Municipal Auditorium's promising chance at new use now uncertain

Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 9:05pm
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Jude Ferrara (SouthComm)

In late 1962, the Nashville Municipal Auditorium opened with its first event, a Church of Christ convention. On July 31, the whiskey-chugging, sex-obsessed pop queen Ke$ha will perform at the venerable downtown venue. 

Indeed, the Municipal Auditorium — known as the “Muni” to the longtime locals who once rocked to Ted Nugent and Black Sabbath within the building’s weed-filled main hall — has welcomed a variety of musicians, sports contests, family events, conferences and trade shows. There are fishing shows and barbecue fests, cheerleading contests and high school graduations. Most recently, the Nashville Rollergirls have made the space-race-era building their home. 

“We’ve got a good track record,” said Bob Skoney, the auditorium’s grizzled general manager and dedicated caretaker. “The building is well-maintained and well-located.” 

And aging. During the past few years, the area surrounding the Muni has undergone significant changes, including the construction of the A.A. Burch Building, the Music City Central station and Public Square; renovations to the Davidson County Courthouse and what is now Hotel Indigo; and a major facelift to Deaderick Street. Nationwide, various facilities similar to the auditorium — specifically, those built in the 1950s and 1960s with what was then a futuristic design — have since been demolished. 

Some certainly consider the midsized Muni a relic. As it pushes 50, though, a potential new use has arrived. 

In the past year, Met ro officials seemingly offered Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum founder and CEO Joe Chambers a deal to house the collection, which includes a Jimi Hendrix Fender Stratocaster and a Johnny Cash Guild, in the Muni’s 65,000-square-foot basement-level exhibition space. One scenario has the museum paying some $100,000 a year to Metro. Chambers said the revenue could be generated via a surcharge on ticket sales, plus half of concession sales. 

But that arrangement appears to be in doubt. 

After months of negotiations, some city insiders now believe Metro has been disrespectful and unfair to Chambers on various occasions. They said the city has yet to pay him fully for his SoBro property — Chambers had most recently operated his specialty museum from a modest building that was within the footprint of the Music City Center. Forced from its previous site via eminent domain, the hall and its collection seemed perfect for the Municipal Auditorium, with its sufficient space and music history. 

But Chambers told The City Paper the land value and cost of moving would be a minimum of $9 million, and the city has paid him $4.8 million. The businessman will soon meet with the Municipal Auditorium Commission. 

Skoney declined to discuss the deal in specifics. 

John Landers, the Municipal Auditorium Commission’s chairman, said he’d like to have the museum there.

“We are hopeful [having the Musicians Hall of Fame would] bring new life to the auditorium,” he said. 

Skoney, who has been with the facility 33 years and its general manager since 1994, said a key consideration in any permanent use of the basement-level exhibition space is the facility’s future ability to accommodate, for example, Amway conventions and the Shrine Circus. 

Still, some say the Musicians Hall of Fame could offer the Muni a stable future, giving it an anchor tenant and generating tax revenues on ticket sales. Skoney said the budget for the fiscal year about to conclude is roughly $1.7 million. Of that, Metro subsidized about $350,000, with revenues generated from performances covering the balance. Skoney’s staff includes eight full-time employees. 

Despite its relatively lean finances and personnel, the building is outdated by the standards of contemporary arenas. Asked if some Metro officials would like to see the Muni razed and replaced with a high-end development that would pump tax dollars into the city’s coffers, Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling said, “[I’m] not sure your analysis regarding the opinions of various persons within Metro government is exactly accurate.” 

Riebeling said the auditorium staff has done a good job lowering the annual operating deficit in recent years. 

“But as recently as Fiscal Year 2009, the auditorium required a subsidy of well over $1 million,” he said. “With tight budgets, everything must be carefully looked at. [But I’m] not sure taking that look marks one as not being a fan of the building.” 

In the past three years, the Municipal Auditorium has seen more high-profile musical acts than perhaps during any three-year period of the previous 20 years, Skoney said. Though the domed multipurpose venue cannot challenge Bridgestone Arena in luring the brightest stars, it gives its larger and more luxurious brother some competition. 

Since 2008, the 7,300-seat Muni has shaken to the sounds of acts such as Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Mike Epps, Foo Fighters, Judas Priest, Salt-n-Pepa and Widespread Panic. Such artist appearances were not as commonplace prior to a recent resurgence. 

