Objections remain as coliseum sale passes
The Winston-Salem City Council voted Monday to go forward with the sales of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray Stadium
to Winston-Salem State University.
The Joel Coliseum vote was 5-2. (Council Member DD Adams was not in attendance due to medical issues.) The Bowman Gray vote was unanimous. The asking price for the coliseum is $8 million. WSSU will fork over $7.1 million for the stadium. Neither sale is automatic. Since Wake Forest is a private entity, the LJVM sale will be open to upset bids. Once a bid stands unchallenged for 10 days, the sale will be final. WSSU will have to get approval from the state legislature; if lawmakers give their approval, the deal would come back before the City Council for final approval.
The sales have been a source of controversy. Many object to selling publicly-owned venues, while others have objected to WFU being able to sell the naming rights for LJVM, which the university has indicated will help offset loses it expects to inherit with the property.
City Council Members James Taylor and Derwin Montgomery voted against the LJVM sale, hoping to delay the vote while other alternatives were sought.
“I don’t think we’ve exhausted all our measures to run the coliseum the way it needs to be run,” said Montgomery, who also opposed changing its name.
Montgomery, a WSSU alumnus, said he supported the Bowman Gray sale because with only two types of events held there, WSSU football games and drag racing, it’s less of a public venue than LJVM, which in addition to hosting WFU basketball games is the site of concerts, religious gatherings and other events.
Wake Forest has agreed to maintain the “Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial” language on the facade and marquee of the coliseum. Under sale terms, the school will also be required to maintain the property’s veterans’ memorials, which will be renamed the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Lobby and Plaza.
Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke said it was enough to ensure that the legacy of Joel, an African American Medal of Honor winner who was born and raised in Winston-Salem, would continue.
“Down the road, the citizens will know we did the best thing,” said Burke, who pointed out that the sales will enrich the city’s coffers.
The City and individual Council members have held a series of public meetings over the past few months to gauge the public’s response to the possible sales. Supporters of the sales pointed to the fact the City can no longer afford to upgrade and improve the aging venues. Passionate opponents dominated the meetings. During an April 29 finance committee meeting, former City Council Member and Mayor Martha Wood, who voted to name the coliseum after Joel in the late 1980s, said giving up ownership of both venues was like “selling the city’s soul.”
A May 16 meeting at Parkland High School hosted by Taylor drew attendees who were unanimous in their opposition to the sales. More than a dozen of them took to the microphone to express their opposition. Members of Joel’s family were in attendance. They do not like the idea of selling the venue that bears the name of their late loved-one.
“We should not be selling any of these entities. They are public monuments,” said Cynthia Joel, Lawrence Joel’s niece. “…Wake Forest’s motto is ‘Pro Humanitate,’ which means ‘For Humanity.’ There is nothing human about what you’re doing. This coliseum is a memorial. How in the world can you sell a memorial?”
Some questioned why WFU was being charged only $8 million for a property appraised at $33.1 million, while WSSU was being charged $7.1 million for a stadium valued at $9.9 million.
Addressing the coliseum asking price, Assistant City Manager Martha Wheelock told attendees that the City subtracted $8 million for operating savings, $14.3 million for capital needs, $1 million for events and lease commitments and $1.8 million for deed restrictions. WFU is required to spend a minimum of $10 million dollars in capital improvements over the next 20 years.
The stadium has fewer capital improvement needs, which WSSU is not required to make, and fewer deed restrictions, she said. The asking price is actually $4.3 million; however, as part of the deal, WSSU must pay its $2.8 million debt on its field house at the stadium. Although it was not required to, WSSU says it will keep the Bowman Gray (a former R.J. Reynolds president) name.
During an earlier public meeting, City Manager Lee Garrity tried to shoot down notions that the coliseum was a drain on city finances because of bad management. He said the city employed national consultants to examine the feasibility of the venue. He said that even if the coliseum hosted more events, it would only lose more money attracting those events.
Taylor said Monday night that he voted against the coliseum deal in response to the concerns of his constituents.
“I think Lawrence Joel and the veterans have given a lot to this community and to change that name was just not something I could support,” said Taylor, who also doesn’t like the idea of the city selling its assets.
Taylor said he will hold another meeting before the final Bowman Gray vote and says he’ll represent the wishes of his constituents with his vote on that issue as well.
Wheelock said that although the public forums tended to draw those opposed to the sales, phone calls and emails to city officials have been mainly supportive of the idea. Several City Council Members said during Monday’s meeting that they heard little or no opposition to the sales from constituents.