Thursday, December 31, 2009

31 DEC 09: '99 Ways

It's easy on this day to think back over the last year. But I want to do something different. Think back even farther. What was on your mind TEN years ago today? Were you happy? Anxious? Downright concerned? Or simply concerned about getting used to writing checks with a year starting in "2"?

Ten years ago today was the brink of "Y-2-K." Months of concern had built about whether computers would recognize the start of 2000, or shut down forever. Some people made special preparations, such as withdrawing money from bank accounts. Compared with the fall of 2008, this potential collapse actually was expected.

But a friend of mine from the CNN years had an even better idea. Lisa Napoli was an Internet reporter for MSNBC, and suggested everyone take pictures of life on the last day of 1999 - on film, not digitally. Prints of film negatives could last through coming changes on technology. And this was back when an "I-Pod" referred to modular seating in an office.

(Lisa Napoli has a book coming out in the new year, and describes herself these days as a "recovering journalist." Maybe that's what I am, too. The humor here is a bridge between broadcast news and the "funny farm.")

So I took Lisa Napoli up on her historical challenge, and used a disposable camera to take a visual record of Columbus at the end of 1999. A review of the pictures Wednesday reminded me of how much has changed in the last ten years. Not everything has changed, of course - such as the residence of Carlton Gary.

I started with a picture of my computer system as of 31 December 99. My eMachines mainframe and monitor were about 18 months old. I still have the computer case on my kitchen floor, simply waiting for someone to break in and steal it.

That eMachines, uh, machine had frequent problems, and finally died for good in 2006 [23 Jun 06]. Yet I dared to replace it with another eMachines, which has given me no problems at all. It even has the original stickers in front - one of them urging me to try a six-month membership in AOL. Talk about old....

Downtown Columbus was being transformed at the end of 1999. The RiverCenter was starting to take shape. Imagine where we'd be without it - with the sight of Columbus Symphony Orchestra performers smoking during intermission in the Three Arts Theater parking lot.

There was no 13th Street Bridge at the end of 1999. Construction equipment was parked between Broadway and Front Avenue, and downtown drivers crossed the Chattahoochee at 14th Street. Hasn't that 14th Street Pedestrian Bridge concept worked out well? A few people like me jog on it, while the majority of users sit and gripe.

(That building on the left was the Holland House Furniture store on Broadway. It went out of business, as the bridge designers apparently couldn't afford to add a Front Avenue exit ramp for a parking lot.)

But as we like to say in Columbus (or do we still?), some progress was preserved downtown. The historic Mott House was kept intact, as TSYS built its headquarters around it. The Mott House is still there - and amazingly, no one is trying to sell rooms as loft space.

This historic building at Ninth and Front Avenue was in somewhat of its original condition in December 1999. It's since been renovated, and now is the home of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. The only place where you can smoke Tampa Cigars is on the other side of the back door, at Belloo's.

Downtown Columbus merchants tried to celebrate Y-2-K with a family-friendly New Year's Eve party. The original name for it was "Last Sunset in Georgia" - which some of us thought actually made people more nervous about power failures and computer crashes.

The Dillingham Street Bridge was closed for the "Sunset Celebration," and a Ferris wheel was set up there. That approach continued for several years at Thunder on the Hooch in July - but the "First Night" celebrations ended within a couple of years, due to lack of interest. Columbus residents apparently love drunken rides in SafetyCab that much.

A "Millennium Clock Tower" was dedicated on Bay Avenue during the Sunset Celebration, and a time capsule was buried with a message from Mayor Bobby Peters. Perhaps by the next millennium, someone will get the clock to run accurately on all four sides again.

The last day of 1999 was a Friday, and WTVM had its entire full-time news team on duty in case Y-2-K trouble developed. I had become a part-time freelancer about a month before, and was NOT called in. But I showed my compassion by taking boxes of Golden Donuts to the newsroom. No, there was NO pastry shaped like a 2 thrown in.

