Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Now They Get Religion

There's been a subtle shift of tone I've seen in the past few months on the part of the Commercial Appeal's attitude toward taxes and local spending, which is a faint hint of skepticism. Nothing huge, but I've spotted it here and there.

However, Monday's lead editorial, "Don't spend much on Liberty Bowl fixes," seems to come from another newspaper altogether. They argue that the City and County shouldn't spend but the minimum on the Liberty Bowl to keep the worst safety and engineering problems fixed. But I think there's something else going on. Let's take a look:
A brand new football arena to replace the aging Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium would be an exciting new addition to the growing array of Memphis sports venues, but the timing is not right.
And yet, the paper argued just a few days ago to let the Pyramid sit empty so that the Memphis Tigers could move to the FedExForum, a move that will be more costly to the City. Besides, I don't think "growing" is the word when we'll have one new Forum and deprecate two venues subsequently, the Pyramid and the Liberty Bowl.
Unless the Liberty Bowl is too unstable structurally to ensure public safety, taxpayers shouldn't be expected to pay for another sports facility at a time of tight dollars and pressing public needs.

The stadium could benefit from a substantial fix-up, but the money and political support may not be present for anything beyond basic repairs.
And why not? The paper could do as they did before and get behind a big, big push to at least fix it up properly. They've done this before, after all....

Well, I guess it's nice to see the CA get fiscal religion, but coming after the big Forum push, when a substantial part of the city's population was asking just these questions and told to be quiet, it sounds odd. Especially as they don't seem perturbed by additional spending needs at the Forum that have just popped up. One hopes they'll remember this when flush times come back.
The stadium is home to the University of Memphis Tigers, the Liberty Bowl and the Southern Heritage Classic football games. But the facility that opened in 1965 has lost its glow.

Fans sit on seats without backs, locker rooms are small and, without a press room, post-game interviews sometimes are held in a tent. Sky boxes, concession stands and the field need work.

Limited renovations in recent years produced new bench seats, a better scoreboard and new paint. But more comfortable seating would mean a costly restructuring of the seating area.
The Liberty Bowl is old, but not unsalvageable. And the Pyramid was poorly designed from the start, with bad acoustics, cramped seating and too-high stairs. Should we scrap it, too? Oh...wait....
A $50,000 consulting engineers' study on stadium options should be released in the next few days, but officials are guarded.

Pete Aviotti, special assistant to Mayor Willie Herenton, said last week that it may make better financial sense to demolish and rebuild than to renovate. A major overhaul could cost $50 million, while a new arena could push the cost to $125 million or more.
It's interesting that the paper is getting out in front of the study's release rather than waiting. Maybe they have an advance copy?

On the subject of cost, Chris over at Signifying Nothing, has an excellent post taking a look at that.

Remember for later this call for demolition. We'll come back to it in some more detail.
Aviotti didn't endorse either option. Neither did City Council members, though some warned that inaction would lead to more decay.

Councilman Rickey Peete suggested spending $4 million to $5 million for minimal repairs if the work would buy a few more years of use. Others await the engineering report.
I can't believe I'm siding with Rickey Peete, but there you go. He's right. Depending on the details in the report, at least a holding action is required, though I argue we should save and upgrade the whole damn thing. I'm tired of seeing huge public capital outlays being tossed aside for the next flashy thing, regardless of need or purpose and without much care for the old. It's nearly criminal.
It should be noted that the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the country, has seen 16 renovations since 1921, according to the school's web site. Renovations apparently have served UT well, since there are enough seats for 104,079 fans.

By comparison, the 62,380-seat Liberty Bowl has been twice renovated since it was built, according to the university.

