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VOL. 128 | NO. 8 | Friday, January 11, 2013

Wharton Talks New Convention Center

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said 2013 will be the year his administration reopens discussions about a new convention center.


Wharton’s open question about how to compete for convention and meeting business comes five years to the month that his predecessor as mayor, Willie Herenton, talked of building a new convention center or expanding the existing one, which underwent a major renovation in 2005.

Herenton later backed away from both options.

“This is not something that we have to look at strictly in terms of how much are you going to spend on it,” Wharton said Wednesday, Jan. 9, in a speech to the Memphis Kiwanis Club. “We have to look at it in terms of how much are you willing to invest to keep one of our strongest economic engines viable.”

He cited a dollar figure of possibly $600 million to compete with cities like Nashville.

But he also cited the civic experience of building a new arena, FedExForum, about a mile from an old arena, The Pyramid, when the Pyramid was less than 15 years old.

“If you build a new one, what will happen to the one that you now have?” Wharton asked. “I don’t want to get into another position similar to the one we got into with The Pyramid.”

If it was up to him, Wharton said the Mid-South Coliseum would be demolished.

He commented the day after one of his division directors told Memphis City Council members the tentative plans for the Mid-South Fairgrounds include the demolition of the landmark built in the mid-1960s and unused for several years.

“If I had one person’s choice, it would be to demolish it,” Wharton said after his speech. “No one has come in and said here’s a good use. Keep in mind we still have the restrictions for what it could be used for in terms of an entertainment venue. … Right now it would be my recommendation that we demolish it, but again, I’m not taking it to council.”

The coliseum faces the same challenges the nearby Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium does in complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city is preparing to spend $12 million to make ADA renovations to the stadium under a settlement plan with the U.S. Justice Department.

Meanwhile, Wharton confirmed the search is on for alternatives to finance the Heritage Trail redevelopment plan.

Wharton said his administration is searching for different methods than the tax increment financing zone proposed by the city late last year for the ambitious 20-year plan.

“We’re working on alternative methods, which we think everybody will be able to buy into without controversy that surrounded the proposed TIF on that,” he said to the audience of 100 at the University Club.

And Wharton said there would still be a role for the Beale Street Development Corp. in the second phase of development of the entertainment district.

And the city of Memphis will move quickly starting next month to find a new manager and developer for the district.

Wharton said the city will move in both directions once federal bankruptcy Judge Jennie Latta finalizes the bankruptcy case involving Performa Entertainment, the long-time manager and developer of the district.

Latta is expected to approve the bankruptcy settlement this month and Wharton said his administration will move quickly, probably in mid-February, with a search for a successor to Performa.

The approval of the settlement clears the way for Performa and its founder John Elkington to end their role in development of the three-block district, which began with the renovation and opening of the district in the early 1980s.

“I will not be running Beale Street,” Wharton said as he talked of the city regaining day- to-day control of the running of the district in order to determine “what kind of structure should manage Beale Street.”

One possibility is an improvement district board with appointments to the board made by the mayor based on nominees from the entertainment industry.

“We’ve got a little bit of litigation in Chancery Court to tie up,” Wharton said. “But the heavy part of the litigation is behind us. The Beale Street Development Corp. – there is still a role for them. And Judge Latta has told them to sit down with us and work with us.”

The development corporation is a nonprofit organization that leases the land in the district from the city of Memphis and then in turn subleased it to Performa.

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