The goal of a proposal being weighed by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is to bring Rugby to the former Vance Middle School property. Goal posts now are the only reminder of what once was. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The Tri-State Defender)

With details to iron out and language to be added, Shelby County Commission members kicked a proposal for a $1.1 million expansion of Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR) at the abandoned Vance Middle School campus back to committee.

While generally viewed in the positive, the proposal drew plenty of questions from commissioners during the Nov. 13 meeting.

“I don’t claim to be a rugby expert … but what I will say is, providing these types of opportunities to our students, and also the coed nature of it, …we got to find more ways to invest in our youth, to find more opportunities,” said commission sponsor Michael Whaley.

Reminiscent of American football – although lacking exposure stateside and a legal forward pass – rugby is a prominent sport throughout the globe.

Founded in 2017, the co-ed K-12 program’s goal is to expand the reach of the sport into Memphis’ underserved communities. It eventually piqued the interest of local politicians.

The investment would pay for the construction of a new facility to house the program.

MICR currently operates at the space. It is one of several abandoned properties owned by the Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

The money for the construction would come from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). If passed, the money would be transferred to the general fund.

After that, details become fuzzier.

No one quibbled about the money, particularly in under-resourced South Memphis.

However, the lack of access for teens living in other impoverished areas of Memphis raised concern from some commissioners.

One member used the item as an example of how many items passed by the body don’t serve Memphians overall, but particular communities. What about the teens at Hamilton High School? And Melrose High?

“I can’t in good conscience actually say that we are actually serving all students when we have not factored in a plan to serve all students,” argued commissioner Britney Thornton.

“It just dismays me that we continue to perpetuate this with this hope that it will somehow autocorrect itself. We are clearly investing selectively and there is a clear consequence when we continue to do it. It has to stop.”

Many of the students in the city’s poorer communities also lack transportation. Some lack a ride home, much less an after-school trek across town.

The combination of economic hurdles and dearth of opportunities can leave teens open to negative influences.

Nevertheless, to the plan’s champions in the administration, one footprint is enough to give the sport – and its student athletes – an opportunity to succeed.

Another commissioner found merit in both arguments but fell on the side of a bird-in-hand pragmatism, along with across-the-board investment in lower-income communities.

“I can’t look past the fact, though, 38126 (where Vance Middle was located) and South Memphis …  being one of the highest Zip codes in poverty. These young kids and families need this,” said Commissioner Charlie Caswell.

“I ask…that we really get strategic about having conversations about Orange Mound, Raleigh, Frayser and other communities that do not have a YMCA; that (youths) do not even have…anything to do but run those streets.”

When the commission takes up the item again, one of the issues likely to be discussed will be the lease on the site.

Commissioners want language included to guarantee MICR’s long-term access to the site. They want language included that insures the property won’t be sold to outside interests.

“Once the memorandum of understanding is taken to our board and it’s approved, then we would be contractually obligated for whatever timeframe indicated in that agreement,” said Esther Sykes, administrator for Neighborhood & Economic Development for Shelby County.

There also was a prelude to a future discussion about management of the facility. MICR currently maintains the fields.

Sykes said, “It would actually probably be a part of any agreement between the two. Those two items are interrelated between Memphis Inner City Rugby and the Shelby County School Board. The county has absolutely no obligations to pay for any maintenance on this property.”

Affordable access to the property by the greater community, while the program isn’t using the facility, was also brought up.

The item is co-sponsored by Commissioners Mickell Lowery, Shante Avant, Erika Sugarmon and Thornton.

Updated: TSD Special Section: “MLK50: The View From 38126”