Restless Winter

The Fairgrounds awaits its next chapter

By Bill Dries

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

For most of its 103-year life as city property, the Mid-South Fairgrounds has been a place where Memphians remember why they came there in the past, as local leaders have periodically pushed to remake its landscape and in turn create more memories going forward.

The result is a continual collision between past and future in the present.

The 170 acres of land has consistently been the canvas for the city’s most ambitious undertakings. And at times, its physical features have been no match for what city leaders have wanted the real estate to accomplish or their method for getting there.

“Ultimately, investments by a private developer and positive responses from the marketplace will determine if the Fairgrounds and the Pinch redevelopments take place,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said in February as he ran through administration redevelopment priorities in his State of the City address. “We’re going to stay with our formula.”

Wharton wants to use that formula to turn the Fairgrounds into a site for amateur sports tournaments that he insists would not compete with two existing tournament sites in Shelby County – Game Day in Cordova and Mike Rose Soccer Complex – as well as the planned basketball complex being led by NBA legend Penny Hardaway.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Grand Carousel from the closed Libertyland amusement park was moved to trailers for storage in the mothballed Mid-South Coliseum in 2009. It will head to Ohio this year for restoration, then return to the Fairgrounds in 2017 as part of the Children’s Museum of Memphis. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Coliseum Coalition, led by Mike McCarthy, is one of several groups of critics of the Wharton administration’s evolving Fairgrounds plan, which would seek a Tourism Development Zone from the state before there is a specific plan for the site. McCarthy and his group are arguing for restoration of the Coliseum as a concert and event venue. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

But a week after his State of the City declaration, Wharton had sounded retreat on a plan that was never as specific as the pursuit of financing through sales tax revenue increases captured by a three-mile Tourism Development Zone. Wharton has consistently said a specific plan of what goes where on the Fairgrounds property and who builds it should come after the Tennessee Building Commission approves the TDZ.

“This is not ‘We are just starting all over again,’” Wharton told the Memphis Rotary Club a week and a half after his State of the City remarks. “The concept remains the same. But should there be some fine tuning?”

Wharton has requested that a panel of outside experts assembled by the Urban Land Institute review the Fairgrounds project.

The panel would come to Memphis for an intense week of meetings, with all sides to review opinions as well as facts, figures and plans. At the end of the week, the panel would issue a draft report of recommendations.

It’s a process the ULI has used for 67 years at such development flashpoints across the country, with recommendations that sometimes concur with what was planned all along and in other cases have contradicted established plans and even questioned the need for any change.

“If we have to have more meetings, I’m fine with having more meetings,” city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb said days ahead of Wharton’s call for a review. “But let’s get the money, too. It would be a shame to leave $300 million on the table. We have ample time to get this right, and I’m willing to put it out there. This has to be a generational decision.”

Ideas – realized and not

The Fairgrounds has been nothing if not generational.

It’s where the city’s multiple pursuits of an NFL team died several times over about 30 years even as the Liberty Bowl was eventually expanded.

The livestock barns coexisted with a fair that included such modern attractions as a taping of the Ed Sullivan Show, a rodeo in the Mid-South Coliseum and the British Invasion next to the cast of “Bonanza.”

The current effort to recast the 170 acres is both unique and part of a civic tradition.

Some ideas, like the Liberty Bowl football stadium, the Coliseum and Libertyland amusement park, became reality. Others, like a 1960s plan for waterways or canals or a 1970s plan for a tarp covering all of the structures on the property, never got past the renderings of an imagined future.

As that’s happened, parts of the property’s purpose – which was at one time the city’s largest public gathering place – have moved elsewhere.

At 65,000 seats, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium remains the city’s largest public venue. It is home to the annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the Southern Heritage Classic, as well as football home games for the University of Memphis Tigers.

But the days when Tigers fans emptied into a large crowd at the Mid-South Fair are gone.

The fair moved in 2009 to Southaven on its way to a permanent home in Tunica. But the permanent home in Tunica never came about. Fair leaders just last year renewed their lease at Landers Center in Southaven after briefly pitching to the Memphis City Council a return to Memphis in some form.

The parking lots of the Fairgrounds were the venue for the Cotton Carnival MusicFest of the 1980s. It was the precursor and pattern for the multistage remake of the Beale Street Music Festival starting in the 1990s that is now the best-attended weekend of the Memphis in May International Festival.

Mid-South Concerts promoter Bob Kelley was the creative force behind both and kept the Coliseum booked with a calendar that today’s promoters can scarcely imagine in a much-changed music industry.

Along the way, the Liberty Bowl was enlarged from about 50,000 seats to include that late 20th-century requirement – skyboxes.

