Monday, May 28, 2007

Editorial: More confusion at the fairgrounds

Commercial Appeal [link]
May 28, 2007

It didn't seem possible, but the redevelopment planning process for the Mid-South Fairgrounds got even more muddled last week.

Prominent local developer Henry Turley appeared before the Shelby County legislative delegation to push for a bill to designate the fairgrounds area as a "tourist development zone."

That designation would allow state sales tax revenue collected within the zone to be used to pay for public improvements at the fairgrounds.

Which would be awfully convenient for Turley and his business partners, who hope to be selected by the city as "master developers" for the 170-acre complex.

Turley said his plans for the property would include a "big-box" retailer like a Target store, as well as less-intensive land uses.

And apparently he's been quietly lobbying for about a month for the change in state law needed to support his vision for the property.

Turley said both Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton are "fully supportive" of what he's been trying to do.

Establishing a tourist development zone at the fairgrounds may well be a good idea. But the way this is being handled is wrong for several different reasons.

For one, why do Memphis and Shelby County governments need private developers to speak for them on legislation that relates to the use of public tax dollars?

The city and county have their own lobbyists, who should be taking the lead on this issue, if a decision has been made to seek the tourist development zone designation.

Second, a committee that's been studying possible re-uses for the fairgrounds hasn't even finalized a redevelopment plan yet. The committee is waiting on a report from private consultants, due by July 15.

So far, though, the committee's work has focused on creating a "walkable" neighborhood, with housing and small shops to complement the sports and entertainment facilities already at the complex.

A big-box retailer would be inconsistent with that ideal. As anyone who's driven on Germantown Parkway can tell you, big-box retailers tend to cluster together, surrounded by acres of parking lots. There's nothing remotely pedestrian-oriented about that type of development.

Third, after the committee makes its recommendations for the fairgrounds, the city would still have to approve them. Only after that process is complete is the city planning to seek proposals from developers.

Letting Turley take charge of the lobbying effort for public incentives suggests that his team has the inside track in the bidding process, which might discourage others from submitting proposals as good or better than Turley's.

Fourth, it's troubling that Shelby County Commissioner J.W. Gibson is among Turley's business partners on the deal. Gibson hasn't been on the commission very long, but he should know better than to get involved as an investor in any project that would rely heavily on public financing.

Redevelopment of the fairgrounds is long overdue. But it shouldn't be left to a group of private developers to call the shots on a public project of that magnitude.

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