June 2008
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Ag Commissioner Pushes for Garrett Coliseum Renovation

By Alvin Benn

  Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks takes a look at bent tin covering part of a barn at the Alabama Agriculture Center in Montgomery.
Once a brilliant showcase for Alabama’s agricultural community, Garrett Coliseum today is a pale, stale imitation of its glory days.

It hasn’t been anything to brag about in decades and is an embarrassment of the first order. It’s reason enough for Alabama’s agricultural leader to mount a campaign to make some much-needed improvements for a building conceived the year World War II ended.

"This is a forgotten jewel for the state of Alabama," Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks said, as he conducted a tour of the facility recently for AFC Cooperative Farming News.

Sparks’ description, not only of the Coliseum but the agricultural grounds around it, is quite an understatement. It’s old, worn out, dangerous to the animals housed there and far down the rung of agricultural centers when compared with neighboring states like Georgia and Mississippi.

As concern grows, so does Sparks’ drive to get something done and he’s spent a big part of the year lobbying for legislative support while trying to drum up public support for financial relief.

Garrett Coliseum Executive Director Bill Johnson (left) and Assistant Director Ed Wesson flank an aerial photo of the facility when it officially opened in 1951.  
"I want to build a coalition to begin focusing on the needs of the Alabama Agriculture Center," said Sparks, referring to the umbrella name for a huge facility including more than just the Coliseum.

One of the first things he does when he escorts visitors to the center is introduce them to an area where horses and cattle are kept until it’s time to show them during livestock events.

He’ll bend down, lift up part of a jagged section of tin siding or put a finger on top of a nail protruding in one of the stalls where livestock often cut themselves.

"The animals can easily stick their feet under these pens and cut part of their legs," he said. "You don’t want to put a $10,000 or $50,000 horse or bull into one of these stalls."

Making improvements to the Coliseum and the agricultural grounds around it boils down to a common problem for all public agencies—money.

  Garrett Coliseum Executive Director Bill Johnson holds the dedication program for the facility which opened in 1951.
The annual budget for the Alabama Agriculture Center is $1.2 million. That’s pocket change when compared with other state departments, but increasing funding each year has been exercises in frustration.

Bill Johnson, who directs the Coliseum, and Ed Wesson, his top aide, have worked hard to keep the facility in good shape, but new problems pop up all the time. Only money can fix those problems and it appears to be in short supply.

"We’ve been level funded for years," said Johnson. "That means our budget stayed the same as the previous year. Right now we’re getting $200,000 less than what we got 10 years ago."

Wesson is eager to point out the many positive uses of the Coliseum and grounds. He also paints a realistic picture of the physical condition of the facilities and it’s far from a glowing assessment.

"We have events here just about every day of the year," he said. "This is a very important place for Alabama agriculture and we feel increased funding is a legitimate need."

Thousands jammed Garrett Coliseum when country music legend Hank Williams gave a concert in 1951.  
The history of Garrett Coliseum, named for the late W.W. Garrett, dates back to 1945 when the Legislature allocated just over $1 million to build it. Garrett, a Monroe County native, was the first chairman of the Alabama Agricultural Board.

Construction began four years later at a site in Northeast Montgomery near the old Kilby Prison grounds. The Capital City has had agriculture-related facilities as far back as the 1820s, but nothing quite like Garrett Coliseum.

The Montgomery architectural firm of Sherlock, Smith and Adams came up with a revolutionary design that continues to wow first-time attendees.

The most frequent description is of a giant concrete turtle. It’s supported by 22 enormous steel-reinforced A-frames which hold up the concrete slab roof that is up to five inches thick.

The Coliseum was, for many years, the largest enclosed arena in the United States and visitors from around the country would come to Montgomery just to look at it.

Depending on the entertainer and needed seating, it can accommodate more than 13,000 spectators. Music legend Hank Williams was the first star to perform at the Coliseum. It happened on July 15, 1951 and the finishing touches were still being applied. That didn’t keep Hank’s fans away. They jammed inside to hear him.

Other noted performers who have appeared at the facility through the years were Elvis Presley, Liberace, George Strait, the Commodores, Alan Jackson and Elton John. Even the famous Harlem Globetrotters have performed there.

The most popular annual event, by far, is the week-long Alabama National Fair. It draws families from around the state with popular entertainers spotlighting the event held each fall.

