One person appeared to be missing from the ribbon-cutting to open the Memphis Sports and Events Center at Liberty Park – Robert Lipscomb.

It was the former director of City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development who conceived of that project – and so many others – in the first place. 

Acting on his conviction that Memphis could become a destination in the lucrative youth sports industry and how Memphis could employ the Tennessee Tourism Development Zone to pay for it all without city funding, he set in motion a process in 2004 that produced a recommendation for the facility.

When Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton needed a special committee to consider better uses of undervalued public facilities, namely The Pyramid and the Mid-South Fairgrounds, they appointed Mr. Lipscomb to staff and guide the subcommittee for each of the facilities.   

One eventually led to the Bass Pro Shops in The Pyramid and the other to the youth sports center.  The story about Bass Pro Shops is well-known but less so is the one about the Fairgrounds.

The Winding Road

The idea of a sports tourism focus had been around since the late 1980s and gained momentum in the 1990s when the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Memphis Tourism), and Shelby County officials established the Memphis and Shelby County Sports Authority and the Memphis Sports Council at the CVB.

However, the idea remained an idea until he gave it form.  As difficult as it was to find a future for the Pyramid that created jobs and economic impact, the Fairgrounds was just as problematic.  

Both needed more than just a vision.  They most of all needed a financial plan that did not require any money from the City of Memphis operating budget.  That was the beauty of the Tourism Development Zone.  State law allowed all the new sales taxes produced in a defined district to be collected and used to pay for the bonds needed to build the project. 

Best of all, 75% of every tax dollar would come from the state’s portion of the sales tax.  Half of the remaining 25% would come from the local option portion that would go to city government and to schools.  If not used for the approved project, the state sales tax, or 75% of the total, would go to Nashville where it would be spent on projects in other parts of the state.

It sounded straightforward, but it had a catch: the state had to approve it.  The concept, the sales tax projections, the project, the bond issuance plan.  And that meant dealing with all of the state’s personality-driven politics.

Wharton’s Project

Mr. Lipscomb had been a semi-pro athlete but he was unprepared for clearing the many hurdles of a political nature that the state repeatedly placed in front of the project.  Meanwhile,  elected officials and others who could have influence with state officials chose to remain on the sidelines, leaving it to Mr. Lipscomb (who was also City of Memphis Chief Financial Officer for many of these years ) to carry the day.

The proposed project had by then encountered attacks from Cooper-Young residents and businesses, people dedicated to preserving the Mid-South Coliseum, owners of a suburban baseball complex, people concerned about competition with Overton Square, county commissioners and mayor concerned about lost school funding, some state legislators representing the suburban towns, people concerned about the size of the Tourism Development Zone, City Council members who thought the TDZ took money from the city budget, and even some committed to keeping the Zippin Pippin roller coaster although its wood was rotten and unsafe.

As a result, when Mr. Lipscomb filed the application for the TDZ for the Fairgrounds, it languished with state officials.  Each time, as Lipscomb’s team answered the state’s most recent questions with more and more questions.      

Toward the end of the Wharton Administration, the project had attracted so much incoming that Jim Strickland largely referred to it as Wharton’s project when he was running for mayor.  With his election, it was thought that the project was officially dead.

The Risks of Being a Proud Black Man

However, following persuasion from Paul Young, the successor Mayor Strickland appointed to Mr. Lipscomb’s position, the mayor agreed to the kind of process that could give him political cover and might produce a recommendation for moving ahead.

Under Mr. Lipscomb, the project had labored under the myth that there had been no public input.  The beauty of Mr. Young’s approach was that it launched a high profile process open to anyone in the public who wanted to express an opinion.  There was more to it than that, particularly a political plan that crucially resulted in the support of Tennessee government (and created alliances that opened up the broad use of the TDZ for other City of Memphis projects).

In the end, Mr. Young’s process issued a recommendation for a plan that is largely being implemented at the old Mid-South Fairgrounds (now with the derivative name of Liberty Park).  The sports center is the only component now open.  The commercial district, the hotel, and the apartments are still to be finalized, and Mayor Strickland’s support for a soccer stadium would remove the Coliseum.

The power that Mr. Lipscomb held over city projects of all kinds and his ability to conceive of innovative financing plans for city projects of all kinds and not just within his division led him to become a lightning rod for people within and without city government.  Meanwhile, he did not suffer fools easily, he had firm opinions about what Memphis needed to do for the future, he had a keen intellect, and he was entrepreneurial in a bureaucratic environment, becoming well-known for finding ways to overcome political obstacles while routinely resisting the back-slapping and bowing to influential political operators so common in the public sector.  

Most of all, in a sentence, he was a proud Black man.  And a proud Black Memphian.

