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‘Reinvesting in our core’

Interest and concern about the future of the Fairgrounds was top of mind for those in attendance for the City of Memphis presentation on Monday night.
(Photo: Jerome Robinson)

Before a crowd of a couple of hundred Memphians, Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration on Monday presented all the options under consideration for the future of the Fairgrounds.

Sharing his take online, Strickland said it was “extremely important” to know that the presentation was not the final plan. Such a plan, he said, most likely would be presented to the City Council in January. Shortly afterward, it would be presented to state officials.

The options presented total $160 million. And, said, Strickland, “they are just that — a menu of options from which we’ll make final choices. We’ll make those choices once the revenue projections come in, likely next month. We will fit our project to the money available, not the other way around.”

The administration’s goal was to assemble a project that “attracts tourists and enriches the surrounding neighborhoods,” Strickland said, adding his confidence that the goal was met.

“(W)e’re going to outline the community benefits for each development by using Community Benefits Agreements. Used in many other areas of the country, this will be the first time they’ve used in Memphis. It’s important to me that Memphians benefit from what happens there, too,” said.

“We are reinvesting in our city. We are reinvesting in our neighborhoods. We are reinvesting in our future, the likes of which Memphis hasn’t seen in years. No matter where the final Fairgrounds project lands, this will be another giant step in reinvesting in our core.

With questions aplenty reverberating in various parts of the city, Strickland has shifted into answer-mode. Here are his answers to what he frames as “some of the more common questions”:

Q – Why is youth sports the chosen route?

Mayor Strickland – It’s an industry that is proven nationwide to bring youth and parents to a place. By doing that, we bring energy and dollars to our core city —dollars that help pay for the entire project.

Our proposal is unique in a handful of ways. One is that it focuses on indoor sports, as we already have large baseball and softball complexes in our area. Another is that it includes an indoor track, which is much more rare for a sports complex to have.

And don’t view this as solely for tourists. We envision local young people and teams using it, too.

Q – Will there be enough parking for Tiger football games?

Mayor Strickland – As a Tiger football fan and Tiger Lane tailgater, this is of particular interest to me. Yes, we’ll lose the unpaved parking area where Libertyland used to be, but we would gain parking with the construction of a new garage. Moving forward, finding parking solutions for all of the Liberty Bowl’s tenants — including the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — is a priority.

Q – Why not revive the Coliseum?

Mayor Strickland – It would cost about $40 million — a huge chunk of the entire project, and that would only solve half the equation. The other is more troubling: No plan has presented itself that would prevent a revived Coliseum from bleeding operating losses every year. Arenas lose money, and losses operating the Coliseum would negatively affect our budget. (Even the Landers Center in Southaven loses millions on an annual basis.)

Our proposal is to hold tight on the Coliseum, see if things change in the market, and explore its future later.

Q – A noncompete clause with FedExForum is part of why the Coliseum can’t be revived as an event venue. So why not just do away with it?

Mayor Strickland – Well, technically speaking, eliminating the clause is not something I can do by executive fiat. The contract was negotiated 16 years ago, and the Grizzlies and Shelby County are also parties to it.

Nor would you want me to. See, the noncompete clause is something we agreed to so that the Grizzlies would operate FedExForum on our behalf. Remember, arenas lose money, and when FedExForum loses money, the Grizzlies are on the hook, not us. It appears this clause has saved taxpayers millions of dollars since the building opened in 2004.

If the city/county governments were on the hook, we could find ourselves in a situation similar to Nashville, which subsidizes the operation of Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.

Q – OK, so tell me again where this money comes from?

Mayor Strickland – I don’t think we can say this enough: This would be funded in large part by revenues from a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ). That’s when money generated by a project goes to pay for that project. This money would not otherwise exist without the project.

This money would not come from our general fund, which we use to pay for things like police and fire.

(For a deep dive into the Fairgrounds presentation, visit: http://www.memphistn.gov/Portals/0/pdf_forms/Fairgrounds-Public-Presentation-11-6-17-FINAL.pdf.)

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