It's no mystery why building new public buildings is easier than closing them. Construction means jobs, and closings mean lost jobs. What's surprising is the willingness of Memphis to continue to spend tens of millions of dollars to fix up old buildings and build new ones with no realistic possibility that they will be fully used.
The Unified School Board is meeting this week to consider closing six schools instead of the 21 closings recommended by the Transition Planning Commission. Memphis International Airport boasts a new seven-story parking garage even though Delta announced another cut in local service this week that will reduce daily departures from 115 to just 94 next year.
And last week the city of Memphis announced that it has agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to spend $12 million on Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, including the addition of 288 handicapped seats in the 61,000-seat stadium.
Justice is blind, really blind. Its standard for ADA compliance is 1 percent of the seating capacity, or nearly 600 seats and companion seats. Never mind that the stadium hasn't sold out since 1996, that the biggest crowd last year was 31,578 for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, that the current allotment of handicapped seats is way underused, and that the University of Memphis Tigers averaged slightly over 10,000 per game in actual attendance in 2011.
Actual attendance should not be confused with announced attendance, although it often is, because it makes coaches, athletic directors and bowl promoters look good. In 2011, the announced attendance (including tickets sold, discounted, and distributed but unused) for eight games at the stadium was 221,002, but the actual butts-in-seats attendance was 120,300. In 2012, the University of Memphis announced total attendance of 146,227 for six games, an average of 24,371. The U of M announced-attendance record, set in 2003, is 284,352, or 40,622 per game.
My efforts to get the actual 2012 attendance from the city or the stadium operators before our deadline were unsuccessful. But does anyone seriously believe that the opener against UT-Martin drew 39,076 fans?
The Tigers have a new football coach, new athletic director, new big-screen television scoreboard, a three-game winning streak, Tiger Lane, and a new conference affiliation starting in 2013. An attendance bump next year is quite possible. But the Big East is looking awfully similar to Conference USA with this week's addition of Tulane and East Carolina and the likely departure of Louisville and Connecticut. The 2013 Memphis football schedule has not been announced. It is likely to be short on marquee names and long on air travel.
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 they said 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," Wharton said. "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 288 new seats?
No wonder some Memphis state legislators, members of the school board, and neighborhood leaders are so opposed to closing 21 schools. In light of the charade of denial going on at the stadium and the airport, who's to say that a school that is half empty is not, instead, half full and, moreover, used 180 days a year?