The Strong Opinions

Today’s Liberty Park plan is strikingly similar to the one advocated by Mr. Lipscomb, but it is but one of the present day projects conceived, guided, or implemented by the former HUD head.  These days, these are largely overlooked or ignored because of the way he was forced out of city government under a cloud.

For many, the withering criticisms directed at him were seen as an object lesson for any strong, powerful Black man willing to stand for a specific agenda unwilling to play the game.  It meant that Mr. Lipscomb could ill afford to give his enemies an opening to put a target on this back.  

His exit from city government provoked strong opinions.  Some people, largely white people, it seems, think he should have been prosecuted for personal behavior unconnected to his city government service.   Others think he was but the latest Black man who became a victim of a vicious smear by some political insiders aided and abetted by the news media.

The axiom is that none of us want to be judged by the worst chapters of our life but instead by our lives in its totality. Despite the opinions, it’s a good time – seven years after Mr. Lipscomb’s departure from city government – to consider his legacy.

The Lipscomb List

Only a few months before the end of his many years in city government, he had been celebrated at the opening of the Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid, a project in which his entrepreneurial attitude and problem-solving skills were put to their ultimate test.  Few people thought the former arena could be put to a use that would create jobs, expand the economy, and produce tax revenues. 

The Bass Pro Shops use of the building was considered a long shot, but through determination and skill, he was able to put the deal together and keep the mercurial founder of the company committed to arguably the biggest project in its history.

Another transformational project that he conceived was South City, which removed Memphis’ last public housing project.  Mr. Lipscomb had previously converted other complexes that were essentially the warehousing of people into mixed-use, more livable developments.  One of them was Dixie Homes which was razed with Hope 6 money that included a component that helped residents get job training and wrap-around services that he got Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and Woman’s Foundation to hep with.  That was before he put together the public, private, and NGO partnership that was needed for South City.  The 470-unit mixed-income, mixed-use development includes a 120-unit senior building and community clubhouse in a walkable neighborhood.  It opened in 2019 in a highly-publicized public ceremony in which many names of contributors, funders, and politicians were featured.  Mr. Lipscomb’s name wasn’t mentioned, according to reports.

It has been said that the replacement of the housing projects was the biggest positive change from a visual and livability standpoint in the last 40 years or more.

But there was so much more.

He pushed through the Five-Year Fiscal Strategic Plan for City of Memphis which was led by PFM’s David Eichenthaler.  It was a thorough analysis of city operations and spending and produced a notebook of recommendations for the city’s fiscal future. 

He developed the fiscally sound plan that transferred the ownership of AutoZone Park to city government, he ramrodded city funding for Crosstown Concourse through a less-than-enthusiastic City Council, he came up with a way to build the garage that Overton needed, he invited noted urbanist Jeff Speck to review all plans for the riverfront and issue recommendations, he resolved the ADA problems at Liberty Bowl Stadium that removed it from U.S. Department of Justice list of problem properties, he developed Tiger Lane and had the stadium improved, he brought Harvard architect and noted urban planner Toni Griffin who laid the groundwork for Memphis 3.0, he developed the Memphis Heritage Trail spotlighting Black milestones, he developed the plan to reduce poverty by 10 points in 10 years with Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (the plan was abandoned when Mayor Strickland won election), he worked with University of Memphis for its policy experts in various schools to write white papers and recommendations on how to reduce poverty, he developed the plan to create the Whitehaven Development District, he conceived of a series of “town centers” that could be hubs of activity for various parts of Memphis suffering from disinvestment, he development the groundwork for a plan on how to use legacy schools being abandoned by the school district, he developed a comprehensive “City of Choice” plan for Memphis that was supported by city and county mayors and city and county legislative chairs, he developed a plan to increase city government support for minority businesses, and more.

For Mr. Lipscomb, these were not isolated items on an agenda.  Rather, they were all interconnected parts of a plan that could be called a hub and spoke strategy.  The town centers were elemental to its success.  They were to be strategically positioned so they could be joined by arteries of projects and programs that strengthened Memphis neighborhoods and connected in such a way that 2 plus 2 would equal more than 4.

The Raleigh Civic Center completed last year was one of those town centers.  They were conceived to be part public facilities, part private investment, and they were to be the pebble pitched into the water that would ripple outward into the surrounding area.

The purpose of this blog post is not about justification, but about setting down the record of someone so influential that the 15 years prior to the election of Jim Strickland as Mayor could easily be called the Lipscomb Era.  His name is rarely mentioned these days and it is to Mayor Strickland’s credit that he referred to Mr. Lipscomb upon the opening of the sports center at Liberty Park.   

It’s worth remembering where all of these examples of progress began.



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