Converting the fairgrounds to a sports tourism magnet is going to be hard. You only have to look at the consultant's report.
Not the one that came out this month justifying the proposed public/private financing for a new $233 million Tourism Development Zone (TDZ), but the one that came out in 2009 criticizing the proposed public/private financing for a $125 million TDZ. The same outfit, RKG Consultants, wrote both reports. Same property, same centerpiece — the 155-acre fairgrounds and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
The earlier proposal came from a partnership led by Henry Turley, downtown's preeminent developer, and Robert Loeb, developer of Overton Square. Turley called it "the best idea I ever had," but it wasn't good enough to get city support.
The problem with using future retail sales to finance development at the fairgrounds, as RKG saw it then, was not so much the recession as the location, the competition, and the nature of retail. Fairgrounds retail "would fill a void in the local market area, however it lacks highway presence and the tenant mix to be a regional consumer draw."
Because "most all of the sales activity would be reallocated sales already occurring elsewhere in Memphis" the projected stream of sales tax revenue was "insufficient to retire $112,264,000 in bonding."
The new fairgrounds proposal, which must get state and city council approval, has no private developer and does not name the operators of the "second-to-none amateur sports venues," 400,000 square feet of "destination retail," or the 180-room hotel on the property. It expands the TDZ to three square miles, taking in tax-generating businesses that are up to a mile west and north of the fairgrounds from North Parkway to Overton Square and Cooper-Young. A bag of groceries purchased at Kroger on Union, a round of margaritas at Chiwawa in Overton Square, and a ticket for a football game at the stadium all figure into the deal.
Memphis is going all-in on tourism and big projects supported by increases in future sales taxes. In a supporting letter for the new fairgrounds TDZ, Mayor Wharton wrote "the fairgrounds project will also serve as the central hub of the city's family-tourism expansion through its developments at Graceland, Bass Pro at the Pyramid, and the Riverfront."
He makes no mention of the proposed Crosstown project which is less than a mile from the edge of the fairgrounds TDZ and is seeking $15 million in public funds. The Bass Pro Pyramid is part of a separate TDZ. Projections envision three million visitors a year.
In a TDZ, Memphis gets to keep the incremental increase in state and local sales taxes above a baseline number. The lower the baseline, the bigger the increment. In this proposal, the baseline is 2012 sales tax collections.
"The city of Memphis has commissioned the in-depth, serious research by experts." Well, commissioned experts usually tell you what you want to hear. That goes for both Turley's aborted project and this one. Turley's vision was "a place so excellent that it brings major competitions to Memphis" and team sports "as a unifying force where diverse youth find common ground." Noble thought. Think of the unified school system.
Excellence is in the eyes of the user. In youth sports, that's a car or bus full of restless teens and pre-teens and their parents. Their priorities are apt to be proximity to a shopping mall, fast food, a cheap motel with a swimming pool, and an easy-to-find location right off a major highway.
In the current proposal, I'm not sure Overton Square, boutique hotels, a 5,000-seat multi-purpose building, "exemplary architectural design," and "New Urbanist designed retail" in a Midtown "urban village" mesh with that. And if Central Avenue is "a prized site" for retail, then why is Fairview Middle School still there?
The competition for amateur team sports is fierce. In Memphis and DeSoto County, First Tennessee Fields and Snowden Grove get the baseball tournaments, Mike Rose Fields gets the soccer tournaments, and the Racquet Club and Leftwich Tennis Center go after the tennis business.
The real eye-openers, however, are the vast lighted sportsplexes in towns like Jackson, Tennessee, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and New Albany, Mississippi. The people running them know their market, and they have made deals with sponsors and coaches. You might not have heard of Joe Mack Campbell Park on U.S. Highway 63 in Jonesboro, but in Arkansas they have. Fields are sponsored by Arkansas State, NEA Baptist Clinic, Five Guys, and Delta Dental among others.
If football has taught Memphis anything as it aspires to national recognition, it is not to underestimate Arkansas State and "smaller" opponents.
Visitors to Graceland know it as the trophy room, but hardcore Elvis fans know it was once the racquetball court where Elvis and his "racquetball mafia" of bodyguards, personal physicians, and visiting pros would play for hours.
"Elvis walloped the ball around the court like he was strumming a guitar for the fun of it."
That's the opening line of a new memoir by Steve "Bo" Keeley, an author, adventurer, and former national racquetball champ who knew the Memphis racquetball scene in the 1970s as a touring pro. It is part of Elvis lore that the King liked touch football, karate, and motorcycles. But his love of racquetball apparently exceeded all of those and was a big part of his final years, until he died in 1977 at the age of 42.
