The forum, moderated by politics reporter Kyle Veazey of The Commercial Appeal, mostly focused on the Fairgrounds’ proposed $233 million redevelopment and the idea of turning that area of Midtown into a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ). By designating the three-mile area as such, the city can use the excess sales tax that would come from a revitalized Fairgrounds — and its surrounding areas, including Overton Square and Cooper Young — to pay off the $176 million public revenue bonds, over 30 years, that would be required to fund its redevelopment.
It was mentioned multiple times throughout the night that the city administration had been invited, but there was no appearance from anyone in city government in the audience except Wanda Halbert, the Memphis City councilmember who represents District 4 and the area that includes the Fairgrounds. Shelby County commissioners, on the other hand, were plenty.
In his designated few minutes, Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar mentioned the interest of the bond that would occur over the time it takes to repay the loan, taking away $55 million away from the city during that time.
“[$233 million] is not the total tax dollars going into the project,” Basar said. “It doesn’t include the interest. So when you’re all done, you’re talking about a $300-million project plus. You’re tying up this revenue stream for 30 years.”
The current plans proposed for the old Fairgrounds would include an amateur sports complex, hotel, and retail space spanning over 400,000 square feet. Getting approval from the State Building Commission is the next step for the city to move forward on the project.
“I’m here to support whatever it is you want to do,” said Reginald Milton, Shelby County commissioner. “If you don’t want to do this, that’s fine. If you do want to do it, that’s fine. I just don’t want us to be the ones to affect what you want out of this.”
Other county commissioners pledged to keep an eye on the project and listen to citizens speaking about the issue.
Non-elected officials also spoke at the forum, including Shawn Massey, who works with the Shopping Center Group.
“Midtown is under-retailed from a retailer’s perspective,” Massey said. “It’s a great community. It’s got lots of density, but there’s a lot of leakage. There’s a lot of Midtowners going and shopping in other parts of Memphis and not shopping at their home.”
Charles “Chooch” Pickard, an architect who is running for city council this year, asked if other ideas besides youth sports may be more viable for the old Fairgrounds.
“Wouldn’t a tourist destination based on music and sports history be a bigger draw?” Pickard said. “I’d rather we base the TDZ on authentic Memphis history tourism, of which there are still a lot of untapped options.”
Mike McCarthy, a proponent to save the Mid-South Coliseum, gathered over 3,000 signatures to save the building itself from demolition, surpassing the goal his group had set earlier in the month.