by Toby Sells
We bought a ball park.
The Memphis City Council approved the purchase of AutoZone Park Tuesday for $24 million in a deal that will keep the Memphis Redbirds baseball team in Memphis for the next 17 years.
The deal comes after a month of wrangling and negotiations between the council and Memphis mayor A C Wharton's administration. The mayor and his staff have been negotiating the deal with Fundamental Advisors, the investment firm that owns the bonds on the park, and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, which will buy and manage the Memphis Redbirds baseball team and will manage the park.
The new deal approved Tuesday will have the city issue bonds to buy the park for $19.5 million and for $4.5 million in improvements to the park. But the loans would not be paid for directly from the city coffers.
Instead, the park will be paid for with a mix of tax credits, tax rebates, and $300,000 in annual lease payments from the Memphis Redbirds baseball team. The St. Louis Cardinals and AutoZone Inc. will each provide $100,000 annually for the first 10 years of the 17-year contract to provide financial backstops for the city, should the park not meet revenue projections.
Council members Janis Fullilove, Lee Harris, Wanda Halbert, and Harold Collins voted against the deal.
The original deal asked the city to issue $25 million in debt — about $20 million to buy the park and about $5 million to improve the park. The council entered a counter offer last month that reduced the purchase price to $15 million and the funds for park improvements to $2.5 million. Also, any excess city funds generated at the park would go exclusively to stadium improvements, up to $2.5 million.
Proponents of the park purchase filled the seats at Memphis City Hall Tuesday and roared with applause as the approval vote tally was read. The fans of the deal sported red, Redbirds t-shirts, foam fingers, baseball caps and rally signs that read "Vote Yes - Rally for AutoZone Park."
Hundreds gathered at AutoZone Park Tuesday afternoon for a rally in support of the city's purchase of the ballpark ahead of Tuesday evening's vote. The crowd gathered were given free hot dogs, hot chocolate, Redbirds baseball hats, and beanies.
Rousing speeches in support of the deal were given by members of the Redbirds Foundation and management of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. The crowd marched from the park at Union and Third to Memphis City Hall.