Memphis Baseball Team, Stadium Strengthen Community

Article excerpt

Imagine a baseball team owner who dedicates his team to his town and pledges he'll never earn a dime from it. Who delivers an $80.5-million ballpark, at a critical downtown site, with just $8.5 million in public money contributed. And then promises that every penny earned will go to bringing baseball back to inner city youngsters.

He--or better put, the couple--exist. They're Dean Jernigan, founder-CEO of Storage USA, and his wife and partner, Kristi Jernigan. Their team is the minor league Memphis Redbirds.

The Jernigans' operation appears to defy every rule in the world of rapacious team owners forever poised to reap massive public subsidies for stadiums and arenas but willing to skip town and jilt fans if another city offers a better deal.

"We are community owned, community supported and we're a charitable organization that puts money back into the community," says Jernigan. He fervently believes professional sports franchises are "community assets" not unlike symphonies, museums and zoos, and should not be private commodities subject to the whims of private owners.

The Jernigans got into the baseball business in 1996. Memphis' Double-A minor league franchise was threatening to leave town unless the city and Shelby County coughed up $40 million for a stadium located in the metropolitan area's faceless suburban sprawl. The Jernigans negotiated to buy the team. When that deal fell through and the team skipped town, the Jernigans snagged a Triple-A Pacific Coast League expansion club for Memphis, a city that in recent years has been abandoned by a series of professional sports teams from an alphabet soup of pro leagues. The new owners could have demanded a huge subsidy from city and county governments thirsty for a sports venue. Instead, Jernigan explains, "We decided on the front end to do it in a not-for-profit way and to try to give the ownership to the fans and the players. We were just trying to do something right for Memphis."

Shelby County and Memphis came up with $8.5 million to buy land for the stadium. Jernigan put together an ingenious $72 million bond issue that is being repaid with revenue from sale of the ballpark's name (AutoZone Park), luxury suites, tickets, concessions and apparel.

Last April, the new ballpark, cut from the same community friendly architecture and spiritual cloth as Baltimore's Camden Yards and Chicago's legendary Wrigley Field, opened to enthusiastic acclaim in an exhibition game between the Redbirds and their major league parent, the St. Louis Cardinals. Local baseball fans voted with their feet, some 860,000 of them showing up last season, giving Memphis the second-highest attendance in minor league baseball. …