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VOL. 130 | NO. 114 | Friday, June 12, 2015

Panel Alters Wharton’s Plan for Memphis Fairgrounds

By Bill Dries

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The Mid-South Coliseum becomes a pavilion with a grove next to a multi-purpose sports center. A 10-acre water park fronts on Central Avenue where a high school gym now stands.

A second north-south Tiger Lane intersects with the current east-west version.

And the Fairgrounds goes under a conservancy similar to Shelby Farms Park and Overton Park.

Click here to download the Urban Land Institute report on the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Those are some of the basic recommendations made by a panel of eight out-of-town experts assembled by the Urban Land Institute to critique Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s plan for recasting the Fairgrounds as an amateur sports tournament site.

The $184 million plan is a non-binding recommendation that keeps intact Wharton’s pursuit of Tourism Development Zone sales tax funding for improvements.

But the group rejected the administration’s 10-year-old analysis for big-box retail and a hotel at the Fairgrounds to drive it.

The panel also recommended the TDZ tax revenue be used outside the Fairgrounds footprint for housing and small business development to the tune of $5 million to $10 million annually.

The report balances the administration’s emphasis on pursuing tourism dollars with local uses.

Leigh Ferguson, director of economic development for the Downtown Development District of New Orleans, led the Memphis panel. He said the group saw the potential for pursuing amateur sports tournaments, but recommends a more measured and specific approach.

“We probably think it’s out there to an even bigger degree,” he said. “But what we struggled with is, ‘Don’t just build anything.’ Do your market analysis. Do your market research and focus and become the best in class for what nobody else is doing in the region.”

He and the panel cited baseball and soccer tournament sites already in the region.

“Cheerleading is a growing sport. Gymnastics is a growing sport,” Ferguson said as examples of the uses for a $37.5 million, multi-purpose indoor facility recommended by the group.

It is the most expensive item on the list of recommendations.

The Mid-South Coliseum would become a 3,000-seat pavilion venue with a grove under new recommendations from an Urban Land Institute panel. The nonbinding plan totals $184 million.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The approach includes an expansion of Tobey Park playing fields as well as an expansion of the city’s skate park there.

Ferguson said the 10-acre, $7 million water or surf park was among the suggestions the panel heard from citizens they interviewed. He said the region doesn’t have such a park, which would be operated by a private enterprise and be built on a much larger scale than existing area splash parks.

A Coliseum outdoor stage as part of a 3,000-seat pavilion venue came in at $20 million.

Stephen Whitehouse of Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners PLLC of New York City added that while the no-compete clause with FedExForum forbids an arena over 5,000 seats in Memphis, it doesn’t apply to an outdoor facility.

The panel also said the Fairgrounds should balance the administration’s emphasis on drawing tourist dollars with preserving the area’s heritage and use as a gathering place for Memphians.

Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh and senior resident fellow at ULI’s Washington office, praised the Kroc Center, Tiger Lane and Liberty Bowl as facilities.

“But they are not connected. They are one-off great facilities,” he said. “We need to bring a cohesive, catalytic and inspiring vision. … Without a vision you are not going to reach the full potential of this. … Don’t blink. Don’t stop.”

The eight-member panel worked rapidly and privately during their week in Memphis. That included meeting with those on all sides of the Fairgrounds controversy including what should happen to the Mid-South Coliseum.

Some of those who talked with the panel indicated later in social media posts that the panelists gave few to no clues about their thought process. Some said when they asked they were told to come to Friday’s press conference at The Peabody hotel.

That included Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who sat on the front row for the presentation.

“We’re going to work with this plan,” he said at the conclusion of the hour-long presentation. “There will still have to be some give and take.”

The other panel members included: Stanley Lowe, president of Pittsburgh Neighborhood Preservation Services; Nathan Watson, president of Tradition Properties Inc. of Biloxi, Miss.; Ellen Mendelsohn, ULI’s leadership director in Washington, D.C.; Michael Medick, an architect and town planner for BSB Design Inc. of Alexandria, Va.; and Alysia Osborne, planning coordinator for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department.

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