City tables Coliseum repurposing, presents sports complex in latest Fairgrounds plan

During a public meeting at the Kroc Center on November 6 to discuss the future of the Fairgrounds, the City of Memphis announced it does not plan revive the Mid-South Coliseum at this time because it lacks a clear plan regarding the building's financial sustainability.

 The City also expressed concerns about how operating the structure as a venue could drain taxpayer money. Instead, the City has opted to preserve the Coliseum in its current state and invest $500,000 in repairs, mostly for the structure's roof.

Plans for a waterpark – another possibility brought up at previous public meetings about the reimagining of the Fairgrounds – have also been scrapped, as the City said amusement and water parks are not feasible based on space and economics.

A city spokesperson said that they’d instead prefer to invest $40 million on projects that could benefit the surrounding neighborhoods and community at large.

Renderings released by the City of Memphis show a youth sports complex, which Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said, in a statement released November 7, would be unique because it focuses on indoor sports. The City already has large baseball and softball complexes, and the amenities would be available to both tourists and local youth athletes.

Youth sports is a lucrative, growing tourism sector, the City stated.

“It’s an industry that is proven nationwide to bring youth and parents to a place,” Strickland said. “By doing that, we bring energy and dollars to our core city — dollars that help pay for the entire project.”

The City has also brought in two sister companies based in Clearwater, Florida. Sports Facilities Advisory and Sports Facilities Management plan, fund, develop and manage sports complex across the country, according to their website.

A rendering of the multi-sports facility included in the City's updated Fairgrounds re-imagining. The plan also includes a track and field relocated from Central Avenue, rehabbed creative arts building, playgrounds and walking paths, and solar-lit outdoor pavilions for sports and family gatherings.

Those companies’ developments include Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, Upward Star Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Legends Sports Complex in Woodland, Texas and many more throughout the country. 

Of the 61 pages included in the City’s plan, two dozen feature photos and information about these numerous sports complexes, including sample floorplans that include event and family entertainment centers, concession areas, and basketball and volleyball courts.

Information from those companies included in the proposal emphasizes research on the impact of sports engagement on children, saying children involved in sports are one-tenth as likely to be obese and 15 percent more likely to attend college.

In addition to the multi-sport facility, the City’s aspirational draft concept features a running track relocated from Central Avenue, a rehabbed creative arts building, playgrounds and walking paths, and solar-lit outdoor pavilions for sports and family gatherings.

The larger plans include retail space, a hotel, and 500-car parking garage, upgrades to the Liberty Bowl, such as seating and technology upgrades to enhance stadium experience, and upgrades to the Pipkin Building for additional community uses.

Tobey Park plans include upgrades to the existing dog park, baseball fields and parking areas, a bike safety school and a competition BMX track. It would keep its skate park and rugby field.

The plan includes Community Benefits Agreements, which are legal documents that outline specific benefits the community will receive, such as employment, wage requirements, job training, community access to spaces, and public input.

The City said this will be its first use of a Community Benefits Agreement.

“Our goal was to assemble a project that both attracts tourists and enriches the surrounding neighborhoods,” Strickland said. “This can do that. Even more, we’re going to outline the community benefits for each development by using Community Benefits Agreements. Used in many other areas of the country, this will be the first time they’ve used in Memphis. It’s important to me that Memphians benefit from what happens there, too.”

As announced at the last public Fairgrounds meeting in September, the project would be funded by the creation of a Tourism Development Zone and would not take away from general funding for city services.

If the City Council approves the newly announced plan, the next step will be to request state funding for the creation of the TDZ. The TDZ would be a three-square-mile area that would include Crosstown, Broad Avenue Arts District, Overton Square, Cooper-Young and parts of Orange Mound.

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.

“It’s extremely important to know that what we presented last night is not the final plan.,” Strickland said. “That will come when we present to the Memphis City Council, likely in January, and to the state of Tennessee shortly thereafter. Though we presented $160 million worth of options, they are just that — a menu of options from which we’ll make final choices…”

But many Memphians, at the meetings and on social media, are expressing disappointment in the plans, particularly the City’s decision to table the Mid-South Coliseum revamping. The Urban Land Institute recommended repurposing the iconic building as an open concert pavilion, something groups such as the Coliseum Coalition and Friends of the Fairgrounds have been advocating for years.

The City included the repurposing of the Coliseum in its last plan, presented at the public meeting in September, so it came as a surprise to many Memphians.

“There was a reoccurring theme in all the meetings concerning the fairgrounds,” said Hunter Demster, a community organizer with Coalition of Concerned Citizens. “People wanted to bring the Coliseum back to life. Why have public input meetings if you are just going to ignore the people?”

Read the City’s public presentation on the Fairgrounds plan in its entirety here.

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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.