It was roughly a year and a half ago that Mayor A C Wharton publicly proposed a fallback position regarding possible upgrades of Memphis' convention facilities. He did so as a follow-up of sorts on what had been less than sanguine
estimates from Convention and Visitors Bureau head Kevin Kane about our city's having the means to catch up with Nashville's new glittering and cavernous Music City Center.
In an editorial of March 20, 2014, "A Patchwork Mecca," we reviewed the mayor's pitch for a scaled-down convention complex, outlined in a speech to the Rotary Club of Memphis.
From the editorial: "'We don't have the money. That's the bottom line,' Wharton said, pointing out the obvious. And anyhow, he said, 'I don't want to be Nashville or Atlanta.' He thereupon proposed a method of taking the best advantage of the 'legacy' assets our city already has and connecting them in such a way as to be competitive in the tourist and convention markets without breaking the bank."
The mayor went on to propose spending modest amounts of money ($50 to $60 million) refurbishing the existing convention center, as well as the now dormant Peabody Place, and connecting those two hubs with the then soon-to-be Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, the National Civil Rights Museum, and various other downtown attractions via the city's trolley system. And "voila!," as we said, "there you have it, a new convention center complex done on the cheap."
Well, a funny thing happened between then and now. Several funny things, in fact: one being the discovery that our trolley system was dangerously unstable and fire-prone, requiring a retrofitting process, the dimensions of which remain uncertain. That by itself argued for a change of mind. But there were other factors, too — most of them considerably more upbeat.
The bottom line is that the powers-that-be have apparently decided that, not only do we want to "be Nashville or Atlanta," we actually are in a position to give those boomtowns a run for their money. The aforesaid Convention and Visitors Bureau in tandem with the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Memphis Commission have hatched a two-part plan: 1) to spend the aforementioned $50 to $60 million on refurbishing the existing Cook Convention Center; and then 2) to spend another $900 million in the next few years to expand the Convention Center all the way to the Mississippi River basin. All it would take, say the planners, would be a 1.8 percent increase in the city's hotel/motel tax (which is paid by visitors to Memphis, in the main) and a temporary $2 fee on hotel-room stays of up to 30 days. This would cover a repurposing of the current bed tax in 2017 to pay off FedExForum bonds.
The Memphis City Council is considering the project right now, with every expectation of giving it the go-ahead. And we're thinking, What! You mean, it's really that easy? And we wonder why it is that we are always considering these complicated Rube Goldberg-like TDZs and TIFs to lift our urban bootstraps.
And, by the way, have we cleared this with the Grizzlies?