If there is one definitive thing you can say about the Fairgrounds, it’s pretty much always been known as “The Fairgrounds”.
After that, it’s up for debate.
Ever since the first fair was held on the spot in 1856, people from the Mid-South would flock for the annual event. First known as Shelby County Fair, it became the Tri-State Fair the following year. A Negro Tri-State Fair began in 1911. The two fairs were integrated with the first Mid-South Fair in 1962.
But with the fair picking up its tent and moving out of Memphis, there are fewer reasons to visit the area. A grassroots group wants to ensure that a future redevelopment of the fairgrounds includes a hefty dose of public input and private-public partnerships.
“The Fairgrounds has been public land for 150 years and in that time, people have come together across lines that have separated them – racial, class, gender, age and geographic – to celebrate and be a part of their community,” said John Minervini.
Mivervini and Marvin Stockwell are co-founders of the Friends of the Fairgrounds, a grassroots organization with the goal is to help find a long-term solution for the space.
There have been efforts in the past, although piecemeal.
A fair history
In 1912, landscape architect and city planner George Kessler was hired to design a permanent fairgrounds and city park. Kessler designed Overton Park, in addition to his more well-known work – Central Park.
A postcard from 1941 shows the entrance to the fairgrounds.
By the 1920’s Joy Plaze, the first Fairgrounds amusement park, was opened. With the Zippin Pippen rollercoaster and the Grand Carousel, a fair-like atmosphere became a permanent feature.
Later, the property saw a municipal pool and the grand casino. Both were gone by the early 1960s.
In their wake came the Mid-South Coliseum. In 1965, construction began on the Liberty Bowl.
Libertyland was opened in 1975. The Zippin Pippen was still there, as well as the carousel. Never financially viable, it closed in 2005. A year later the coliseum was retired. Dilapidated, the rollercoaster was sold to Green Bay, Wisconsin and now anchors an amusment park there.
The one enduring piece of Memphis history that still had a connection to the Fairgrounds was the fair itself. It pulled up stakes and moved to Mississippi in 2009.
One bright spot amid the site’s relative disuse is the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Through events like the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the Southern Heritage Classic, the stadium draws hundreds of thousands of sports fans to the Fairgrounds every year, many from outside the city. But this only gets used to capacity during the college football season.
“We see in the Fairgrounds a place that stands in the geographic center and population center of Memphis. It should be the beating heart of the city, but right now it is underutilized,” said Minervini.
In addition to the Liberty Bowl, the Fairgrounds is home to The Kroc Center, fronting the space along South Parkway. There are also Christian Brothers University and Maxine Smith STEAM Academy campuses. They lie on either side of Central Ave., on the north end of the expanse. Nevertheless, untapped potential remains.
Putting down stakes
The latest chapter in the effort to tap that potential started in 2015, when the Coliseum Coalition was founded. Its goal was to reopen the Coliseum and save another part of Memphis history from the wrecking ball.
The latest chapter in the effort to tap into the Fairgrounds' potential started in 2015, when the Coliseum Coalition was founded. Its goal was to restore the idle structure to its former glory.
“John and I started talking and realized it’s one thing to focus on this building, but inevitably we want to look through the wider fairgrounds lens,” said Stockwell.
The drift of the conversation makes sense. The Coliseum is a relatively small footprint in an underutilized sea of asphalt.
“We saw an opportunity to meet community needs and do something world class to lever up the whole city. Not just the Coliseum. Not just the Fairgrounds. But Midtown and Memphis and the region,” said Minervini.
That summer in 2015, an Urban Land Institute panel that was commissioned by the city issued recommendations. Among them was a suggestion that Memphis partner with some form of public-private partnership, something like a conservancy, to tackle the issue.
With the scope of their efforts broadening, decisions needed to be made – and the Fairgrounds is a definite broadening. In need of more time, Stockwell decided to resign from the Coliseum Coalition and put the Fairgrounds front and center.
“I realized I didn’t have time to do both groups so I stepped off their board and stopped being their spokesman,” said Stockwell.
Less encumbered, they began working on the best way to approach the project. First, they decided to involve people throughout the surrounding communities in a stakeholder input process.
After that, they approached Cleo Griffin. As Director of the Kroc Center, she has a vested interest in the area.
“As occupants of the fairgrounds, it was in our interest to take the meeting," Griffin said. “An hour or so later, we’d agreed to have the kickoff meeting at the Kroc Center, and we’ve been involved ever since."
To reach out to potential stakeholders – like Griffin - two foundational meetings were held. Together, they wrote, honed and agreed on a mission statement. Several topic-specific meetings were also held over the months that followed.
“The inclusion of community stakeholders at the onset encourages citizens to be engaged and active, to feel like they can influence the city we live in,” said Natasha Main, Design Research Associate at Little Bird Innovation and core planning team member of FOTF.
