Officials say they want a long-term plan for downtown landmark
Knoxville leaders are looking into whether to renovate or raze the city's antiquated Civic Auditorium and Coliseum.
The downtown performance arena is home to a number of sports teams, including one of its main tenants, the Knoxville Ice Bears professional ice hockey team.
The arena has also featured thousands of world-class acts since it opened in 1961. During the past five decades, it's hosted circuses, theatrical productions, musicals, comedians, and major concerts, including the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder.
"We get people from all over to come to these shows," said Greg Mackay, director of public assembly facilities for the City of Knoxville. "It's the one place people are drawn to."
Although the 50-year-old facility has a lot of history, Mackay says it also has some major problems.
When it was designed in the 1950s, for example, musical performers stacked their speakers on the floor. Now they hang them from the roof trusses, which aren't strong enough to hold them.
Mackay added that other issues stopped the city from investing in a new wooden sports floor that would allow the coliseum to host volleyball and basketball competitions."We're having trouble because we don't know where to store it [the sports floor]," he said. "We can't store it downstairs because we have a leaky basement and the humidity would warp the wood."
Mackay also said that the concessions and bathrooms are in dire need of updates. And, officials would like to improve the acoustics and install LED lights in the auditorium. The outdoor plaza is also deteriorating with large cracks in the pavement.
If the city is willing to spend the money, Mackay says most of the current problems can be fixed. But before anyone sinks more cash into the old building, the city wants a professional to conduct a feasibility study to determine if the investment is worth it.
"We're going to get some outside experts to look at the condition of the building and tell us should we do a minor renovation, should we do a large renovation, or maybe it's time to build a new one," said Mackay. "Before we start making a piecemeal fix, we want to look at the big picture and decide what we're going to do."
Officials in the next few weeks are expected to start the bidding process to determine what company will conduct the study. The final results of the study could possibly be ready within five months.
"I know people have a sentimental attachment to the building but you have to look at the numbers," Mackay said. "If the numbers show that it's time for a new one, then it's time for a new one. But we've got to show that it pays for itself in economic impact."
The feasibility study is expected to cost about $50,000, but city officials are currently talking with county leaders about splitting the bill.
"We know we're missing out on some entertainment opportunities," said Knox County Commissioner Mike Hammond. "We don't have that 10,000 to 12,000-seat facility. We need to do the study to see what it would cost. Is it out of the realm to make improvements? The building needs to be upgraded – it needs a facelift. Is it possible to add more seats? Is it possible to expand?"
The downtown facility currently features an exhibition hall, a ballroom, a 2,500-seat auditorium, and an arena that maxes out at 7,100 seats. The limited size of the outdated structure has caused some entertainers to steer clear of Knoxville.
It took two years and $5.1 million to originally build the facility in 1961. Every sitting president from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush has visited the building during various stops in Knoxville.
It also was the site of the final shows for some famous performers. Randy Rhodes, a former guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, and George Jones played at the coliseum before they died.
Mackay stressed that any decisions after the study is concluded could take a while. He called the overall initiative "a long-term project," adding that the crux of any improvements or changes are tied to "what the market will bear."
"We've got to know what we'll be doing 10 years from now with the coliseum. And if we don't start now, then 10 years from now we'll look back and say: 'Gosh, why didn't we do something?'"