Fairgrounds transformation to Liberty Park has more ground to cover

Bill Dries | Daily Memphian

As Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland formally opened the Memphis Sports and Events Center Saturday, Dec. 10, he had a contract on his desk for the next step in the city’s transition of the Fairgrounds to Liberty Park – the commercial mixed-use development along Central Avenue.

“Somebody just told me I have a letter of agreement on my desk right now to sign one of those entertainment venues there,” he said.

The city signed a letter of intent two years ago with the Austin-based entertainment company “High 5” for development of 65,000 square feet that includes an arcade with virtual reality, family-themed restaurants and other features.

This past April, a new north-south roadway off Central Avenue by the Children’s Museum of Memphis was added to the plans. The route provides direct access to the planned commercial development, which is to include a hotel, apartments and retail.

There’s also site prep underway, as indicated by blue tarps and earth moving equipment, at the southeast corner of Central and Early Maxwell Boulevard.

“What I’m hoping to do in my last 13 months is finalize some deals,” Strickland said of the area whose sales tax revenue will finance the total $125 million conversion of the Fairgrounds to Liberty Park.

“Obviously I’m not going to get them built in 13 months,” he said of his remaining time in office. “But if we can get them in-progress, we can maybe have a groundbreaking or two next year and get that progressing on. It’s moving on and I believe it’s going to be a reality.”

An increment of the sales tax generated there and in the general area beyond the Liberty Park borders is used under terms of a Tourism Development Zone.

“The TDZ is important because it allows us to keep sales tax generated on the property and nearby,” Strickland said. “The increase in sales tax (revenue) pays for this. We couldn’t have done it without it.”

The Memphis Sports and Event Center is the centerpiece of the Fairgrounds transformation. The separate, 18-acre commercial parcel further east and along Central primarily will serve those traveling to Memphis for national sports tournaments.

On the center’s opening day, all-local youth volleyball and basketball teams filled one side of the 227,000-square-foot facility.

And most of the elected leaders talked of those local teams having the opportunity to play at home instead of traveling any time they advance beyond local rounds of competition.

Memphis City Council member JB Smiley Jr. is one of the former student athletes who has raised money to make such trips, sometimes standing on the medians of East Parkway to collect donations from passing motorists.

“I remember those days of begging on the corner,” Smiley told The Daily Memphian as he stood on the third level of the center overlooking the basketball courts.

Smiley was a stand-out basketball guard at Bolton High School who played collegiately and then semi-pro.

“After we played those (local) tournaments and earned the right to be a part of a national tournament or a state tournament, we had to raise funds to go to a venue not nearly as big as this one,” he said. “What this will do is significantly cut down on costs but also make Memphis the destination place in this region for all youth tournaments.”

City Housing and Community Development Director Ashley Cash began her job the day ground was broken for the center.

After the ribbon was cut, Cash remembered the Libertyland amusement park that stood where part of the new building is now.

“I went to Libertyland when I was a kid, went to the (Mid-South) Fair,” she said. “We had these places where families could come and go. In the absence of that we’ve been left with that gap in our city. This brings back the family entertainment, the family connecting point in Midtown.”

The journey to having the centerpiece built and open saw plans for the Fairgrounds’ total conversion change several times over.

It began late in the 17-year tenure of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton who did not renew the Mid-South Fair’s lease to use the Fairgrounds. It continued through interim mayor Myron Lowery’s brief time in office and through the six years A C Wharton was mayor.

Strickland remembers being elected to the city council in October 2007 and getting a briefing on the Fairgrounds conversion.

“I learned later, when I became mayor (in 2016), the state was not going to approve the TDZ. We had to resurrect it,” he said. “The state — for lack of a better word — was very sour on the whole proposal and they were going to shut down all of the TDZs. We had to convince them to keep it open and allow us, within a matter of months, to make a presentation on our vision of that.”

Strickland’s administration honed the city’s plan: from a larger tournament and youth sports complex that would take any and all sports to one that was more specific and aimed at amateur sports not being served by other nearby facilities.

In the process, Strickland also had to convince state officials of something that some Memphians are also skeptical about.

“That sports tourism is real. That it’s economic development,” he said. “It’s investment and they will get money back out of this.”

The state not only kept the long-delayed TDZ in place but also put up $10 million in funding.

Cash acknowledged the path to moving dirt, and then a structure coming out of the ground, took time. Details changed along the way.

“You have to see market wise what does that look like – what are people playing,” she said of the evolution. “I think the other part is you’ve got great ideas. But you’ve got to find funding. A lot of time, the timelines and the funding sources are out of our control.”

A constant question along the way was to what degree was it built for Memphians and to what degree was it built for those on the regional and national tournament circuit – a part of having children involved in amateur athletics that many Memphis families know well.

At Saturday’s opening, those running the center emphasized the formation of local amateur sports leagues that will fill the calendar Mondays through Wednesdays with regional and national tournaments dominating the later part of the week and the weekend.

A reminder of what connects the two sectors is the site’s proximity to the mothballed Mid-South Coliseum.

That’s where Larry Finch and teammates from Melrose High School and other high school basketball programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s changed the city’s brand of basketball. And where the Memphis State Tigers made it the city’s dominant sport.

Smiley said that change could be replicated with Liberty Park’s impact on Memphis youth athletics.

“I always go back to a phrase coined by the Memphis Grizzlies,” he said. “‘Big Memphis.’ That’s what we are now.”