Monday, January 1, 2007

Herenton's Football Stadium Idea Raises Questions

Posted By on Mon, Jan 1, 2007 at 4:00 AM

What: In his State of the City speech Monday, Mayor Willie Herenton proposed for the first time that Memphis build a new football stadium with at least 50,000 seats. It would serve the University of Memphis, the Southern Heritage Classic, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Memphis high schools.         

Why now? The proposal came as a surprise to almost everyone. No sportswriters or broadcast sports reporters were in attendance, and Herenton said some of his own division directors were learning about it for the first time. The announcement coincides with the biggest day of college football bowl games and follows the successful Liberty Bowl game by three days. Herenton said he wants to give the state legislature two years to consider it. State funding of some sort will be sought, and cities usually get tax reimbursements as well.            

Where? The stadium would be built at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, but not on the site of the current stadium, which has no backup facility. University of Memphis Athletic Director R. C. Johnson said the fairgrounds is "on campus" as far as he is concerned.           

How much would it cost? Herenton gave no financial estimates but said he would provide them in the next several weeks. He said it would cost about $50 million to rehabilitate LibertyBowl Stadium and the Mid-South Coliseum. The University of Louisville built a new 42,000-seat stadium in 1998 for $63 million, but newer and larger stadiums have cost more than $250 million.        

Who is pushing it? Herenton was joined Monday by Steve Ehrhart of the Liberty Bowl and Fred Jones of the Southern Heritage Classic as well as Johnson. There were no representatives of local corporations. A representative of Memphis City Schools was there, but this is a stretch since high school games rarely draw more than 10,000 fans.       

What are the chances? Hard to say now, but not great. The University of Memphis is coming off a terrible year, the bowl game and Southern Heritage Classic draw more than 50,000 fans as it is, and Memphians are still feeling the fallout from FedExForum. Then there is the empty Pyramid. Finally, the proposal seems somewhat ill conceived. At the year's only hard sellout - the Tennessee v. Memphis game - the biggest complaint from fans was not the quality of the stadium but the fact that so few gates were open that thousands of fans missed the kickoff and much of the first quarter. This is a Memphis Park Commission problem, not a stadium problem.           

Who would pay for it? Herenton didn't say. All he said was that Memphis would fund improvements with economic growth and not taxation. Corporate sponsorships will obviously be one source of funding, but a 50,000-seat stadium would probably require some public funds.

-- John Branston

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