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VOL. 130 | NO. 29 | Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wharton Calls for Outside Fairgrounds Review

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told the Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday, Feb. 10, that the ambitious recasting of the Mid-South Fairgrounds – a project that is solely a City Hall creation at this point -- is going to get a second look from outside consultants.


Wharton’s announcement of the re-examination of costs and revenues and assumptions comes a week after Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb sounded a similar theme with Memphis City Council members.

Wharton said that he wants a review and set of public forums organized by outside consultants “so that no one can say that’s just what one individual wants.”

Wharton’s suggestion comes as critics of the Fairgrounds project on several levels have also complained that Lipscomb has been unyielding in his vision of Fairgrounds redevelopment even though there is no specific plan for the redevelopment.

Wharton has said he wants to secure state approval of a Tourism Development Zone to capture sales tax revenue in a three-mile area of Midtown, including the Fairgrounds before the city develops a specific plan for the site.

He was specific Tuesday in saying that while financial projections and other details will be reviewed, he is not backing away from the idea of a Fairgrounds that would host amateur sports tournaments bringing children and their parents from across the country for dozens of sports.

“This is not ‘We are just starting all over again,’” Wharton said. “The concept remains the same. But should there be some fine tuning?”

He then said the demolition of the moth-balled Mid-South Coliseum, which has been assumed in past versions of the Fairgrounds general planning, will also be re-examined.

"We’re not just hell-bent on saying we are going to tear down the Coliseum,” Wharton said. “We don’t get any joy just going in and tearing down structures that have a history like that. It will be a wide open process, particularly with regard to the fate of the Coliseum.”

When the council approved the administration’s pursuit of a Tourism Development Zone for the Fairgrounds in 2013, Wharton and Lipscomb confirmed that their tentative plan included demolition of the Coliseum.

Wharton said that the administration would seek the approval of the council first specifically on the Coliseum’s fate. The council approved the TDZ pursuit about a year after Wharton revived the general plan, dormant since Herenton left office in 2009.

The city’s plan before Herenton’s 2009 resignation was for the Fairgrounds to be reconfigured as a public recreation area with facilities that would draw amateur sports tournaments.

The general plan for most of its life has been to finance the construction of those facilities with retail and residential development on the Central Avenue-East Parkway frontage of the Fairgrounds.

The financing has always involved a re-capture of either incremental sales tax revenue or incremental property tax revenue or both.

Herenton had been working with developer Henry Turley in 2008 on the plan but wouldn’t go the final step and make Turley and his partners, known as Fair Ground LLC, the project manager.

Turley believed a big box retailer was essential to the success. Lipscomb, at the time, did not.

Herenton originally proposed demolishing the Liberty Bowl stadium and building a new stadium at the Fairgrounds in about the same location where it presently stands.

During the gap between Herenton’s resignation and Wharton’s election, when Myron Lowery was interim mayor, the city continued with construction of the Tiger Lane area – the parking and tailgating green strip from the East Parkway entrance to the western side of the Liberty Bowl.

The Tiger Lane opening was one of the first openings of a city project Wharton presided over following his election in October 2009.

Meanwhile, Wharton said Tuesday the city has initiated eminent domain legal proceedings on the Raleigh Springs Mall to possibly demolish parts of it.

“We seldom do that,” Wharton said later. “But we want to get that started and moving. It may not really come to that. We’ve got to move that project along.”

The mall is one of three shopping centers Wharton has proposed to redevelop as “town centers” that would use city offices and facilities as a “catalyst” for private development.

The administration and the owners of Raleigh Springs have been at odds over the city’s plan.

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