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VOL. 120 | NO. 240 | Thursday, December 1, 2005

Debate Mounts on Fairgrounds Proposals

As business leaders push rec center, others rally around park

By Andy Meek

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MAKING PLANS: U of M law school assistant professor Steven Mulroy and Denise Parkinson discuss ways to save historic structures as the Mid-South Fairgrounds readies for an overhaul. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

When local bands the Zippin Pippins and the Revolutionaires perform at Murphy's in Midtown next week, the show will be about more than music: It also will pay homage to the amusement park where Memphians have enjoyed the scent of funnel cakes, the charm of an old-fashioned carousel and the dips and dives of roller coasters since it opened in 1976.

Grassroots effort. And just so no one misses the point, grassroots activists will be among the audience members at the concert to hand out petitions in favor of saving Libertyland, the struggling amusement park that Mid-South Fair officials voted recently to close. The park was missing last month from a redevelopment scenario for the fairgrounds endorsed by a committee that had studied the property for more than a year.

It's no coincidence that the headliners of next week's show took their names from two of Libertyland's signature rides: the Zippin' Pippin - well-known as Elvis Presley's favorite roller coaster - and the Revolution.

"This is the first step in a series of events dedicated to this worthy endeavor," said Denise Parkinson, whose group - Save Libertyland! - has begun filming a documentary about the organization's efforts that will continue through next year's Mid-South Fair.

Clash of ideas. Those efforts are the latest evidence that the 170-acre fairgrounds property is ground zero in a clash of ideas between preservationists, real estate developers, entrepreneurs and city leaders, all of whom favor different schemes for reinventing the underused land.

The property includes Libertyland, the Mid-South Coliseum, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and Fairview Jr. High School - all of which face an uncertain future.

"We want to do a really nice, well-planned show on the grounds of Libertyland at the Creative Arts Building," Parkinson said of her fledgling cause, which has received pledges of support from national groups including the National Carousel Association and American Coaster Enthusiasts because of Libertyland's historic rides.

"The quality and caliber of the fields and courts the (proposed Memphis Athletic Campus) would provide - the city schools just don't have it in their budget to do anything like that."
- Kerr Tigrett
member, development team for the MAC, which would include athletic fields and a new community center

Parkinson - who formerly ran Midtown eatery The Glass Onion - formed the Libertyland group along with local musician Amy LaVere, as well as filmmaker Mike McCarthy, who has recently done video work for the rock band The Hives.

"Libertyland is an easy target, but we're going to try to make it a hard one," she said.

Recreation complex. At the same time, a group of local businessmen is working to generate interest in a plan to dramatically remake the fairgrounds property into a $100 million sports and recreation complex, a proposal that has received support from various community groups and some of the city's biggest civic and corporate names.

The trio pushing to build that complex - dubbed the Memphis Athletic Campus - insists it could have a profound impact. Kerr Tigrett, a local entrepreneur who is part of the group of three, said a conservative estimate shows the complex would impact the city to the tune of $20 million per year.

It would include sports fields, a BMX and skateboard facility, and - perhaps most notably - a 103,000-square-foot community center sponsored by the local Salvation Army. The grounds would be for public use, and its sponsors envision athletic space that would be used by everyone from health-conscious citizens to city school students.

Community space. The latter particularly stand to benefit from the addition of badly needed sports fields and recreational space.

"And the quality and caliber of the fields and courts the MAC would provide - the city schools just don't have it in their budget to do anything like that," Tigrett said.

The local Salvation Army was approved for a $48 million grant from the estate of Joan Kroc - widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc - that would be used to build the Kroc Community Center here. The center would join others built around the country that offer programs for people of all ages.

The local grant stipulates that the Salvation Army must raise $24 million on its own before the center could be built in Memphis. The group hopes to finish that fund raising by the first quarter of 2006.

"We need to raise another $11 million, and we're at $13 million now," said Danny Morrow, Salvation Army area commander.

Eye on the goal. He added that construction could begin by the end of next year. It would take an estimated 18 to 24 months to build the recreational center.

"The grant that we have been given from the proceeds of the Joan Kroc gift includes $24 million for construction, $24 million to establish the endowment, and then our obligation is to match that amount," Morrow said. "We're continuing to make attempts to raise the money, and we're still believing. As the tennis folks would say, the ball is in our court."

And like a pro sports team with one eye on the clock as it mounts a final, game-winning play, the three-person team pushing the MAC proposal is serious about turning the fairgrounds into a local treasure again. Rick Brenneman, part of the group and formerly part of the Memphis & Shelby County Sports Authority, said the concept behind the MAC is revolutionary.

New opportunities. He said the group would like to offer educational opportunities - perhaps tutoring programs - at the MAC campus. They might include teaching kids by using mathematical word problems with sports scenarios.

The campus also would offer opportunities for sports-minded youth.

"Sports are not merely for putting letters on a jacket or getting trophies," Brenneman said. "It's a potentially lifelong activity for socialization, for health issues, leadership skills - and all the things that originally attracted people to sports are possible to have at a complex like this."

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597