Rik Edgar believes the Peoria Civic Center holds the key to the city’s economic revival after the COVID-19 pandemic – but only if it can survive the next two months.
“We are working really hard; you have a lot of hard-working people here who want nothing more than get back doing shows,” said Edgar, the Civic Center’s general manager. “And we need some help to get us back to the other side of this.”
Edgar said the Civic Center had a $700,000 positive balance on March 13, when pandemic-related emergency orders stopped gatherings of more than 50 people and forced the venue to close. Since then, three rounds of layoffs have reduced the staff to 16 people – all of whom have taken pay cuts.
Now, Edgar said the Civic Center only has enough money to cover its expenses for the next 60 days. He is asking for $3.8 million in federal or local relief to keep the venue afloat for the next year.
“The reality is we are the economic epicenter of the downtown area, and it’s not just us asking to keep us employed, which we all have a personal interest in, because it’s a human issue,” said Edgar. “But we’re also saying that we need to be here because we’re definitely going to be the center of the recovery. We just need the support to get us to that point.”
Beginning Tuesday, the outside of the Civic Center will be lit up in red for 24 hours as part of a nationwide “Red Alert” campaign to build public support for federal legislation aimed at providing relief for live event venues.
“When we’re closed, we still have rent, we still have utilities, we still have payroll, we still pay our taxes, we still have insurance. All of these things keep coming in on a monthly basis,” said Edgar. “We’ve just lost the revenue opportunity to counter that.”
According to Edgar, the Civic Center took in $27 million in the last fiscal year, making it Illinois’ largest live event and concert center outside of the Chicago area. Edgar added the Civic Center’s symbiotic link to downtown hospitality businesses is critical to the area’s economic viability – and a concert venue has no alternate means of making money.
“Unfortunately, unlike other businesses, we don’t have take-out. So, if we don’t have large gatherings of people, we can’t generate revenue,” he said. “The subsidy that we get from the city, which is based on hotel-motel tax, that also stopped because folks stopped staying in the hotels in the downtown area.
“So, the entire business model here is we feed each other: we have events, people eat the restaurants, stay at our hotels, and that’s how we are able to make our business work.”
Edgar said downtown restaurant owners have told him they have seen revenues decrease 50-75% since the Civic Center closed.
“Very quietly, we kind of go about our business; we’re the ‘fun’ industry on the outside,” he said. “But for every dollar spent at a venue, there’s $12 spent in the community. ... Just on ticket sales alone in Peoria, last fiscal year we did just under $15 million.
“If you use that calculator, that means $150 million was coming into Peoria based on what we did here, at just this one location. If the location doesn't exist, the restaurants and the hotels specifically start to go away. That reality, that’s why you live in a community: to be able to have amenities, and the amenities start falling when the Civic Center isn’t here.”
Edgar thinks there are ways the Civic Center can get financial support from Peoria, even with the city mired in a budget crisis of its own.
“We’ve had a good history of paying back any debt, so it may be borrowing money on a loan to extend out our time to get us through this period,” he said, acknowledging the Civic Center has been awarded a $25 million grant from the state for renovations and other improvements.
The “Live Events Industry is on Red Alert” drive is urging people to pressure Congress for passage of the Restart Act, and the $10 billion Save Our Stages Act. Edgar said a petition supporting the Save Our Stages Act has received 1.5 million signatures, including those of entertainers Billy Joel, Foo Fighters and Lady Gaga.
Edgar said if the Civic Center can get the $3.8 million it needs, it will be a better and stronger venue when it reopens after the pandemic subsides.
“The inventory of shows is going to be there; there’s a lot of entertainers that want to go out on the road. But until they can put a national tour together, they’re kind of staying home right now,” he said. “So, the thought is that we could get us through a full year with that amount of money and be able to pay our bills.”
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