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Let it Be

What to do about the Fairgrounds? How about nothing?

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Sometimes the do-nothing option isn't bad. And that's so with the Fairgrounds.

Ten or 15 years ago, doing nothing was not a good option. The Fairgrounds was blighted. It was basically an entertainment junkyard that included the abandoned remains of Liberty Land amusement park, Tim McCarver baseball stadium, and the stables and agricultural buildings that were part of the Mid-South Fair. The main entrances to Liberty Bowl Stadium were ugly and congested.

Today, the Fairgrounds looks a lot better from end to end, especially from the west side along East Parkway. The city greened and cleaned it. The stadium is beautifully lit, the faux entrance looks great, and Tiger Lane is an inviting, landscaped tailgating area for the Tigers, the Southern Heritage Classic, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The blight is gone, except for the Mid-South Coliseum, a big space-eater that doesn't look so bad.

The Children's Museum is expanding, the Kroc Center is open, and there are two soccer fields, a high-school football stadium, and a track. Fairview school is renovated. The old Liberty Land is a disc golf course; there are worse things. There are lighted baseball and softball fields, a rugby field, and a skate park just north of the Fairgrounds at Tobey Park. A lot of this is free, if not first class.

A Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) for a youth sportsplex is proposed now by the city and was previously proposed (and approved in Nashville and Memphis) by developers Henry Turley and Robert Loeb. The financing is complicated, but the big part isn't. The "T" in TDZ stands for tourism. Mayor A C Wharton says a Fairgrounds TDZ would be nice for local youth. Maybe so, but that's not tourism. Tourism is getting somebody else to come to Memphis and stay here and spend some money.

A youth sportsplex was a great idea — in 1995. After that, lots of cities, big and small, figured it out. Let's look at the competition within 250 miles.

Bowling is supposedly the "fastest growing high school sport." The state meet is held in Smyrna, outside of Nashville. The venue has 52 lanes, so let's say the ante is 50 lanes.

The state swim meet is held in Knoxville or in Nashville at the Tracy Caulkins Aquatics Center. If you want to compete, you don't build a pool, you build an aquatics center. The pool must be 50 meters long and eight lanes wide, with a second rec pool and a diving area. That's the ante.

Soccer's premier venue in the Mid-South is the Mike Rose Fields in Shelby County, with 16 fields, a stadium, and 15 hotels within 10 miles. Oxford's FNC Park has five lit-and-sprinkled soccer fields plus eight baseball fields and a BMX course. Who's going to drive past those to get to Memphis?

Tennis? The state meet is played in Murfreesboro at a facility that is adding eight new courts in February. Nashville's Centennial Park has 13 resurfaced outdoor courts and four indoor courts. Little Rock's Burns Park has 24 terraced outdoor courts and six indoor courts. Memphis has multiple courts at Rhodes College, Leftwich Tennis Center, the Racquet Club, and Memphis University School. Trust me on this — I've been a hacker for 55 years — tennis players are picky.

Baseball and softball complexes virtually surround Memphis. Snowden Grove in DeSoto County has 17 fields. Joe Mack Park in Jonesboro, Arkansas, has 12 fields, all sponsored by local businesses. Jackson, Tennessee, has 17 fields you have probably seen at mile 86 on Interstate 40. The Game Day First Tennessee complex in Shelby County has 10 lighted fields. Let's call the ante 10 lighted fields.

So it goes. Hockey? Nashville and DeSoto County have pro teams that help support rinks. Volleyball? The state meet is in Murfreesboro. Same for football and track. A central location beats Memphis, if you live east of Jackson.

Basketball Town USA? Maybe. Memphis often has the best high school and national AAU teams year after year. We've also got the Grizzlies. But our teams have to go to Murfreesboro to claim their state trophies every year because we're stuck in the corner.

Location matters. Ordinary doesn't cut it. Great beats good. Want to play? Ante up.

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