Photo by McNeese
Burton Coliseum, as a sports venue, has attracted both negative and positive opinions over the last 10 years. Opinion is so polarized, in fact, that in the end, you either hate it or love it — no room for middle ground.
I was on the fence myself about Burton for many years, primarily because Calcasieu Parish let it slip into disrepair. One of the biggest drags on the venerable Coliseum was the pothole-ridden, patchwork, awful two-lane Gulf Hwy. that is the coliseum’s main access.
After millions were spent to four-lane Common St. into Gulf Hwy., the region finally had a respectable track of concrete leading from Lake Charles Regional Airport, past Burton and into the outskirts of McNeese State University; the parish got busy and has invested $6 million plus in major renovation projects.
I for one got off the fence and gave the Coliseum my blessing and full support as a basketball arena and multi-use event venue.
The renovations should have changed many of Burton opponents into proponents, but there are still way too many Burton bashers, including the outspoken American Press sports columnist and managing editor Jim Gazzolo.
Despite his repeated rants against the building as a basketball arena, the voting public has continued to pass a property millage tax to fund future improvements and operations for the coliseum.
One day after the completion of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s Top 28 Girls and Boys state tournaments, Gazzolo hammered Burton Coliseum as an antiquated, atmosphere-lacking, lousy basketball venue that is more suited to having a dirt floor for rodeos than a hardwood for hoops.
Gazzolo went as far as to say cats roam the lower levels of the building for what he thought was rodent control.
For the record, I have been inside Burton for many events, and have never seen a stray cat, but that’s not to say one has never found a way in.
Calcasieu Parish assistant administrator Dane Bolin has taken the public podium, if you will, to respond to the criticism, and to level the playing field between perception and reality. Bolin says Gazzolo’s critical comments, and any ongoing negativity surrounding the coliseum, are off-base, but still not easy to hear some three years into major capitol improvements.
“It was difficult to read (Gazzolo’s column in the American Press) the day after the staff pulled off what we think was a great basketball tournament over two weeks,” Bolin said. “We all know that if you have been to the Burton Complex over the last two or three years, it has changed dramatically.”
Bolin, who is three years into his current administrative position, and is a 24-year veteran of the Calcasieu Parish system, says Burton is “right up there with the best” of venues of similar size in Louisiana.
The three years of improvements included a new exterior roof, updated interior concourses, concession areas, kitchen facilities, ramps, bathrooms, locker rooms, and the entire lighting grid.
The expenditure on the renovations is $6 million and counting, noted Bolin, who says the parish will continue to upgrade Burton as a “multi-event facility‚” with the goal of attracting concerts and more sporting events. “Every year, we have monies budgeted for ongoing renovations and capitol improvements to Burton.”
The top slap against the Coliseum is its location.
Local media members, sports fans in general, and McNeese officials, who will go on record, feel that Burton is just too far from the hub of the university, and its remote location hurts Cowboys and Cowgirls basketball attendance.
This is why McNeese, after years of hoping and planning, has begun the process of financing and building an on-campus multi-use arena to be used primarily as the new home for McNeese basketball.
The fact is that Burton is less than two miles from McNeese’s football and baseball stadiums, with easy access on a four-lane roadway, according to Bolin.
I have never felt the coliseum was too far off the beaten path for basketball fans, certainly no more so than the Lake Charles Civic Center, who many in the community say is better situated for McNeese basketball. Fact is, game attendance doesn’t increase at all when games are played at the Civic Center.
Another knock against Burton is its basketball layout and sight lines.
It’s a court in the middle of a round building. It’s not that complicated. I have been on press row, courtside, at the mid-level seats, and in the upper tier, and there are no lousy viewing angles. Complaints that the seating is too far from the court is simply not true. Sit on the first row seats, and you need to be prepared to toss a wayward basketball back to the refs.
I have listened intently to those who spout off that the venue cannot produce an energetic basketball atmosphere. Bolin has heard it too, and with disdain.
If you watched the girls and boys state basketball championships, I know that everyone I talked to said it was a great basketball environment. No doubt about it. Even a couple of years ago, when McNeese hosted an early NIT game (over 5,000 fans turned out for McNeese vs. Boston College), it had a basketball feel to it.
Look, Burton Coliseum will never have the vibe of Duke’s Cameron Indoor, or Rupp Arena at Kentucky — nor will McNeese’s new on-campus arena. You get a home court advantage with energy and buzz by putting a winning and exciting product on the floor — one competitive enough to lure more than 800 fans a game.
Basketball fans have to do their part and show up. McNeese has to do its part by developing a product and brand that can compete. (Scheduling interesting matchups plays a big part in the equation).
Burton has to hold up their end with good lighting (done), good sound (getting there), good concessions (you can’t beat the hot dog combo with homemade fried potato chips) and good game-day operations (check).
Bolin, a McNeese graduate who was born and raised in Lake Charles, supports the university’s decision to build the new campus arena, but at the same time, he cautions McNeese about the continuing budget it takes to maintain and operate it after you build it.
