Once the object of a city’s ire and disappointment, Rockford’s downtown arena is enjoying a new lease on life. With a new name, a new team, a new attitude and some early successes, the former MetroCentre is well on its way toward a winning season.
The latest chapter in the saga of Rockford’s arena reads like one of those last-place-team-wins-the-championship sports stories: dissatisfied owner hires an innovative, unconventional new coach who recruits talented players, battles old conventions, converts cynics, establishes a new, can-do teamwork attitude and wins the day.
If this is a sports story, Mike Dunn might be that unconventional coach who re-energizes the team. As head of Rockford’s downtown venues board, Dunn has been one of the leading architects in the modern revival of the MetroCentre, or, as it’s now called, the BMO Harris Bank Center (aka The BEE-Mo). Over the past two years, he’s assembled a winning combination of players and helped to inspire a can-do attitude that’s breaking old conventions.
Reversing years of neglect, low morale and poor decisions, Dunn and his team are starting to turn things around at The BMO, slowly but surely. To be sure, it’s a team effort, with support from the mayor and city council, downtown venues board, professional arena management and community organizations. To cynics who don’t yet believe in this born-again story, Dunn is defiant.
“I would have been the same cynic, but there’s a big difference between 24 months ago and today,” he says. “Today, you have the advantage of hindsight, and you can see the changes that have been made, the new directions we’ve made, the results we’ve accomplished, and you can see activities that are happening downtown. You see the moms and dads and kids and grandparents all coming downtown for hockey or concerts, or music or ice skating, or movies or City Market. They’re all winners.”
Gordon Kaye, arena director, had no intention of staying in Rockford. As the manager of a hockey team in Reading, Pa., he was touring the MetroCentre as part of a pitch to manage the arena. As he walked the building with SMG president/CEO Wes Westley, the two saw untapped potential. His interest was piqued.
“[Wes] looked at me and he said, ‘You know, Gordon, this is a great arena, but the concourse is really boring,’” Kaye says. “It was bland, the bathrooms weren’t kept well, the floors were dirty, there was no activity on the concourse and the lights were different colors. You didn’t walk through the building and feel any excitement. I understood that.”
Dunn understood, too. In 2009, Dunn was recruited from the board at Chicago Rockford International Airport to lead a MetroCentre turnaround. With a committee of 22 community leaders, he spent nine months digging up everything good, bad and ugly about Rockford’s arena and its downtown venues. The volunteers studied internal operations. They traveled to other cities and toured other arenas. The problems became obvious.
“None of us knew anything about running arenas,” Dunn says. “But the more we found out, the more obvious it became that this wasn’t being done right, and it wasn’t being done like any other city. We were the odd duck.”
Same Old Song and Dance?
When it opened in 1981, the Metro Centre was expected to be the savior of downtown Rockford. Believers exalted every reinvention, every new idea, every costly new makeover. But it never lived up to its hype. As high as it rose in victory, it sank in defeat.
In 2007, believers praised the arena’s new makeover, a $20 million project. But in fiscal year 2010, taxpayers propped up the arena with a $1.2 million subsidy. The next year, taxpayers added another $1.1 million. In fiscal year 2009 and 2010, the arena operated in the red, to the tune of nearly $1.7 million and $1.6 million, respectively.
“We had a patient that was wheeled into the emergency room and was almost DOA,” Dunn says. “It was absolutely on life support, and in order to deal with this patient, it wasn’t going to be just one doctor.”
In its final report, issued in March 2010, the venues committee offered scathing criticism.
“First, there was very little, if any, communication and/or coordination among these organizations,” they noted. “In fact, [we] would say that a great deal of anger, hostility and resentment existed among their boards and their executives.”
The committee’s first strike: Dissolve the MetroCentre Authority Board, which oversaw the arena, Davis Park and the Coronado Performing Arts Center. Then, replace it with a new entity that would eventually encompass venues including the arena, the city-owned IceHogs hockey team, Davis Park, Coronado and the On the Waterfront festival. The mayor and city council threw their support behind the idea, and in March 2010, appointed Dunn to assemble and lead the Rockford Area Venues & Entertainment Authority Board (RAVE).
Granted wide latitude, the board of local business leaders began assembling a new team, starting with a new management company, one that could oversee finances, event booking and the city-owned hockey team. The committee settled on SMG, the nation’s largest venue operator, which oversees more than 220 venues worldwide, including the Peoria Civic Center, Soldier Field and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in New Orleans.
Changing of the Guard
When Kaye first visited Rockford during an SMG sales pitch, he was taking note. So was Dunn. He needed a general manager to operate the arena, and he needed someone with booking, marketing and hockey experience. At the time, Kaye was general manager of the Reading Royals, a minor-league hockey team in Reading, Pa., and had been involved in arenas since he was 19.
“[SMG president Wes] Westley said, ‘What’s it going to take? How can we get this deal done, so we can come to Rockford?” Dunn says. “I said, ‘I want Gordon.’”
Dunn got his wish. In August 2010, RAVE approved a five-year contract with SMG to manage the arena, Davis Park and the IceHogs, and to consult with the Coronado and On the Waterfront festival.
