Thursday, February 15, 2007

Who Is Backing Herenton's Proposed Stadium Deal?

"Willie Herenton didn’t suddenly have an epiphany that Memphis needs a new football stadium"

Posted By on Thu, Feb 15, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Mayor Willie Herenton will unveil his plans for a new football stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds Tuesday, with financial details and possibly some powerful private-sector partners.

One source says the partners will include Mike Rose and Ron Terry, who have had business relationships with Herenton for more than 20 years, since they were on the board of First Tennessee Bank (now First Horizon).

Rose is a major University of Memphis booster and chairman of the board of First Horizon. Terry is the retired chief executive of First Tennessee. Neither could be reached for comment.

Herenton surprised almost everyone, including some of his own division directors when he called for a new football stadium on New Year's Day. He said the details would come later, and last week chief administrative officer Keith McGee said the mayor will present them to the City Council on February 20th. By his own admission, Herenton is not a football fan and rarely goes to games.

"Willie Herenton didn’t suddenly have an epiphany that Memphis needs a new football stadium," said a source.

A stadium big enough to satisfy the University of Memphis, the Liberty Bowl game, and the Southern Heritage Classic could easily cost more than $100 million. Herenton said the cost would be offset by private donations, plus what it would cost to fix up the Liberty Bowl, which is more than 40 years old. He also threw in the cost of demolishing the Mid-South Coliseum, which McGee repeated last week is not in the mayor's future plans for the fairgrounds.

Here are three things to watch for in Herenton’s announcement:

First, who are the partners and how much money, if any, do they propose to contribute? Who will lend their voice and credibility to a new stadium at a time when Herenton's popularity is at a low ebb and taxpayers are focused on crime, taxes, and "green" public improvements? On New Year's Day, the backers included UM Athletic Director R. C. Johnson, Steve Ehrhart of the Liberty Bowl, and Fred Jones of the Southern Heritage Classic. Jones has since said that he thinks the Liberty Bowl can be fixed up. Johnson alienated some UM boosters by saying he favors the fairgrounds site to one closer to campus. The logical corporate sponsors are FedEx, which already has naming rights to FedExForum, and AutoZone which has the baseball park. Memphis's newest Fortune 500 companies are International Paper and ServiceMaster. Is Governor Phil Bredesen up to speed on the stadium proposal, and what would the state pay for? Could this be one reason why Herenton and A C Wharton have stayed mum on Toyota and Marion, Arkansas while Bredesen pushes Chattanooga?

Second, how will the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) play as a rationale for a new stadium? Expect to see ADA compliance cast as the bogeyman driving the deal – in other words, it is so expensive to make the Liberty Bowl ADA compliant that it makes more sense to build a new stadium. Without any justification, the figure $50 million has been tossed around. A little research raises doubts about that. Google "Myths and Facts About the Americans With Disabilities Act," to see how the government and the Justice Department, which is charged with compliance, counter the hype. Aging stadiums all over the country, including Neyland Stadium in Knoxville which has expanded 16 times since the bleacher days of 1921, have managed to stay ADA compliant without breaking the bank. Finally, there is something called "functional equivalence" that can be a low-cost way to comply with ADA, short of massive architectural changes.

Third, how would a stadium fit in with the overall redevelopment of the fairgrounds? McGee told the City Council Libertyland is out of the mayor’s plans, period. But what happens to the Kroc Center, the coliseum, the blighted surroundings, and the parking lots if the stadium fails to generate enough support? Expect to see a grand design for a fancy fairgrounds on Tuesday — and a big fat price tag to go with it.

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