The following post was written by long-time contributor Aaron Shafer, “father of the Memphis skatepark” and researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

By Aaron Shafer

Is the City of Memphis headed in the right direction with the Mid-South Fairgrounds redevelopment?

This question probably sounds familiar, if you have taken the most recent survey  posted on the Memphis Fairgrounds website.

What is the “right direction”? And are these concepts consistent with that direction?

I believe that to be heading in the “right direction,” the proposed concepts need to:

1.  be guided by community wishes

2.  honor the historical context of the Fairgrounds

3.  meet the financial needs defined the TDZ

4.  inspire all of us to be even more proud of our City

Let’s look at the role defined by the TDZ. The TDZ stands for Tourism Development Zone. It’s an area that includes the Fairgrounds and the immediate surrounding areas such as the Cooper-Young district and Overton Square.

If the proposed Fairgrounds redevelopment plan is approved by the state, revenue bonds will be issued by City of Memphis to pay for the redevelopment. The money to pay off the bonds will come in large part from 1) taxes on revenues generated by the future businesses or events at the Fairgrounds and 2) taxes on revenues generated by existing nearby businesses that are within the TDZ.

Basically, whatever gets built on the Fairgrounds should draw a lot of people to the TDZ so that new tax revenues can be generated by the Fairgrounds venues and increased tax revenues can be collected from existing businesses benefitting from new customers drawn to the area.

Secondly, historical context is important. The Fairgrounds has a 100+ year history of being a major gathering place for people.  Gathering has occurred through hundreds of thousands of people coming to concerts, games, and graduations at the Mid-South Coliseum, getting their thrills at Libertyland, spending hot days swimming at the former giant municipal pool, and flocking every fall to the Mid-South Fair. In short, the Fairgrounds was and should continue to serve as a major public draw for recreation and entertainment. It should be a fun place to go.

Lastly we must consider these concepts through the lens of community wishes. Do these concepts resonate with a vision built on public sentiment? Do they nail that “sweet spot”?

The Urban Land Institute 2015 Fairgrounds report accurately summarized 2015 public sentiment through the panel’s recommended concepts and key guiding principles. The report reinforces importance of historical context, the need for destination attractions as well as providing connectivity to the local neighborhoods. Conceptually, the panel recommended a balanced blend of indoor/outdoor athletic fields, a water park, lake, walking trails and the Mid-South Coliseum serving once again as a major draw for concerts and community events.

Fast forward two years: the below picture summarizes the most recent round of public input gathered by the City of Memphis during summer and early fall months of 2017.

public input


The results are quite similar with the public data that was acquired at the ULI-hosted 2015 public meetings. The Top 6 ideas point to a redeveloped Fairgrounds that is consistent with its past roles, with “fun” as a common theme. The dominating “park” idea serves to remind us that the Fairgrounds is to remain a shared public space

The results also tell us that the there is a clear need for more youth activities in the area which is another major theme in 4 of the 6 top ideas (park and retail/shopping excluded).

It’s clear that the nearly one hundred year presence of an amusement park and the Mid-South Fair has made a permanent impact on our community.  This is reflected with the water park/amusement park idea making it into the Top 6 ideas.

I am a strong supporter of the water feature especially if that feature is a Surf park. The surf park technology has emerged in the past few years and allows artificial waves to be generated with the same power and shape of an ocean wave. Surfing will be introduced into the 2020 Olympics and because of the improved technology, non-coastal countries will be able to host the Olympic surfing event in these surf parks. Memphis has an opportunity to be at the forefront of an emerging global trend.

Memphis is a hot place to live in the summer and our city remains one of the last areas in the south not to have major water feature. The fact remains is that there are a lot of families in Memphis who can’t afford to drive 100+ miles to the nearest water park or amusement park. For Memphians that can, time becomes a major constraint for regular visits.

Memphis is at a deficit for fun venues for city youth as well as water-based activities, so I am not surprised that the water park concept has strongly persisted through two public studies. The water park puts the “fun” back the Fairgrounds and a surf park would make us proud of our city, placing us on the cutting edge of the new “inland” era of surfing.

Receiving the fourth highest number of ideas (see picture), confirms strong public support of the reopening of the Midsouth Coliseum. A re-purposed Coliseum as a multi-purpose facility can be used for a multitude of functions accommodating the needs of the community, as well as building capacity for the youth sports vision that the City is promoting.