Lipscomb Calls for Streamlining In Project Approvals

By Bill Dries

GET THIS PARTY STARTED: Developer Henry Turley, of Fair Ground LLC, is anxious to begin planning for an overhaul of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The remake of The Pyramid and the makeover of the Mid-South Fairgrounds are two very different undertakings.

But they appear to be traveling the same political road – approval of a development agreement by the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

And there’s another similarity. The Herenton administration will make a second attempt at getting the county to sell to the city its share of the Fairgrounds as well as The Pyramid.

City Housing & Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb announced the second selloff attempt this week.

“We’ve got to streamline the process,” Lipscomb told the council. He said he plans to talk with the commission about it this month.

“We don’t want to separate them,” Lipscomb told The Daily News. “It’s to remove as much of the duplication as possible. These things are hard enough as they are. … But to have two processes, it makes it more difficult.”

Back in the grind

The County Commission recently rejected such a selloff during consideration of a development agreement for The Pyramid involving Bass Pro Shops. The city was offering $5 million for the county’s share.

The commission eventually approved the development agreement after the agreement won approval from the City Council.

Without a selloff, the Fairgrounds development agreement appears on its way to the same dual track debate and voting process.

The latest council briefing on the Fairgrounds redevelopment project came without a proposed development agreement for the council to vote on.

However, council chairman Myron Lowery has tentatively scheduled a vote for Dec. 16 on the first of three readings.

The Herenton administration picked Fair Ground LLC to develop a master plan for the property that includes the Mid-South Coliseum, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and The Children’s Museum of Memphis. A contract is still being worked out with the terms for drawing up that master plan – a development agreement.

Persuasion time

There are still several formidable obstacles to putting a development agreement in writing.

Lipscomb told The Daily News there are conflicting legal opinions on the amount of public infrastructure financing the city would have to put up to leverage private investment.

He said the amounts vary from $75 million to $200 million. The city is seeking legal opinions, including one from Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper on the public amount required under terms of Tourism Development Zone financing. If the amount is $200 million or close to it, Lipscomb said it makes the Fairgrounds renovation much harder to accomplish.

Henry Turley, one of several developer partners in Fair Ground LLC, said he considers the city’s contribution to be $75 million.

“We were there when the legislation was drafted. It’s $75 million,” Turley told The Daily News. “I can’t speak for the attorneys.”

Turley was instrumental in drafting the state legislation that allowed for the TDZs.

The TDZs allow for financing of bonds through sales tax revenue generated in the designated area or zone.

Turley wants to include a big box retail store on the site and possibly a hotel, according to tentative plans that are fluid on the location of those and other parts of an overall plan. The sales tax revenue from the store would go to pay off the TDZ bonds. No local government general fund revenue would be used.

Word of the snags came the day after Lipscomb and Turley met together to talk about them. Turley has been anxious about getting the development agreement approved soon so he can formally begin talks to move the Salvation Army Kroc Center to another part of the Fairgrounds. Turley wants the East Parkway frontage for the big-box retailer crucial to the TDZ financing. The TDZ bonds would not be issues, under his preliminary plan, until the retail part of The Fairgrounds projects is up and running.

“I hope you will keep extreme pressure on us to resolve this matter so we can get on with what I think everyone now knows is a great project for the city,” Turley told the council.