For the sake of soul and $52 million*, The Coliseum, and Memphis communities, deserve better
StoryBoard Memphis was founded with the mission to support local arts, culture and community. Part of this mission includes supporting and shining a spotlight on the city’s authentic assets within the framework of advocating for viable and sustainable historic preservation. ~Mark Fleischer
The Memphis Business Journal referred to it as the Mount Everest of abandoned Memphis properties. “Most people,” one leading individual said, “looked at it as a great obstacle.” And a local prominent developer said that the best bet was to tear down the building and start over.
The property was the long-vacant Sears Crosstown building, once one of over a dozen nationwide distribution hubs for the mighty Sears & Roebuck. The prominent developer was none other than Henry Turley, who said “It is so overwhelmingly large that you must tear it down.”
And the leading individual was Todd Richardson, co-founder of Crosstown Arts and co-leader of Crosstown Concourse, who for a 2021 WMCTV interview was looking back at the determined efforts to restore the building and return vitality and sustainability to the building.
It seemed a herculean task when the team started in 2010. A massive building of over 1.5 million square feet sitting on 16 acres of broken concrete and weeds, abandoned and vacant for 20 years. A feasibility study determined that it would take upwards of $200 million just to restore the building. And once restored, who would occupy it, and how?
You know the story. The Concourse team knew the restoration would be possible “only with a complex mix of funding sources, including city, county, state, federal, philanthropic, and private financing. Most importantly, a large majority of the space would have to be pre-leased in order to secure financing for the project” (Crosstown Concourse, Our Story). It is now a monumental, award-winning success story and an important Memphis anchor in a key corridor between the Medical District and Midtown, a vertical village of health care services, restaurants, nonprofits, Crosstown Arts, the radio station WYXR, the Listening Lab, 265 residential units, artists-in-residency programs, and even a high school.
Across town about 4 miles and 10 minutes away lies another long-vacant property, the historic Mid-South Coliseum, the 124,000 square-foot arena that opened to great fanfare in 1964, became the site of iconic sports, entertainment, music and civic events. It has been vacant since 2007, shuttered due to cuts in operating expenditures and for being non-ADA compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act).
Since then, the City of Memphis has kicked Coliseum decisions down the road, with an exception being made to “mothball” the structure under the terms of a Fairgrounds TDZ, approved by the State in 2018 (more on that in a minute). Meanwhile, the Coliseum Coalition, formed in 2015 with a mandate to make a compelling and feasible case to revitalize and repurpose the historic building, has been hard at work with private tours and a few “Roundhouse Revival” events under the good faith and the OK of the city and Mayor Jim Strickland’s office.
With the approval of a Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) funding program by the State Building Commission in November 2018, it got a stay of execution and appeared safe for the foreseeable future, mothballed until uses could be explored to bring the building back to life. Language written into the application approved by the state commission stated that “The Mid-South Coliseum and other historic buildings are preserved rather than demolished.”
But last week, Mayor Strickland issued a formal request for information seeking a designer for a proposed minor league soccer stadium at the Coliseum site for the club 901 FC, with an early pre-determined price tag of $52 million. As part of the proposal, the Mayor called for a full demolition of the Coliseum.
For some, the Mayor’s proposal arrived as long-overdue, the next steps in the continuing efforts to overhaul the Fairgrounds, developments that are now slated in part by the $350 million requested by Mayor Strickland and now included in Tennessee Governor Lee’s proposed 2023-24 fiscal year state budget. This cash funding, if approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, is earmarked specifically for major renovations to FedEx Forum and Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
But for the Memphians and local groups who have been fighting long and tirelessly to save and revitalize the Coliseum, the news of Mayor Strickland’s proposal, though not surprising, arrived like a gut punch.
It also now raises a multitude of questions, about the financial resources, viability, and the future sustainability of a minor league soccer stadium in Memphis. It also raises questions about the potential use of millions in public funds on professional sports in a city plagued by poverty, crime, and disinvestment in communities with great, day-to-day needs. Regarding the Coliseum, the questions raised by many interests in Midtown and throughout the city seem to center around what appears to be a black hole in determination, creativity, sheer will on the part of the city, and a lack of commitment to the city’s legacy, its authentic assets, and to the communities nearest the Coliseum.
