By Jeff Keeling
With Freedom Hall slated for around $12 million in updates and infrastructure work, Johnson City commissioners wondered at a Monday night budget workshop about any additional return those investments might generate.
The short answer? Possibly a little, but not likely enough to offset the cost of updates in an era when traveling entertainers often look to play 10,000-plus seat arenas (Freedom Hall seats 7,102).
The 41-year-old arena’s present and future played into discussions, with commissioners and staff alike speaking highly of last winter’s slate of 16 East Tennessee State University men’s basketball home games.
But with eight-figure investments coming, commissioners were fairly pointed in their questions about whether updates would yield more concerts, conventions, entertainment or other revenue-generating business.
Freedom Hall’s requested fiscal year 2016 budget (beginning July 1) is $1,640,000, a 2.4 percent increase over the current year. That includes a 5 percent increase for personnel – Freedom Hall has six full time staff – most of which is in the form of a requested 4 percent pay raise in line with other city department budgets.
Much of the budget is covered by revenues, but Freedom Hall consistently brings in $200,000 to $250,000 less than it spends. Freedom Hall Director Lisa Chamness said ETSU basketball was a net money-maker and that other events are also outpacing last year’s performance. ETSU paid Freedom Hall $2,000 per game for facility rent and an additional $15,000 for parking for the season, and Chamness said Freedom Hall netted an average of about $900 per game from concessions.
“We were very pleased with how the basketball season went, and so was ETSU,” she said.
In addition to new lighting, ceiling tiles and several other improvements made ahead of ETSU’s use this past winter, a roughly $7 million new HVAC system is planned, along with a laundry list of other changes designed to improve the facility.
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin also noted the city schools may – within a few years – have facilities for middle schoolers that free up Freedom Hall solely for use as a venue and add some features currently used by the schools.
“When we make those investments, do you foresee that we’re going to have increased demand,” Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin asked, “or is the demand what it is and maybe these investments are not going to bring anything else in that isn’t already clamoring or not clamoring to be here?”
Chamness didn’t paint the rosiest picture, nor did her boss, Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl.
“My perspective is it’s going to keep us from losing business,” Chamness said, though she added that Freedom Hall staff continue to seek innovative ways to attract money-making events.
For his part, Stahl generally agreed with Chamness, noting the limitations of a smaller, older space. He added, however, that the changes made since a year ago – which in addition to lighting include decking, exterior stairs and aesthetic improvements including some installed by ETSU – have drawn very positive comments from community members.
“The impression the building is getting today is far better than we’ve ever been receiving in the past,” Stahl said.
That was all fine and good, Vice Mayor Clayton Stout said, but he had similar concerns to Van Brocklin.
“Do you see a payback on this investment through revenue from new events that cannot only help the building but also help the local economy when (people) come to eat here, buy things here – that’s ultimately what we want for this building is to be an economic development tool.”
City Manager Pete Peterson did note that if the schools vacate Freedom Hall, the city could pick up new business in the way of conventions and trade shows, including some opportunities the Millennium Centre has to turn down. “Right now, when you hit 450 people for a convention or trade show, there’s nowhere for people to go in Johnson City,” Peterson said.
The year has produced several positives in addition to basketball. The Shrine circus produced the largest attendance in Freedom Hall’s history, with six performances over three days bringing in 29,652 guests. ETSU also held two Student Government Association-sponsored events. Both did well and more are planned next academic year. Three concerts have sold out so far this fiscal year.
“We’ll always be trying to add new business,” Chamness said. “That’s what we do.”