Nate Olson: Skepticism Barton Coliseum Can Relive Glory Days

I hadn’t seen media members this riled since a few years ago when the War Memorial Stadium press box ran out of free hot dogs during the State High School Football Championships.

My Facebook timeline lit up with comment after comment from colleagues from across the state. No one could quite believe, or want to believe, the Arkansas State Basketball Championships were heading back to Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum — a fossil of an arena. It would be the equivalent of the NFL asking the Houston Astrodome to re-open and play host to the Super Bowl.

We’ll find out how Barton Coliseum holds up starting Thursday when the first game tips off at 3:30 p.m.Some of the more docile media members I know were outraged over moving the games to the 63-year-old structure, which had been relegated recently to gun shows, circuses and rodeos.

It enjoyed a great run as a basketball arena, housing UALR games, the State Basketball Finals and even an University of Arkansas men’s game. However, even the Arkansas Activities Association admitted the ol’ barn was past its basketball prime in a post in the April 2009 AAA Bulletin.

“Barton Coliseum was a great starting point, but it was best suited for rodeos rather than basketball.”

However, as the old saying goes, “Money talks.” When the Hot Springs Convention Center, which had been the setting for the games since 2007, became unavailable because of a scheduling conflict with the 2013 Sun Belt Tournament, the AAA opened the site up for bids. In June, the organization’s governing body selected the bid created by the North Little Rock and Little Rock tourism officials that called for the AAA to receive $140,000 plus free hotel rooms for competing teams. The only other bid came from the Convocation Center at Arkansas State. ASU officials said they needed $70,000 of profit to cover rent. It seemed to be an easy decision for the AAA, but an unpopular one with most everybody else.

Anyone that has been in or seen the arena in the past few years couldn’t fathom it playing host to the most prestigious prep basketball event in the state. Over the past decade the now three-day event circulated between the Pine Bluff Convention Center, Alltel Arena (now Verizon) and the Hot Springs Convention Center. Even the PBCC, which was routinely criticized for being dilapidated seemed in much better shape than Barton, which until recently had burnt out bulbs on its outdoor sign and damaged seats. Incidentally, the PBCC still plays host to state tournament games for a week each season and never has been semi-retired. The other facilities are nice, new, neat and clean and can hold bigger crowds.

The other knock on Barton Coliseum is its location. The Roosevelt Road area is hardly a “garden spot”, and won’t appear in any Little Rock Chamber of Commerce promos. Most media members cringed when thinking about the Barton parking lot full of cars at night with fans coming and going. The crime in the area surrounding the Arkansas State Fairgrounds, where the Coliseum is situated, has been a concern in recent years. The plight of the area nearly forced the Fairgrounds to move, but the Arkansas Livestock Commission voted to keep it in the location it has been since 1944.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette preps basketball writer Tim Cooper has good memories of Barton. The veteran scribe covered his first finals there in 1994. The final day that year was one of the classics as the Fayetteville girls won an eight-overtime game, the longest in state history. Cooper told me on AM 920’s Sports Night program last week that with some improvements he thinks the arena will be a suitable backdrop for the three-day event.

I hope Cooper is right because these games could produce some lasting memories, too. I’d hate for them to be marred by a scoreboard that doesn’t work or the stench of manure. The pressure is on the tournament officials, arena staff and AAA to impress the pessimists. If the end result is filled with imperfections, the AAA will have a tough time inking a multi-year deal with Barton, regardless of the payday. The goal for all involved should be to make this a special weekend for the kids.

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