On the Tear-Down 

The case for demolishing and moving the Richmond Coliseum.

click to enlarge news14_coliseum_100.jpg

Even on the sunniest days, the cold, concrete mushroom on Leigh Street feels like an outdoor dungeon. Bulky and brown, the giant pillars leaking and cracking by the front steps to the main entrance, the 36-year-old Richmond Coliseum is outshined and outclassed by the sparkling new $320 million Philip Morris research facility across the street.

In a city steeped in history, the Coliseum is the ugly kid brother — a remnant of downtown's recent inglorious past, which headed downhill in the 1970s. The Coliseum's from a bygone era when anything that brought anyone downtown was considered a success. So when talk turns to expanding the Coliseum — because its 12,000 seats can't accommodate, say, the Rolling Stones — the thought springs to mind: Why not build a bigger one?

The case is already being made by Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene P. Trani, City Council President William J. Pantele and other city leaders. The Coliseum, they say, is in desperate need of revamping. Some $7.1 million in repairs were recently completed, and another $975,000 is being spent to repair the roof, but those are only cosmetic fixes.

What they haven't mentioned publicly is a bit more radical: Why not move it out of the downtown area altogether?

The logic goes something like this: Moving the Coliseum elsewhere would free up about 10 acres of prime real estate downtown to be developed commercially — more specifically, as part of the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park.

A public facility, the Coliseum isn't on the city's tax rolls. But across the street, Philip Morris is. So for tax purposes, it's worthy of comparison. The Philip Morris facility, expected to be completed this summer, will bring $2.5 million in real estate taxes to the city every year, not to mention 500 high-paying jobs with more economic spinoff.

The Coliseum, on the other hand, brought in $639,013 in admission, meals and sales taxes in fiscal 2006 — before expenses. Factoring bond payments, interest and operating expenses, the Coliseum actually operated at a net loss of $366,759 in that period. In fiscal year 2005, the Coliseum operated at a loss of more than $1.55 million.

Of course, the Coliseum wasn't built to be a moneymaker for the city. But that's just the point, say those who support moving it. The land on which it sits could be.

Pantele says the Coliseum property, if developed commercially, could, by his calculations, be bringing in at least another $8 million a year in tax revenues. "That changes the reality of Richmond," he says. "We've got some extremely valuable land with extreme potential on it."

Of course, that assumes the Coliseum site would have suitors. Not a problem, says Greg Wingfield, president of the Greater Richmond Partnership, the region's main economic-development recruitment agency

Just last week, Wingfield and the biotech park's chief executive, Robert T. Skunda, were in Bethesda, Md., pitching the virtues of Richmond to 40 to 50 biotech professionals. The park's already home to 50 companies, with nearly 2,000 scientists and researchers, including the state's top forensics laboratory and the United Network for Organ Sharing. If the land became available today, Wingfield says, it wouldn't take long to find a buyer.

"There is interest and surprise to what's going on with the [biotech] park and the eight buildings that are already there," Wingfield says. "Ten acres in an area that is continuing to escalate in value is huge."

With so much turmoil at City Hall, the idea isn't likely to get much attention in the coming weeks, or perhaps months. Two weeks ago, the city's chief financial officer and acting chief administrative officer, Harry Black, said the city would be open to discuss the idea, but says he views the Coliseum as an important amenity.

"I don't think that you just make a very quick and hasty observation that just does away with a venue like that without really looking at it in the context of the total community," Black says. For now, Black says, there are more pressing issues. Two weeks ago, Mayor Doug Wilder met with Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett and Chesterfield County Administrator Lane Ramsey about plans for the Diamond, Black says, which is first and foremost on the regional arena agenda.

Where to move the Coliseum? That's the $200 million question. The most obvious answer is the Boulevard, near The Diamond and Sports Backers Stadium, where the city owns property and the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control operates a distribution center. If those properties can be reconfigured, the sky's the limit.

Pantele has been working behind the scenes for more than a year with developers interested in the Boulevard area for retail development. It's no secret that retailers are somewhat wary of building around sports facilities and arenas. Those kinds of areas generate very little foot traffic for retailers that aren't located within the actual stadium. Even professional sports arenas rarely produce any positive economic spinoff, experts say.

But a collection of sports facilities, including The Diamond, the Coliseum and Sports Backers Stadium, along with VCU's planned tennis facility nearby and the recently talked of multimillion-dollar aquatics center — would create critical mass.

Wingfield, quick to point out he isn't a proponent of moving the Coliseum per se, says if the decision is made to move it, the Boulevard makes plenty of sense.

"Where would it have a leveraging effect?" Winfield ponders. "Do you just plop it down in Hanover County and put nothing around it, or do you look for a place where you can leverage resources?"

In fiscal year 2006, the Coliseum reported 137 events with an attendance of 516,981. Leverage that with the 70-plus nights The Diamond is host to the Richmond Braves and the activity at the other facilities nearby, Wingfield says, "then you have that kind of year-round effect." To potential retailers and restaurants, "it gives you more confidence that there is going to be a customer flow."

Keeping the Coliseum where it is isn't a bad idea, either. Dolly Vogt, the Coliseum's general manager, says the facility is still viable. It misses out on a few of the larger concerts each year, she says, but building anything with more than 16,000 to 18,000 seats in Richmond probably doesn't make a lot of sense.

"There are very few acts that can sell out over 10,000," Vogt says. "This serves us well. It's an intriguing idea, but it's really not my decision." S

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