Thursday, March 13, 2008

Buildings' Best Future Hinges On City And County Involvement

We understand Shelby County Government’s dire need for additional revenue to close a $16 million funding gap, but a fire sale of its interests in local sports facilities – The Pyramid, Mid-South Coliseum and Liberty Bowl - mainly feels like third-degree burns for county taxpayers.

This week, county government proposed to sell all interest in these three facilities for $4.3 million, which represents the county’s remaining debt in The Pyramid. Apparently, county government receives no serious financial consideration for turning over the other two facilities to city government.

While these facilities are of course located within the city limits of Memphis, two of the three were financed in part by Shelby County taxpayers who live outside the city on the basis that the buildings were regional investments.

Give Me Liberty

Actually, we have no quarrel with the county waiving any rights to the Liberty Bowl. Despite media coverage to the contrary, county government has never funded operations of the football stadium. The only reason that Shelby County is involved at all in Liberty Bowl discussions is that one corner of the stadium was built on land owned by county government.

As a result, over the years, approval by county government has been required for various plans for the stadium, and it’s created a cumbersome process that’s impractical in light of the county’s actual lack of a role in stadium operations.

But The Pyramid and the Mid-South Coliseum are something else altogether. Construction and operational costs have been funded for years by all taxpayers of Shelby County Government, and because of it, taxpayers outside of Memphis have equity in the buildings and a right to have a voice in their future.

Trojan Horse

Of course, all of this sounds more like a Trojan Horse strategy than serious public policy discussion. It’s proposed by Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, who is likely motivated by his desire to pave the way for his political protégé in the city mayor’s office to convert The Pyramid into the ill-conceived Bass Pro Shop store.

Already, in support of the proposal, some of the facts regarding The Pyramid are being warped to fit the argument that it’s really a city building more than a county building. It ignores the fact that county government actually was the lead government on the construction of the arena and was responsible for its operations after it opened.

It’s been said that the city owns the land. Actually, the land is titled to the city, because City of Memphis had the condemnation powers that were needed to assemble the site; however, according to documents at the time, there was no confusion that the land was just as much county-owned as city-owned.

Parking The Facts

Also, it’s been said that city government owns the parking lots. Actually, the same fact applies to the portion of the parking lots controlled by city and county governments; however, the greatest portion of the parking is not owned by either city or county government, but by state government. The land is under the interstate and it was subcontracted to local government for use by The Pyramid as long as state employees still had limited rights to park there.

The fact that city government has taken the lead on the future of The Pyramid and Mid-South Coliseum is not the result of the city having greater interest in the arenas, but has more to do with the county’s need to concentrate on its finances.

As for the Mid-South Coliseum, it is owned 60 percent by city government and 40 percent by county government. That split in ownership reflected the fact that the land on which the arena was built was owned by city government.

Better Decisions

But for us, there is an even more pressing reason for county government to stay involved in decisions about the futures of these buildings than the potential disenfranchisement of county taxpayers.

More to the point, we think that county involvement gives the public some hope that they will have some influence over these decisions. The most dramatic difference between city and county governments often is the way that it reaches decisions.

As City Hall has proven with the Bass Pro Shop, it is single-minded in pursuing its opinion of what’s best and seems largely uninterested in the public’s view of things. Meanwhile, Shelby County Government seems more interested in processes that engage the public or at least give them a chance to express their opinions.

Rubber Match

So far, the main hope for a wise decision being made for the future of The Pyramid has been in the unwillingness of county government to act as a rubber stamp for city government’s Bass Pro Shop deal. Over the years, the same thing has taken place at the Mid-South Coliseum as county officials asked questions while city officials charged ahead on an agenda of their own making.

City Hall regularly criticizes county officials as being indecisive, saying “they’ve never met a committee they didn’t like.” Across Main Street, their county counterparts shake their heads at the political fallout from what they call city government’s “fire, ready, aim” style of decision-making.

When these two operating styles - the city’s press for expediency and the county’s press for consensus - are combined, they often produce the optimal course of action for the public. For this reason, we are pleased that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners doesn’t trade away the rights of county taxpayers in return for a band-aid on its financial challenges.

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