Fixing the Fairgrounds

Politics, recession, and a vision that hasn't caught fire.



Henry Turley has been called a visionary developer in his 40-year career in real estate, but his vision of the old Mid-South Fairgrounds is looking increasingly less likely.

An alternative option — call it the public option, in today's parlance — would have many of the sports elements as Turley's proposal but with a quarterback combo of architect and former city councilman Tom Marshall and Housing and Community director Robert Lipscomb.

On Monday, Turley conceded that he has "no votes" on the Memphis City Council, which will have the final say on which proposal, if any, moves ahead. Among other problems, Turley was out-politicked. Council members and city division directors are friendly to boards and agencies such as the Riverfront Development Corporation and the Center City Commission on which they have representation.

Turley's proposal, called Fair Ground LLC, was chosen as developer last year by the city's appointed fairgrounds reuse committee chaired by Cato Johnson. Former Mayor Willie Herenton confirmed the selection, but his endorsement was never clear even before he left office in July.

In other words, Turley has the half-blessing of an unpopular former mayor and an appointed committee. Backing like that, along with $1, will get you a cup of coffee in Memphis.

Marshall, on the other hand, is a former colleague of interim Mayor Myron Lowery and chief administrative officer Jack Sammons. He had a reputation as an adept compromiser during his nearly two decades on the council. Lipscomb and Marshall have worked closely together on the stalled Bass Pro/Pyramid proposal, and Marshall's firm had a contract with Memphis City Schools under former Superintendent Carol Johnson to do a facilities needs study and design new schools.

Last week, FedEx CEO Fred Smith gave his blessing to the Marshall-Lipscomb fairgrounds plan, and The Commercial Appeal gave it front-page coverage. Turley was "stunned."

Turley (a stockholder in the investment group and member of the board of directors of Contemporary Media Inc., the parent company of the Memphis Flyer) is the co-developer of Harbor Town, South Bluffs, Uptown, and other downtown projects. His Fair Ground partnership includes Art Gilliam, Robert Loeb, Derrick Mashore, Eliot Perry, and Mark Yates.

Both proposals envision a grand entrance on East Parkway, add acres of grass, and keep Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Turley would use any sales tax increment in stadium revenue above a base number for general fairgrounds improvement. If attendance remains flat or falls, there would be no increment.

The public option includes housing on the fairgrounds property but the kind and amount are not specified. Turley's plan has no housing "because we do not want to compete with housing in the surrounding neighborhoods and because we believe the entire Fair Ground should encourage public use."

Turley's proposal includes at least $50 million in "national brand" hotels and retailers such as Target. Small-scale retail, he said, would harm existing Midtown stores and restaurants. Under a financing plan known as a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ), the sales taxes from new development would be used for $75 million in public improvements. Target already has several stores in greater Memphis, and dedicated tax streams mean less tax money for someone else in the recession. The financing of the Lipscomb-Marshall plan is vague, but Lipscomb has backed a TDZ for Bass Pro at the Pyramid and Triangle Noir south of Beale Street.

Youth sports and athletic facilities are central to both proposals. The Kroc Center, financed in large part by a grant from McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, has a piece of property on the west side of the fairgrounds. Neither proposal makes a strong case that additional sports facilities beyond that would be competitive with new mega-fields for soccer and baseball or older playing fields like the ones at the fairgrounds and behind the board of education offices nearby.

The Coliseum eventually comes down in both proposals. Turley said two weeks ago he would replace it with an indoor multi-sports building. Marshall's firm, O.T. Marshall and Associates, drew up futuristic plans for an indoor stadium and covered facilities on the fairgrounds more than 30 years ago. The current plan is to make the fairgrounds greener and cleaner as soon as possible.

Turley said he and his partners have invested $277,000 cash and 5,000 hours of work so far. He said the last city-developed public space was Mud Island River Park, which loses money and is closed half the year. Lipscomb (and now Herenton) said Turley's fees are too high.

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