Major costs for a renovated or new stadium seem to be out of step with public sympathies. Public funds built The Pyramid, now only 13 years old and begging for new tenants.
Chris does a better job of looking at the Neyland comparison than I could, so be sure you've read his post. But the reason the Pyramid is now going empty is because it was abandoned for the new Forum! And that happened because your paper bought wholesale into the promotion of the thing, to the point of demonising and dismissing those who opposed the Forum! The Commercial Appeal was so wildly and blatantly partisan it was disgusting. It was an abdication of their responsibility to the public for the sake of money and access. Plain and simple. The Forum was also unpopular, many questioned the need, many questioned the spending with a fine Pyramid next door, but the Commercial Appeal steamrollered right over that.
Public money is paying most of the $250 million cost of the FedEx Forum, and public money, through sales-tax rebates, has helped finance AutoZone Park, the Memphis Redbirds' home.
Slightly diffeent animals here. Sales-tax rebates can be voided; I can choose how much I spend at AutoZone Park And I don't recall many wanting to save Tim McCarver stadium, though you could make that argument. It's wasn't in as good condition as the Liberty Bowl is now. An upgrade would have been more comprehensive than the Liberty Bowl, to the point where all realised that starting over was a better deal.

Bond money, though, comes right out of my pocket. The City will be reaching into my income for years to pay for that, for a small group of profiteers (remember, Heisley doesn't even live here) to make a huge killing with my tax money. And notice that the editorial carefully sidesteps the issue of all the other tax breaks and revenue diversions going on in the Forum deal.

They're different animals, not similar ones.
The city has a general obligation bond debt of more than $900 million, and city property taxes are likely to be increased this year to meet government costs.
And we were facing tax increases when the Forum was proposed, but that didn't stop the paper. The Commercial Appeal could be doing investigative work into the expenses of government, how our money is being used and on what, but I don't often see that happen. What they usually do is wait for the District Attorney, State Comptroller, police, Sheriffs Office or some other agency to announce a problem. It would be nice to see them initiate some fact-finding into our government some time.

Another idea I've long propounded is for the Commercial Appeal to take a page a week, on Sunday, to print the budget and expenses of a different City agency or branch. Give a short explanation of the job they do, list the salaries of the people involved and look at how much it costs. That alone would begin to shed tremendous light on the inner workings and fiscal responsibility of our government and might cause agencies to tighten up and get better with what monies they already have. Just a thought. After all, "Give light and the people will find their own way." Yes?
More money is needed to improve schools, fight crime and fix roads and streets. The city announced late last week that almost $14 million will be required for necessary lighting and landscaping improvements around the FedExForum.
The headline on that story only mentions $10.x million. You had to go deeper into the story for the other $3.x million. Clever bit of redirecting there.

Again, though, so what? We're talking small investment now for a larger return in the future. Spending money to save more money later, as they say. Government will always need more money, and as long as we allow government to expand and to intrude it will continue to do so. Fight to stop the growth first. Stabilise the situation, then look at meaningful and effective cuts. I suspect you'll find government has a whole lot more than we all suspect.
Taxpayer pockets in Memphis seem to be about empty. The third option for the Liberty Bowl looks like the most reasonable at this time: Fix the most glaring health and safety needs and press on.
"Press on" to where? This is what I was hinting at earlier.

I hate to give rein to my conspiratorial side, but so many little things are happening. First, Tim McCarver Stadium goes, then the Old Fairgrounds Building. Note how quickly the City was able to act -- over the Thanksgiving holiday, no less! -- to get that torn down. Now, the Liberty Bowl will be allowed to slow decay until the CA will piously inform us that it's too dangerous to be allowed to stand. Sound familiar?

Notice how that whole complex is slowly falling to decay and collapse, piece at a time? Why do I suspect that some developers have set their sights on the whole area as a giant urban renewal project? Let it reach a nadir, bring in the Federal Housing and Urban Renewal crowd, get Federal grants, tear it all down and build swanky new condos and homes with tastefully integrated shopping. Sounds like a plan, doesn't it? Suspiciously so, to me. Look at the map.

I am suspicious and here's the Commercial Appeal suddenly being penny-wise and not their usual pound-foolish.

And because this is Memphis, let's also throw in the race card. By far, the biggest event held at the Liberty Bowl is the Southern Heritage Classic, which is a week-end long party that draws tens of thousands of blacks into Memphis from around the Mid-South. It's one of the City's biggest events. How do you think the Commercial Appeal's call is going to play in that community? They'll be rightly outraged at what sure looks like second-class treatment.

If there's something coming up for the whole Fairgrounds area, then let's put it on the table for all to see. If not, then let's be smart and find the money to make a renovation of the Liberty Bowl happen. Sure, it's not downtown, but it's still a good venue. One that may play an important role in the future. Let's make sure it's there when that time comes.

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