For years now, bingo has been the lifeline for one of Pittsburgh's larger special-events facilities: the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum. With 27,500 square feet and a 1,700-person capacity, the former skating rink and bus and trolley station has hosted gatherings of fraternities and sororities, countywide political conventions and religious gatherings. Still, it hasn't been all it could be since the rink closed in the early 1980s.
Owners John and Tina Brewer, who took it over in 1989, are trying to renovate the would-be convention center to anchor the revitalization of Homewood's rundown Frankstown Avenue. Grassroots organizations such as the Homewood Arts District Committee (see "The Art of Improving Homewood," News Briefs, Feb. 16) and the Black Political Empowerment Project, which normally focuses on voter education, have also mobilized for the Coliseum cause.
"Any number of communities in this city would die to have such a large multi-purpose facility at hand," says Rick Adams of the Arts District board. His organization hopes the Coliseum, alongside other Homewood landmarks such as the Afro-American Music Institute, Images gallery and eatery, and the Meadows Bowling Center, will help the neighborhood become known for something other than crime.
"I'm tired of people talking about the criminals in Homewood," says Kevin Amos of the Arts District, who also works in Pittsburgh's special events department. "You're talking about a small minority of people making Homewood look bad."
The Brewers tried for funds from the Allegheny Regional Asset District board, which takes a 1 percent county sales tax and distributes millions of dollars a year to cultural amenities across the county. So far, however, their requests for funding have been rejected.
Besides fighting for funding, the Brewers are battling the perception that the Coliseum can only serve Homewood, or the city's black population.
"When you look at our history, you'll see it has always served people throughout the region," says John Brewer.
But as it stands, the building has neither the resources nor the "ambience" for the more formal kinds of events it's vast enough to accommodate. The space suffers from basic fluorescent lighting, rectangular school-cafeteria-type tables with mismatched chairs and lack of carpeting ... and that's just the ballroom.
The Coliseum does have a few saleable features: the Ramsey's II restaurant, which needs more room and a kitchen upgrade, and the Trolley Station Oral History Center, currently lined with hundreds of historical photos by Teenie Harris, famous chronicler of the city's life, and others from Negro League baseball days and the Pittsburgh Courier.
State Rep. Joe Preston has directed economic development funds to the Trolley Station Center. But Coliseum owner John Brewer says his meeting with Homewood's city councilor, Twanda Carlisle, hasn't yielded much.
"She committed to support the facility verbally," says Brewer, "but those verbs haven't been action verbs." Carlisle did not return calls seeking comment.
At the Pennsylvania African-American Political Convention on March 25, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato appeared to be thrown off guard when questioned about the Coliseum by B-PEP leader Tim Stevens. But Onorato pledged support, saying the county could match any funds the city grants. Depending on what kind of events occurred at the Coliseum, he added, the facility could see RAD funding in the future.
Concludes Adams: "I thought it was significant that, in this gathering of the black leadership of our communities, [Onorato] made that kind of commitment."