Best year yet for Ames Center

Executive Director Brian Luther, pictured in the main auditorium of Burnsville’s Amers Center, says the center is poised for further success after its best financial year yet in 2016. (Photo by John Gessner)

Shrinking operating loss is crucial measure

When he was hired to manage Burnsville’s performing arts center, Brian Luther was confident he could chip away at its annual six-figure operating deficits. His only question was by how much.

More than five years later, Luther still isn’t one to make guarantees. But on the heels of its best year yet, the executive director of the city-owned Ames Center says it is poised for further success.

The center finished 2016 with a $32,447 operating loss, far below the $98,166 loss forecast in its budget. It was the third straight year of sub-$100,000 operating losses, and an improvement over 2015’s $87,717 loss.

And after the center’s shaky beginning — it lost $547,854 in 2009, the year it opened, according to the center’s 2015 annual report — city officials are pleased.

“Hallelujah when we hit that point one day when the Ames Center is actually showing a small profit,” City Council Member Dan Kealey said last month.

The operating loss has declined each year except 2015, when it rose by about $10,200 to $87,817. The previous year was another landmark year, when the deficit was more than halved from 2013’s total of $160,113.

“I can’t sit here and say what numbers we’re going to hit going forward,” said Luther, who came to Burnsville in October 2011 after serving as assistant general manager and general manager of the 10,000-seat Rockford MetroCentre arena (now BMO Harris Bank Center) in Rockford, Illinois. “It’s too early to tell for this year. But we’re just in a good position to continue success.”

He acknowledges hearing the question since he came to Burnsville: When will the place break even?

Luther’s answer is that with a good business plan and strategic investments, the annual operating loss — which is subsidized by taxpayers — will take care of itself.

“It’s a number that really gauges if we’re successful or not,” Luther said. “We’ve seen such a decline in that number over the years that it’s really just showing we’re on the right path.”

Growth in the number of concerts and other events in the 1,000-seat main auditorium contributed to 2016’s success, along with increased food and beverage sales and solid profits from the center’s “angel fund” performance series.

Luther’s employer, Iowa-based facilities manager VenuWorks, also won council approval last year for a two-year extension of its Ames Center contract.

“That was another big achievement for us” in 2016, Luther said.

Events in the main auditorium totaled 156, compared with 139 the previous year, according to VenuWorks. The number of concerts rose from 20 to 24, and included some notable names — rocker Todd Rundgren, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Rides (Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg) and ex-punk rocker Henry Rollins, who performed his intense spoken-word act in November.

“There were definitely a lot of punk rock jackets,” Luther said of the Rollins audience. “There were hipsters. It was an audience that we haven’t had before, and it was exciting to have a new audience.”

A new, permanent concession stand debuted in December. Points of sale were increased from two to three, and new screens show food and beverage items along with upcoming shows. The old mobile concession stand was moved upstairs, adding more points of sale.

Net food and beverage profit rose from about $113,000 in 2015 to $138,000, Luther said, and the last quarter of concessions sales was up by about $10,000 over the previous quarter, hinting at what the new stand can achieve.

“Our (per-customer) spending went up,” he said. “We also had higher gross sales, but knowing that the consumers were spending more showed that we could get through the lines a lot quicker.”

Shows in the “angel fund” series netted profit of $37,461 compared with the $6,825 forecast in the budget, Luther said. Angel fund shows are those that the otherwise rental-only venue buys. The center’s angel fund was seeded with $50,000 in city money described as a loan.

Shows in the main auditorium are the center’s primary profit center, Luther said, and concessions are the “primary ancillary revenue stream.” The ability to take risks on the angel fund shows has boosted the bottom line, said Luther, the center’s third director since it opened.

He’s done an “outstanding job” reducing the operating deficit, said Kathy Cleveland, chair of the center’s citizen advisory commission.

Commissioners are seeking new ways to engage the community in the facility, possibly through partnerships with area schools, she said.

Commissioners also want more feedback on the kind of programming people want, she said.

“We’re taking a deep dive on that,” Cleveland said.