Mayor Strickland discusses what’s next as city scores $350M from state for sports venues

The City of Memphis has scored a big funding victory.

The Tennessee General Assembly approved $350 million in funding to the City to conduct major renovations to the Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium and FedExForum as well to build a new multiuse stadium for Memphis 901 FC.

The funding package came as part of the State’s $55.6 billion budget for the 2023–2024 fiscal year. The State House of Representatives approved its version on April 19, and the State Senate did so on April 20.

The exact distribution of the funding for each project is expected to be provided by the City at a later date, as two additional pieces of legislation are still ongoing, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said April 21.

Strickland explained that the City must get State permission on three pieces of funding, including allowing the City to use the sales taxes collected at FedExForum and a car rental fee to help pay for the facilities.

“Both of those are currently in place, paying for the original construction of FedExForum, and we’re simply asking to extend those,” Strickland said. “Lastly, we want an increase in the hotel/motel tax. Under state law, we’re limited to 4% and we want to go to 5%. If the state government gives us permission to do those three things, we will have to get approval by the City Council and [Shelby] County Commission.”

Last October, Strickland’s administration asked the State of Tennessee to make a $350 million one-time investment in the overall project. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee included that funding in his budget proposal in February 2023.

The $350 million in non-recurring funding for sports venues would hopefully strengthen tourism and economic opportunities across Memphis.

In October 2022, Strickland proposed to Memphis City Council a plan to invest $684 million into renovating the three biggest local sports venues and building a fourth over several years. The mayor recently told MBJ that the City conducted an economic analysis that estimated the projects would have a $21 billion economic impact for Memphis and Shelby County.

Strickland said during the March interview with MBJ he was thrilled that the governor included the city’s funding request in the budget. But, using a sports metaphor, he indicated that Lee’s support was basically halftime for the City, and for the administration to win, the $350 million would have to be passed by the State Senate and House.

Strickland said his administration had been talking with members of the General Assembly about the benefits improving the sports facilities could have for Memphis and for the entire state.

More than $500 million in state taxes is estimated to be generated by the facilities over 15 years, Strickland said. He told MBJ that the total cost of the projects is almost $700 million, and local government is responsible for coming up with the rest of the funding outside of what the state appropriates.

“For more than a year, we have methodically worked on this historic project for our city’s sports venues,” Strickland said in an April 20 press release. “Thanks to Governor Lee and his administration, Lt. Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, and the members of the legislature who have supported us through this process. Over the next few years, our sports venues will be dramatically improved.”Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium renderings

Stadium plans key to being in major conference

The University of Memphis and the City announced in May 2022 their intentions to invest $150 million to $200 million in major renovations to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. Those plans include a transformation of the stadium’s west side. Strickland said that, frankly, the driver behind making substantial upgrades to the facility is to put the U of M in position to join a major conference.

“We need to do this to get the University of Memphis in a Power 5 conference,” Strickland said. “I think that’s hugely important to Memphis. In fact, I think if the University of Memphis can get into a Power 5, it is the equivalent of another major league professional franchise. When you look at the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Pac 12, and Big 10, those athletic programs and events are huge. The No. 1 thing holding us back is that football stadium. It’s a great a stadium with great views, but it’s just not modernized. We need a significant renovation in there.”

Laird Veatch, VP and director of intercollegiate athletics for the University of Memphis, said receiving the state funding for the major renovations is crucial in pushing the Tigers’ football program forward.

“As we continue to position ourselves for the future of intercollegiate athletics, including potential conference realignment opportunities, having a modern and first-class football stadium will be a great demonstration of our entire state’s commitment to seeing the University of Memphis elevate on a national scale,” Veatch said in a press release.

The stadium renovation design phase is ongoing with partners Kansas City-based architecture firm Populous, Nashville-based general contractor Barton Malow, and local architecture joint venture MFA. In December, the City of Memphis issued a request for information (RFI) for design professional services needed for certain phases of the renovation of Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. Construction is expected to begin after the 2023 football season and finished by the start of the 2025 season. A complete re-seating process part of the update.

Fixing up FedExForum, keeping the Grizzlies in town

Strickland told the City Council in October that FedExForum isn’t up to NBA standards anymore. While the Memphis Grizzlies are contractually obligated through 2029, Strickland noted that major upgrades were needed to help keep the team in place beyond that expiration date.