A Minor League Soccer Stadium, and *$52 Million?
The minor league soccer club 901FC has shown promise as a valuable city asset and attraction, and in this column, we are not questioning the value of supporting the club with a new venue. However, questions abound regarding the selection of the Coliseum site and to the finances.
With no designer yet selected and no designs yet in place, how is the city determining a proposed cost of $52 million? If the estimate is coming from similar developments around the nation, the estimate raises more questions.
There has been talk about competing against a similar stadium as one built in Louisville, Kentucky. That stadium cost $65 million (when completed in 2019). With pandemic construction inflation, such a figure could swell to over $80 million. Considering that the Mid-South Coliseum will cost at least $10 million to demolish (based on the city’s 2017 estimates), the price tag of a new stadium would amount to more than $62 million (still only a portion needed to match the aspired-to quality and quantity that is Louisville’s).
Further, in an article published last year in Field of Schemes – “Plague of minor-league soccer stadium subsidy demands reaches pandemic proportions” – writer Neil deMause questions the glut and long-term return on investment of minor league soccer stadiums popping up nationwide. In the article, the author references the Center for Economic Accountability’s position that sports stadiums, thanks to being closed and empty most of the time, have less economic impact than your typical supermarket or chain food store. “Publicly funded stadium projects never deliver the economic benefits promised by politicians,” says the Center for Economic Accountability. In the same Field of Schemes article, the author calls to question the subsidies being offered to cities interested in building these stadiums, comparing the dangling of subsidies as akin to Ponzi schemes.
State and TDZ Funds
Again, where then would the moneys come from? The various narratives on funding options and explorations gets confusing (as referenced the Tim Buckley’s Daily Memphian article, link below).
The $350 million in state funds are earmarked specifically for FedEx Forum and Simmons Bank Liberty Bowl renovations. There have been ideas floated around about expanding the language of the appropriation of the $350 million, but beyond that, any moneys to pay for a new stadium would have to come significantly from taxpayers’ pockets, from Memphis CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) funds, or other undetermined or private sources.
For more on the current state of developments on this issue, see the Daily Memphian’s coverage here.
As stated earlier, the 2018 approval by the State Building Commission of a Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) funding program stated that “The Mid-South Coliseum and other historic buildings are preserved rather than demolished.” This begs the question: What are the implications of the city reversing course on a State-approved program that contained the condition of preserving the Coliseum?
Other questions, and concerns about minor league soccer
Once Memphis commits to the soccer stadium, it will have to finish it, no matter the cost.
Is 901FC ownership putting any dollar investments into the stadium?
What are the new stadium’s operating costs, and will Memphis be on the hook for them?
And what about other sites? Numerous vacant sites around town are ripe for new developments. And many folks I talk to believe that such a new stadium really ought to be nearer downtown. At least 3 sites around downtown are viable. And even within the Fairgrounds themselves, 5 sites could accommodate a new stadium footprint (as shown in this map developed by the Coliseum Coalition).
And speaking of sites, what about the Simmons Bank Liberty Bowl? With millions in improvements going to the stadium, would the stadium not be an acceptable, if not great venue for 901FC? Most of their season does not overlap with the Tigers’ football schedule.
901FC is a 4-year-old minor league soccer franchise, in the lower half of USL league, that averages 3,000+ fans. The former Memphis River Kings averaged 4,000+ in their last season in Memphis, in 2000. Would Memphis have built the River Kings a new facility in 2000?
“A derelict eyesore,” and a lack of suitors?
I find the ‘derelict’ and ‘eyesore’ claims and comments on social media to be disingenuous, false, and just plain ignorant. For those who have visited the building recently or at all in the last eight years, they know that it is in great shape. I’ve now toured the place a half-dozen times. I’ve strolled the concourses, stepped up to the ticket counters, stood in the press box, explored the room where the Beatles’ held their famous press conference, and marveled at the building’s still-perfect acoustics. I’ve learned that the place itself – it was built to last – is structurally in excellent shape, conditions corroborated by studies conducted by private firms and by the city itself.
