Kroc Center set to roll Feb. 23

A visitor during a recent tour peers through a window into the Kroc Center's new aquatic center. The center at the old Fairgrounds is set to open Feb. 23. Photo by Michael lander.

The Zippin Pippin may be gone, but the fairgrounds’ newest attraction is about to get Memphis families moving in a new way.

The Kroc Center will open Feb. 23, on East Parkway just a few steps from Cooper-Young. The $31 million, 104,000-square-foot recreation, arts and worship facility is operated by the Salvation Army, a group that hopes to increase its visibility and ministry in the Memphis area.

“We want to introduce the Salvation Army to the community in new ways,” said Stephen Hackett, IT and multimedia director for the Kroc Center, as he led a group of about 40 people on a tour Nov. 14 at the still incomplete site.

The sprawling Kroc Center campus just south of Fairview Middle is to a traditional recreation center what Lance Armstrong is to cycling competitors: on steroids. Members will be able to access a fitness center and group exercise area with springed wood floors, or continue to the basketball and volleyball courts, which are separated by a glass wall from the indoor artificial turf soccer and flag football field.

In the aquatic center, a towering water slide the only one in Midtown that winds both inside and outside the building will chute swimmers into a pool near the “lazy river” float stream, lap pools and whirlpool. Kroc Center representatives, touting the building’s “green” features, proudly said the new pools were made with cement recycled from the old Fairgrounds pool.

A splash park and obstacle course, playground, fire pit and two NCAA-regulation soccer fields sit just outside the aquatics center. A cafe is located inside, near a “teaching kitchen” and Grand Hall banquet and event center.

Perhaps the most ambitious feature is the center’s Challenge Area, a concept that even the facility’s program director Ty Cobb admits is a little hard to explain. The Challenge Area, built by a company involved with building theme park attractions, resembles a set from a sci-fi movie or video game, with blinking industrial control panels and vault doors between its 11 rooms. Families, children and even corporate groups will be given one of dozens of “missions” to solve, learning team-building and math skills as they break codes to open doors and make their way through the challenges.

But more than just athletics and recreation, the Kroc Center also will focus on supporting artistic activities, with a low-cost recording studio, music education rooms and art gallery for local artists. A 300-seat theater and chapel will feature community theater beginning with a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat this summer and dance productions. Painting, singing and music classes are set to begin Feb. 25.

In a nod to Memphis’ musical heritage, six large garage doors open onto the basketball court to provide elevated stages for young local musicians and bands who might be playing in public for the first time. Cobb said the Kroc Center plans to schedule all-ages concerts and events on Friday and Saturday nights.

Memphis’ Kroc Center will be one of 27 around the country when it opens, created through a $1.5 billion endowment from Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

Local representatives say the location — adjacent to Cooper-Young, Orange Mound, Belt Line and Chickasaw Gardens — was chosen because Kroc required all facilities to be located in areas near both high- and low-income neighborhoods. The acreage at the old Mid-South Fairgrounds was purchased from the city at fair market value, Cobb said.

A $50 million endowment will help keep the facility operating, but Cobb said the Kroc Center will ultimately rely on memberships, which are $30 a month for individuals and $50 for families, with no contract.

Andy Ashby, Cooper-Young Community Association secretary, said he sees “nothing but upside” from the Kroc Center opening.

“This is a real opprtunity for people from diverse neighborhoods to congregate together on a regular basis,” Ashby said. “I have a young son and I really look forward to him growing up with a place where he can swim and play various sports, all within walking distance of our home.”

Other Cooper-Young neighbors have expressed mixed feelings on the center’s opening.

“I know the neighbors were very concerned about the link to Salvation Army and the possibility of homeless, addicts and such coming there with children around,” said real estate agent and CYCA board member Debbie Sowell. “Another big concern was the threat of forcing ministry down the throats of the patrons. I am a Christian, so … I guess that does not bother me but I feel that they do know they have a delicate balance here.”

The Kroc Center does not contain a shelter and no homeless would be housed there, Cobb said. However, in keeping with the Salvation Army’s mission, there will be a social services office in the facility that could receive walk-in traffic. From that office, Cobb said, people in need would be directed either to shelter facilties or services that fit their need, such as utility bill assistance.

Cobb also said the Salvation Army a recognized Christian denomination will not proselytize Kroc Center patrons, though it will hold regular services in its chapel, which doubles a performing arts theater.

Salvation Army leaders recently implied that the organization rejects homosexuality based on its reading of Biblical scripture, though the organization later apologized and clarified that position. Officially, the Salvation Army states that it does not discriminate based on sexual orientation in its hiring practices, and Cobb said the Kroc Center would welcome any members.

Still, the implication is a clear source of tension for some in Cooper-Young

“I think they are not friends of the gay community, I’ll put it that way,” said Will Batts, executive director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center on Cooper.

Sowell, who has a house on East Parkway, said she also was concerned about the possibility of increased traffic on the street and intrusive lighting from the outdoor soccer fields.

However, she said she thinks the Kroc Center will be able to handle these potential negatives and would ultimately make homes in Cooper-Young more desireable. The benefits of having a first-class recreation center with an aquatic center for her 6-year-old, close enough that Midtowners could walk or ride their bikes there, convinced her to sign up for a membership.

And while Batts said he doesn’t plan on getting a Kroc Center membership, he added that he supports the Salvation Army’s right to its beliefs and thinks the center can peacefully co-exist with its diverse neighbors to the west.

“I’m confident that based on Cooper-Young’s reputation as a place that respects diversity and people’s right to live as they desire … I’m hopeful that the Kroc Center and the Salvation Army will be a good neighbor for Cooper-Young.”

– By David Royer

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Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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