The Fairgrounds: Big, Complicated, and Leaderless

Senior Editor John Branston takes a hard look at the fairgrounds project.



The redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds is a hard project to complete -- or even get started -- but the lack of progress is fairly easy to analyze after Tuesday's three-hour City Council meeting at the Children's Museum of Memphis. In no particular order, here are a dozen reasons this is such a toughie:

It's big and has lots of parts. There's Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, the Coliseum, the proposed Kroc Center, Fairview Junior High School, the remnants of the Mid-South Fair, the Children's Museum, the abandoned Libertyland amusement park, acres of parking lots, and a proposed retail and sports complex. Any one of those is a potential magnet for controversy. Taken all together, a stalemate was inevitable.

No clear leadership. Robert Lipscomb, head of the city's division of Housing and Community Development, was more or less in charge of Tuesday's meeting, along with City Council chairman Myron Lowery. There was a mayor at the meeting, but it was former mayor Dick Hackett, now head of the Children's Museum, and he kept his counsel to himself as he has for 18 years. Mayor Willie Herenton was not there. Nor was proposed Fair Ground developer Henry Turley.

Clash of the titans. That would be Lipscomb, the foremost government developer, and Turley, the foremost downtown private developer. Each needs the blessing of Herenton, who seems conflicted. For better or worse, this is one of the reasons why special "authorities" were created to oversee -- and make final decisions -- about The Pyramid, the riverfront, and FedExForum.

There is no big dog with clout. The history of the last 30 years in Memphis shows that signature sports and entertainment projects involving public dollars got done because somebody rich and influential wanted them to get done. That would include John Tigrett and Fred Smith on The Pyramid, Dean and Kristi Jernigan on AutoZone Park, Jack Belz on Peabody Place, and Pitt Hyde and Fred Smith on FedEx Forum. And even then those were difficult projects that might not make it or didn't last.

Confusing financing. The concept of a Tourism Development Zone is not that hard to grasp when the centerpiece is a convention center, a place such as Tunica, an entertainment district such as Beale Street, or a one-of-a-kind place like Graceland that attracts thousands of out-of-towners. Some of the dollars they spend in Memphis are then directed toward TDZ public projects. It is not at all clear whether there would be much tourism draw in a sports complex at the fairgrounds. The state tax rebate might come from "our" money, not "other people's" money.

A plethora of operatives and insiders. Operatives are people with government experience, know-how, and a vested interest in a particular project. There's nothing wrong with any of that. It's how things get done. But in the absence of clear leadership and big dogs, the second-level players take over. Excluding council members, there were five people with a combined 100 years experience in city and county government at Tuesday's meeting -- Hackett, Lipscomb, former county mayoral aide Tom Jones, former councilman and architect Tom Marshall, and attorney and Herenton confidant Charles Carpenter.

A council looking for guidance and answers. The 10 members of the council (out of 13) who attended the meeting were attentive, inquisitive, and respectful as could be. The majority of the council members are rookies; only Lowery, Barbara Swearengen Ware, Joe Brown, and Wanda Halbert have much experience as legislators.

The Herenton factor. Mayor Herenton realizes that his presence can be polarizing on some issues, so he lays low as much as he can. But, as some of them said at the meeting, the council, the neighbors in Cooper-Young and the Belt Line, and the other players need to know where he stands.

The ADA issue. The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates compliance with federal laws on wheelchair accessibility in public facilities. Some money will apparently have to be spent on the stadium, but whether that means $3 million or $40 million, and how much of that is ADA related, is not clear because the administration has at times used ADA as cover for other stadium expenses such as locker rooms and the press box.

The vision thing. Fair Ground's vision is an inclusive place where Memphians and visitors will enjoy sports and recreation in a wholesome environment. The problem is that Memphians self-segregate for all sorts of reasons, and there are many nice places for soccer, baseball, and fitness in and around greater Memphis.

The Target issue. A Target store or other retail store is the big money-maker in this deal. But Target has several stores in the Memphis area, and the economy is lousy now. Projections were lowered at Tuesday’s meeting, as they should have been.

Who goes where? Fairview Junior High, according to Marshall and Lipscomb, will be refurbished as a showcase public school at the corner of Central and East Parkway. The Kroc Center either goes due south of it or to the old amusement park site. The majority of the sentiment at Tuesday's meeting was to keep the Coliseum. Target's fate is anyone’s guess.

So what happens next? If the answer is "nothing," then it wouldn't be the first time. But there is some cause for optimism. The Kroc Center has millions of dollars in hand and should be ready to nudge everyone else forward. Turley and Lipscomb are both talented, experienced, and can take criticism without blowing their cool. Attendance at the Liberty Bowl has nowhere to go but up, and modest improvements could drive that. Finally, I think Turley and company are on to something with the emphasis on participant sports, from oddball to mainstream, to bring people together. There's a world of people of all ages who would rather run, swim, skate, throw a Frisbee, or chase a ball than watch pros or collegians do that. It’s nice to see them get some attention.

That's my two cents worth. What’s yours?

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