As for suitors, in addition to their Roundhouse Revival events, the Coliseum Coalition has hosted over 130 tours of the building, most to influencers and to parties who could have made real investments into finding new uses for the building. However, unlike the recent request for information issued for a new soccer stadium, no formal requests (RFI or RFP (request for proposal)*) have ever been issued for a revived Coliseum. And minus any formal requests, just four proposals have been publicly submitted to the City for new use of the Building; one proposal was never acted upon and then later rejected after a second try due to insufficient capital; another dismissed (for good cause); and one withdrawal (Wiseacre). Moreover, according to anonymous sources, potential suitors in the recent past have been turned away. This lack of effort leads us to speculate on something more troubling, that within the powerbroker circles in the city, there may have never been a genuine interest in reviving the building, much less saving it.
*Requests for information (RFI) entail requests for potential solutions; whereas requests for proposal (RFP) are used for formal bidding processes on a project.
Coliseum Coalition studies have found that the costs of Coliseum improvements – bringing the venue up to ADA standards, removing and repairing seats, adding railings, improving locker and press rooms amenities, making needed roof repairs, and wiring the building for wi-fi – would cost around $25 million plus for the preliminary work needed to meet these improvements, and roughly $40 million for a complete revival. Conceivably, if the city committed to these improvements, they could have had Coliseum suitors swarming in to present proposals.
A Will and a Vision
In terms of a vision and a plan, the Coliseum Coalition team provided it in 2017 (along with a 2019 revision), completing a “Modernization and Operations Business Plan” the details everything from the condition of the building to the many possible uses that would create a sustainable model for ongoing use and continuous revenue, and become a “a cornerstone for an amateur sports complex in a re-developed Fairgrounds.”
Like the Crosstown Concourse team, the Coliseum team understood that multi-use provides the most viable solution to sustainability, that “Like the Fairgrounds, the Mid-South Coliseum is at its highest and best use with as many uses as we can imagine, as the Coliseum flexibly morphs from event to event, activity to activity, day to day.”
As the report states, these uses can include:
- Championship venue for the Fairgrounds Sports Complex.
- Welcome and Hospitality Center for outdoors Fairgrounds events on the scale of both Tiger Lane and the Liberty Bowl.
- Event-driven transit hub for the Fairgrounds, giving a comfortable and secure mass transit, taxi, ride-sharing, valet, and individual pickup location for patrons of Fairgrounds events.
- World-class arena space restored to host most indoor sports, up to 4,999 seats.
- World-class arena space restored to host most indoor entertainment performances, up to 4,999 seats.
- Flat floor space for community performances.
- Arena and flat floor space available to host myriad civic uses, including high school and college graduations, jury duty, regional political conventions, and job fairs.
- Arena, flat floor, and meeting room space to host regional conventions and trade shows.
- Flat floor fundraising and charitable events.
- Rehearsal venue for arena performances.
- Exhibition and office space for small museums.
- Exhibition space for pop-up art galleries.
- Office space for sports, tourism, and entertainment businesses.
- Office space for satellite public services.
- Emergency bad-weather venue for outdoor events from the region.
- Large-scale community space for weather events.
- Concourse filled with pop-up concessions from local chefs and artisans in the manner of food trucks.
- A full-service bar, the Mid-Century Lounge, serving mixed drinks and beer during major Fairgrounds events.
- Walking concourse for indoor exercise.
The Coalition’s Business Plan is a comprehensive, immediately executable action plan, including a market analysis, capital needs and resources, a business plans for operations, and a definitive timetable. I encourage everyone to give it a look.
Heading the 4 miles back to Crosstown Concourse, co-founder Todd Richardson once said that their biggest obstacle was getting others to believe in the vision. “It wasn’t easy,” wrote Richard Lawson, for CoStar. “Crosstown Concourse took seven years from concept to completion with a unique development team that included an art history professor, an artist and the grandson of Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson.”
For the same CoStar article, K.C. Conway, chief economist for CCIM Institute, an organization that offers courses and certification for commercial real estate investment sales brokers, said “You really have to have a local heavyweight” who has a philanthropic mind to get such large redevelopment projects done.
