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Guest Column: Raising the curtain I

March 17, 2010

By Bruce Hammond
Co-owner, Sound Productions

Editor’s note: As one of my fellow cofounders of the 19th Annual Rockford Area Music Industry awards (RAMIs), I know Mr. Hammond has been involved in the matters affecting and affected by the MetroCentre since it was built. His many years of knowledge and fine work with his sound production company, his volunteer efforts for On the Waterfront and his unfailing support of the River District are unquestionable. After a few conversations on this central issue, I asked him to share his thoughts.

Once again, I seem to have totally missed the point. You see, I thought that Mike Dunn’s Venues Committee was supposed to do an in-depth investigation of several downtown arts and entertainment organizations plus the  RACVB and come up with “real world” recommendations to help them succeed without an ever-increasing stream of tax dollars to prop them up. Silly me. What was really needed was a 50-plus page document of serious sounding, bureaucratese trimmed with wishful thinking. Of course, since it didn’t cost much—unlike the seemingly endless C.H. Johnson studies that we have commissioned—Dunn can claim we got our money’s worth. Look for yourself, go to www.raisinggthecurtain.com.

It is not my intention to question the sincerity of the effort that Dunn and his committee have invested in the project. I don’t know most of these people, certainly not well enough to attribute their motives to anything other than civic mindedness. However, from the onset, it was pretty clear that for whatever reason, the Venues Committee would not really deal with the elephant in the room. Dunn’s earliest statements were very clear on the point that any possibility of poor management or malfeasance on the part of the MetroCentre would not be considered. That’s the elephant.

I’m sorry, but if you eliminate the fiscal irresponsibility and adversarial relationship with the community that has typified MetroCentre management since 2002, the Venues Committee might not have been necessary. Yes, there were and are other government-created obstacles that need to be overcome before a functional downtown is a reality, but they pale in comparison.

Consider this. Since Anne Larson and her protégés came to town, something approaching $50 million in taxes has gone into the building. The Venues Committee report recommends that the city forgive another million or so as well as freeing up more of the Community Redevelopment Fund. Having this money available to fund further MetroCentre misadventures will probably be necessary since they still haven’t managed to balance their budget.

What, exactly, have the citizens of Rockford received for this money? Well, we own a hockey franchise, which, presumably, will retain some value. (I still don’t like the idea of government owning a pro sports team.)

We also have a half-assed $20 million building renovation. I say “half-assed” because that describes exactly the original plan as passed by the city council, Metro and county boards. Major portions could not be built at all. Take, for example, the plan’s truck staging and docks on Elm Street that would have allowed South Main to remain open during event load-ins. Never built. Then, there was the grand main entrance on the Southwest corner that was downsized and reconfigured and then necessitated unplanned lane closures on Church and Chestnut so that patrons didn’t exit into traffic. Did that cost the city extra?

Of course, the main weakness in the renovation plan was financial. The MetroCentre claimed that they could operate without their $912,000 annual subsidy and contribute about $400,000 or so per year to help pay for the improvements. These two line items would be largely covered by sales of luxury boxes and arena naming rights ($650,000 each). So far, those figures are off by at least one order of magnitude.

When I tried to present my concerns to my alderman prior to the city council voting on the plan, I was told that if the Metro’s building plans and finances went the route I feared they would (and they have), he said, “we’ll all be looking for new jobs.” I don’t know to whom the “all” referred, but my alderman now works for the MetroCentre at $83K per year trying to peddle those same luxury boxes and naming rights. I guess I’m not the only one with a crystal ball.

What else have we received for our $50 million? Well, the arena no longer hosts the Rockford Lightning, Home Show, Farm Hardware Show, Boat and RV Show, RAMI Awards, Kiwanis Pancake Day, First Night, 100 Men who Cook, or On the Waterfront, et al. They no longer help maintain the mall, run the Mid-week Fest, build reviewing stands for parades and distance runs, provide stage tech staffing for events like OTW (a service for which they were paid), etc. MetroCentre used to have all that.

Davis Park, which is operated by the MetroCentre, has gone from 22 events in 2002 to four in 2009. At this time, three are on the schedule for 2010: Fourth of July, OTW and Rock the Red. The MetroCentre takes their responsibility for operating Davis Park so seriously that when the arena used part of a state grant to purchase a new stage, they invested in one that is not appropriate for outdoor use.

During his remarks at the ceremony March 9, Dunn seemed perplexed that events like Taste of Rockford would be held on a parking lot in Loves Park rather than Davis Park. It’s not much of a mystery. Taste, Rib Fest, Oktoberfest and others would have been committing financial suicide by locating their event in Davis Park because of the preposterous conditions imposed by the MetroCentre. For example, all concessions for an event must go through the arena, which gets to keep 80 percent of the money. The main reason On the Waterfront is still willing to use the park is that by contributing cash to help build Davis, they were exempted from having to work through the Metro Centre.

Dunn also seemed particularly vexed by the fact that the MetroCentre and Coronado Theatre are two entirely separate entities, both with its own governing board and funding. According to Dunn, if he’d been in charge in ’05, the two would have been forced to sit down and settle their differences. Unfortunately, that shows a pretty limited grasp of the situation that existed at the time. In ’05, the Coronado was, like Davis Park, an extension of the MetroCentre, as it had been since the Kerasotes family donated it to the city, and the city handed the theatre’s operations over to the arena.

The previous year, the city had effectively doubled Metro’s annual subsidy to cover the supposed $600,000/year losses that the arena was incurring due to running the Coronado.

That money has continued to flow to the Metro Centre, even though their responsibility for the theatres’ operations has ended! Apparently, the additional funding had little positive effect on the theatres’ operations.

Prior to the creation of CPAC (Coronado Performing Arts Center) in’06, the Coronado was just a building. Opposition to the status quo, i.e., continued management by the Metro Centre, came from a variety of arts groups (Community Concert Association, Rockford Symphony, Rockford Dance Company, etc.) who used the Coronado regularly and were very unhappy with the level and quality of service that they were receiving. Keep in mind that these local groups were not only the primary tenants of the Coronado, but also had been key players in raising the $7 million in private money that went into refurbishing the theater.

A quick side note: the $478K that shows up as public funding for the CPAC ’07 operating budget is, in part due to the fact that CPAC received no revenue from shows booked into the Coronado by the MetroCentre prior to the split.

Since the Venues Committee deemed to overlook these points, it’s no wonder their report fails to seriously address the problems it’s supposed to help solve. Yes, the report is full of buzz words and catch phrases that every politician loves to hear like entrepreneurship, accountability, leverage, revenue enhancement and a revitalized downtown, but there is little of a substantive nature to help bring these about.

To be continued…Part II of this column will be in our next issue.

 From the March 17-23, 2010 issue

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