VOL. 133 | NO. 145 | Tuesday, July 24, 2018
By Bill Dries
Backers of a restored Mid-South Coliseum took stock Saturday, July 21, of a mothballed arena and a city Fairgrounds plan that leaves it inactive for now.
The third Roundhouse Revival over the weekend remained an outdoor event with the Coliseum as a backdrop.
But this time, the group lit the west side in Tiger blue after sunset to match the fountain to the north at the end of Tiger Lane.
The first two “revivals” in 2015 were wrestling, live music and Fairgrounds nostalgia swimming in the drama of a city election year in which the Coliseum had a walk-on role.
“The first one, there was still a very strong chance it could be demolished,” said Roy Barnes, president of the Coliseum Coalition, organizer of the revivals.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who was running for re-election in 2015, had said the Coliseum would likely have to be demolished to make way for a new Fairgrounds with a heavy emphasis on youth sports tournaments at the site along with a hotel and retail on the East Parkway-Central Avenue corner. While Wharton expressed some regret that demolition might be necessary, his Housing and Community Development division director Robert Lipscomb had no regrets and was a vocal advocate for tearing it down as soon as possible.
The controversy grew from there as those seeking to preserve the Coliseum in some form rallied. Following his upset of Wharton in the 2015 mayor’s race, Jim Strickland scaled back the hotel and retail part of the plan in keeping with an Urban Land Institute review of the Wharton administration plan. It also backed off demolition of the Coliseum and has even let the Coliseum Coalition conduct tours with four or five people at a time.
But as the city prepares to take a plan to the state building commission this fall for approval to activate the Tourism Development Zone that would finance a Fairgrounds reconfiguration, Strickland put any renovation of the Coliseum on hold at least for now.
“To be honest about it, we weren’t happy with the mothballing thing given there was money for doing bigger, better things,” Barnes said of the current state of the Coliseum. “But mothballing is not demolition. So we do believe at least for the foreseeable future the demolition thing won’t be raising its head. So our thing now is about continuing to build public support and political support.”
The aura of politics was more low key Saturday with one wrestling ring for wrestling and another for live music. And it was different.
One of the columns on the west side of the Coliseum bore a flyer reading “The non-compete doesn’t stop the Coliseum.” That’s a reference to the FedExForum contract clause between the Memphis Grizzlies and city and county governments that forbids the city and county from financing an arena of 5,000 or more fixed seats.
And Barnes was quick to say the sign wasn’t a posting by the coalition.
The Coliseum Coalition is proposing that Graceland drop its Chancery Court lawsuit and the city renovate and reopen the Coliseum with a certain number of a days a year scheduled for Graceland events free of charge and expenses. The Grizzlies would waive the noncompete clause for those dates. And the city would enforce the noncompete clause for the rest of the calendar year.
The idea would also have the city abandon its plan for a stand-alone indoor sports complex and instead make such a complex an annex attached to the Coliseum – an idea the city has specifically rejected.
The band Los Cantadores began tuning up in their ring Saturday as Carter Matthews was pinning an opponent just a few feet away with a hold called the “Codebreaker.” The “Coliseum Crushers” tag team from the afternoon’s main event earlier were out of their masks and presumably on their way back to the “parts unknown” they were billed as coming from.
A boy, who along with his younger brother couldn’t have been born when the Coliseum went dormant in 2006, switched from taunting the crushers in the shade of the Coliseum overhang to mimicking the salsa dance moves of a couple feeling the beat of Los Cantadores.
Mike McCarthy, among the founders of the Coliseum Coalition, sees the events as essential to keep the Coliseum on the mind of those making decisions about the Fairgrounds as a whole. And on a hot Saturday, McCarthy’s priority was the balance between the reminders of the various roles the arena played in its active years from concert venue to Monday night wrestling landmark to the court where basketball became the city’s dominant sport.
“The bands are actually running on time,” McCarthy said as he talked and listened with one ear to how long a band’s set was timing out with the other.
He and Barnes said the tours are essential for reminding the public, particularly those who could provide directly or be a connection to private funding, of the broad impact of the arena.
“They see the possibilities that it’s hard to see when you are just on the outside and dealing with a lot of old narratives that really were never true and less true all the time. Seeing is believing,” Barnes said of the tours. “You realize more and more as you get into it that this is a beloved building. It stands for the best in Memphis. It was the first built-as integrated building in Memphis. There’s nothing bad in ways that you think of Memphis being bad that ever happened in this great building.”
They had hoped to get some kind of access to the inside of the Coliseum. But the blue lights around part of the exterior were as far as the effort got.
“We never thought we could do the whole thing inside. We would have liked to have been able to do very abbreviated tours,” Barnes said. “Tours is really kind of an overstatement – come in 30 feet into the arena and look at the dome. That would have been pretty much it. … It’s dusty and it’s got stuff on the floor but you are not going to have a piece of mortar fall on your head. You are not going to fall in a hole because something is rotting away.”