The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 24, 2014

Civic center bustling

Conventions, park concerts fueling civic center

By Tim Krohn tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — As the Verizon Wireless Center approaches its 20th anniversary next year, local officials are hopeful this will be the year the state finally approves funding to allow for a major expansion of the facility.

The civic center was built in 1995 for $23 million, funded through a half-percent local sales tax. While there have been upgrades since – including a new ice sheet for the Minnesota State University Maverick hockey team — the expansion is seen as a major step toward attracting much larger conventions and booking multiple events at the civic center.

“It would give us a whole new level of business we can go after. We’re losing the statewide conventions simply because we don’t have the space,” said Burt Lyman, executive director of the city-owned and operated facility.

But even as they hope expansion will move forward, city officials say the facility - and Riverfront Park, which is also operated by Lyman and the civic center – have been growing in use and popularity and bringing economic growth to the downtown.

Riverfront Park venue a hit

When Riverfront Park opened in 2010, few could predict how quickly it would grow in popularity and use.

Situated along the Minnesota River, near Old Town, the park’s stage, amphitheater and large grass area has made it ideal for events such as RibFest, art shows and concerts. The park is operated by the city-run Civic Center.

“Last year was very good for us at the park. The park seems to have taken hold. We’re building on that,” Lyman said. He said the addition of the park has fit nicely with the civic center because summers are slower for the arena and convention center, while the park is busy.

He said successful concerts at the park have means agents are now eager to book shows there.

“The artists really enjoy the setting. We’re getting calls from agents rather than us having to call them.”

He said the park was already booked for the summer of 2014 early this year, something that didn’t happen until June in past years. “It allows for more planning and ways we can package more events with it. I can’t name the acts coming yet, but they will be bigger and better than 2013.”

For events such as RibFest, the park can accommodate more than 5,000 people, but concerts have been more limited with last summer’s Willie Nelson concert able to accommodate about 3,000 fans.

Lyman said the city’s doing improvements to allow for larger concerts. “We’re grading the back grass area higher up in the back to improve the sight lines to the stage. We should be able to get maybe 5,000 (fans) now.”

Lyman said the grading, along with other steps, should also help deal with noise complaints by residents, including across the river in North Mankato, who say the concerts’ sounds carry far and clear.

“We put in new bass speakers that we can control better so it doesn’t reverberate all across the valley, and we’ve planted a lot of arborvitae behind the stage to dampen the sound – and it’s very attractive.”

The city is also planning to put in a concrete slab, covered by a roof, behind the Mankato Piece sculpture for use as a site for concession stands. Eventually Lyman wants to convert it to a building, with refrigeration, where city concession stands and supplies can be stored all summer.

“It’s expensive to bring all those concessions out there and stock it, so this would get those costs down. Our primary revenue is from food and concessions, so if we can be more efficient, it will help financially.”

Country dominates concert scene

While several big rock shows were featured during the early years of the civic center, country has steadily dominated.

“We had some good success with larger country shows. We’ve had four sell-outs the last couple of years. Eric Church was big. Florida Georgia Line sold out more quickly than any, even quicker than Elton John,” Lyman said.

Lyman said the success of country isn’t a Midwest phenomenon. “Country is a big thing nationwide, period.”

He noted, for example, that a big annual national convention for agents and venue managers such as Lyman previously was held in Los Angeles but is now in Nashville. “It shows how strong country is. Whether it will stay that way, I don’t know.”

Lyman said Mankato’s ability to sell out large concerts, be it Elton John or country acts, has given the city credibility and attention with agents.

“We never had a string with so many sell-outs. That gets attention of acts and agents. And with the Elton John concert, they had flex pricing with their tickets and they were able to sell thousands of tickets at higher prices. That showed the industry that Mankato could sell higher ticket prices so long as it’s a higher quality act.”

The city gets the lion’s share of its revenues, not from any ticket sales but from concession sales. Venues used to get some cut of ticket sales, but changes in the industry has all but ended that.

“These groups need to make their money touring. With the (music) downloads, they’re not selling albums anymore so they tour hard and the ticket sales go to the promoter and the band.”

Meetings, conventions stay strong

While big star concerts draw the most attention, it’s the meetings and conventions that are the bread and butter of the civic center.

“The meetings and convention center side has been extremely high. There are peaks and valleys, but the banquets and events and those kinds of things have grown consistently,” Lyman said.

The biggest problem, he said, is that they are routinely forced to turn away business because of a lack of space.

That is the impetus behind now long-standing attempt by the city to get included in a state bonding bill for a civic center expansion.

The $32.5 million expansion would include $15.5 million from Mankato and the remainder from state bonding. Mankato has repeatedly lost out in recent years. The money was included in bonding bills but excised by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty. More recently, Gov. Mark Dayton supported the plan, but it failed to pass the Legislature.

Funding for Mankato – and other civic center projects in the state – are in the governor’s bonding request this year.

“It seems like we’ve been trying for as long as I can remember,” Lyman said. “A lot of people have worked so hard at it.”

City Manager Pat Hentges is cautiously optimistic about the city’s chances of getting bonding money this session.

“I think (our chances) are probably as good as they’ve been. We have the support of all three bodies, including the governor, leaders in the House and Senate. It’s whether or not they can get some additional votes, particularly from the House” Hentges said.

Hentges recently told the City Council that if state funding fails to come through again, they may have to consider a change in plans.

“If we don’t get it this year we going to have to rethink it and obviously go with a substantially scaled back project that may not be able to accommodate MSU on a full-time basis down there,” he said.

If the state bonding is approved, the expansion will move to the area of the former U.S. Bank building and parking lot, which the city already owns.

An auditorium building on what is now the parking lot would become a large, flat show space while the former bank building would be renovated for convention and meeting breakout rooms and other uses.

The show space could be used for things like trade shows and also concerts and other events. Lyman said telescoping riser seats around the edges would create an auditorium for musicians to play. It would have 2,500 to 3,000 seats.

“Instead of building a big stage, it would be a plug-and-play venue. So if you have someone like Jackson Browne, they don’t have to bring in four or five semis of stuff. They can just plug in some gear and they’re ready.”

He said the auditorium also would provide good acoustics for orchestras.

Smaller music events are done in the banquet room area of the civic center, which can handle only 400 to 800 fans, depending on the setup.

“With the new space we could preserve the banquet room for banquets and push events into the new auditorium.

Currently, the civic center can handle conventions for about 600 people, but Lyman said the expansion would allow them to bring conventions twice that size.

“It gives us a whole new level of business we can go after. We’re losing the statewide conventions simply because we don’t have the space.”

And, he said, they can double their space for conventions without adding much more staff. “We can add maybe two or three or four people, but our revenue goes up a lot more.”

He said the expansion would not only allow for bigger conventions but would allow the civic center to book multiple smaller events, maybe a dart tournament in the auditorium, a wedding or business banquet in the banquet room and a Maverick hockey game in the arena.

The city also wants to upgrade all the concession stands in the arena. “Quite frankly, we don’t have the greatest food options right now. We need to offer higher quality foods and more menu options,” Lyman said.