Wiseacre’s Coliseum Plan Fueled By Growth

By Bill Dries

Council chairman Kemp Conrad noted the timing is “hot off Overton Park and the Greensward” – the protracted controversy the council was heavily involved in. “I do think it’s going to move fast one way or another,” Conrad said Tuesday, Aug. 9, of the concept of a new Wiseacre brewery in the Coliseum.

Frank Smith, cofounder of Wiseacre Brewery, pitches the idea of an expanded brewery in the Mid-South Coliseum to Memphis City Council members.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

An expansion of the 3-year-old local business that Frank Smith co-founded is going to start taking shape physically somewhere by early 2017, out of necessity from its growth.

“We have to do that quickly … because we have to be building a brewery by early 2017,” Smith said. “We cannot afford to get into a process or else we just have to go somewhere else.”

That’s because since its opening in August 2013 in a 13,000-square-foot warehouse on what is now the east end of the Broad Avenue Arts District, the brewery has become a regional-sized brewery that is on pace to make 22,000 barrels of beer annually. Initially, Wiseacre’s founders thought the warehouse would be enough space for the first decade of the business.

“We cannot fit another large stainless steel tank in the place,” Smith said. “We cannot make any more beer than we are making today. Our business is capped until we decide what we are going to do next. And that’s the tough calculus that we’ve got to figure out now.”

The jump in production requires more space because of larger equipment. It’s a $12 million investment by Wiseacre that requires about 65 feet of vertical space.

But Smith told the council that he and partners Davin Bartosch and Kellan Bartosch want the support of community groups that have rallied in recent years to save the circa-1964 Coliseum from what seemed to be certain demolition in several incarnations of Fairgrounds renovation plans.

And many of the leaders of those efforts were in the city council’s committee room Tuesday as Smith pitched an idea he acknowledged ultimately might not be feasible.

“There’s a lot of folks in this room today who care a lot about this iconic structure, who spent a lot of time making sure it didn’t get torn down,” Smith said. “These are all folks that represent groups who have worked really hard. We’re grateful to all of them that this building stands, and that we could be having this conversation.”

John Minervini of Friends of the Fairgrounds, a group looking at a broader plan for the entire Fairgrounds, said later the organization isn’t endorsing or condemning the proposal.

He said the group wants to see more public input and has questions about how it compares to a plan for more recreational use of the Fairgrounds around the Coliseum.

The Coliseum Coalition, which has focused on an examination of a full restoration of the arena as a venue for concerts and other events, issued a statement saying it was “excited“ by the interest.

“Whether this is an arena or a publicly accessible brewery, or both, remains to be seen, but the public must be actively engaged in determining the best future for their building and their Fairgrounds,” the group said in a written statement.

“It’s kind of a crazy idea,” Smith said in emphasizing that there are still architectural studies and engineering work to determine if it is feasible. “It’s something that’s never happened in the history of beer.”

Smith also made it clear that if the brewery were to happen, “there would never be a concert in the Mid-South Coliseum. There would never be another high school graduation in the Coliseum.”

The seating bowl of the Coliseum would be removed just as the seating bowl of The Pyramid was removed for the Bass Pro Shops re-adaptation.

“The brewery will fit in the middle,” Smith said. “Up underneath the main concourse there’s plenty of room for packaging and warehousing and cold storage and shipping and receiving and so forth. That leaves a lot of building.”

Along with the brewery, Smith said other space could be used for restaurants, bowling lanes and climbing walls as well as some kind of tribute to the arena’s past.

“What an amazing game-day experience that might be,” Smith told the council, talking about the link to Tiger Lane and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Smith said he is mindful of the Coliseum’s past and the attachment to that past. And he realizes the council and the city may ultimately choose not to go the way of a brewery. Smith also expressed a desire not to see public opinion go against Wiseacre in the venture. He has talked with several Coliseum groups as he approached council members individually.

But council sentiment with 11 of the 13 council members present Tuesday was enthusiastic.

“I don’t see any imminent plans, any funding, anybody who can come to the table now,” council member Martavius Jones said of plans to restore the Coliseum as an arena and concert venue.

The city’s General Services Division and Housing and Community Development Division are working with Wiseacre to starting structural studies of the building to see if the plan is feasible.

So far, no council vote is planned on the proposal.

Smith said terms, like whether Wiseacre would lease the building or buy it, are still further down the road.