The life of Elvis has been told so many times that you rarely hear anything new, but Keeley is no ordinary author. He interviewed Memphians Randy Stafford and David Fleetwood, along with Elvis' sports doctor and several others. After leaving the tour, Keeley got a degree in veterinary medicine, practiced for several years, then turned to full-time writing and adventure travel, hopping freight trains around the world and adopting the name "Bo," as in hobo. His books include Executive Hobo and Keeley's Kures.
Racquetball, an easy-to-play indoor court sport, was booming in the 1970s at (then) Memphis State University and at local clubs such as Don Kessinger's and the Supreme Court. Elvis, his physician, George "Dr. Nick" Nichopoulos, and Memphis businessman William B. Tanner put money into the sport and built personal courts. (Tanner's was atop the seven-story building next to Lipscomb & Pitts on Union Avenue Extended.) The Memphis racquetball mafia included bodyguards Red and Sonny West, road manager Joe Esposito, and harmony singer Charlie Hodge. The pros were hard-partying hustlers, and one once took $700 from the locals using an antifreeze bottle as a racquet.
"Elvis wore white tennis shoes, shorts, and his safety goggles, which were huge, because Dr. Nick didn't want anything to happen to his eyes," Keeley says. "He played daily, or nightly, before heading out into the darkened Memphis streets on motorcycles, with the bodyguards and the racquetball mafia in sidecars, to movies and nightclubs."
Elvis had a decent karate-strong forehand but didn't play tournaments because he would have been mobbed. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, forbade anyone from taking his picture on the court and blocked his friends from starting a chain of clubs in Memphis and the Southeast called Presley Center Courts.
Elvis would have been a natural for the cover of racquetball's promotional magazine, but he never did it. This was partly because of Parker's protection and partly because of a feud with Tanner and a rival organization and tour based in Chicago.
"So while Batman (actor Adam West), Lana Wood (a Bond girl), and Governor (Jim) Thompson of Illinois got coverage, Elvis in racquetball remains a secret," Keeley writes.
I was one of the millions of Americans who took up racquetball in the 1970s. I remember Keeley, still in his curls, was one of the stars of the tour. I never met him, but I played a few notable Memphians, including John "The Bull" Bramlett (he kept his temper after I hit him twice with the ball), future World Champ Andy Roberts (I got one point), and Tanner, who feuded with lots of people.
After Elvis died, Graceland was soon closed and the court wasn't used again. When Graceland reopened to the public, the court was filled with gold and platinum records, and a lone racquet under glass with an old, blue ball. It is an article of faith among some of the mafia that Elvis died on the court, not in the bathroom upstairs next door.
I like to think that the jocks are right. Jumpsuit Elvis was surely weary of Las Vegas. He would never see 40 years or 200 pounds again. He was back in Memphis, at home, away from the camera's cruel eye. A cry would go up in the middle of the night: "Everybody up! Let's play racquetball!" And away they would go, friends playing a game with a ball. There are worse ways to go.
Every once in a while, the college football or basketball season and the 24/7 recruiting wars are rudely interrupted by a public service announcement from an appendage otherwise known as the university.
The University of Memphis has such an announcement, and it concerns a $20 million "gap" in its finances due mainly to declining enrollment and reduced state revenue.
"We don't have a deficit," said David Zettergren, vice president for business and finance. "We are not allowed to have a deficit. We had a balanced budget in the spring, and we will have a balanced budget in the fall."
He described the situation as a "gap" instead and said the university is doing several things to "shore it up" including restructuring workloads, voluntary buyouts, and "efficiencies" on the administrative side.
"We have done voluntary buyouts in the past, but we need to do more," he said.
University faculty and staff were made aware of "the gap" this summer. On Tuesday, an email from interim president Brad Martin went out.
"A reconfiguration is required to address the funding gap and meet community work force demands, while also ensuring that tuition remains as low as possible," it said. "Beginning immediately, all vacant positions (including faculty, staff, part-time instructors, and temporary appointments) will be subject to a strategic hiring review process. This review will evaluate whether to move forward with filling positions based on the implications for enrollment growth, productivity, and overall institutional efficiency."
The announcement comes in Martin's third month on the job and when the financial fortunes, if not the won-loss ratings of the football team, are on the rise. Despite losing 28-14 to Duke, the Tigers drew an announced crowd of more than 40,000 to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in head coach Justin Fuente's second season opener. Fuente and basketball coach Josh Pastner are the university's highest-paid employees.
Academia, however, does not have the luxury of television money and boosters to pay for buyouts and more English professors. And, as the football program has shown, it is risky to raise prices for something people don't want at the old price. In June, the Tennessee Board of Regents raised 2013-2014 tuition and fees at the U of M to $8,666, highest among the six universities it governs, including Middle Tennessee State, Saturday's football opponent.
