Stadium Upgrade One Piece of Fairgrounds Puzzle



The moon in the sky was a big pizza pie over Liberty Bowl Stadium Tuesday night as hundreds of fans walked on the new artificial turf field and the giant new video board displayed a stunningly lifelike high-def image of . . . City Councilman Bill Boyd.

Actually Boyd followed a promotional Memphis video to the tune of "Green Onions," and he was at the podium and makeshift stage to introduce a bunch of dignitaries celebrating the newly renovated stadium. The place looked great inside and out, with a fountain, colored lights, and grand entrance at the end of Tiger Lane and the new turf, freshly painted stands, and the big board over the south end zone. What a change from the cow barns and fairgrounds clutter of two years ago.

On Saturday night, the Memphis Tigers and their new coach Justin Fuente will take the field against U-T Martin, a comedown from previous openers against Southeastern Conference teams but a winnable game for a Tiger team that has won five games in three years.

For Memphis to get a good return on its investment, which was heavily leveraged by donations from FedEx, the Tigers will have to get respectable and at least half-fill the Liberty Bowl regularly, which looks doubtful until Memphis joins the Big East Conference in 2013. The other two ramrods and beneficiaries, the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, should set the bar at 50,000 butts in seats.

The stated goal of city master planner Robert Lipscomb and his team is to make the fairgrounds a 365-day facility for ordinary Memphians as well as elite athletes. A worthy aspiration, long overdue, but about as possible as the Tigers going undefeated. For now, the Children's Museum is the closest thing to a daily draw, and it is not really part of the makeover. The Kroc Center on East Parkway will give Midtown a convenient and low-cost alternative to suburban fitness centers under the direction of the Salvation Army. I'm eager to see what all will be in the mix and how Memphians respond.

The high school football field and track should continue to get regular use from the future unified school system. The Bridges Kickoff Classic matching public and private schools moved from the Liberty Bowl to MUS in 2009. The smaller stadium costs less to rent and is a better fit, but the location is far from the center of the city.

Tearing down the Mid-South Coliseum was part of the aborted Fair Ground plan of Henry Turley and Bob Loeb and is a part of Lipscomb's plan as well. What's the rush? Sentiment isn't the point. The fact that Elvis once played there is as irrelevant as the fact that Gordie Howe once made a promotional visit for the River Kings. But don't tear down a building that is safe enough to host graduations in recent years and is surrounded by parking until someone comes up with a better idea and a paying customer to make it happen. It's not like there's no open space to build on at the fairgrounds.

Baseball fields at the Fairgrounds would return baseball to the inner city, the foundation of the Memphis Redbirds 12 years ago. Nice to see Tim McCarver making a big donation to his old home town but baseball is not the city game. How much farther can you take RBI than the Redbirds did with ex-major leaguer and Memphian Reggie Williams giving it their best shot?

The competition for baseball tournaments comes not only from Snowden Grove and First Tennessee Fields but also from multi-field complexes in Jackson, Jonesboro, New Albany, and Batesville. The competition for festivals, outdoor concerts, and packaged pay-for-fun ala the Mud Island LuvMud benefit will come from downtown, Shelby Farms, and other venues. There is no single sports and entertainment center in Memphis if there ever was one.

A Target store, a Hampton Inn-style motel, housing, and a Tourism Development Zone to capture sales taxes were also part of Fair Ground. What's done is done, but I think it's too bad that someone of Turley's talent, vision, and track record is working in Jackson, Tennessee and not in Midtown, Memphis. Is the city as developer a real deal or pie in the sky? We will see.

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