We see this in Memphis as well. From the River Parks Partnership’s major renovations of Tom Lee Park to the complete restorations of the Tennessee Brewery, the Snuff Building and District, and Crosstown Concourse. Notably, one of those – Tom Lee Park – is on city-owned property. Its development was backed by local heavyweights, but has been met with contentiousness from the start, subject to both praise and distaste.
Save it, or it’s gone forever
I arrived here in Memphis in 2015. I never got to see a concert at the Coliseum. Nor a basketball game. Nor Wrastlin’. Nor a high school graduation. I don’t have a nostalgia bug to inform my opinion.
But from a still-an-outsider looking in, the structure’s history alone makes it worth saving. The fact that it’s in such great shape and that so many potential reuses exist for the building – including putting Memphis back on the national map for touring bands that can’t fill FedExForum and that instead take their music and ticket sales to the Landers Center – it seems a no-brainer to do everything possible to retain a place that embodies so much of what makes Memphis Memphis. It is also a community asset, in a prime location that bridges Midtown with Orange Mound to the south, befitting its origins as a building constructed as the first auditorium in Memphis planned as an integrated facility and the first major structure in the region built without the constraints of segregation. It was built, as community activist Angela Barksdale so eloquently stated, as the People’s Building.
From an outsider’s perspective I would wonder, Why can’t Memphis figure this out? Or more disturbingly, Why won’t they? As my deepening understanding of Memphis history tells me, too often city leaders and powerbrokers fail to realize or otherwise ignore the importance of the authenticity of place, that shiny new objects do not advance the improvements to communities in poverty, and are not what continues to deepen the soul and history Memphis is so known, admired and loved for – it’s places like the Coliseum that keep that flame and heritage alive.
No, as a non-native I don’t have my own Coliseum memories. I am, as it were, a Yankee. Raised in California by New Yorkers with Bronx blood. And it was in 2010 – the same year that the Crosstown Concourse team began their herculean efforts – that I watched from 3000 miles away as the upper decks of the old Yankee Stadium came crashing down, my memories and a part of my soul along with them.
In its place, completed across the street in 2009, is the behemoth that cost $2.3 billion to build. I still haven’t forgiven the Yankee organization. Sure, I understand the challenges the Yankees faced. The 1923 House That Ruth Built would have likely required a few years’ worth of engineering feats to stabilize the massive upper decks and new, technological resources to open and expand the old gal’s concourses to meet today’s fan demands. But its absence still stings. And in a narrative too often seen around the country – teams syphoning off billions from the public for stadium financing – many of the organization’s promises to the poor Bronx neighborhoods surrounding the stadium have fallen through, including the restoration of neighborhood parkland that was taken for the new stadium.
As for a new Memphis soccer stadium, if financing does not come from Governor Lee’s earmarked budget nor any of the TDZ revenues, I would hate – no, I would be indignant – to think that the city would be willing to invest millions in public moneys while disinvested neighborhoods continue to suffer.
As for the Coliseum’s fate, I ask these final questions. If feasibility studies tell us it would cost less to restore the building than demolish it and build something new; if so many questions remain about the costs, viability and sustainability of a new soccer stadium; if numerous other empty sites could accommodate a new stadium; if so much history and heritage would be lost with the Coliseum’s destruction; what then? Memphis is one of the most creative and innovative places on the planet. Surely those with power and purse strings could find a way if they so desired.
The leaders behind Crosstown remind us that if there is the will, there is a way. The only remaining question then, is one of such will. And where, I ask, is that?
Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. The Orpheum’s Forgotten History was originally published as a front-page feature in StoryBoard’s former print edition in November of 2018. This summer-long online series expands from the confines of print and features more in-depth stories and analysis, never-before published interviews and stories, and recorded interviews from the participants who brought the vintage palace back to life.
And oh by the way, I’m still a Yankee fan, don’t get me wrong. 3rd generation, after my father and my grandfather, who saw Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play in what was once known as The Cathedral of Baseball. My dad got to see Mickey Mantle roam center field, I got to see Don Mattingly snag double-play balls at first base, and for one last hot summer day in 2007, I took my son one final time to the House That Ruth Built to see Derek Jeter slice line drives to right.
But then just like that, the Cathedral was gone.