published Friday, September 5th, 2014

And another thing ... Bessie, CVS and Ukraine

Bessie: Asset Or Liability?

City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said Wednesday "the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is too valuable an asset to this community to allow it to languish in the position it is right now."

He's right in the M.L. King Boulevard facility being an asset. Its permanent African-American Museum exhibit of photos and artifacts of the history of blacks in Chattanooga is interesting and insightful, and its temporary art exhibits and performance hall music offerings are lush, breathtaking and equal to or better than those at other venues across the area.

But if you offer them, and nobody comes, or if what the center takes in from those who do come can't pay for what is offered, how long do you continue to call it an asset?

Financial reports show the center has lost money for the last three years, state funding has fallen off and the number of memberships has fallen.

In those same three years, the center has raised the level of its traveling exhibits and music programs. It should be the period when the center sees its greatest growth.

However, the theft in June of $88,932 from a center desk drawer -- who leaves that much money in a desk drawer? -- prompted an audit, and the news isn't pretty. Despite support from multiple foundations, despite money from the discretionary funds of two county commissioners, despite $60,000 in taxpayer funds from the city, the center has lost up to $40,000 in a year and is projected to lose more than $24,000 this year.

The center's IRS Form 990s, available online, makes the situation look even worse, with expenses exceeding revenue in tax year 2012 by $54,751, in 2011 by $56,300, in 2010 by $74,796 and in 2009 by $47,999.

Although Hakeem and Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey have urged center officials to release the full audit, neither the board nor the center's director will discuss it.

Perhaps the audit will answer some questions, but at a minimum the center -- and taxpayers who help fund it -- need to know from where the losses are coming (performers or exhibits too pricey? staff pay too high? too much overhead? too few visitors? too poorly managed? too static permanent display?).

Those answers and a long look at the entire operation with input from all involved parties is necessary and should provide an idea whether this asset just needs some tweaking to become the venue it should be or if it is simply an asset that has become a permanent liability.

Marketing Decision

CVS is taking a $2 billion gamble that customers won't care if they don't sell tobacco products anymore. That's how much company executives estimate they'll lose after yanking cigarettes, cigars and the like off their shelves by Oct. 1. That's their right, no government is forcing their hands and they believe the company will make up the losses by peddling more health care items and from income from its walk-in clinics.

If smokers don't like the decision, they may buy their products from other drug stores, food stores, convenience stores, tobacco outlets or any number of places, and they might decide to move their prescriptions. But CVS is betting it has made a sound marketing decision. We believe it has and further believe other drug chains will follow their lead.

Corker's Advice

President Obama was elected and is paid to make the big decisions for us. Fortunately, we don't have to choose how to respond to Russian President Vladamir Putin's continuing aggression in Ukraine.

Our U.S. senators are elected and are paid to offer advice and consent to the president, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is advising the president it's time to take more decisive action in the country.

"The best show of our resolve," he said this week, would be to "share intelligence inside Ukraine, provide appropriate lethal support" and "impose additional crippling sanctions" on Russia.

To date, Obama has employed some sanctions, remained rightly skeptical of U.S. military intervention there and tossed paragraphs of bombast the Russians' way. Many say that's the measured and correct way to go. But how much is too much for the Russians to bite off from Ukraine? The country has annexed the Crimea and seems set on at least the eastern part of Ukraine.

If the president is still hoping Putin will give it all back, he may be waiting a while. But while he waits, he ought to at least follow Corker's advice. After all, that's what he's there for.

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