Memphis proposes $684 million sweep of stadium renovations and demolition of historic Mid-South Coliseum

Big Doings in Bluff City

Memphis proposes $684 million sweep of stadium renovations and demolition of historic Mid-South Coliseum

A historic hotbed of nostalgia for countless Memphis residents, the Mid-South Coliseum, which has been closed since 2006, would be razed and replaced by a soccer stadium under the current plan. (Brandon Buckner/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Not to be outdone by Nashville with its beautiful new soccer-specific stadium and in-the-works, Super Bowl–ready $2.2 billion domed home for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, the Volunteer States’s second-largest city has announced plans to embark on a major overhaul of its existing sports venues while also constructing a new one.

The proposed $684 million project unveiled by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland earlier this week at a city council meeting would involve renovating three venues—downtown’s FedExForum and AutoZone Park along with Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium at the old Mid-South Fairgrounds in Midtown Memphis—and constructing a new stadium for professional soccer club 901 FC. The city is asking the state to contribute $350 million in cash to the ambitious scheme that, per Strickland, would help to retain the city’s pro sports teams and give Memphis a potent economic shot in the arm.

Strickland touted that together the four projects would have an estimated one-time $1.3 billion impact for the city, a figure that would expand exponentially over a 20-year span. “Major professional and college sports helps a city be considered a major city,” Strickland said in announcing the plan. “It puts us in another league.”

The scope of the renovations would vary by venue—work at the FedExForum and Liberty Stadium would be extensive—and the beloved but long-shuttered Mid-South Coliseum, also at the fairgrounds site, would be demolished to make way for 901 FC’s new stadium. Part of the USL Championship League, the four-year-old 901 FC currently plays its home matches at AutoZone Park, a stadium that primarily serves as home to minor league baseball franchise the Memphis Redbirds. Debuting in 2000, the Looney Ricks Kiss and HOK Sports (now Populous)–designed AutoZone Park would be subject to a more modest refresh under the plan compared to FedEx Forum and Liberty Stadium, local NBC affiliate Action News 5 reported.

Designed by Ellerbe Becket (acquired by AECOM in 2009), Downtown’s FedExForum opened in 2004 and is home to the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, whose lease is up at the multi-purpose arena in 2008­–2009. According to the Commercial Appeal, the venue revamp would come attached with another long-term lease for the team, which played its first three seasons at the Memphis Pyramid. That venue, of course, is now famously a colossal Bass Pro Shop location. The University of Memphis men’s basketball program, another erstwhile tenant of the Memphis Pyramid, also currently calls FedExForum home. As for Liberty Stadium, the city-owned, 60s-era football stadium serves as home field of the University of Memphis Tigers. As noted by the Commercial Appeal, a “major portion” of the $350 million funding request to the state would go toward proposed renovation work at the stadium costing between $150 to $200 million.

Designed by ODELL Sports & Entertainment Architecture, the proposed 10,000-seat soccer stadium that would host the 901 FC is the most controversial element of the plan as it would, as mentioned, necessitate the demolition of the Mid-South Coliseum. That storied venue, a distinctly mid-century indoor arena designed by Furbringer and Ehrman with Robert Lee Hall that opened in 1964 as the first racially desegregated public facility in Memphis, has been closed since 2006 but has been subject to ongoing preservation and adaptive reuse plans as the larger redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds into the Liberty Park sports and entertainment complex gets underway Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, the Mid-South Coliseum is arguably the most iconic sports and entertainment venue in Memphis and has hosted numerous major concerts (including famously a rather chaotic Beatles show in 1966) and sporting events, most notably pro wrestling matches.

Strickland noted in his announcement that the sharing of AutoZone Park, built as a baseball stadium, by both the Memphis Redbirds and 901 FC is difficult and that the field has been damaged to the point where a new, soccer-specific one is required.

The Coliseum Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that has led the charge in breathing new life into the venue, is obviously displeased with Strickland’s proposal as it currently stands and have suggested other nearby sites that would not require razing the landmark arena, which is reportedly in excellent structural shape despite being close for nearly two decades.

“My initial reaction, of course, we’ve been working at this for seven years to reopen the Mid-South Coliseum, is one of shock,” Roy Barnes, coalition president Roy Barnes told ABC24. “To the replacement, demolition, whatever you want to call it.”

Noting that the city could save millions by not demolishing the Mid-Coliseum and building the new soccer stadium at a different site, Barnes also highlighted the venue’s historic significance. “This was designed and built, from the very moment it opened, for integration,” Barnes said. “There was never a taint of segregation. So that’s huge and through the years, I think that’s one of the reasons why the building has been such a building of joy.”

Others, however, do not share Barnes’ sentiment and feel that the coliseum’s time has come.

In addition to state funding, the $684 million multi-venue overhaul would be funded in part by raising the hotel/motel tax from 3.5 percent to 5 percent as well as extending two tax rebates that have helped to subsidize FedExForum, the Commercial Appeal detailed.