Football fans will see a cleaner and greener fairgrounds and a lot more empty space around Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in September.
In the southwest corner of the fairgrounds, heavy-equipment operators are grooming the former site of Libertyland, turning it into a shady, grassy grove suitable for pregame parties and picnics. Meanwhile, on the fifth floor of City Hall, heavy political operators are performing triage on the property and putting first things first. Which is to say, football and parking, all 5,372 spaces.
City councilman Reid Hedgepeth, a former college football player determined to move the ball on this project, gathered the main players Monday. They included University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, Steve Ehrhart, representing the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Fred Jones, representing the Southern Heritage Classic, and Robert Lipscomb, representing the city administration.
(The full council was scheduled to take up the issue Tuesday after Flyer deadlines.)
The goal was to get an agreement on Phase One of the "clean and green" of the amusement park site and move on. The next phase includes demolition of the cattle barns and most of the other buildings west of the stadium so they can be replaced with a "Tiger Lawn" (aka "The Great Lawn") from the East Parkway entrance of the fairgrounds to the stadium. Hedgepeth and Lipscomb want to get that much done before the 2010 football season starts and the U of M takes the field under new head coach Larry Porter. The cost is approximately $2 million.
"We're not finalizing the fairgrounds. All we're tying to do is clean the place up," Lipscomb said.
Noting the recent flare-up, mainly by Jones, over fears of lost parking places, Lipscomb added, "If we have this kind of problem cleaning it up, imagine the problem we're going to have advancing the notion of what ought to be there."
Conspicuously absent at the table was Henry Turley, whose group Fair Ground LLC was chosen as developer of the fairgrounds by the city's appointed fairgrounds reuse committee and confirmed by then-mayor Willie Herenton in 2008. Turley, the developer of Harbor Town and Uptown (and a minority stockholder in Contemporary Media, Inc., the Flyer's parent company), has a national reputation as an expert in new urbanism. He has called Fair Ground "the best idea I ever had." But he can't get political support for his plan, which includes big-box retailers like Target and hotels like Hampton Inns to generate taxes that would pay for an amateur team-sports complex and fairgrounds and stadium improvements.
Also absent was anyone from the Memphis Park Commission, which operates the stadium.
Calling the shots, at least for now, are Lipscomb and former city councilman and architect Tom Marshall, who leads a fairgrounds redevelopment group that has the blessing of FedEx executives, the U of M, and most members of the City Council.
No matter who gets the job, it won't be easy. The lineup for the East Parkway side of the fairgrounds is set, with Fairview Middle School, the Salvation Army's Kroc Center for recreation, the grand entrance, and the greensward at the old amusement park. So is most of the north side, with the Children's Museum and the high school football field and track.
That leaves the stadium, the Mid-South Coliseum, and enough asphalt to land airplanes if Memphis International ever shuts down. At Monday's meeting, Marshall had a display board with six reasons to tear down the coliseum. Jones wants it to stay. He's a tough advocate, with friends on the council.
If the football crowd has its way, parking will reign, millions more dollars will be poured into the stadium for fans who don't come and for handicapped seating that isn't needed, and the U of M will cross its fingers that a new coach and players can turn the program around and get Memphis into a Bowl Championship Series conference — the latest Holy Grail.
Turley's mixed bag is also a long shot. A "Target tax" or "Trader Joe's tax" would probably pass in some affluent precincts in Midtown, but big-box retailers always run into resistance. His sports model is Bridges, the nonprofit that brings private and public schools together for season-opening football games, only he wants to do it regularly.
In a town where public more often than not means poor (schools, the Med, MATA, etc.), Memphis may not be ready for that leap of faith. We prefer our racial reconciliation and happy endings in small doses, à la The Blind Side — or on the sports page or the football field.