Loss Of Vets Memorial Performance Space Hard To Replace

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Franklin County Veterans Memorial
Franklin County Veterans Memorial

For decades, the Franklin County Veterans Memorial complex has been a popular venue for all sorts of cultural performances and sporting events such as The Arnold Classic. But now that county commissioners plan to demolish the building to make way for a smaller memorial, regular patrons are looking for alternative spaces.

Every January for the past 15 years the city of Columbus has honored the life and legacy of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior with an evening program at Vets Memorial. Dan Willis, the president of First Class Events, has produced the event during those 15 years. Next month’s program will be the last at Vets since demolition is on the horizon. Willis says Vets has been a wonderful home for the King tribute.

“This whole change wouldn’t be as bad if I knew where we were going to go or if we had an option that could handle the size of our venue. That’s up in the air right now. But I don’t know what we’re going to do in 2015. I don’t know where we’re going to go; I don’t know how we’re going to do the program,” Willis says.

Willis wonders if there will be a program at all in 2015. Yes, says Napoleon Bell, who is executive director of the City of Columbus Community Relations Commission.

“It’s been a tremendous event, a tremendous program to really galvanize the community around the life and legacy of Dr. King so we’re looking at different locations and alternatives but we will definitely have something that we memorialize and celebrate his life and legacy,” Bell says.

Q: Do you think you’ll find a location that would be as suitable as Vets Memorial?

“I feel as though we will. We’ve got a couple of ideas; we’re tossing some things around. But we haven’t made any contacts on that yet but we do have some ideas that we think will be great. So we’re hopeful that wherever it ends up at it will be just as good a program, although different because it’s not in the same location, but nonetheless, it will be a great program and the focus will be remembering and keeping with the mission and vision of Dr. King,” Bell says

Veterans Memorial offered both exhibition space and a nearly 4,000-seat theater. The theater’s capacity filled a niche in the Columbus market because of its size. Brian Ross is president and CEO of Experience Columbus.

“The theaters that we have now, I believe four or five downtown that are absolutely first-class, world-class theaters, I believe that the maximum that they can hold is about 2,700 and you can do about 3,900 in the auditorium over at Veterans Memorial. So that was a niche that if you had any type of entertainment that was over the 2,500, 2,900, then you had Veterans Memorial’s theater as an option,” Ross says.

Ross says he believes that the Ohio Expo Center can pick up some of the business that has gone to Veterans Memorial over the years.

“The facilities there fit quite nicely with some of the needs that people have had at Veterans Memorial. And with groups that we have had with consumer shows, usually Vets and the Expo Center would compete,” Ross says

One thing that Veterans Memorial offered over other venues, Ross says, is affordability.

“Veterans was able to provide a low price point over the years,” Ross says.

The low rates at Veterans would have changed, Ross says, because the memorial auditorium faced costly renovation and modernization. The new memorial won’t have an indoor theater but Ross says other venues are available.

“We have a lot of opportunities, a lot of venues in Central Ohio. And those venues range anywhere from the Convention Center which has the most square footage at about 1.7 million square feet from a convention side of things to different hotels and conference facilities,” Ross says.

Meanwhile, Dan Willis, who produces the annual King celebration and tribute, says the years spent at Veterans Memorial have been great.

“It’s been wonderful. We have been able to work with Veterans Memorial at all levels. The stage crew, the administrative crew, the building maintenance crew; everyone is on the same page when I go down to do an event, whether it’s the Martin Luther King show, or the veterans stand-down, which is for homeless veterans, or the Veterans Hall of Fame induction that we do every year, they’re always on the same page and they want me to be as successful as I want them to be. I get 110 percent from them all the time and it’s very encouraging to work with a group of people that are on the same page as I am consistently. It’s just refreshing. I’ve always enjoyed working with Vets Memorial,” Willis says.

Demolition will occur next year. The start of construction for the new Veterans Memorial will occur in early 2015.

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