status as lunch meat and becomes a whole other category of food. Here it is served in typical local style, with coleslaw piled in the bun. The slaw and sauce pool together on the plate to make a wonderful sweet and hot gravy.”

We had arrived in Memphis on Friday afternoon. I had a gift certificate for a free night at the Westin, and we decided to use it to celebrate the final day of school for the two boys.

Friday dinner was at Sole, the seafood restaurant and raw bar in the hotel. Sole is decidedly more upscale than the tourist traps around the corner on Beale Street, and I’ve found the seafood to be excellent on several visits there.

Sole opened in November 2008, replacing The Daily Grill. I had a fish known as walu, Melissa had salmon, Austin had scallops and Evan had a cheeseburger with grass-fed beef from Neola Farms in Tipton County, Tenn.

With the restaurant directly across from the FedEx Forum, service can become a bit rushed on evenings where there’s an event across the street. On Friday, though, the arena was not in use, and we were eating at 5 p.m. So things were relaxed, and the service was superb.

We were dining early in the evening so we could walk down the street in time to see a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. When it opened in 2000, AutoZone was the most expensive minor league ballpark ever built. Designed by Looney Ricks Kiss Architects of Memphis in consultation with HOK Sports of Kansas City, AutoZone Park remains one of the best places in the country to watch baseball.

“If this was set in a parking lot on the outskirts of the city, AutoZone Park certainly would not rate as high in my book,” states the review at the website www.ballparkreviews.com. “But because of its downtown location, it’s certainly one of the top new ballparks in the country. Yes, it is a bit big for a minor league park, and therefore almost has a major league feel to it. But its downtown location, tucked in among large buildings, gives it a more intimate feel than it otherwise would have.”

The game went 11 innings. We stayed until the end. That was followed by a lengthy fireworks show. And even though it was well past 11 p.m., a band was playing in the plaza as we left.

Friday night dinner at Sole.

A Rebirds game at AutoZone Park followed by fireworks.

An evening in one of those Westin “heavenly beds.”

Coffee, a blueberry muffin and The New York Times at the Starbucks in the Westin.

A bologna sandwich for lunch at Cozy Corner.

It all made for quite a nice 24-hour trip to Memphis.

By the way, which is your favorite of the many barbecue restaurants in Memphis?

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A Memphis Friday night

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Though he’s a native Arkansan who still lives in Forrest City, he does the pregame and postgame shows on the radio network that carries Ole Miss football.

He’s also one of the most popular sports talk radio personalities in Memphis.

And he works for one of the nation’s famous old AM radio stations.

He’s Brett “Stats” Norsworthy, and he came by his nickname honestly. He can spit out more sports trivia, history and statistics than anyone I know.

On Friday night, he hosted Kane Webb and me for a delightful evening in Memphis. Brett has long enjoyed Kane’s writing, and who doesn’t? Kane is, after all, one of the best writers in our state. Brett wanted to meet Kane, and so we set this trip up many weeks ago.

We started in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. Where else are you going to start in Memphis?

It’s the place where the Delta begins, according to Greenville writer David Cohn. And the Peabody lobby is still the place to see and be seen in the Mid-South. Hundreds of people crowded the lobby on this Friday afternoon for the 5 p.m. march of the Peabody ducks.

I enjoy visiting the lobby of the Peabody Little Rock, but it simply cannot compare to the history and charm of the original in Memphis.

From the Peabody, we walked over to the Rendezvous for dinner.

From the Rendezvous, we headed to the Fed-Ex Forum to see a much-improved Memphis Grizzlies team defeat the New York Knicks.

Brett began his Memphis radio career back in 1992, helping Memphis sports legend George Lapides (once the sports editor of the late Memphis Press-Scimitar, which was the city’s afternoon newspaper) host his radio show. Brett has worked on a number of shows in the market since then, currently hosting “Sportstime Extra” each morning on WHBQ.

WHBQ, which was long owned by RKO before being sold to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988, was the home of Dewey Phillips. He was the DJ who first played a recording of “That’s Alright Mama” by an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. It was the first time an Elvis recording had been on the radio. The year was 1954.

Phillips hosted an evening show known as “Red, Hot and Blue” that attracted both black and white audiences, something that was rare in those days.

RKO DJs who would later become famous — people such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale — would get their start at WHBQ before moving own to bigger RKO markets in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

I love what the call letters stood for — We Have Better Quartets.

