Liberty Bowl Tenants Ready to Pay "Substantial" Sum


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Worlds are about to collide as the financially-strapped city of Memphis decides how much money to put into Liberty Bowl Stadium improvements along with tenants from the success-at-all-costs parallel universe of college football.

City Councilman Reid Hedgepeth told his colleagues the tenants — the University of Memphis, the Southern Heritage Classic, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — are prepared to pay a "substantial" amount of the unspecified cost of a new scoreboard, Jumbotron, field surface, lights, elevator, and press box. He brought the resolution for "appropriate funding" to the Parks Committee Tuesday to get it on the agenda for March 20th, when he said specifics would be provided.

Pressed by colleagues, Hedgepeth said the tenants would pay "at least half" of the cost, but that might not satisfy council members who have already spent $16 million on Tiger Lane two years ago and are looking at a $17 million deficit in this year's budget.

The University of Memphis starts play in the Big East Conference in 2013, and backers want the stadium upgraded before that. It takes five or six months to get a new Jumbotron, Hedgepeth said, adding that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam got stuck in the elevator last year and the current Jumbotron is so outdated that it is difficult to get parts for it from Chicago. He said he and the tenants would lay out funding sources and dollar amounts in two weeks.

"They are very aware that if they don't come up with significant funding we will never hear them" he said.

The city has lost money on the stadium the last two years. Cindy Buchanan, director of the Parks Division, said the shortfall was about $200,000 in the $1.5 million budget for the fairgrounds, which consists of the stadium and the vacant coliseum and lots of parking and grass. The city gets parking and concessions revenue but does not get advertising revenue from the Jumbotron under the present contract. That is why it is so important to increase actual attendance, as opposed to "tickets sold" attendance at the eight or nine games a year.

Actual attendance for University of Memphis football games was below 5000 for some games under former Coach Larry Porter. The figures were not immediately available. Porter was paid $750,000 a year, most of it by private donors to the athletic department. The mayor of Memphis makes about $172,000. Executive directors of college bowl games make as much as $600,000 or more. And new head football coach Justin Fuente is making $900,000. Former Memphis basketball coach John Calipari made much more than that, but he turned the program around, packed the house, and his teams won most of their games.

City Council members, on the other hand, live in a world where city employees took a 4.6 percent pay cut last year, where a tax hike of 18 cents is a very big deal, and where they are routinely pilloried for spending other people's money. They are well aware of the city's philanthropic community and football boosters. I have a feeling that "half" might not be enough.

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