The most intriguing piece of the fairgrounds redevelopment puzzle is the Salvation Army's proposed Kroc Community Center.
McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and his wife Joan gave $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army to build recreation centers around the country in low-income and middle-income areas, where they would be used by people of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities. The $48 million Memphis gift, announced this fall, is contingent upon the local Salvation Army raising an additional $24 million.
"We can account for $13 million presently and are looking for $11 million," said Salvation Army commander Danny Morrow. "We are asking for 20 acres. We would like consideration of a site adjacent to the school [Fairview Junior High] with frontage on East Parkway for high visibility."
The Salvation Army, he said, needs a commitment early in 2006, "because if we are going to be at the fairgrounds, we need time to do what they call due diligence."
So who is this group bringing so much money and so little attitude to the table?
The Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church founded by Methodist minister William Booth in London in 1865. Older generations of American children learned its adopted hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" (written by Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and read Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay's General William Booth Enters Heaven, with its memorable refrain, "Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?" These days the organization is better known for its homeless shelters, red-kettle bell-ringers at Christmas season, and relief efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina. In a survey of local nonprofit organizations by this newspaper 10 years ago, Salvation Army executive salaries were among the very lowest.
Patience, meekness, and Christian charity, however, are not necessarily the qualities needed to make a $72 million community center a reality. So far, the only Kroc Community Center is in San Diego, Kroc's hometown. Several other cities are interested, including Louisville, Duluth, San Jose, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Greenville, South Carolina, in addition to Memphis. An online search of newspaper reports from those cities indicates the projects are stalled or slowed by issues ranging from matching funds and church-state concerns to land acquisition. The Salvation Army is organized into territories. Memphis is in the Southern region, which is headquartered in Atlanta.
The Christian soldiers of the Salvation Army need a secular support team. In Memphis, it includes Kerr Tigrett, the son of Pyramid and downtown visionaries John and Pat Kerr Tigrett; Rick Brenneman, who worked with the Sports Authority on Spring Fling; and Darrell Cobbins, who is active in New Path and the Center City Commission. Their interest in a sports complex led them to the Salvation Army. A $20 million Kroc Community Center with $10 million from other sources became a $48 million Kroc Center with as much as $42 million more from other nonpublic sources. Tigrett and friends pitched their idea to potential partners, including Christian Brothers University, the University of Memphis, and neighborhood associations and came up with the Memphis Athletic Campus.
"Their proposal has the makings of a great redevelopment of that property," said CBU president Lance Forsdick. "The whole neighborhood will benefit."
Forsdick said a soccer complex at the fairgounds would let CBU consider other uses for on-campus playing fields in its future plans. The Kroc Center would be one part of the Memphis Athletic Campus and include a swimming pool, gym, performing arts center, space for other programs, and a Salvation Army Corps (aka a church). Morrow would like to relocate the Ben Lear South Citadel from Alabama Street and Danny Thomas Boulevard.
A fairgrounds reuse committee has come up with six scenarios. Only Liberty Bowl Stadium and the Children's Museum are in all of them. Libertyland and the Mid-South Fair are out, and the Coliseum is a question mark.
"Our study was about uses, not users," said consulting architect Frank Ricks. "There is room on the site for a Kroc Center, but somebody else has to make that decision."