The Coliseum operated for 42 years before closing in 2007. Any serious look at the Coliseum’s future must also look at its past.
Designed for the Future
The Mid-South Coliseum was conceived as part of the 1960 Fairgrounds master plan created by Vandenburg-Linkletter Associates. Designed by architects Furbringer and Ehrman, and Robert Lee Hall & Associates, it opened in 1964 at a total construction cost of $4.7 million dollars. It was Memphis’ first racially integrated public facility by conception and design. The central structure of the Coliseum, its dome, was built from concrete and steel, with brick on the exterior walls, glazed ceramic tiles on the interior walls, concrete roof decking, and terrazzo tiles on the interior floors. It was designed to hold up to 10,000 people.
40 Years of Stories
The Coliseum’s first show was Ringling Brothers Circus in late 1964, and its last show was Widespread Panic on July 29, 2006. In the 42 years between, it hosted a wide and historic array of artists, teams and events that included the WDIA Goodwill and Starlite Revues, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the NCAA Memphis State Tigers, the ABA Memphis Tams, Monday Night Wrestling and and an untold number of high school and college graduations.
Competition and Closing
The 1991 opening of the 20,000-seat Pyramid Arena was the first significant competition for the Coliseum at scale. The Memphis State (later University of Memphis) Tigers left the Coliseum and made their new home in the Pyramid. Although considered inferior to the Coliseum acoustically, the Pyramid was able to attract larger acts with its significantly larger capacity. Nevertheless, the
Pyramid and Coliseum, both owned in a City of Memphis/Shelby County partnership, were still able to coexist after the opening. The Coliseum carried financial surpluses until the late 1990s, when the minor league hockey team, the Riverkings, a major tenant, announced its move to the new, 8,400-seat DeSoto Civic Center arena (later known as the Landers Center) for the 2000 season.
In 2001, City of Memphis and Shelby County agreed to build a new arena for the relocating NBA franchise, the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies. As part of the arena contract, the Grizzlies agreed to manage the arena and also negotiated a non-competition covenant, which gave the Grizzlies a say in which events would be allowed at the Pyramid and the Coliseum. Adding to the real competition from the extra seats of the Forum and the Pyramid was a contract clause that potentially restricted the Coliseum’s freedom to host events.
In 2005, the United States Department of Justice entered into a settlement with the City of Memphis to remediate Americans with Disabilities Act violations in its facilities, including the Coliseum. Citing arena competition, the non-competition covenant and the cost of Coliseum’s ADA remediation, the City closed the Coliseum to the public in early 2007.
The Doldrums and New Interest
During the 10 years of public closing, the Coliseum provided storage space for the City of Memphis, including the disassembled Grand Carousel, originally part of the demolished Libertyland. More important, the Coliseum continued to be a central issue and flashpoint for a redeveloped Fairgrounds. After many studies, committees and public meetings regarding the Fairgrounds, the City of Memphis announced in 2015 that they were going to apply for a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) to the State of Tennessee with an emphasis on Youth Sports Tourism. Referencing the cost of renovations and ADA compliance, arena competition, and the FedEx Forum’s non-competition covenant, the TDZ application called for the removal of the Coliseum and a significant amount of existing parking, and replacement with baseball fields and an indoor multipurpose facility designed to attract regional and national youth sports tournaments to the Fairgrounds. The public and political reaction against the TDZ was immediate and strongly negative, partly due to the loss of the Coliseum in the plan, partly due to the competition that the youth sports idea presented to equivalent, existing facilities in Shelby County, and partly due to general skepticism that youth sports tourism was the best and highest use of the Fairgrounds.
Supporters of the Coliseum began a lobbying campaign against the destruction of the building, culminating in two major public events on the Coliseum grounds, Roundhouse Revival and Roundhouse Revival II, to show and build support for a fresh and honest look at reopening the Coliseum. Conceding the public opposition to its TDZ plan, the City of Memphis announced in May 2015 that it had asked the Urban Land Institute to study the Fairgrounds issue and issue a report. After a series of public and one-on-one meetings in June of 2015, the Urban Land Institute issued its report on June 12, 2015 calling for a TDZ with dramatically reduced retail, scaled back youth sports, the reopening of the Coliseum as an open air amphitheater called the Coliseum Center, and a citizen-led group to oversee the Fairgrounds and the issues of its adjoining communities. The City accepted the report with the goal of executing its recommendations but municipal elections intervened, resulting in change in the Mayor’s office. The new administration initially took a wait and see approach with the Fairgrounds and the Coliseum. However, when Wiseacre Brewing approached the City about leasing the Coliseum for their expanded brewing facility, the City agreed and offered Wiseacre a lease and a 180-day due diligence period to investigate the viability of replacing the interior arena with their manufacturing floor.
The Future Begins Again
On April 4, 2017, the City of Memphis announced that Wiseacre had decided to pass on the Coliseum for expansion. In the same announcement, the City stated that they would reopen the Fairgrounds TDZ process, starting from the 2015 recommendations of the Urban Land Institute report, with a goal to apply to the State in Fall 2017. Also on April 4, the Coliseum Coalition issued its “Mid-South Coliseum Property Condition and Assessment Report”, on the physical state of the building, including a cost estimate of the modernization. The estimate included the amount needs for the Coliseum to reach Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. The cost: $23 million, which is $7 million less than previous estimates for renovation and at least $7 million less than the cost to build a multipurpose facility to replace the Coliseum.