The Next Big Thing in Sports

Ray Kroc's $48 million gift could energize the fairgrounds.

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Memphians are used to seeing stories about big-dollar sports facilities such as Liberty Bowl Stadium, AutoZone Park, The Pyramid, and FedExForum. Now there's serious talk of one that could make Memphians players instead of spectators.

Last week, the Salvation Army announced a $48 million gift from the estate of Joan Kroc, whose husband Ray was the founder of McDonald's. Danny Morrow, area commander of the Salvation Army, told the Flyer that the Mid-South Fairgrounds is under consideration as the site of a 103,000-square-foot community center.

The Salvation Army was the favorite charity of Ray Kroc, and his wife's $1.6 billion gift to the National Salvation Army for community centers across the country is one of the largest donations ever to a nonprofit organization. The Memphis grant includes $24 million for construction and $24 million for an endowment and operations, with the requirement that the local Salvation Army raise another $24 million.

Morrow said the community center would be modeled after the Kroc Center in San Diego, except that it would not include an ice-hockey rink. It would have indoor swimming, a gym, fitness room, performing arts center, child care, a Head Start program, a Salvation Army Corps (a church), and outdoor recreation and fitness.

"This will serve the neighborhood and the community at large," he said.

A site has not been chosen, but the fairgrounds is getting serious attention in pre-development talks led by Kerr Tigrett, son of Pat Kerr Tigrett and the late John Tigrett, the driving force behind The Pyramid. Tigrett confirmed that the fairgrounds is being considered but declined to do an interview at this time.

Current tenants and buildings in the fairgrounds include the Memphis Children's Museum, Liberty Bowl Stadium, the Mid-South Coliseum, the annual Mid-South Fair, Libertyland amusement park, flea markets, and a track and football field used for high school events. The old Tim McCarver baseball stadium was recently torn down.

The fates of the Coliseum, Libertyland, and the Mid-South Fair are uncertain. All are past their prime, and there was talk of closing or moving them before the Kroc Center came up. But they also have their defenders and their customers. The Kroc Center could force the issue and raise at least three new ones:

* Will public officials and their constituents be comfortable with the Salvation Army, a Christian organization, playing a major role on a public site, probably in partnership with other faith-based organizations and nonprofits?

* Can another $24 million be raised? Or even more than that if the community center is only part of an overall redevelopment of the fairgrounds?

* In a new master plan for use of the fairgrounds, should private residential development be part of the plan or should public property only be used for public purposes?

* Are other sites equally attractive, including the privately owned site of the old Mall of Memphis?

By way of disclosure, I am a contributing author of a five-year-old consulting report (and a bumper sticker promoting Midtown) recommending that the fairgrounds be turned into a community sportsplex modeled after Centennial Park in Nashville, the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, the Snowden Grove youth baseball fields in DeSoto County, or any other park or center that encourages people to participate in sports instead of watching them.

You don't have to be a Midtowner or a futurist to connect the dots and to see the appeal of the fairgrounds as the site of the Kroc Center. The immediate neighbors are diverse, including Christian Brothers University, Chickasaw Gardens, Orange Mound, and the Cooper-Young neighborhood and commercial district.

The fairgrounds is reasonably accessible by car or MATA bus. If gas goes to $4 a gallon and sentiment builds for a light-rail extension of the existing trolley to nowhere that ends at Madison and Cleveland, one of the two proposed routes for an extension goes right past the fairgrounds.

Let the debate begin.

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