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VOL. 132 | NO. 218 | Thursday, November 2, 2017

City Fairgrounds Plan Keeps Coliseum on Hold

By Bill Dries

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When it unveils a general plan for Fairgrounds redevelopment Monday, Nov. 6, the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland will put the emphasis on setting the stage for a fuller redevelopment.

It will recommend a 500-space parking garage on the north end of the city-owned property and better access to the neighborhoods around the Fairgrounds including Orange Mound, Beltline and Cooper-Young. And at least for now, the administration is recommending some roof repairs and better sealing off access points into the Mid-South Coliseum but no restoration and reopening of the arena.

“We have decided that it makes the most sense at this point in time to invest some money to make sure there is no further deterioration, continue to work with the community to figure out what opportunities there might be to bring these buildings back on line,” city Housing and Community Development director Paul Young said. “We need a more-thought-out plan for how the building will be used and operated before we invest such a significant amount in the structure.”

The city puts the Coliseum renovation cost at $30 million to $40 million.

Mid-South Coliseum (Daily News File / Andrew J. Breig)

The Coliseum Coalition had presented a business plan that would reopen and restructure the arena as a 4,900-seat arena for some youth and amateur sports tournaments along with some retail.

“We still feel like there are some gaps in that business plan,” Young said. “And specifically we need to have some more funding for the operation of the facility. How will this facility be able to manage long-term without becoming a long-term liability?”

The coalition reacted with opposition to the plan.

“This is unacceptable,” reads a Wednesday afternoon Facebook post. “The Coliseum will stand but this proposal will not.”

Marvin Stockwell, co-founder of the Friends of the Fairgrounds group, said in a Facebook post Wednesday that the city should “at least spend the money necessary to solve the building’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues and get the place cleaned up so the concourses can be used.”

Young said the city decided to wait to move on the Coliseum because it took into account the cost of operating the arena as well as renovating it.

Access to the Beltline and Cooper-Young neighborhoods are to the east and west of the Fairgrounds, across Hollywood and East Parkway respectively.

Orange Mound is on the other side of a rail yard with limited street access between the neighborhood and the fairgrounds.

“There are a number of corridors, under the train tracks. We’d like to see some improvements there,” Young said. “We are also looking at the heart of Orange Mound where the old historic Melrose High School is and working with that community and neighborhood to figure out how we might be able to include that as an ancillary facility as a part of the Fairgrounds. All of that is an effort to make sure this is a holistic approach. That the whole community gets a win out of the fairgrounds redevelopment project.”

The plan, to be fully detailed at the Monday town hall meeting at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, would spend about $40 million in the surrounding neighborhoods improving their access to the Fairgrounds.

“I understand there are a number of other residents in the community who want to see something big happen to the Coliseum,” he said. “We are going to look at temporary activations and other things that might help bring some attention to the site. But right now it made the most sense for us to get it in a state where it can be preserved and continue to work with the community to figure out what the long term plan for that building will be.”

The priority on setting the stage for a plan that has specific development for the Fairgrounds as a whole also reflects ongoing questions about the concept of the Fairgrounds as a youth and amateur sports complex – notably how to draw regional and even national tournaments but also have those facilities available for Memphians starting with those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We have some connectivity issues, things we want to make sure we get right in terms of making sure the community is connected to the site, some improvements of the site that will allow for recreation,” Young said. “As we have heard loud and clear from the community, we want to have something that serves both tourists and Memphians and we are working to develop a plan that does that.”

The pursuit of the tournaments was prominent in plans by the administration of Mayor A C Wharton Jr. before that process stalled.

A group of consultants from outside the city assembled by the Urban Land Institute recommended late in Wharton’s tenure that City Hall scale back the tournament facilities and be more strategic in which sports venues it pursued to take into account existing facilities in the Memphis area already.

The youth sports facilities to be part of the new plan are an $80 million undertaking in the southwest corner of the Fairgrounds where the Libertyland theme park once stood. The area is currently parking for football games at the Liberty Bowl.

The city’s plan includes a parking garage on the northern part of the Fairgrounds. But Young said improvements in the surrounding community could also be part of a parking solution off site as well.

“We have plans to replace portions of the parking. But some of the parking strategies are yet to be determined,” he said. “We are exploring things like restriping Tiger Lane to see if we can maximize the number of spaces on site. We are also exploring shuttle opportunities that other cities have done. We are not the only community in the country that has issues with parking around a stadium. It’s going to be a major challenge but we are up to the challenge.”

The parking garage would come before the specific plans for developing retail and a hotel of some kind on the northern end of the site bordering Central Avenue.

The administration would finance the Fairgrounds redevelopment with sales tax revenue through a Tourism Development Zone that captures a portion of sales tax revenue in a three square mile area of Midtown that includes the Fairgrounds and most of Midtown’s thriving retail properties.

The city is awaiting a pro forma financial plan for operation of a youth sports facility that won’t be in until December. Once that is in, Young said the administration will take its plan to the Memphis City Council and then the Tennessee Building Commission, which makes the decision to activate the TDZ, in January.

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