Some worry that venues would lose legacies if sold
City residents are voicing questions and concerns about the potential sale of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray Stadium to Winston-Salem State University.
Both of the venues are owned by the City, but are closely affiliated with the universities. The coliseum is home to WFU basketball, and the stadium is the WSSU football hub.
A series of public drop-in meetings are being held at both venues, where members of the City’s Public Assembly Facilities Commission are recording the comments of residents and city officials are answering questions about the proposed deals.
“It’s the City Council that will ultimately make the decision, but we wanted to give the community a chance to be heard,” Commission Member
Cynthia Jeffries said at a meeting last Thursday at the coliseum.
City officials say that unloading the venues would save money. Both facilities are operated at a loss. The coliseum costs taxpayers $400,000 annually, while the stadium costs $6,000. A bigger concern, officials said, is the millions in extensive renovations needed at both venues.
City Manager Lee Garrity explained to residents how very few coliseums around the country make money. He said event venues aren’t about profit, but attracting visitors who will spend money at local businesses.
“You don’t go into the business to make money,” said Garrity. “It’s to generate tourism; it’s for the community; it’s community pride.”
City officials said that selling the properties would free up millions of dollars in debt capacity that could be used for much needed capital improvements in Winston-Salem. They are using the long-term leasing of the Benton Convention Center to Noble Investment Group as an example of how such a deal could benefit the city’s bottom line.
The City is considering selling the coliseum for a minimum of $8 million to WFU. Since WFU is a private entity, by law, the sale would be open to upset bids from other parties. The sale only includes the coliseum and its parking lot, not adjacent Dixie Classic Fair Grounds and Annex.
The CIty would require Wake to provide parking for fairground events and to continue to host certain public events like high school graduations and Veterans and Memorial Day commemorations. It would also be required to maintain the memorials to veterans that are erected near the main entrance and inside of the facility and have a “meaningful recognition” of Joel, a city native who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1967. Under the proposal, WFU could change the name of the venue, a fact that drew Walter Emery of the Triad Vietnam Veterans Association to last week’s meeting. Emery hopes the coliseum’s name will remain unchanged.
“It can be in the deed restrictions when they buy the place, but deed restrictions disappear real fast, sometimes, and then you have to fight for them,” said Emery.
Steve Shutt, WFU Associate Athletic Director for Communications, said in a phone interview that the sale would allow Wake to make the capital improvements to the coliseum that the City can’t afford. He said the coliseum would continue to be an events venue. The coliseum will honor all its existing events contracts, but plans haven’t been formulated beyond that.
“We recognize that it certainly is the largest venue of its size in the community and there are community needs for that,” said Shutt.
As for the Joel name, Shutt said it’s possible it may remain, but WFU is not ready to make a commitment either way yet. He said whatever happens, Joel will definitely be “honored in a meaningful way.”
The City is seeking at least $4.3 million from WSSU for the stadium, plus the $2.8 million the college owes the City for additions made to the venue. The sale includes the parking lot and parts of adjacent Civitan Park. The sale would have to be approved by the state legislature, which denied it last year.
The sale terms would require WSSU to honor the racing contract with Winston-Salem Speedway, Inc., which stages stock-car races there regularly, and to have a Bowman Gray (a former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco president and renowned philanthropist) presence at the facility, but it allows the stadium’s name to be changed.
Richard Miller, who attended last week’s meeting, is concerned about the possible changing of the stadium’s name. Miller, the author of the book “NASCAR Bowman Gray Stadium,” said donations from the Gray family built the stadium in 1937 with the intentions of having it used as a public facility. He also questions whether WSSU would have the money, resources and interest to maintain racing at the stadium, which is home to NASCAR’s longest running weekly race track.
In a phone interview, Owen Cooks, WSSU associate vice chancellor for facilities, said a $110 hike in student fees – which must first be approved by the UNC Board of Governors – will give the school the financial means to purchase and operate the facility. He said the stadium fits into the school’s master plan, and the area around it may be developed into a baseball and softball field.
Cooks said that the university intends to continue to offer quality racing and keep the Bowman Gray name.
“We have a deep appreciation of the history of that venue,” said Owens. “…We’re as attached to that name as anyone else.”
The earliest transfer date for the coliseum to WFU is July 1, the beginning of the City’s fiscal year, while the soonest WSSU could own Bowman Gray is Dec. 1.
The last comment meeting will be held in the Deacon Room at the LJVM Coliseum on Tuesday, April 23 at 11:30 a.m. Comments are also being accepted online at cityofws.org, by calling the Citizen Feedback line at 734-1400 or by calling City Link 311 and leaving a message.