When Kaye arrived in August, he found an arena bleeding money. Staff morale was low. The house was out of order.
He spent hours reviewing contracts and financial information. He convinced local news stations to buy TVs for the concourse, so fans wouldn’t miss the action. He updated the mismatched lightbulbs, fixed up the dirty bathrooms and improved the food, bringing names like Vienna Beef to the concourse.
Then there were the locker rooms, which hadn’t been touched in years. They were so bad that, according to rumor, country singer Alan Jackson stayed in his bus while touring through Rockford. Kaye convinced the staff to spend two days painting and re-carpeting.
“The carpet was so old that, when we pulled it up, it turned to dust,” says Kaye. “And now we have pretty decent locker rooms. They’re not great, they’re not state-of-the-art, but they’re not so bad anymore. I remember that was a pretty cool thing for us to do as a staff, to basically say this is our building. We’re going to have some pride in it.”
We. That’s the biggest thing about Kaye’s leadership style. Everything is for the good of the team. It wasn’t just Kaye making these improvements – it was an entire staff, which needed a serious shot of confidence. This new team would be confident, sustainable, hardworking, proud.
“We had to work with this idea that we are proud to be the MetroCentre,” Kaye says. “We have really good, hardworking people here, and it was important to reinforce that with them.”
Healing old wounds hasn’t been easy, but it’s an essential part of this new team’s can-do, collaborative attitude.
“I like being the catalyst to change, and I like being a catalyst to really making a difference, and I think that I play a really small part in this,” Kaye says. “This is not Gordon Kaye. This is 28 people working together as a staff to effect change.”
Unraveling the Past
To understand just how messy things were, consider how much Kaye and his team had to unravel. Early on, they found outstanding debts from years earlier.
When Heather Storm, director of booking and marketing, first arrived in October 2010, she immediately noticed a few things that needed improvement.
“I wanted to get the escalator fixed, and that’s working now for the first time in three years,” she says. “It was just so bad, because when you walked into the building and you got your ticket scanned, there was one working escalator, and then there was one saying ‘Do Not Enter.’ It was just a symbol of the building.”
Even before Storm arrived, Dunn and Kaye noticed other issues, like an unfinished ticket booth at the southwest corner.
“It was concrete block with ticket windows, unfinished, just siting there,” Dunn says. “They did a $20-some million renovation and they didn’t finish things.”
Kaye solved that problem by resolving another dilemma. Within SMG’s first month on the job, two trucks filled with IceHogs jerseys, T-shirts and hockey pucks showed up. Why did the old managers order so much stuff, they asked. They already had nearly $50,000 in merchandise, says Dunn, at the arena and in a store at CherryVale Mall. Kaye shut down the store and transformed the vacant ticket booth into a souvenir shop.
As they re-ignite trust and respect, Storm and Kaye have spent a lot of time mending broken fences.
“The building’s 30 years old, and it’s been ignored from a capital standpoint for a number of years,” Kaye says. “I think we can make a lot bigger steps by making much smaller improvements, as opposed to making one huge improvement at once.”
It took an auditor an additional six months to unravel the MetroCentre’s finances, Dunn says. The bleeding had lasted for so long, that they couldn’t tell where the bleeding stopped and the healing began.
Since SMG arrived, the arena’s finances have improved dramatically. During the old management’s last year, the MetroCentre operated nearly $1.6 million in the red. In SMG’s first year on the job, the deficit dropped to almost $1.1 million, according to unaudited figures. According to RAVE’s October income statement, this fiscal year is already $215,000 in the black, a 38 percent improvement from that point last year. And, Dunn says, this year’s deficit is estimated to be just $500,000.
“We’re being more disciplined in how we’re spending money,” Kaye says. “But I think paying our bills in a more timely fashion is the big thing. We really fight hard to make sure that gets done. We’re still paying bills from 3, 4 years ago.”
There’s a sense that things are turning around. Attendance at IceHogs games is up. Attendance at concerts is up. This year’s calendar is busier. Corporate sponsors are investing. Improving on past management’s aggressive sponsorships, Kaye has covered the building in corporate advertising. There’s the Stanley Steamer curtains, the Dental Dimensions Suite Lounge, the U.S. Cellular Press Box. Then there’s the big one – The BMO Harris Bank Center.
BMO Harris Bank announced in August 2011 that it was entering a five-year, $1.3 million agreement to buy the naming rights for Rockford’s arena.
“Rockford is a community with strong civic pride,” says Jim Kappel, vice president of media relations for BMO Harris Bank. “Since our acquisition of AMCORE last year, a key priority of ours was to find ways to contribute to the Rockford community in a meaningful way, as we do in all our markets. The Rockford MetroCentre as well has long committed to enhancing the overall quality of life in Rockford.”
To arena managers, the new name is an important impetus to change. This is a chance to start fresh and inspire pride.
“This is the first time in 30 years that a major international corporation has put its name on our building,” Kaye says. “So that, in my opinion, is a big deal, and something that the city of Rockford should be proud of, because it’s saying, ‘We believe in the future of Rockford.’”
