Running an entertainment venue is hard when you can't hold live events in-person. The City of Bloomington owns two: Grossinger Motors Arena and the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.
The city is trying to keep these taxpayer-supported venues from draining the city budget at a time when many local governments have taken a big pandemic-caused financial hit.
Peoria Civic Center managers recently said they need a multimillion dollar lifeline soon or the facility may close. In Bloomington, the situation is not that dire, said Nora Dukowitz, the city's communications and external affairs manager.
“There’s still the facility costs, but so far as not having these traditional events in either facility, we are not seeing as great of an impact as one might think that we would be,” Dukowitz said.
That's because many events at the arena and BCPA lose money, according to a review of city financial records.
Over the last three years, events at the two facilities lost more than $1 million. That doesn't include other expenses: payroll, building maintenance, and bond payments. The city uses sales tax money to pay off the bonds for BCPA renovations done 14 years ago. That has still left a shortfall of about $1.6 million in the last three years.
That amount is close to what the city pays in annual debt service on Grossinger Motors Arena. Events there also lose money--a net shortfall of $1.3 million since 2018.
The arena got some help to offset pandemic-related expenses, as its management firm Venuworks received $246,000 through the federal Payroll Protection Program.
The city also will save money by moving arena operations in house. Early in the pandemic, Bloomington opted out of its contract with VenuWorks a year early.
The deal would have paid VenuWorks about $170,000 in management fees and projected commission from concessions this year. Now, the city will have to hire its own staff to book events and keep the books.
Dukowitz said the city doesn't plan to hire more people--there are no events to schedule.
Mayor Tari Renner said he imagines the city eventually will need to bring in workers.
“It probably would require at least a little additional staff or we would contract out part of that,” Renner said. “We would use additional staff and contract out the booking to some (company). There have been a lot of local vendors and local business people who are interested in working with us on the arena.”
Renner said it's possible a contractor could handle booking for both venues to save more money, and it remains to be seen if the city can manage two venues in the long term.
“The jury is still out on that, but we are definitely thinking about keeping it in-house or keeping it partially in-house,” Renner said. “This is one of the things COVID is doing, is forcing us to rethink how we are delivering all of our public services in Bloomington.”
Part of that rethinking involves finding ways to repurpose the facilities during the pandemic.
“Neither facility has been completely dormant,” Dukowitz said. “Just because you are not seeing those traditional events at either facility doesn’t mean there is nothing going on there.”
Dukowitz said the city has converted the arena ticket office into a customer service center for city business. It also will be an early voting site and voting center on election day. Illinois Wesleyan University has rented the BCPA for classroom space and it's open for private rentals.
Since many entertainment events are break-even at best, Dukowitz said the city doesn't believe losing them short-term will be a new burden for the city. The city bakes the losses into the city budget every year.
Less economic impact
Bloomington now projects losing less money this year than it figured before the pandemic, but the city acknowledges those figures don’t account for economic impact that is harder to measure. .
The Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau calculates how much revenue Grossinger Motors Arena brings to the city. That includes food, gas, lodging and shopping. The arena created an estimated $13.9 million in economic impact for the community last year. That's based on tens of thousands of visitors who come to arena shows and games, many from out of town.
Bureau president Crystal Howard said that's a big financial hit with venues like the arena and BCPA closed. She said they have to find other ways to bring tourists to town.
“Our marketing efforts have changed a little bit, but we are very much marketing because we went visitors to come into the area,” Howard said. “Right now, what we are seeing is that in our industry, they are traveling, but they are doing outdoor places.”
Howard said the good news is many events that were canceled this year are rebooked next year in the hope conventions, concerts and indoor sporting events will be safe by then.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau says one canceled event, the Jehovah's Witnesses convention held every summer at the arena, generates $1.7 million a year for the Bloomington-Normal economy.
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