Danger Zone? 

Group opposes city’s application for a Tourism Development Zone at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Memphis Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb envisions a state-of-the-art amateur sportsplex, 500,000 square feet of retail and hospitality, and a zip line over a lake at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Local attorney Wes Riddle sees "a reckless plan that is extremely dangerous fiscally and fails to address the city's most pressing needs."

Riddle founded MemFRST (Memphians for a Fiscally Responsible and Stronger Tomorrow) in response to the city's application to the state Department of Finance and Administration to designate the fairgrounds, Overton Square, parts of Union Avenue, and Overton Park as a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ).

TDZ status would allow the city to pay for public projects at the fairgrounds by returning the increase in state and local sales taxes generated by future retail within the TDZ to the city rather than state. Lipscomb sent an application for TDZ status to the state in mid-September, and he expects the state to approve or reject by November or December.

The 88-page application calls for construction of a sportsplex with soccer and baseball fields, an urban park with a zip line, a retail center with a 120,000-square-foot general merchandise anchor tenant, housing, a 180-room hotel, and a 40,000-square-foot "family attraction" that hasn't yet been named. No retailers have been identified either. Lipscomb said that will occur after TDZ status has been granted and a developer is hired. The goal with the sportsplex, Lipscomb said, is to make Memphis the third biggest attraction for amateur sports, behind Orlando, Florida, and Indianapolis, Indiana.

At a meeting at the Cooper-Young Community Association last week, Riddle and fellow MemFRST member Mary Phillips posed questions about the risk involved in establishing a TDZ for a large part of Midtown. Lipscomb said that the TDZ would be funded through revenue bonds rather than general obligation bonds, and, thus, the bond buyer would assume most of the risk.

"We are taking a step of creating a world-class attraction," Lipscomb said. "So, do we run in place and do nothing? Or do we take a risk and do creative things that cost the local taxpayer nothing?"

But Riddle said the biggest risk comes from developing this project at the fairgrounds and blowing Midtown's chance to get another TDZ designation for years. Once the zone is established, it will cover a three-mile stretch of Midtown, and future TDZ areas cannot overlap.

"If you could justify the TDZ use, it would be a good tool. But they're not even close," Riddle said. "All we know is Orlando and Indianapolis have built amateur sportsplexes. Without a market feasibility study, how do you show that what we're doing is better than what they're doing and that there is enough demand for multiple cities to be competing for this industry?"

Riddle also believes the retail component will do little to attract dollars from outside the TDZ. Instead, he thinks taxes from Midtown businesses within the TDZ, such as those in Cooper-Young, may be incentivizing the development of new stores at the fairgrounds that will compete with those other Midtown businesses.

"We want something that you can justify will bring dollars into the city rather than simply shuffling them around," Riddle said.

"This is not addressing our most critical ecomonic development priorities," Riddle continued. "We need walkability. We need nice urban neighborhoods. We need high-quality transit that connects those neighborhoods. People need the ability to live here without a car. We need to improve the things that people come to our city for. When you talk about tourism, that's what you should be talking about."

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