Near her desk, booking manager Heather Storm keeps a reminder of her progress this year. In a pyramid form, she’s listed numbers from one through 25. The first seven are crossed out.
“Right now, we have seven concerts that are booked, and tickets are selling,” she says. “My goal this year is probably 10. If I really wanted to be aggressive, I could maybe go to 15, but I want to start small.”
If she expects to do better, Storm first must make Rockford an attractive destination, for both performers and audiences.
As a tertiary market, Rockford is often too small to attract the biggest stars, like Lady Gaga, Beyonce or Coldplay. With just 7,100 concert seats, it’s ideal for smaller, up-and-coming acts, or longer tours.
After 13 years of ticketing and booking for the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Storm has worked with a lot of big-name agents and booked a lot of big-name stars. Milwaukee’s a secondary market, she says, a step between Chicago and Rockford.
A small, fiery woman, she lights up when talking about live performance. Her eyes betray a deep passion and enthusiasm, and she has bold ideas for this arena.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a couch, maybe some chairs, that make it a little warmer?” Storm says, standing in one of the performer dressing rooms. “They have the bathroom, the showers, because they don’t shower on the bus. It’s nice, but it’s still, well …” She trails off, because in her mind, this scene could look better.
The room is white, with black and red stripes. It’s clean, but dark and uninviting. Laminate is torn from the shelves. She wants to create a better backstage experience, because that’s what separates The BMO from every other small-time arena. When she first arrived, performers used paper plates and plastic silverware.
“That’s not going to cut it for me,” she says. “These guys are on the road all the time. They can get that stuff anywhere they go.”
Storm has a powerful ally in SMG, The BMO’s management partner. Because SMG operates venues all over the world, Storm can ride the coattails of other arenas, when booking shows. That way, she’s not just fighting for Rockford; she’s fighting for a team of venues. And, whenever she or Kaye need a helping hand, other arenas can pitch in.
Even better, Storm has a Holy Grail in entertainment venues. Because of the new name, she makes new first impressions.
“We’re lucky right now, because we have this new name, so it’s kind of like a new invention,” Storm says. “We’re reinventing ourselves. I talked to an agent the other day, and he’s like, ‘Is that a new building?’”
She’s searching for a wider variety of acts, expanding from country and rock to genres like urban, in hopes that she’ll win new audiences. Still, she wants to inspire patrons.
“When I was new to town, I needed to get a new mattress, so I was at the store and they asked me where I worked,” Storm says. “I say ‘the MetroCentre,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, the MetroCentre.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no. The MetroCentre.’ I’m excited about it, but he wasn’t. We have to get people re-engaged in us, to believe in us again, to believe that changes are happening.”
Finding Believers, Not Fair-Weather Fans
With a new attitude at The BMO, leaders are finding new opportunities for collaboration. Dunn and Storm have reached out to management at the Coronado, which before had no relationship with arena personnel. Now, they work together on booking and coordinating calendars.
Outside organizations are picking up on the enthusiasm. For the past two summers, the Rockford Park District and The Element have sponsored outdoor movies at Davis Park, and the park district helps with the outdoor skating rink in the winter. Across the river, City Market is drawing crowds every Friday, from June through October. There’s a sense that downtown is starting a comeback.
Dunn and Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey see more opportunities for collaboration in the future.
“We’ve got good results to show for the work we’ve done, and now it’s a matter of taking advantage of those opportunities to partner with arts venues or enhance our facilities at Davis Park,” Morrissey says. “If we close our eyes and envision what is a vibrant, fine arts community and what does it look like, what opportunities can we explore with other venues? How can we work with other performing arts companies, and potentially with the arts and entertainment world, to make that vision come true?”
Dunn credits the early teamwork among community leaders. He, too, has high hopes for a downtown renaissance.
“It can be an entertainment center,” he says. “It can be a place where you go for bars, and bistros and terrific food. It can be a place for specialty shops and coffee shops. It can be a place where you have art museums and galleries and places for artists to work. It can be a place where music is at the heart of everything.”
Focus and Patience
There’s enough praise to go around, for Morrissey and Dunn, for the city council, Storm and Kaye. But Kaye isn’t satisfied yet. His eyes are on a bigger prize.
Printed on his door is a powerful reminder of his mission, a quote from entertainment promoter So l Hurok: “If they don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.”
He wants to instill a new pride in the arena and in downtown.
“I don’t think people give it as much credence as they should, so if we can play our part in bringing people down here, that’s great,” Kaye says. “City Market’s incredible, Davis Park – what a great facility for this city to have. If we can be a catalyst in terms of getting people down here to use our facilities, then we’ve accomplished what we need to accomplish.”
Kaye says he’s learned a lot, and he’s not afraid to admit that he’s made mistakes. But his eyes are on a higher prize, and he’s focused on accomplishing greatness. Because failure … well, failure’s not an option.
“We all have to function like a unit,” says Kaye. “That’s the biggest piece for us, is functioning as a team. No one person, no matter how great they are, can carry the team.”