Heart of the city
The larger community was brought into the process with a community meeting on May 18, 2017 at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, unveiling of FOTF’s “Heart of the City” vision. More than 80 Memphians attended, representing a wide variety of neighborhoods, classes, and backgrounds.
The Kroc Center sits right next to the Fairgrounds, fronting the space along South Parkway, and is an organizational stakeholder.
“Beginning with the ‘Heart of the City’ meeting, we opened it up to the entire community. It was the first truly open public forum – come one, come all,” said Stockwell.
While an overall plan is still in the future, the needs of the community are evident and form the foundation of a vision. Connectivity is a big one. The Fairgrounds should serve as an easily reachable hub of the city. Additional green space is always welcome. Perhaps most importantly needed is place for kids to work, play, and be active.
Whatever the final plan may be, a goal of the FOTF is that the plan will be comprehensive. There is little interest in just adding a new attraction or facility and calling it a day. It also goes against recommendations of organizations studying the issue.
Another recommendation of those studies is that a public-private partnership be formed with the City of Memphis to drive the project.
“Comprehensive planning is not just our idea. National organizations and consultants have looked at the Fairgrounds and said it needs a comprehensive plan and a public-private partnership to make it happen,” said Minervini. “So, here we are, the community, ready to partner with the city.”
In pursuit of that partnership, a meeting was held on June 21 at City Hall to gauge interest. FOTF leaders like Stockwell, Minervini and Main were in attendance, among others. There, they discussed the issue with Paul Young, Housing & Community Development director; Maria Munoz-Blaco, Parks & Neighborhoods director; Antonio Adams, director of General Services and Doug McGowen, Chief Operating Officer.
Minnervini and Stockwell presented their “Heart of the City” vision for the Fairgrounds. They also shared their planning team, advisory board, timeline and draft memorandum “to formalize our partnership with the city.”
“The city received our proposal warmly, and we are excited for the next stage of negotiations. To be clear, although they encouraged us in our efforts, city officials made no indication that they have any intention of signing our MOU, merely that they will evaluate it in coming weeks,” said Minervini.
Private eyes and public interest
Engaging the public in the fairgrounds' redevelopment is a break from history. Previous efforts generally reflected the wants of a private interest.
“That’s what sets us apart from every other approach to the Fairgrounds. In the past, a private developer would come with a brilliant idea that also happens to make him a lot of money,” said Minervini.
Even recently, when proposals have been floated, they have been limited in imagination. A shopping center with a Target as the anchor store was mentioned. A multi-use sports complex was also proffered.
The Liberty Bowl, with its expansive parking lot, is the anchor for the Fairgrounds but is only used to capacity for the college football season.
In 2016, backers of Wiseacre Brewing Co. stepped in with a plan to transform the Coliseum into a brewing operation. That didn't pan out.
“In the past, developers would come with a plan and then try to swing the community around behind it. They would engage the community as an afterthought,” said Minervini. "We came with a blank slate and said: What do you like about the Fairgrounds? What don’t you like? What’s the opportunity? What do you need in your neighborhood?”
Through all the meetings and engagement, several fundamental needs began to emerge. Themes like public safety and fairness were prominent.
Not to say that FOTF stakeholders are opposed to a money-making venture coming to the Fairgrounds. It’s more of a perspective issue. “Employment” and “tax base” are the buzz words here. The interests of the surrounding community don’t necessarily align with those of a retail-based corporation, for instance.
“If you can get money flowing into those neighborhoods and economic opportunity flowing into Memphis, that will address nearly every other community need – safety, educational attainment, health and wellness. Making these neighborhoods prosperous and desirable is one way to continue repopulating the core of Memphis,” said Minervini.
Stakeholders also desired something more reflective of the community.
“They want something designed for Memphians, not just for tourists,” said Stockwell.
In the beginning stages of FOTF, stakeholders were given walking tours of the space by local historian Jimmy Ogle.
With outreach, a group of over 200 people from diverse backgrounds coalesced. Many of them live or work near the Fairgrounds.
“The thing that jumped out during the tours was the adaptability of the space taking a long look back over the 150 years,” said Stockwell.
While no sketches of what the space could look like in the future have been rendered yet, FOTF does have a set of criteria as their vision. These were established during the eight topic meetings with stakeholders.
First, is a recognition of the Fairgrounds as a community asset. In addition to Liberty Bowl, there is the Coliseum, Tobey Park, the Pipken Building and the Libertyland Disc Golf Course.
There are also expertise of organizations and individuals to draw from. Reports from the Urban Land Institute, Trust for Public Land, The National Charrette Institute and Shelby Farms Park Conservancy have been helpful.
The work and knowledge of community organizations, like the Orange Mound Veterans Association and the Cooper Young Business Association, have been integral, too.
“The FOTF planning group is constantly evolving. As we were encouraged more and more by the different expert groups and organizations we met with to get advice, we grew empowered to continue,” said Main.