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VOL. 126 | NO. 75 | Monday, April 18, 2011

Mid-South Coliseum Next in Preservationists’ Crosshairs

By Sarah Baker

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With the recent demolishment of Union Avenue United Methodist Church in the rearview mirror, Memphis Heritage Inc. is back and perhaps more empowered than ever.

The nonprofit preservationist group held a public meeting Thursday at its Midtown headquarters to discuss the future of the Mid-South Coliseum, the 11,000-square-foot Mid-South Fairgrounds arena that’s been vacant for six years.

“Memphis Heritage’s role is to facilitate and educate the community about historic properties in Memphis and we do feel that the Coliseum rates in that list of buildings,” said June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. “It does have its issues with age, like many buildings, but we’ve also got to evaluate is there any possibility for adaptive reuse or restoration in a way that we could meet some of the criteria that the city is up against right now.”

The meeting came about through various Memphis groups connecting through Facebook, including real estate veteran Joe Spake and Mid-South Coliseum advocate Scott Schaeffer.

“We want to bring the plight of the coliseum into the public eye and to elevate the conversation away from just a few people,” said Schaeffer, founder of the Save the Coliseum group on Facebook. “A lot of people think those interested in historical preservation want to go lay down in front of bulldozers like back in the ’60s. That’s not the case. We want to encourage smart growth.”

Erected in 1963, the coliseum’s mid-size space and quality acoustics landed it with an array of historical events over the years, from Bob Hope to The Who. In 2000, the coliseum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“A building being placed on the national register is no guarantee of its safety, unfortunately, as we know from the Methodist church that was recently demolished,” Schaeffer said.

There are three overall concerns city officials have expressed: it’s been “moth-balled” for six years, the costs associated with adhering to the guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the non-compete clause with FedExForum.

The last contingency is the one Memphis Heritage began to chip away at Thursday in a town hall brainstorming session. One by one, West sought input from the 30 or so attendees on what they would like to see the 47-year-old building be used for.

While those ideas varied from ice skating to roller derby, the general consensus was to retrofit the space for mixed-use. Attendees also agreed that the project needs to be prudent and well researched.

“What I’m perplexed about is why at this moment in time, given the economic circumstances of the city when we’ve been talking about the potential of demolishing something without a very clear idea of what we’re going to use that ground for,” said Memphis architect Kevin Koys. “It’s a premature thought without knowing what the opportunities are, to keep or to take down.”

The next step is to work with the city on cost and demand and then relay that information to the community, West said.

“The city has been very open talking and communicating with us in regards to the reports that they have created over the last several years and we look forward to evaluating those and looking at them,” she said.

The next meeting is planned for May 12 at 6 p.m. in the organization’s Howard Hall office, 2282 Madison Ave.

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