VOL. 9 | NO. 1 | Saturday, January 2, 2016
Memorable Events of 2015 will Spill Into 2016
By Andy Meek
When you really get down to it, history is a collection of moments, moments that, when they fall one after the other over the long arc of time, eventually form the tapestry representing who we are.
The moments are almost as important as the comprehensive histories we tell, sometimes even more so. It’s from those that the stories are formed – our narratives, writ large.
This week in The Memphis News, we turn back the clock – not to retell the entirety of 2015, but to pinpoint some of the moments that affected Memphis and will keep doing so in the New Year that’s just getting under way.
We had an election. Commercial development boomed. We’re still grappling with seemingly intractable challenges around race. Crime stats remain a political touchstone. Our health care community made big strides. Our sports teams hit thrilling highs – and lows.
These events and trends made 2015 memorable and will spill over into 2016.
Politics and the Public Interest
The race for Memphis mayor was the dominant local political event of 2015.
Incumbent Mayor A C Wharton may have been favored to win at the start of 2015, but that didn't last very long as City Council members Jim Strickland and Harold Collins as well as Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams topped the field of challengers.
And after the votes were counted, Strickland acknowledged that not claiming the exclusive financial support of business leaders and not getting the Greater Memphis Chamber's PAC endorsement helped in positioning him as the candidate and the change “the establishment” didn't want.
He hit a nerve.
By early September, Strickland's polling showed a double-digit percentage lead over Wharton, a lead that, of course, translated into the win.
2015 was also the first full year of the Black Lives Matter movement in Memphis which had begun as a series of protests and discussions in late 2014.
In July 2015, the city had its own moment in the national roll call of fatal police shootings under review.
Darrius Stewart was shot and killed by Memphis Police officer Connor Schilling during a traffic stop in Hickory Hill. Some immediately questioned why Stewart was questioned since he was a passenger in the car.
There was even some discussion of a police policy about how to handle passengers in such stops.
That discussion didn't go much further when less than a month later, Police Officer Sean Bolton was killed allegedly by a passenger in a car he saw parked illegally in the same general area.
Stewart's death changed policy as District Attorney General Amy Weirich sent the case to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, ending the police department investigation. She and Armstrong and Sheriff Bill Oldham also signed an agreement with the TBI to refer all future fatal encounters with law enforcement officers to the TBI.
Weirich recommended a Shelby County grand jury charge Schilling with voluntary manslaughter in Stewart's death. But the grand jury decided Schilling would face no state charges.
A federal investigation was underway at year's end and a court order opened the 800-page TBI file on the incident to the public a week before Christmas.
Real Estate Rising
On the real estate front, 2015 also marked the best year for the industrial sector since 2000 with year-end absorption approaching $6.5 million square feet.
The biggest industrial lease of the year went to Fortune 500 company TJX Cos., the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Homegoods. In the third quarter, the group signed on to 800,000 square feet at Memphis Oaks III, the last speculative building constructed in Memphis.
The future of Memphis spec construction also played out this year at the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine, where would-be developers sought a property tax break for the site of the former Mall of Memphis.
The developers said the proposal would bring 1.1 million square feet of much-needed Class A industrial space and would keep Memphis competitive against the spec construction boom in North Mississippi.
EDGE has never before granted a PILOT to a spec project, and it stuck to that precedent. However, the showdown set into motion a PILOT revamp; in 2016, EDGE is expected to unveil a program that is easier to navigate but still doesn’t accommodate for spec projects.
Moving to the office sector, Class A rents are soaring and Class B buildings are seeing a healthy boost.
Average rental rates are now at $18.20 per square foot in Class B, the highest level since 2010 after increasing over the last 10 quarters. At the Crescent Center building in East Memphis, prices per square foot have reached $30.50, a level that hasn’t yet been seen before in the Memphis market.
The tight East Memphis market could be seeing some respite in 2016 as Boyle Investment Co. is set to break ground on a new Class A office building in the Ridgeway Center. Boyle vice president Mark Halperin said construction on the 150,000- to 170,000-square-foot building is likely to start in the first quarter.
And early next year, the Downtown Memphis Commission will roll out a new strategy to recruit small creative firms and start-ups to Downtown office space instead of chasing after the exodus of big banks and law firms. Dubbed My HQ is Downtown, the initiative will encompass a magazine, website, regular event programming and possibly incentives.
