Community coalition sets the stage for something new at the Coliseum

In a new city climate where historic structures and long forgotten neighborhoods are being energetically revitalized, a coalition of Memphians insists the Mid-South Coliseum has a shot at a re-imagined future that capitalizes on its music history. Could their vision stay the wrecking ball?
When it comes to conversation about the Mid-South Coliseum, there seems to be new opinions and new considerations daily. High Ground wrote about the building's seemingly bleak future last year, but new energy around its restoration may be changing that forgone conclusion.

In the on-going dialogue about the building's future, members of the Coliseum Coalition have the loudest voices on the side of revitalization, demanding that plans for the Coliseum—indeed, the entire Fairgrounds area—be given a second chance at being re-imagined. Coalition member and frequent spokesman Mike McCarthy says the groups is over 2,000 people strong.

The members argue that eight years ago, when ink was put to the original plans for the Fairgrounds redevelopment by Henry Turley, Memphis was in a different state of affairs. The economic bust of 2008 loomed large. The popularity of youth sports also was large. With participation dwindling, reports show the youth sports industry may no longer be the concept to hitch the Fairgrounds' wagon to.
“We don’t have to actualize a holdover plan. It is time to think, to reimagine the possibilities, to gather a fresh batch of new ideas in new light of how things are now,” said Marvin Stockwell, a member of the Coliseum Coalition. “Unlike some structures that cannot be salvaged, the Coliseum is not an unusable building that has been ravaged by the elements. In fact, a lot of the building looks like it was used last night and someone just turned off the lights and went home. No one is doubting that it will take some renovation to bring the Coliseum back to life, but we need to find a plan that all of Memphis can get behind. Inner-city development should meld with the surrounding neighborhoods, not exclude their residents. As it stands now, a Tourism Development Zone is focused on the youth sports industry and could bring in tourism dollars—but at the expense of excluding many local children and families.”
The Memphis of today looks a lot different from the landscape of five years ago, with successful neighborhood revitalization taking hold. What was seemingly impossible in redevelopment then is fast becoming a reality.  From Cooper-Young to South Main and from Broad Avenue to Overton Square, areas with overlooked possibilities are being championed—and they are thriving.

Many historic properties are getting a second lease on life, too: Howard Hall, the Tennessee Brewery, the Chisca Hotel and the Sears Crosstown building, to name but a few examples. Memphis is experiencing a building boom of a different nature, one that honors our past and our history. For a myriad of reasons, we aren’t as quick to demolish existing structures. Instead, we are pausing long enough to ask ourselves, “Can this be saved for a different use?”

So the question is, shouldn’t we apply that same option to the Coliseum?
Stockwell’s sentiments are shared by many others. A Fairgrounds Forum was held recently at Circuit Playhouse, floating the “What if?” question to a packed house, people showing a great interest in the future of the Fairgrounds and the Coliseum. A Facebook page for the Coliseum boasts over 12,000 Likes, all for a venue that is not even functioning.
Stockwell insists that interest is not purely nostalgic.
“Sure, there’s an awareness of the past, but this is not about being sentimental. This is about Memphians being encouraged. They are starting to get used to good things happening. They are becoming comfortable with possibilities being actualized. They are gaining the confidence to stand up and ask ‘Why not?’ They are seeing positive changes take hold all around them. Food deserts are being filled with community gardens and farmers markets, and Memphis has gone from being one of the least bike-friendly cities in America to being one that is top-rated. With triumphs like those, Memphians have a renewed sense of self and they want to build on that momentum so that they can have a better life, a better city,” said Stockwell.
“Why dedicate a prime, inner-city space to a concept that Any Town USA can do?” Stockwell continued. “Why not make it our own by building on something that makes us unique? We are the city that invented rock and roll, where the blues tradition came together, and where initial inroads to break down segregation barriers took place as Booker T and the MG’s pooled their talents at Stax [Records].”
Most are willing to agree that music is a key element of the Memphis brand. And support for enhancing the city's musical tradition—and future—is growing.  Music is being embraced city-wide, whether through education opportunities at Visible School of Music, The Stax Academy or the Rudi Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis or through support of local venues like Minglewood Hall, the Levitt Shell, Memphis Botanic Garden’s Summer Concert Series or the recently opened Lafayette’s Music Room.
McCarthy said, “America survives by regionalism, not by some group of corporate consultants coming in and telling you what you should be. Southerners take pride in being authentic, meaning original, and the Coliseum is an authentic venue for Memphis. This is a case of ‘city brand on public land.’ We’ve been told that the Coliseum would need to generate just under $200,000 a month in tax revenue to be an operable option. Basically, that’s two to four concert shows a month, in addition to revenue from retail that could be set up in the concourse. And the Coalition is also looking at ways to tie in two other Memphis brands, basketball and wrestling.”
“Since the Coliseum was mothballed, our music-based tourism has suffered. The non-compete clause the FedExForum has with the City of Memphis mandates that any show with 5,000 or more seats is the sole property of the Forum, in order to limit direct competition from the Coliseum or the Pyramid. That arrangement had the direct effect of channeling business to DeSoto County where it created a business opportunity for music venues at Snowden Grove and the Landers Center. Subsequently, Memphis has fallen off many concert tour circuits because we no longer offer a mid-sized venue. In essence, we no longer have a fully fleshed-out music portfolio and we have lost some of our branding as a Music City. We need to redirect that money back to Memphis,” said Stockwell.
“In Tupelo, they have created a mid-size venue called BancorpSouth Arena from a Woolco store in a former Penney’s mall. It has become a place that bands go to practice before they go on their world tours. Typically they stay in Tupelo for up to two weeks, and that brings in a lot of revenue for their city,” said Coliseum Coalition member Jordan Danelz. “That could be one aspect of what we do here.”
To help re-imagine the use of the Mid-South Coliseum, an event is being designed to give the public a glimpse of “what could be.” Plans are underway for a “Pop-Up” event on May 23, similar to the New Face for an Old Broad event held on Broad Avenue or the MEMFix events in Crosstown, The Edge and University Districts. True to the concept of highlighting what is unique to Memphis, food trucks and local craft beers, as well as local personalities, will be on tap. As a means to show that the building is not irreparable, but in fact is in pretty good shape, limited tours will be available inside the Coliseum, pending approval from the City of Memphis.
Stockwell concludes, “We could have a broader vision here. It’s our chance to come up with a good idea that capitalizes on our history and our brand—music. We could set our sights on developing a musical Eco-system, one that promotes music training and proficiency, as well as performances. And that, would be music to my ears.”
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Read more articles by Emily Adams Keplinger.