The City Hasn't Forgotten About Tuning Up and Turning Up Memorial Auditorium

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I spent most of Saturday at the Dallas Convention Center -- ostensibly for the Dallas Auto Show, but it turned into an afternoon spent touring the former Memorial Auditorium, where they were holding Wheel of Fortune auditions, and Pioneer Park Cemetery. The boy and I left both places with a handful of questions, and we'll get to the cemetery queries tomorrow. But first: How goes, if at all, City Hall's vague notion to redo the nearly 10,000-seat venue in which the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, The Who, the Grateful Dead -- among myriad other legends, including the Dallas Chaparrals -- played way back when?

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Maybe you recall: Back in September 2008, city officials discussed, briefly, giving Memorial a makeover so maybe it could compete with the likes of the Nokia Theatre in Grand Prairie and other similarly sized venues around the DFW. Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway was all for it; so too council member Ron Natinsky, head of the Economic Development committee, who didn't see why it should be just for this weekend's Dallas Blue Festival, high-school graduations, Mary Kay Cosmetics gatherings and the random revival. Frank Poe, outgoing head of the Dallas Convention Center, guesstimated it would cost somewhere between $30,000 and $70,000 to study what a redo would run -- but whatever the final cost of the extreme makeover, well, gosh, it's probably more than the budget-strapped city can afford. Then again, think of all the business it could bring downtown ...

Turns out, the convention center arena is actually is being studied at this very moment: The city council hired HKS several weeks ago to do a facilities assessment at the Dallas Convention Center, with the arena "as one of its priorities." And, as a matter of fact, Poe says, in recent months the city has been actively pursuing the kind of concerts that would normally go to Nokia and Superpages.com Center. But, he says, it hasn't been easy since, of course, those venues are controlled by promoters -- AEG and LiveNation, respectively.

"Its biggest challenge -- and we've had some recent discussions with major promoters about doing ongoing concert business -- is that good seating in that facility is about 7,500 seats, when you take out back-of-the-house staging locations for a typical setup," Poe says. "For touring groups that would hit that niche, Nokia is a major competitor -- and because its owned by AEG, which is a major promoter, they can drive business through there because they make more money.

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"Our seating size fits into that awkward range between what the American Airlines Center has and what Nokia can provide," he continues. "What we've been exploring as part of a facility assessment with HKS is looking at a way to expand capacity to get us into 10,000-seat range without affecting what we need to do with Mary Kay, cheerleading groups, that sort of thing. You don't want to exclude other uses to the advantage of a concert you might be able to secure. It's a good facility, and it's a sound facility structurally that's been updated in recent years. Functionally it's a good venue but caught in that awkward no man's land."

John Hutchings, one of the HKS principals, tells Unfair Park today that it's simply too soon to tell how the auditorium will factor into its assessment. "It's all about making this thing, the convention center, as flexible as possible for the changing types of shows that come about," he says. Then again, he reminds he's the right guy to do the assessing: "I lost my hearing at a Led Zeppelin show at Memorial. Stood in front of the stage, and when Jimmy Page started playing, that was that. Can't hear a thing."
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