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COMMENTARY: Looking for the Win/Win with the Fairgrounds Redevelopment Plan

by Jerome Robinson

Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Mayor Jim Strickland and his team took the wraps off of the much talked about fairgrounds redevelopment plans on Monday night.  In the days leading up to this, city planners had already leaked news to the press of a plan to mothball the Coliseum.

Citizens were greeted by armed police and SWAT officers as they entered the hall at the Kroc Center.  On both sides of the stage were large posters with ideas of what could be done with the fairgrounds.
(Photo: Jerome Robinson)

After ten years of planning, the moment had arrived.  City council member Jamita Swearengen took the stage and did her best to bring the excitement.  Sadly this is where the excitement ended, it was clear this was not going to be a Steve Jobs introducing a great new Apple product moment.  What followed was person after person trying to sell the citizens on something they didn’t want, didn’t ask for, and didn’t support.

So what is the big plan that city leaders worked so hard on?  Mayor Jim Strickland call it a menu of options.  $160 million menu of options.  No solid plans, no real world projections, no OMG that is amazing ideas, and nothing that looked anything like what citizens of the city wanted.  The big reveal turned out to be a $160 million menu of options.  Those options included mothballing the Mid-South Coliseum.

Next was $10 million renovation of the Pipkin Building, a new BMX track to be placed next to Tobey Park, a renovated Melrose High School that might be home to a museum, a Creative Arts Building, a Women’s Building, a shopping and retail area, a 500 car parking garage, the city might spend $20 million on the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, and the anchor for the project would be an $80 million multi-sport facility.

Mayor Jim Strickland was very clear that financing limitations would ultimately dictate the scope of the projects.  The Mayor added, “If we cannot afford it, we will have to eliminate some of the things you see tonight,”

It was also very clear that the children of areas like Orange Mound would only have access to the $80 million multi-sport facility when it was not booked for area tournaments.  Meaning the issue of families who can’t afford pay to play sports would still not have a place to take their kids to play.

The plans would also include recreational and sports-related fields that could be open to all.  The entire night was filled with words like could and might.  City leaders tried to make this all sound more promising by talking about a community benefits agreement.  This would be a first for Memphis, an agreement that would legally commit the city to provide certain benefits to its neighbors and communities.

Mayor Jim Strickland has made lots of promises about things that would benefit the city.  He was going to be tough on crime, but the numbers speak volumes.  Whatever the Mayor is doing to keep his promise to the city, a look at our crime rates clearly shows things are not getting better.

Thousands of police and firemen believed they were taking jobs with great benefits and look at what Mayor Jim Strickland has done or not done for them.  The song and dance that is now called the fairgrounds redevelopment plan is not new.  We have heard it over and over again.  City leaders come out saying we need a Mall on Main Street, we need an Amusement Park at the fairgrounds, we need something called Mud Island as an attraction, we need Beale Street Landing.  We are always being sold on something we need and then we always seems to get something far less than great.

Maybe Mayor Jim Strickland was wanting to have his own Mud Island moment and if he pushes this plan onto our great city, another Mayor and city council will be left to clean it up.  While this plan might not be the amazing thing our communities were hoping for, this will not be an unhappy moment for all.  There will be $160 million in paydays for the few that get to build and consult on making this happen.

One thing that stood out in all of this was Paul Young’s words about the Mid-South Coliseum.  “There’s a lot of passion that doesn’t line up with the numbers,” Young said.  Now there are no numbers that line up to support any part of this plan as was admitted by everyone who took the stage.  No revenue impact numbers yet, no cost projections yet, nothing to justify any of this except we want money from the state.

So why single out the Coliseum not to be included?  Graduations, Concerts, Conventions, In-door Ice Skating and tournaments, the Memphis Hustle actually playing in Memphis are all reasons for a multi-use building like the Coliseum.  If this presentation is truly a menu of options, why just pull the Coliseum out as an option?

One reason given was to not create competition for other venues like the Orpheum and the Cannon Center.  But on the other hand competition is good.  What if our goal was to fill all our venues with exciting events that attract more people to our city?  What if our goals was to have packed out arenas that resulted in packed hotels and diners?  Why do we have to race to be an average city when we can raise the bar and be a great city?

If you were hoping for a Win/Win for the city, looks like that is not in the cards for this plan.

(Jerome Robinson: JustMyMemphis Founder, President of the Board for No More Silence Memphis, and Board Member for the Coliseum Coalition.)

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