On Aug. 21, 1971, a Saturday morning, Gov. Linwood Holton removed his suit jacket and made a two-handed push shot to send a red, white and blue basketball through an oversize basketball hoop. As the ball went swish, 10 sound bombs exploded in the air, startling spectators. And with that, the $24 million Richmond Coliseum entered the city's life.
However, all wasn't well when, three days later, "Holiday on Ice" opened.
The sound and light systems — two important factors at any venue — were not working. Recalls manager Jim Mathias, the staff had to jerry-rig equipment at the last minute, which saved the day.
Dating back to the city's first master plan in 1946, a downtown "activities center" was considered necessary. The urban-revival fever that invaded the city during the 1960s rekindled the discussion; the Richmond Arena (1906-1997) needed replacement by a modern facility.
A July 7, 1966, News Leader headline blared, "Coliseum Will Increase Land Values, Kling Says," referring to noted Philadelphia architect Vincent G. Kling, who was hired to design the building. Kling enthused, "There is absolutely no question in my mind about the effect of this project on the entire area north of Broad."
One year later, Councilman Richard C. Wright voted against the proposal, saying, "This is the most colossal error in judgment in the history of the city that will preclude other capital projects for years to come."
Wright was on to something. The Coliseum hasn't made money in 40 years, though it almost broke even at times. The city covers its deficit by subsidy.
A 1975 Richmond magazine article (a Chamber of Commerce precursor to this publication) titled "Boon or Boondoggle?" quoted Mathias saying that "facilities such as the Coliseum aren't designed to turn a profit on their operations. … What turns a profit for the city are the increased business for its private firms, and the resulting taxes that such a facility generates, which the city wouldn't otherwise have."
Still, had the Coliseum not existed, where else in Richmond would Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles and Aerosmith, Cher and Elton John have played? Sports teams have come and gone, as have wrestling and monster trucks. In its first few years, half of the Coliseum was given over to public ice-skating. In January 1973, the Times-Dispatch described the skaters as "out-of-condition Americans, of all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, every one of them displaying that unique American virtue of derring-do."
A 40-year-old venue can accumulate a catalogue of ailments. The Coliseum's list has included leaks, a balky scoreboard and a January 1997 transformer explosion that sent 5,000 New Edition fans to the exits. Eight were treated for smoke inhalation. Power was out for weeks, at great cost to the city and nearby businesses.
The most acute public embarrassment came in November 2001, when an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game between the University of Virginia and Michigan State University, broadcast by ESPN, slid to a stop. Warm outside conditions had caused the rink's ice to melt beneath the basketball courts. Water seeped onto the maple floor panels.
Security issues increased, from mass arrests of Grateful Dead fans in 1985 to the shooting death of 17-year-old Patricio Torres, outside the Coliseum, in April 1993. The city sought to control both the caliber of acts and the proclivities of audiences. The latter gave rise to searches and metal-detector wands.
Meanwhile, other event spaces began competing against the Coliseum, from the Classic Amphitheatre in Henrico to the Siegel Center. A $7 million facelift in 2004 underscored how much more work remained, and calls for a replacement arena increased.
This past January, Mayor Dwight C. Jones proposed a regional initiative to construct a $147 million, 14,000- to 15,000-seat civic arena near the Coliseum, which it would replace. The three-volume, $150,000 study commissioned by Richmond businesses concluded that the new activities center would require the demolition of the Public Safety Building, one of the first initiated for the City Center project.
The consultant urged the city to wait until the economy improves before putting together a financing plan.