University of Memphis supporters had every right to be optimistic early last week about their dreams finally coming true for an on-campus football stadium.
A feasibility study commissioned by the University of Memphis and conducted by the nationally respected Heery Group had just landed on the desk of athletic director R.C. Johnson. The study found a responsible financial basis for constructing a $125 million stadium with 40,000 seats — expandable to 60,000 seats for special blue-chip events like the Southern Heritage Classic and the annual Liberty Bowl game.
The report stated that such a structure could be funded by stadium-generated revenues alone, in tandem with revenue from the sale of naming rights, from student fees, and from a donor campaign. The study is also comprehensive enough to make provisions for the construction of an alternative, scaled-down stadium, in the cost range of $70 million, to be funded from similar sources.
The Heery Group suggested six excellent — and available — sites for an on-campus stadium, discovered 9,000 potential parking spaces (versus 7,000 at the rival Fairgrounds site), and certified enough funding sources and extant support groups to convincingly refute the sarcastic slogan circulated by opponents: "No Room. No Parking. No Money."
These conclusions were very similar to those arrived at by the HOK architects group, which, in a study commissioned by the city of Memphis, shocked everyone by stating that city and university leaders should build a new stadium at the University of Memphis rather than attempting to build or renovate at the Fairgrounds.
But Johnson, U of M president Shirley Raines, and other powers-that-be astonished football fans and friends of the university by responding with a flat rejection, sans benefit of analysis or public discussion.
Now a firestorm of incendiary rumors is blazing away in water-cooler conversations around town, on the internet, and on radio talk shows. What, people wonder, are the real reasons university and city leaders are squeamishly opposed to locating a football stadium on campus — and a demonstrably viable one at that?
Their resistance contrasts starkly with the way city and county leaders in politics, business, and the media jockey with each other in stepping up to fund a $250 million arena for the abject NBA Grizzlies to replace a now mothballed $100 million Pyramid, or to pump for a $70 million arena (awash in red ink) for the baseball Redbirds, or to provide a $3 million direct subsidy for beleaguered LeMoyne-Owen College.
That last item is germane. LeMoyne-Owen is a historical treasure and arsenal of local identity that for cultural reasons alone should be restructured and saved. But, looking at the ethnic facts of life, only 500 African-American students are enrolled there versus 7,500 black students at the University of Memphis.
Indeed, the combined African-American enrollments of Tennessee State, Jackson State, and LeMoyne-Owen do not add up to that of the University of Memphis, which is an unrivaled laboratory for racial co-existence and cooperation, factors that could only be augmented by the close communal reality of an on-campus stadium.
Nothing illustrates the social importance of the University of Memphis to our metro area more than the massive publicity and national adulation currently being given our top-ranked basketball team and its charismatic and visionary coach, John Calipari. The team brings us together and showcases us to the world like nothing else — and despite the handicap of not being physically based at the institution it represents.
But the FedExForum, the basketball Tigers' venue, is at least located at the second-best site: downtown. Overall, Memphis sports history has been marked by poorly located and ill-conceived athletic facilities built with everyone in mind except the entity that is the principal tenant and revenue source for them all — the University of Memphis.
Raines, Johnson, and their associates at the university are in a position to atone. Now is the time to open up the desk drawer, pull out that feasibility study, and give it the real consideration they opted to forgo last week.
The university's official slogan is "Dreamers. Thinkers. Doers." Now is the time for the university's leaders to rethink the situation and prove it. Harold Byrd is president of the Bank of Bartlett and a well-known University of Memphis booster.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."