Friday, February 20, 2009

Confusion exists over cost of added wheelchair access at Liberty Bowl stadium

From the John Branston column in the Memphis Flyer:

Talk about rampant inflation. The latest estimate of $40 million to make improvements in wheelchair accessibility at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is eight times as much as the cost estimate less than two years ago.

A 2007 study for the Memphis Park Commission on making the stadium comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) said it would cost $4,799,708 to provide 219 wheelchair seats and 219 companion seats. There are currently 133 wheelchair seats in the 61,641-seat stadium.

Memphis Park Commission director Cindy Buchanan cited the study to the Flyer for a December 2007 story on the stadium. Wheelchair users who have attended games for several years told the Flyer the current number of seats is more than adequate for demand, although they said improvements are needed in access to companion seats, restrooms, and concessions.

The Liberty Bowl is used roughly nine times a year for college football. The average turnstile attendance (as opposed to tickets sold) at University of Memphis home football games last year was well below 20,000. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl game and Southern Heritage Classic each drew slightly less than 40,000 fans last year, although the number of tickets sold exceeded 50,000.

University of Memphis sports information director Bob Winn said average attendance for the 2008 season was 25,003. That counts season tickets sold, student admissions, and walk-ups. A total of 58 tickets were sold for handicapped seating in 2006 (50 of those for the game against the University of Tennessee). In 2007, 52 handicapped tickets were sold, with 9 being the most at one game. In 2008, 48 handicapped tickets were sold, with 8 being the most in one game.

Memphis City Attorney Elbert Jefferson told City Council members Feb. 17 the cost of ADA compliance could be $40 million. In the 2007 study, there is no figure close to that in the 12 options presented.

The University of Michigan settled a landmark ADA lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice on March 10, 2008. Michigan Stadium seats more than 107,000 fans and has been sold out for every game for 35 years. The stadium has
81 pairs of seats for wheelchair users and companions. When a renovation and expansion are completed in 2010, there will be 592 seats, including companion seats, dispersed throughout the stadium.

The key issue -- and the source of much confusion -- is the federal ADA guideline of making one percent of seats wheelchair accessible and dispersed throughout the stadium. Counting companion seats, the standard is more like two percent.

In Michigan's case, the settlement figure is approximately half of one percent, including companion seats. At the Liberty Bowl, one percent would mean 616 wheelchair seats and 616 companion seats. The proposed 219 pairs of seats is the basis for the $4,799,708 estimate, which works out to $21,916 per wheelchair seat.

In its negotiations with the Office of Civil Rights in the DOJ, the University of Michigan stated that the proposed remedy was put forth "with no evidence that patrons with mobility impairments will purchase even a small fraction of what might be constructed." The university estimated that one pair of wheelchair and companion seats equals 12.5 other seats.