Disposable City

Abandoned, tacky, and outdated: Is there hope for the Mid-South Fairgrounds?

| April 04, 2003

The big event at the Mid-South Fairgrounds last weekend was a gun show.

How appropriate.

The fairgounds is Exhibit A in Memphis as the Disposable City. Abandoned, neglected, outdated, forgotten, low-rent, money loser -- take your pick. With the exception of the Children's Museum, flea market, and a couple of events at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, everything else is struggling to stay in business or already out of business.

Still -- and stop us if you've heard this before -- not many cities have an underused 145-acre piece of publicly owned property close to the geographic center of the city, or at least the city as it existed before suburban sprawl gave 4,400-acre Shelby Farms at least an equal share of that distinction. After more than three years of delay, the city of Memphis and the Memphis Park Commission are negotiating for a fairgrounds master plan with Memphis-based Ellers Oakley Chester & Rike Consulting Engineers and HOK, the national firm that designed AutoZone Park.

Park Commission director Wayne Boyer envisions a public recreation complex that could include an indoor-outdoor swimming pool, outdoor basketball courts, ice-skating facility, tennis courts, playground, walking trails, skateboard facility, and lots of green space. The master plan, he said, should be finished this year after meetings with the public, city officials, and the fairgrounds' several current users. The plan should cost less than $200,000, which was what the city paid in 1999 for a master plan and overall analysis of its 107 properties. The Park Commission has a $40 million annual capital improvements budget.

The rallying cry for fans of Shelby Farms is "Keep It Green." Over at the fairgrounds, they like to say "Keep It Paved."

It is Midtown's parking lot, seemingly designed on the premise that every ball game, concert, and fair would be filled to capacity and every man, woman, and child in attendance would arrive in their own car and have their own parking place.

Most of the crowds, of course, are gone. Tim McCarver Stadium was replaced by downtown's AutoZone Park. The Mid-South Coliseum was replaced by The Pyramid, which is in turn being replaced by the FedExForum. The Mid-South Fair lost $1.2 million last year because of bad weather and declining interest. Libertyland broke even, but lost $800,000 two years ago. Both the fair and Libertyland, operated by Mid-South Fair, Inc., will be back this year. The University of Memphis says it averages 29,000 fans for home football games at Liberty Bowl Stadium, but turnstile counts have been as low as 17,000. Capacity is 62,000. The juxtaposition of the old fortress-like stadium, the adjacent cattle corrals of the fair, and the abandoned baseball stadium simply screams "Welcome to cow town."

The old outdoor swimming pool was filled in three years ago, adding, ironically, to one of the few green spaces in the fairgrounds. The practice football field on Central Avenue still gets some use, and the track is functional. But when the Memphis Sports Authority landed Spring Fling 2003, the Tennessee state tournament for prep spring sports, no serious consideration was given to using the fairgrounds. Instead, events will be held at private schools in the suburbs and even in Mississippi.

The competition isn't sitting still. Other cities find productive, even profitable uses for centerpiece parks. Nashville's Centennial Park boasts an indoor swimming pool, ice rink, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, the Parthenon, a pond, gardens, and picnic grounds. The Germantown Community Center has a pool, tennis, racquetball, auditorium, ponds, and picnic grounds. Southaven has Snowden Grove, the best youth baseball complex in the Mid-South. Collierville and Bartlett are flush with parks and trails.

And with spring busting out all over, baseball season about to begin and March madness at fever pitch, Memphis has its fairgrounds and a bunch of memories of the 1973 Memphis State Tigers and the late great Memphis Chicks along with a flea market and a gun show.

Well, why not gun shows in a city that is the murder capital of the Mid-South, with 150-200 homicides in any given year and thousands of armed assaults? And why not flea markets at a place that is itself a sort of flea market of public and private facilities? Let's take a closer look at the bargain-basement treasures of the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

· Tim McCarver Stadium. Unused since AutoZone Park opened in 2000. The Redbirds Foundation thought about taking it over for its RBI youth baseball program but, wisely, thought better of the idea. Unfortunately, the city of Memphis had put $2.7 million into stadium improvements a few years earlier for the Chicks and their ownership group, which stands as one of the poorer trades in minor-league baseball history.

With AutoZone Park and USA Stadium in Millington, the Memphis area has two facilities good enough for professional baseball, U.S. Olympic team training, or college and high school tournaments.

"Tim McCarver Stadium is probably going to go," said Boyer.

Whether there's a place for baseball at all in the fairgrounds remains to be seen. Baseball is increasingly a suburban sport, and the 1999 park-facilities assessment by Ritchie Smith Associates found that the Park Commission has 113 baseball or softball fields, although many of them are in poor condition.

Tim McCarver Stadium takes up only six acres, but it's become a serious eyesore. Tearing it down or, alternately, letting it rust and rot away, will be an early indication of how serious the city is about the master plan.

· Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. R.I.P., you Southmen, [football] Grizzlies, Mad Dogs, and Maniax. The stadium that put Nashville in the NFL loses about $490,000 a year and needs major maintenance, said Boyer. The Southern Heritage Classic and the AXA Liberty Bowl have struggled to put 40,000 people in the stands recently, and the University of Memphis struggles to get 30,000 unless it's playing a Southeastern Conference team, which is rare these days.

