Questions about the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum continue to generate strong interest and passionate opinions. The Urban Land Institute was asked to weigh in toward the end of 2014 and directly and indirectly suggested that the auditorium and coliseum had surpassed their functional lives and that the city should look at building new facilities elsewhere. That proposal met with some resistance, particularly from some residents of east Knoxville.
In addition to the concern regarding the age and condition of the facilities, the Urban Land Institute pointed out that the area is not functional as it is set away from amenities like restaurants and bars where those attending events might go before or after the event. They recommended returning a street grid to the area with an emphasis on mixed-use development and mixed income housing.
The city decided to commission a study on the site to come back with recommendations. Do we need those venues or others their size? Are they really adequate with a little upgrade? Do they sit on a good site or not? These were some of the questions to be addressed.
The report, which is online in its entirety, was presented by Community Sports and Leisure representative Bill Krueger to a crowd of about two hundred gathered in the auditorium. He started by pointing out that the building, in use since 1961, has seen continual decline in booking, with about 75 days booked last year. An audience member later pointed out that nearly half of those dates of usage was for Hockey.
The scope of what was examined for the study was impressive. The group looked at the architecture, structure and condition of the facilities. They looked at comparable cities for comparison, as well as new facilities that have been built and how they compared. Promoters were contacted to see if they sent their artists to Knoxville or avoided it and why.
In the end, they laid out the options: Do nothing and the buildings will have to be closed. Undertake extensive renovations and the buildings can continue to function about as they are. Tear down the Coliseum and keep the auditorium while building a modern, larger facility on site. Or, finally, tear them both down and start over either there or elsewhere.
Comparisons were given of the costs and benefits from each of the choices. Doing nothing and shuttering the buildings was actually considered, but the group determined the size of the auditorium (2500 seats) fills a need for the city that nothing else fills. The Tennessee holds 1700 and that isn’t quite big enough for some events. The approximate 6500 seats in the Coliseum also fill a niche for larger acts too small for Thompson-Boling Arena, though they feel its replacement should be more on the order of 10,000 seats. They also felt in conversations with promoters that Knoxville would be much more on the concert map if a new arena is built.
Renovations could keep the buildings alive, but would be very costly and the buildings would continue to be unattractive for many artists. In the end, the study group felt this would be a waste of money – sort of throwing good money after bad – for the coliseum. They felt, however that the auditorium could be saved and benefit from improvements.
Which brings us to the option of saving the auditorium and demolishing the coliseum. This is the favored course of action and it includes building the new arena on the site of the current Mary Costa Plaza. One option has it horizontal to the auditorium and another removes the parking garage on site to allow for a vertical positioning of the arena. In either case, the current coliseum could continue to operate while the new facility is being built. This is the option favored by the study committee.
The final option of leveling both buildings and starting over has some appeal in that both facilities could be completely modern acoustically and in every other way. But it also the most expensive option and the current site is likely the best available, though the committee also noted, as did the Urban Land Institute, that something needs to be done around it to integrate it into some sort of urban fabric. They even mentioned mixed use – residential and retail – possibilities for the spot where the coliseum sits now, once it is demolished. They talked about the need for it to be “a district.”
In a financial nutshell, simple renovation to make the two serviceable for a few more years would cost $26 to $33 million. To build an arena and re-work the auditorium would cost $141 – $205 million. To scrap both and start over would cost $221 – $279 million. The additional piece of the financial reality is that while the revenue would escalate tremendously, so would costs and the 1.1 million we lose each year now would not be erased, though it might be reduced. Mr. Krueger suggested that the only profitable arenas have multiple sports uses.
Comments from the crowd followed and, clearly, the largest contingent consisted of supporters of the Ice Bears. In fact, the whole team dropped in for a while. Overwhelmingly, the eighteen people who spoke backed the retention of the auditorium and the construction of a new arena. The hockey supporters get a regulation rink and sight lines that include the entire rink. A number of people from Brian Salesky, executive director of Knoxville Opera, speaking of both the Opera company and symphony, to local promoter Garret Thomson, spoke of the difficulties of presenting good performances in the venues.
Some expressed concern over cost, though Mr. Salesky expressed some faith that Knoxville citizens would support a small tax for something so important to the whole community. One audience member questioned whether more parking might be needed for a larger arena, to which Mr. Krueger responded very clearly that we do not need to build more parking. He, like so many others who visit the city, seem to feel that’s something we have in abundance.
So, those present seemed to form a consensus that an arena is a good idea and that we’d like to keep the auditorium. The money is the biggest question in the room and some ideas were discussed, but that’s a question for later. Personally, I would love to see us do it and do it very well. It would be a point of civic pride and it would transform the concert scene in the city.
I would, however, like to hear a commitment on the part of the city to restore that section of town to an urban grid. I would want to see something done on the surrounding property. The police station and family justice center could go elsewhere and James White Parkway, which cuts a horrific canyon behind the facility needs to be covered over and that space reclaimed for use, returning some semblance of walkabilty to the area on all sides of the site. Two outside groups have told us that making this area functional will require more that simply constructing a new building.
Will Knoxville support this expenditure? Will we talk about it through this administration and the next? Do we have the courage required to spend that kind of money? What do you think? What would you like to see us do? Feel free to answer those questions below, but also let the city know directly by sending comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.