The proposed Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) needs to be rejected. While most of the recent debate has been confined to the impact on education funding, there are several more serious issues with the TDZ.
First, if the Fairgrounds TDZ was a private-sector project with a private-sector developer, there is no bank in the world that would lend money for the current proposal. No private investor would spend $176 million on a project to build 400,000 square feet of retail, a 180-room hotel, an indoor sports facility, and a multipurpose outdoor sports complex without several major tenants and a solid business plan.
The idea of using retail as a “tourist magnet” defies logic. The reality is that brick-and-mortar retail is in decline. Companies like Best Buy, Target and Urban Outfitters are ramping up their online stores because more consumers are shopping with their computers, smartphones and tablets. Building a shopping mall with public money is ludicrous.
The existing plan is over eight years old. Perhaps it made business sense at one time, but much has changed. Cooper Young is growing and Overton Square is revitalized. It is irresponsible to rush into a fairgrounds project without determining if it remains relevant.
The TDZ asks for a three-square-mile area from which to poach sales tax revenue. The proposed area is twelve times larger than the 155-acre fairgrounds site. The proposed TDZ district includes Cooper Young, the Memphis Zoo, Overton Square and the site of the newly announced Kroger on Union. The TDZ needs to stand on its own merit and it simply does not.
Private development of the Fairgrounds should be encouraged. There are many entities who have indicated a willingness to invest if the city would only make the land available. Many cities, states and countries are looking to sell assets (like land) and use the proceeds to pay down debt and improve infrastructure. The city of Memphis should look to convert the vacant land into a tax-paying and revenue-producing property without any public investment.
Should something be done at the Fairgrounds? Certainly. Should the city of Memphis be the developer? I think not. The city of Memphis has many priorities and limited resources. Building a shopping mall with public money is about the worst possible idea I have ever seen.
Steve Basar is a member of the Shelby County Commission.