“We’re always on the hunt for promoters to come in and present shows,” Skoney said. “We’re as negotiable as we can be on our rental rates. We’ve become a little more aggressive [in pursuing big-time acts].” 

This past college basketball postseason, the Ohio Valley Conference men’s and women’s tournaments returned to the Muni after a hiatus at Bridgestone. Disney Live played this past March.

Skoney said that during the past 15 years, the Muni’s exterior has gotten dome repairs, blue lights, new signage and LED lighting for the main marquee. For the interior, Skoney hit upon a clever touch, as the concourse is now ringed with massive versions of original old-school rock and pop concert tickets. Bathrooms and dressing rooms are more functional and attractive, while water pumps have been replaced and the HVAC system reconditioned. 

“We fit the niche of ‘not every performer is in need of 20,000-seat capacity,’ ” Skoney said.

Nor does every event need a hallowed and storied space. The Muni may not have the rich history of the Ryman Auditorium, but the Ryman can’t host a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals hoops contest. Such versatility and the facility’s iconic — if now dated — design are not lost on entertainment industry officials. 

Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, the California-based trade publication for the worldwide concert industry, said the nation’s midsized arenas — most sporting a similar spaceship-like exterior — constructed between the late 1950s and early 1970s are noteworthy.

“The ones that were properly designed and maintained have become part of the fabric of their communities,” Bongiovanni said. 

Many of the Munis of other cities — particularly those in the Southeast — have been demolished, are underutilized or are unused and face an uncertain future. In Florida, the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg was built in 1965 and demolished in 2000. Tampa’s Curtis Hixson Hall opened in 1964 and was razed in 1993. Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum was completed in 1960 and felled in 2003. 

Closer to home, Memphis’ Mid-South Coliseum has sat empty since 2006. Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum hangs on despite drawing low-profile acts. Charlotte’s Bojangles’ Coliseum may fare better than Barton — but not by much, as its lone major concert since 2009 has been Nashville favorites Kings of Leon. Its future is uncertain.

Perhaps most noteworthy in the realm of modern-era architecture entertainment venues, Pittsburgh’s quirky Civic Arena — playfully called The Igloo — faces the wrecking ball. 

Many of those facilities were or are located in areas far less prime than the Municipal Auditorium, which is surrounded by some of the most valuable real estate in the South. Russ Simons, principal at the Nashville office of stadium designer HOK Sport Inc., said midsized city arenas have earned a place within their respective civic realms. 

“As with all things, if you do not have an appreciation of where you have been, then there is no real appreciation for what you have or where you are going,” Simons said. “The Municipal Auditorium has a place in the culture of Nashville. Everyone has a story about an event there, who they saw, what it was like.”   

5 Comments on this post:

By: localboy on 6/13/11 at 9:53

"the whiskey-chugging, sex-obsessed pop queen Ke$ha " - making Brentwood proud.
"Indeed, the Municipal Auditorium — known as the “Muni” to the longtime locals who once rocked to Ted Nugent and Black Sabbath within the building’s weed-filled main hall" - really? The same folks who call south of Broadway "SoBro"?
"The Municipal Auditorium has a place in the culture of Nashville. Everyone has a story about an event there, who they saw, what it was like.” Amen.

By: BigPapa on 6/14/11 at 8:14

Sell it off to the highest bidder, put an ampatheater at the old thermal site.

By: Kosh III on 6/14/11 at 10:55

This sounds like a prelude to a move by Dean to sell it to the highest bidder.

Why not sell Shelby and Shelby Bottoms? Warner, Two Rivers, etc. They ALL lose money and could be prime property for corporations who will of course want a huge welfare check as an incentive to buy it from us for far less than it's worth.

By: tardistraveler on 6/15/11 at 12:03

There's definitely a need for this size facility, as evidenced by the many shows and events that have taken place there over the years. I can't tell you how many things I've been to there over the years - countless concerts, some ball games, skating events, even a couple of rodeos - it's just a great all-purpose facility.

So it's old . . . big deal. I like its 50's UFO design - it's unique and hearkens back to an earlier time. But the place is clean and well-maintained, and to be honest, the seating is more comfortable than the Bridgestone - there's a bit more leg room!

I say keep it and keep on booking those events!

And BTW - I'm a native Nashvillian - NO ONE calls it the "Muni". Back in the 60's though, a local DJ dubbed it "Mayor Fuzzlip's Roundhouse" - lol

By: localboy on 6/15/11 at 1:06

Exactly.