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VOL. 132 | NO. 222 | Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sports Complex Remains Driver of Fairgrounds Redevelopment Plan

By Bill Dries

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Parts of the city’s tentative plan for redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds may still come and go and the cost estimates could vary. But Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration made it clear at a Monday, Nov. 6, public meeting to unveil the most specific plan yet that a youth sports tournament complex is the anchor and driver of the financing for a redevelopment covering 175 acres.

The complex, on East Parkway frontage where the Libertyland theme park once stood, accounts for $80 million of the $160.1 million tentative city capital budget. It is the largest dollar item on the list. That amount doesn’t include the football-soccer-track oval next to it, which would cost another $3 million.

Dev Pathik, the consultant working with the city on the development of the sports complex, said before the meeting the $80 million figure is a “placeholder,” pending a pro forma financial statement he and his firm, Sports Facilities Advisory of Clearwater, Florida, will deliver to the city in December.

A youth sports tournament complex is the anchor of the city’s still tentative proposal for a redevelopment of the Fairgrounds. It would be on the East Parkway side of the Fairgrounds where Libertyland once stood. (City of Memphis/SFA Advisory)

Pathik described it as “a Wall Street-ready forecast” built on comparables from other facilities and their experience as opposed to demographics for the potential market for such tournaments.

“That process will right-size the development,” Pathik said. “It will say, ‘Here’s how much you should build. Here’s what you should spend. Here’s what you shouldn’t spend. Here’s what you should focus on.’”

Strickland emphasized the plan is still tentative and likely will change once the city knows how much money it can spend on a project that has a lot of parts.

“It is not the final step. It is the next step,” Strickland told the standing-room-only crowd of 300 at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. “My commitment to the taxpayers is to present a plan that is fiscally sound and doesn’t overpromise compared to what we can pay for. … Think about what you see tonight as a menu of what’s possible. … There is a strong possibility we will have to choose what we want.”

City Housing and Community Development director Paul Young said without a youth sports complex that draws tourists or visitors, the city doesn’t have a justification for the tourism development zone revenue stream from sales tax growth. And that TDZ revenue would finance what will probably be a good part of the overall fairgrounds development, however it ends up being configured.

Pathik said making the Mid-South Coliseum a part of such a complex, as the Coliseum Coalition group had recommended, didn’t work.

“To redo that facility is rather expensive by comparison of what you could get in terms of floor space available, total number of courts in a new building,” Pathik said. “It’s not likely going to be the case that the Coliseum – it’s pro forma – gets to a number that would satisfy the amount of money it would take to redo it.”

So with that, the administration’s verdict, which is not likely to change, is that the Coliseum will get $500,000 of roof repairs and other touches to better seal up the building until another use is found.

The city plans to seek proposals specifically for the Coliseum in a national request-for-proposal – or RFP – process.

Proponents of a renovation and reuse of the Coliseum argued last week that the city could at least reactivate the concourse areas of the arena for smaller events outside of the seating bowl that makes up the main part of the venue.

Those proponents were vocal at Monday’s session, booing as city officials repeated dollar estimates. The jeers and boos were balanced with cheers from other parts of the audience reacting to the part of the plan that would find a use for old Melrose High School in nearby Orange Mound.

The city estimates it would cost $14 million to $18 million to reactivate the concourses at the Coliseum.

And the city put the price of a complete rehabilitation of the Coliseum at $40 million to $44 million, including operating costs. That drew the most jeers and boos of the two-hour meeting.

There was also a mixed verdict on whether the city bridged the gap between a pursuit of tourism dollars around sports tournaments and the ability of Memphians to use the same or nearby facilities.

Pathik said there could be local use of the tournament facilities on weekdays and between scheduled events.

He also acknowledged that a drop in funding of school sports programs across America in the 1990s had led to a “pay to play” rule for sports participation that left some children out. Pathik said his company has worked with sports enterprises to build an “inventory of time” in such facilities for the local public’s use.

“That’s the last thing I would want to go visit,” said Patrick Durkin, a Cooper-Young homeowner. “I want to enjoy the park – have that as a family space. Let’s do something that everybody can enjoy.”

Durkin wasn’t the only person in the audience expressing that sentiment which Young said last week showed up “loud and clear” in the city’s input process starting this past July.

“This is a tourist destination,” Pathik countered. “Those of you who live here may not know it’s a tourist destination.”

SFA, which has a companion company, Sports Facilities Management, that manages such complexes, has been involved in more than $8 billion of planned venues of this kind since its founding in 2003. That includes Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg; Hoover Metropolitan Complex in Hoover, Alabama; Upward Star Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Myrtle Beach Sports Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“It’s the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry,” Pathik said. “And it’s a segment that’s been relatively recession-resistant. Even during the recession, youth travel continued to grow.”

But like the Urban Land Institute experts whose 2015 study scaled back the Wharton administration’s scope of plan for such a complex, Pathik said it has to be well-thought-out. Originally, the city considered a natatorium or swimming pool facility. Pathik recommended it come out of the plan and it did.

“The University (of Memphis) is committed to build their own. It’s not an essential,” he said. “You don’t want to create a one-trick pony. You want to create a facility that can be sports, entertainment, recreation and a real destination.”

The multiple uses, however, come with some very specific conditions that are starting to come into focus.

“We’re looking at a multipurpose event center that is dry – that means no ice and no water – that has portable flooring, so pour the cement deep enough that you can run forklifts over it,” Pathik said. “You could run convention events in it, if you wanted, of all types. Portable flooring – hardwood flooring for basketball and volleyball. … Portable seating, telescopic seating. Fixed seating in an environment like this tends to be less efficient and less versatile.”

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