VOL. 131 | NO. 123 | Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Fairgrounds Revitalization Efforts Start Slow and Anew
By Bill Dries
The Fairgrounds and the Mid-South Coliseum aren’t a priority of the new administration at City Hall.
And that’s fine with groups trying to chart a future for both.
“The building is in good shape. It’s not in a condition that can’t be mothballed for awhile,” said Chooch Pickard of the Coliseum Coalition. “We can take our time in planning for the Coliseum and the Fairgrounds and do it right. There’s no need to rush. We can take our time, find out what everyone really wants to do with it and raise the money.”
Pickard, an architect, commented on the WKNO/Channel 10 program Behind The Headlines.
He is among those who recently inspected the coliseum to determine if the 50-year-old arena is structurally sound
“The entire HVAC systems will need to be replaced. That is probably the most expensive thing,” he said, citing other changes including complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was a factor in the city’s decision to mothball the coliseum a decade ago.
“We have started looking at the solutions to the ADA problems,” he said. “We believe we’ve got some inexpensive solutions that take care of all of those issues. At the same time, a lot of that work will reduce some of the seating, but it will increase access to the building.”
Meanwhile, Memphis City Council member Jamita Swearengen, whose district includes the Fairgrounds, said she is working to connect those like Pickard to investors.
“I’ve had conversations with investors who would like to come in and invest within the coliseum,” she said. “I am also making certain that they are able to meet with those individuals to hear their ideas, to listen to their vision, to see if we can come through mediation and come up with something where everyone can benefit.”
Swearengen is planning to seek discussions with the Memphis Grizzlies front office about the noncompete clause that was a factor in closing the coliseum as the Grizzlies moved into FedExForum.
The Grizzlies organization also operates the forum.
“I think it’s imperative that we establish some kind of relationship with the Grizzlies,” she said.
The coliseum’s seating capacity is 12,000. The threshold for an arena that might activate the Grizzlies noncompete clause is 5,000 seats, but there are different interpretations of what that means, from barring any venue above 5,000 seats to the FedExForum having first right of refusal on concerts and other shows.
Pickard described the clause as “complicated.”
“It has nothing to do with the coliseum,” he said. “It’s if the city were to build a new one. However, the Grizzlies kind of see it as they don’t want that competition.”
Pickard said there haven’t been any detailed discussions with the Grizzlies on specifics.
“That agreement was signed years ago under a different ownership and it passed down to the new ownership,” he said.
Pickard said taking seats out of the coliseum would allow for more modern seating, make the ADA upgrade easier and would enable seating aisles to become wider.
The television program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has indicated a Fairgrounds revitalization plan pursued by his predecessor, A C Wharton, is not a priority as he pursues a rebuilding of basic city services before moving to such projects.
Late in his administration, Wharton shelved a controversial plan for the Fairgrounds that focused on regional amateur sports tournaments, and would have some retail, a hotel and the probable demolition of the coliseum.
That followed a report from a panel of Urban Land Institute experts who took a different view on the coliseum, recommending a much smaller retail presence. The panel concluded that the pursuit of amateur sports tournaments should be more specific and target sports not represented at similar tournament sites in the area.
Marvin Stockwell is leading the group Friends of the Fairgrounds that is beginning to assemble a new consensus around a comprehensive plan for all of the acreage.
For now, the conversations are general and the possibilities are ambitious. But there are some realities – the cost, who would pay for parts of a master plan and parking.
The University of Memphis football program has been drawing much larger crowds to Liberty Bowl stadium in recent years, resulting in some attendees parking on the East Parkway median strip almost as far north as Union Avenue.
“One of the things we have to face honestly is parking,” Stockwell said. “I made it clear early on that there’s no ducking the parking thing. … We have to start with just what would you dream of. We have to tether that back to reality. We’re not there yet.”
Swearengen sees a revitalized Fairgrounds as restoring some parts of the complex, which has already lost Libertyland amusement park.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s no longer there,” she said. “Now we have the same vision, to reinvent a place where the children can have some activities as well as adults seven days a week.
“Everyone has a finger on the pulse of the past of the coliseum and they would like to see that reinvented,” she added.
Pickard and Stockwell think private money could be raised. Pickard thinks the city should still own the Fairgrounds and put some money into the project, but the bulk should come from private donors or investors.
“If you look at the arc of other development in Memphis and the broader wind in our civic sails, with Sears Crosstown coming online and the Chisca and Broad Avenue – you see this is a time of not only opportunity but civic optimism,” Stockwell said. “Things are getting done. Gone are the voices that say, ‘You can never do that.’ We can point to Crosstown Concourse and say, ‘Well, we did that.’”