Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Next Up: Fairgrounds

Redevelopment plan puts the stadium issue back in play.

Posted by on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Get ready for the revival of the great Memphis football stadium debate.

On September 9th, representatives of Fair Ground LLC, the partnership chosen to redevelop the Mid-South Fairgrounds, will make its presentation to the Memphis City Council. While it has several elements, including recreation, shopping, and neighborhood improvements, the centerpiece is a refurbished Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, as opposed to either a new stadium at the fairgrounds or on the campus of the University of Memphis.

Developer Henry Turley, managing partner of Fair Ground LLC, envisions a spiffed-up Liberty Bowl that is "as good a place to play football as AutoZone Park is for baseball or FedExForum is for basketball." His inspiration was Mayor Willie Herenton's ill-fated proposal for demolition of the Liberty Bowl and construction of a new $250 million stadium at the fairgrounds.

"It makes no sense to pour millions of dollars into rehabilitating the football stadium while everything around it deteriorates," Turley said.

Instead, he believes big money should be spent on an overhaul of the existing stadium and major improvements to the stadium's largely abandoned surroundings. The benefits of sports and recreation, he believes, should be applied to the broad population every day instead of only on six or seven football weekends.

Last year, Turley went to Nashville to secure support from Governor Phil Bredesen and state legislators. He has been meeting frequently with Herenton and U of M president Shirley Raines and athletic director R.C. Johnson. Turley has also picked up a key supporter in FedEx founder (and U of M contributor) Fred Smith.

"The main thing that needs to happen is rehab the Liberty Bowl," Smith said in a recent interview. "I think it is fine if they get it up to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and rebuild the press box and locker rooms and put a lot more seat-backs in there. With that and the Tiger Drive they're talking about, and maybe one of these days get into a BCS league, it would be great."

Along with stadium improvements, Turley's group plans to develop a "halo" of green space around the stadium, making it more inviting for parties and tailgating. But U of M booster Harold Byrd, the main proponent of an on-campus stadium, says that's wishful thinking. Byrd says an off-campus stadium, no matter how much it is improved, will never provide fans and alumni with the sort of game-day experience they enjoy at the Grove at Ole Miss.

"It doesn't satisfy me," Byrd said of the Fair Ground redevelopment plan. "There is not a campus in the country that has a Target or Wal-Mart next to the stadium. If you suggested that to folks in Oxford or Knoxville, they would laugh you out of the room."

Fair Ground's plan includes hotels and retail stores as well as indoor and outdoor recreation. The identity of the retailers and the exact location of the stores and hotel have not been determined. Tax revenue from the stadium, stores, and hotel would be plowed back into the project to finance improvements.

The stadium debate, which has been dormant since Herenton's proposal for a new stadium fizzled a year ago, puts Turley and Byrd in an odd role reversal. Turley's downtown developments, including HarborTown, South Bluffs, and Uptown, emphasize community-building and pedestrian scale.

"Fair Ground LLC proposes to redevelop the Mid-South Fairgrounds as a regional public amenity by creating a beautiful green place of national significance uniting diverse people through wholesome youth sports and education activities," says the group's mission statement.

The fairgrounds, however, is not within walking distance of the U of M campus, hence the "Tiger Drive" connection. Byrd says he constantly encounters U of M alumni who tell him the last time they were on campus was for their graduation, and therefore they are unaware of all the improvements and new buildings.

"We have a lot of wonderful things going on at the campus that nobody ever knows about it," he said.

The universities of Akron, Central Florida, and East Carolina have built or are building new on-campus stadiums, and Byrd believes that will give them a leg up on getting into a BCS conference in the next round of expansions.

All of this assumes, of course, that Memphis wins some games. On Saturday, the Tigers were routed 41-24 by Ole Miss.

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