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Barton's middle-age crisis.

Barton's Middle-Age Crisis

Nearing The Age of 40, Little Rock's Coliseum Has A Colorful Past And An Uncertain Future

Barton Coliseum's roots can be traced to 1937.

Arkansas had yet to escape the throes of the Great Depression, which had begun with the stock market collapse of Oct. 28-29, 1929.

Farmers in the red clay hills of the Southern Coastal Plan and in the rock-strewn Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Mountains were beginning to realize that the road to success did not lead through a cotton field.

These men were ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon pioneers who had migrated to Arkansas through North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. They had tried to scratch out a living raising cotton.

Now, the land clearly was worn out. The minerals were gone, and erosion had set in.

Some Arkansas farmers planted pine trees. Others, unable to wait so long for a return on their investment, began raising livestock after abandoning row crops.

Led by a wealthy El Dorado oilman, Col. Thomas Harry Barton, Arkansas' cattlemen formed the Arkansas Livestock Show Association in 1937.

A year later at North Little Rock, the group held its first State Livestock Show, an event that later would become the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show. Col. Barton personally shouldered the association's $17,000 deficit that first year.

The fairgrounds at North Little Rock burned in 1941. In 1942, the livestock show was held at Pine Bluff.

Following World War II, the city of Little Rock offered the Livestock Show Association a fair location in War Memorial Park, where a privately financed state fair had been held in the 1920s. The ALSA declined the offer, but the city did not give up. It purchased the land between Roosevelt Road and the Fourche Creek bottoms where the fairgrounds still are located.

The Livestock Show Association's move there began in 1946.

Col. Barton served as president of the Livestock Show Association for all but one year before retiring in the fall of 1959.

In 1951, the ALSA received an appropriation from the Legislature to build a coliseum at the fairgrounds. Construction was performed in stages.

First, bleachers were built.

Later, an aluminum roof supported by naked steel beams was added.

In 1952, the public began attending events at what essentially was an outdoor rodeo arena. During the next several years, walls and additional seating were added. Heating and air conditioning units were installed.

Regional Showplace

Known as Barton Coliseum, the facility was considered one of the region's showplaces.

In March 1960, Clyde E. Byrd, the ALSA's executive vice president, sat down for an interview with Charles Portis, who at the time was the Arkansas Gazette's "Our Town" columnist.

In the months preceding the interview, Barton had hosted the Ice Capades, the Shrine Circus, horse shows and a concert by Mahalia Jackson.

For seven days in July 1960, Barton would host the national convention of the Roller Skating Rink Operators of America.

"What did Little Rock do before the construction of Barton Coliseum?" Portis asked.

"We did without, that's what," Byrd answered.

When the Livestock Show Association began considering making Barton more than a rodeo arena, it discovered that there wasn't an indoor facility in the state seating more than 3,000 people. Little Rock's civic auditorium, now the Robinson Center Music Hall, could accommodate 2,600.

"We traveled all through the Southwest and the Midwest to see what other states were doing," Byrd said. "We finally decided that what we needed was a place that could be used for all these things we were missing out on, and that we might as well make it big while we were doing it."

The Livestock Show Association first attempted to raise money from individual contributors to build the coliseum. After raising only $25,000, the association went to the state for help.

Byrd said the ALSA resisted approaching the Legislature at first because it did not want to be involved in state politics. But the Legislature agreed to lease the structure to the association for $1 per year on a long-term basis with few strings attached.

The ALSA, in turn, agreed to put on the annual State Fair and Livestock Show and keep the building insured. By the time of the 1960 interview, the state's investment in Barton Coliseum totaled $1,100,244.

"It's the lowest-cost building for its capacity and facilities I know of," Byrd bragged.

He mentioned that an almost exact replica, Hirsch Coliseum, had just been completed at Shreveport, La., at a cost of $4 million.

During the next three decades, Barton Coliseum would be home for countless rodeos, wrestling matches, religious conventions, concerts and basketball games.

Improvements were made. And there were controversies.

The year prior to the Portis-Byrd interview, in fact, an improvement project was slowed by a labor dispute with Sheet Metal Workers Local 249. The dispute resulted in picket lines and a National Labor Relations Board investigation.

Renovation Plans

In September 1973, a Little Rock news conference was held to unveil plans for a $1.2-million renovation. The news conference was attended by Sen. John L. McClellan, who in his role as chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee had obtained a $600,000 grant from the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration.

Earlier in the year, the Legislature had appropriated $500,000 in matching funds, and the ALSA had pledged another $100,000 in revenues.

Under the plan, Barton's roof would be replaced, permanent bleachers would be added to the north and south ends, and the coliseum's cooling and electrical systems would be revamped. The roof had developed leaks, and the huge cooling system had not been overhauled since its installation.

Little Rock's banks had promised to underwrite the matching funds required by the EDA, but that became unnecessary following the state appropriation. The bill was steered through the Legislature by Sen. Max Howell of Jacksonville with the support of then Gov. Dale Bumpers.

In June 1974, ALSA President E.M. Arnold of Little Rock signed a $948,000 contract with Richardson Industrial Builders Inc. of Little Rock to begin the renovation project. Officials with the construction firm promised the project would be completed by 1975.

Before completion, though, there would be political battles and reams of bad publicity for Barton Coliseum.

On Jan. 12, 1975, state Rep. Art Givens of Sherwood attended a concert by the group Grand Funk Railroad at the invitation of a local probation officer.

"I went onto the floor and saw large groups sitting around Indian-style passing joints of marijuana around openly," Givens said.

Based in part on that visit, Givens introduced legislation that would require the state to operate Barton. The ALSA had signed a 50-year lease with the state in 1973, but Givens' bill would nullify the lease.

