Tuesday, June 22, 2010

22 JUN 10: Shortfall, Long Summer

Peachtree Mall in Columbus has one. So does downtown Auburn. But Phenix City didn't officially have one, until it was announced Monday at a special city council meeting -- and the trouble is, Phenix City's expensive "Gap" has nothing to do with pricy clothing.

Phenix City Finance Director Stephen Smith reported the city is on track to have a million-dollar budget shortfall. To its credit, the city council did NOT panic at this news - by hurriedly voting to allow fireworks stands inside the city limits for Independence Day.

Stephen Smith cited three main reasons why Phenix City faces a big budget gap....

+ People aren't shopping as much, due to the recession. Someone tried to open a donut shop on 14th Street earlier this year, and it went.... well, down the holes.

+ Columbus business is growing, and Phenix City residents are shopping there. Smith noted Phenix City used to be all alone with a Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Now it's all alone, as a SuperCenter charging state sales tax on groceries.

+ Base realignment families move to Phenix City, then shop at Fort Benning's PX. This may also explain why the next "team" to visit Bama Lanes will be operating bulldozers.

Stephen Smith seems perceptive in his explanation - but he also raises a big question. Don't the second and third excuses contradict the first one? Phenix City residents apparently are shopping, but they're leaving town to do it at a lower cost. And the Lee County Flea Market is simply too far north to annex into the city limits.

If you know where to look, Phenix City has some values. I filled my gas tank there over the weekend, and saved three cents a gallon compared with the lowest price I found in Columbus. There, you see - it pays to be in a state where oil is washing up on beaches.

I even save money on poker nights, when I play in Phenix City. By that, I mean the sodas cost less than at Columbus bars. It still costs every bit as much, when your bluff gets exposed as a sham....

Yet drive around Phenix City, and you'll see plenty of empty storefronts. One prime example is on either side of U.S. 280 north of U.S. 80. Large retail spaces stand vacant, where supermarkets used to be. When The Fresh Market doesn't consider north Phenix City a wealthy suburb of Columbus, that's a bad sign.

This is obviously why Phenix City is trying to relaunch an economic development department. Businesses across the country need to be reminded that Phenix City is one of the 15 largest cities in Alabama. That it has more than $185 million in retail sales each year. And it's big enough now to have two El Vaquero restaurants.

The Phenix City Council has until the end of September to finalize its next budget, and deal with the million-dollar shortfall. But officials promised Monday NO city employees would be laid off. And I'd think Councilors have learned a valuable lesson from Columbus in recent weeks - to avoid changing school times.

Meanwhile, the Muscogee County School Board approved a $262 million budget Monday night. Board members complimented Superintendent Susan Andrews for finding a way to avoid teacher layoffs - even if it means some parents get fired for missing work, under the new school schedule.

BLOG UPDATE: Tim James waved the Republican red flag Monday -- announcing he'll no longer challenge the results of the Alabama Primary for Governor. The recount ended with second-place Robert Bentley ahead of James by more votes than before. If James filed a lawsuit, he really might have embarrassed himself and finished fourth.

Last week we posted an audio clip, purportedly from a recount room somewhere in rural Alabama [17 Jun]. Apparently our post caused some kind of tumult, because we now have (giggle) a second clip of the recount being conducted a second time. If this doesn't work, the county may have to blow up its budget and buy some calculators.

Here's what else had us keeping score, on the first day of summer....

+ The Columbus NAACP announced several retired Muscogee County School employees will sue the district, claiming discrimination in retirement plans. In a curious turn, the NAACP "spokesman" at a news conference was former chapter president Bill Madison. Since Ronnie Reed didn't use Madison in his failed Alabama House campaign, Madison had to let off steam somewhere.

(So where is Columbus NAACP President Marcus Hunter? If something is wrong with him, no one's told me about it. For all I know, he could be with another missing public figure -- holding top-secret negotiations with Fire Chief Jeff Meyer.)

+ The Muscogee County School Board approved a contractor to bulldoze what's left of the old Baker High School. Alumni of the school were allowed onto the grounds last week, to remove keepsakes for an upcoming online auction. If they found a desk with doodles signed by Newt Gingrich, that should be a top seller.

+ Synovus announced Chairman Richard Anthony is taking a medical leave of absence, due to a blood vessel disorder. We hope he gets well soon - along with all the investors who have been depressed lately, due to foreclosed homes and lower stock prices.

+ The Ledger-Enquirer reported about 400,000 people have visited the National Infantry Museum since its grand opening last June. WLTZ noted there's a new physical training display on the grounds, with pull-up bars - perfect for sightseers who can't walk through the displays fast enough.

+ Our New Miss Georgia Christina McCauley was awarded the keys to a Kia Sorrento, to drive for the next year. Here we have a major difference between the Miss America and Miss U.S.A. organizations. Miss America and its Georgia satellite find nothing wrong with being politically correct.

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