Ballpark Deal Back Before City Council

By Bill Dries

Memphis City Council members are scheduled to pick up Tuesday, Jan. 7, where they left off last month in considering a proposal in which the city of Memphis would buy AutoZone Park and contribute toward improvements to the ballpark.

The proposal from the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is on Tuesday’s council agenda for a vote with no discussion scheduled in the committee sessions Tuesday that come before the council session.

Memphis City Council members on Tuesday, Jan. 7, take up the proposed sale of AutoZone Park, including the Bluff, to the city of Memphis. The council twice delayed a vote on the proposal in December.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The council meets at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, 125 N. Main St.

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Those backing the deal spent much of last week and up to Tuesday meeting individually, and thus privately, with council members.

The initial terms of the deal are not expected to change when the matter comes to the council, despite amendments council members made to the initial terms at their Dec. 9 meeting when they again delayed a vote on the resolution in any form.

The original terms Wharton presented in December were a 17-year agreement in which the city would have bought AutoZone Park for $20 million from Fundamental Advisors, the equity firm that effectively owns the ballpark. The city would have also put another $5 million into improvements to the ballpark. The St. Louis Cardinals would have bought the Memphis Redbirds franchise, pledged another $15 million to improvements and operated the ballpark.

The city would finance the ballpark purchase and its share of the improvements with revenue bonds using a sales tax rebate as the primary revenue stream.

As the council delayed its decision, the Cardinals dropped $500,000 from the city’s share of improvements and added that amount to their share of the improvements.

The council’s last action in delaying a vote on the deal was to drop the price the city would pay for AutoZone Park to $15 million and cut the amount the city would put toward improvements to $2.5 million.

Wharton and the Cardinals’ front office are relying on a better explanation of their original terms to garner seven votes on the council for the resolution.

The private sessions also put some distance between the ballpark deal and the council’s committee discussions of the coming decision on the city’s $700 million unfunded pension liability. The proximity of the two issues in December was a factor in the council’s earlier votes to delay a decision on the ballpark deal.

Meanwhile, at Tuesday’s 1 p.m. council executive session, the Wharton administration makes its second presentation in as many executive sessions on its plan for the city’s unfunded pension liability of $700 million. The council at the same session will discuss a proposal to hire its own actuary to evaluate the administration’s numbers and plans.

Wharton said last month that the first formal action he was likely to request from the council would be in February or March, when he would seek council approval of resolutions to end the enrollment of new city hires and unvested city employees with less than 10 years of service in the city’s current defined benefits plan and instead open a defined contributions plan, similar to a 401(k), for those employees.

City retirees and current employees with 10 or more years of service would remain in the plans in which they are currently enrolled.

Also on Tuesday’s agenda is an appeal of the Land Use Control Board’s October rejection of Wychewood Place Subdivision on the southwest corner of Wychewood Cove and Walnut Grove Road.

The Office of Planning and Development and the Land Use Control Board rejected a request by developers TTJ Properties to reduce the setback along Walnut Grove from 115 feet to 100 feet.

The house that once stood on the lot has been removed. TTJ plans to build two houses on the lot and argues that some other homes on Walnut Grove have a 100-foot setback. The developers also argue that the 115-foot setback requirement was before planning regulations required easements for water detention systems.

TTJ’s plan for putting two houses on the site depends on the fronting on Walnut Grove being five feet closer to the street to meet requirements of the homeowner on the second lot for at least 15 feet between the two houses.

A neighbor has objected to the 100-foot setback, saying it is inconsistent and incompatible with the setbacks of nearby homes.

None of the four neighborhood associations, including University District Inc., have commented on the project, according to the Office of Planning and Development’s October staff report.

Meanwhile, at an 8:30 a.m. committee session, council members will discuss Myron Lowery’s resolution that would express “no confidence” in Shelby County Elections Administrator Richard Holden and call for his removal by the Shelby County Election Commission.

The Shelby County Commission passed a similar resolution in December.