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VOL. 132 | NO. 188 | Thursday, September 21, 2017

City’s Ire Raised By Stadium Droughts

By Bill Dries

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For most of the ongoing discussion about a reconfiguration of the Fairgrounds, the Liberty Bowl has been a part of the background. Much of the attention has been on what to do with the Mid-South Coliseum and what new uses or buildings will do to existing parking.

That may have changed Tuesday, Sept. 19, when leaders of Spectra Venue Management came to respond to questions last month from Memphis City Council members about why the stadium isn’t drawing more concerts and other activities.

The last concert at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium was a 1997 U2 concert – 20 years ago.

A group trying to save the Mid-South Coliseum, foreground, is proposing a smaller 4,999-seat arena with a new facility attached or adjacent to it, creating a sports tournament venue on the site. (Daily News/File photo)

Add the Liberty Bowl running out of bottled water during Saturday’s University of Memphis-UCLA football game in a stadium that baked in the high temperatures and the discussion came to a point quickly.

“What happened with the water?” council member Philip Spinosa began.

“Just to be clear, the stadium did not run out of water,” Trent Merritt, Spectra’s regional vice president from Tampa, Florida, responded. “We ran out of bottled water at a number of the stands.”

Spinosa interrupted.

“That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is people were there to enjoy the afternoon. And it was hot. And I think it’s our responsibility. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable to be prepared. It was a big weekend.”

Council members became more critical after a Power Point presentation in which Merritt emphasized that Spectra hoped to use its “relationships” to get more events at the Fairgrounds, especially on Tiger Lane. But he also cited the Memphis area’s low median income as a barrier to big stadium shows and a preference by the biggest musical concert tours to book NFL stadiums and markets.

Merritt said of the top 200 North American tours in the last year, only five played in stadiums.

Council member Frank Colvett, who pushed for and won passage for a study to explore a larger stadium load-in area specifically to accommodate the size of today’s concert tours, disputed that by checking Pollstar’s database of concerts online.

“It was clear and obvious that these bands are playing multiple stadiums across the U.S. Why aren’t they playing Memphis?” Colvett said later.

“I was underwhelmed. All I heard was how we can’t do it. What I want to hear is how do we get it done. How do we get our venue ready and up for more concerts? We are the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. We’re the home of the blues. Why are we not hosting more shows?”

While Colvett was underwhelmed, council member Jamita Swearengen, whose district includes the Fairgrounds, was hostile, saying Spectra was taking credit for events that others organized locally independent of Spectra. That includes the Caribbean Jerk Festival, whose organizers Swearengen courted to move their event to Tiger Lane from Broad Avenue.

“The city, they pay you an astronomical amount of money to bring events into the Liberty Bowl stadium. And I don’t see where you all have carried out those duties,” Swearengen told Merritt and Thomas Carrier, Spectra’s general manager. “$80,000 a year and you are not bringing any events in to the city of Memphis. … Your last contract was 2011. This is very disappointing. It’s like giving your wife $100 and all she does is bring home bread and bologna.”

Meanwhile, the city holds the second of three public meetings Thursday, Sept. 21, as it moves toward a more specific proposal for changes to the Fairgrounds to take to state officials sometime in November or December.

“$80,000 a year and you are not bringing any events in to the city of Memphis. … Your last contract was 2011. This is very disappointing. It’s like giving your wife $100 and all she does is bring home bread and bologna.”

–Memphis City Council member
Jamita Swearengen,

criticizing lack of concerts and events brought to Liberty Bowl Stadium by Spectra Venue Management

The city is seeking to activate a Fairgrounds-Midtown Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) it has had on the books with the state for several years. It’s dormant until or unless the state building commission approves a plan by the city for the specific use of sales tax revenue generated in the zone.

The meeting at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, 800 East Parkway S., is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The first such meeting in August produced tentative plans without specific details. The target for the third session is November.

The city intends to present “siting options” on Thursday and even talk about a potential use for the Mid-South Coliseum, which is not necessarily a commitment that it will be part of the city’s proposal to the state.

The city doesn’t necessarily have to work out every detail in its plan to present to the state by year’s end. And Housing and Community Development director Paul Young has said the coliseum’s future use may not be completely fleshed out in the plan.

The Coliseum Coalition group working to keep the arena from being demolished released a “modernization and operations business plan” this month that would pare down the mothballed 12,000-seat arena to a 4,999-seat indoor facility next to or adjoining a new sports facility with several courts or playing areas.

That capacity is one seat below the 5,000-seat threshold that would trigger the Memphis Grizzlies organization to consider the venue competition and bring into play its no compete or first-right-of-refusal clause in its contract with the city to operate FedExForum.

The new structure and an adapted coliseum with a smaller seating capacity would be akin to a sports tournament complex “while maintaining and expanding its historic capacity as a facility capable of hosting a myriad of events and activities outside of sports,” the coalition’s report reads.

“Conversion of this multipurpose building into a single-purpose carries with it the unique capital costs to convert to that single purpose, unique operating costs of this single use, the financial risk of this single use failing and the attendant risk to the coliseum of that failure,” the report adds.

The city has estimated the cost of renovating and restoring the coliseum as a 12,000-seat arena at $30 million.

The coalition estimates that cost at $23 million, about the same for creating a rejuvenated, smaller coliseum to serve as part of a sports tournament venue – $23 million plus a $5 million endowment – financed primarily with TDZ revenues.

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