Thursday, June 04, 1998

Ford Discourages Harbor-Park Project; Says Education, Housing More Important

Commercial Appeal
by James W. Brosnan
Shirley Downing contributed to this story.

With prospects dimming for federal aid for Mayor Willie Herenton's riverfront development, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) said Thursday that the mayor should refocus his lobbying on education and housing.

"It's not a project I'm terribly excited about. I'm urging the mayor and the city to reconsider some priorities," Ford said.

Ford commented a day after Tennessee Sens. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) failed in efforts to get start-up funds of $3.5 million for the $43 million project.

Ford also released a letter he sent to the mayor on Tuesday that questioned whether the mayor's focus on the project is "reasonable or justified.''

Ford suggested that Herenton should be lobbying for President Clinton's proposals to aid local governments in constructing schools because "dozens of schools in Memphis have been forced to stop classes early and send their students home due to a lack of air-conditioning.''

Carey Hoffman, the mayor's executive assistant, said Herenton would not respond until he received the letter.

Hoffman, however, said the City of Memphis has committed nearly $110 million through its capital improvements budget toward education, which she said is "more than any admininstration in the city's history."

Herenton recently said he views the riverfront as "one of the city's most valuable assets."

The city has been lobbying Washington for funding to build the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $50 million.

The mayor said the city has about $11 million or $12 million in hand from various government sources. If additional federal funds are not forthcoming, Herenton said he would like to proceed with a scaled-down harbor-front development, possibly omitting the proposed lake.

He also said he likely would approach the Memphis City Council for "modest support of up to $6 million'' toward harborfront development.

Herenton's top priority in Washington has been to secure federal aid for his plan to create a 36-acre lake on the Memphis riverfront by redirecting the mouth of the Wolf River and damming the channel between Mud Island and the riverfront.

He made a special trip to lobby the staff of the only Mid-South senator on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and made the project the lone mission for his Washington lobbyist, Mike Flint.

That effort suffered a major setback Wednesday when the chairman of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), recommended no money for any new water projects so that Army Corps of Engineers funds could be concentrated on current work.

City Public Works director Benny Lendermon said he still hopes to get funding to start design work on the project.

Thompson said he remains a "strong supporter" of the mayor's plan and will pursue the funding later in the appropriations process.

Frist blamed the Clinton administration for proposing a budget for the corps that is $1.3 billion below this year's budget.

"This is obviously a very important project for Memphis and I'm disappointed the Appropriations Committee was unable to fund it," Frist said. "I hope the House side will take another swing at it."

But Ford said he hasn't even been asked by the city to submit a request to the House Appropriations Committee.

"I hope there is no question that we are seeking the money," Lendermon said. "It's hard to imagine anyone having any confusion on that issue. I think we're going to ask all of our delegation to try to get the money."

Even if he submitted the request, Ford said he doubts it would be approved considering the tight restrictions of the balanced budget and the fact that the corps itself has not sought the money. Last year, Herenton criticized Ford for seeking an appropriation for the project too late in the congressional year. This year, Ford fought for the cobblestones funding, but he remains skeptical of the overall project.

In his letter to Herenton, Ford said the two biggest economic problems for the city are workforce development and a lack of good, affordable housing. "At a time when we are struggling to prepare the young people in our community and region for the challenges they will face in the increasingly competitive global marketplace, it seems clear to me that providing them with modern schools and stimulating classrooms is a much more important priority than building a recreational lake within our river," he said.

"As the primary driving force behind the Mid-South's economy, Memphis can and should be at the forefront of the nationwide urban revitalization effort. Unfortunately, however, at this point we are not," Ford said.

Copyright (c) 1998 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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