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What’s next for the Mid-South Coliseum? And when?

Roy Barnes of the Coliseum Coalition. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Karanja A. Ajanaku – Let’s go forward and say that everything that you want to happen has happened. And now you’re getting ready to walk out on stage the day of the opening. What are you going to tell the people?

Roy Barnes – I would tell them that this is their building and it’s been reopened for them as citizens of Memphis. That it represents the best of Memphis as a physical structure. And so they should be proud that they were part of making this happen.

KAA – Who’s out in the audience?

RB – I would say strongly representing the communities surrounding it – Orange Mound, Cooper Young, Glenview, Beltline, Humes Heights, etc. But also, obviously, from around the city. It’s not just a district’s facility. It’s the city’s. As we all know, it’s very centrally located. … If it’s not geographically (the center), it probably is close to the center population wise.

KAA – What would you tell them about that journey up to that day?

RB – (That) it’s been … a long road. I think an appropriate metaphor is the (old) Zippin Pippin (roller coaster at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. A lot of scares, a lot of fun and screams of terror and of joy. And like the Zippin Pippin, it brings you back. It brought you back where you thought you should be safely with a smile on your face.

KAA – So then, let me take you back to the first day of fall 2017. Where are we then?

RB – Where we are is we are working with the city. …. The Coliseum Coalition has put together a business plan based on the need to show how the building is economically viable. There’s a popular push for it being reopened, but also “how are you going to make this work without presenting another financial obstacle for a city that has many financial obstacles?”

We’ve submitted (the plan) to the city, we’re working with them. We’re getting feedback from it … we’re making changes because we feel like it’s very important to have an honest assessment of the building’s future or not. There’s been a lot of misinformation about the building, so we don’t want to add to that misinformation. We’re trying to be honest with our numbers … making modifications, even if they can potentially make the case harder for a coliseum.

…In terms of that first day of fall, the city’s preparing a tourism development zone application for the Fairgrounds. What’s good about that for the Coliseum is it provides a funding source to renovate it.

Tourism development zones require a minimum of $75 million public funding. Our estimate for kind of like the first iteration is $24 million. The city has come out with $37 million and those aren’t contradictory as much as one is – as a friend said – a silver edition and one is the gold.

KAA – OK.

RB – We think to get it open as a viable facility we can do the silver edition. If the city goes with the gold edition that’s fine but that’s not what it has to be. … So there’s money to do this, there is public will to do it. And we now have a business plan to show how it can work. And how it would not be a drain on the city while it still becomes is a civic asset.

KAA – You have been able to work out those concerns about the Grizzlies?

RB – There is competition covenant, what people call a non-compete clause. We met with the Grizzlies; they were very friendly. …They said they would not like the coliseum reopened at 5,000 and above. Our business plan calls for reduction to 4,999 at least. That’s not necessarily a problem for two reasons. One is we’re going to have to remove seats for modernization. We’re going to have to remove them partly because ADA would require more aisle seats. That’s great actually. We want to make it ADA compliant.

Probably just for modernization reasons we probably want to take out all the seats and put them back in essentially with new seats. So when we take them out, we’ll just put back 4,999. …We want to work with the Grizzlies. We’re so proud of them in our city … We’re focusing our business plan on their needs as well as the Coliseum’s.

KAA – So this phase now where the city’s examining the business plan, what’s the time frame relative to what they will do and then what comes after that?

RB – They have been working on … their TDZ plan for probably about two and half, maybe three months. They had a meeting last night to kind of show possibilities. On November 6th I believe they’re going to come out with their final plan. We’re going to keep working with them through the next month and a half to make sure that the Coliseum is part of it. I think things will be somewhat settled November 6, hopefully for the best.

KAA – Let’s say that it is. How do we get from there to the opening? What kind of time frame? What would we have to do?

RB – We’re not completely sure… November 6 and then they take it to Nashville. Nashville has to approve it. I think that’s one of the things – (it’s) not just about our part. All of the pieces have to make sense financially because at the end you have to pay off not just the operating costs, you’ve got to pay off the bonds that will finance all of this stuff.

KAA – You say Nashville.

RB – The state Building Commission is going to be in charge. … Hopefully they will approve it … What the actual timing is (depends in part on) whether you issue bonds simultaneously or whatever. Obviously you have to come up with the plans. I would love this: You know 2019 would be Memphis’ Bicentennial and I think reopening the Coliseum during that year, even if it’s in December … it opened in late ‘64. I think that would be awesome. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it, but it would be a wonderful gift to the city of Memphis from itself.

