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VOL. 127 | NO. 67 | Thursday, April 5, 2012

City Council Approves $9M Stadium Improvements

By Bill Dries

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The idea of advancing city money with several layers of other funding from sources other than City Hall at a later date surfaced again this week at City Hall.

The Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is in line for upgrades thanks to this week’s City Council action. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The Memphis City Council approved on Tuesday, April 3, a $9 million deal to make improvements to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

This time the financing for a large video screen and a new field as well as other improvements to concession stands and other areas of the 47-year-old structure would come with guarantees of funding from the University of Memphis and FedEx Corp.

Those guarantees would back a still-tentative plan to pay the cost with sales tax revenue from a tourism development zone (TDZ) that takes in the Mid-South Fairgrounds area. Establishing a TDZ requires state approval and the sales tax revenue in that area is then captured for specific use to pay back the money spent on the improvements.

With the possibility of such financing as well as tax increment financing (TIF), which uses the same revenue capture method, city leaders in recent years have pushed several civic projects with the promise that it won’t cost any tax money from citizens that goes into the city’s general fund.

It hasn’t always been enough assurance to get projects moving, however.

Similar funding mechanics surfaced for the idea of a new convention center that never got past general plans to either locate it between AutoZone Park and the Beale Street entertainment district or expand the existing Memphis Cook Convention Center. The expansion would have involved moving at least one interstate ramp for the site that is otherwise limited in directions it can grow.

Such financing was a major part of the long negotiations over several years for the redevelopment of The Pyramid as a Bass Pro Shops super store. Demolition finally began late last year after some seismic issues resurfaced at the site and additional seismic measures were taken.

In this case, the improvements are tied to the University of Memphis’ move to the Big East.

In the deal, FedEx Corp. agrees to guarantee $2.5 million for a new stadium video screen and the university would make an annual guarantee of $500,000 more in stadium tenant fees annually for 15 years to finance the other improvements.

The additional university funding would come from Bowl Championship Series (BCS) fees the school gets from being in the Big East.

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration had plans to seek state permission for a TDZ for the fairgrounds in general as part of its earlier plans for redevelopment of the area in general.

Herenton initially favored demolishing the stadium and building a new one almost on the same footprint. He later acknowledged vocal opposition to the idea and abandoned it.

The TDZ status stalled as the ambitious plans for the fairgrounds morphed into the more modest Tiger Lane project after Wharton became mayor.

Wharton administration officials hope to have the contract agreements with the university and FedEx signed in the next two to three months.

Council member Reid Hedgepeth, who worked on the terms up to the Tuesday council vote, said FedEx officials have indicated they would like to put up the money for the video screen over several years.

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