W hile we wait for the fate of the Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) to be decided, ten things can be done relatively cheaply and quickly to make the area more attractive and more widely used.
The problems with the TDZ are numerous and perhaps insurmountable. The location is great only if your team arrives by railroad freight car. To capture tourists, new sports facilities have to be built on a grand scale that puts them in competition with other local sites. The 1998 TDZ legislation, originally written for convention centers, has been politically mangled into a loophole for cities to grab state taxes from gerrymandered taxing zones; the one for the fairgrounds includes Overton Square, Cooper-Young, Union Avenue, and the zoo. The revenue has to be spent at the “qualified public-use facility” — the fairgrounds — whether it is really needed or not.
On top of that, the Memphis City Council and Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb rejected a fairgrounds development proposal from the eminently qualified Henry Turley and Robert Loeb, and the prime commercial development sites at East Parkway and Central have already been taken by the old Fairview school and the Kroc Center.
What to do? Make the best of what we have.
Football eats first. Always has and always will. So make the UM athletic department and football boosters, Liberty Bowl, and Southern Heritage Classic responsible for ginning up more activity than pre-game tailgating at Tiger Lane nine times a year. Think marching band competition. And if you think the football barons don’t have strong and influential views about what should and should not be built near their empire, think again.
Fix Tobey Park. The public park just north of the fairgrounds has four lighted, fenced softball fields and a full-size lighted baseball field; a skatepark; sand volleyball courts; a rugby field; and parking lots. It’s a small sportsplex in decent condition but given little attention.
Resurface the track around the high-school football field at the fairgrounds and make it more inviting. Another usable facility with minimal attention.
Keep improving Overton Park. Improve the golf greens and fairways, as the Overton Park Conservancy plans to do when and if they gain control from the city. Stop talking about the “greensward” as if it is part of Hyde Park in London and not a big open field. Some “spontaneous” games on it during zoo-parking days would do more to discourage parking than protesters.
The old Libertyland site would make a nice testing ground for Bass Pro four-wheelers, camping equipment, and promotions. Enormous downtown investment. Leverage it.
Put up two rugby goalposts on the vacant field just west of the current fairgrounds football field and track. Memphis would then have two rugby fields almost next to each other — instant Rugby Capital of the Mid-South for men’s and (yes, there are several) women’s teams. Invite Celtic Crossing and Memphis Made brewery in Cooper-Young to pass out coupons.
Hold a bike race through the fairgrounds and around the coliseum to promote the Greenline and the Harahan Bridge project when it opens.
Add one-wall and three-wall outdoor handball, which requires a slab and a cinderblock wall and can double as tennis practice spots.
Soccer is saturated, so try small-field, no-goalie seven-on-seven soccer. The Latino Classic. Hostels could work as well as Hampton Inns.
You can’t be more suburban than a suburb or more family friendly than DeSoto County or Germantown or Jonesboro. Cooper-Young and Overton Square are for adults. So be the Alternative Sportsplex for grown-ups, oddball sports, and coed teams.
As Lipscomb has said, youth sports is a “gold mine” but, so far at least, mainly for consultants and politically connected contractors. Chattanooga, once branded a dirty Southern industrial town, didn’t get to be named “best city ever” by Outside magazine by trying to be something it is not but rather by playing up its unique assets. Memphis should do the same.