The WTVM newsroom was a cramped "bowling alley" for years, before moving to a modern spacious area a few years ago. The woman facing our camera is Alicia Smith, who now anchors morning news in Detroit. To her left is the person I trained to succeed me on the 6:00 p.m. news. Valerie Fuller now is Muscogee County Schools Director of Communications -- but hmmmm, she hasn't trained me to do HER job yet.

But there were other sights to see on 31 Dec 99. Columbus State University had a large construction project underway. As I recall (but I might be wrong), this became the Lumpkin Center. In another sign of changing times, I don't recall any students complaining in 1999 about being unable to find parking spaces.

Across the street from the university, it was a quiet Friday morning at the "train station" Burger King. It was built that way in anticipation of the promised trolley service between downtown Columbus and Peachtree Mall. The past year revealed the closest thing we may ever see to that is a procession of bicycles built for two.

I shot a picture of the drive-thru lane at Burger King because I wanted to record the prices as of December 1999. It didn't turn out very well, but you can see there was a 99-cent value menu with ten items on it. These days, items on the "Breakfast Value Menu" start at one dollar. And you thought inflation had disappeared....

An ambulance stopped our drive at River Road and Veterans Parkway - but note the Citgo station on the right. It's still there now, but the gas prices in December 1999 started at $1.17 per gallon. The best price I saw Wednesday was $2.49 - which almost makes me long for another national financial collapse.

I still have a copy of the Ledger-Enquirer from 31 Dec 99. A Winn-Dixie ad in that edition showed lettuce on sale for 99 cents a bunch. Last week at Piggly Wiggly, it was selling for $2.19 - but instead of telling the staff to "bag it," I bought bagged cole slaw.

(And another sign of changing times, the Ledger-Enquirer's self-proclaimed "Historic Edition" that day had more than 100 pages with several sections. If someone suggested that for a Friday edition in 2009, he or she might have been furloughed for a week.)

We can't overlook Midtown Columbus. The marquee for Cross County Plaza in December 1999 included Service Merchandise, CVS Pharmacy and Talbot's. All of them have either folded or moved now. And the Pier 1 Imports building was bulldozed last year for a new bank -- which I'm not sure can even exchange your imported Euros for dollar bills.

And this picture invariably starts a conversation when people see it. Columbus Square Mall still stood in December 1999, featuring a Radio Shack store. You can tell from the parking lot that the "digital decade" was yet to arrive....

Even my envelope with the pictures reflects a change from ten Decembers ago. The photos were processed at Eckerd -- which is now RiteAid. That beats Wolf Camera, which at last report was on the endangered business species list.

For those of you who might not remember how Y-2-K turned out: nothing disastrous happened. I went to bed on that Friday night around 10:00 p.m., but awakened just in time to see my bedroom clock switch to 12:00 midnight. It didn't beep, blow up or anything.

Let's return to 2009 now, where some news actually happened Wednesday:

+ An evening fire extensively damaged the kitchen at Ruth Ann's restaurant downtown. The building is NOT a total loss - but if I was the owner of Minnie's Uptown Restaurant, I'd start a breakfast menu to achieve a total gain.

+ Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren told WRBL the year ends with 85 new officers hired. The department is still 15 short of the promised 100. Don't the residents of Valley Rescue Mission recognize a good career opportunity?

+ A Pew Forum study concluded Alabama is the second-most religious state in the U.S., while Georgia ranks ninth. Alabama places nine states higher than Georgia in worship attendance - but let's face it, most of Alabama is unable to watch Bill Purvis's telecast on Saturday nights.

+ Alabama Attorney General Troy King joined 12 other states in threatening a lawsuit over the Senate health care reform bill. I haven't seen so much jealousy over Nebraska since Tom Osborne was the football coach.

+ WTVM reported Woodrow Lowe has been hired as head coach of Phenix City Central high school football. This comes two weeks after the Phenix City Council presented Lowe a key to the city - so the school superintendent had better get the locks at Garrett-Harrison Stadium adjusted quickly.

+ Roundball Night in Dixieland found Georgia's men pasting Pepperdine 64-47. These colleges have a common history, as both once were coached by Jim Harrick. On the west coast, Harrick was a rising star. At Georgia, his staff got in trouble for raising grades.

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