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VOL. 8 | NO. 35 | Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fairgrounds’ Future

Next steps for Memphis landmark come down to parking and timing

By Bill Dries

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It’s hard to imagine that a 65,000-seat stadium could be overlooked. Perhaps it’s because the Liberty Bowl wasn’t in the center of the Mid-South Fairgrounds when the stadium was built in 1965; it was on the eastern side of 155 acres of city-owned land, with a rail spur running along its eastern boundary.

When it comes to the ongoing discussion over what to do with the Mid-South Fairgrounds, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium – the city’s largest public venue – has been in the shadow of its 12,000-seat neighbor, the mothballed Mid-South Coliseum.

The Coliseum’s fate – specifically, the possibility that it could be demolished after a decade of inactivity – has become the face of the Fairgrounds debate in this election year. Add in the fact that all but two Fairgrounds buildings were demolished in the making of Tiger Lane in 2009 and you might think the Fairgrounds is a blank slate.

But the arrival of football season at the 65,000-seat Liberty Bowl will probably change that.

And the Children’s Museum of Memphis is about to raise the sentiment factor with the more-than-century-old Grand Carousel, which is currently undergoing a two-year, $1 million restoration in Ohio.

The stadium will be used for eight football games between Sept. 5 and Jan. 2: six University of Memphis home games, the Southern Heritage Classic matchup between Tennessee State University and Jackson State University, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

It’s the one part of the Fairgrounds that didn’t get a lot of attention when an advisory panel of the Urban Land Institute came to town in June to make recommendations on the best use of the Fairgrounds based on a week of interviews and polling results.

Whatever comes next for the Fairgrounds comes down to parking and timing – and the 2015 football season will be a test of both.

CMOM’s concerns

From the Children’s Museum of Memphis, located on the southeast corner of Hollywood Street and Central Avenue, museum director Dick Hackett is keenly aware of the parking issues. The former mayor often can be found directing cars to parking on the museum’s lot during football games to bring in money the museum loses during those events.

The ULI group didn’t talk to him or anyone else from the museum when they came to Memphis. If they had, Hackett would have told them about the museum’s restoration of the Grand Carousel and its $5 million plan to feature the ride as a new attraction.

“We don’t have enough parking,” Hackett said. “Our biggest fear on a daily basis, with the carousel coming, is where are we going to park the cars.”

The museum now draws more than 200,000 people a year. Hackett estimates that will grow to 350,000 once the restored carousel, which will be housed in a new building, opens in February 2017. That figure is based on attendance at restored carousels in other cities.

But when Hackett looked at the ULI experts’ PowerPoint presentation in June, he saw an 8- to 10-acre water park envisioned for where the parking would be for the expanded Children’s Museum.

“We’re investing millions of dollars in the carousel, and it’s a problem when we start hearing that they are going to build a water park right next to our water park – right next to the Kroc Center,” Hackett said.

The latter – formally known as The Salvation Army Joan and Ray Kroc Corps Community Center – opened in 2013 at 800 East Parkway S. The 100,000-square-foot recreation, education, worship and arts center includes both an indoor aquatics center and an outdoor splash pad

Hackett has talked with city chief administrative officer Jack Sammons about the parking problem and water park plans, and he says City Hall has been prompt and responsive.

“We’re going to leave it in their hands,” Hackett said. “But we would like to make a grand entrance on Central on the west side of our property that would have a carousel theme. Our intention would be to make such an elaborate gate entrance that it would be the second-most popular gated entrance in the city – second only to Graceland.”

Wharton acknowledged the issue.

“We want to make sure we don’t have an adverse impact on the Children’s Museum of Memphis,” he said. “That’s one of our major concerns.”

Parking problems

The ULI panel didn’t dodge the parking issue even though it didn’t know about the carousel plans.

“The challenge of parking here is absolutely critical,” said panelist Stephen Whitehouse, a principal at New York City-based Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners PLLC. “If you think of the major signature events and all of this parking centered around Tiger Lane and the Liberty Bowl – as we think about adding things into the mix, the location of major new attractions is sort of based on proximity to that parking so you can introduce that without losing more of the 155-acre site as parking.”

Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh and a ULI senior resident fellow, didn’t discount the existing Fairgrounds institutions either.

“The Kroc Center is a wonderful facility,” he said. “The Children’s Museum is an inspiring building just to drive by. On game day, when the parking lots are alive, it’s a great experience. But they’re not connected. Tiger Lane was the first effort to begin to think about the Fairgrounds as a whole.”

The ULI group also recommended a second Tiger Lane that would run north-south off Central Avenue. The tailgating area would double as parking for 800 vehicles.

Steve Ehrhardt, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, is also concerned about parking.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We are certainly supportive of good multiuse of the Fairgrounds area,” he said. “We’re very positive and supportive of continuing to upgrade that. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl has brought a huge number of folks from out of town. And we’ve got to make sure we get them in and get them out.”

