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VOL. 125 | NO. 48 | Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fairgrounds Work Continues Despite Parking Questions

By Bill Dries

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The demolition and cleanup of the old Libertyland theme park is just about finished, and a 10-0 vote by the Memphis City Council this week means that and other work to create a “great lawn” at the Mid-South Fairgrounds will continue for now.

The council decision was the first of several critical hurdles for the basic plan to create more green space and bring down most of the buildings west of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

The council will vote on whether to move ahead with a contract to do design work later this month.

In 45 days to two months, a vote would come on the estimated cost and the council would look at the proposed design. Architect Tom Marshall, a consultant to the city, this week gave a rough and very preliminary estimate of $6 million to $9 million.

By early June the council would vote the project up or down.

The timetable is tentative but there isn’t much wiggle room to have the great lawn started and, more important, the six buildings demolished to create more parking by football season’s start in September.

It was concern about the parking spaces that led the city to stop work at the fairgrounds. Some asphalt near Libertyland was being taken up. A temporary siltation pond was also dug.

There were assurances from the city that the pond would be filled in by June and that there ultimately would be more than 7,000 parking spaces. There are nearly 6,000 spaces now on the fairgrounds property.

But Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones saw fewer parking spaces six months before kickoff for his annual football classic between Tennessee State University and Jackson State University.

“We need to know exactly what we have. I don’t mean conceptually,” Jones pointedly told Marshall at a Monday meeting between council members, Jones and officials from the University of Memphis and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. “You’re not creating new spaces.”

Marshall offered to come up with a detailed map showing individual parking spaces.

“I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve seen,” Jones said after he and others said the work by some divisions of the city, including Park Services, didn’t mesh with what other parts of city government were saying. “It’s just too convenient that the park services people weren’t here. Everytime we say there is additional parking, I have not seen it.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration had everyone involved at the next day’s council committee session. Jones came with a letter from his attorney.

The attorney for Jones’ Summitt Management Corp. sent the city a letter Tuesday proposing an amendment to the city’s five-year lease for the Southern Heritage Classic.

The existing agreement pledges that the city will “make every reasonable and good faith effort” to provide a minimum of 5,255 parking spaces from the existing 6,255 parking spaces.

“My understanding is that parking has already been reduced by more than 1,000 spaces,” wrote attorney Matthew P. Cavitch. “The city has recently assured SMC not to worry, that by game day the city will actually provide 7,500 spaces. That would be wonderful, but at this moment, there is no reason for SMC to trust such a promise.”

Cavitch proposes an amendment in which the city pays Summitt “liquidated damages” of $200,000 a year if there are not at least 7,500 parking spaces.

The general fairgrounds plan calls for demolishing six buildings on the property, excluding the Mid-South Coliseum, the Women’s Center near the old Libertyland site and the Arena Building.

The Arena Building is where the AutoZone Liberty Bowl hosts an annual gathering of 5,000 people before the game.

The Wharton administration wants to move the gathering to a large tent.

But Liberty Bowl organizers and the city are still talking about which will pay the estimated cost of approximately $100,000 for the tent.

The Arena Building could be added to the list of buildings to be demolished if an agreement is reached on the cost of the tent.

The building is the last barrier on the horizon of the proposed great lawn between East Parkway and the Liberty Bowl.

“Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?” council chairman Harold Collins said as the issue threatened to splinter a fragile council consensus. “Why wasn’t the cost or who would pay (for a tent) discussed?”

“Had we known it was an issue … something would have been done,” council member Reid Hedgepeth replied.

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