Bleak House: What's going on with the Mid-South Coliseum

The future is bleak for the Mid-South Coliseum. Despite the nostalgia that surrounds it, the entertainment and civic venue faces almost certain demolition should the Tourism Development Zone take effect.
Elvis sang there. The Beatles played there. Professional wrestler Jerry Lawler pile-drove comedian Andy Kaufman there in 1983 in an infamous match that landed the two on national television with "Late Night with David Letterman."
 
For several generations of Memphians, the Mid-South Coliseum was the center of the entertainment universe. Despite this status as a pop culture altar, its future is bleak. The Coliseum most certainly faces destruction, either quickly, by wrecking ball, or slowly, by neglect.
 
The Coliseum sits among the Mid-South Fairgrounds, a 168-acre former horseracing track, Montgomery Park, that was purchased by the city in 1897. The area was considered for wholesale revision in 1960 as the Linkletter-Vandenburg Plan, created by entertainer Art Linkletter and business partner Clyde Vandenburg, recommended vast changes to the property. Among such visions as a 700-foot-long lagoon was the plan for a multi-use arena--the Coliseum--the only portion of the plan to see the light of day.
 
Built in 1964, it was closed for good in 2006 after being determined too cost prohibitive to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, it has sat empty, neglected, a tomb to the memories and milestones of thousands--first concerts, Monday Night Wrestling, graduations, monster truck shows.
 
Another plan, one with a bit more traction than Linkletter-Vandenburg, is currently being touted. A Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) is proposed by the City of Memphis and destined for a vote in Nashville later this month. The 3-mile-wide zone would encompass the nearby Cooper-Young business district, burgeoning Overton Square and the Fairgrounds, and use excess sales tax from those areas to repay bonds used to fund the $233 million project. A far-reaching plan for the Fairgrounds calls for a complex of athletic fields, retail space, a hotel and residential units.
 
If the TDZ is accepted, the Coliseum most surely will be demolished. Regardless, though, the city disconnected utilities to the building three years ago, leaving it at the mercy of Memphis' wide seasonal swings in temperature and humidity.
 
The entire area of the Fairgrounds falls under the jurisdiction of the City's Division of Parks and Neighborhoods, operated by a management company, Global Spectrum.
 
"There's not much to see other than looking at a building every day," says Parks and Neighborhoods Deputy Director Larry Smith. "We have security in the building, it's not open to the public, we don't use it internally for staff, we just maintain a security system and have minimum egress lights on in case we need to get in there, but essentially it's offline."
 
The Coliseum was designed by Furbringer & Ehrman architects with design work by Robert Lee Hall who would also design city skyscrapers 100 North Main and the Clark Tower. It was the first public building in the city to be built without segregated restrooms and was placed on the National Historic Register in 2000. Such a designation doesn't save it from the wrecking ball, per se. However, if federal funds were to be used for such demolition and a redevelopment of the area, a review of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 would come into effect, and community-wide research would have to be done to determine whether a negative impact would be had on the area.
 
"We had a meeting here two years ago for people to come and voice their concerns and interests and what they thought about the Coliseum," says June West, Executive Director of Memphis Heritage. Despite such input, the board of this collective community conscience has yet to take a position on its hopes for the Coliseum.
 
Activists have organized in attempts to save the Coliseum much as they did in attempts to save Libertyland, which closed in 2005, and to keep the iconic Zippin Pippin rollercoaster in town. That ride would eventually move to Green Bay, Wis.; the Grand Carousel from the amusement park is currently in storage in the Coliseum. The group Save the Mid-South Coliseum, and its accompanying Facebook page, has looked for momentum in the way that Save Overton Square did, and also perhaps for a benefactor such as what the latter found in Loeb Properties, which has developed the Square to resounding success.
 
"One of the things we're seeing in preservation today is we can't save things just to save them, there's got to be an alternative use," West says. "There's got to be a plan in place, it doesn't mean that every 'T' has to be crossed and every 'I' has to be dotted, but you've got to have a damn good reason and justification for what you can do with that space."
 
While ideas such as a professional wrestling hall of fame have been thrown around over the years, all West asks is, "Give us time to create that, don't slam us and say you've got to make that tomorrow, but let us have the time for strategy and see what we can come up with."
 
West has looked into the numbers offered to retrofit the infrastructure to become ADA compliant and sees some discrepancy there. But, she says, "the bones are good enough" in the building to be of further use for a long time to come. So much, though, is left open-ended and hinges on the TDZ plan.
 
Parks and Neighborhoods, too, is in a wait-and-see holding pattern. "We’re only involved in it to the extent that they (the City of Memphis) share their plans with us, get our input, so that we can put into context what the continued operation of the facility is as plans materialize," says Smith.
 
West admits that saving such a structure is a tough sell. "I don't know who now is willing to come to the table and have a strong opinion about it as far as what it could be, but I think that opportunity needs to be put out there for people to come forward and at least voice their opinions."
 
Have a question about the unknown future of a building, a stalled development project, or a confusing city plan? Write to Richard Alley and ask him what's going on with it.

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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