Winston-Salem council moves toward sale of coliseum and stadium in racially divided vote

City Manager Lee Garrity and former Alderman Virginia K. Newell
Voting along racial lines, a narrow majority of Winston-Salem City Council directed staff to move forward with the sales of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Bowman Gray Stadium today.

The proposed sale of the two city facilities to separate universities yokes together two transactions that tap into an undercurrent of racial division, while satisfying and antagonizing a complicated mix of constituencies — on one hand offloading the coliseum to Wake Forest University in a deal that could downgrade the name of an honored black native son, and on the other handing off the stadium to Winston-Salem State University and discomforting predominantly white car-racing fans who patronize the facility.

Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who represents the Northwest Ward, made the motion during a committee of the whole meeting today to bring the proposed sale to council for consideration at its next meeting on May 20. Councilwoman Molly Leight, who represents the South Ward, seconded the motion. Council members Robert Clark and Dan Besse, who respectively represent the West and Southwest Wards, also supported the measure.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke and Councilman Derwin Montgomery, respectively representing the Northeast and East Wards, abstained, while Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr. voted in opposition. North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams was not present for the vote.

"Most of the pain of selling the coliseum has to do with potentially losing the name Lawrence Joel," Leight acknowledged. 

Joel was an African-American Army medic and Winston-Salem native who won the Congressional Medal Honor during the Vietnam war for saving the lives of at least 13 American soldiers during a firefight with Viet Cong forces in Bien Hoa province in 1965. Joel was recognized for crawling across the battlefield with a plasma bag under enemy firefight, self-medicating himself after getting shot twice during a 24-hour firefight.  

The meeting was attended by former Alderman Virginia K. Newell, who made the motion in 1986 to name the coliseum after Joel, and Martha Wood, a former mayor who also played a role in honoring the Army medic.

"The black community looks at it as something good that we have given the city," Newell told City Manager Lee Garrity in the hallway outside a committee room in City Hall after the vote. "Make them keep the name."

Garrity responded, "They want the naming rights."

Wood urged council members to reconsider their decision in an e-mail today.

"If the city council is willing to forfeit this community war memorial and sell the right to change the name of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, then you have an obligation to the citizens to present simultaneously a plan that will preserve with dignity, honor and in perpetuity a significant memorial to our veterans and Lawrence Joel, who earned the country's highest military honor.

"As we embark on our centennial celebration," Wood added, "it's appropriate to reconsider with care and diligence where and how the current proposals lead us."

As part of any potential sale of the coliseum, Wake Forest University has agreed to retain the name "Lawrence Joel veterans memorial" in the main lobby and two outside plazas that flank the entrance, and to maintain information about Joel on the facility's website. Otherwise, the university would receive all other naming rights for the facility.

As part of the vote today, council has directed staff to look into whether the university would agree to retain Joel's name on the electronic marquee sign on University Parkway.

Wake Forest University Athletics Director Ron Wellman told YES! Weekly last week that the only way the university can make the deal work is through the sale of naming rights to a corporate sponsor considering that the facility loses money and needs significant capital improvements such as a new HVAC system.

The city has appraised the coliseum at $33.1 million. After deducting $8 million for operating savings, $14.3 million for capital needs avoidance, $1 million for events and lease commitments, and $1.8 million for deed restrictions, the city is offering the facility for a purchase price of $8 million. That's roughly the amount that the city needs to pay off the debt on the building.

"We are not going to be profitable with this coliseum," Wellman told council members tonight. "We view this as an investment in our growth. It is an investment in our basketball program."

In contrast, Winston-Salem State University has agreed to a restrictive covenant requiring the name Bowman Gray to be retained at the stadium. Gray, who was white, was the former president and chairman of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. 

Unlike the coliseum, the stadium breaks even. The city appraised the stadium at $9.9 million. After deducting $2.5 million for capital needs avoidance, $1.7 million for environmental factors, $750,000 for event and lease commitments and $750,000 for deed restrictions, the city is offering the facility to the university for $4.3 million.

Council members leaning towards the sales offered different rationales for unloading the properties.

"The original question is, why are we considering selling the coliseum?" Besse said. "The truth is that we're looking at it because it's eating up $400,000 of taxpayers' money every year."

Clark said, in contrast, that if he ultimately votes for the sale of the coliseum and the stadium, it will not be because of money.

"Should we be in the coliseum business?" he asked. "Should we be in the stadium business? My gut feeling is that it's not our core business. The university is not going to earn a profit off of this, but it benefits them because it helps create the total college experience for their students. They can make the improvements without us having to go to the taxpayers. Wake Forest University has to go tap their alumni for the new HVAC."

Merschel said she is eager to see both Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem enhance their respective brands through televised sporting events at the coliseum.

Taylor drew the strongest line, stating that the coliseum should retain Joel's name if the city sells it. But Wellman gave no indication that the university was willing to budge on that point.

When asked after the vote what level of commitment he would need from Wake Forest University to the Lawrence Joel name, including marquee sign placement and reference during televised sporting events, Taylor didn't hesitate.

"All of it," he said.

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