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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)

 

The city of Memphis will mothball the shuttered Mid-South Coliseum as it launches a $160 million redevelopment of the old surrounding Fairgrounds, officials said last week.

Instead of rehabilitating the Coliseum, the city will spend roughly $40 million tying the redevelopment — whose theme is still competitive youth sports — into the Orange Mound community, said Paul Young, director of Housing and Community Development. That means improving access to the Fairgrounds from Orange Mound, the Beltline, Cooper-Young and the Greenline, and improving the historic Melrose High School.

"We want to have opportunities for those kids that aren't necessarily a part of some league or team to be able to come on the site and enjoy the benefits of it," he said.

The plan to shelve the Coliseum was met with harsh criticism Oct. 31 by those who have long advocated for the restoration of the 10,000-seat venue, which closed in 2006 after a 42-year run. Roy Barnes, president of the Coliseum Coalition, a grass-roots advocacy group that has proposed several ideas to reuse and reopen the building, said the decision from Mayor Jim Strickland's administration was a "real slap in the face to citizens."

"Mothballing is a reasonable thing to do in a zero-money environment," Barnes said. "But in a $160 million environment? No flippin' way."

Barnes added: "They'll try to spin this as a business decision — but it's not. It's not a business decision; it's a political decision."

The Coliseum Coalition has estimated the cost to renovate the Coliseum at around $25 million — significantly less than the city's estimate of $37 million to $40 million to renovate the building into an ancillary sports facility connected to the redevelopment's premier sports building.

The city will still anchor the project with that main sports building — only on the old Libertyland site instead of next to the Coliseum, Young said.

But with a $160 million budget, Young said the choice was between rehabbing the Coliseum — with no private developer on the horizon and no idea of future operations costs — and serving the community.

"The Coliseum would be a good addition," Young said. "But the question is, at what cost? And what are the operational costs for including that as a part of it? I think we can achieve the same goal with the 150,000 square feet we have programmed."

While demolition is still on the table, the calls to save the Coliseum haven't fallen on deaf ears, said Young, whose graduation ceremony was held at the Coliseum. "We're at least leaving that open," he said of a Coliseum rehab.

City officials considered several options before deciding on the present course, Young said. The city could have converted the building for youth sports, demolished the Coliseum for $8 million to $10 million, or spent $14 million opening the concourses.

In the short term, the city will spend $500,000 to rebuild part of the Coliseum's roof, and seal leaks and doors, project manager Mary Claire Borys said.

Mothballing the building will work best for all parties involved, Young said. Delaying action will give the youth sports complex time to build momentum, possibly attracting the private development dollars a Coliseum rehabilitation requires. A delay also will give the Coliseum Coalition and any other groups more time to raise money for the project.

The city also will hold off on a search for private developers to build a hotel and retail until honing its youth sports operations plan, Young said.

Young expects to receive a report with revenue estimates for the project from newly hired consultant Sports Facilities Advisors in mid-December, then present the redevelopment plan for City Council approval at its first meeting in January.

The city would then present the plan to the State Building Commission as part of a request to create a tourism development zone (TDZ), which would allow the city to capture state sales taxes for reinvestment in qualified public facilities in the zone. The city hopes to fund the entire $160 million project with the sales taxes from the zone, which would include entertainment districts and the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

But without the Coliseum, the redevelopment will be a generic sportsplex, lacking the unique flavor of Memphis, said Mike McCarthy, a longtime advocate for renovating the Coliseum who recently debuted a documentary, "Destroy Memphis," about the old Libertyland roller coaster The Zippin Pippin.

"As long as the city mothballs the things that make us different and special and unique," he said, "why should we think Amazon or individuals would come here to live or visit?"

Reach Ryan Poe at poe@commercial appeal.com or on Twitter at @ryanpoe.

 

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