Through its 40-year history, the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium has seen its fair share of incomplete passes and not just on the football field.
Last week, the City Council's parks committee was asked to approve more than $7.6 million
for Liberty Bowl renovations, including a new home locker room and some Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) improvements. But committee members balked at the price tag — including more than $750,000 in design costs — and postponed a decision until the committee's May 6th meeting.
"My first concern is: $6.3 million to build locker rooms? That seems extraordinarily high," said parks chairman Jim Strickland.
In addition to renovating the existing home locker room, the planned project includes moving the visitor's locker room to the other side of the stadium. A new X-ray and medical treatment area and a room for officials also will be built.
Except for a project to renovate bathrooms and concessions begun last year, the stadium has not had any upgrades since the 1980s.
"The locker room project is one of the upgrades that has been on the list of projects since early 2000," said parks services director Cindy Buchanan. "Basically, it will bring the stadium up to industry standards, so we can continue to attract, as well as retain, collegiate football games."
Though the project will make the north tunnel accessible for disabled visitors, it does not address overall ADA-compliancy issues, nor does it affect seating capacity.
"We call it a renovation, but, except for the home dressing room, everything else is a tear-it-out and rebuild it," said city architect Mel Scheuerman.
Buchanan and AutoZone Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart cautioned that the project needs to begin soon to be completed in time for the 2009 football season.
"The last 20 years, the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium ... has been ignored for a variety of reasons," Ehrhart said. "There were inquiries in the last 15 months over a new stadium, so I think the maintenance was deferred.
"There's a push now, once the decision was made to move away from the idea of a new stadium, to get things done in a timely fashion."
The project was partially designed in 2005, before being halted for budgetary reasons. A nearby parks storage building was once slated to become the locker room, and, when it was initially proposed, the project was estimated to cost a little more than $4 million. Which means that the price has almost doubled since then.
Scheuerman said the original cost estimate was done in June 2004.
"That's four years of inflation. The escalation that occurred over those four years in construction is about a 10 percent clip a year," Scheuerman said. "As you know, everything is being driven astronomically by fuel prices."
Council members, no doubt beginning a season of searching for budget cuts wherever possible, asked if the design work could be put out for bid.
Coming alongside a proposed 17 percent tax hike, council members are right to be counting their pennies. But I can't help think that somewhere along the way, someone dropped the ball.
On New Year's Day 2007, Mayor Willie Herenton proposed building a new stadium. Initially, the price tag attached to the idea was around $150 million. Before discussion was over, however, that figure doubled, as well.
I'm not a huge football fan. I think the Liberty Bowl has nice sight lines, but I'm not in a position to know if better locker rooms have any impact on recruiting or retaining collegiate football games.
That said, the locker room renovation project may have stalled initially because of budgetary reasons. But for the past two years, while the city has enjoyed somewhat better financial health, the locker room project was on hold while the city and the University of Memphis studied the possibility of building a brand-new stadium.
And in the time since then, construction costs have gone up roughly $3.5 million, the city has spent an additional $140,000 on a stadium study, and the U of M has spent $130,000 for an on-campus-stadium feasibility study. And now we're back to square one. Or pushed back to our own end zone, if you prefer.
It seems like we'd be ahead if we'd done these renovations years ago. (And I hate to think about how much more the overall disability act upgrades to the Liberty Bowl are going to cost the longer we wait.)
Yes, it's easy to be an armchair quarterback, especially with 20/20 hindsight. And, of course, if you're planning to build a new stadium, you don't spend money on the old one.
But instead of just chalking something else up to coulda, woulda, shoulda, maybe there's a lesson here: Sometimes you don't need a touchdown. You just need to move the ball.