Bill would abolish Memorial Stadium Commission

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium Commission would be abolished in 2008, under one of the last bills approved during the 2007 legislative session.

Authority to negotiate leases on the Jackson property would be transferred to the state Department of Finance and Administration, if Gov. Barbour signs the measure into law.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who has been one of the commission’s most vocal critics, argued Friday that DFA is better equipped than the stadium commission to negotiate leases.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, argued against the bill.

“I think it’s a little bit unusual, don’t you agree, to bring that out on the last day of the session to abolish a commission?” Burton asked. “We’re abolishing the commission before we even know what’s going to be done with the property.”

The commission has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly over its handling of logistics during major sporting events.

Thousands of football fans were outraged when traffic jams and other problems caused them to miss half of the preseason game last Aug. 26 between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.

Traffic backed up for miles, only two gates were open to accommodate a massive crowd and concessions ran out.

Abolishing the commission was not the original goal of the legislation. The bill started out as a proposal to extend the leases on about five acres of land near the stadium. There are currently only a handful of businesses on that portion of the property, including the upscale Schimmel’s Restaurant, a favorite hangout of state lawmakers.

The bill was expanded during negotiations between members of the House and Senate.

Senate Public Property Committee Chairman Sampson Jackson, D-DeKalb, said the bill would authorize DFA to search for a management company to run the stadium.

“We’ll have that information at the beginning of the next session,” Jackson said.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said he there’s $80 million hinging on extending the leases on the property, but he was concerned about abolishing the commission.

“What started out as a good bill … has turned out to have a lot more questions than it does answers,” Horhn said. “I’m going to hold my nose and vote for this bill, but I don’t like it one bit.”

Horhn and others are mainly concerned that changes to the commission could have unintended effects on Jackson State University, which uses the stadium for football games and other events.

“I think it’s important to everyone that we work out something that is agreeable to Jackson State,” Bryan said. “Jackson State will have the right to have all of its events there.”

During debate in the House, Rep. John Reeves, R-Jackson, said he’s displeased with some of the development that’s occurred the past several years on the edge of the stadium property, including a fast food restaurant and an oil change business.

“We don’t need 50 years of that darn Jiffy Lube over there,” Reeves said.

The bill is Senate Bill 2475.