Garrett Coliseum is primed and ready but will events come as planned?
By Tim Gayle
Work continues on Garrett Coliseum in preparation for the upcoming Alabama High School Athletic Association Central Regionals, even as a regular-season basketball tournament originally slated for the facility has now been rescheduled for Faulkner University.
The facility, last used for a high school event in 1992 with the AHSAA state indoor track meet, was pressed into service after Alabama State University elected to back out of its contract to hold the annual regional boys and girls basketball tournament last fall.
“When this opportunity came because of ASU canceling the contract, we went to (AHSAA executive director) Steve (Savarese) and said we want it in Montgomery and there are two or three venues that we’d like to propose to keep it here,” Montgomery mayor Todd Strange said. “AUM was one of them but it’s too small, so we suggested Garrett Coliseum.”
The Agriculture Center Redevelopment Board, of which Strange is a member, made a financial pledge to aid in the interior restoration work “or we couldn’t do it,” noted Randy Stephenson, general manager of the Alabama National Fair, which oversees the facility.
“We’ve done the dressing rooms, made them into locker rooms,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of money in the last couple of months. We’re banking on the regionals. We’re painting all upstairs and downstairs. We’ve put in drywall through here (in the entrance). We’ll put all new lights in the vestibules. We’re doing what we can to make it look good.”
The basketball court and the lockers will be brought from the Multiplex, Stephenson said. Both were on hand for the Harlem Globetrotters 2017 World Tour on Wednesday and a proposed high school event that Strange spoke about in December.
“There’s only one date that we can do that and it’s a Thursday night after the Harlem Globetrotters,” Strange said. “Whether we can pull that off or not, I don’t know, but that’s the kind of potential we have with Garrett Coliseum.”
The new event, “Capital City vs. Magic City Showdown” had been scheduled for Garrett but was moved recently.
MPS athletic director Brandon Dean said the event is now set for Jan. 28 and will be held at Faulkner’s Tine Davis Gym because of a scheduling conflict.
“With the floor being transferred from the Multiplex, it didn’t work out with the dates,” Dean said. “They couldn’t give us a Saturday date, either, so we had to go to Faulkner.”
The “Capital City vs. Magic City Showdown” will start at 5 p.m. with a game between Park Crossing and Huffman, followed at 6:30 by Robert E. Lee and Hoover. A third game, featuring G.W. Carver and Mountain Brook, is scheduled to tip off at 8 p.m.
Stephenson said he was first approached about the event by organizers who thought they would be able to make money off of the event through the concessions or parking, but both are key financial contributors to the operation of the coliseum. Parking was generally free until Gov. Robert Bentley cut the coliseum’s annual budget to zero, forcing Stephenson’s group to charge for parking at every event to keep the bills paid.
The concessions are run through an agreement with Buffalo Rock, who gives a percentage of the revenue to the coliseum.
The switch from Garrett Coliseum to Tine Davis Gym was news to Stephenson, who confirmed there has been talk by ASU officials of trying to move the regionals back to Dunn-Oliver Acadome as well. But Strange, when discussing the move from ASU to Garrett in December, pledged his full support to the coliseum.
“What we did as an (Agriculture Center) Authority was to commit, I think it was $75,000, some amount of money, to do cosmetic things,” he said. “At the end of the day, we need about $15-17 million to put in new wiring, HVAC, being able to air condition it, because four or five months out of the year we can’t use it. If we had it those additional months, we would actually be making a profit out there. We support that and we’ll continue to support that.”
One group closely watching the work includes Camellia Bowl executive director Johnny Williams. ESPN, which owns the Camellia Bowl, is interested in developing other events connected with the bowl game, which is held each December at Cramton Bowl. A four-team college basketball tournament, held in the days leading up to the game, could be held at Garrett Coliseum and involve teams from the Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences, which provide the teams for the football game, as well as area teams.
“That’s something we’ve been looking at,” Williams said. “But we’ve taken a pause. We’re going to see how the basketball event for the high school athletic association flows out there. We’ll learn a lot more about that venue after February.”
In the meantime, Stephenson and his group are working feverishly to restore some of the luster – and heat – to the facility, which has been without heat for some time.
“Heating and air are the two things we can do to bring people in,” Stephenson said. “The heating is something we’re working on now because there is existing heat here.”
With five of the six heaters working, there will be no problem making sure the building is warm enough. But because there is no ductwork for air conditioning, the facility will continue to remain empty during the summer months unless bonds for the much-needed renovation are approved.
Ground was broken on the State Agriculture Center, as it was known then, on Aug. 31, 1948. The $2.85 million facility was officially dedicated on Oct. 20, 1953 and the first sporting event was held in the arena two months later.
A doubleheader featuring Sidney Lanier vs. Eufaula and Georgia Tech vs. Auburn was held on Dec. 12. A crowd of approximately 4,000 fans watched Lanier win, 61-52, and Auburn win, 83-57. A week later, the fourth annual Montgomery Invitational Basketball Tournament was held in the state coliseum, as it became known, featuring four college teams and eight high school teams.
The first of six appearances by Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats came on Feb. 27, 1954 as 9,500 fans watched the Wildcats maul Auburn 109-79. Later that year, the Blue-Gray Basketball Tournament made its debut as a complement to the football game, with Tennessee, Auburn, Miami and Washington and Lee participating.