City unveils ‘fiscally sound’ Fairgrounds plan, but key details disappoint some

Participants at a Fairgrounds redevelopment meeting at the Kroc Center on Monday held up signs critical of the city’s decision to “mothball” the Coliseum for now.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There were some encouraging words, and a few boos, from a crowd Monday night as the city presented its newly revised proposal for redevelopment at the Fairgrounds and Tobey Park.

City leaders have spent the last three months reworking a plan that’s been batted around for close to a decade to turn 78 acres in the heart of the city into a youth sports complex with additional retail, a hotel, a BMX track, a possible “junkyard museum” and other community uses.

If it were all built out, the plan is budgeted at $160.1 million, though city leaders stressed the proposal was “aspirational,” and that many of the ideas would be scaled back.

“My commitment to the taxpayer is to produce a plan that is fiscally sound and doesn’t overpromise on what we can deliver to the taxpayer,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said.

Parts of the plan came from more than 430 community suggestions, Housing and Community Development Director Paul Young said. Amusement parks and water parks, though popular ideas, were not feasible within the space, he said.

Ideas include rehabilitation of the Pipkin Building and Creative Arts Building, a solar-lit outdoor pavilion for basketball and volleyball, walking path, playground, and a reopened Young Avenue running through the site.

About 200 people showed up at the Kroc Center on East Parkway for the presentation.

As usual, however, it was the Coliseum that became the main point of contention for many participants Monday. The city has proposed mothballing the dormant facility until a feasible proposal for its reuse was found.

Complete renovation would cost between $40 million and $44 million, city leaders say, though several participants vocally disagreed with that assessment.

“It’s a kind of slight to the citizens who’ve worked for reopening this building,” said Roy Barnes with the Coliseum Coalition, who called the city’s new plan a “gut punch.”

Robert Hatfield of nearby Cooper-Young said he wanted to see a plan that integrated the Coliseum, rather than leaving it out.

“I feel like this piecemeal approach is dangerous with a big-ticket item like this,” he said.

Several people also questioned why the city continues to push for the Fairgrounds as a youth sports destination when there seemed to be little community demand for those facilities near Midtown.

However, Young and sports management consultants working with the city stressed that youth sports is a fast-growing tourism sector and that without attracting tourist dollars, the Fairgrounds couldn’t be redeveloped in a way that was revenue-neutral for the city.

Young also said that the proposed Tourism Development Zone, which would funnel state taxes back into the project, is part of a program that had been discontinued by the state. The Fairgrounds would be the last TDZ granted in Tennessee, if approved.

Construction could begin as soon as 2019 if City Council gives it a green light in January, followed by a presentation to the state. A complete financial forecast is set to be finished in December.