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Funding for Rugby nets approval from County Commission and City Council

With the clock winding down on 2023, Shelby County commissioners Monday carried across the goal line a much-debated resolution to fund a $1.1 million rugby field on the site of the old Vance Middle School.

After weeks of haggling and stalled votes, commissioners voted 13-0 (on December 18) to expand Memphis Inner City Rugby’s footprint at the site at Vance and Orleans, just south of Downtown. The program has operated at the location for years. The money would come from ARPA funds.

After the rugby group made a presentation to the Memphis City Council Tuesday (Dec. 19), council members approved $300,000 for the project.

Among other actions taken by the commission on Monday was a 9-1-3 vote to reserve $2.5 million from county coffers to draw up plans for a proposed mental health center. The facility would receive patients detained at the Shelby County Jail.

Regarding the rugby funding, commissioners finally found common ground after Commissioner Britney Thornton introduced a resolution requiring the nonprofit to “initiate a relationship” with at least one high school in every commission district by 2025.

There are 13 commission districts. Thornton represents District 10. It was seconded by Commissioner Michael Whaley, who sponsored the original rugby proposal.

During discussion, Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. proposed the idea to “shave” off a year in the program’s timeline. The version of the resolution introduced on Monday initially called for implementation by the end of 2026.

“With this deadline being so far out, I would be more inclined if the amendment was inclusive by 2025 and you do the best you can,” said Ford. “When those quarterly reports come in, we do what needs to be done.”

The resolution requires Inner City Rugby to submit quarterly reports on the status of the program, including efforts at inclusion.

Inner City Rugby representative Shane Young, said, “The terminology of ‘initiate’ helps because when we form mutual partnerships, which we have a lot of experience doing. We’re all former educators in terms of the staff and organization.

“We meet principal and athletic directors and engage them in our summer program first; …a pilot program… a partnership to create access for their students, …and then see what it rolls into in terms of a program partnership, or a full team.” 

Founded in 2017, Memphis Inner City Rugby’s goal is to expand the reach of the sport into Memphis’ underserved communities.

Like previous meetings, Thornton fought to have students from Hamilton High School moved to the front of the line for the youth program. An earlier amendment she introduced called for the school to be given an exception to be included by the end of fiscal year 2025. The deadline for other schools, meanwhile, would be the following year. It drew a quick objection.

Commissioner Shante Avant cautioned her fellow commissioners against setting “this kind of precedent … that one district matters more than other districts.

“We each have folks…I mean I work in a community that has a lot of need. But it would be unfair for me to say this one district matters more than other districts. I really caution us (not) to start this kind of precedent, that we hold up things that are really important…based on one person’s preference.”

Thornton defended her efforts by reminding members how she supported resolutions that did not benefit her constituents in District 10, like a recently passed resolution to rebuild the Regional One Health hospital campus. It included construction of new high schools in Cordova and Frayser.

Played the world over, Rugby is a niche sport in the United States. A contact sport like football, it lacks the forward pass, timeouts and padding of the American game.

The mental health facility would be in the Binghampton community at Broad Avenue and Malcomb Street. It would cost an estimated $25 million.

The resolution drew concerns the facility would siphon patients from the new Alliance Healthcare Services’ mental health center. 

Shelby County Deputy Chief of Staff Frankie Dakin has assured commissioners the mental health facility would not duplicate Alliance Healthcare’s mission.

There also are concerns about funding priorities. Members cited prior obligations, like the new schools slated for construction.


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