On February 18, 2020 the Memphis City Council held a public meeting in which one significant agenda item was to discuss development plans for the Mid-South Fairgrounds. A deeper look to the heart of this issue reveals the influence of money and corporate interests on a public commodity and the struggle which has been fought over this land for more than a decade now (since the closing of Libertyland in 2005). Although land developers were decided upon by the city last June, the plans for the fairgrounds have shifted time and time again since that decision. In the February meeting the city’s Housing and Community Development Director Paul Young told City Councilman Martavius Jones that the city should give the final verdict on what developers do with the site. The current plan involves a mixture of retail and entertainment spaces.
Despite these additional changes to plans and the ongoing work of several grassroots, community-based groups, the city continues to put off plans for the revitalization of the Mid-South Coliseum. Opened in 1963, the Mid-South Coliseum existed as a central hub for sports and entertainment in Memphis until it largely shut down in 2006 over issues with accessibility for disabled visitors. Many Memphians are still urging the city, however, to incorporate the Mid-South Coliseum into redevelopment plans for the fairgrounds. While many argue that their battle is driven by mere nostalgia, these community organizers argue that their fight concerns a much larger issue of democratic erosion and ensuring public input is involved in shaping the development of public lands over corporate interests.
According to a Memphis Flyer article from 2015, “The Mid-South Coliseum should be saved, not just because it holds a lot of history, but also because there’s a good potential use for the building that speaks to the city’s brands in music, wrestling, and basketball.” The development of the area will also directly impact nearby residents through an increased sales tax authorized by the state through a tourism development zone (TDZ). A TDZ creates an area surrounding a new tourist attraction with a baseline tax revenue. Once enacted, the TDZ increases tax revenue in this area to pay for the debt incurred in order to develop and build the attraction. In order to create a TDZ, both state and city officials have to approve the request. In the case of the Mid-South Fairgrounds area this approval has already been granted despite the fact that there are still no solid plans for development at the site.
One of the major issues surrounding the revitalization of the Mid-South Coliseum as a part of the approved TDZ is the existence of a non-compete clause in the FedExForum’s contract with the city of Memphis. According to said clause, an “important element of the success of the Arena Complex is to limit direct competition” from the Coliseum or the Pyramid. This means that any show with more than 5,000 seats must be held in the Forum, meaning that the Coliseum with more than 11,000 seats would not be allowed to hold paid events. Despite this community members and those involved in grassroots movements to save the Mid-South Coliseum still argue that it could be useful for a variety of community-based purposes which do not violate the FedExForum’s city contract.
Many in the community also doubt the transparency of the city government when it comes to their eagerness to obtain the TDZ without creating a plan for the fairgrounds ahead of time. In the same Memphis Flyer article from 2015, Jordan Danelz of the Coliseum Coalition stated, “They’re saying, don’t worry about it; let’s get that money and then we’ll figure out what we’re doing. In what Business 101 class can you say, ‘Let’s get a loan and then figure out a business plan’? Would you pass that class? Yet, here you have the highest power in our city government saying exactly that for $220 million. They have nothing on the table to show us — no blueprints, no private partners, nothing.” It is clear from the recent City Council meeting in February that even five years after Danelz made these claims, the city is still failing to make plans for the TDZ and be fully transparent about the process.
While some city officials have been more receptive than others when it comes to hearing from the community directly affected by the tax increases from the TDZ, the issues between corporate interests, such as those of the FedExForum, and the interests of the public are clearly in conflict. This leaves the city government torn between democratic interests and personal gain. While we often see these struggles playing out on a grander national scale, it is vital to look inward at our local politics to stop corruption at its roots. In the words of former Coliseum Coalition member Mike McCarthy cited in that Memphis Flyer article, who for the interest of full transparency I must inform is my father, “If you went to Orange Mound, Belt Line, Edwin Circle, Cooper Young, you would be sorely pressed to find any citizen of Memphis who wants to tear down the Coliseum. This is all coming from the top down. We’re better than that.”