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VOL. 130 | NO. 47 | Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Coliseum Group Weighs Previtalization

By Bill Dries

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The group that wants to see the city renovate and reopen the Mid-South Coliseum is exploring something similar to the “previtalization” events of last year at the Tennessee Brewery.

“We’re not the only ones who want to do a previtalizing event in the Coliseum,” said Marvin Stockwell, of the Coliseum Coalition, on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines. “If an investor comes forward, great. If it doesn’t, we’ve given it a proper send off. You want to at least give citizens a chance to be in that space.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Marvin Stockwell and Earl Williams

The “previtalization” concept has several recent precedents in Memphis including events at the Tennessee Brewery, the old Sears Crosstown building and festivals on Broad Avenue billed as “New Face on an Old Broad.”

In each of those three cases, previtalization helped lead to specific redevelopment plans.

Coliseum Coalition followers already are talking on Facebook of weekly gatherings in the Coliseum’s parking lot if they can’t get city permission to hold events in the lobby of the mothballed arena. Last month, a gathering on the parking lot featured singer-songwriter Amy LaVere.

The administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has put on hold its pursuit of a general plan for redeveloping the Fairgrounds as an amateur sports tournament site pending a plan review by an expert panel assembled by the Urban Land Institute.

Earl Williams, district council chair with ULI Memphis, emphasized the panel from ULI’s national office would not include Memphians.

“Let’s face it, from a local perspective we all have history,” he said. “We have local politics. We’ve got our biases that we bring into it. They don’t bring any of that. They bring best practices from other cities.”

The goal, he added, is to review the city’s plan from a “holistic standpoint.”

“You can’t just look at the Coliseum. You can’t just look at the Liberty Bowl stadium,” Williams said. “You’ve got to look at the entire development and say what is going to work. It needs to be a project that works financially for Memphis.”

Stockwell said the Coliseum backers are about more than nostalgia for a nearly 50-year old arena.

“This is not about nostalgia. This is about repurposing the historic Mid-South Coliseum and putting it to good use,” he said. “We just don’t think there’s been thorough enough thought that’s been inclusive of enough people’s viewpoints to say the Mid-South Coliseum is no longer useful. Eight years ago it was hosting events.”

Wharton has always pledged that no decision on Coliseum demolition would be made without Memphis City Council approval. But he and city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb have each said over several years that they believe demolition is likely because of the cost of renovating the structure to meet modern standards including the Americans with Disabilities Act. They have put the retrofitting costs at $30 million.

Last month, Lipscomb and Wharton each said they are not committed to the idea of demolishing the Coliseum and are willing to take a second look.

Wharton has said the city should still pursue a Tourism Development Zone to harness sales tax revenue growth in the broader Midtown area as a way to finance whatever specific Fairgrounds plan emerges. But both the general plan and the TDZ pursuit have drawn vocal opposition as well as less vocal concerns in some quarters about pursuing financing without a specific plan.

“It’s just hard to hear, ‘Trust us, it’s going to be great,’” Stockwell said. “I think people are taking a wait and see attitude because they don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of a given dispute.”

No specific agreement and contract had been finalized late last week between ULI’s national and the city of Memphis, Williams said.

Williams, who is chief operating officer for Loeb Properties, said such public-private ventures are the way cities and urban areas in particular are redeveloping because each sector brings strengths to the very different burden of the goal.

“We’re going to have to figure out what makes sense overall and then I think when you get an idea of what this development might look like,” he added, “then you can look at the developers that have the expertise in these areas and bring them in at that time. I don’t know that it’s necessarily critical at this time that we have them identified.

“I think it’s important that we figure out what is the highest and best use of the property.”

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