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VOL. 118 | NO. 9 | Wednesday, January 14, 2004

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Study Could Determine Fairgrounds Future

Facilities, fair await evaluation of the city-owned property


The Daily News

It still encompasses 176 acres of prime real estate in Midtown Memphis, but the Mid-South Fairgrounds image is not the same as it once was.

Once a thriving center of activity that has played host to a minor league baseball team, a college basketball team and a myriad of events including the Mid-South Fair, the fairgrounds future is now in question.

The city-owned property could soon undergo a study that would examine its future. But the importance of the property itself isnt in question.

Talk about a central location I think the fairgrounds will continue to have a valuable role for the citizens of Memphis, currently and in the future, said Terry Norman, administrator of the fairgrounds and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

He said the city hopes to conduct the study sometime this year.

Future of the namesake. For the Mid-South Fair, the future is tricky. The 2003 fair is expected to show a loss, following a loss in the 2002 season due in part to bad weather.

Well be around for a few more years, said Ron Hardin, fair general manager. But were still recovering from events of 2001 and 2002. In all likelihood, well lose money from (the 2003) fair.

Hardin hopes fair officials will be in the loop regarding a city-conducted study. So far, he said, that has not been the case.

Were not privy to all that may be going on, he said. We would hope (the fair) would continue to be here. We hope we would at least be contacted about any plans.

Norman would not comment on the fairs future, only confirming that his office has not been in contact with fair officials.

New uses. The fair property is not the only area the study would examine. Amenities such as Tim McCarver Stadium and issues such as parking also would be considered.

Talk of turning the fairgrounds complex into a youth sports center has been discussed a prospect that could involve the Mid-South Coliseum, which has ice rink capabilities. With last months closing of the Mall of Memphis, the city was left without a public rink.

That prospect would conflict with plans announced by Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who recently called for demolition of the coliseum. The facility lost its premier arena status in 1991 when The Pyramid opened, taking the University of Memphis basketball team, its No. 1 tenant, Downtown.

However, at least one community group hopes to eventually use the coliseum for its ice capabilities. The Memphis Youth Hockey League lost its practice facility when the Ice Chalet at the Mall of Memphis closed.

Were hoping to work with the county and city, and maybe it means revisiting the Mid-South Coliseum, said Russ Beatse, recreation director for the league and vice chairman of its board of directors.

Good youth environment. Beatse believes the facility could be ideal for a youth rec center.

Weve got empty buildings that Shelby County and the city of Memphis own that can provide recreation in a good learning environment, he said. It could be a place to play roller hockey, indoor soccer.

In the meantime, the coliseum doesnt sit vacant, evidenced by a rock concert scheduled for later this month. The arena also hosted the first Shelby County Schools basketball championship in February 2003, along with other postseason high school basketball tournaments.

But since the Memphis RiverKings minor league hockey team moved to the new DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, Miss., empty nights have increased at the arena.

Damage to the fair. But, the fair could lose out if the coliseum disappears.

It would hurt us with the rodeo, and we use it for various other events, Hardin said. If they were to tear buildings down, it would have an adverse effect, just like the Shelby County Building will.

That building was torn down last month after it was heavily damaged by fire. The situation has forced another fairgrounds institution, The Big One flea market, to examine its future. The flea market, which used the Shelby County Building for its monthly event, needs a new home. It will use the coliseum on a temporary basis, but beyond that, its anybodys guess.

Right now, were looking at options for additional space here at the fairgrounds, said Randa Kahn, general manager of American Park N Swap, which operates the market.

Out with the old. Herentons preference to tear down the arena down makes sense, at least in the context of what other cities have done with old arenas. The site could provide more parking for the Liberty Bowl, more space for the fair or a number of other uses.

Its been done in cities across the country and to bigger stadiums.

Demolishing the facility, however, is easier said than done. The Mid-South Coliseum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 due to its musical and social importance to the community.

And since its much older and smaller than the two Downtown arenas, Hardin believes the coliseum still has a place in Memphis, as not all events are looking for a 20,000-seat palace.

I wish someone would take a harder look at the coliseum before tearing it down, Hardin said. I think it is viable because of the types of events that wont be in other arenas. I think theres a place for it in the city of Memphis.


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