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VOL. 132 | NO. 208 | Thursday, October 19, 2017

Memphis Leaders Await Final Reports for Possible Coliseum Renovation

By Bill Dries

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As Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration considers final details for a Fairgrounds redevelopment plan, he and his staff are waiting on a complete analysis of the condition of the Mid-South Coliseum.

How well the coliseum adheres to construction and building codes and the results of a seismic study are essential to determining what role, if any, the 12,000-seat arena might play in the plan.

The Fairgrounds plan makes its debut in about 2 1/2 weeks. It then will be sent to the Tennessee Building Commission for Tourism Development Zone approval, which would enable sales tax revenues generated in the zone – which encompasses Overton Square, Cooper-Young and other commercial areas – to be used to finance the Fairgrounds improvements.

That gives Chooch Pickard, the architect and vice president of the Coliseum Coalition nonprofit group, time for about two more tours of the coliseum in the hope that it can be saved and repurposed.

With flashlights in hand, Pickard led a small group earlier this month through the backstage and office areas after walking a path through an arena floor that is being used for storage.

Offices located below the seating bowl have wall calendars from 2005 and 2006 at desks with chairs and files scattered everywhere, even as the filing cabinets themselves remain in place.

The coliseum board room still retains the pictures of past board members and coliseum managers all the way back to Bubba Bland, the manager when the facility first opened in the mid-1960s.

Pickard points to remnants of the two Beatles shows in 1966 – the cinderblock room where they held a press conference, the backstage dressing room and their path to the stage.

The coliseum was mothballed 10 years ago for two primary reasons – it didn’t adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act provisions and a no-compete clause the city signed with the Memphis Grizzlies to run FedExForum that prohibited concerts and other shows from being booked at the coliseum.

A program from the graduation of White Station High School’s class of 2007 is still on a counter in the press box, where a reel-to-reel tape machine in the announcer’s booth still has a reel of tape threaded and ready to play.

At the end of a row of tiny office cubicles is an iron bar ladder going straight up to a red catwalk above the inner dome’s ceiling tiles.

“This is an insanely solid building,” said Mary Claire Borys, project manager for the Fairgrounds redevelopment for the city’s Housing and Community Development Division.

She and Pickard talked about what it would cost to demolish the building, and had different cost estimates for renovating the facility.

The coalition puts the renovation cost at $24 million, with a $5 million endowment for ongoing operations.

“That really was based on kind of the concept at Levitt Shell, where they renovated it to get it open, build excitement and be able to generate kind of a well of people to fundraise some more,” Pickard said, “ … and seven years later they’ve got more renovations and kind of gold-plated it.” Former HCD director Robert Lipscomb initially thought the coliseum would likely be demolished.

“Our thoughts were, in order to get buy in originally from the city, we need to get our number down to something that was a little more palatable,” Pickard said. “We got it down to $24 million and we believe we have a decent facility reopened at that number.”

The administration’s estimate is $35 million to $40 million, depending on the studies and reports that come in later this month.

“There is more focus on some of the loading dock issues and things like that,” Borys said. “A bit nicer. Not gold-plated, but a bit nicer than what they are contemplating.”

Any renovation effort could still be years away.

To those with no memories of the coliseum, its decade-long hibernation makes it obvious it was built in a much different era when there was no Americans with Disabilities Act. The seats are smaller. The aisles are, too.

Inside the seating bowl, where a good amount of sunlight comes in from the concourse, Pickard talks about how the coliseum gets to 4,999 seats – below the no-compete threshold – and a new life as a more spacious venue that is still recognizable as the coliseum.

The top three or four rows of seats in each section would be removed, and each aisle gets widened going up.

“So every aisle gets one row (of seats)out going up. These seats are very narrow by today’s standards. There’s no cup holders. They are about 19 inches. If we make it 22 or 24 inches, you spread them out. With putting some (Americans with Disabilities Act) seating in and taking out a section for a restaurant that could come out from the concourse – our calculation puts it at 4,960 (seats),” Pickard said.

A business plan the coalition released in September has the coalition managing the coliseum for the city.

“In our discussions with the Grizzlies, they have stated that if the coliseum’s seating capacity is below 5,000 seats, they will not oppose the reopening, nor view it as competition,” the business plan reads. “As we feel that the average event in the coliseum will be 3,000-5,000 people, we believe the coliseum can easily thrive under this limit.”

Borys says the no-compete is not the only consideration.

Through three mayoral administrations – Willie Herenton, A C Wharton and Jim Strickland – the concept of an amateur sports tournament site endures, although in a smaller and different form than the sprawling complex Lipscomb envisioned.

“When you start looking at youth sports and collegiate sports, particularly things like Division 2, Division 3 college sports … you actually don’t want more than 5,000 seats,” Borys said.

Pickard says the arena floor could hold three basketball courts if the lower side risers are taken out, which would take the seat total down further.

"Essentially we got 4,900 seats and it looks completely full," he said. "One of the fears was if we had to get it below 5,000, what's it going to look like and we know we'll have a full-looking arena with 4,900 seats."

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