Now, it’s all sports and no music on WHBQ. And Mempis residents love their sports.

As we walked down the alley toward the Rendezvous, I could see that the line was out the door. I worried that we would be late for the game. I should not have worried. At the Rendezvous, they all know Stats.

“Come on, we already have a table,” he said.

We were immediately seated in a corner, and the food started coming without us having to place an order — sausages and cheese with that wonderful Rendezvous dry rub to start. The ribs came later.

It was 1948 when Charlie Vergos was cleaning the basement below his diner and discovered a coal chute. That chute gave him the vent he needed to do barbecue. Since then, the basement in downtown Memphis has become a legend.

There are those who will tell you that the Rendezvous is too much of a place for tourists. And, yes, I will tell you that my favorite dish in Memphis is still the barbecue spaghetti at Interstate Barbecue down on South Third Street. But I still enjoy the Rendezvous. I like the history, I like the downtown location, I like the vibe and I like the fact that they have waiters who have been there 30 and even 40 years.

On the Rendezvous website, you can read about those waiters. Robert Sr. has been around for 45 years. Big Jack has been there since 1969. Albert, known as Red, started in 1973. Percy started in 1970. Geno, known as The Fixer, has been around for 34 years. Robert Jr. has been there 24 years.

One after another, managers and waiters stopped by our table to talk college and professional sports with Brett.

And we still made it to the Fed-Ex Forum in time for the 7 p.m. tip.

After the game, Brett headed to the interview room to work. Kane and I took a stroll down Beale Street. The place was hopping. It was good to see an active downtown on a Friday night.

Like the downtowns of many Southern cities, downtown Memphis has had its problems. After years of progress that began in the early 1980s, the recession has slowed or killed a number of downtown development projects. The Belz family, for instance, has halted construction on the Peabody Suites in the former Peabody Place Retail & Entertainment Center next to the hotel. For now, the focus is on a massive expansion of the Peabody Orlando Hotel. And one of my favorite downtown Memphis restaurants that was in that location — Encore — closed last fall. The Muvico cinema is also gone.

The Belz family usually does things right, however. So when the project goes forward, I have no doubt it will be a classy development.

One piece of good news is that the empty space on Beale Street that once held a franchise location of the New Orleans bar Pat O’Brien’s will soon be the home an expanded location of the Memphis version of Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. The original Ground Zero is in Clarksdale, Miss. The Mississippi location opened in May 2001. The Memphis location, which was a block off Beale, opened in May 2008.

The two-hour trip from Little Rock to Memphis remains an easy and fun getaway. There’s still plenty to do just over the bridge in downtown. My recipe — meet in the Peabody lobby, have dinner at the Rendezvous and attend an event at the Fed-Ex Forum. And, if you like sports, listen to WHBQ-AM, 560, on the way over and back.

Thanks, Stats.

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Memphis blues

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I’ve written about Memphis before. It’s a city where I spent a lot of time in my job with the Delta Regional Authority and a city I’ve always enjoyed visiting.

It’s a city blessed with that great location on the Mississippi River and a fascinating history. It also has been a city cursed in recent decades with high crime rates, spiraling poverty rates, rapid outmigration and racial tension. Little Rock has its own problems, but those problems often pale in comparison to what’s happening two hours down the road in Memphis.

As a place that’s important to tens of thousands of people who live in east Arkansas, it’s important to all Arkansans that Memphis does well. The late Willie Morris of Mississippi, who might just be my favorite writer, once said that the two most imporant cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans. In that vein, it would be safe to say that the most important city in east Arkansas is Memphis.

I sometimes find myself feeling sorry for Memphis, even in the realm of sports. Memphis residents love to talk about sports. The city, in fact, has three all-sports radio stations. Driving around the Delta, I often would alternate between shows on 560 AM, 680 AM and 730 AM out of Memphis.

I was in a hotel room in downtown St. Louis on the night of April 7, 2008, watching the Memphis Tigers blow that big lead down the stretch and lose to Kansas in overtime in the NCAA title game. I grieved for the city, knowing what a boost in morale this would have been for people who were hungry for something good to happen.