The renovations would also benefit the University of Memphis men’s basketball team, which plays at FedExForum.

“In general, there needs to be fewer seats in the upper tier section of the arena and more on the lower tier,” Strickland said. “The upper section has 45% of all the seats in the arena. We’d like to put more lower, where frankly the views are better. The shell of the building would stay intact, but we would scrape the inside and rebuild.”

Strickland noted that the City and the Grizzlies must enter into an agreement before any potential work to the FedExForum begins.

“But obviously, we wouldn’t do any of this work if they don’t agree to stay for another 25 years,” Strickland said in a March interview with MBJ.

New soccer stadium to fit with mixed-use site

A modernized Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium would fit into the overall plans underway at Liberty Park, which is a $126 million public-private redevelopment of the old Mid-South Fairgrounds. The mixed-use second phase of the project, The District at Liberty Park, would include hotels, retail and dining, entertainment space, apartments, and office. The $57 million, 227,000-square-foot Memphis Sports and Events Center opened in December as the first phase of Liberty Park.

Strickland’s plan is to build another sports venue there. The building would see the site of the Mid-South Coliseum being converted into a soccer stadium home for Memphis 901 FC. Strickland’s vision has the full support of the city’s pro soccer ownership group, which also owns the Memphis Redbirds. The soccer stadium project, along with some smaller renovations to AutoZone Park, are in the larger plans to upgrade sports venues across the city.

MBJ reported in February that the City was seeking designers for a 6,500-to-8,000-seat multiuse stadium, with a target construction total of $52.4 million. And in March, the City put out a second request for proposals (RFP) and sought a construction manager at risk for pre-construction and construction services to build the new stadium.

The stadium project consists of demolition of the Mid-South Coliseum, which has been closed since 2006. The cost of the stadium does not factor in the expense of demolishing the Mid-South Coliseum. The plan would try to incorporate the Coliseum’s facade into the design, but most of it would come down.

Groups continue push to save historic building

There continues to be some pushback about tearing down the Mid-South Coliseum. A group of community members from Orange Mound as well as the Coliseum Coalition — a citizen group that has been working for several years to save and reopen the building — recently held a press conference in front of the Coliseum to again ask the City to hold off on its demolition plan.

Corey Strong, a former chairman of the Shelby Democratic Party and an advocate to save and reuse the Coliseum, said the group wants the City to develop an ad hoc committee to move the Coliseum forward using the Coliseum Coalition’s plan as a framework. Marvin Stockwell, who co-founded the Coliseum Coalition in 2015 and serves as its spokesperson, said the organization has developed a plan over the past couple years.

“Over the past two years, we’ve done some predevelopment work, and we’ve been working with the consultants who helped reimagine Crosstown Concourse,” Stockwell said. “We’ve had the some of the same brain trust working with us. If you can imagine for a minute what this building might become if we took a mixed-use development perspective. … One of the summary conclusions of this plan is that the Mid-South Coliseum is restorable.”

However, Strickland is speaking a different tune and has been candid that it is time to go in a different direction instead of refurbishing the longtime vacant building.

“It’s been empty for approximately 15 to 20 years,” Strickland said. “We in the City have showed it to dozens of people, including a lot of businesses, and no one has come forward with any plans to reuse as it currently stands.”

Major economic score

According to Strickland, if the vision and plans for Liberty Park came to fruition, it could bring major economic dividends to Midtown. He noted that plans at the site could also include concerts at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium or at the multiuse stadium soccer stadium, that latter of which could draw 7,000 to 10,000 attendees.

“We built that youth indoor sports facility that we think in time will be bringing a million people a year to the city,” Strickland said. “Now, our plan to sustainably renovate Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium will hopefully get the University of Memphis into a better conference, which will bring more fans and more exposure for the football program. Plus, if we can put the new soccer stadium right there in the same vicinity, that all perfectly ties into together. You add on top of that the private development that we’re planning on the Central Avenue side with restaurants, bars, and hotels, and it’s just a lot of activity. … It’s just going to be a whole area that’s activated much of the year and drawing people into town.”

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