Calcasieu Parish built Burton Coliseum, and has owned and overseen operations of the building since its construction, minus the 15 years or so that McNeese took over day-to-day management. The parish resumed oversight three years ago, and the building is managed by Jason Barnes, who is director of the Burton Complex.
Gazzolo and other Burton opponents propose that the city or parish should build for the future expansion of the region, and erect a new multi use venue, with a 10-year horizon so that Lake Charles can compete for bigger and better events.
What economic world are these people living in?
They must live in a bubble where the flowers are always in bloom, taxes are raised whenever you need extra money, and checkbooks are always balanced.
This is not Field of Dreams‚ where “if you build it, they will come.”
“Building is one thing,” says Bolin, “but (money is needed) to operate it, pay the light bill, pay the workers, and to put money aside for needed renovations.”
City and parish budgets are squeezed as it is. Voters are reluctant to pass new taxes for pie-the-sky pipe dreams. McNeese’s budget is undergoing another round of higher education cuts, as Gov. Bobby Jindal labors to balance a state budget some billion-plus dollars in the red.
With all due respect to Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach and the City Council, we are still waiting on lakefront development off I-10 at the former Harrah’s Casino site. There is still no downtown hotel connected to the Civic Center. Downtown development has come a long way, but the area is not booming as city planners had hoped.
Private developers have come and gone, with fancy proposals and presentations, but not with enough money to lead local officials to stick a shovel in the ground.
Did you know that Calcasieu Parish doesn’t charge McNeese one red cent for hosting basketball games at Burton? That’s right — free. McNeese keeps gate receipts, and Burton pockets what little they make off concessions.
Talk about a sweetheart deal. In light of that, how can anyone in their right mind walk away from that deal?
I’m not totally against the on-campus project, but I’m not convinced it will significantly raise basketball attendance at the predominately commuter school. If the university can raise the private and corporate funds to build and maintain the new complex, then congratulations are in order.
“We will continue to be the home of McNeese basketball until that day comes,” Bolin said with confidence. “Until that day comes, we will provide everything we can to make McNeese basketball the best it can be.”
The Coliseum recently completed the second year of a two-year deal to host the Top 28 Boys and Girls State Tournaments, called “Marsh Madness.”
According to Bolin, over 50,000 fans attended the games over a two-week period, with an estimated economic impact on the region of between $3.5-$4 million dollars. The gate increased year after year, by 6,000 fans. That’s impressive, considering there were only a scant few regional teams playing, and only one boys’ squad from either Lake Charles or Sulphur (that being St. Louis High School) that advanced to the tournament.
The parish will submit its bid to host the tournaments for the next two years, and Bolin says he is “very confident” the L.H.S.A.A. will award Lake Charles and Burton Coliseum the event; a decision is to be made later this summer.
The label of Cow Palace is a bit harsh, but Burton Coliseum was originally designed and built for rodeos and livestock shows. It has endured the slurs about the smell, the dirt, and the necessity of being careful where you step, for years now. But, in the quest for new business arenas, stadiums and coliseums across the country are constantly altering their configurations to host rodeos (NRG-Texans Stadium hosts the Houston Rodeo, Livestock and concerts), Monster Truck shows (nearly every indoor arena in the mainland 48 states) and Motorcross (Superdome), as well as M.M.A. and boxing events.
If Madison Square Garden can put on a pro bull riding show, then Burton Coliseum can do basketball just fine.
The next phase of renovations will involve the indoor ceiling, more lightning, and the “rigging” needed for bigger concerts. Bolin noted that the facility already has a new audio and video monitoring system, which will be installed at concession stations and major concourse areas, so that fans can see the game action while waiting in line.
The challenge in attracting A-List concerts or touring events for Burton, the Civic Center and Lake Charles, in general, has been geography. Lake Charles is situated two hours outside Houston, one hour east of larger Beaumont (remember Ford Arena off I-10), and 90 minutes from still larger Lafayette and the 10,000 plus seat Cajun Dome.
No doubt in the past this region was skipped over because of market size, demographics, location to those bigger mid major cities and a lousy history of special event ticket sales. But Bolin believes that has changed.
“Several years back, that might have been true. I think everyone can agree that if you ride around Southwest Louisiana, this place is changing. Those stereotypes have changed. That’s the way it was, but every year we are becoming more of a destination site because of the casinos, fishing and hunting, and just the growth of the region,” Bolin says.
The structural and cosmetic renovations completed so far at Burton has elevated the venue into a true multi-event arena. There is more work planned.
It’s a great site for McNeese Basketball. It’s an excellent complex in which to host the Top 28 tournaments. It excels at rodeos, and there is nothing wrong with that. It will soon be capable of staging notable concerts.
It’s time to get off Burton’s back, and for the coliseum’s critics to learn the facts, come down to Earth, and live in the real economy.
Measure Burton against reasonable expectations, and stop complaining about the kitty cats.
Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Soundoff 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10 am as well.