Is Wharton fastballing council over AutoZone Park purchase? - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Is Wharton fastballing council over AutoZone Park purchase?

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

A new Memphis Redbirds season maybe months away but debate over the city potentially buying AutoZone Park downtown has some worried Mayor A C Wharton is fastballing the city council.

Mayor Wharton said he will only sign off on the city buying AutoZone Park if he can be convinced it's in the best interest of the public. But, it's a potential deal that's not expected to draw rave reviews in financial judgment from state legislators.

MORE: Cardinals will acquire Triple-A affiliate Redbirds

So are members of city council intentionally snubbed on a guest list for a party Nov. 19 for Redbirds potential investors? Mayor Wharton denied city hall had anything to do with it. Besides council members figure to get plenty of face time when the issue of buying the stadium comes before them.

As the yuletide season fast approaches we are reminded of it's storied mystical powers of creating the backdrop for miracles to happen. But, considering the initial negative reaction to reports of a possible deal in which the city of Memphis would acquire the Redbirds stadium, through multi-million dollar revenue bond financing, getting agreement from council by the end of the December, might be a miracle of parting of the Red sea proportions.

"I don't know if purchasing a baseball stadium is tantamount to redeveloping the Whitehaven-Southbrook Mall when it's important to that neighborhood and that community," said Councilman Harold Collins.

But, it's apparent even Mayor Wharton might be already backpedaling on a potential deal.

"I'm not going to sign any deal unless I can see that it's in the overall best interest of the city," the mayor said. "Both financially and in terms of the entire city, not just downtown."

After all, this marks the third time in the last five years the idea has been floated with nothing being inked so far. It's no secret the Triple-A St. Louis Cardinals franchise has been cashed-strapped for a while, including the ignominy of missing bond payments in the past.

So, why would an equally cash-strapped city be willing to walk the plank of solvency in the wake of its own tenuous position? Amidst the red ink is still owing a court-ordered $57 million to schools, financing other city redevelopment projects, and the "elephant in the room" of millions in expected costs to revamp its pension liability system?

"Everybody agrees we have a situation that needs to be dealt with," Mayor Wharton said. "You can say it's a $600 million situation or a $300 million situation. The bottom line is it's a huge situation that we have to address."

It's that or face the real possibility of having state legislation force them to take care of the problem. Republican State Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville said he's told Mr. Wharton he is preparing a state-mandate that'll do just that.

"Not only as they relate to the city of Memphis, but all similarly situated local governments, which if passed, will require a minimum maintenance of effort, with the maintenance of minimum effort," Sen. Norris said. "The council can decide whether that obligation is imposed is consistent with their abilities to engage in other acquisitions."

Translation: If this deal goes through, don't expect State Comptroller Justin Wilson to be throwing out the first pitch at the old ballpark next spring.

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