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VOL. 7 | NO. 1 | Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Year That Was

Memphians find pride in city while grappling with change


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2013 brought plenty of unique and out-of-the-ordinary moments, as well as the launch of new events, businesses and civic ventures that collectively made the Memphis experience richer.

Much of it was covered in these pages, including in recent days a U.S. Supreme Court justice eliciting chuckles from and sharing his constitutional philosophy with an audience of Memphis lawyers.

Throughout the year, foodies hungry for gourmet eats and uniquely local flavors descended on a regular collection of businesses under the Dishcrawl banner. The Grizz Nation population swelled, and Southwest Airlines’ first flight arrived in town. A Beatle played FedExForum, the Memphis City Council approved funding to redevelop the Sears Crosstown building and education tended to stay in the print and TV news worlds almost daily – while, outside of the spotlight, entrepreneurs opened a slew of new restaurants and retail shops.

“Memphis is one of America’s most historic and fascinating cities: rife with history, rich with flavor, and unafraid of passion in all of its many forms,” wrote Kerri Allen for The Huffington Post after a visit here this year. Indeed, 2013 brought plenty of unique and out-of-the-ordinary moments for Memphis.

(Memphis News File/ Andrew J. Breig /Lance Murphey)

The news business tends to be oriented around moments, and yearends are natural points of reflection. Newspapers and magazines especially tend to make this point an opportunity to remind readers: If you weren’t there, or if you’d just like to remember, here’s a recap of The Year That Was.

These lists tend to be subjective collections and are rarely comprehensive. And attention, it should be noted, is not always given to the things that don’t happen – those events that didn’t occur over the course of the year – though they can be just as strong a determinant of the ebb and flow of life in the city.

So with that in mind, here’s a mix of both.

In 2013, Memphis didn’t –

See significant improvement toward chipping away at the area’s unemployment rate. In October – the most current month of data available at the time of this writing – unemployment in the Memphis metro area was a non-seasonally adjusted 9.5 percent. Behind that percentage was a labor force numbering 597,810, and nearly 57,000 people classified as unemployed.

That 9.5 percent figure is up almost a full percentage point from the non-seasonally adjusted 8.6 percent jobless rate in the Memphis metro area in October 2012.

“The economic situation in Memphis,” said Legacy Wealth Management chief investment officer Robert Trimm, “may not be as rosy as the national unemployment rate suggests.”

A stubbornly high local jobless rate carries a variety of effects, putting a greater strain, for example, on nonprofits that provide services to the less fortunate.

In 2013, Memphis did –

See its “brand” enjoy a run of positive buzz beyond the city. National outlets talked up everything from Beale Street – which was voted by 10Best and USA Today readers as the top Iconic American Street – to the National Civil Rights Museum and Graceland, named as Iconic American Attractions also by USA Today and 10Best.

The Memphis Grizzlies landed on the cover of ESPN The Magazine for being “the best franchise in sports,” and Travel and Leisure magazine named Muddy’s Bake Shop “one of America’s Best Bakeries.”

Journalist Kerri Allen visited the city and wrote about the experience for The Huffington Post:

“The Memphis I returned to was not the one I’d last seen in 2003,” she wrote. “It got hipper.

“Memphis is one of America’s most historic and fascinating cities: rife with history, rich with flavor, and unafraid of passion in all of its many forms.”

In 2013, Memphis also cemented its passion for the Grizzlies’ Grit ‘n’ Grind movement. The team finished with the most wins in franchise history (56) and made its deepest run in postseason history with an appearance in the Western Conference Finals.

Following that successful run, team management didn’t retain head coach Lionel Hollins, replacing him with assistant Dave Joerger. And the team hasn’t been as fortunate to start the season, in part because of the lineup being riddled with injuries.

In 2013, meanwhile, Memphis didn’t –

See any conclusion to its long-running grapples with school reform issues. In fact, 2013 was the third full year of the reformation of public education in Shelby County that began at the end of 2010 with the Memphis City Schools board’s decision to move to surrender its charter.

That single but much-debated action continued to ripple in 2013, starting with the resignations of the superintendents of Shelby County's two public school systems. Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken each expressed interest in heading the consolidated school district to come.

But Cash soon began applying for vacancies at the top of other school systems, and Aitken began laying the groundwork for the merger as he adjusted to dealing with a 23-member school board that still had not made some key decisions as the merger date neared.

Dorsey Hopson, who had been the MCS general counsel, was named the merger superintendent for the critical period in which those decisions were made, through the July 1 start of the consolidated school system’s first fiscal year and the Aug. 5 start of its first school year.

In short order, Hopson outlined the decisions the school board had to make, made his recommendations and wasn't hesitant to express the urgency of the board making a decision one way or the other as soon as possible.

Neither was U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays, who was so concerned about the lack of progress that he appointed a special master to report to him on the progress the school board was – or was not – making.

Mays mentioned the possibility that the court might take over the process if the school board didn't start making decisions.

Rick Masson, the special master, proved to be a catalyst just by his presence at school board meetings, and Hopson would sometimes tell board members that if they didn't make a decision, there was someone watching who might make it for them.

Hopson also weathered problems at the opening of the school year, including significant problems in the hybrid in-house and outsourced bus system.

Leaders of Shelby County's six suburban towns and cities put ballot questions to their citizens again on forming municipal school districts, and the voters again approved them.

Negotiations were already underway as 2013 began to settle the remaining issues including school buildings and the County Commission's third-party claim contesting the existence of the suburban school districts. The private talks stalled at the beginning of the year. They resumed in the summer, this time with the Shelby County Schools board involved.

At year's end, agreements with all six suburban school systems had been approved, paving the way for plans by the suburban leaders to open their school districts for classes in August 2014.

Aitken resurfaced in December as the superintendent of the Collierville Schools system.

The building of those smaller school systems from the ground up in nine months promises to be a major story of 2014.

In 2013, Memphis did –

See more Memphians taking the city’s future into their own hands.

The Greater Memphis Chamber began talking up its pursuit of “moon missions,” big-picture projects such as expanding pre-kindergarten in Shelby County and working to add more entrepreneurs locally, among other things.

YoLo Frozen Yogurt founder Taylor Berger, meanwhile, led the creation of a makeshift pro-Memphis movement called Make Memphis, which began as a commentary about Memphis he posted on Facebook, which turned into a brainstorming Facebook group and then members of the Facebook group meeting in person to settle on ideas for improving Memphis.

At the time of this writing, the Facebook group had more than 1,100 members. At a meeting Dec. 17, ideas discussed included a “wiki-map of local initiatives that could help organize the complex and interconnected Memphis social enterprises,” in addition to setting up a website for the group and a discussion of fundraising and idea generation.

Also in 2013, Memphis did –

See plenty of developments to keep political junkies happy.

Eleven elections occurred in three months toward the end of the year – though only the Lakeland and Arlington municipal elections had been on the schedule at the beginning of the year.

The special elections included primaries and a general election to fill the state House District 91 seat following the July death of Lois DeBerry, who held the position for 41 years. The seat went to Democrat Raumesh Akbari, a political newcomer.

The political year was tumultuous on other fronts as well.

The Shelby County Commission and Memphis City Council each voted to raise the city and county property tax rates. So did the suburban municipalities.

The city and county tax hikes were given most of the blame for the failure of a late-year city referendum on a half-cent city sales tax increase to fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten services.

In Lakeland, voters elected County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker mayor over incumbent mayor Scott Carmichael, and also voted in two new Lakeland city commissioners over incumbents seeking re-election.

PROPERTY SALES 23 23 1,365
MORTGAGES 21 21 1,068
BUILDING PERMITS 117 117 3,173