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VOL. 130 | NO. 20 | Friday, January 30, 2015

Wharton Administration No Show At Fairgrounds Forum

By Bill Dries

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No one from the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. showed up Wednesday, Jan. 28, for a public forum on Wharton’s still-developing plan for the redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Shawn Massey of the Shopping Center Group argues for retail development at the Fairgrounds at a forum held at the Circuit Playhouse.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But that didn’t stop other elected leaders and many in the crowd of 150 at Circuit Playhouse from calling on Wharton to put the pursuit of a Tourism Development Zone to fund the redevelopment on hold.

Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton, whose district includes the Fairgrounds, said he was “disappointed” no one from the Wharton administration was present to make their case for the project.

He was one of four commissioners who spoke at the session organized by Make Memphis, the public affairs group led by business leader Taylor Berger.

Supporters of preserving the Mid-South Coliseum pushed through the discussion of the plan in general to make their specific point.

“Don’t believe the city’s spin,” said Mike McCarthy of the Coliseum Coalition group, referring to city estimates that it would take $30 million to renovate the mothballed 50-year-old facility.

McCarthy argues that the city loses sales tax revenue by not having a concert venue smaller than the 20,000-seat FedExForum, like the 12,000-seat arena. The result is Memphians going to shows in smaller venues like the Landers Center in Southaven and other arenas elsewhere in North Mississippi.

“Don’t let the city talk you into this,” he added of the general Fairgrounds effort.

Commissioner Van Turner saw the growing debate over the Fairgrounds as segmented among those who want to preserve the Coliseum and those who don’t think the makeover as a site for amateur athletic tournaments is either the best use of the public land or isn’t a specific enough plan to date.

Commissioner Steve Basar, the commission’s most vocal critic of the Fairgrounds TDZ, said talks between the city and county governments to win county support of the city’s zone application with the state haven’t produced an agreement.

“We tried to come to an agreement with the city but we weren’t able to do it,” Basar said.

Earlier this month, Memphis City Council members were given by the administration a detailed list of items being discussed for such an agreement, including funding to the county for public schools capital needs, a new gym for the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and similar items. Those were items beyond a basic contract that would guarantee the city will make up on an annual basis any increase in sales tax revenue that would otherwise go to fund local public schools but doesn’t.

“We’re being asked to say yes to a project that really doesn’t have a good plan to begin with,” Basar said. “There is a reason why we’ve got a closed Peabody Place. There’s 300,000 square feet of retail that didn’t work Downtown. Macy’s is leaving Southland Mall. Retail is near the highway.”

But Shawn Massey of The Shopping Center Group LLC, a retail real estate consulting group, said one or two larger retail developments of 50,000 to 400,000 square feet in Midtown could meet underserved retail demand. And that would not hurt Overton Square or the Cooper-Young business district with a variation on the suburban big box retailer.

“Big boxes are not the problem,” Massey said. “It’s the design of the big boxes. You don’t want the design that’s on Winchester or out at Wolfchase. You need to be more concerned about the design and how it is placed within the development.”

Commissioner Mark Billingsley reflected the concern that a legitimate pursuit of more amateur athletics tournaments, which most of the speakers backed, would hurt existing tournament sites in Shelby County built with private investment.

“I really think Memphis tends to cannibalize projects,” Billingsley said, pointing to the Game Day baseball tournament facility and the Mike Rose Soccer Complex as well as the still to be opened Fast Break basketball tournament facility.

The Wharton administration insists it has talked with leaders of those facilities and has found a way to get their support for the Fairgrounds. But city council members wanted to hear that directly from those running the facilities.

“I’m not convinced that the TDZ that is proposed is going to bring one more new tourist dollar to this city,” Billingsley said. “We tend to eat ourselves.”

Commissioner David Reaves said: “The reality is we’ve got to stop doing dumb projects. It’s really about a lot of pet projects that are tied up in this capital and little bit of amateur athletics. I think we need to put this thing on hold and get some more feedback.”

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