Thursday, January 4, 2007

Memphis Stadium Shakeout, Day Three

Posted By on Thu, Jan 4, 2007 at 4:00 AM

With television stations reporting that Mayor Willie Herenton’s stadium proposal is named “Project Legacy” and has been in the works for a year, some influential Memphians who are usually in the loop expressed skepticism.

Herenton announced it Monday at a New Year’s Day prayer breakfast, saying he had not even told many of his division directors.

On Thursday, Doug Edwards, the president and CEO of Morgan Keegan, member of Memphis Tomorrow and a University of Memphis alumnus, said he was in Mexico Monday and only learned of the proposal when he got back.

He said his view is that the Mid-South Fairgrounds should be cleaned up by removing the old cattle barns and other relics, adding new features and landscaping to make it more like The Grove in Oxford “so it’s not just about going over to see a football game,” and improving the parking so people don’t have to pay $10-$20 to homeowners on East Parkway or near Hollywood to park in their yards.

“If Tommy (Tommy West, head football coach) wins football games, people will come,” he said.

Jack Sammons, one of the senior members of the Memphis City Council, said he and his colleagues would give Herenton and stadium supporters a hearing, but he said it is “doubtful” that a new stadium will be built any time soon.

Sammons said he and the city directors he has spoken to were taken by surprise.

Sammons noted that stadium renovations are already in the budget and that, as a state university, UM should seek support from the Tennessee General Assembly for a brand new stadium. No state lawmakers, council members, or business leaders, however, joined Herenton Monday when he made his announcement.

Robert Lipscomb, Herenton’s top aide on the fairgrounds and other major capital projects, made no mention of a new stadium in interviews with the Flyer a little over a month ago when he passed out renderings of the future users of the fairgrounds. Lipscomb has been a loyal soldier in his comments this week about the stadium, but anything called “Project Legacy” is clearly not his idea.

Cindy Buchanan, director of the Memphis Parks Commission, was at the press conference Monday but only as a spectator and did not join Herenton behind the microphones when he made the announcement.

If the plans have been in the works for a year, there is little progress to show for it. The “fact sheets” on six other football stadiums that were passed out to reporters Monday were sketchy and could have easily been assembled in a few hours by anyone with a computer and a color printer. Herenton said he would have financing details in 45 days. And there is no indication Herenton has laid any groundwork with political leaders in Nashville, as he said he would do this year and next. The Memphis and Shelby County legislative delegation, of course, has been badly tarnished and weakened by the Tennessee Waltz corruption investigation.

The stadium announcement overshadowed everything else in Herenton’s speech including public safety, his reelection plans, and his proposal to spend $50 million to clean up urban blight. The name “Project Legacy” suggests he sees it as the centerpiece of his fifth term if reelected.

Even if it is a long shot, asking for a new stadium could give Herenton and UM stadium proponents some bargaining leverage in trying to get $25 million for renovations to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, a still difficult but far more realistic scenario.

The past 10 days have seen Memphis and rival cities Louisville and Nashville get national attention for football games and teams. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl drew more than 50,000 fans and featured an exciting game between Houston and South Carolina. But Louisville trumped that when the University of Louisville, formerly a Memphis rival in Conference USA, went on to bigger and better things by playing and winning in the Orange Bowl and assuring itself of a Top Ten national ranking. And Nashville’s NFL Tennessee Titans closed out their season with a nationally televised home game featuring their star quarterback Vince Young, who was recently on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The University of Memphis football team, meanwhile, finished its season with a record of 2-10 and has seen its former archrival, Louisville, held up as an example of a rising national program with a privately financed 42,000-seat stadium completed in 1998. — John Branston

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