The Memphis City Council has approved transferring the ownership of Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium - long known as Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium - to the University of Memphis. (Photo: The Tri-State Defender Archives)

Memphis’ namesake university is the proud proprietor of a football stadium after members of the Memphis City Council Tuesday (Dec.19) agreed to transfer ownership of Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium to the University of Memphis.

Council members voted 8-2-1 to transfer the deed to the U of M Auxiliary Services Foundation. They are including $120 million in the deal. It will help cover the costs of a $220 million upgrade.

The approval comes after pre-vote backroom meetings between council Vice Chairman JB Smiley Jr. and councilmember Chase Carlisle, university leadership and members of City of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration. All met with Fred Jones, the founder of the Southern Heritage Classic, which is held in September and celebrated its 35th anniversary this year.

Before the final vote, Jones, expressing concerns about a rushed process and about how the agreement will impact the Classic, implored council members to delay a decision until he had a chance to read the entire agreement document, a concern also expressed by other council members.

However, while acknowledging Jones’ concerns, Smiley assured his colleagues that Jones and representatives of another major tenant (the AutoZone Liberty Bowl) had been kept abreast of negotiations.

The university inked a three-year agreement for the annual football game. There are also four one-year options.

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl’s current lease will be extended three years. Five one-year extensions are available to opt into, as well. The agreement for next year’s game is already set between the City of Memphis and the Classic.

Jones also felt the agreement was not supportive of the game. The Southern Heritage Classic is one of Memphis’ most prominent sporting events.

Smiley disagreed with the assessment, saying the agreement ballooned from a one-year offer to the current agreement. He also said text messages showed Jones pushed for an eight-year extension on the game.

Earlier this month, Smiley moved to make the deal conditional on council members being seated on the Auxiliary Services Foundation’s board. Due to the charter, the university argued it could not add seats to the board. Smiley is set to become council chairperson when city officials are sworn in Jan. 1.

“We are incredibly appreciative of the City Council for sharing our vision and voting to approve this resolution on Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, which will position our university and football program for sustained success,” the U of M said in a statement.

“We look forward to working collaboratively in the coming weeks with the city administration, the Southern Heritage Classic, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the USFL to formalize agreements that will set us all up for success into the future.”

City of Memphis COO Chandell Ryan also said the administration had been in regular contact with FedEx CEO Fred Smith. With the transfer of ownership, Smith and his family foundation will donate $50 million toward stadium upgrades.

The gift also relied on the university raising a similar amount. Along with the council’s funding, they will cover the costs of the work.

Voting in favor of transferring ownership of the stadium were council members Frank Colvett, Edmund Ford Sr., Worth Morgan, Cheyenne Johnson, Jeff Warren, Patrice Robinson, Carlisle, and Smiley.

Chairman Martavius Jones and Jana Swearengen-Washington voted no.

Michalyn Easter-Thomas and J. Ford Canale were absent, while Rhonda Logan abstained.

While the ink is still drying on the agreement, the deal is not finalized. That will not happen until the minutes for Tuesday’s meeting are approved at the council’s Jan. 9 meeting.

A motion to have “same night” minutes was rejected in a move to address Fred Jones’ concerns about reviewing the agreement and any other concerns regarding the deal.

During the meeting, council members also approved a pay raise for Memphis mayor-elect Paul Young. With the jump in compensation, Young will make $210,000 annually. Outgoing mayor Jim Strickland, who is term limited, earned $170,000 per year.

Young takes office on Jan. 1, 2024.

Voting in favor of the raise were Warren, Swearengen-Washington, Colvett, Ford, Johnson, Jones, Logan, and Smiley.

Morgan voted no, while Patrice Robinson abstained. Canale and Easter-Thomas were absent.