Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gaming the Numbers

What's the real cost of bringing the Liberty Bowl into ADA compliance?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 26, 2009 at 4:00 AM

City attorney Elbert Jefferson says it would cost $40 million to bring Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

What's wrong with this statement? In a word, everything.

Jefferson who, needless to say, is not an architect, contractor, or engineer, did not give a basis or source for his number. And since the Herenton administration is on lockdown these days as far as communicating with the press and the public, no one else did either.

But back in December 2007, parks and recreation director Cindy Buchanan told the Flyer she was optimistic that the cost of ADA improvements would be $4.7 million or less. The basis for her optimism was a 2007 ADA study for the Park Commission, supported by visits Buchanan made personally to the stadium on game days with members of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The study said it would cost $4,799,708 to provide 219 wheelchair seats and 219 companion seats. Jefferson's out-of-the-blue $40 million is more than eight times that number.

But the real eye-opener came last week from University of Memphis sports information director Bob Winn. He told me the highest number of tickets sold last season for wheelchair seats was eight. The total for the season was 48. The highest total for any single game in the last three years was 50 in 2006 when Memphis played the University of Tennessee.

The stadium has a total of 133 wheelchair seats. They are located at the main entry level on the east side of the stadium, from the end zone to midfield. The capacity of the stadium is 61,641. Average home attendance last year for the University of Memphis, according to Winn, was 25,003, counting tickets sold, student passes, and walk-ups. Actual game attendance was several thousand lower.

Any way you look at it, there were tens of thousands of empty seats, and more than 100 unused wheelchair seats at every game. Wheelchair users who regularly attend games confirmed to the Flyer in a story that ran in December 2007 that they have never seen demand exceed supply.

The Liberty Bowl is used roughly nine times a year for college football. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl game and the Southern Heritage Classic each drew slightly less than 40,000 fans last year, although the number of tickets sold exceeded 50,000.

The Liberty Bowl has more wheelchair seats — and they are more accessible and in better viewing locations — than one of the most famous college football stadiums in the country.

The University of Michigan settled a landmark ADA lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice on March 10, 2008. Michigan Stadium, the celebrated "Big House," seats more than 107,000 fans and has been sold out for every game for 35 years. The stadium has 81 pairs of seats for wheelchair users and companions. When a renovation and expansion are completed in 2010, there will be 592 seats, including companion seats, dispersed throughout the stadium.

The key issue — and the source of much confusion — is the federal ADA guideline of making 1 percent of seats wheelchair-accessible and dispersed throughout the stadium. Counting companion seats, the standard is more like 2 percent.

In Michigan's case, the settlement figure is approximately half of 1 percent, including companion seats. In its negotiations with the Department of Justice, the University of Michigan argued that the proposed remedy was put forth "with no evidence that patrons with mobility impairments will purchase even a small fraction of what might be constructed."

At the Liberty Bowl, 1 percent would mean 616 wheelchair seats and 616 companion seats. The proposed 219 pairs of seats, which is the basis for the $4,799,708 estimate, works out to $21,916 per wheelchair seat.

It isn't clear what the city's game is. Maybe a $40 million ADA "estimate" makes $4.8 million look like a bargain. Or maybe the $40 million added to the additional $60 million that a judge says the city has to cough up for schools makes a nice round $100 million — and a cover-up for waste somewhere else or a nasty upcoming fiscal surprise.

One thing's for sure. Memphis has much greater needs than adding unnecessary seats to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

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