Thursday, August 14, 2008

Who's running the show?

Writing for STYLE Weekly Amy Biegelsen reports that SMG will be managing the Carpenter Center and the new CenterStage facilities. That’s the same Philadelphia-based SMG that has managed the Richmond Coliseum for the last 23 years.

That’s what SMG does, it manages convention centers, stadiums and other such large multi-purpose facilities. As it has been doing that line of work since 1977, SMG must have done a good job for some of its clients along the way.

In the STYLE article the thrust is on whether or not the bidding for the contract should have been an open process, or closed, as it apparently was in this case.

Joel Katz, former executive director of the Carpenter Center, weighs in:
“SMG was awarded a no-bid contract that taxpayers now cannot learn about,” writes Katz, who was ousted as vice president of marketing and programming for the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation in May 2005.
Writer Don Harrison adds his two-cents-worth:
Don Harrison, co-founder of the popular blog, says “the no-bid contract says everything. It’s just another in a series of eyebrow-raising incidents associated with this thing.”
Others are more upbeat about the news. Click here to read the piece.

OK, the no-bid thing bothers me, too. I agree with what Joel and Don say. But what also bothers me about this news is what Biegelsen touches on here:
There is good reason to question the abilities of SMG, which has a spotty record in its 23 years of managing the Richmond Coliseum. In the late 1990s, operational problems and financial mismanagement had the Coliseum reeling. After years of decline in the number of bookings, a 2002 city audit of SMG’s management revealed significant potential savings.
So, SMG may be good at running some venues but maybe not all.

There was a night SMG looked about as bad as it could get at managing the Coliseum. On Nov. 28, 2001, a crowd of 11,666 and a national television audience were witness to an infamous truncated basketball game; it ended moments into the second half because the floor was deemed unplayable.

It was unplayable because of condensation, caused by the ice under the floor (for hockey games) and the convergence of unseasonable warm weather.

However, SMG had ample warning that the floor would sweat -- it had happened before to a lesser extent -- and yet nothing was done about it. So, the premiere sporting event of that year’s basketball season in Richmond -- (No. 22) Michigan St. vs. (No 9) Virginia -- was kaput.

That night I was seated on press row. After the cancellation I asked the spokesman for SMG -- given the Indian Summer weather -- why they didn't melt the ice and refreeze it afterward for the hockey game, scheduled for two day later. He literally ran out of the media room, rather than answer my follow-up questions.

Now SMG will be running the Landmark (formerly the Mosque) and the Carpenter Center (formerly the Loew's). They are theaters. The sort of acts going into those venues will be quite different than the sort traditionally booked for the Coliseum. No circus. No basketball tournaments. No tractor-pulls.

It takes a different brand of finesse to book acts, and make money, for such theaters. And, it takes a good feel for the local market.

Is an international management company likely to have such a rare feel?


Moreover, I believe the City of Richmond ought to hire its own management team for those theaters and probably for the Coliseum, as well. There are people living in Richmond today who have the background to be considered for such work. No doubt, there are plenty who’d be willing to move here to run one of those beautiful old theaters.

In this age of outsourcing, it may seem better to pay experts from Philadelphia to run Richmond’s publicly-owned show biz venues. But I question that wisdom. I think it is just easier; it serves to cover bureaucratic butts. I’ll bet you it costs a lot more money than it should.

Richmond should have a department with a boss who oversees the running of the Coliseum, the Carpenter Center, and so forth. Each of those venues should have its own house manager. All of those people should live in the Richmond area and be on the City‘s payroll. And, it won't hurt if some of them know the Richmond market and have connections to local entertainers.

The City of Richmond has had an awkward relationship with show biz for decades. Intended, or not, it has done much to squelch the local entertainment scene over the years.

It’s high time for all that to change. Wouldn't you like to hear the mayoral candidates speak to this issue?

I would.


Don said...

Thanks for writing about this, Terry. Yes, the Mayoral candidates should be asked about this - especially whether or not they approve of:

- No bid sweetheart contracts
- Shielding the project from Freedom of Information laws
- Having an out of town company with a checkered track record run a publicly-funded project with no oversight.

