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VOL. 130 | NO. 52 | Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Morris Talks of ‘Opportunity Cost’

By Bill Dries

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The president of the Downtown Memphis Commission says it is a mistake for Memphis leaders to try to match Nashville’s new convention center and massive convention centers being built in other cities.

Paul Morris also said during the interview on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines that an “opportunity cost” from such tentative moves in that direction can derail efforts by the private sector.

Morris cited his experience as a private attorney before becoming head of the DMC. He represented a convention center-area hotel owner who would soon sell to a new owner who had expansion plans.

But before the deal could close, then-Mayor Willie Herenton announced his desire to see a new convention center built between the Beale Street district and AutoZone Park.

“That deal collapsed,” Morris said of the hotel expansion.

“The point of that story is that when political leaders announce big new projects, it affects the private market and stunts investment and progress,” he said. “One of the mistakes that some people make in Memphis is talking about building a huge new convention center on the other side of town because it keeps progress from occurring around the convention center that we have.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video Page, video.memphisdailynews.com

Morris is preparing to wrap up his five-year tenure as Downtown Memphis Commission president near the end of 2015.

Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris said a bigger convention center in a different place would be a distraction and that local efforts should be focused on making the existing Memphis Cook Convention Center better.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

He talked about the convention center as a task force continues to meet out of the public eye, exploring long-term convention center options including a new center in a different location.

Referring to the group, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said last month, “We all know we have to keep up.”

“So for those who are worried about the future, we are going to better for it,” he said of the group’s work. “And we are going to do it in a financially sound way.”

But Morris points out the financing of a new convention center would have to be different than the Tourism Development Zone Nashville has used.

“Memphis made a choice to use our funding vehicle that other cities in Tennessee have used for convention centers,” he added. “We chose to use it for Bass Pro and FedExForum. That’s our choice and I think that’s a good one. But it’s an opportunity cost. We do not have the TDZ vehicle to fund the new convention center and that’s the primary way to fund something like that.”

Morris also said trying to match Nashville’s convention center is “a waste of time” and a distraction when city leaders should be upgrading the Memphis Cook Convention Center “and looking at other opportunities to have a product in Memphis that is distinct from some of these other cities that have these big mammoth convention centers where you go and the only other people you see have these name tags.”

Wharton has advocated and Morris backs the idea of using the old Peabody Place mall as a kind of main convention center annex for meeting and conference space.

Morris also expressed concern about city plans to buy up real estate in the Pinch District once Bass Pro Shops opens at the Pyramid and recruit an area developer via a city-issued request for proposal.

“It’s not that you shouldn’t do that. I think government should do that,” he said. “But it should also recognize and make sure the public understands there’s an opportunity cost. When the government comes in there and says we are going to redevelop the Pinch. But we don’t have the funding yet, we don’t have the plan yet, but it’s going to happen one day down the road.

“In the meantime, nothing happens and it prevents the private sector from doing what the private sector does.”

Morris said plans calling for a bridge or plaza connecting Front Street and the Pinch to the Pyramid is essential for the district’s future.

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