Whenever it’s safe for people to gather again, those who run Bloomington’s Grossinger Motors Arena want to be ready.
The city-owned arena has essentially been dark since early March, when the coronavirus and stay-at-home order wiped its calendar clean. One of the biggest losses is next month’s Jehovah’s Witnesses convention, a major economic-impact event that last year brought 27,000 people to Bloomington-Normal.
Arena staff are working to reschedule events for later in the year and into 2021. But it’s not easy, as touring shows and pro sports leagues operate in many different states with many different timetables for reopening.
“Right now the rules are being rewritten on a daily basis,” said Lynn Cannon, executive director of Grossinger Motors Arena. “Every time a governor in a state gets up and talks to the people in that state, different things are happening. It is unbelievable how many moving pieces this entire situation has entailed.”
The downtown arena has eight full-time staff and over 450 part-time employees. The part-timers were furloughed in mid-March as events dried up, but they were brought back for some hours starting in April thanks to assistance from the federal Payroll Protection Program, Cannon said. VenuWorks received about $246,000 for payroll and utility costs in Bloomington.
Right now, staff is cleaning and organizing the arena. They also cleared out the loading dock to make room for a staging area for the new curbside farmers’ market.
“Everybody’s getting something, whether it was somebody who worked many hours because it’s their primary job, or somebody who just worked concerts for us because it was a part-time job on top of their other full-time job,” Cannon said. “We were able to help out each of those people accordingly.”
The arena was expecting to add back indoor football and hockey this year, with two new franchises moving in.
But the Midway Marauders football team lost its March-to-May season due to COVID-19. The new FPHL hockey team was scheduled to start its first season here in October, although that’s now likely being pushed back to November or beyond, Cannon said.
To prepare, Cannon said the arena has sketched out alternative seating arrangements to keep fans socially distanced — spacing out people so they’re only occupying up to 20% of the 5,600 seats. They also have to figure out food-and-beverage and bathroom access for that scenario, Cannon said.
Big leagues like the NFL and MLB still haven’t decided how and when to resume play. Cannon said midsized arenas like Bloomington’s may benefit in the short term as the public recalibrates their personal comfort level around crowds.
“Maybe they’re not going to dive right into an event at Soldier Field or Lollapalooza. But we might be able to grab some shows that are looking to fill that middle niche,” she said.
It’s unclear how deeply the cancellations will cut into the arena’s bottom line. The arena posted a better-than-expected net operating loss of $270,921 last year.
There are good signs. The Jehovah’s Witnesses already have secured their dates for summer 2021, Cannon said.
“The nature of our business is to bring people together, and to have that communal experience,” she said. “People will miss that, and want to have that again. And once it’s safe for everyone to do so, and we have the arena ready to go, I can’t wait to have those doors open and everybody back.”
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