KAA – Tell me about the business plan and give me some highlights.

RB – We project 134 events in the first year and where those numbers come from is the city wants to build a sports complex. … At this point it’s going to be all indoors. … I think the way the city is thinking – and definitely the way we’re thinking – is that the Coliseum would be sort of the championship and the high-seeded game venue for the sports complex. … Our idea is the Larry Finch arena at the Mid-South Coliseum.

KAA – What kind of games do you imagine?

RB – For the sports facilities, … usually it’s called youth sports. It’s really sports. I think there are a lot of adult sports as well. It could be volleyball, basketball. The ones I’ve seen are martial arts, fencing … so that we come to Memphis as part of this sports complex. Part of the thing that’s great about the Coliseum from their point of view, if you want to say their instead of our … With sports complexes you have a beautiful, kind of spectacular building as the hallmark of this complex as opposed to a shed or something like that. …

And then, of course, the ability of the Coliseum to continue to have all sorts of other events keeps the Fairgrounds unified rather than become like “Oh, here’s a sports complex. And, oh here’s Tiger Lane. And what does volleyball have to do with tailgating?” … The Coliseum can be that thing that we use it together. …

We’ve come up with rentals of approximately $5,000 to $10,000 based on the event. We’ve also come up with what we call a zero rental, which means community concerts; we’d put on community concerts and then we’d have 10 community events – at least in our projections – that are zero rental costs, where the community could come in and do an event there. That’s good for the Coliseum and good for the city.

So someone whose putting on an event that really benefits Memphis but doesn’t have $5,000 – or need the $5,000 more for their mission than for a rental of the Coliseum – would come to us and say, “We’d like to do this.” That’s perfect.

Part of the projections the first year is that 25 percent of events would be community or civic events. That would be no rental things … And then 15 events are projected for graduation. … Everybody thinks about, “Oh, I saw Elvis (at the Coliseum.) I saw James Brown… Graduations are the thing we hear more about for the Coliseum. It’s kind of a cool thing because one of the dings on the Coliseum, or the Coliseum movement, … is that it’s a movement of nostalgia. But graduations are really that place where the future and the past meet in a very beautiful way….

KAA – When we talked before you mentioned how you were involving the community relative to input. I take it with this business plan there was additional input. And if so, what did you get from that?

RB – It was more of the same that we had been getting. …It’s always nice to be asked what you want, but it’s a problem when you are asked and asked and asked and then you still don’t get it. We are trying to base it on what folks have been saying all along. We try not to be tone deaf to that. I think one of the things that’s changed probably is the community events just through our own board’s activism and other causes that we see great events going on … the Coliseum would be a perfect place to hold those things…

Twenty-five percent is a little low; I would like it to be higher. But we’re trying to again show economic viability, so we’re walking that tightrope between those two. As things move forward it would be great to – whether it’s through private funding – expand it where we offer more free common use at the Coliseum.

Also part of the business plan is we would like it to be more of an always open rather than just pure event-driven. …For instance, a very simple idea – but I think it’s a good one – is the idea of turning the upper or lower concourse … depending upon on how we get it configured … into essentially where people from the community can come and walk in the circle in a safe and climate controlled way whether because it’s too hot or they just would like to be inside. …

We’d like it to be a building that a kid walked up to and pulled the door and opened up and you say, “Come on and check it out.” … And not be like “What are you doing here?” Obviously there will be some exceptions to that because of rentals. But that’s our vision.

KAA – So are we at the point that it’s going to happen as opposed to earlier when we were hoping it’s going to happen?

RB – I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been in 10 years to it happening. … If I just guess, 65 to 70 percent and maybe that’s even a … a little bit conservative. Last night at the meeting, (Housing and Community Development) Director (Paul) Young said, “We want to save the Coliseum.” He immediately qualified it by saying, “If we can.”

But even saying that first part was light years ahead of even a year ago. People were afraid to say that out loud. And that’s a reasonable thing. If for some reason (like), someone dumped nuclear waste in the middle of it and we never knew about it, obviously reality has its own way. But I think that that’s a huge step forward for us.

KAA – Is there anything else?

RB – Just that you can check out coliseumcoalition.org/plan and you can get to the plans there.

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