Friday, September 23, 2005

If We Can't Have Just One Mayor, Can We At Least Have Just One Arena?

Now here’s a novel idea.

In a few weeks, just up river in St. Louis, they will actually demolish Busch Stadium, whose 39-year history has given thousands of us Memphians some of our favorite sports memories. For some, it’s Mark McGuire's now-tainted assault on Roger Maris’ single season home run record, but for me, it’s the glory years of Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda, Curt Flood, Joe Torre, Tim McCarver, and Julian Javier, not to mention my all-time favorite, Lou Brock, not just for how he destroyed Ty Cobb’s sanctified base stealing record, but for how he destroyed the plantation system that was major league baseball until he came along.

But back to the point, St. Louis will tear down a public building that has so much civic equity in its past, much as Atlanta blew up Fulton County Stadium although it was home to Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

Somehow, these cities are managing to cope with the disquietude that is associated with even a hint of tearing down the Mid-South Coliseum, much less The Pyramid.

Here, the Mid-South Coliseum serves as the poster child for the tired, sad-looking cluster of buildings that dot the Fairgrounds property. It’s like a sad dowager who's only a pale reflection of her former self. Its ceiling tiles are perilous identified flying objects at times, all of the bathrooms never work at the same time and its once state-of-the art amenities are time-worn and frayed.

Even without the Grizzlies non-compete clause, the building’s future is in the past, as Yogi Berra would say.

Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the city-county study that said the Coliseum should be sold or shut down. Without the investment of $5 - $12 million, the building could never be competitively appealing to the public, the study said.

At that time, local government was confused about what to do with the aging building in light of its practice of undercutting The Pyramid rental rates. Pitting The Pyramid and the Coliseum against each other as promoters did was never good for the public pocketbook, but the older building was able to offer lower rates because it was long since paid for.

The Coliseum was able to stave off its destruction by grabbing onto a minor league hockey team, but when the RiverKings departed for DeSoto County, there was no way the building’s finances could ever make any sense at all. City and county governments essentially would have been subsidizing one of the country’s most expensive ice skating rinks.

Despite all this, there the Coliseum still sits.

And the building that made it obsolete, The Pyramid, has now been forced into obsolescence by an even better arena, The FedEx Forum.

At the time of the city-county study of the Coliseum, the consulting firm could find only one city that had two arenas (one roughly in the 10,000-seat range and another roughly 20,000 seats) still operating – Philadelphia. But of course, its metro population happens to be four times larger than ours.

So, our community pondered what to do with the Coliseum and The Pyramid. And with no answer in sight, we built a third.

That’s at least one, and probably two, too many. The 41-year-old Coliseum is essentially dead. The 14-year-old Pyramid is on life support. It no longer is the Tomb of Doom. It is now merely a tomb. The inside of the building looks like it has been pillaged by grave robbers, and the air hangs heavy as it does in buildings whose doors are never opened.

Perhaps, the committee studying the best uses of The Pyramid can come up with something really spectacular and that can be a long-term success. It’s just hard sometimes not to see the simple logic of tearing it down. To do so isn’t admitting failure; it’s just acknowledging the real and understood cost of bringing a professional basketball franchise to Memphis, one of the two smallest markets for the N.B.A.

In his presentation to Memphis City Council this week, Mayor Herenton said City Hall’s continuing poor budgetary management causes local government to consider cutting any financial lifelines to both the Coliseum and The Pyramid. While it’s years late for the former and about time for the latter, the financial crisis of city and county governments can finally give political leaders the courage to make the decisions that mere leadership could not.

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