The city’s arena fever has included never-realized plans to raise the roof on the Coliseum to take it from 12,000 seats to 20,000 seats.

Before Willie Herenton left the mayor’s office in the summer of 2009, Lipscomb referred to the Fairgrounds as part of a “zipper zone” of north-south development that would, in turn, set off other development.

“The Fairgrounds sits almost in the center of all of this,” Lipscomb said in 2007. “It’s important that we see this project as a part of a redevelopment effort that’s not going to just benefit the Fairgrounds. It’s going to add value to this whole area.”

Years of shifting plans

But how it would add value has changed dramatically in the eight years since he talked of the “zipper zone.”

The biggest change was the Great Recession that hit about a year later. The Highland Row development near the University of Memphis was part of the zipper zone and only recently became an active project again. Plans in 2007 for an ambitious expansion and remake of Graceland in Whitehaven also were frozen by the recession and are just now moving again. That includes the $90 million, 450-room resort hotel being built by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

The idea of an amateur sports tournament complex was a part of the Fairgrounds plan under Herenton but not to the degree it is now. At the center of public discussions about the Fairgrounds was Herenton’s desire to build a new Liberty Bowl after demolishing the existing one and probably building it pretty close to where the existing stadium still stands eight years later.

At the time, Herenton’s administration estimated it would cost $50 million to bring the Liberty Bowl up to standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, standards the U.S. Justice Department was watching closely. The preliminary estimate on a new stadium then was $217.5 million.

The idea of a new Liberty Bowl died quickly in a hail of criticism that Herenton acknowledged was a miscalculation on his part.

Negotiations with the Justice Department brought down the cost of the ADA improvements to the Liberty Bowl to under $10 million.

Herenton’s dilemma, which ultimately left movement of the Fairgrounds stalemated, was his unwillingness to name Henry Turley and Turley’s Fair Ground LLC as the project manager. Turley and his partners in Fair Ground were poised to begin pursuit of a big-box retailer for the retail piece of commercial development.

Turley also wanted The Salvation Army Kroc Center site moved off its East Parkway frontage before its construction began.

Lipscomb had doubts about a big box. He thought, at the time, that a group of smaller retailers would be a better call.

With Herenton’s resignation at the end of July 2009, the city had three mayors in less than three months, with very little if any continuity between them.

But the Fairgrounds project was still moving with little to no supervision. The demolition of Libertyland continued beyond the park’s borders, taking away the parking lot on the other side of Early Maxwell Boulevard from the Coliseum.

The proximity to the Coliseum and the impact of losing the parking for both the Liberty Bowl game and the Southern Heritage Classic got the attention of the City Council, which stopped the work temporarily.

Ultimately the council redirected the effort into Tiger Lane, the east-west tailgating area running from the East Parkway entrance of the Fairgrounds to the west side of the Liberty Bowl.

Interim mayor Myron Lowery pushed to hasten demolition of most of the Fairgrounds’ remaining buildings to complete the city’s work on Tiger Lane. It was a quick project by its simple layout of parking spaces and greenspace. But when the time came to open Tiger Lane, Lowery had returned to his City Council seat and A C Wharton Jr. was mayor.

Wharton’s version of the larger Fairgrounds project has made more prominent the pursuit of a place to hold amateur sports tournaments that draw children and their families from across the country for dozens of different sports.

A future still in flux

The private players for such a complex remain in flux with the possibility of new private partnerships. Lipscomb said as recently as February that the administration was talking to another unidentified private group whose participation could significantly change the Fairgrounds layout that is still taking shape.

But council member Harold Collins is among those questioning and critical of a more deliberate push for a project aimed at those who don’t live in Memphis.

Collins is among those who argue recreational and amateur sports sites at the Fairgrounds should be for locals too and should be about more than sports.

Collins argues for at least an exploration of using the Coliseum as the 12,000-seat venue it was for 40 years to stop the flow of concerts and other events south of the state line to the 8,000-seat Landers Center in Southaven, Miss.

That’s where the discussion about the Coliseum ventures into the non-compete clause that was part of the construction of the FedExForum.

The Coliseum was mothballed because of the combination of the clause the Grizzlies hold as well as ADA issues.

“It is competing us out of our own community,” Collins said.

But Lipscomb and Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane argue that keeping the Coliseum means a separate building for a multiuse sports facility for amateur sports tournaments that would seat no more than 5,000 people and be able to host several tournaments or games at once.

“You know who we are competing against, Robert?” Collins asked Lipscomb at the February committee meeting when the possibility of two facilities was raised. “Ourselves and our fear of failure.”