Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Besting Nashville On The Playing Field

In the midst of our concerns about Memphis’ future, we said in a meeting this week that we need to remember there are model programs here setting national standards.

Someone immediately challenged us to name just three. They came quickly to mind, and here they are: Youth Villages, Church Health Center and Autozone Park.

The history of the Redbirds is remarkable for its innovation and equally remarkable for how many people don’t know anything about it.

A Home Run

For those who often cite sports facilities as evidence of government failings, they need to look no further than the corner of Third and Union to see a ball park that is unrivalled in the U.S. Not only is it acknowledged as the best, and most expensive, amateur stadium in the country, but city and county governments only contributed a grand total of $8.5 million in it.

Compare this to the controversy under way in Nashville where the funding from local government has already reached $43 million and the team owners say they need more. (The Sounds say they have secured the $23 million that they pledged to construction.) It’s resulted in a public confrontation that puts a question mark on the future of a new Nashville Sounds ballpark itself.

To the Sounds’ suggestion that more money is needed, Mayor Bill Purcell sent a simple reply: No. He said that the Sounds agreed by contract to fund the cost of construction above the city’s funding, and he intends for them to live by the terms of the agreement. Despite the agreement, the Sounds general manager said the city’s funding needs to be increased because the facility is going to open a year later than initially thought – for the opening of the 2009 season.

Playing Chicken

The Sounds management think they have the upper hand in the test of wills, because the project also includes three buildings with a hotel, condos, offices and retail stores, and the baseball owners don’t believe Nashville officials will let those be put at risk.

Watching the acrimony up I-40 should make us even more grateful for the inventive approach taken by local government and business leaders here. At a time when sports franchises at all levels had their hands out for public subsidies, civic leaders Dean and Kristi Jernigan, along with local public officials, came up with something seen only in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where its citizens created a nonprofit foundation in 1923 to own their NFL team. A nonprofit foundation was created to own and operate the Memphis Redbirds and its ballpark.

It’s worth remembering that until the nonprofit structure was conceived for the Memphis Triple A baseball franchise, the then owner of our Double-A baseball team was looking for government to cough up more than $40 million and to provide a greenfield site in the suburbs.

Our Lone Outpost

Instead, today, we have a sports showplace – a destination for every city mayor and baseball owner thinking about building a new stadium - owned and operated by a nonprofit organization who uses its profits to finance a program to bring baseball back to the inner city and at-risk kids.

In this way, Memphis is the lone outpost for a new way of thinking about sports franchises, and in a world where government largesse is counted on for private sports profit, we’ll probably remain the outpost for years to come.

In the meantime, there’s no wealthy owner pocketing the profits from Cokes and barbecue nachos. There’s no board of directors making money off the team and the ballpark. There’s no argument about whether the city really benefits from the team.

Most of all, there’s no argument that the ballpark is one of Memphis’ premier success stories.


gatesofmemphis said...

I'm glad you thought quick -- if you had to think at all. Autozone Park is a great example of urban transformation through architecture (and that's not even mentioning the Redbird's instinct for showmanship).

Memphis can't fall asleep on its laurels, but we can still be proud of them.

Anonymous said...

Amen. I think we forget what a great deal/blessing AutoZone Park is for Memphis.