Winston-Salem council votes to sell coliseum and stadium

by Jordan Green


Winston-Salem City Council decided in a 5-2 vote on Monday to authorize the sale of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University, with the majority brushing aside a substitute motion to put the deal on hold and direct the city manager to explore other cost-saving measures through contracting out the management of the facility.

In a separate but related action, the council unanimously voted to give notice of intent to sell Bowman Gray Stadium to Winston-Salem State University pending approval by the NC General Assembly.

A major point of contention for the sale of the coliseum was whether Wake Forest University would retain the name Lawrence Joel in honor of a decorated combat medic cited for valor in saving at least 13 lives during an intense firefight in Vietnam in 1965, and the veterans memorial designation.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who was part of the majority that voted to place the name on the coliseum in 1986 as part of what was then called the board of aldermen, said she was satisfied that Joel’s name would be protected.

“I do not believe that Wake Forest will allow the coliseum to become an issue that will divide this community,” said Burke, who represents the Northeast Ward.

Burke indicated she met with representatives of the university to make her viewpoint on the coliseum’s name known.

“That was my No. 1 concern,” she said.

“‘What are you going to do as far as the name? Because we worked hard for that name to be there and we would like for it to stay.’ Well, they’re business people and they understood clearly that it was important to keep Lawrence Joel’s name there.”

The city had announced more than a week previously that Wake Forest University would retain the Lawrence Joel name and veterans memorial designation on the stone façade above the entrance to the facility and the marquee sign that greets visitors on University Parkway.

Notwithstanding public assurances that Joel’s name would be preserved, city staff and elected leaders did not discuss a caveat included in a Declaration of Restrictive Covenants and Conditions before the vote on Monday. The resolution authorizing the sale binds Wake Forest to the restrictive covenant.

The restrictive covenant provides conditions for the termination of a so-called “memorial term,” in which the university is required to preserve the Lawrence Joel name and veterans memorial status on the marquee sign on University Parkway and the stone façade above the entrance.

Under the agreement, the restrictions would be lifted when the university transfers an area of about an acre in size for a park to memorialize Joel and other war veterans, when the city and the university agree in writing to memorialize Joel and the veterans in some alternative way or when the coliseum ceases to exist — whichever of those three events takes place first.

City Manager Lee Garrity and City Attorney Angela Carmon emphasized in interviews after the vote that the lifting of conditions controlling the use of the Lawrence Joel name and veterans memorial designation will always be conditioned on approval by council. Carmon said in an e-mail that the changes in the arrangement are subject to the city’s approval through the end of a “base term” in 2034, and that after that point the city has the discretion to withhold approval, “although it may not unreasonably do so.”

Garrity said the language was added to the agreement not at the initiative of Wake Forest University, but rather in response to concerns by veterans.

“In conversations I had one on one with veterans, they said they would like [the plaza memorial] changed,” Garrity said. “They would prefer the monuments be in order by conflict. There’s nothing in the plaza dedicated to Law rence Joel. There wasn’t time to come up with a new memorial. We want to have that option in the future if we’d like to have a new memorial.”

Mayor Allen Joines said after the meeting that he supported the sale; he did not vote because he is only required to do so in the event of a tie.

“I’m certainly not in favor of losing the Joel name,” he said. “I think all of us would only want to enhance the name rather than diminish it.” He added that “the only reason I got comfortable with this is because the name remains permanent.”

When asked to interpret language setting forth the times at which the “memorial term” would be terminated, Joines said, “That language is there to protect the perpetuity of the Joel name and veterans.”

As to the city council’s authority to approve the termination of the agreement, the mayor said he doesn’t anticipate any action by council to lift the restrictions, although it’s hard to say what future council’s might do.

Councilman James Taylor Jr. and Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who respectively represent the Southeast and East wards, said they voted against the sale in part because of their skepticism towards assurances that the name would be preserved.

“Simply retaining the façade name does not mean that the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial name will be retained in perpetuity as the name of the coliseum, but simply the façade of what it will be retained, meaning that the naming rights of the coliseum can still be sold and additional signage can be placed on the coliseum,” Montgomery said before the vote. “And I want the public to understand that because they may be misunderstanding this fact and believe that Lawrence Joel will remain the name of the coliseum. And that is just not the fact.”

Montgomery and Taylor also said they oppose the sale because it will result in the termination of some 50 employees with families to support.

Northwest Ward Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight, West Ward Councilman Robert Clark and Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse voted to authorize the sale, along with Mayor Pro Tem Burke. North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, who has been recovering from surgery, was absent from the meeting.

“It’s losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and it needs tens of millions of dollars in upfits and improvements to remain viable

as a facility,” Besse argued. “I don’t have a groundswell of constituent pressure asking that I vote to maintain symbolic ownership of the facility that is going to continue to lose the taxpayers for that symbolic value a lot of tax money a year.”

Leight said that while the opponents of both sales are passionate, only “a handful” bothered to come out to various informational meetings hosted by the city.

“I think it is not a subject that is of overpowering interest to the city as a whole,” Leight said, adding that raising taxes to pay for upgrades to the facilities is not a politically viable option.

“Folks, come back and listen to comments anytime we talk about raising taxes a penny even,” she said. “There are screams of agony.”

Clark said he is philosophically opposed to the notion that entertainment facilities are part of cities’ core function.

“Quite frankly, with due respect to the Wake Forest people here tonight, I’m getting tired of the citizens of Winston-Salem subsidizing Wake Forest basketball,” he said.

‘The primary problem with the coliseum is that it is functionally obsolete.’— Councilman Robert Clark

“The primary problem with the coliseum is that it is functionally obsolete,” Clark added. “Think about it: Compare the old Ernie Shore Field with the new BB&T Ballpark. Fans anticipation and what they expect from public facilities is different than it was 24 years ago…. Fans expect bigger, nicer, better amenities. That is the challenge Wake Forest has, and that is the challenge they’re going to have to pay for. As mentioned earlier, it’s functionally obsolete because 25 miles east of here is a coliseum twice its size. It gets all the big concerts and all the big sporting events.”

Martha Wood, a former mayor and Wake Forest alum, told council that members of the campus community and the city as a whole have been equally unfamiliar with the details of the planned sale.

“From the outset, everyone who should have been at this table has not been included,” she said. “I am deeply concerned about the lack of public engagement when active community leaders report being encouraged not to speak out since ‘the right people’ support Wake Forest’s efforts to enlarge their empire — a game plan in place for some time. Who are these ‘right people’? To whom are you responsible?” Opposition among speakers to the sale of Bowman Gray Stadium, which primarily hosts car races and Winston- Salem State University football games, was equally strong.

“I was born and raised in Greensboro; I’ve been coming to the racetrack since I was in the womb,” Cynthia Hall said. “I’ve also attended many concerts at the LJVM in the ’90s. Even though I was born and raised in Greensboro, I am proud to be a Twin Citian now. I’ve lived in Alabama, Georgia and North Dakota, and coming home has always meant going to Bowman Gray Stadium…. Where is the money going? From the time that I was small the racetrack has always been packed. I don’t understand. I’ve lived in a lot of other cities.

None of these other cities have the impact that Bowman Gray has had on Winston-Salem.”

Wood urged council members to reconsider their decision, to no avail.

“To support these proposals, you dismiss citizen involvement in major community decisions,” the former mayor said, “and you relegate Winston- Salem to the position of Greensboro suburb.”