photograph of Robert Lipscomb by Justin Fox Burks
Government is often accused of having a short attention span, but you wouldn’t know it from three City of Memphis projects that date back to 2004.
All three of them — the Overton Square Arts District, Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid, and the Fairgrounds redevelopment — have been in the city pipeline for almost a decade. Defying conventional wisdom that government can’t deliver complex projects, these have stayed alive despite political changes in the mayor’s office and strong budgetary headwinds.
Perhaps, more than anything, it speaks to the staying power of a project when Robert Lipscomb, director of housing and community development, sinks his teeth into it. It was in 2005 that he hired Looney Ricks Kiss to prepare the “Heart of the Arts Redevelopment Study” that imagined a reinvigorated Madison Avenue propelled by a revived Overton Square arts district.
Today, this vision of Overton Square — which nears full occupancy after being embraced by Loeb Properties — is well under way, and city government’s $16 million for a garage, a flood detention basin for the area, and street improvements may be the most dramatic payoff since city government bought Memphis Power and Light in 1939 and turned it into Memphis Light, Gas & Water.
A year before the heart of the arts report, in 2004, then-Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. formed a special committee to study how The Pyramid and the Fairgrounds could be redeveloped to create jobs, attract more people to Memphis, and expand economic activity. Lipscomb was named by the mayors to head up the committee and manage its work.
That committee broke in two — with a subcommittee to concentrate on The Pyramid and the other on the Fairgrounds. The Pyramid group, chaired by businessman Scott Ledbetter, welcomed all kinds of ideas for the reuse of the former arena — from a church to an aquarium and from a theme park to world trade center — before settling on destination retail as the best way to increase tax revenues and expand the economy.
The committee then identified Bass Pro Shops as its best target, meeting with the company to get the word that it was interested in the Memphis project. Six years and the Great Recession later, Bass Pro Shops has begun to build out its store, complete with aquariums, an indoor Delta cypress swamp, and zip lines. Also, over the years, it has added a lodge; two observation decks, bars, and an aquarium at the apex; and an elevator inside and another on the outside of The Pyramid.
The subcommittee evaluating the future of the Fairgrounds — chaired by Methodist Hospital executive Cato Johnson — was the first to introduce the idea of a mixed uses there but with an emphasis on amateur sports. Looney Ricks Kiss was hired to flesh out the concepts, and the first images of a revived Fairgrounds were created.
“The future vision of the Fairgrounds is to build on its historic role and location as a family recreation center to become the heart of the city for children, youth, and their families,” the Fairgrounds report said.
“Furthermore, it will be the place where an unprecedented diversity of Memphians can come together to recreate, learn, and grow, forming a tapestry of people that make up the ‘family’ of our great city. Both literally and figuratively, the Fairgrounds will serve as a ‘level playing field’ for all Memphians to refresh and build body, mind, and spirit while strengthening bonds with their families and community through shared recreation, entertainment, and education.”
It was a point of view that became the founding philosophy for the plans that would follow for the redevelopment of the 170 acres in the center of Memphis. The current vision by city government has been filed with state government along with an application for a tourism development zone to pay for the $187 million project. It would mean that all new state taxes above the current level of sales taxes would be returned to city government to pay for the project.
A tourism development zone is already paying for the city’s $75 million worth of improvements to The Pyramid (as well as the purchase by Memphis of the convention center from Shelby County Government and other ancillary costs), but if the Fairgrounds plan is approved as submitted, it would mean that Memphis will get $402 million of major projects under way and pay for them with state money.
It’s like hitting the lottery for a city gripped by fiscal issues and recently slapped by the state comptroller for lax financial procedures.