Look also to Midtown, which hasn’t seen new apartments since 2004, to have a multifamily boom in 2016. The tide is turning from Downtown and Collierville as the 38104 ZIP code is expected to garner 46.8 percent of new construction, or 623 units, in 2016.
Next year could also fortify buzz about new apartments at Cooper and Central, Madison and McLean and Overton Square.
Wide World of Sports
When times are good in Memphis sports, the University of Memphis basketball team is still playing well into March, the Grizzlies are playing into May, and the U of M football team has a bowl appointment after the regular season.
But even in the good times there will be change and speculation about even more change. The U of M football team wrapped up a second straight winning season under head coach Justin Fuente, going 19-6 over the last two years with quarterback Paxton Lynch leading what became a high-powered offense.
For that success, Fuente was offered and accepted the head coaching job at Virginia Tech. The Tigers moved quickly to hire 34-year-old Mike Norvell as Fuente’s successor. But Norvell, most recently offensive coordinator at Arizona State, probably will begin with a new quarterback. Although Lynch had made no formal announcement in advance of the Tigers’ Dec. 30 Birmingham Bowl date with Auburn, the redshirt junior is expected to declare for the NFL Draft and be selected in the first round.
Regardless, university president M. David Rudd is confident that Norvell can take the Tigers to the next plateau.
The 2015-16 season is Josh Pastner’s seventh as coach of the basketball Tigers. After four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers fell back to 18-14 last season and missed the so-called Big Dance.
This year’s team is sparked by the long-awaited arrival of the Lawson brothers. Through the season’s first nine games, freshman Dedric Lawson had established himself as the odds-on favorite to win Newcomer of the Year honors in the American Athletic Conference and was leading the Tigers with 15.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.
But for all the buzz about the Lawsons, there is also a continuing debate about the coach. A pressure to reach ever-greater heights. The program has not reached the Sweet 16 under his watch.
The Grizzlies are aiming for a sixth straight postseason appearance but a tough early schedule has contributed to an uneven start and questions about coach Dave Joerger’s future. Also up for scrutiny: the lifecycle of the current core defined by “Grit and Grind.” Recently, beloved players Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have been out of the starting lineup.
On the plus side, All-Star center Marc Gasol bypassed the opportunity to jump to a larger market and re-signed with the Grizzlies for five years. Point guard Mike Conley is a free agent after the season, but the prevailing opinion always has been that if the Grizzlies retained Gasol they would have an excellent change to keep Conley, too, because the two are so close.
Meanwhile, there are three sporting certainties: the annual pro tennis and golf tournaments and the return of baseball in April at still-gorgeous AutoZone Park, home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, the top affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.
As for tennis, the Memphis Open Presented by ServiceMaster will be held from Feb. 6-14 at the Racquet Club of Memphis.
The FedEx St. Jude Classic, the PGA Tour stop that has been here since 1958, will be held from June 9-12 at TPC Southwind.
Transforming Health Care
Finally, Memphis’ health care community had a seminal year, in such a way that it portends significant and transformative developments to come in 2016. There was something of a building boom, with institutions like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Healthcare, West Cancer Center and others all opening the doors to new facilities.
That Memphis is a health care town was evident in everything from the groundbreaking research taking place here to the big-dollar grants and awards, startup launches and breakthrough innovations, all of which are continuing to power Memphis’ health care, life sciences and biotech community forward.
We’ve covered it all in these pages. One example is worth revisiting for what it says about Memphis and what’s happening here:
St. Jude is now treating patients in its new proton therapy center that cost $90 million to build and launch with an advanced form of radiation technology and a system that was designed, developed and implemented in partnership with Hitachi.
Not only will the new technology be used to treat brain tumors, Hodgkin lymphoma and other solid tumors, but the new St. Jude system is the most advanced form of radiation technology available to patients. That’s because it lets doctors use fine beams to precisely target cancer cells with high doses of radiation while sparing nearby cells and organs.
St. Jude says the hospital is also the only children’s cancer hospital in the world with a proton therapy center dedicated to pediatric cancer treatment.
Saving lives, it seems safe to say, counts as the biggest moment of them all.
Memphis News reporters Bill Dries, Don Wade and Madeline Faber contributed to this report.