VOL. 132 | NO. 191 | Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Fairgrounds Proposal Coming Into Focus
By Bill Dries
Aaron Shafer saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, at the second public gathering toward a redevelopment plan for the Fairgrounds last week.
Shafer, who is among those leading the effort toward a city skatepark in nearby Tobey Park, had been talking up a surf park – a water park with a wave pool capable of generating waves for surfing. It was one of several versions of a water park as part of a reconfigured Fairgrounds.
But in the meeting room Thursday, Sept. 21, verbiage on a poster board warned of the drawbacks of a water park.
“Amusement and water parks typically need a new attraction every 2-3 years to keep up profit numbers,” the placard read. “There is a limited operating season.”
To Shafer, those comments were paramount to ruling out the idea, even though the administration’s development team says everything so far is tentative.
“I can take a hint,” Shafer said. “The message seems clear.”
Meanwhile, Roy Barnes at the Coliseum Coalition – the group pushing for a restored Mid-South Coliseum – found on another placard ideas very similar to his group’s, calling for the arena to be repurposed as a “championship” venue to host amateur sports tournaments, with a multi-use annex nearby or attached to it.
“We listened to what they were thinking and we made it part of our plan,” Barnes said.
But the administration now estimates the full cost of restoring the coliseum, even with a smaller 4,999-seat venue, at $37 million – about $7 million more than previous city estimates and $10 million above the Coliseum Coalition’s estimate without a $5 million endowment fund.
“We’ve done some due diligence,” said city Housing and Community Development director Paul Young, who is the point man on the project. “We’ve heard from the community. We know the coliseum is a building that is near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts. The decision-making factor is going to be based on the numbers. … We looked at the demolition cost as kind of a baseline. The next step is for us to explore how much revenue can be generated by the TDZ.”
The Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) is the three-mile area that includes the Fairgrounds, Overton Square and much of a booming Midtown commercial and retail corridor whose sales tax would be used to finance the Fairgrounds redevelopment. The administration expects to have its revenue estimates in a couple of weeks, before a key Nov. 6 public meeting at which the administration will unveil its most specific, but still tentative, Fairgrounds plan.
“At least a proposed plan that we want to present to the community for final feedback” is how Young described it. The city wants a final plan in Nashville for approval by the state Building Commission by the end of the year.
“It’s time for this community to make a decision and we want to present something to the community and give them a baseline for decision making,” Young said. “In order to do that you have to have a final plan on the table.”
On the way to that plan, the city has a tentative Fairgrounds layout that debuted last week that includes some familiar elements.
The oldest, continually operating institution on the grounds – the 1930s art deco school that was once Fairview Junior High School and is now Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and Middle College High School, would get a new gymnasium behind the Kroc Center, its neighbor, also facing East Parkway.
The school would remain but the gymnasium, currently east of the school proper, would be demolished opening up Central Avenue frontage for commercial retail development.
Further east on Central, a hotel shows up next to the Children’s Museum of Memphis property.
Shelby County Schools athletic fields now on Central Avenue on the other side of the hotel are labeled as a “tactical development” area in the site plan. The layout shows an outdoor sports area in the southwest corner of the Fairgrounds area along East Parkway where the Libertyland amusement park once was.
The city is also considering a “junkyard museum” that surfaced in the plans of prior city administrations, although no location is shown on the tentative layout. The museum would be interactive, similar to the St. Louis city museum.
“We think that it’s a creative use of space,” Young said of such a museum. “We’re trying to identify where that may be possible. What you see today is really us trying to organize the ideas that have come out since we stated this process a month and a half ago and make it fit to the extent possible.”
What that will look like in November depends on TDZ revenue estimates.
As different groups advocating a particular piece of the redevelopment pitched their ideas one more time, Orange Mound residents also turned out to fill out questionnaires also available online at www.memphisfairgrounds.com.
The questions are basic.
“Do you think it’s important to replace the sports fields on Central and the Fairview School gym if that space is needed for retail stores?” and “Is the city of Memphis headed in the right direction with the concepts on the site map?”
“What I see is a future for this area,” said Richard Tate of Orange Mound as he filled a questionnaire out. “I hope they keep the coliseum. I hope they get some parking and also, I would like to see them renovate the track-and-field area.”
Another Orange Mound resident answered questions read to her, including one rating the importance of a swimming pool at the Fairgrounds or some kind of water feature.
“How many times are you going to swim?” she replied, indicating it was not very important to her.
Tate had a different view.
“Those are for kids,” he said. “You can’t leave them out of the planning.”
An earlier plan during Mayor A C Wharton’s administration emphasized regional and national amateur sports tournaments, with proceeds from a hotel for those traveling to the tournaments helping pay for improvements.
The heavy emphasis on money led some to question whether the facilities would be available for use by Memphians.
Mark Ravi of the Coliseum Coalition said public use is an essential factor in the plan he wants to see.
“A lot of this stuff is happening because people are so far removed and not connected to the city,” he said. “It would be something that would bring everybody back into the city.”