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String of sell-outs and Bison deal are signs of strength for Bloomington venues

Empty hockey rink with a large video monitor above featuring a logo with the words Bloomington Bison and a cartoon bison holding a hockey stick wearing a top hat.
Emily Bollinger
City officials are hoping the fall start of the Bloomington Bison hockey season will continue momentum seen with recent successful events booked at Grossinger Motors Arena, and bring an uptick in large concerts as the public gets used to visiting the venue.

Bloomington's Arts and Entertainment department is showing signs of a turnaround.

A recent string of sold-out shows at the Bloomington Center for Performing Arts came before the ink was dry on a 20-year agreement with the new Bloomington Bison hockey team at Grossinger Motors Arena.

Director of Arts and Entertainment Anthony Nelson oversees both, entering the newly created role with a strict mandate: The beleaguered venues, owned and operated by the city of Bloomington, needed to start turning an operational profit.

If the past few months are any indication, they're on their way. The BCPA reported a 335% increase in attendance so far this year compared to the beginning of 2023. Recent tour stops by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lee Brice and Three Dog Night filled the house.

Nelson does not discount the role luck may have played in their recent success, but there’s a larger strategy in play.

“Getting to know the community and what they want,” he said, “it’s more, spend money and they will come.”

For example, Nelson said city higher-ups might have previously balked at the price of a Lee Brice show. “I think they would have said, ‘that’s awful expensive,’” said Nelson. “Well, if you sell it out, it’s not that expensive.”

Comedy also is faring far better than pre-pandemic, with Bored Teachers, Charlie Berens and Chelcie Lynn also selling out.

“I think everybody just wants to laugh after the last three or four years,” Nelson said.

'Annie' on a school night was strategic

Nelson and his team have made a concerted effort to get higher profile performances at the BCPA to satisfy what the community wants, with a few concessions needed to keep things affordable for both the city and the public.

A recent two-day run of the Annie national tour, for example, would have been prohibitively expensive to book on a weekend — with the bulk of that cost passed onto consumers.

“I get it. I have kids. I took my daughter to Annie on a school night, and I paid for it in the morning,” Nelson said. “But she’s still talking about it.”

A person stands near a red wall with the WGLT and NPR logos
Lauren Warnecke
Director of Arts and Entertainment Anthony Nelson previously worked as a business manager for the city of Bloomington and spent six years at Miller Park Zoo.

Many of the BCPA’s sell-outs were announced a few weeks or months ahead of the show date, rather than part of their packaged season. While most venues book years ahead, Nelson said their piecemeal approach has been strategic and will continue for the 2024-25 season.

“We have left money and dates in the budget to get some of these bigger shows as they route through,” he said. “That’s how they get a little bit cheaper.”

Nelson said managing two completely different venues simultaneously has proved to be an asset for booking shows.

“There’s been a lot of shows where the arena’s too big,” he said, while pitching the BCPA as a viable alternative. “Now, it’s getting more wins at the arena.”

More work to do at arena

Grossinger Motors Arena and the Bloomington Center for Performing Arts operate under shared management, box office, marketing and production staff, with separate operations staff and independent budgets. Both venues publish show reports demonstrating event-specific revenue, with plans to release quarterly financial reports beginning next fiscal year.

The 1,200-seat BCPA faces less pressure to generate profit, which allows the venue to keep ticket prices low and take bigger risks on shows with cultural value that might not sell as well. With a 8,000-seat capacity for concerts, the arena operates on a different pay scale — and has proved more challenging to turn around.

“We put in offers all the time,” said Nelson. “That’s a lot more competitive. A theater show will play Springfield, Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign within a 24-month period. If a big act comes through, they want to play one of those arenas — maybe two. You’ve got to be a little more aggressive and try to convince them that this is the better market.”

Nelson is taking wait-and-see approach as the Bloomington Bison hockey season approaches, hoping that momentum also will bring an uptick in large concerts as the public gets used to visiting the arena.

“As a department, we need to get there ourselves,” Nelson said. “We need to show a few more shows that are profitable to say, ‘Hey, can we get one more operations person, or an assistant food and beverage manager?’”

In the meantime, Nelson is keeping staffing lean, a move imposed by the city as an efficiency model by combining the two venues under one department. Current staff has told Nelson they need more workers to keep going at this pace.

“We’re doing our best to do it with part-time staff,” he said. “It’s hard getting enough security, ushers, food and beverage staff. Everybody’s sliced a little bit thin, but I think the day-to-day of watching people walk out with a smile on their face — it does make you go, that was worth it.”

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.