In the continuing discussion over whether Memphis should build a new stadium or renovate the aging Liberty Bowl, local realtor Sonny Bauman presented an interesting alternative at last week's Fairgrounds re-use meeting: the original architect's designs for a Liberty Bowl dome.
After a heated public-comment period in which many citizens expressed concern over the cost of tearing down the Liberty Bowl and building a new stadium, Bauman displayed a picture of a Liberty Bowl model and an orange dome.
Bauman, who served on the Liberty Bowl board in the 1970s, says the dome would protect a renovated stadium from inclement weather.
"I know there's a tremendous resentment for the mayor wanting to tear the stadium down," says Julie Gaskill, widow of late Liberty Bowl architect William H. Gaskill. "The feeling [among citizens] seems to be, here we have this stadium that's known for its great sight lines. Why don't we see if we can save it?"
William Gaskill originally designed two dome options — one with open sides for natural ventilation and one closed to the outside elements, with heating and cooling systems. In 1989, Gaskill estimated the open dome would cost $15 million and the closed dome $20 million. At last week's meeting, Bauman added a 2 percent cost increase per year, estimating the new figures at $28 million and $35 million, respectively.
City chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb contends that those estimates are too low.
Currently, Dallas-based consulting firm Convention, Sports, & Leisure and Nashville firm HOK Sport are studying cost and design issues involved with building a new stadium. Their study is expected by July, but city officials have estimated that a new stadium could cost roughly $185 million.
Another firm, the local SSR Ellers, is exploring what it will take to make the existing Liberty Bowl comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Though that study will not be complete until June 1st, city officials estimate ADA improvements could cost $15 million.
Part of the argument for a new stadium hinges on how ADA improvements will affect the seating capacity in the Liberty Bowl. The stadium currently seats 62,000, but estimates differ on how many standard seats will be lost for wheelchair access.
Currently, there are only 102 seats for the disabled, but the ADA requires that 1 percent of seating be reserved for the disabled. Each disabled seat must be accompanied by one companion seat, meaning about 1,200 seats in the Liberty Bowl. However, city architect Mel Scheuerman has estimated the ADA improvements will result in the loss of 10,000 to 12,000 seats.
"Wheelchair seating has impacts on the seating behind and in front of it," says parks services director Cindy Buchanan. "When you put in a disabled seat, it takes multiple numbers of standard seats out."
Another $18 million has been budgeted for general non-ADA improvements to the Liberty Bowl, such as extra women's restrooms, upgraded press boxes, and more concession stands.
Asked whether the city might consider Gaskill's dome option, Lipscomb says it's too early to tell.
"[A dome] might be a wonderful idea, but we haven't gotten to that yet. We're still working on the ADA seating issue," Lipscomb says. "I've put everything on hold until we know. If we're going to lose 6,000 seats, that's one thing, but if we're going to lose 14,000, that's another."
Regardless of the seating issue, cost estimates for a renovated, domed Liberty Bowl are still considerably lower than the $185 million price tag on a new stadium. There are no estimates available for the cost of demolishing the Liberty Bowl.
"Memphis has a virus," says Julie Gaskill. "They seem to think new is always better than old. Tear it down. Put something else up. They need to understand that historic buildings bring dollars and tourists to the city."