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VOL. 130 | NO. 17 | Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Fairgrounds Plan Draws Different Opinions

By Bill Dries

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Behind the Headlines

VIDEO: What's next for the Mid-South Fairgrounds?

The first renderings of a recast Mid-South Fairgrounds offered years ago are just one misstep early on that continues to plague the project still in search of specific private partners.

The conceptual drawings were heavy on baseball diamonds when the idea of two mayoral administrations at City Hall was and remains more soccer fields, basketball courts and a multi-purpose sports facility along with baseball diamonds.

The project is becoming a bit more specific. But its political backers fear that time is running out for it to win the designation of a Tourism Development Zone from state officials in Nashville to finance the Fairgrounds overhaul.

The zone would capture increased sales tax revenue that would finance the Fairgrounds development. And the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. appears to be preparing to take its zone application to the Tennessee Building Commission soon for approval.



“Let’s go get it approved and get the funds,” Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “Then I think that’s when some of the details can be worked out. I think there’s a lot more that needs to be worked out on the front end now.”

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane was more adamant in the same discussion on the program.

“On the simple math, I would say if we could turn all of Shelby County into one big TDZ, shame on us for not doing it,” he said.

Conrad and Kane argue that the city should make a move to the capital and get a specific plan and a private sector partner after that to capitalize on the money to be made from families with children playing on amateur sports teams who travel during the year to tournament sites.

The sales tax revenue increase in the proposed zone would generate an estimated $340 million over 30 years.


Business leader Taylor Berger has strong reservations though.

“It’s always real exciting to build something new,” he said. “I wonder if in all that excitement we lose perspective about what we are building and whether it is really sustainable. Frankly we are a little bit late to the game.”

Berger also disagrees with setting up the zone before there are specific plans and a private developer.

“I don’t want a Midtown Pyramid,” he said. “I don’t want to be back here in 10 years trying to figure out what to do with all of these buildings that the private developer long ago left.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can been seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Conrad disagreed with Berger on the amateur sports tournament market but agreed that the administration’s pursuit of a Fairgrounds renovation lacks enough specifics and at this point is “half-baked” and should have more council involvement.

“We’re not starting from scratch here,” he said. “We do chase a lot of dreams. We do build too many things that have kind of project envy when we should focus on the basics of city government. But we already have huge community assets here. We’re doing youth sports now.”

He and Kane cited the Game Day baseball tournament facility in Cordova, which is responsible for more than 30,000 room nights at local hotels and is considering an expansion.

“Youth sports done right is a very, very, economical way to do economic development,” Conrad said. “We’ve got a huge opportunity but we’ve got to do it right.”

Berger says the preliminary plan forming doesn’t include the cost of operating and maintaining the recreation facilities, including the still tentative idea of a multi-use facility that would replace the Mid-South Coliseum.

“If this goes forward, if we can use an existing facility, I think that’s smart,” Berger said. “If it doesn’t work for what we are going to do, then it doesn’t work. I don’t think we can hold onto something just for nostalgia. But there is a massive contingency of people in the community who have a large problem with doing away with the coliseum.”

Kane, who played basketball for the University of Memphis at the Coliseum, argues the Coliseum should go to make way for a facility that has six to seven basketball courts and other facilities better suited for a tournament than the single college and pro basketball games the Coliseum hosted.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to say goodbye to some things and you’ve got to move forward,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, the Coliseum has lived its life.”

Architect Tom Marshall, who is working as a consultant to the Wharton administration on the Fairgrounds project, estimated last week reopening the Coliseum to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and upgrade it to other standards would cost around $30 million.

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