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VOL. 124 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Turley Pushes For Progress On Fairgrounds

By Bill Dries

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IN LIMBO: Fair Ground LLC developer Henry Turley, left, and Mayor Willie Herenton met for an hour Tuesday in Herenton’s office to determine where the redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds goes after months of delays. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and fairgrounds developer Henry Turley met for about an hour in Herenton’s office Tuesday about the uncertain future of the project.

Turley is part of Fair Ground LLC, the development group chosen by the city to guide development of the land for public recreation. Under the Fair Ground vision, that development would be paid for with sales tax rebates created through a Tourism Development Zone and generated by a big-box retailer on the site.

But Fair Ground doesn’t have a development agreement with the city and hasn’t since May, when the administration picked Fair Ground as the master planner for the project.

The private City Hall meeting came after Herenton told the Memphis City Council he wants to either resolve issues that have delayed the next step in the project or move on to other projects.

“Based on this, we are nowhere near any proximity of doing this,” Herenton said between the council session and his meeting with Turley.

‘Little knotty issues’

“... We are nowhere near any proximity of doing this.”
–Mayor Willie Herenton

These are some issues that have changed the nature of the project in recent months, from Herenton’s perspective:

  • The U.S. Justice Department wants to have some approval of the entire fairgrounds project beyond a consent decree governing changes in seating for Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
  • The addition of more than 600 seats for the disabled at the stadium is under a consent decree settling alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Herenton said the Justice Department wants the expanded seating areas added by September 2010 at an estimated cost of $40 million. Herenton told the council he was “deeply troubled” by the deadline and considers it “impractical.”
  • Construction of the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center, a privately funded community center, will go ahead on a site Turley had once favored for a big box retail store, Herenton added.
  • And the Memphis school system is also moving ahead with plans to convert Fairview Junior High School into a middle college high school. Some of the tentative plans for the fairgrounds property included either demolishing Fairview or converting the existing building into some other use.

“All of these little knotty issues – they’re not confined to the mayor,” Herenton told the council, as he said some council members have concerns about a developer’s fee still being negotiated.

The fee would be a percentage of the project’s estimated cost of $95 million.

Time to ‘do something’

These are the most recent cost estimates, according to an update from City Housing & Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb:

  • $45 million for Liberty Bowl renovations.
  • $25 million for a multi-use building that would either involve replacing the Mid-South Coliseum or renovating it.
  • $25 million for public improvements to recreational areas.

Lipscomb said Turley’s group wants 10 percent of that.

‘We respectfully think the threshold ought to be 4-6 percent,” Lipscomb told the council. “We respectfully disagree on that.”

But later, Turley told The Daily News the fees are not an issue.

“You cannot say it was fees,” Turley said. “It is not the issue. … This is a uniquely complex and difficult project. Because of the passage of time, it’s being made more difficult every day.”

The divide on whether fees are an issue is further evidence of some of the tension in talks designed to come to a development agreement between the administration and Fair Ground – specifically tension between Turley and Lipscomb. If a development agreement is reached, the City Council as well as the Shelby County Board of Commissioners would then vote on it.

“We need to begin to do something,” said councilmember Harold Collins, who chaired the meeting.

Beating around the bush

Herenton agreed, to a point. His appearance was at the request of council members who wanted to know if the project was still alive.

“All I want is a decision,” Herenton said. “Now I would rather the administration make the decision.”

Several council members, including Reid Hedgepeth, were ready to talk about the fees apparently still being negotiated.

“What does the developer do for these fees? What does he do and what are the risks?” Hedgepeth asked.

“It’s public money, so it’s zero risk,” Lipscomb replied. “He would manage the project.”

Lipscomb also added that Turley would expand use of the Liberty Bowl from fewer than a dozen football games to more frequent uses for a broader range of events.

Turley’s group would put up $50 million in private financing to the city’s up to $75 million in public funding for infrastructure improvements. The public money would come from the TDZ sales tax revenue generated by the big box retail store.

“At the end of the day, we’re either going to do this project or we’re not. That’s where I am,” Herenton said. “I’m pressing forward for a decision. … I’m at a point now where I’ve got to go back to the drawing board. … We’re not ready to move forward with a development if the administration is not adequately communicating to members of the council and the various stakeholders in the community.”

Turley said in his private meeting he urged Herenton to move ahead with plans to appoint a fairgrounds commission that would be city government’s representative as owner of the fairgrounds property.

“Every day we wait is a day that 1,500 people go unpaid,” Turley said of the jobs that would be created by the project in its development stage. “Why can’t anyone say that?”

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