More than 200 concerned citizens gathered at Circuit Playhouse last week. They came seeking a better understanding of the city’s proposal for the Fairgrounds. A panel of experts, politicians and community activists spoke. Notably absent were representatives from city administration and council. So we took it upon ourselves to fill in the blanks left by their silence, in the form of a suggested resolution:

Whereas, the city of Memphis administration has proposed to borrow $176,000,000 to develop the Fairgrounds; and

Whereas, with that money the city would build a youth sports facility and make improvements to existing assets such as the Liberty Bowl while demolishing others including the Mid-South Coliseum; and

Whereas, the city would also build 400,000 square feet of retail and a 180-room hotel on the Fairgrounds for a private developer in the hope that the developer would agree to use the rent profits to pay for the massive operating losses and capital maintenance expenses the sports facility is likely to generate; and

Whereas, the city would pay back the loan using the growth in sales tax collected from a designated zone that includes most of the existing Midtown commercial areas in addition to the Fairgrounds itself;

Whereas, some consultants told us this is all gonna work really well (but we are a little concerned because they’ve told the same thing to a bunch of other cities and they might secretly want everybody to pull the trigger so they get to do more consulting).

Therefore, in consideration of the fact we’ve been down this road before, we make the following promises to the people of Memphis and Shelby County, that we shall:

  1. Return to the drawing board, bringing community stakeholders into the process of determining the highest and best use of the Fairgrounds.

  2. If they decide there is a youth sports void in the Memphis market that the Fairgrounds could address, then develop a plan in collaboration with other sports facility operators showing how it would work with existing youth sports assets in and around Memphis.

  3. If the plan requires new fields, buildings or changes to existing buildings at the Fairgrounds, then figure out the real cost of those facilities.

  4. The real cost of facilities is not just the money it takes to build them. It also includes the cost of operating them and of maintaining them for at least the next fifty years.

  5. Figure out how to pay for all of those costs.

  6. Disclose the plan, budget and operating pro forma to the taxpayers, treating them like the investors they are, fully detailing all studies, plans, risks and beneficiaries.

  7. Vest a committee comprised of City Council members and community stakeholders with authority to draft and request proposals from potential private developers.

  8. Set forth certain ground rules to protect city credit and purse to be incorporated into any requests for proposal.

  9. If the plan includes the establishment of Tourism Development Zone, the district is drawn so the opportunity cost is proportional to the expected benefit.

  10. If the plan includes a TDZ, ensure the local portion of sales tax growth isn’t cannibalized into the project.

  11. Ensure the private developer guarantees any portion of the bond issue directly benefiting the developer.

  12. Demonstrate clearly how operating losses and capital maintenance expenditures will not become a burden of city taxpayers.

  13. Establish a plan in the event of default on the bonds, detailing how the city will not be left holding the bag or suffer negative credit action.

  14. Agree not to issue any bonds until a private developer submits a proposal that satisfies the above criteria, the committee recommends, and the City Council approves.

We believe in our city. We think the Fairgrounds present an incredible opportunity to improve the city core, galvanizing support from the surrounding neighborhoods. We just want to be a part of the process—we’ve got some great ideas. We also know that when the city plays commercial developer, things can get a bit wonky. Let’s be careful this time.

Photo by Andrew Breig of the Daily News