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VOL. 123 | NO. 184 | Friday, September 19, 2008

Herenton Addresses Convention Center Speculation

By Bill Dries

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“I would hope that some of these Memphians would stop drinking that Haterade and join this bandwagon of progress.”
– Willie Herenton
Memphis mayor

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said Thursday no decision has been made on the idea of a new convention center, much less the cost of such a center and its location.

But he added the key question might be whether the city can afford not to build a new one.

Herenton reacted in a City Hall press conference to speculation that such a center might be built near FedExForum and Beale Street and could cost as much as $600 million.

“There is no perceived outcome that I’m expecting or suggesting,” Herenton said of the work of a special committee he’s appointed to examine the issue. “No decision has been made on whether we build a new convention center or whether we expand the existing convention center. No decisions have been made. No decisions have been made about location. … No developers have been selected because there’s nothing tangible.”

He also said the city needs a single 600- to 1,000-room hotel at or near such a convention center.

In the process, Herenton said his administration plans to expand the Beale Street Entertainment District and that an expansion of the National Civil Rights Museum is also being planned. He would not elaborate on the broader economic development plan.

The committee he’s appointed on the convention center idea is working as Herenton’s administration is pushing the redevelopment of The Pyramid by Bass Pro Shops and just this week proposed the city’s purchase of Hickory Ridge Mall for $8 million.

Herenton acknowledged criticism of the convention center planning against the backdrop of other controversial civic projects in uncertain economic times.

“They want to know what we’re smoking,” he told reporters. “Tell them we’re smoking enthusiasm. We’re smoking a vision. We’re smoking a passion for a great American city that we don’t want to be stagnant. I would hope that some of these Memphians would stop drinking that Haterade and join this bandwagon of progress.”

Herenton first raised the idea of a new or renovated convention center in January.

The Memphis Cook Convention Center recently underwent a major renovation that included demolition of the old Ellis Auditorium and construction of the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts in its place. The construction project led to lawsuits that were eventually settled, and the debt from the construction project is still being paid off.

“We invested about $100 million in that new convention center. That new convention center has generated a minimum of $200 million to this Memphis economy,” Herenton said of the expansion.

He conceded that the area around Beale Street is “attractive” for a new convention center but told reporters that doesn’t mean land there will be the site.

The public financing of any convention center would be done with new market tax credits, Herenton said. Those tax credits are also being relied on for the public financing pieces of The Pyramid renovation and the pending redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The signing of a contract with Henry Turley’s Fair Ground LLC to develop the fairgrounds is still on hold as Herenton’s financial officers review sales tax revenue projections involved in that financing. Herenton said he wants to be sure the projections are accurate on that project and others.

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