Fiscal responsibility... accountability... fairness... putting the right local people in place to do the job (you are right - outsourcing is just another way to pass the buck) — this gets to the crux of what kind of mayor we are about to get.

We already know what Mr. Pantele and Mr. Grey think about all this - this is the monster they helped to create and enable. But heaven forbid they would ever have to explain themselves to voters.

F.T. Rea said...


The show biz question I'd like to ask of each of the candidates is about the City's brutal seven percent admissions tax -- a tax scraped off the top of the box office take from every show presented inside Richmond's city limits.

That's even if the show loses money.

For over 30 years, I've been convinced that tax has been doing far more harm -- in killing off theaters and live music venues -- than whatever good may have been generated by its proceeds.

Don't get me started...

Anonymous said...

who's kidding who---just connect the dots...doug wilder...harry black...ken johnson&smg...rpac&vpaf---so who' rubbing who's back?

Joel said...

After the dust settles, what is presented on the stages is what the public will care about. The City ran the Landmark in a very passive way through Parks & Rec. They did not promote shows and made little effort to find shows & promoters. They answered the phone & sent out contracts.

The stages need a local active promoter who will bring great one night shows and quality Broadway in for the week long runs. SMG does not promote but may take on some risk in helping secure promoters.

The Carpenter Center was successful because we had an active, local Board who hired me to find shows to take risks on and bring multicultural attractions to the community. Our mission was to present quality, educate the audience, and break even financially.

When the CCPA Board gave in to the VAPAF Board, VAPAF said they would continue that process. The Wilder came along and RPAC was formed who are led by major business leaders willing to take risks in their businesses but not in this one.

Given the high admissions tax, the increasing cost of hiring talent, the increased costs of promoting shows, etc., it's gonna be tough for a local company to do one local show. It seems to take a regional or national company who book many nights, at a reduced cost, and tour those acts around. You may lose money one night but gain another.

Tough economic times mean tough sledding for everybody. I think I "retired" at the right time.

F.T. Rea said...


Your experience with the task of running a theater is recent. Mine is from a long time ago. Maybe a lot has changed.

Meanwhile, the only thing that's changed about just how negative the impact of the admissions tax has been on the local entertainment industry is that the City's take has gone from six percent to seven percent.

Hey, I've never understood the thinking behind how the City has managed the Mosque/Landmark. Your description is as good as any.

If I'd have been running that place for the last ten years, I'd have had a live radio show on its stage every week, a la the old WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance or Prairie Home Companion, using a lot of local talent and a few touring acts. I'd have shown movies once or twice a week, too. And, I would have figured out a way to bring in more money using that basement.

Still, there's a problem trying to run a show biz venue with public money. The public dollar would usually rather play it safe.

Moreover, if the ABC laws had been brought into the modern world and had the City's admissions tax had been repealed ten years ago, by now there would probably a number of privately owned theaters and night clubs operating in Downtown Richmond.

Then the VAPAF may not have ever come into existence, because there would have been no need to dump public money into building a new downtown theater district.

Joel said...

If you want to work nights & weekends, go for it. You've got the core of a good business plan. But you get to work all week implementing it too.

My concerns also include the reduction of seating in Carpenter (300) and the Landmark's inadequate stage & lack of designed sound system for that doom.

Popular Broadway shows (fee, rights, rental, marketing, etc) can run up to $750 k for 8 shows in a week. The less expensive draw smaller crowds yet have to be marketed aggressively too. If you take $50 x300 seats, $15k is lost which translates to $120k a week of lost potential gross.

300 seats also puts Carp in competition with the National for a lot of popular music attractions too. These might be bluegrass, jazz, singer song writer shows.

Ever wonder why The Lion King, Phantom, Miss Saigon have never planned here in any/or original design? Stage size & gross potential drive booking decisions for much of Broadway.

Risk vs reward is very tough on a local guy doing a few shows. That $15k per show may be the dif. between profit & total waste of time.