Selling off the stadiums

by Sam Hieb

Score one for Winston- Salem, at least for now.

Comparisons between Winston- Salem and its fellow mid-size city down Interstate 40, Greensboro, are inevitable.

Certainly the biggest comparison in recent years is the cities’ respective downtown base ball stadiums. Greensboro built itself a downtown minor league park, so Winston-Salem felt compelled to have one of its own.

Both are fine ballparks, and attendance has been brisk for both the Grasshoppers and the Dash. In fact, the 1 millionth fan walked through the turnstiles at BB&T Ballpark just last week.

But while G-boro built NewBridge Bank Park with private money, Winston-Salem put taxpayers on the hook to build its stadium. A construction delay and a cost increase didn’t do much to endear citizens, either.

But now, Winston-Salem city leaders have done something Greensboro has been talking about for years but hasn’t been able to pull off: privatizing its city-owned coliseum. (Side note — no doubt G-boro doesn’t like talk of the ACC Tournament at Madison Square Garden.)

Earlier this week the Winston-Salem City Council approved an agreement to sell the Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University for $8 million. The sale would also save taxpayers $30 million in maintenance and upkeep of the 44-year-old coliseum.

Ironically enough the issue many thought would hold up the sale was resolved quickly. Citizens and some councilmembers expressed concern that the coliseum would cease to be called the “Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum.”

While Wake Forest University will certainly sell the naming rights to the coliseum, the preliminary agreement states that Joel, the Winston-Salem native who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism while serving as a combat medic, will be prominently featured both inside and outside the coliseum.

But then another roadblock appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Back in the late 1960s, the Winston-Salem Foundation donated the land for the coliseum to the city. As part of that deal, the foundation stipulated that should the city ever attempt to restrict public access to the coliseum — by selling it, for example — then ownership of the land would revert back to the foundation.

Basically the foundation held veto power over the sale. City Manager Lee Garrity said flat out that the city could not sell unless it gets the foundation’s approval.

The city and Wake Forest anticipated this issue. Under the draft agreement, the university would be required to allow public access to the coliseum until 2034, which, according to City Attorney Angela Carmon, coincides with the “anticipated remaining useful life of the building in its current condition.”

To further address the foundation’s concerns, Wake Forest agreed that public access until 2034 would transfer should Wake build another building on that site.

Both are key points, and begs the question just how much life the Joel has left.

I realize that if you’re a person of a certain age — count me in — 21 years does not seem like a long time. But in the world of sports and entertainment, it’s an eternity. Understand that the problem facing professional sports these days is not just that fans would rather stay home and watch the game on their flat screen HD televisions, where tickets and parking are free, concessions are considerably cheaper and there are no lines in the bathroom.

The other problem is fans that actually make the effort to attend the game have one eye on the field and the other eye on their personal communication devices, checking updates on their fantasy players.

In fact, the state-of-the-art sports arena is the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclay Center, where fans in the upper deck can download better views of the action on their smart phones or iPads.

Now look south to Charlotte, where Bank of America Stadium, home of the Panthers, is now on the trailing edge in professional sports stadiums after 17 short years. The Panthers’ pitch to the state and the CHarlotte City Council for stadium-renovations funding included $25 million for a “technology upgrade” so fans will be able to do whatever their mobile device will allow, all while the game’s going on right in front of them.

If technology has changed fan experience that much in the last 20 years, we can only imagine how much it will change in the next 20 years. I’m glad a deal was reached relatively easy manner. But if you ask me, it would have been worth the risk had Wake Forest called the foundation’s bluff and force them — and the city council — to risk taxpayers’ ire for blocking a deal that would have rid them of upkeep on a 44-year-old coliseum and spared them the cost of an expensive renovation.

Besides, in case you haven’t been keeping up, the reality is local governments — i.e. taxpayers — need relief right now, in 2013.