June 15, 2011

The bizarre ballad of Benny Breeze

Astro-turfed pro-bridges campaign courts controversy, confusion

Today, the ongoing saga of the Ohio River Bridges Project is going to get a lot weirder.

At 1:30 p.m. at the Kentucky African-American Heritage Center, the public will be introduced to Benny Breeze, the main character of a short film whose purpose is to “educate and entertain” the community about the $2.9 billion public works project in what amounts to a bizarre media campaign and bus tour bankrolled by pro-bridges project financiers that some members of the anti-toll activist community are calling an “astro-turfing” effort designed to distract, mislead and — at worst — offend.

As depicted in a YouTube trailer for the film, titled “Buildin’ Bridges with Benny Breeze,” the character is a foul-mouthed champion of the bridges project whose penchant for cigarettes and racial stereotypes has run afoul of African-American community leaders, and whose humor depicts a derogative stereotype at their expense.

“This shit’s gettin’ ridiculous,” says the diminutive, wise-cracking Breeze in the film’s trailer, pointing out the sorry state of the Kennedy Bridge. “There’s been 450 public meetings and a five-year federal environmental study. That’s a lot of time and money. And we’re gonna waste it, throw it away?”

Breeze (née Chris Saunders, a local comedian) is a character created by Team HiHo, a video production duo comprised of Louisville-based filmmakers Brennan Clark and Kyle Crews, who describe themselves as apolitical entertainers who have worked with each other producing comedy shorts since they were students at Manual High School.

In April, Crews and Clark were commissioned to create a short film about the bridges project by Vaughan Scott — a Louisville investment banker who had grown tired of what he called the “rumors, speculation and innuendo” that had come to dominate discourse on the bridges project — to produce a short film that would bypass the dry rhetoric surrounding the multifaceted public works project, which aims to reconfigure Spaghetti Junction, build two new bridges spanning the Ohio River, and utilize tolls to help cover the massive cost.

“Neither Brennan or me had given too much thought about the bridges issue. I’d say we’re both … kinda apathetic as far as local politics is concerned,” Crews says. “We don’t really get into it a whole lot because there is so much back and forth, and there’s very rarely progress.”

“We really saw a need there to get some information out, because so little of it had reached the public,” Crews adds. “We’re pretty goofy guys, so the chance to take a message like this and kinda spin it out of a political discussion and more into entertainment — and educational at the same time — really kind of excited us.”

Vaughan Scott explains Benny’s genesis thusly.

“My frustration as it relates to this project was that I sat in numerous board meetings with other community leaders, and we talked and we talked and we talked and we did nothing, which drives me crazy,” Scott tells LEO. “So essentially, I told these leaders who I have tremendous respect for that they couldn’t help me as much as Brennan and Kyle could help me. Because we have public meetings coming up at the end of June, and if we try and do the traditional methods of getting information out, it’s gonna sound like a sales pitch, it’s gonna sound like it’s rehearsed, and it’s gonna sound like something that nobody listens to anymore in the world today.”

Although Scott says he became involved in the project on behalf of the future of his three daughters and the future of the community, there appears to be more motivation behind his senses of familial concern and civic duty.

Scott is a board member of Southern Indiana’s pro-bridges project chamber of commerce, One Southern Indiana, and is the vice president of Wells Fargo subsidiary Axiom Financial Strategies Group, a well-to-do position allowing him to spend (along with other anonymous donors) an undisclosed sum to finance the Benny Breeze campaign.

In 2003, he served as the vice president for wealth management at brokerage and investment firm Smith Barney and, according to his Axiom corporate profile page, founded the Smith Barney Investment Center at New Albany’s Your Community Bank, a commercial bank upon whose board sits none other than Kerry Stemler, finance subcommittee chairman and co-chair of the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority (LSIBA).

Currently, Axiom is housed in the same building as Stemler’s bank, at 101 W. Spring Street in New Albany, Ind.

The need for a new branding effort was conceived in part during an April 20, 2011, meeting between Scott, Clark and Crews; bridges project managers John Sacksteder and Gary Valentine; the Indiana Department of Transportation director of strategy and major projects Scott Stewart; and bridges authority spokeswoman Christi Robinson, among others.

