Closing Schools, Building Parking Garages, and Fixing Stadiums

Posted by John Branston on Wed, Nov 21, 2012 at 1:59 PM

For a city that is losing population, jobs, and taxpayers, Memphis is sure doing a lot of new government-funded building.

New high schools, a massive parking garage at the airport, a parking garage at Overton Square, a boat landing, and now $12 million more in renovations and handicapped seating at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, which needs more seats of any kind like it needs a tornado or a power failure. There are two games left on the schedule in 2012 — the University of Memphis season-ender against Southern Mississippi Saturday and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in December. Take those two games, add the "crowds" at three or four more games, and you might, just might, fill the 61,000-seat stadium. Fudging attendance numbers is standard practice, but I was a bit shocked last year to see the full extent of the charade after the Division of Parks coughed up the numbers, which were barely half the "announced" figures.

The justification for spending another $12 million is the federal government's Justice Department and the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Having researched the subject five years ago when it came up in the last years of the Herenton administration, I was under the impression that additional seats had been added or were then in the process of being added, and the problem was no more. Several users of the handicapped seats told me as much. Either my sample was flawed or things have changed, because 288 seats and companion seats are on order.

In e-mails, Mayor A C Wharton and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb told me they cut the best deal they could with Justice, which initially recommended $40 million in improvements. Wharton did not dispute the fact that the stadium usually has thousands of empty seats, including many in the special sections, but figured he had to deal or risk litigation that would stall (as if it has not been stalled already) redevelopment of the Fairgrounds. Lipscomb cautioned that the enforcers at Justice are not to be taken lightly lest they decide to look askance at other proposals from Memphis.

"I am comfortable with the number we have reached," said Wharton. "By settling we control the number. Litigation would have been a costly crap shoot."

Added Lipscomb, "This brings to closure an argument that has gone on since 2005, dramatically improves our relationship and perception of the city from the perspective of the DOJ and other federal agencies with grant dollars, saves legal fees that have been accumulating over seven years, and allows the city to move forward with the Fairgrounds Plan."

What is missing in this account are the voices of the football fans using and not using the handicapped seats at the stadium. Are the improvements so far insufficient? In what way? Are there too few seats? Have people been turned away because of a seating shortage or an access problem? If so can it be remedied with something other than 280 new seats? It defies common sense that there is a seat shortage of any kind in a stadium that, on most of its nine event dates a year, has tens of thousands of empty seats. The biggest crowd last year, remember, was the Mississippi State game, which drew only 33,990. The season-ender barely drew 3,000. There isn't enough fabric to mask the empty seats and sections at a game like that.

The local government refrain is that the federal government is unyielding on this subject, so move on. Strange to hear that coming from career government employees. Why not invite Justice to send a team of lawyers to the Southern Miss game or the Liberty Bowl and see for themselves? A little PR never hurt. Put a name and a face and a comment for attribution on the person or people at DOJ who insist the funds must be spent, and make them explain why. The federal government, last time I read a newspaper, was in something of a budget crisis itself and throwing its weight around on empty football stadiums in Memphis and bullying public servants hardly seems a priority.

UTILIZATION. Remember that word. It's the key to the closing-schools story, the baffling airport expansion in the midst of Delta's contraction, and the threats to close libraries and golf courses. A public facility that is not being used to anywhere near its capacity but remains open in light of maintenance and staffing and ADA obligations is an expensive proposition for this city and its shrinking number of individual and corporate taxpayers. If you don't say "no more" here, where DO you say it? If you don't take this crap shoot, when do you take it? And if you pour another $12 million into a stadium that is barely used nine times a year, how do you tell the school board to close 21 schools that are used 180 days a year?

Whoa there, schools and stadiums are different budgets, some will say, apples and oranges. Actually, from a taxpayer's point of view it is all the same and the distinctions are lost.

Related story: Taking Liberty

Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

equating coming into compliance with federal law and choosing to build a parking garage is pretty weak tea there..

