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VOL. 132 | NO. 134 | Friday, July 7, 2017

Fairgrounds Movement Triggers Liberty Bowl Questions

By Bill Dries

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There is no specific plan for an overall redevelopment of the Fairgrounds, but there is some movement toward that on several fronts. And one of the tenants of the Liberty Bowl says it is important to keep in mind the need for parking in all of the talk about changes. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

For a prime piece of real estate that is supposed to be in a holding pattern, there is a lot of recent activity on and about the Mid-South Fairgrounds. And even when Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium isn’t the immediate topic, it is an undeniable presence.

The most visible indication of activity prior to the start of University of Memphis football next month is the construction of the new home for the Grand Carousel at the Children’s Museum of Memphis.

The Liberty Bowl is being prepped for another season of Tigers football with season ticket sales more than healthy given the momentum behind the U of M program.

Meanwhile, the Memphis City Council approved $100,000 in the city’s new budget to look at a possible expansion of the Liberty Bowl to do something it hasn’t done in 20 years – host a concert.

And last month, the group Friends of the Fairgrounds met with the city administration presenting what Friends co-founder Marvin Stockwell described as a “draft memorandum of understanding that said we would like to be the planning organization for the Fairgrounds in conjunction with the city.”

The administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has not made any decision on the draft.

But the three tenants of the Liberty Bowl stadium – the University of Memphis, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the Southern Heritage Classic – were all aware of the meeting either before or immediately after it happened.

Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones Jr. said the tenants’ concerns about parking for their events are rarely taken into account.

“Nobody talks about what happens to these football games,” he said. “The contention is that’s only nine times a year. What’s going to be any bigger out at that Fairgrounds than a football game? … All of the ideas that they’ve had out there have been disruptive of the football game.”

Stockwell said the city needs a “long-term, good-faith partner to develop the Fairgrounds in accordance with the stakeholder wishes.”

The stakeholders Stockwell refers to are the area residents, businesses and homeowners the Friends group has been meeting with regularly for the last year and a half.

“We think we have a pretty good read on what the community wants,” he said. “And we think the city should aim for something that truly lifts all boats. … I think this is a unique time in Memphis. I think the Fairgrounds presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something transformative.”

To Stockwell and other proponents of what could be a Fairgrounds conservancy, that translates into a move toward other uses on the 175 acres 365 days a year.

Jones says creating space for those year-round activities reduces parking for the football games and creates traffic problems all around the Fairgrounds even for games that fill up only a third of the stadium.

“If you impact parking you impact people coming to the stadium,” he said. “If they can’t park and we have no transit ability to move people around, you are going to impact the number of people who are going to come to the stadium. That’s not a threatening thing. That’s just a reality.”

He says Ole Miss and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville are able to handle similar capacity and more because they have transportation systems in place like shuttle buses and other options without having to have as much parking as the Liberty Bowl requires.

“What do we have? Once you get past 30,000 to 40,000 people, you’ve got an issue,” Jones said. “And you’ve got a bigger issue if it rains.”

Stockwell says there is room to “carve out” some other uses on the property for both locals and tourists.

“There is a broader wind in our civic sails. This is a time of renaissance in Memphis.” Stockwell said, talking specifically about the momentum from the opening of Crosstown Concourse. “Nothing is impossible for Memphis anymore and Memphis is starting to wake up to that.”

Jones says he has seen plans come and go – specific and general – including a very general Wharton administration plan that prompted the city to take up the asphalt for parking between the Mid-South Coliseum and the eastern side of the Libertyland amusement park.

“Well guess what? If you go out there today, whatever that plan was it hasn’t happened,” Jones said. “Why disrupt whatever is going on until you have a plan that you are going to be able to execute – that you are able to support what’s going on mainly at that stadium. … That is why I’m kind of perturbed about this. We are having the same conversation. Everybody brings a deal to the table and they will compromise parking like it’s not even necessary.”

In addition to the stadium tenants, Children’s Museum of Memphis CEO Dick Hackett has talked about a parking problem on football game days that he too has said would be exacerbated by additional attractions at the Fairgrounds.

At times during the football season, CMOM closes and uses its parking lot to park football fans because patrons of the museum can’t get near the museum on game day.

Council member Frank Colvett called for the study, which could take the Liberty Bowl’s seating from 61,000 to 80,000 seats in the process.

“I want Beyonce to come play Memphis,” Colvett said in June of a tentative expansion that would be built around meeting the load-in requirements of concert tours of that size.

“Back in my day, it was 10 tractor-trailers and that was a huge show,” he said of stadium tours into the 1990s and demands now for bigger stages and staging areas to build those platforms.

“They can’t make money if they can’t get the tractor-trailers right there,” he said.

Jones says it is premature.

“There’s a lot of conversation,” he said. “But if you are talking about expanding, there’s a whole bunch of things that need to happen and we are not doing things to accommodate, not even at this level. … It’s just not there.”

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