Memphis City Council returns to work at first meeting of 2019, fills vacancies

Discusses legalizing sports betting, MLGW rate hikes, Union Row funds

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - New year, new council attitude, and it’s one of reconciliation and agreement.

The council filled two vacant seats Tuesday evening without any drama, and they’ve got one more to go.

The stalemate that’s plagued Memphis City Council for the last month is finally over.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sherman Greer was appointed to the council to fill the District 1 vacancy.

Greer now holds the seat reordering Raleigh. He’s an administrator at Southwest Tennessee Community College and the school’s athletic director. He specializes in governmental relations and worked for U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen and U.S. Congressman Harold Ford Jr.

Memphis City Council also appointed Kemp Conrad as chair and Patrice Robinson as vice chair.

Cheyenne Johnson, a former Shelby Co Assessor, was also appointed to the council to fill the District 8-2 vacancy. The council had 11 candidates to choose from for District 8, position 2, eventually selecting Johnson.

"I hope we can just mend the fences work together and try to move forward, definitely,” Johnson said.

It was Johnson’s vote that helped bank executive Gerre Currie win the District 6 Whitehaven and South Memphis seat over political veteran Edmund Ford Sr.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, there is no member of the politically powerful Ford family holding a seat on the Memphis City Council.

The seat representing Whitehaven, held by a member of the Ford family since the 1970's, went to the political newcomer.

“Frankly, they’ve never had a banker on the city council,” Currie said. “Now they have a banker.”

Also, for the first time in history the Memphis City Council has four African-American women on it.

"This is a new year, this is a time for us to come together, and it's a time for us to move Memphis forward,” Robinson said.

"Put some of the things behind us and just win for Memphis and get back to being a team working with the council working with the mayor, I think that’s what people want,” Conrad said.

Council discusses legalizing sports betting

Tuesday marks the start of the new legislative session in Nashville, which includes a push by two Memphis lawmakers to legalize sports betting in the Bluff City.

Outgoing chair Berlin Boyd led the charge to ask the general assembly in Nashville to greenlight sports betting on Beale Street.

“People are doing this in the city of Memphis, it's also an opportunity for us to help increase activities for tourists,” Boyd said. Boyd is spearheading the resolution to send to Nashville in support of sports betting in Tennessee.

The county commission weighed in with a similar resolution in December.

Two Memphis Senators have already indicated they'll push fellow lawmakers for action. Democratic Senator Raumesh Akbari of Memphis filed a bill late last year creating a pathway for sports betting.

Republican Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown said last week he'll also introduce a sports betting bill. Tuesday, Boyd cited the money being lost to Tunica, Mississippi where casinos recently opened sports books after a landmark supreme court ruling in May 2018.

“There are some ways to do this right,” said council member Worth Morgan. “I would like to see sports betting on Beale Street if done right.”

Council members kept their support fairly tepid, wanting to know more about a final framework of legislation, the impact on area poverty, and how much money could come back to Memphis.

Council member Joe Brown raised safety concerns and said security on Beale would need to be stepped up.

“If anybody find out you got $5,000 to $10,000 in your pocket down there doing sports betting, they're going to kill you,” Brown said.

Though the issue appears to have bipartisan support at least from local lawmakers, it's not clear if more conservative rural state lawmakers will give it the go-ahead.

Incoming Governor Bill Lee has also said previously he’s against sports betting.

MLGW proposes revised rate hikes

Another order of business at Tuesday’s meeting was MLGW’s proposed new rate hikes.

The two new options include spreading out rate hikes over more years but still reaching the same total of hikes by 2022.

“Each of the two options reduced the impact of any increase in 2019 and in most cases the options will reduce subsequent increases from what they were previously proposed to be,” said MLGW President and CEO J.T. Young.

Young reiterated to the council the importance of upgrading the infrastructure to reduce the frequency and duration of outages.

The council pushed discussion to January 22.

Union Row asks for $50M for parking garages

Developers for the $950 million Union Row project proposed in downtown Memphis are asking for additional public incentives: $50 million to build two parking garages.

“We want as much development downtown but at what cost?” said council member Martavious Jones. “I don't have a problem voting against this.”

Jones said he isn’t sold on the proposal by the Downtown Memphis Commission and Union Row developers.

The DMC indicated Tuesday if developers didn't get the deal, the project wouldn't move forward.

“There's protections in place. but this is no different from what we've been doing for many years now in other projects, it just happens to be a bigger one,” said DMC President Jennifer Oswalt.

The $50 million for the two garages would be loaned to developers, then paid back to the city over a period of years from a pot of funds the DMC says is specifically set aside for parking.

Plans for the Union Row project were publicized in November.

The 29-acre, $950 million development would include apartments, retail, office space, and a potential hotel.

Developers have already gotten approval for up to $100 million in incentives, not including the parking request.

“Both are financing tools,” Oswalt said. “They are not grants to the project, they are a way to get it built. It’s an assistance from the financing side. It’s not just a cash infusion from the city.”

The full council will discuss the garages in two weeks. The proposal also needs county commission approval.

“We shouldn’t let something like this get in the way and we have to be responsible,” Morgan said. “We have to find a way to get it done.”

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