It’s not free. It seems many support the Fairgrounds Proposal because they see it as “free” money that will otherwise go to the state. It’s not free. Sales tax is the biggest state government funding mechanism. Memphis relies on state funds for many programs and initiatives. It’s safe to say the less we put in the kitty the less we can expect back.

History repeats itself. We used a sales tax TIF to issue the bonds for Bass Pro.The TIF district was drawn across almost all of downtown, including Beale Street. Now we need state money to make improvements to Peabody Place so it fits into our convention business, but there’s none left because it’s all going to pay off the Bass Pro bonds. The same problem is present with the Fairgrounds. The TIF district draws almost all of Midtown’s sales tax growth, from Overton Square to Kroger and Cooper Young. Do we really think that in the next 30 years we won’t have an idea for Midtown that could use state money? I’ll be 65 then!

Late to the game. Youth Sports is a growing industry. But so are youth sports parks. Just Google it and you’ll literally hundreds of municipalities across the country have been building similar facilities for years. Several exist in Tennessee. Many facilities are failing, attracting just a few events each year, otherwise gathering dust. I know Memphis is cool, and I love it, but we have to face the fact that this is a seriously competitive field, and we are late to the game.

Who’s left holding the bag? The prospect of staffing and maintaining this facility is dauntingly expensive. The proposal anticipates a developer bearing the risk of these losses because of the prospect of making money in retail and hotel, which themselves depend on the blowout success of the project. It’s hard to imagine any developer sticking around if the youth sports, and subsequently the retail and hotel don’t come. So the city’s left holding the bag, maintaining a million square feet of facilities so we can host a few games and graduations each year, in the meantime probably killing off our existing sports assets like Game Day.

Look around. The retail and hotel prospects are tenuous at best. I’m a restaurateur and real estate broker. Merchants depend on daily traffic, not a dozen spurts of activity a year. The fairgrounds site is flawed in this regard. A school and the Kroc Center occupy the best spot at the corner of East Parkway and Central, pushing retail development back off of the public thoroughfares. CY and OS are saturated with restaurants, and have had trouble attracting sustainable non-food retail; there’s still lots of vacancy. At Washington Bottoms a huge tract of big-box land sits vacant. Those are your comps.

If you build it… I think in the end we’ll suck up all the sales tax from Midtown to fund buildings that will sit empty. The city will pick up the tab to maintain everything after the developer is long gone, and we’ll be back around this table in ten years trying to figure out what to do with this behemoth. Remind you of anything? Pyramid. Peabody Place. Only we’ll have no state money left to help.


The Pyramid, photo by New York Times