Having failed in its long effort to secure an NFL franchise — the old Houston Oilers went to Nashville after one lonely season in exile at Memphis — Memphis finally secured an NBA franchise. But that team has been terrible. It has a bad owner and has been poorly managed. The Fed-Ex Forum is a gorgeous downtown facility, but most seats are empty these days whenever the Grizzlies play. The recent effort to bring Allen Iverson to the team was a disaster. The 34-year-old guard played only three games with Memphis, all in California. He began an indefinite leave of absence on Nov. 7 to deal with a “personal issue” and then was waived by the team earlier this week.

Over at the University of Memphis, head football coach Tommy West was fired earlier this month and went out firing at the school. During a news conference, he said: “Put something in it, or do away with it. One or the other. That’s what they should do. … There’s a negativity here that, in the end, eats you up. It’s hard to win. In today’s game, it’s harder to win than it has ever been. And if you have to fight battles around your own program and around your own campus and around your own city, it’s hard. It makes it very difficult.”

Take that, Memphis.

This all comes in the same year that John Calipari took off for Kentucky, leaving forfeited games in his wake.

There simply are no bright spots when it comes to the Grizzlies. But, at the college level, the Tigers appear to have a bright young basketball coach in Josh Pastner. The Tigers came close to knocking off Kansas earlier this week, falling 57-55 in a nationally televised game and proving that Memphis basketball is still relevant. And Pastner’s recruiting efforts have been outstanding thus far. At least one recruiting ranking now has Memphis at No. 1 based on current commitments.

Columnist Geoff Calkins wrote in The Commercial Appeal earlier this week: “In the seven months since Pastner was given the Memphis coaching job by default, he has persuaded half a dozen elite recruits to play for the Tigers. Imagine what Pastner will do when he has a full year to recruit. Which is a joke, of course. The guy can’t do better than this. Because this is impossible. This was the job that couldn’t be done. There was no way anyone could replace John Calipari. There was no way any other coach could get national recruits to come to a Conference USA school. Without Calipari, Memphis would go back to being a nice, plucky regional program. Instead, Memphis is No. 1.”

By the way, central Arkansas basketball enthusiasts will have a chance to see this Memphis team when the Tigers play UALR at 2 p.m. on Dec. 12 in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

The city received another dose of great news Wednesday when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $90 million grant to the Memphis public schools. The seven-year project is designed to raise teaching levels. Under the plan, the most talented teachers will be moved into the classrooms where they are needed most. The district will now pay top-tier salaries approaching six figures.

The best news of all, though, is that Memphis has a new mayor. Finally. It’s not that he’s a fresh face. The city’s new mayor, A.C. Wharton, previously served as Shelby County mayor. Wharton is not spring chicken, either. He’s 65. But after 18 years, the controversial, often incompetent Willie Herenton is gone from the Memphis mayor’s office, having retired from his fifth term on July 30 under the cloud of a federal investigation.

Wharton cruised to victory last month with 60 percent of the vote against 24 opponents (that’s right — 24) in the special election to replace the man they called King Willie. Memphis badly needed a change at the top, and Wharton provides just that as he serves the final two years of Herenton’s term. Wharton said his victory marked the end of an era “apathy, of divisiveness, of hatred, of discord.”

Once can only hope he’s right. A Commercial Appeal investigation revealed that between 2004 and July of this year, Herenton managed to steer an extra $240,000 of government money into his pockets. Herenton’s salary as mayor was $171,500.

As Calkins wrote back in August: “Willie Herenton wants you to know that he is not crazy. Just as Richard Nixon wanted you to know that he was not a crook. Just as Roger Clemens wanted you to know that he did not take steroids. Just as Bill Clinton wanted you to know that he did not have sexual relations with that woman. Just as Larry Craig wanted you to know that he was not gay. All these centuries later, that other Willie — Shakespeare — had it right, didn’t he? Thou dost protest too much.”

Good luck, Memphis.

The Grizzlies stink. Your college football team is just as bad. You will never have an NFL franchise. Razorback fans are hoping for the Cotton Bowl rather than your Liberty Bowl. The Pyramid is still empty. And you even lost the Mid-South Fair.

But Mayor Herenton is out of office. Something positive finally happened in your public schools. You stumbled upon one of the most exciting young coaches in college basketball. So stop being so down on yourselves, Memphis residents. You’re beginning to make the infamous Arkansas inferiority complex seem minor.

Your city is authentic, funky and fun, far from one of those manufactured New South cities. I’ll be back soon.

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Room with a river view

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

The River Inn on Mud Island at Memphis opened in October 2007. I stayed there for the first time Saturday night — it was Melissa’s birthday, but I won’t dare tell you how many — and the experience was a good one.