It would normally take a large staff just to handle the basic needs for these events, but Johnson and Wesson point to problems in those areas, too.

"We only have nine employees and it wouldn’t be possible for us to do the job that is needed without help from state inmates who are assigned here to help," said Wesson.

In addition to the 31,000-square foot coliseum, the agricultural center also includes the Ed Teague Arena, a 7,800-square foot multi-purpose facility, the Lewis Swine Barn, the W.O. Crawford Arena, Livestock Barn, Dairy Barn and 22 horse barns with 30 stalls in each barn.

Johnson and Wesson would like to see at least a $500,000 addition added to the annual budget. Another $5 million would be even better to make some much-needed repairs.

Sparks is looking at more than that—a lot more. It’s in the millions and, while some may see it as a political pipe-dream, the commissioner views it as an investment sure to bring handsome returns for the state.

"Right now, when we have visitors from other states with modern agricultural centers, they take one look at what we have and try not to laugh," he said. "I can understand when they do that. It’s really embarrassing for the state."

Public support has been made available, but it’s far too little, if not too late, he said.

Sparks, who is in his second term as commissioner and has been named as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2010, praised Alfa for donating $60,000 to redo one of the agricultural buildings.

However, a bit here and a bit there won’t do it. It’ll take more than a $60,000 donation from an agricultural entity. Sparks believes a bond issue is the way to go with payment from all Alabamians.

"We really can’t renovate the Coliseum and grounds in piecemeal fashion," Sparks said. "What if we floated a bond issue and got $5 million a year from it to improve the situation? It would go a long way in making those improvements."

Sparks noted Alabama gets more than $100 million a year from a tobacco settlement reached years ago "and agriculture doesn’t get a dime out of it."

"I’m not taking issue with those agencies getting money from that source because they do a lot of good for the state, but so do we," he said.

If the big bucks ever become available, Sparks has a master plan on how to use some of it. For one thing, he’d like to see work done to merge the barns and stalls currently separated. A must, he said, is rebuilding or restoring the stalls to get rid of exposed nails and bent tin siding.

Air conditioning would be a major plus for the coliseum, but the cost factor likely would be too high to consider. That’s why few events are held in the heat of July and August.

Instead, events like dog shows and high school drill team competition are held during months without that pulsating heat to contend with.

The electronic "brains" of Garrett Coliseum need a transplant, according to Sparks, Johnson and Wesson. The transformer may have been state of the art nearly 60 years ago, but, today, it resembles a spaceship control board from a science-fiction movie.

Garrett’s heartbeat remains strong, but it’s surrounded by equipment and other features leaving a lot to be desired.

Sparks would like to see a multi-purpose building for livestock, better lighting, improved drainage and an updated fire sprinkler system. Some areas at the top of the Coliseum remain unfinished since the building opened.

All of that would require a lot of money, but Sparks likes to point to the return on investment for the people of Alabama.

"There’s no telling what we could use this Coliseum for if we can get it into proper shape," he said. "We might even be able to have an arena football team in Montgomery or basketball teams to play in the Coliseum."

The Legislature could step up to the plate and approve needed funding or permit a statewide vote by the people of Alabama.

Sparks is convinced if something isn’t done soon, the state stands to lose a once-viable facility enjoyed by millions of people through the years. That’s why he’s been making the rounds to seek help from the people and the officials they elect.

Johnson and Wesson feel the same way and they are eager to point out the importance of Garrett Coliseum and the agricultural grounds surrounding it.

"Anytime we can go above level funding would be like CPR for us," said Johnson, who didn’t have to add the obvious fact: Alabama’s "forgotten jewel" needs to be remembered and resuscitated.

One state leader with a keen interest in seeing Garrett Coliseum renovated is Billy Powell, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. On April 30, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a letter from Powell who underlined the value of the Coliseum to the Capital City.

Powell, whose organization hosts Alabama’s largest rodeo of the year at the Coliseum, pointed out the Montgomery City Council and Montgomery County Commission should financially support a renovation because of basic economics.

"The new coliseum center would become a major designation for many different events attracting thousands of people from across the state and Southeast," Powell said. "These folks would spend millions of dollars in Montgomery annually."

Powell said a modern coliseum would "easily become the biggest draw for the county and city" and ended his letter with a warning: "If this project is not done soon, the Coliseum will not be able to attract even the smallest of shows."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.