During that meeting, Scott says, “We kinda laid it out for them. We said we may choose to use some language that people may not like. The point is that we have to get the information to the public quickly.”

Scott says he also consulted with members of the community, although not with neighborhood associations or activist groups, but instead with members of Leadership Louisville, Leadership Southern Indiana and Greater Louisville Inc.

“In a country that was built by risk takers … we’ve created an environment now where, by God, take some risks, but if it’s not a sure thing before you do, we’re gonna look and watch you fall,” Scott says. “It’s better to err for having done something than to not do anything but hope things change.”

Such impediments to the infrastructural change advocated by Breeze and his message-crafters are made clear on the campaign’s website — b4bridges.com — which says that “as a community we must work collectively and swiftly to eliminate this threat as promptly as possible,” the threat likely being anti-toll groups, 8664 and even the obstructionist-minded conservancy River Fields, all of whom have issues with the bridges project as is.

“Frankly, I’m not sure how to respond. I don’t understand who it’s targeting or what is the motivation behind the pro-bridges push,” says J.C. Stites, co-founder of 8664, about the Breeze video. “We think they might be trying to solve the wrong problem. We’re all for doing a better job of maintaining what we already have. But when it comes to any new work, we want less Spaghetti, lower tolls and faster completion. We want there to be less concrete and rebar in the future.”

Others, such as Kentucky Jobs with Justice’s Attica Scott, are offended by Breeze’s portrayal of African-Americans.

“I’m offended to even think about who the target audience is supposed to be,” Scott tells LEO. “Particularly if it’s supposed to be my community of black folks: Have somebody sitting at a club with a jar full of cigarette butts and what appears to be a glass of alcohol. It’s reaching into the lowest and worst stereotypes that people could find of a particular sector of our community.”

But Clark, Crews and Vaughan Scott say that great care and thought were taken when constructing Breeze’s image and character, adding that their unorthodox, irreverent approach will provide for a better conversation or, at the very least, entertain.

“I think anytime you create a comedy that’s worthwhile on any level, there’s certain risks you’re going to take that are not going to pay off with certain people,” Crews says. “Undoubtedly, there are people who are going to take offense to this, and what I would say is for the wrong reason. Hopefully they’ll see that our goals are to push this community forward and not just be funny guys.”

Breeze’s “VIP” bus tour kicks off tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. on Spalding University’s main campus, and will stop by Sellersburg, Ind.’s Ivy Tech auditorium at 11 a.m. 

Corrections

By Vaughan Scott
First, I am offended that you pay so little respect to three incredibly talented artists and film makers: Brennan Clark, Kyle Crews and Chris Saunders. They should not only be respected for their talents, but they should also be applauded for their efforts and the countless hours that they have worked on this film. Is this the way the Leo supports local artists???? Second, there will be no viewing of the film by the public until tomorrow. Third, we met with the Bridges Project Team to gain access to facts and that has been our goal from the beginning. You left out the fact that they were asked to answer 3 pages of questions and they have been sent numerous emails to follow asking for more clarification. Fourth, none of the companies that I own in part, nor the company that I work for have anything to do with my activites. I am simply exercising my right as citizen to free speech. Lastly, if you had been interested in doing some real work at uncovering the facts yourself on this issue, Johnathan, you would have actually been at the Regional Advisory Council Meeting meeting today and you would know already that the record will reflect that I said: "I am here representing my 3 children and also Benny Breeze who could not be here today (smiling)." Vaughan Scott

The Biggest Offense of All

By Stevietheman
The biggest offense of all coming from this ad was the idea that such a major community issue, let alone any community issue, should be outside of politics. This is anti-democratic, juvenile, delusional and outrageous. I would submit that if they want this project to move along faster, make it a project that the community can clearly rally behind. Obviously, we're not there yet. Perhaps the authors of this foul propaganda piece should look at the last poll conducted to see what the people in this area actually think, and the reality is that most oppose their position. On top of all that, I agree with Stites -- Nobody is in favor of allowing the Kennedy to deteriorate. Surely it can be refurbished as part of a bridge(s) project, or as its own project. Steve Magruder - Louisville History & Issues - www.historyandissues.com

