Simmons Bank Arena’s challenges: No shows, no government funds to help

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 806 views 

Inside Simmons Bank Arena. Photo courtesy of Arkansas.com.

Justin Bieber was scheduled to be on stage at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock July 15. That concert has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elton John was scheduled to play before a sellout crowd as part of his farewell tour July 3. That’s also been postponed.

In fact, every event has been cancelled since the Professional Bull Riders appeared at the arena March 7-8.

The loss of income is creating a challenge that’s being worsened by the fact that quasi-governmental organizations such as the Pulaski County-owned arena don’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program established by the $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress earlier this year.

The arena opened in October 1999 after being built through a combination of state and private funds. Michael Marion, general manager, said it is self-sustaining, has no debt and hasn’t received state funds for at least 10 years. It was profitable last year and expected to be profitable this year with what Marion said would be one of its biggest summers in years.

Marion said almost of the arena’s shows for the rest of this year have been rescheduled or cancelled. The arena is projected to lose about $1 million this year, which has caused it to lay off or furlough 13 of its 25 employees. Its reserve fund would keep it afloat until perhaps April of next year, Marion said.

A member of the International Association of Venue Managers, which is lobbying for federal assistance, Marion hopes money is available if another round of federal funding is enacted. The arena has been working with members of the state’s congressional delegation to make that happen. Sen. John Boozman recently held a conference call with other venues in the state.

On June 11, Boozman authored a letter to Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Charles Schumer, D-New York, asking Senate leadership to include changes to the Paycheck Protection Program in future legislation that would allow publicly-owned venues to qualify. The letter pointed out that the Small Business Administration’s exclusion of publicly-owned venues did not apply to private ones, even though publicly-owned venues typically fund their operations through event revenues and aren’t included in state and local budgets. It was signed or endorsed by 17 other senators from both parties.

Patrick Creamer with Boozman’s office said the matter is on hold as leadership considers future funding measures in response to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Marion said arena officials have been trying to get help from state officials.

In his near-daily press conference July 15, Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted that convention centers in addition to the Simmons Bank Arena have seen a loss of income during the pandemic. The state does have control of some remaining CARES Act funding.

“We can look at that, but we don’t have any specific plan at this point,” he said.

The arena’s challenges began March 13. It was preparing to host Christian hip-hop artist Toby Mac that evening when President Trump declared a national emergency. Concert organizers decided not to proceed. That concert has been rescheduled for Jan. 17. The next day, a concert by Cher was postponed.

Later events also didn’t happen. Four days of Disney on Ice in April, a Bob Dylan concert on June 27, and a Luke Bryan country music concert on July 31 have been cancelled. An Aug. 2 concert by pop rock band Maroon 5 has been postponed. A Doobie Brothers 50th anniversary tour concert Oct. 12 was cancelled. The arena hosts about 15 graduations in May and June, and all of those were cancelled.

Not yet cancelled or postponed are an Oct. 2 concert by Def Leppard and ZZ Top, as well as a December Arkansas Razorbacks basketball game.

The arena has a capacity of 18,000, but stage shows reduce that number to 13,000. Marion said that, with social distancing with pod systems and people not allowed next to the aisle, the capacity falls to 2,588.

“You can imagine that all these big shows that want to play the big crowds are just going to wait until the time when social distancing is relaxed, and that doesn’t come until the last phase of our recovery from this, and so the opportunity for us to do any kind of large shows is just really not there,” he said.

Marion said many shows are confirmed for next year. However, 25% of surveyed ticket buyers said they wouldn’t return to a show until there’s a vaccine. Another 25% were prepared to come to a show now.

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