Friday, May 13, 2005

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It seems almost unimaginable in pro sports: a team that gives its profits to charity. Yet that’s the goal for the owners of the Class AAA Memphis Redbirds, who donate thousands of dollars to inner-city charities while helping breathe new life into a once-crumbling strip of downtown.

AutoZone Park — the team’s $80 million, 14,200-seat stadium — is owned by the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, which is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a charity.

“We’re the only not-for-profit charitable organization that owns and runs a pro franchise,” Redbirds general manager Dave Chase said. Many minor league baseball teams are associated with not-for-profit groups, Chase said, but they don’t have charity status.

The foundation, run by a volunteer board of 20 Memphis citizens, raised $72 million in private financing to build the stadium, which is now a major part of rebuilding efforts for downtown Memphis. The Redbirds pay for youth baseball and softball programs through the city schools and summer leagues.

More than $600,000 a year goes to those programs, including about $200,000 coming from private donations the foundation is able to accept as a charity. When stadium construction bonds are paid off in about 15 years, the foundation expects to have more than $7 million annually for community programs, and it plans to expand beyond youth sports.

“Our mission is to improve the lives of the children in our community,” said Rita Sparks, the foundation’s president and one of its founders.

Frederick Garrison, 14, doesn’t know much about foundations, or where the money comes from that keeps him in his Geeter Middle School baseball uniform. But he hopes to make the most of his budding athletic abilities.

“I’m going to try to get a scholarship to college one day,” he said as he knocked dirt from his cleats during a recent game.

The process leading to creation of the foundation began in 1996 when the city’s previous minor league team, the Class AA Memphis Chicks, began talking about leaving town. The franchise ultimately moved 75 miles away to Jackson, Tenn., which built the team an $8 million stadium.

With the Chicks leaving town, businessman Dean Jernigan, founder of Storage USA Inc., succeeded in buying a Class AAA franchise for $8.5 million and landing a farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We wanted to improve the lives of children, and we wanted to build a place where people could come downtown and enjoy a family outing,” said Sparks, who with her late husband, Willard, a Memphis businessman, joined Jernigan and his wife, Kristi, in setting up the Redbirds operation.

Most public debate on the stadium focused on whether it should be built downtown or in the suburbs. It ended up about as downtown as downtown gets, half a block from the landmark Peabody Hotel and two blocks from the bluesy Beale Street tourist district.

The stadium, with Memphis-based AutoZone Inc. buying naming rights, already has spurred other downtown development. An upscale apartment complex now overlooks the field, a long-dormant office building beside the park has been renovated, and a new public school recently opened nearby.

The ballpark drew 730,500 to 70 home games last season.

“It has drawn thousands of people who probably hadn’t been downtown in years, and in many cases they’ve left the ballpark not only converts to Redbirds baseball but to downtown as well,” said Jeff Sanford, president of the Memphis Center City Commission.

When they announced their move from Vancouver in 2001, the NBA’s Grizzlies pointed to the ballpark as evidence of a downtown entertainment market. The Grizzlies’ arena, the FedExForum, opened late last year within sight of the ballpark, which replaced a nest of rundown buildings and potholed parking lots anchored by an X-rated movie house. The arena, which cost $250 million, was paid for by local and state taxpayers.

AutoZone Park was financed by $72 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by the Center City Revenue Finance Corp., with the city and county putting in $8 million for site preparation and utility work.

The bonds are being paid off by stadium income and Memphis taxpayers have no responsibility for them. The Redbirds’ foundation took possession of the franchise, reimbursing Jernigan for its initial cost with money from the bond issue.

Pat O’Conner, chief operating officer of minor league baseball, said sports teams are more often looking for creative ways to finance their operations as state and local governments have tightened spending.

“But the nature of Mr. Jernigan’s plan to buy the franchise, give it to the foundation and have this foundation basically buy and build the stadium is unique,” O’Conner said. “It got it done when it probably wouldn’t have gotten done.”

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