The master plan is aimed at everyday recreational uses. But HOK, it is worth remembering, is also a stadium designer.

· The Mid-South Coliseum. Debt-free, comfortable seating, decent acoustics, and acres of parking. Like Tim McCarver Stadium, the prospect of extinction did not deter the previous management of the coliseum from spending good money on it, in this case for the Memphis RiverKings hockey team, which moved to DeSoto County, Mississippi.

The coliseum is owned by the city and county but run by an independent board and booked by SMG, the outfit that manages The Pyramid.

Alan Freeman, general manager of The Pyramid, acts as adviser to the city and county on the coliseum. He said it has had an operating deficit of $200,000 to $300,000 a year for the last few years. It still has profitable events, including the Shrine Circus, Mid-South Fair Rodeo, and a few concerts. And lately it has found a niche as a rehearsal hall for, among others, magician David Copperfield.

High schools also use it for basketball games and graduation ceremonies, which tend to be impersonal and somewhat rowdy in the cavernous space.

"There has been no talk of closing the coliseum," said Freeman.

Well, not yet. But FedExForum will have right of first refusal for events when it opens in 2004 and, Freeman said, "some questions will have to be answered."

One of them should be how well a month of private rehearsals for a magician fits the definition of public purpose.

The coliseum is also important to the Mid-South Fair, which leases it for 10 days for fair-related events like the rodeo.

"Personally, I think there is a place in the scheme of things for that building," said Ron Hardin, general manager of Mid-South Fair, Inc.

· Libertyland Amusement Park. The park opens April 26th with the Paratrooper, the Thriller, Park's Peak, and the Zippin Pippin among other rides.

Mid-South Fair, Inc., the bastion of old-guard white politicians that owns the amusement park, is determined to keep it going despite waning interest, financial losses, and soaring insurance costs. But comparisons with Opryland in Nashville, which closed after a run of some 25 years, are invalid, insisted Hardin. The nearest big amusement park is outside of St. Louis. Libertyland is a closer, more affordable (unlimited-access ticket for $18 and season pass for $50) alternative.

"Regional amusement parks are viable operations," he said. "We do a good group business. We lost some companies in 2001 but they came back last year. This year is looking good."

The cost of insurance, however, is "out of sight," rising 60 percent in 2002.

· The Mid-South Fair. There is a temptation to groan when Hardin talks about "third-graders who don't know where milk really comes from or where a cotton shirt comes from," but he is perfectly sincere. A Midtowner all of his adult life and a graduate of Christian Brothers College, he is a genuine fan of the educational value of the 130-year-old fair's pie contests, science fairs, and livestock shows.

When the Shelby County School Board dropped Fair Day this year, "I was concerned from an educational standpoint, not just the mass numbers of attendance," Hardin said. The city schools, with 118,000 potential customers, have not followed suit.

The fair, which claims to have drawn 410,000 people in 2002, can ill afford any kind of attendance hit. Finance manager Todd Hamilton said it lost $1.2 million last year, mainly due to torrential rains in September, including the loss of one entire day. Hardin said it will stay put, profits or no profits. He is in no hurry to move to Shelby Farms, as some have suggested, because it lacks parking and walkways.

Boyer said he assumes the fair and Libertyland will stay in the master plan but that planners could look at the fairgrounds with and without them.

"The last thing we want to do is frighten people into thinking we're going to tear down Fairview Junior High or Libertyland or the fair," he said.

Still, there is a feeling in the community outside the mini-empire of Mid-South Fair, Inc., that the fair has a lot more to do with second-tier rock bands, funnel cakes, and corn dogs than milking demonstrations and needlepoint and, moreover, that it has lost its pizzazz and should gracefully bow out.

"It might be best to bulldoze most of the fairgrounds except for the Children's Museum, the Liberty Bowl, the Pipkin Building [an exhibition hall] and the Shelby County Building [the distinctive tower in the center of the fairgrounds]," suggested John Malmo, former chairman of the Park Commission.

Nothing if not blunt and controversial, Malmo had his own share of critics when the long tradition of having a park board of citizens was abolished at the end of his tenure. But he recognizes that times have changed and the role of parks has changed too.

"I grew up playing and working in public parks," said Malmo. "That is where you went in the summer. There was maybe one youth baseball league in the city, no church leagues, and no soccer. Today's needs are more for adult facilities."

Now rich kids and middle-class kids go to camp. Churches have taken over grassroots youth sports programs. Swimming, tennis, soccer, and baseball have largely shifted to the suburbs. And, increasingly, in parks as in health care, transportation, and city schools, public means poor.

"In other cities, a broader segment of the population uses public facilities," said Lissa Thompson, a landscape architect with Ritchie Smith Associates who is a generation younger than Malmo. "We could turn that around." She has a hopeful vision of the fairgrounds as a place to fill the "day-to-day, round-the-clock needs of the community."

Thompson, who was project director for the Park Commission Facilities Master Plan, warns that even if it were a blank slate, the fairgrounds should be handled carefully.

"It's dangerous to put one of everything in it," she said. "We should look at what the site offers and ask what can be accommodated here that can't be provided elsewhere." ·

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