SAM HARDIMAN | COMMERCIAL APPEAL
Memphis has big plans to reshape four publicly-owned stadiums and change the Memphis sports landscape for generations. The city just needs a lot of money to do it.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and his administration are seeking millions from the state of Tennessee, including $350 million in cash, for significant renovations to FedExForum, planned renovations to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, enhancements to AutoZone Park and replacing the long-shuttered Mid-South Coliseum with a soccer-specific stadium to house 901 FC. The total project cost is $684 million.
Strickland planned to unveil the city's 'Big Ask' during Tuesday's Memphis City Council meeting as he revealed the city's legislative agenda. Legislative leaders and Gov. Bill Lee have already been briefed on the plans.
Strickland outlined the city's stadium wish list in an interview with The Commercial Appeal Monday afternoon.
"It is truly not just about business or entertaining or the culture of the city," Strickland said Monday. "It's not just about tax generation or economic impact. It's all that and more... Your city identity is tied to sports teams."
News of Strickland's big ask broke Tuesday, a day after Metro Nashville and the Tennessee Titans announced they had a deal for a new $2.2 billion stadium. The Tennessee General Assembly approved $500 million in state bond capacity for the project earlier this year.
Strickland declined to comment on the aid Nashville has received from the state and said the city's request stands on its own.
If the city receives the hundreds of millions it is seeking, it could take Memphis, a place Strickland describes as a "very good sports town," and turn it into something bigger, a hope fueled by potential state dollars. The city declined to break out how exactly the state funding, particularly the $350 million in hoped-for cash, would be allocated among the four projects.
"Sports, tourism and the economic impact of sports is significant. ..It deserves investment and deserves state investment. And none of it would really be possible without the state going through these big surpluses," Strickland said.
The city paid Younger Associates -- the same firm that studied the impact of a new Tennessee Titans stadium in Nashville -- to analyze the potential economic impact of all four projects together. All told, the firm estimated a $1.3 billion economic impact and an even larger one over a two-decade span.
Strickland said the one-time economic impact would mean the state would receive a significant return on its proposed investment. Nationwide, economists have expressed skepticism about the economic impact of sports stadiums and how much yield public entities receive on their investment.
Lee, during an appearance in Memphis a few weeks ago, offered a hint about the city's plans and signaled a willingness to help. He said he and the mayor had spoken about sports tourism and what investments could look like.
"I think there's nothing off the table when we consider the type of investments we should be making. We just have to choose which ones are the best, [and] which ones are the most attractive. And we're looking to do that," Lee said on Sept. 29.
Here are the city's plans and funding ask for each of the stadiums:
Strickland said the city is asking for funding with an eye towards significant renovations of the existing arena, a redo that would come with another long-term lease with the Grizzlies. The team's current lease is up at the end of the 2028-29 NBA season.
The mayor said the city expects engineering plans from the Grizzlies as to what the renovation would look like sometime later this year. He said the plans would likely include a revamping of how the seats in the arena are configured -- there are more seats in the upper terrace level of the stadium compared to the first, floor-level bowl.
That would likely be inverted as part of the renovations, giving the Grizzlies a chance to make more revenue off of more, better seats.
The team has been historically tight-lipped about its future in Memphis, but its recent negotiations with the city over a shortfall provision in its lease and its willingness to be included in the city's legislative ask for FedExForum renovations signals a long-term commitment in Memphis.
Strickland said as much Monday. He praised Grizzlies principal owner Robert Pera, the billionaire founder of software firm Ubiquiti.
"I don't think the public should worry. Mr. Pera has shown a real commitment to Memphis -- the agreement that we came up with last year, resigning Ja Morant, [and] the investments he's making in the players. These discussions about redoing the stadium are a clear indication that they want to stay in Memphis for the long term," Strickland said.
Dan Springer, the city's deputy chief operating officer, said Monday the team would remain in the arena throughout the renovations similar to how the Atlanta Hawks' played during the $200 million renovation of State Farm Arena.
Any renovations to FedExForum would also affect the University of Memphis basketball team, which is the second tenant in the arena
Beyond the $350 million in cash, Memphis is also asking the Tennessee General Assembly for permission to raise the hotel-motel tax to 5% -- up from the current 3.5%; and for the extension of two tax incentives that have subsidized the current FedExForum.
Those two incentives are a car rental sales tax rebate -- part of every car rental tax goes to pay the current debt on the stadium —and the sales tax rebate — almost all of the sales tax collected from events at the arena is rebated back to the Memphis and Shelby County Sports Authority to pay the bonds.
The city is asking for an extension of those two tax rebates until 2053.
When asked if there would be any conversation with Pera about a private contribution to the FedExForum renovations, the mayor said, "We'll see."
Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium renovations
The city's request for $350 million in cash from the state would be a major portion of the proposed $150 million to $200 million renovation of Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium if it came through. When the U of M announced the stadium renovation plans this spring, Strickland said the university, which does not own the stadium, would supply the "lion's share" of the funding.
The prospect of state dollars changes the funding circumstances, Strickland said. While the city did not itemize how it would spend the hypothetical $350 million from the state, Strickland's comments offer a clue that a significant amount of the cash would be spent on Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
"When I made that comment, I was only viewing the university and the city as contributors," Strickland said.
A renovated stadium is a big piece of the university's hopes for joining a larger, Power 5 conference. With Cincinnati, the University of Central Florida and the University of Houston leaving for the Big 12, it left Memphis in the American Athletic Conference at a time of conference consolidation in major college football.
Strickland said the U of M, his alma mater, landing in a Power 5 would change not just the university's sports programs but the whole institution and noted how the University of Alabama's football dynasty had boosted enrollment. "I really do believe if the University of Memphis get into a Power 5 conference, it will have a major league impact on the city," Strickland said.
901 FC Stadium replaces the Mid-South Coliseum
Another key use of state cash would be another planned replacement of an existing city asset, a piece of the city's sports and music history -- the Mid-South Coliseum. The city plans to replace the arena, which has been shuttered since 2006 and is a beloved piece of nostalgia for residents, with a single-purpose stadium that would house 901 FC, the city's USL soccer franchise.
Strickland said the team, which shares AutoZone Park with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds baseball team, can no longer cohabitate with the Redbirds. He said both Major League Baseball, which has standards for its minor league affiliates, and the USL now have policies that make it difficult for sharing a facility.
The 901 FC Stadium would have about 7,500 to 10,000 fixed seats and would be able to have up to 15,000 for concerts. Its planned opening would be in 2025.
Strickland noted that soccer and the USL were "exploding" in popularity. 901 FC, which is in its fourth season, qualified for the postseason for second year in a row and will host its first home playoff game this weekend.
The city plans, in addition to already proposed investments through its Accelerate Memphis bond package, to give the stadium a facelift and meeting Minor League Baseball and MLB standards. The facelift would also include a long-term deal to keep the team in Memphis.
The renovations would be complete in 2025.