"Enrollment is down a bit, and that impacts our budget," Zettergren said. "It is a critical piece of the revenue stream."
Enrollment fell 2.7 percent last year, to 20,901. Zettergren did not have an exact number for this fall, but in a meeting last week with Mayor A C Wharton, President Martin said enrollment was lower than it was in 2009.
Student tuition and fees account for two-thirds of revenue and state appropriations for one-third, Zettergren said. A tuition increase is not seen as a good idea at a time when enrollment, especially among males, is declining. The university's focus is on retaining and graduating more students, which triggers more state funding that is now based on graduation rates and outcomes, just like public elementary and secondary education.
"As state money has decreased, we have had to increase tuition," he said. "We are in the middle of our peer group and feel like tuition is still a good deal. We really want to hold the line."
Martin's executive team, he said, does "not want to alarm people" but does want to communicate the seriousness of the situation to the broadest audience in a campus forum in October.
The University of Memphis is participating in "Graduate Memphis," a project started in 2012 by Leadership Memphis and the Memphis Talent Dividend to increase the number of adults with college degrees.
The thrust of the program so far has been on the benefits to individuals and the city. The new message, with some urgency, is on the benefits to the universities and our biggest one in particular.
Now back to our regular programming.
If University of Memphis president Brad Martin has anything to say about it — and he does — there will be a new optional high school on the campus in a year or two.
In a meeting with Mayor A C Wharton last week, Martin proposed a college prep school that would have a high entrance requirement and specialize in training future teachers. Such a school would complement the SCS Campus School for 330 grade 1-5 students and the University's College of Education, Health, and Human Services, which Martin envisions becoming an all-honors college on the rigorous Teach For America model. Like private schools and charter schools, it would attract supplemental funding from philanthropists.
There is a need for such a school, and Martin is the person who can make it happen. He is on a one-year appointment as interim president of his alma mater. He was chairman and CEO of Saks Inc., served five terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives after he graduated from college, and runs a venture capital firm. Rich, politically savvy, and connected, he could do anything he wants, wherever he wants, and he wants to do this here.
The optional schools program in the former Memphis City Schools started 38 years ago and includes such schools-within-schools as White Station High School and Central High School. There are 44 optional schools in all, but the only all-optional school by academics — that means you have to make high grades and test scores to get in and stay there — is grades 1-8 John P. Freeman Optional School in Whitehaven.
Nashville has two academic magnet high schools that select students by test scores and a lottery. The former Shelby County Schools system does not have optional schools. The Hollis F. Price Middle College High School is a non-optional public school with 143 students on the campus of historically black LeMoyne-Owen College.
The former Memphis City Schools system is 93 percent minority and 95 percent Title 1 schools. That means they're poor. The former Memphis school system is more segregated than the former Shelby County Schools system.
The labels can be confusing, and they get even more confusing when you throw in charter schools and Achievement Schools District "failing" schools, and private schools. All of this innovation is happening, of course, in the Year of the Big Change to the unified Shelby County Schools system, which is likely to disintegrate next year when the suburbs bolt.
Let's time travel back to 1981 when a young, idealistic administrator at Memphis City Schools was setting the stage for a bold new school improvement program backed by the Ford Foundation. This is what he wrote.
"Surveys indicated that the private school parents perceive the Memphis City Schools as being unsafe, having poor discipline, and lacking an environment conducive to academic excellence. In addition, the chamber of commerce has cited difficulty in attracting new businesses and industries to Memphis because of the poor image of the public school system."
When that was written, MCS was 76 percent minority enrollment. Now as then, most parents who live in Memphis and can afford it send their children to private schools or move to the suburbs.
Bike lanes, free concerts, pro sports, and trendy restaurants are nice, but parents of school-age children don't buy a house because it's near Local or the Greenline. What Memphis needs to repopulate the middle class and rebuild its tax base is public schools that can compete with private schools. If I were running a private school in Shelby County or starting a new suburban public school system, I would be thanking my stars every day that Memphis has defaulted so much.
Without the suburbs in the unified system, we're back to the old "public" equals "poor" mindset. There are exceptions, however. Wharton has a grandchild at Idlewild Elementary School in Midtown, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has a daughter at Idlewild, and school board members Billy Orgel, Dr. Jeff Warren, and Dr. Kenneth Whalum support Memphis public schools with their children as well as their rhetoric.
A high school on the U of M campus would give faculty members and staff another public school option for academic high-achievers who now go to private school. Enlist the experts. Do the graduation speech in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic. Track down former Memphian Bob Compton, creator of the schools documentary Two Million Minutes, and hire him as a consultant.
That would be a magnet, and Brad Martin is the man to do it.