Friday, November 24, 2006

Libertyland and Coliseum Futures Must Hit Civic Targets

Revisiting a post from earlier this spring:

Everybody’s all for government acting more businesslike until it affects their special cause. This comes to mind when we listen to some of the arguments from grassroots leaders who insist that Libertyland and the Mid-South Coliseum must remain open.

We applaud their willingness and their determination to have a voice in the public decision-making process. It’s just hard to see how they end up on the “winning” end of this debate.

First of all, there is the deliberate, inexorable movement by city government to cut expenses. The current budget woes demand it, but in addition, that’s what we voters kept telling city officials like Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb that we wanted.

The city owns 60 percent of the Coliseum and apparently most of Libertyland, and it leans toward closing both and using the land for development that would be an anchor for rebirth of the area.

With the neighborhood redevelopment plans of the University of Memphis on the east and the Fairgrounds redevelopment on the west, this critical section of Memphis could then get the economic shot in the arm that it deserves. When you consider the growing strength of Cooper-Young, it is not hard to imagine a completely new set of uses for the Fairgrounds property that could bridge Cooper-Young and the neighborhoods just to the east of the Fairgrounds all the way to the U of M.

Fairgrounds Redevelopment

Redevelopment of the Fairgrounds creates a 365-day-a-year force for improvement, rather than the intermittent bursts of activity at the Coliseum and Libertyland, the deteriorating buildings whose highest and best use seems to be as sites for flea markets, and the expansive (and empty) asphalt parking lots that stretch for blocks.

In the end, discussions about future uses of the Fairground property, including Libertyland and Coliseum, need to centered on identifying the uses that can strengthen the adjacent neighborhoods, spark new investments in the area, spur economic growth and stabilize and increase property taxes.

The current uses just don’t hit the mark on any of these.

If the current uses are to remain, it seems to mean that government must throw good money after bad at the Coliseum, where the deficit now is about $400,000, and it must adopt Libertyland from the Mid-South Fair, which has been paying the thumbnail theme park’s deficits for years.

City of Memphis officials have been driving these key decisions, but a sense of urgency has developed around the Coliseum when county government announced that it wouldn’t pay its 40 percent of the deficit, causing the city to announce that the building would be closed. However, since that announcement, Mayor A C Wharton, after a meeting with renters of the building yesterday, now seems to be reconsidering. It has all the appearances of the classic political dilemma in these joint city-county projects. In truth, none of the staff on either side of Main Street thinks that it makes any sense to keep the Coliseum open, but neither side wants to be the ones that take responsibility for locking its doors.

Bring A Check

And yet, the problem seems simple. If all these tenants, who are imploring Mayor Wharton to keep the building open, want to make it happen, they need only come up with a plan for the rents to be raised to cover the $400,000. That of course isn’t practical, but then again, there are no practical options for the building’s future in the first place.

Consultants told the city and county six years ago that the building should be shuttered, unless there is someone who wants to buy it, operate it and pay all expenses. Nothing has changed, and if that recommendation had been followed, city and county governments would already have saved several millions of dollars.

Keep in mind that the city and county governments don’t pay the operating deficit at FedEx Forum, and it seems to be a prevailing trend in city governments around the country to get out of the building management business. It’s just not something government is good at.

If proponents for keeping the Coliseum open are to gain any traction in their arguments, they need to develop a more persuasive case. The justifications that the city needs the Coliseum because some renters need fewer seats or can’t afford more rent doesn’t really move opinion on this issue. After all, government – more precisely, we taxpayers - doesn’t have the obligation to operate venues of various sizes solely to satisfy the particular needs of a specific tenant, whether it is the jury commissioner or the Liberty Bowl’s pregame buffet.

In the end, like most things, it comes down to money. The public has been telling government for years that it should act more like a business. The balance sheet is bleeding red ink, and unless someone can submit a funding plan along with their petitions, this discussion is actually over.

We’re just going through the motions until the inevitable (and logical) choice is made by city government – to redevelop the property in a way that creates more stability and economic growth for this key section of the city.