The Mid-South Coliseum's structural challenges are "solvable and certainly not insurmountable," according to some who have toured the shuttered facility last week. City officials will open the building up to preservationist groups next week.
The Coliseum has been in "full shut-down" since about 2006, meaning limited utilities and no heating or cooling. The building was targeted for demolition last year in an overall plan that would have transformed the Mid-South Fairgrounds into a youth sports destination.
It seems that plan has been at least temporarily shelved as its main booster — former Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb — was fired last year in the wake of a rape scandal.
But before that, two grassroots groups — the Coliseum Coalition and Save the Mid-South Coliseum — were fighting to save the building from the wrecking ball. They organized community members and hosted special events around the building to show its potential.
On Friday, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced he will allow citizen groups access to the Coliseum to evaluate the building's potential for renovation. Those groups must bring with them qualified inspection experts like architects, engineers, or consultants specializing in sports and entertainment facilities, historic preservation, or those versed in the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
All of them must sign a waiver, releasing the city of all liability from any harm caused due to potential hazardous materials or conditions in and around the building. Those tours are offered for the five days between June 6th and 10th in four-hour blocks. Groups can do up to two tours per day.
One group has already toured the Coliseum. Last week, architect Charles "Chooch" Pickard led a team from brg3s architects, SSR Engineering, Code Solutions Group, the Memphis Center for Independent Living, and Restoration Clean to examine the building. Experts tested everything from the building's plumbing system to its mold and air quality. The team was assembled by the Coliseum Coalition and Save the Mid-South Coliseum.
"I'm delighted that after spending three hours looking at all of the challenges, our team's preliminary opinion was that the issues were solvable and certainly not insurmountable," Pickard said. "When creative minds come together to create solutions to the challenges in old buildings, it often leads to a change in perception about the feasibility of renovating a historic structure."
Still, city officials have not yet made a firm commitment to saving the building. However, the tours show they are willing to at least explore the idea.
The Coliseum was closed in 2006 after losing more than $1 million in the last four years of its active life. Fixing the building, too, carried a big price tag.
Bringing it to ADA compliance alone would cost $8.6 million, according to a 2009 study from OT Marshall Architects. After fixing the roof, flooring, kitchens, sprinklers, drywall, and everything else, the total cost to bring the building back to life was $32.8 million, according to the study.
The Urban Land Institue recommended the Coliseum be saved or "at least part of the structure or its shell [be saved] for reuse as an indoor facility with a larger outdoor stage," the group said in a November study of the building and the Fairgrounds.
Plans for the Coliseum and the Fairgrounds remain in flux as a new mayor and nearly new Memphis City Council begin to put their stamps on city issues. Also, a new grassroots organization — Friends of the Fairgrounds — are organizing efforts for civic input around the future of that massive space.
Doug McGowen, the city's chief operating officer, said the Strickland administration have not yet committed to any plan for the Fairgrounds.
"We are reviewing the previous [Lipscomb] plan along with the [Urban Land Institue] recommendations before advancing any plan," read a statement from Strickland's office.