Monday, June 1, 2015

‘Coliseum Coalition’ rallies to save the Mid-South Coliseum from demolition

Ron Daniels, a retired Memphis Defense Depot worker, signs a petition at
"Roundhouse Revival" festivities to save the Mid-South Coliseum from being razed
and replaced with a youth sporting complex. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
      If a group of activists is successful in thwarting the city of Memphis’ plan to raze the Mid-South Coliseum for a youth sports complex and retail development, the turnaround just might jumpstart a plan to repurpose the languishing 12,000-seat facility.
      “We don’t need a youth sports facility,” said Mike McCarthy, president of the Coliseum Coalition, a nonprofit, 30-plus-member group intent on saving the Mid-South Coliseum from demolition. “If you can put Bass Pro into a pyramid, you can put wrestling, shows, and concerts back into the Coliseum.”
      McCarthy is referring to the 20,000-seat Pyramid, which first opened in 1991 and abandoned in 2004, when the Memphis Grizzlies basketball franchise packed up and moved its operation to the newly built FedExForum.
      After 10 years of back-and-forth negotiations between the city and Bass Pro officials, the Pyramid is now transformed into Bass Pro Shops, which reopened April 29. It has taken three years to repurpose the 32-story stainless steel building and retrofit it for stability.
      The Coliseum has been dormant as well, since 2006. McCarthy, a filmmaker, tour guide and cultural preservationist, noted that it, too, could be repurposed to attract smaller groups, concerts and other kinds of events to keep them from taking business and sorely needed tax dollars across the border to the Landers Center in Southaven, Miss., a multipurpose, 8,400-seat arena.
      McCarthy’s sentiments were shared Saturday (May 23) by a bevy of supporters converging on the west side of the Coliseum for the “Roundhouse Revival,” a Coalition-sponsored event organized to bring awareness to the empty husk of brick and mortar and the splendor of what the building once represented.
      “This is a good looking building, an available building, that needs to be repurposed,” said Mark Jones, a Coalition member. “Some people have never set foot on the property.”
      Marvin Stockwell has set foot on the property many times and is adamant about saving it. A communications director at the Church Health Center and a Coalition member as well, Stockwell said discussions about the Coliseum’s fate “felt adversarial” during earlier meetings with Mayor A C Wharton Jr.
      “Now they’re friendly,” he said.
      The free event was also supported by the city, which surprised the leaders of the Coalition, who did not expect the city’s full cooperation. Although there had been meetings with Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb, the city hunkered down and backed the event financially.
      Lipscomb has led the push to redevelop the area for a Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) for some time now. The TDZ would yield additional sales tax revenue to finance the Fairgrounds project, it has been reported.
      The Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and the Coliseum, of course, would figure into the city’s plan to attract amateur sporting events to the area. But because there has been public pushback, plans to raze the Coliseum have been temporarily put on hold – for now.
      The TDZ plan does not bode well for the Coalition and their supporters. In an effort to quell frustrations, the city is soliciting input, a civic discussion, from the community. The Coalition, however, is asking supporters to sign a petition to save the Coliseum.
      They claim more than 3,000 signatures have been collected from across the United States and over 20 foreign countries. Add to that 2,000 Facebook group members, they boast.
      Meanwhile, the city is assuring the community will have its say. On June 1 and 2, there will be four community meetings, each starting at 5:30 p.m.
      The meetings on June 1 will be held at the Airways Professional Building, 3385 Airways; and at Bert Ferguson Community Center, 8505 Trinity. The next two meetings will be held June 2 at the Kroc Center, 800 East Parkway South; and Cunningham Community Center, 3773 Old Allen.
      The city contracted with the National Charette Institute, a nonprofit educational institution in Portland, Ore., and Urban Land Institute, a District Council serving the Mid-South, to ascertain public feedback and ideas for a reconfigured Fairgrounds.
      Hundreds of supporters and those no doubt curious about the purpose of the daylong event – which included vendors, bands, and other forms of entertainment – expressed their concerns and shared ideas for a “revival” of the aging structure, once home to Monday Night Wrestling, where a “king” was crowned and a “superstar” was born.
      Wrestling aficionados and die-hard fans of Jerry “The King” Lawler and Bill “Superstar” Dundee put on a show Saturday that was reminiscent of Memphis wrestling. The two local legends took on The Coliseum Crushers, masked grapplers who worked up a sweat in the searing heat in one of two small rings in front of the Coliseum as spectators jeered.
      Wrestling brought back fond memories for many of them; but for others, it was the concerts, graduations and basketball games – nostalgic moments worthy of a rebirth – that ignited their activism and evoked ideas for a fresh start for the Coliseum.
      “I grew up here in Memphis and came to a lot of wonderful activities at the Coliseum, such as high school graduations, concerts and basketball games,” said Ron Daniels, a retired Memphis Defense Depot worker.
      “It was a good deal,” he said. “It used to be the largest venue other than the Ellis Auditorium (a 10,000-seat, multipurpose arena built in 1924 and demolished in 1997)” and replaced with the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
      Crafts artist Deborah Armour, one of the vendors, remembers being summoned to the Coliseum for jury duty selection. She also attended graduations there and The Jackson’s concert in 1981 when young, sizzling Michael Jackson and his brothers were burning up the charts with hits after hits.
      “Right now you’re limited to a number of people who can come to a graduation ceremony,” said Armour, explaining that high school graduates are only given a few tickets for family members to attend. “It (Coliseum) still can be used for other things as well…anything that requires a smaller venue other than the FedExForum.”
      Anita Wilson, a manicurist, sees the Coliseum fiasco through a political prism. “There’s politics in every decision the city makes,” she surmised. “[And] they don’t always make the right decision.”  
      Just like some of the others attending the Roundhouse Revival, Wilson offered ideas that could possibly resurrect and restore the Coliseum to its former glory. But so far the ideas from supporters have yet to determine the fate of the Coliseum or how the building could be transformed.
      Concerts were ongoing at the Coliseum, an overwhelming consensus that Wilson shares. She added that a return to this form of entertainment could generate additional revenue for the city’s coffers.
      “For concerts, etc., instead of [people] going to the Landers Center, why not keep the money in Memphis,” she said.
      Charlie “Chuck” Thomas, regional director of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T, grew up in the Orange Mound community, where his mother taught music at Melrose High School. It is a stone’s throw from the Coliseum.
      Recalling the vitality and high energy that radiated from the Coliseum and reverberated throughout the community,” Thomas said, “I used to go here a lot. There’s no better structure in the Mid-South area than the Mid-South Coliseum. I spent my young life here.”

About the Mid-South Coliseum…

      The Mid-South Coliseum, located at 940 Early Maxwell, was built in 1964 under the old Memphis City Code of 1949. It is 11 stories tall (approximately 160 feet in height) and has a maximum seating capacity of 12,000.
      If the Coliseum were to return to its “useful life,” the building would have to be brought up to the International Existing Building Code as adopted by the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Construction Code Enforcement, according to a code analysis conducted by Code Solutions Group, LLC on July 30, 2009.
      The detail report noted that the interior of the Coliseum would have to be seriously reworked to ensure the safety of the building, among other repairs, and correct the number and percentage of handicap facilities.
      The Coliseum closed its doors in late 2006 because the building was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law banning discrimination based on disability. It would have cost the city $30 million to fix the ADA violations and an estimated $33 million to demolish the building.
      On Dec. 6, 2000, the Mid-South Coliseum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.

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