Garrett Coliseum expected to be named new home of AHSAA Regional basketball tourney
By Tim Gayle
Alabama State University’s decision to end a 10-year relationship with the Alabama High School Athletic Association in hosting high school basketball regionals has forced city officials to look in an unexpected direction to keep the event in the Capital City.
Garrett Coliseum, once the site of some of the greatest basketball games ever played in the state, will host the AHSAA Central Regionals in mid-February, breathing life into a neglected facility whose calls for renovation have been ignored by state officials.
“It has created more excitement about the viability of Garrett Coliseum,” said Alabama National Fair manager Randy Stephenson, whose group is under contract to operate the coliseum. “We call it reinventing, but it’s actually going back to where it started when basketball was a part of what happened here. It gives it more of a state flavor (by hosting the regionals) and, who knows, it may open the door to other events.”
The 10-day event will kick off Feb. 15 in the coliseum, which last hosted a meaningful high school event in the early 1990s as the site of the state indoor track meet. The coliseum will replace the Dunn-Oliver Acadome as the host site for the Central Regionals in 1994 and from 2007-2015.
“It’s a signed deal,” said Scott Miller, director of leisure services for the city. “I think it’s a better facility (than the Acadome) as far as the number of locker rooms, the media room, the layout with the floor, plus it seats about 9,000.”
And while the coliseum hasn’t hosted a high school event in more than 20 years, it’s quite familiar with basketball, hauling in a court from Columbus, Ga., on Jan. 14 to hold a Harlem Globetrotters event. On Jan. 18, 2017, the court will come from the Multiplex as city officials will use the Globetrotters as a warmup for the regionals.
The scoreboards, provided by Buffalo Rock for the 2016 Globetrotters’ tour, have remained on site and will be used for the regionals.
Stephenson has talked on several occasions with city officials and with AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese and his group about hosting the event.
“We’re going to go through it, cosmetically,” Stephenson said. “That was some of Coach Savarese’s concerns. We’re going to scrape and repaint, put up drywall, all the way through the building and make it look presentable. We’ve done a lot since we’ve taken it over (in September, 2011) but there are things that continually need to be done.”
The anticipated arrival of 20,000 fans in February has prompted coliseum officials to check on the heating system, which Stephenson termed “inefficient.”
“It’s an old system,” he said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of people looking at it to see what we can do to make the heating system more efficient. If we can’t, there’s portable heating we can bring in and it’s on ‘ready’ while we see if we can get the in-house heating working.”
More importantly, the regionals will bring relevance to a facility that had its budget cut from $250,000 annually to zero by Gov. Robert Bentley as a cost-cutting measure. Repeated attempts to renovate the state-owned facility have gotten nowhere despite a concerted effort by agriculture commissioner John McMillan and a group that includes Southeastern Livestock Exposition rodeo executive director Billy Powell.
“(Montgomery mayor) Todd (Strange) has been willing from day one to get on board to renovate this building but he can’t do it by himself,” Stephenson said. “(Montgomery County Commission chairman) Elton (Dean) has been on board to bring the county in. The state gets 4 percent of everything collected out here so they need to be an equal partner in this.
“If the governor would say we’ll do 40 percent of $10 million to renovate it, Todd and Elton would do it today. But (Strange’s) feeling is, it’s not my building, I can’t justify spending all the money, I’m not going to renovate it for the state.
“I’m hoping this will open the door for state dollars, for them to say we need this building. The problem is, every legislator in every county has a need. What they don’t get is that most of the events that are held here bring in people from out of state.”
The Alabama National Fair, the largest event held at the coliseum, has an economic impact of $12 million annually, Stephenson said. That equals $480,000 in state sales tax, a 10-year investment for legislators if they use Stephenson’s $10 million renovation figure and his idea of a $4 investment by the state.
The carnival rides bring in an estimated $1 million annually and are taxed at 10 percent, Stephenson said, as a luxury tax. The food and games bring in an additional $3 million and the food, he pointed out, is purchased locally. The generators to run the rides require an estimated 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel which is, again, purchased locally.
But for legislators – or even east Montgomery residents – who don’t attend the fair every October or the rodeo every March, the coliseum is a forgotten relic as the city shifted eastward. In the five years they have maintained the facility, the Kiwanis Club members (under the name Garrett Coliseum Redevelopment Corporation) have been slowly renovating the coliseum, primarily with new tile, carpet and paint in interior rooms.
Most of their money comes from charging parking fees and the AHSAA Central Regional should boost their coffers, along with the rent charged for the use of the facility. (The AHSAA gets all of the gate money). The Central Regional will become the largest attended event in the coliseum, not counting the fair visitors who stream in and out of the building on the way to the parking lot. That should speed up the smaller renovations that don’t require as much money.
“We’re looking at a whole new lighting system for the grounds, going to LED lighting for the whole property,” Stephenson said. “We’re getting bids on that, where it can actually save you enough money to pay for it. The lighting on the floor is adequate for television.”
Meanwhile, the fight wages on between those who believe the coliseum itself is the first requirement of renovation and those who believe leveling the antiquated barns and stalls on the grounds and replacing them with new facilities is the first step.
“It depends on who you talk to as to which one you do first,” Stephenson said. “I try to stay out of it because from our standpoint, we need it all.”
When it was dedicated in October, 1953, the Alabama Agricultural Center was billed as the nation’s largest indoor arena, a title it would soon surrender with the building of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa in 1955 and Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., in 1956. It was renamed Garrett Coliseum in 1963 to honor W.W. Garrett, chairman of the agricultural board when the facility was first constructed.
And while it hasn’t hosted a basketball event in years, it was the site of some of the state’s greatest basketball games in the 1950s. Lee played Lanier in the facility when the former was a new school and the latter was one of the state’s best. The Blue-Gray basketball tournament, held in conjunction with the annual football game, drew some of the top basketball programs in the state. Alabama and Auburn played their biggest games in Montgomery as well because their arenas were not as big as Garrett Coliseum.
Now, the public will get a taste of yesteryear when the facility hosts the Central Regionals in February.
“Hopefully, it gets more of those guys on board, fighting for us,” Stephenson said. “A regional spotlight shines on the whole state, so hopefully it’ll influence some more decisions. We’ve already heard chirps that ‘maybe we can get you a little more money.’ We’ll see. Hopefully, that’s what we’re doing is spiking more interest and opening more doors.”
Meanwhile, it was another step backward for Alabama State University, which served as one of the four regional sites in the event’s inaugural year (1994) but lost the event when they charged AHSAA officials a fee that was not in line with the other three facilities. The event returned in 2007 but reportedly left after city officials refused to make a substantial financial commitment to the university to keep the event in the Capital City.
“I don’t know all the particulars and I don’t need to know the particulars because it’s none of my business but they (city officials) came to us and said they weren’t going to be able to work it out with Alabama State,” Stephenson said, adding that having the regionals at Garrett Coliseum on an annual basis “is our goal. And I think Coach Savarese understands and Todd (Strange) understands that everything that needs to be done won’t get done in a year but they’ll be enough progress done that it won’t be an embarrassment. And we can continue to make it better. Obviously, events create dollars and dollars are what creates upgrades.”