On December 28th, just three days before Memphis mayor Willie Herenton announced his plans for a new football stadium, a work crew began renovations on the old one. After a 2004 facilities analysis of the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, the mayor and the City Council committed to $15 million in upgrades to the aging facility, including improvements to the sound system and restrooms and making it more Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant. The City Council appropriated $3.6 million last fall to pay for the first phase of those upgrades -- a renovation and expansion of restroom facilities -- and work began late December.
"Some of the facilities that are there now are 40 years old," says city architect Mel Scheuerman. "The new restrooms were going to provide an additional 84 fixtures for women. We wanted to get the fixture count up to a more appropriate level."
Unfortunately, the 84 toilets weren't the only bowls in question.
During a New Year's Day prayer breakfast, Herenton proposed building a brand-new stadium to replace the Liberty Bowl as the home the University of Memphis Tigers. The mayor said he would present financing details and the economic impact of such a stadium to the City Council in 45 days. The next day, the Liberty Bowl renovation project, in which supplies and equipment had already been ordered and contractors hired, was postponed while the administration decided what to do. Ultimately, however, the city couldn't afford the time-out.
"I can't stop the project for 45 or 60 days and get it done before football season," says Scheuerman. "In a perfect world, we would stop and say, what are we going to do? But we have a timing issue. We need to have it ready by next fall."
By the end of last week, work resumed at the Liberty Bowl. Because of the possibility for a new stadium, the administration eliminated the project's 84 new toilets, deciding to only renovate the existing restrooms in the lower concourse.
"The restrooms haven't had any true upgrades in many years. The money invested in them will make them more ADA compliant," says Scheuerman. "It may take five or six years for a new stadium to be built, so it's not a bad investment."
But without vandalism or abuse, the fixtures have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years.
"We're not going to get the full life out of the renovation, but there's a lot of uncertainty with the new stadium," says Scheuerman. "Since we had already started [the project], this was a good fall-back position."
I don't know if the city should build a new stadium or not. The 2004 study said the Liberty Bowl could use between $115 million and $148 million in upgrades. Though some work has already been done, it might make more sense to build something akin to the Papa John's Stadium in Louisville, which cost $63 million. If we're saving money by doing new construction, maybe we could even afford something a little nicer.
But I'm confused about how and when the mayor decided a stadium was what the city needs. In other goals for 2007, the mayor mentioned a cleaner city, a safer city, and a better-educated city. I think we can all agree that those would be beneficial, but somehow I can't see a $100 million stadium having a positive impact on crime, sanitation, or education.
If the mayor wanted to present a solid case for a new stadium, shouldn't the administration have done its 45 days of study before the mayor told everyone it was a good idea? How does Herenton know it's a good idea if he doesn't have the data to back it up?
And if Herenton knew that he was serious about building a new stadium a year ago -- even if he knew it a month ago -- why let the city go forward with building brand-new bathrooms in an old stadium?
It might be worth it to build a new stadium. It might be worth it to have renovated restrooms at the Liberty Bowl. But with Herenton pursuing an agenda counter to that of his staff, city money is being flushed down the toilets.