By Karanja A. Ajanaku,

In a provocative email sent out last week, the Coliseum Coalition shared that the group’s team of experts had determined that would it cost at least $7 million less to reopen the Mid-South Coliseum than the approximately $30 million price tag that surfaced as the previous mayoral administration explored the feasibility of a Tourist Development Zone.

On Monday, The New Tri-State Defender invited the group’s treasurer, Roy Barnes, and its building chair, Charles “Chooch” Pickard, to our Downtown office to amplify. Mayor Jim Strickland has ruled out using any of the city’s operating and capital improvement dollars at this point, citing pressing needs such as public safety and other basics.

The Coalition projects that an upgrade could be completed for $23, 837,107. That includes making it compliant with federal American Disability Act standards. And, said Pickard, an architect, “The consultant who looked at these costs was actually being pretty conservative. So I really believe with the right effort it could be even cheaper than what we’ve got here.”

TSD: Would you…define your group and what your mission is?

Roy Barnes: The Coliseum Coalition is a group that formed early in 2015. It had been simmering, a lot of different groups. We just thought we’d come together, to bring the public in a big way – as much as we could do – into the discussion of what would happen with the Mid-South Coliseum….We decided one of our main goals was building public support; not just building it, showing that it existed… One of our first big efforts was what we called the Roundhouse Revival.

TSD: You had two of those, right:

Barnes: Yes. … Our group is a non-profit and we’ve spent last year mostly… putting it in the public eye, mayoral elections. When the Urban Land Institute came, at the behest of the city, to do a study, we tried to rally anyone to come and give their opinion about what should happen with the fairgrounds and the Coliseum…. We were very pleased by the day the election came around that all the mayoral candidates had at least called for a new look at the Coliseum.

TSD: At the beginning of the year you wrote a column…in which you were expressing hope. Are you still riding the same hope bubble?

Barnes: Yes. Absolutely….I don’t particularly like to use the word “saved,” but I think…imminent demolition is definitely off to the side…. One of the big stories was the building was in bad shape, which is absolutely not true….And there has been zero maintenance for 10 years….

TSD: Wasn’t there some type of May deadline for people who wanted to submit proposals who wanted to go in and look at it?

Charles “Chooch” Pickard: I worked for about six months after the mayor was elected just trying to get in the building. I worked with them on creating a program that would allow more than just our group in (so) it wouldn’t be one sided. I don’t remember how many groups they actually let in in the end, but it was successful. I personally have actually been in it 3 times.

TSD: Help us see it. What does it look like in there?

Pickard: It’s almost completely intact. I mean, it looks like they could have a wrestling match or a basketball game tonight. …Literally, people have told me when they went in, “Why can’t we just power wash this thing and get it open?” … It just looked like it stopped in time 10 years ago. There are issues. It was closed because of the Department of Justice ruling that all municipal buildings had to be accessible and meet the ADA standards…and it does not…. There’s still technically a legal case open in it right now.

TSD: How would we get around the ADA concern?

Pickard: That’s part of this $23 million dollars. It’s actually a pretty small part of that….($2,585,463)… We were all told that the ADA issues were just so insurmountable and we’ve found creative ways to take care of all of those for a reasonable price. The major reason why it’s so expensive to renovate is the old HVAC system, the heating and air…it’s 50 years old….

TSD: You’ve got it down conceptually to a lower price than we might have thought, but we still are dealing with the situation where the city says, “Hey, we don’t have any money to contribute but we might be open to partnership.” Have you talked to them since this point?

Pickard: They’ve always said they’re open to proposals. We have not given the city this. …We actually put the press release out before a final report because we really wanted to get this number out there and get people talking again. Really, the big message isn’t the details in the report, it’s that the ADA issues are not insurmountable from a physical or fiscal standpoint.

The next hurdles are, you’re right, the city not wanting at this time to put any money in it. However, when this city has a project that they want to get behind we always seem to find the money. Tiger Lane cost $16.5 million. That was a parking lot right next to this that brings in very little income.

Barnes: It (Tiger Lane) is great for the community.

Pickard: It is. If we’re willing as a city to spend $16.5 million dollars on an amenity like a parking lot, it seems crazy to me think that we can’t find $23 million to have something that’s an amenity that everybody in the community would be able to use.

TSD: Let’s say that’s true but that it still doesn’t go forward.

Pickard: Well, I really believe regardless of whether the city can raise the $23 million or not there’s got to be public/private programs… There’s got to be someone come in, whether it be a non-profit and raise the money through donation or whoever would want to operate and…maybe they’re leasing it from the city for a small amount a year and the city get’s some proceeds…

TSD: Any new movement in that direction in terms of that type of private funding? Is anyone talking about it?

Pickard: We’re talking to some…promoters that are interested in pulling some things together. Then the other hurdle is the Grizzlies agreement with the city.

TSD: The non-compete agreement?

Pickard: We hope that we’ll be able to get them to come to the table to just start discussing it. There were statements made by them a year ago that if we got the arena down from the 11,000 seats it is now to 5,000, that it wouldn’t bother them. That was kind of just a quick comment; no discussion on what that truly means.

TSD: Does this (cost estimate) involve any lower number of seats?

Pickard: It does. I don’t have an exact number in there. It’s still conceptual too. We do anticipate lowering the number of seats for several reasons. We need to get more accessible seating. Obviously you’d take out some of the others and it’s a balance of how many you need in each area that are accessible versus how many are not to make it acceptable to the DOJ and to Memphis Center for Independent Living (one of the partners that went in with the Coalition.)…

TSD: We’re not ready though to go back to the Grizzlies and get them to the table yet, right?

Pickard: I think soon, if we were to have the right event promoter talking with them that shows that this is a reality. That is absolutely a next step. I’d rather they throw out a number and say, “Well, this is what’s acceptable” and we see if we can meet that. I honestly think a number around 8,000 is more appropriate for the size shows we think would be in there…

As the discussion wound down, Pickard and Brown talked about the desired relationship between a reopened Coliseum and the surrounding communities.

Brown: I think that’s a huge thing no matter what. It’s just got to be a positive for the communities around it.

Pickard: We’ve worked really hard in the last year and a half to have those stakeholders from all the communities around be a part of the input process….

TSD: When you say stakeholders, we’re including the Africa-American community, right?

Pickard: Primarily those neighborhoods. We’ve met in Orange Mound a ton. We’ve had people from Beltline and Orange Mound and Cooper Young and, of course, other stakeholders with the institutions that are there too.

TSD: What do you hear from them?

Pickard: They want somewhere that their kids can go. They want somewhere their kids can work; where their kids are going to graduate. They just want that civic feeling there and be something that’s not a vacant blight on the community and be a catalyst for development there.

Other needs are more

previously estimated.” That As our building chair Chooch Pickard can expand on, the lion’s share of those costs are not in bringing the building to ADA standards or repairing neglect, as many have said, but in modernizing the core environmental and infrastructural systems — HVAC, plumbing and electrical.

The building is in awesome shape and not an obstacle to reopening.