VOL. 132 | NO. 219 | Friday, November 3, 2017
City Judges Timing and Steps in Fairgrounds Planning
By Bill Dries
City of Memphis leaders likely will reveal a few new details when they present the draft plan for Mid-South Fairgrounds redevelopment at a Monday, Nov. 6, town hall meeting. But Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration took much of the suspense and speculation out of next week’s session Wednesday, Nov. 1, releasing details that show the administration’s general belief that a few steps still need to be taken before the city gets to a broad reconfiguration of the Fairgrounds.
In particular, Strickland believes the dormant Mid-South Coliseum isn’t ready for prime time until the city works out a plan for using the arena after a renovation projected to cost an estimated $30 million to $40 million.
Early on in the Fairgrounds review that began in July, Strickland said he didn’t see a viable plan for the Coliseum’s reuse at this point. That hasn’t changed.
City Housing and Community Development director Paul Young put the bottom line a little differently semantically Wednesday when he talked details with reporters on Tiger Lane.
The Strickland administration’s draft plan for the Fairgrounds still has a few details to be revealed but is a move toward setting the stage before a full-scale redevelopment of the property itself. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
“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,” 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 Coliseum Coalition had presented a business plan that would reopen and restructure the arena as a 4,900-seat facility that could host youth and amateur sports tournaments and would include some retail space. That configuration has three courts in the Coliseum with a newly built annex adding more indoor courts.
“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 city draft 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.”
Both organizations are expected to turn out backers of an immediate restoration of the Coliseum at the Monday meeting. The coalition was to meet with the administration at City Hall Thursday to talk details in advance of the town hall.
Young said the administration is open to “temporary activations and other things that might help bring some attention to the site.” That may be better defined behind closed doors at City Hall this week and among the new details revealed Monday.
Meanwhile, Orange Mound residents who supported both organizations are likely to listen closely for details of a possible use of the old Melrose High School building as part of what amounts to prep work outside the Fairgrounds boundaries in the Beltline, Cooper-Young and Orange Mound areas, with about $40 million in city funding behind it.
Orange Mound is on the other side of a rail yard on the Southern Avenue edge of 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.”
When developer Henry Turley was involved in Fairgrounds redevelopment plans toward the end of Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration, Turley suggested a long-term plan to move the rail yard and redevelop the rail corridor.
A reuse of old Melrose in Strickland’s plan could go a long way toward healing the long-lasting damage done by a Wharton administration plan for the Fairgrounds that leaned heavily on using major portions of the site as a center for amateur and youth athletic tournaments with a regional and national draw.
Even before a 2015 Urban Land Institute panel walked back the scope of that, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said the renderings of playing fields across large swaths of Fairgrounds land, including where the Coliseum currently stands, had been a mistake.
It led to criticism that the city was involved in a redevelopment project that was for visitors and not for Memphians.
“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 youth sports facilities in the new plan are an $80 million undertaking in the southwest corner of the Fairgrounds, where the Libertyland theme park once stood. The area currently serves as parking for football games at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
The city’s plan includes a parking garage on the northern part of the Fairgrounds, but Young said improvements in the surrounding community could be part of an off-site parking solution 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.
And the three football tenants of the Liberty Bowl stadium – the University of Memphis, the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl – will be listening closely Monday for further details on parking.
The administration would finance the Fairgrounds redevelopment with revenue from a tourism development zone that captures a portion of sales taxes in a 3-square-mile area 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 – both in January.