Well said Steve M. Gil

By SAVE LOUISVILLE
Well said Steve M. Gil Holland once said that no one under the age of 40 supports the downtown ORBP. That is a bit of an exaggeration but the creation of this video is an indication that full ORBP supporters understand the dearth of support for this project. I do not envy the position of the video's authors who are tasked with selling a design that Young Louisvillians intuitively understand will be detrimental to our city's image and economy. If I, like the video's authors, didn't care about politics and was tasked with selling this undemocratic boondoggle, I would use the same strategy, Mislead and distract.

clarification requested

By curtis morrison
Vaughan, I've spent a few days now trying to figure out if you guys met with the Louisville Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, or with the Bridges Coalition. The former was created by state law in Indiana and Kentucky, and the latter is a private, non-profit organization. I believe you told Shawn Reilly that Christy Robinson, with the Bridges Authority, was not there. Yet, you've told the LEO Weekly that she was? Also, you originally listed on the website that funding was from "from many local businesses and members of the community." But then in comments on my blog you represented that the funding was absorbed by you...you wrote, "vast majority of the hard dollar costs personally....over 90% to date." Which is it? Where did the other 10% funding come from, and how much was it? Thanks in advance for your transparency.

We really don't care if you are offended

By chungkingchungking
Reading your comment, I could really care less if you are offended by the lack of respect for this people and their so called talents. You respect no one and therefore you deserve no respect from the rest of us. What's really quite interesting is the way that you've framed this issue as being obstructionism when in fact the public has a right to demand transparency and not the good old boy system. Is that the way the financial system works these days? Kind of like the big shots getting their bailouts from government? So the industry makes bad financial choices but asks for a bailout from big government? Always interesting how that works out that private capital now socializes the losses and runs off with the profits. Kind like what you are proposing that we do with the Ohio Bridges Project. Of course, you had your three hired little guns to do your bidding when they made this film. Wonder what kind of money you paid them? Anyone can buy anyone if they have the money and it appears that is what you did here. I could care less about their talents or their ambitions and whether or not they should be applauded. I think they should be scorned for working with someone who is subverting the democratic process. Interesting that you bring up the concept of free speech at a time when your own video made the reference to the fact that those who didn't like what Benny had to say could get up and get the F##k out of the area. Hmm, that's real democratic you know. In fact, you're the type of guy who needs to be boycotted and your business interests need to be boycotted as well as people from the whole Louisville region to boycott the businesses of those who are pushing this monstrosity down the throats of the people of this region. A lot of the people of Louisville are not amused and you can expect that we will make sure to remember.

Comment

By chungkingchungking
Here's another piece of advice for them. If they want to hamstring the public and taxpayers with this sort of corrupt good old boy project, then perhaps they should put up their own money and where their mouth is. Its interesting to hear these corporate socialists talk about how we should pay tolls and other fees for these bridges while they make the decisions. Sorry but a lot of us are quite jaded by your hypocrisy and your rotten ethics. The Louisville general public needs to be made aware of these things and start boycotting the businesses and the banks of these shifty individuals. Start by pulling your money out of their banks. Ask King about that when people started pulling money out and closing accounts. He made an abrupt about face real quick when it came to a boys home that had opposed. In other words, invest in projects with your own money and stay out of the pockets of the rest of us.

Does Anyone realize we still have a bottleneck?

By NotOpposedToProgress
We can expand the downtown bridge to allow for more traffic but what about the bottleneck at hospital curve? And Cochoran Hill Tunnel? We can throw money at the bridges and hope it solves our traffic problems but what if it doesn't because we still have a larger problem(s)? Why can't we just build the east end bridge and then re-evaluate the downtown bridge. Contrary to propaganda, it is not going to fall down. The Kennedy Bridge still has many years of life in it and anybody who throws out 'impending' demise is stirring up the pot with bad information. I give an "amen" to the 8664 folks who have been at this a lot longer than these newer groups. We don't need a 1950's highrise interstate cutting across our downtown riverfront. Let's work there ideas into the solution.