The legislator claimed he had been contacted by "numerous organizations" that had attempted to use Barton but could not do so because the rent was too high and management refused to provide adequate support.

Arnold responded that the Livestock Show Association had never refused use of Barton Coliseum to anybody who could pay "the normal rental charges."

Legislative hearings were held, consisting largely of testimony from those who claimed the police were too rough on concertgoers and those who claimed the concert audiences were made up primarily of "dope smokers."

On Feb. 17, 1975, Arnold announced the cancellation of an April 2 concert by the group Chicago because of the controversy.

Industry Boycott

During the next couple of months, the music industry instituted an unofficial boycott of Barton.

The British rock group Yes refused to perform after arriving at the coliseum, citing opposition to a new rule requiring crowds to remain seated during performances.

Givens even asked then Attorney General Jim Guy Tucker to investigate with ALSA's construction contract with Richardson. Tucker's investigation produced few concrete results, and the music industry soon abandoned its boycott.

The controversy blew over as quickly as it had come.

In fact, plans were announced in May of that year to spend $100,000 for a basketball playing floor and improved lighting so Eddie Sutton's resurgent basketball program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville would continue to play games in Little Rock.

By 1976, concert promoters were praising the cooperative attitude of the Livestock Show Association's new executive vice president, John R. "Johnnie" Holmes. They had been outraged by the comment made by Holmes' predecessor, C.C. Miller, that rock concerts should be banned because they "appeared to be organized pot parties."

Miller had banned so-called festival seating, which sets aside areas near the stage so those at concerts without assigned seats can stand. Under Miller, coliseum management often turned on the lights during shows as a means of crowd control.

In October 1977, Barton Coliseum avoided what could have been competition when Little Rock voters failed to approve a $22-million bond issue for a downtown facility known as Megaplex. The facility would have included a 10,000-12,000-seat arena and a large convention hall.

Walter Nunn of Little Rock led opposition to Megaplex through an organization known as Citizens Organized To Save Taxes. Nunn contended it would be more feasible to make improvements to Barton, which seats 8,100 for basketball and 10,000 for concerts.

With its arena safe from competition for the time being, the ALSA proceeded with improvement plans. In the fall of 1979, coliseum management spent $70,000 for insulation to conserve energy and reduce noise. Another $70,000 was used to redesign concession areas.

In May 1982, the ALSA's board approved more than $500,000 in additional improvements, including the renovation and expansion of six of the coliseum's eight rest rooms and 2,900 SF of new dressing rooms.

1986 Report

Four years later, Holmes released a report saying it would cost between $12 million and $15 million to expand Barton to 12,000 seats. Architects James Farrar and Rex Morris studied the coliseum on an informal basis and came up with a plan that would lower the floor 6 to 8 feet and add balconies. There also were plans for a two-level parking garage and a road connecting the coliseum to Interstate 630.

At the time, North Little Rock Mayor Terry Hartwick was proposing a 1-cent city sales tax for construction of an arena in the Crystal Hill or Dark Hollow areas.

The Little Rock Board of Directors, meanwhile, was developing arena plans of its own. In fact, Floyd G. "Buddy" Villines, a member of the board at the time, said Barton's plans did not impress him.

Holmes responded that Little Rock was not a large enough city to consistently market an arena seating more than 12,000 people.

Just as had been the case with the Megaplex nine years earlier, plans on both sides of the river for a new arena went no further than the conceptual stage.

With threats again removed, Barton officials went back to doing what they do best -- hosting concerts and basketball games.

Following the 1987 basketball season, athletic officials at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced they would move Trojan home games back to Barton following a brief fling downtown at the Statehouse Convention Center. Their decision came despite the fact that the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau had bought $245,000 worth of equipment -- a court, goals and 1,200 additional seats -- to facilitate the Trojans downtown.

The Little Rock Board of Directors had loaned the bureau the money, which was to have been repaid over 10 years with revenues raised from rental fees on UALR games.

UALR still plays its home games at Barton. However, there was a glitch in August 1989 when school officials attributed a $30,335 athletic deficit to a series of "unexpected costs," primarily rental costs of Barton Coliseum.

Holmes, though, said he never was approached about giving the school a rent-free contract.

Faced with a tight budget and mounting criticism of public spending on college sports, UALR Chancellor James H. Young had promised in 1988 to make the school's athletic program self-supporting or drop it. Athletic deficits totaled $1.27 million during the 1986-87 school year and $983,944 the following school year.

A six-week campaign was held. UALR brought in $372,386 in ticket sales and $321,775 in additional commitments.

When the July 1, 1988, deadline arrived, Young announced that rather than dropping athletics entirely, he would drop men's golf and women's basketball, add women's volleyball and keep all other sports.

At the time UALR was deciding to keep playing men's basketball and return to Barton, the coliseum's concert business flourished. During the 1980s, Barton drew from a low of 13 concerts (1980) to a high of 25 (1988) with total annual concert attendance ranging from 69,091 in 1980 to 173,710 in 1988. The increases even came in the face of increased competition for events from the Robinson Center Music Hall.

"It's not your state-of-the-art building, but it's still a good hall and very comfortable," a New Orleans promoter said of Barton at the end of the decade. "I don't have any problems."

On Nov. 9, 1990, the leaders of Project 2000 released plans for downtown's Diamond Center.

At the news conference was none other than Johnnie Holmes.

Once more, Little Rock voters would be asked to finance a replacement for aging Barton Coliseum.

Holmes had seen it all before.

PHOTO : AT THE FAIR: The year was 1958, and Barton Coliseum was in its prime during the annual Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show. Now, Little Rock voters will be asked to pay for a new arena, downtown's Diamond Center.

Rex Nelson Arkansas Business Staff
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Little Rock's Barton Coliseum's colorful past and uncertain future
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 24, 1991
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