The River Inn is a boutique hotel with only 28 rooms and suites. That means it’s quiet, and it also means that there is a lot of personal service provided by the staff.

We arrived Saturday in time for lunch at Tug’s, the less formal of the two restaurants at the River Inn. I was worried at first when it took forever for the drinks to arrive and when the entrees appeared before the appetizer. But the fried oysters were some of the best I’ve had north of New Orleans, and a gumbo of shrimp, crawfish tails and sausage was also good. Tug’s is open from 11 a.m. until midnight Monday through Friday. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. Bottom line — good food, nice atmosphere, service could stand some improvement.

Dinner was at Currents, the fine dining restaurant adjacent to the River Inn lobby. The three-course meal for $29 is a steal for a restaurant of this quality. Breakfast at Currents, which was also a treat, is included in the price of the room. I have no complaints about Currents. I even agreed with my waiter about how nice it is that Memphis Mayor Herenton has resigned.

There’s also a rooftop terrace with a great view of the Mississippi River. Though it’s a bit hot to be outside in August, we still sat up there for almost 30 minutes Saturday night, looking west toward Arkansas and the setting sun. The window of our third-floor room also looked out onto the river and the adjacent, well-manicured Riverwalk.

While the hotel rates are not cheap, it’s a great choice for Arkansas couples searching for a close spot to get away. Champagne is served upon arrival, and the turn-down service includes chocolate truffles and port (though it would be nice at this price if they actually turned down the bed, replaced some towels and toiletries, turned the radio on low, laid out a robe, etc. like a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons).

It’s so quiet that you don’t realize you’re in the city. There’s almost the feel of a country inn, though you’re on the edge of downtown.

The hotel and its restaurants were built by investors Henry Turley, Lewis Holland, Tom Scott and Joe Weller to complement the surrounding Harbor Town development. The Henry Turley Co., established in 1977, is behind some of the leading developments in Memphis.

Based on the New Urbanism concept of development — think Seaside with narrow streets, front porches and lots of joggers and bikers — Harbor Town is a collection of homes, townhouses, lofts and apartments on the northern end of Mud Island. If you look to your left while driving east into Memphis over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, you’ll see it.

The Henry Turley Co. has also developed the Shrine Building in downtown Memphis, the Uptown Memphis mixed-housing development and the South Bluffs development. It has proposed redeveloping the Mid-South Fairgrounds now that the fair is leaving Memphis for Tunica.

Most Arkansans, familiar only with the Mud Island River Park portion of the island, don’t realize that Mud Island is home to more than 5,000 residents. Harbor Town has its own Montessori school, a health center and an upscale neighborhood grocery story and sandwich shop known as Miss Cordelia’s. Harbor Town has been a favorite home for past and present Memphis Grizzlies players and coaches.

Nature trails, walking trails, ponds and a marina all are part of the Harbor Town mix.

At breakfast Sunday morning, two couples were telling the waiter about the Journey concert the night before at the Mud Island Amphitheater.

“The concert was great,” the man, who appeared to be in his mid-40s, said. “But the park is falling apart.”

Like me, he probably remembers when the park was new in the early 1980s. One of the best outdoor concerts I ever attended — was it 1982? — was Al Jarreau on Mud Island on a perfect summer evening. What great Mud Island concert memories do you have?

I also remember how much I enjoyed the Mississippi River Museum when it was new. The last time I took my kids to the museum, almost half the attractions were closed or broken.

Unfortunately, like so much that is controlled by the city government of Memphis, the park was allowed to deteriorate. With a stagnant city government and an out-of-touch mayor, crime soared, development slowed and Memphis residents fled to places like Collierville, Southaven and Hernando.

As mentioned, the fair is leaving. The Pyramid sits empty. Downtown retail at Peabody Place was a failure. And the neighborhoods surrounding Graceland remain crime-ridden.

As someone who has always enjoyed spending time in Memphis, I hope the city can get its act together. With a new mayor on the way — thank goodness — there is at least hope. I’ll have more on that in a later post.

For now, Harbor Town and the River Inn offer a respite from the crime, neglect, decay and apathy that has been eating our neighbor to the east in recent years from the inside out. It’s worth the trip. And unless you want to, there’s really no need to go to other parts of town. You’re on the bridge and back in the promised land of Arkansas within a matter of minutes.

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