Red ink along the riverfront

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Among Cedar Rapids’ many post-flood public recovery projects, the McGrath Amphitheatre is among my favorites.

It revitalized a decaying stretch of riverfront. It created a new public space, not snappy new workspace for government functionaries. It’s smart flood plain development designed to flood, and provide flood protection, as it did last September. It creates an outdoor entertainment venue on the doorstep of the developing Kingston Village neighborhood, across from downtown and a stone’s throw from fast-growing New Bohemia.

It’s only enemies? Iowa weather and goose poop. And, it turns out, a puddle of budgetary red ink.

The Gazette’s B.A. Morelli deftly reported this week that the amphitheater has been running an average operating deficit of $55,000 annually since its first full season in 2014. Although that’s real money, it’s hardly a massive shortfall. It’s roughly 6.4 percent of the amphitheater’s projected $847,000 budget for Fiscal Year 2018 starting in July.

The trend lines are positive. The 2018 deficit should be smaller than 2017, according to the city. According to VenuWorks, which manages the amphitheater and other city entertainment venues, 68,711 people attended events at the outdoor venue in 2016, compared to 50,274 in 2015 and 41,440 in 2014. By comparison, 149,000 people visited the city’s five pools in 2015.

There were 35 events at the amphitheater in 2016, down slightly from 37 in 2015, but up from 28 in 2014. In 2016, according to VenuWorks, there were eight concerts, 16 community-sponsored events, such as Uptown Friday Nights and Jazz Under the Stars, five family events, including Cedar Rapids Bank and Trust’s movie nights, and six private rental events, including class reunions and weddings.

Mike Silva, VenuWorks’ associate executive director and director of booking, says most of the amphitheater’s costs are spawned by the reality that nearly everything needed to put on an event at the bare-bones venue must be hauled in. Among the top costs, he said, are portable bathrooms.

I’m not overly worried about the deficit. It’s small enough that shrewd management, good booking and good weather could wipe it out fairly quickly. Sell more beer, brats and other concessions, and red ink may recede. Bathroom lines may lengthen.

If current conventional wisdom is turned on its head and Cedar Rapids lands a casino, the new joint likely will underwrite more local concerts, including at the amphitheater. Concerts, after all, can help deliver happy gamblers ready for recreational fleecing.

And, actually, it wouldn’t bother me if the amphitheater continued to need a city subsidy, if those public bucks meant more low-cost or even no-cost public entertainment and events at the amphitheater. Big-name concerts are great, but tickets costing $40, $60 or more are unaffordable for many local families. Some more inclusive events along the river would be welcome, and public money could be matched by sponsors. Some of this is happening, I know, but I’d like to see more.

So the amphitheater remains a good project. And from a seat on the slope on a summer night, its potential still looks as good as the view.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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