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Posted by Ed Arnold on 11/21/2012 at 2:12 PM

Ed: They're part of the same TIF district, among other things. And if compliance is so important why wait 7 years to do it?

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Posted by John Branston on 11/21/2012 at 2:57 PM

Weak tea? Perhaps. But I think Branston's point is that maybe the federal law should be challenged if it doesn't make sense. Year in and year out, I attend at least 80 percent of the "major" events held at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Much, much more often than not, seats/space reserved for handicapped ticket holders go unused. (To Branston's point.) So why waste $12 million to add more seats that will likely go unusued? Why not challenge the feds on this one? Have any other cities with old public football stadiums challenged the fed on something like this before?

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Posted by Strait Shooter on 11/21/2012 at 3:04 PM

Are we the only ones dealing with this?

Has anyone looked at Ole Miss & Miss State? I think they only offer limited end zone ADA seating with ADA restroom stalls and fixtures in the restrooms adjacent. The ADA parking is in a shuttle lot far away from the facility. I don't think representative seating/access has been provided throughout the stadium. Not sure, but I find it hard to believe that ADA has been accommodated at many of the other older stadiums I've been to.

I'm not saying this is right... But not sure this is being fairly enforced.

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Posted by JT on 11/21/2012 at 3:20 PM

Strait Shooter

There are cases that the U. S. Supreme Court has already ruled upon. The stadium and its facilities must have reasonable ADA Access, regardless of how manay have used the facility.

So, they are saving money by not suing. If they sue and resist, they will surely loose.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/21/2012 at 3:49 PM

Well, based on the same criteria (underutilization) we should be closing schools, libraries and golf courses seeing as many of those facilities are underutilized. We should also be selling off parks, ROW on most of our overly-wide streets (seeing as they were designed for traffic volumes that no longer exist) and we need to reduce MATA service by roughly half.

With the stadium and ADA, the city must make a decision: does the Liberty Bowl, the Southern Heritage Classic and a dozen (poorly attended) UofM games constitute spending $12 million? If not, then the Liberty Bowl should be closed because when it comes to the feds and ADA compliance, there is no half-way. You either are in compliance or you are not in compliance and thus can be sued by anyone including the feds themselves.

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Posted by barf on 11/21/2012 at 6:19 PM

...oh and by the way, not sure where Branston is getting his info, but:
According to other news sources, 1,700 seats will need to be removed to make room for the 288 ADA seats, so John should be thrilled to hear they are actually reducing capacity at the stadium. Not sure if the ADA seats are needed, but the regular seats aren't in much demand either. I would imagine demolishing the Liberty Bowl would run in excess of $12 million.

Posted by barf on 11/21/2012 at 6:27 PM


You used the right sentence for underutilization of facilities. You said, we should close them.

You are completely right, however, that we, have to be a majority, that is the democratic way, you know. Your we might be substantial, but, your we might not be the majority.

You can say that it is wasting money on these under used facilities. While I may agree with, it is not solely yours or my money that is being wasted. That question must still be answered by the majority.

May I, once again explain to you and like minded others that a government of the people, by the people and for the people is not a business and can't be run as such. It is a bunch of diverse individuals electing people to do our bidding. It is just that simple.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/21/2012 at 7:00 PM

The Liberty Bowl should be where Memphis in May is Held! And for that matter do the Art's have reasonable access to this public facility? Then why isnt there a major rock concert there at least 5 times a year? Reasonable access seems like it relates to usage. If there where actually something interesting going on there regularly (usage) more special seating might be needed and justified. Book things like Monsters of Rock there and other summer tours, and there just might be butts for those seats.

Posted by on 11/22/2012 at 11:29 AM

ADA acess is not based on how many actually use a facility, it is based on capacity. It does not matter if 10 or 50,000 attend something, as long as the capacity is for a certain amount, a percentage of the total seating capacity must be made ADA accessable.

The law is not based on collective rights, but individual rights, when taken as a whole, becomes the collective right.

Reading and comprehension is fundamental.i

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 11/22/2012 at 1:44 PM
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