Renovating coliseum in Memphis worth the money?

After the city shut down the Mid-South Coliseum in 2006, an idea took hold in Memphis.

The arena was too far gone and too costly to both fix up and renovate for access by people with disabilities.

Now a save-the-Coliseum group insists a redo of the old white-domed landmark would not be too expensive.

“The previous administration led people to believe the Coliseum is in horrible shape and should be torn down. We found that to be absolutely not true,” said Memphis architect Charles “Chooch” Pickard, referring to Mayor A C Wharton’s administration.

Pickard worked on a private study last year carried out by professionals that estimated arena upgrades would cost $23.8 million.

That figure is likely to become a key point in the coming months as the City Council and Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration consider redeveloping the Fairgrounds’ fields and the arena next door, built in 1964 near Southern and Parkway.

An original Fairgrounds redevelopment plan proposed $233 million worth of work turning those fields into a youth sports complex serviced by stores, restaurants, a hotel and a single-story structure called a multi-purpose building replacing the old arena. The project was to be financed by sales tax revenue collected in a wide swath of Midtown.

At $233 million, it would have been the third most expensive public project undertaken by the city – trailing the $200 million Pyramid overhaul for Bass Pro Shops and the $235 million construction of FedExForum.

In a city worried about its tax base, any discussion about the Fairgrounds has to begin with what is the best use of public money.

In a town where the police officer’s union rents billboards advertising the homicide rate and the shortage of uniformed officers, is it a good idea to devote future tax revenue to redevelopment of the Fairgrounds?

Pickard contends it makes more sense to turn the Fairgrounds into a revenue-generating attraction than continue the city’s $57 million redevelopment of the faded Raleigh Springs mall.

“How can we not have a conversation about the Coliseum and go ahead with Raleigh Springs?” Pickard said. “I’m surprised the current administration did not put a halt to that and still say there’s not money available for capital projects.”

Whether the Fairgrounds is a worthy project for a makeover isn’t clear but is certainly worth thinking over, especially in light of the recent Pyramid renovation.

Sales taxes gathered Downtown are paying off the loans used to overhaul the Pyramid. Memphis finally drew a useful tenant in the old arena, which opened in 1991 to replace the Coliseum and was itself replaced by the FedExForum.

But Bass Pro clearly has not funneled visitors into the center city’s hotels, bars, restaurants and museums as was envisioned when the planning for the tourism project began a decade ago.

Had the city left the Pyramid shuttered, the sales taxes financing the overhaul instead might have upgraded the Memphis Cook Convention Center and a related hotel on the scale of Nashville’s new convention hall.

Would a new convention hall have been a better use of $200 million to ramp up the hospitality industry?

Or how about using $200 million for a city-led buyout of vacant 100 North Main?

After taking control of the 38-story skyscraper, the city could provide cheap office space to every trade association in the world that would move here. That would lead to more airline passengers, hotel bookings and demand for the convention hall.

Or how about spending $200 million to fix up neighborhoods, or loan to small entrepreneurs or advertise the city to millennials in New York, Seattle and Atlanta?

Or how about not spending any of the $200 million so there’s some tax base there to help carry us through the next recession?

It’s not clear what is the best use of this $200 million might be, but it is clear this is a good time to starting talking about what to spend it on in a city strained for resources.

Pickard makes the case for the Coliseum this way: Get the Memphis Grizzlies to move their training team out of the Landers Center in suburban Southaven and get the Grizzlies owners, who include a bevy of Memphians, to revise the non-compete contract that governs the FedExForum.

The contract lets the Grizzlies operate the 22,000-seat Downtown arena. But concerts too small for the big arena are showing up in Landers Center, even though they could easily fit into the 11,000-seat Coliseum, he said.

When the city billed the Coliseum as too dilapidated to use, Memphians stopped thinking about new purposes for the old arena.

The Coliseum Coalition performed its study last summer, estimating a $23.8 million renovation, Pickard but held off from revealing the details until Wiseacre Brewings’ deadline expired this week and the Memphis startup revealed it was not ready to proceed with putting a brewery in the Coliseum.

“We need to be redeveloping the core of the city,” Pickard said. “One reason we can’t afford police and fire is because we’re so spread out right now as a city.”- by Ted Evanoff, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis. Ted Evanoff, business columnist of The Commercial Appeal, can be reached at and (901) 529-2292.