VOL. 132 | NO. 162 | Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Interest High in Fairgrounds Fast Track
By Bill Dries
The shorter, more compressed drive to a Fairgrounds redevelopment plan feels, at the outset, more certain and much less tentative than versions that surfaced during the administrations of previous mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton.
Unlike those previous versions, there were different interests in the room last week at the Salvation Army Kroc Center for the first of three public sessions on Mayor Jim Strickland’s push for a redevelopment plan.
Among those in attendance was Bob Loeb of Loeb Properties Inc., whose booming Overton Square development would be included in a tourism development zone the city is seeking. The TDZ would finance the redevelopment with property tax revenues from a three-mile area around the Fairgrounds.
Children’s Museum of Memphis fundraiser and former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett was also present. Hackett is among those who have been vocal about being left out in 2015 when the Urban Land Institute’s team visited and made its recommendations.
The first of three meetings on Fairgrounds redevelopment between now and November drew a lot of faces familiar with the history of such efforts in recent years. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
Their presence is part of a greater sense of urgency because Strickland has to have a plan that offers at least some specific uses of the Fairgrounds when he takes the TDZ proposal to state officials this year. The city doesn’t want it to linger into next year because there have been some criticism of TDZs in the Tennessee Legislature that might turn into at least a temporary ban on creating any new zones.
The ULI plan is part of the framework Strickland’s administration is using to build its plan on such a short time frame.
But specific elements of ULI’s plan may not be in the new plan, said Paul Young, director of the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.
“It certainly provides us with a large base of knowledge and information, so I don’t think it makes it more difficult,” Young said of plans that go back even further. “I do think that it creates skepticism in the community because they think the plan is already fixed and set. While we are using this as our baseline, we’re open to ideas. … Tell us what you like about the previous plans, what didn’t you like.”
This time around, Young and his staff are seeking out the three tenants of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium – the University of Memphis, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the Southern Heritage Classic – who also felt left out of the previous process.
Their concern is what new uses may do to Fairgrounds parking and tailgating for the nine annual football games in the 65,000-seat stadium.
Suggestions for a redeveloped Fairgrounds were posted on a wall at the Salvation Army Kroc Center last week at the first of three public sessions toward forming a specific plan by the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
And there are new ideas in the mix.
Former Major League Baseball player and Memphis native Reggie Williams wants to return baseball to the Fairgrounds lot where Tim McCarver Stadium once stood with a youth league baseball program.
Williams refers to the now-vanished ball field that was home to the Memphis Blues as well as the resurgent Memphis Chicks as “hallowed ground.”
“Baseball is a part of Memphis history and I would like to see that back in the fold of what goes on here,” said Williams, who recently returned to Memphis and is now teaching. “It’s an opportunity with this central location to bring some urban kids into the sport of baseball. Before Jackie Robinson, the NBA and NFL were not a part of the African-American culture. … Why not go back to the roots?”
There was a version of an amateur baseball tournament complex in previous plans overseen by then-Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb during the Herenton and Wharton administrations.
Lipscomb also pushed hard for the demolition of the Mid-South Coliseum, but by doing so fueled a movement to save the 12,000-seat arena in some form and a larger effort to make the Fairgrounds a conservancy similar to those at Shelby Farms Park and Overton Park.
The ULI recommendations de-emphasized the role of amateur sports tournament sites that Wharton and Lipscomb had argued could bring a lot of revenue into the site and sustain plans for a hotel.
But the ULI experts recommended a narrower, more specific approach so amateur sports tournaments might be pursued, citing tournament sites already in the Memphis area.
Since the restart of the administration’s plan, Friends of the Fairgrounds founder Marvin Stockwell has talked of remaining true to the ties the organization has made with neighboring Orange Mound community leaders.
Just before Strickland announced the restart, Stockwell had submitted a draft agreement to the administration for the group to manage the Fairgrounds for the city.
The city’s plan is to conduct another public hearing Sept. 21 toward a draft plan and then present a draft plan at a Nov. 6 public hearing. Reaction from the Nov. 6 meeting could lead to further changes before the TDZ request heads to Nashville.
“We don’t have any firm plans,” Young said. “But we do want to figure out how can we advance activities, how can we improve commercial nodes. We will look at what the community wants to do.”