Ehrhardt will be watching the flow of cars and crowds at the Southern Heritage Classic and the six Tigers home games that come before the Jan. 2 Liberty Bowl.

The parking and tailgating will encompass the site of the old Libertyland amusement park, which has been repurposed as a disc golf course.

“This year will be very instructive,” Ehrhardt said, pointing specifically to the Sept. 24 game against Cincinnati that will be televised on ESPN and the Oct. 17 Ole Miss game at the stadium.

“Right now, those will be huge crowds, and they should be two of the biggest crowds the University of Memphis has had in many years.”

Return to the Roundhouse

Between the Cincinnati and Ole Miss games, leaders of the effort to restore and reopen the Mid-South Coliseum plan to make sure the roundhouse isn’t forgotten.

They’ve set Oct. 4 as the date for their encore Roundhouse Revival, a gathering of live music, wrestling and Coliseum memories outside the arena. The first event drew several thousand people in May, weeks before the ULI panel arrived in town.

The timing has nothing to do with the gap between the football games.

“That’s three days shy of election day,” said Coliseum Coalition co-founder Mike McCarthy, referring to the Oct. 8 Memphis elections. “We want people to vote.”

McCarthy spoke in a back meeting room at the Orange Mound Community Center, where several dozen people met as the sounds of basketball games could be heard faintly through a thick door.

The session was the kind of breakthrough McCarthy and co-founder Marvin Stockwell have been looking for in the neighborhood south of the Fairgrounds as they seek to preserve the Mid-South Coliseum.

“We want to give the full-use idea the best try, the best shot,” McCarthy added. “We have to see where that goes and we want third-party estimates that reveal what that might be.”

McCarthy is referring to the city’s estimates of $30 million to restore the Coliseum and made it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He’s skeptical it would take that much.

Marvin Stockwell (left) and Mike McCarthy address a recent Coliseum Coalition meeting. The coalition will host its encore Roundhouse Revival Oct. 4. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

It’s been two months since McCarthy and Stockwell joined city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb in the meeting room at The Peabody following the Urban Land Institute report, which contradicted much of the Wharton administration’s plan for the Fairgrounds.

Lipscomb’s unexpected call for the meeting was followed by a pledge to “join hands” with critics of a plan to turn the Fairgrounds into an amateur sports complex.

Looking back, looking forward

McCarthy and Stockwell aren’t rejecting Lipscomb’s civic altar call. But they want to keep the political pressure on, and Orange Mound amounts to fresh troops on the other side of the rail yard across Southern Avenue from the Fairgrounds.

“I remember the day when Melrose (High School) played (basketball) and we walked across the railroad tracks – hundreds of us – to be able to get to the Coliseum,” said Claudette Boyd, one of the Orange Mound community leaders who now are part of the Coliseum Coalition. “That’s the same feeling we need to have – that we are not shut out, that it’s not like South Africa, like apartheid.”

Boyd is specifically reacting to Wharton’s goal to transform the Fairgrounds into a site for amateur sports tournaments.

“I just don’t think we need to have a company come in and tell us what it’s going to be,” she said.

The tip of the Wharton administration’s spear in that scenario was the pursuit of a Tourism Development Zone to finance the Fairgrounds overhaul with sales tax revenue.

Wharton has since announced the city won’t pursue state approval of the Fairgrounds TDZ until after the October elections.

The ULI group said as kindly as possible that the city’s marketing study on the sports concept was a decade old, there was no need for a hotel, and the density of retail development at the Fairgrounds would be closer to 20,000 square feet than the 400,000 square feet envisioned by city leaders.

Leigh Ferguson, the leader of the ULI group, said it wasn’t necessarily a rebuke of the idea of amateur sports tournaments.

“What we did wrestle with, and what we were trying to convey, is don’t just build anything,” he said after the group released its findings. “Do your market analysis. … You’ve got substantial competitive baseball facilities. So don’t go out and build another big baseball complex and compete with one that already exists.”

Ferguson made the same point about a soccer complex.

Wharton is awaiting the ULI panel’s written report and has named a Fairgrounds reuse committee comprised of several subcommittees.

“It’s so they can work simultaneously and keep us on schedule to go through each of the ULI recommendations,” Wharton said. “We’ve had a number of people who wanted to go in and take a look at the Coliseum. We’re going to make sure that they get an opportunity to do that.”

Wharton said his goal is a reworked city proposal by the end of 2015.

As summer turns to fall, Hackett expects to again see overflow parking on the East Parkway median strip as far north as the Union Avenue overpass.

“You put something else on here that eats up parking and your next hue and cry will be, ‘Where can we build another stadium?’” Hackett said. “That stadium cannot survive with any more parking taken away from it.”

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