A slew of sports, family activities and shopping options could be moving to the neighborhood as city officials push a $233 million plan to redevelop the former Mid-South Fairgrounds into a sports and retail destination.
More than half a million square feet of commercial space — about half the size of Collierville’s Carriage Crossing shopping center and larger than the former Peabody Place mall — along with baseball diamonds, a hotel and more surrounding the Liberty Bowl. Development would be financed in large part by growing sales tax revenues from retail and restaurants.
“While Memphis is running in place … other cities are running ahead of us,” said Robert Lipscomb, director of the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development, presenting the proposal to residents, community leaders and the media at a meeting in Cooper-Young on Oct. 8.
The new master development plans submitted to state officials Sept. 13 show a sports complex of 20 baseball diamonds spread over two separate areas: the site’s southwestern corner where Libertyland stood and the northeastern corner at Tobey Field.
Plans show one “big box” anchor space of 120,000 square feet and other retail totaling 280,000 square feet, plus a hotel of more than 100,000 square feet. Multistory retail, a hotel and residential housing would fill in space northwest of the Liberty Bowl, along Central and East Parkway. The newly renovated Liberty Bowl and Tiger Lane, Children’s Museum of Memphis, Fairview school and Kroc Center remain. Fairview’s gymnasium would be relocated.
Also included is a multipurpose building with seating for 5,000, an urban park which may include a recreational lake, walking trails and championship tournament-level disc golf course and skate park, renovations to the Children’s Museum and a 40,000-square-foot, undisclosed “family attraction.”
The Mid-South Coliseum and the Pipkin Building would be demolished. Lipscomb told a member of the league that the planned multipurpose building could be used for events such as roller derby bouts. The coliseum suffers from a non-compete clause with the FedEx Forum, he said.
Lipscomb said the project might include a parking deck for Cooper-Young, an element that was put on hold earlier this year when money to build it was not included in the city’s budget — though that element was not included in plans submitted to the state.
No tenants have been chosen for the retail component at the site. Lipscomb said the city would contract with a developer, who would solicit tenants based on “market demand.” Based on feedback he’d heard from the community, the anchor tenant would not be Walmart, he joked.
Retail sales in the area encompassing the Fairgrounds, Cooper-Young, Union Avenue and Overton Square totaled $201.8 million in 2012, according to the city, which is above the expected market demand, though there was underserved demand for clothing and apparel and department/general merchandise retail.
Lipscomb told residents and neighborhood leaders the city’s aim is to “complement” Midtown’s growing mix of businesses.
“We didn’t want to have anything that would compete with Cooper-Young” and Overton Square, Lipscomb said.
“I am glad the city is looking to improve this blighted area of Midtown,” Tamara Cook, director of the Cooper-Young Business Association, said several days after the presentation. She was excited by the possibility of a Cooper-Young parking garage, something the CYBA pushed for earlier this year. “It will only help bring more tourists and visitors to Cooper-Young. It will also give us a much improved gateway at Parkway.”
Tom Jones, author of the Smart City Memphis blog, wrote that he supports the city’s plan because of its “potential to draw middle class families back to Memphis, the positive impact on adjacent property values (which also benefits county government), the potential to draw shoppers into Memphis who now regularly leave Memphis, and the potential to draw and keep talented workers here.”
Charlie Ryan, a major Cooper-Young property owner, said he hadn’t yet taken a position on the development, but the scale of the project and lack of detail over what tenants would occupy it could have a negative impact on the neighborhood. He said Midtown, like the rest of the Memphis area, already has an abundance of retail space.
“Yes, we are concerned that the fairgrounds project could competitively hurt (Cooper-Young) as a retail and restaurant destination,” Ryan said in an email. “I will say that 400,000 … square feet commercial real estate in the fairgrounds is a large area on the scale of a major shopping center. This will impact our area significantly. There are many DETAILS that both the businesses and neighbors need clarified so we can have enough information to decide our position.”
The project is the latest incarnation of efforts going back to 2005 to make the Liberty Bowl compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and better utilize the 155 acres once occupied by Libertyland, which closed in 2005, and the Mid-South Fair, which moved from the site to DeSoto County in 2008 after 152 years.
To pay for the development, Cooper-Young, Overton Square, Union Avenue and Overton Park would be wrapped into a Tourism Development Zone. In the TDZ, incremental growth above a projected baseline in the portion of sales tax revenue that ordinarily would go to the state’s coffers would instead be refunded back to the city to support $176 million in public bonds for the project.
That money can only be used for a qualified public use, such as a sports complex, and not other city projects, Lipscomb said.
While the TDZ structure has been used elsewhere in Tennessee, the proposed Midtown Memphis TDZ has drawn local opposition.
Wes Riddle, a local attorney and co-executive director of Roots Memphis, says the city’s financials on the TDZ application are flawed and that the district shouldn’t be gerrymandered to include attractions as far away as the Memphis Zoo. He also questioned the demand for such a large-scale development, which would be equivalent to building half of downtown or a third of Midtown, he said.
“Are you building a tourist zone, or are you building a massive sector of the city from scratch?” said Riddle, who started a Facebook group called Mem FRST to publicize opposition.
The state must approve TDZ legislation for the project to move forward. Lipscomb said the city hopes to have approval in late November or early December.
For those who long for the days of Libertyland and its historic Zippin Pippin roller coaster, the Mid-South Coliseum and the Mid-South Fair, a 150-year community tradition that moved from the site in 2008, those days appear to be over.
Lipscomb made clear that the Fairgrounds’ past would not be a guide for future development.
“When we started this process what was the Fairgrounds? It was a place for chickens and hogs and things like that,” Lipscomb told his audience in Cooper-Young. “Stop griping about what it was.”