MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tiana Pyles remembers how a piece of Orange Mound’s identity was lost when the W.C. Handy Theater was ground into dust in 2012.
The theater, which was built in 1946 in the first neighborhood in the South to allow African-Americans to buy homes and property, attracted entertainers ranging from Count Basie to the Bar-Kays.
“My grandmother used to talk about all the acts that used to come to the theater, one of our historic landmarks,” said Pyles, who is executive director of the Orange Mound Community Development Corporation.
Unfortunately, blight and neglect caused that landmark to be lost to the bulldozer. Which Pyles understands.
But if that becomes the fate of the Mid-South Coliseum, which closed in 2006, Pyles, as well as Jerome Robinson and other Orange Mound residents, won’t quite understand that.
“My parents, they met there, and my grandmother used to enjoy the wrestling matches there. This is definitely a staple of Orange Mound,” Pyles said. “It provided some jobs for us, and Liberty Land (an amusement park located on the Mid-South Fairgrounds that closed in 2005) did so as well.
“But with Liberty Land gone, and the Coliseum not up and running, that has affected us economically. I think it would be great for us to have a venue that we don’t have to run either to (Southaven) Mississippi or downtown, to enjoy.”
“I think the coliseum is a celebration of the Orange Mound community because it is an icon of our neighborhood,” said Robinson, a resident who is on the board of the Coliseum Coalition, which is working to preserve the structure.
“It was the first integrated facility in the region, and this is a place where our community can raise the bar and give our kids hope.right now our kids are an afterthought.”
However, the fate of the coliseum, which was built in 1963 and was the place where legends such as the Beatles and Elvis Presley performed, is in limbo. The city recently decided to pay $500,000 to mothball the arena as it plans to build a sports complex around it.
But that decision vexes members of the coalition, which had already done its own estimates and plans on costs to preserve and renovate it.
No doubt, the structure has historical significance. It is, after all, on the National Register of Historic Places. And Pyles and others hope the city’s decision to mothball the coliseum is a move to buy itself time to find the best way to repurpose it, and not to demolish it.
That’s because for Orange Mound residents like Pyles and Robinson, saving the coliseum not only means saving a piece of the neighborhood’s heritage. It means reviving a bit of its sustenance, as well.
They have a point.
In that area, a place where people work multiple jobs, the median household income is around $32,000 a year. At the least, a repurposed coliseum might expose youths to job possibilities from fairs or whatever venues that can be created there — not to mention entrepreneurial opportunities that they could spawn.
“I’m glad that the city is finding ways and funds to do things to support us, but it does not feel like it (the sports complex) is really for us, not all the way,” Pyles said. “So, I feel the coliseum is more for us.it sits in such a strategic place, and it would be wonderful to keep it not just for us, but for the other surrounding communities.
“We have to look at the socioeconomics of where we are now, and how we can change that. With these venues, people will be exposed to what kind of jobs they might want to do.”
Robinson said that when the coliseum was operating, youths in the neighborhood would pick up various forms of work, like unloading trucks before performances.
“It creates exposure to opportunities that they might not otherwise see,” Robinson said.
Of course, the future of the Mid-South Coliseum remains complicated. Estimates on the costs of renovating it range from $25 million, from the coliseum coalition, and $40 million from the city.
Then there’s the overwhelming question of whether a non-compete clause with the FedEx Forum, which requires it to sign off on any events held in other venues, will be a roadblock, because if it views concerts or other coliseum events as competing with forum events, it can refuse.
To many, that arrangement alone is a heavy shackle on any future for the coliseum. Robinson, however, is more optimistic.
“Concerts aren’t getting bigger,” he said. “They’re becoming more niche.”
Yet while skepticism abounds as to whether reviving the coliseum is worth a try, the city should, at least, consider what such a revival could do for the heritage and the sustenance of Orange Mound. Because when it comes to its fate, that community should not be treated as an inconvenience or an afterthought.
“I see what the city is trying to do, and I know they’re torn,” Pyles said. “But this reminds me of the W.C. Handy Theater.a lot of our history is being lost.
“Now I understand that everything can’t be saved, but if the Sears building can come back the way that it did, then that gives me hope for anything. Hopefully this (mothballing) provides enough time to find some innovative funding for the coliseum, because the sportsplex is not the same.
“It’s a wonderful reminder from our past, headed into our future.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com