Underutilized Fairgrounds land is reimagined with City-backed planning

The Mid-South Fairgrounds, nestled amongst longstanding trees in the heart of the Memphis, are steeped in history.

In 1956, Elvis Presley, fresh from his iconic debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, played his first surprise concert there.

The Fairgrounds were home to the Midtown Fair for 152 years, Liberty Land amusement park for nearly 30 years, and the Mid-South Coliseum for more than four decades. The property has, over the years, housed numerous now-defunct facilities, from a public pool to a baseball stadium to a casino, and holds cherished memories for Mid-Southerners of several generations.

In recent years, there’s been a great deal of dialogue surrounding sustainable future plans for the Fairgrounds.

In 2015, an advisory panel from Urban Land Institute, whose mission is to provide independent, objective advice on significant land use and real estate issues, examined the Mid-South Fairgrounds and conducted public meetings to gage Memphians’ opinions on possibilities for future use.

ULI recommended building a multipurpose sports facility to host tournaments and practices, a new park featuring a pond, walking trail, playground, open green space, and a water park on the property’s north end.  They also recommended repurposing the Mid-South Coliseum as an open concert pavilion.

Related: "Friends of the Fairgrounds looks to partner with the city on fairgrounds redevelopment"

On September 21, the City of Memphis hosted a public meeting to update residents about plans for the Fairgrounds, which includes exploring the idea of a youth sports complex to host basketball, volleyball, cheer and other indoor competitions. It could also include swimming and diving pools and exterior fields for soccer and rugby.

A postcard from 1941 shows the entrance to the fairgrounds.

As part of the complex, a new building to house concessions, restrooms, storage areas and community meeting space could replace the existing Pipkin Building. The ideal seating capacity for youth sports, according to the City, is fewer than 5,000 seats, which means the venue would not compete with Downtown’s FedEx Forum for tournaments and other events.

The Mid-South Coliseum, which has hosted everyone from Elvis to The Beatles and served as a popular venue for professional wrestling matches, closed in 2006 after failing to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But a remodeled Mid-South Coliseum, built to code, could host amateur sports, providing space for championship games and opening and closing tournament ceremonies. An independent report prepared by the citizen-led Coliseum Coalition states that reconstruction could be completed before 2019.

The City-backed Fairgrounds redevelopment project includes a $37 million complete overhaul of the building, which would include meeting ADA accessibility requirements; adding new heating and cooling systems, larger, more comfortable seating, and new lighting, sound equipment and scoreboards; improving access for loading equipment in and out of the building and addressing life-safety issues such as asbestos abatement.

It would cost roughly $8 million to tear down the Coliseum. Reusing the existing building would mean constructing a smaller multi-sports building, which would save several million dollars. And the new sports complex could stand out from venues in other cities because of its designated central space for championship games.

The City of Memphis is looking at applying for State of Tennessee approval to create a Tourism Development Zone  in Midtown, a geographic area limited by state law to a maximum of three square miles, which would include the Cooper-Young Historic District and Overton Square.  

The TDZ would allow for incremental sales tax to be used to fund costs associated with developing a destination facility. State law requires that the TDZ include retailers who would benefit from more customers being drawn to the area and generate increased sales taxes.

At the public meeting, Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting said he supports the City’s plans for the Fairgrounds, but is concerned whether Tennessee lawmakers will give Memphis the green light to establish a TDZ.

“I think the plan is strong, it’s logical, it’s very exciting,” he said. “The catch is the State has got to approve it. It can’t be done without the State’s approval, so it all hinges on how much this excites them and what they hear from the local community about support for it. After you do the planning there’s the political, and it’s got to be as well done as this is.”

Beyond TDZ, other possible funding sources include private debt and equity; new market tax credits; development surcharges; state and federal grants and incentives; lease payments; and corporate sponsorships.

“We want to make sound decisions,” Paul Young, Director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis, said at Thursday’s public meeting. “We want to be good fiscal stewards.”

The Fairgrounds redevelopment project involves bringing stakeholders together to bring about community benefit agreements, which are assets potentially produced through economic development that can meet community needs. Those benefits include local hiring, living wage jobs, installing public art, public access to spaces, and free or reduced ticket prices on certain days.

Neighborhood connectivity is also part of the plan as connecting to bike lanes and the Greenline, access to public transit, alternative energy, landscaping, lighting, walkability and safety are all mentioned.

Underpasses and railroad tracks in areas surrounding the Fairgrounds present opportunities for improvements to provide quality access to residents and visitors entering and leaving the Fairgrounds. Increased activity could also generate new business for nearby underserved communities such as Orange Mound.

Mary Claire Borys with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development said being a good neighbor and collaborator of existing organizations is paramount to the long-term success of the Fairgrounds plan.

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.

“We took a look at the Fairgrounds and realized that in in the absence of there being a formal structured plan, a natural theme of youth and sport and family fun had already materialized,” she said. “Rather than try to pick a theme, we said ‘let’s just lean in to the one that’s in existence, and let’s deliberately look for things that complement the excellent institutions that are already on this site.’”

Borys cited Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Kroc Center and Children’s Museum of Memphis.

“We’re being very intentional with our placement of amenities, we’re thinking about parking, traffic flow, walkability and safety. We’d like to see all the institutions cross-pollinate, so to speak, and create new partnerships -- not only with the new amenities but with each other, so everybody gets to grow together. I think we can make that happen.”

The Fairgrounds agreement would ultimately be negotiated among the City, the developer or management company and residents. The City said in its plan that it will continue to be transparent, providing a measurable agreement, balancing the challenges and impacts of development with solutions that would benefit residents. There would likely be separate agreements for different parts of the Fairgrounds.

Proposed site concepts are available at www.memphisfairgrounds.com. They’ve also launched a new public survey, which asks residents about their views regarding transparency and fairness of the planning process, as well as questions centered on cost and types of reuse.

The next public meeting to discuss the Fairgrounds is November 6.

Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.

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