News Column

Feel Downtown Live lost money, but downtown is singing its praises

June 26, 2014

By Susan Latham Carr, Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.

June 26--The city of Ocala may have lost money on its first venture to bring class-act concerts downtown but, if you ask fans and downtown business owners, the Feel Downtown Live concert series was a success. And they want more.

"You don't know unless you do it once and see what happens," said Diane Coleman of Silver Springs, who attended three of the concerts. "I think the city has done a very good thing. I would definitely support them continuing to do that."

So would Tom McDonald, who owns the Pi on Broadway restaurant and Infinite Ale Works. He said the concerts boosted his bottom line considerably, especially the final one of the season on June 14 that featured platinum-selling rock band Sister Hazel.

"We saw a 20-30 percent sales increase for that night," McDonald said, and that was for each of his businesses. "There was foot traffic all over the downtown area. We had a lot of new customers as well."

Janie Pope, the city's central business district program manager, developed the 2013-14 Feel Downtown Live concert series with 10 concerts -- five in fall 2013 and five in spring 2014 -- mainly at Citizens' Circle at City Hall. Acts ranged from classic rocker Eddie Money to chart-topping country newcomer Brett Eldredge to multiple Grammy-nominated Christian-rock band Sanctus Real.

In the end, the series lost $222,965, which will come out of the city's general fund.

"We knew coming out of the gate we were testing the water to see if our businesses would benefit downtown," Pope said. "Our goal is by fiscal year 2018 to be completely sustainable."

In spite of the loss, the city saw growth in the program's popularity and revenues as the project progressed. Nevertheless, Pope said, the city cannot continue to absorb those losses so the program will be pared back. This fall, instead of a series of concerts, Pope said there will be a one-day festival with a national headliner. But, come spring 2015, she hopes to roll out another series of concerts featuring national artists.

Part of the financial challenge was securing sponsors. Ocala had never attempted such an ambitious program so there was no track record to attract the needed dollars.

"When you don't have anything (to show), it's hard to hit people up for large sponsorship programs," Pope said.

Even so, some, such as Jenkins Auto Group and State Farm Insurance agent Angie Lewis, took the plunge and offered $20,000 and $7,500 respectively.

"We also have sponsorships that are not cash," said Holly Lang, the city's community development services fiscal coordinator. Mojo Grill & Catering Co. donated the food and Tri-Eagle Sales the beer, for example.

"We averaged a little over $5,000 on each concert for alcohol sales," Pope said.

In hopes of generating initial interest in the new program, the first series in the fall was free. That resulted in the largest deficit, roughly $190,000.

"It was very important that it was free to let people know what it was," Lang said.

Attendance grew. But to keep from repeating fall's heavy losses, the city started charging admission for the spring series: $10 for adults and $30 for VIP tickets, which included preferential seating, one free drink iż{-- water, beer or wine -- and unlimited food. Ages under 10 were admitted free, and residents were allowed to sit outside the gates to listen for free (at least 20 fans set up chairs across the street during the Sister Hazel concert).

Attendance for the five spring concerts was roughly 10,000. Country singer Brett Eldredge and Sister Hazel averaged about 2,500 attendees each and the VIP seats sold out.

As a result, losses for the spring concerts were considerably less, about $32,965.

"Now we have something to build on," Pope said. "We didn't have much push-back when we started charging."

There were other lessons learned along the way, too.

Production costs came as a surprise.

For example, Sister Hazel cost $17,500 to book, but the production costs were about $17,000-$18,000 for things such as speakers, stage hands, security, scaffolding, audio, lights and rigging. With some of the other acts, the city had to rent instruments for the artists who had to fly in specifically for the Ocala shows.

The city also learned holidays are not a good time to hold concerts.

In the fall, the city booked Florida pop singer Heather Friedman and "American Idol" finalist Jeremy Rosado; they drew the smallest numbers. Those were offset by nationally-known artists Edwin McCain, NEEDTOBREATHE and Little River Band, which brought up the figures.

In the spring, the city signed better-known national acts. And it did not hurt that Pope was able to garner a $7,000 grant from the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau for advertising and that local hotels agreed to offer discounts.

The spring lineup boosted attendance and attracted many fans from outside Ocala.

"At least 40 percent or more are from out of town," Pope said. "That's a very conservative estimate, too."

University of Florida student Solansh Hernandez said she and 30 of her friends went to the NEEDTOBREATHE concert in October. Ocala was the band's only Florida stop on their national tour, which likely was the reason it drew the highest attendance of any of the concerts. Most of Hernandez's friends drove from Gainesville but others drove from Cocoa on Florida's east coast.

"I think it was pretty awesome," Hernandez said. "I didn't expect that many people to be there, to be honest. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was a good length. I felt safe. I thoroughly enjoyed it."

That concert was free, but Hernandez noted earlier this week that $10 is very reasonable and she would come back again.

The city plans to keep the venue affordable and family friendly.

"The cost is minimal. I paid a little extra each time and got the VIP tickets," said Ocala'sJoe Reichel, who attended two concerts. "Being able to have something like that downtown, in our town, is an amazing thing for our community."

For the Sister Hazel show, he said, "several people mentioned that it was their first time and they loved it and will come back."

Coleman, who has seen Sister Hazel perform "probably 40 or 50 times," also bought VIP tickets, which she felt were worth the $30 price. She said she has paid $45-$50 at other venues like House of Blues where she had to stand. In Ocala, she had a front-row seat and plenty to eat. Coleman also attended Sanctus Real and NEEDTOBREATHE.

"We should be able to host these things in our town," Coleman said. "There was no parking fee. We didn't have to drive an hour."

Tom Ingram, chief executive officer of Gateway Bank of Central Florida, also attended the Sister Hazel concert.

"I absolutely loved it," Ingram said. "I think it's a great thing they are doing. Obviously, the goal should be to not make it a burden on taxpayers and get it where they are making it break even. As far as entertainment value, to me it was off the charts.

"A lot of people would pay good money to be in the front row of Sister Hazel and Eddie Money. I love it. I think it's what is helping make downtown Ocala what it is."

(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)

Downtown business owners agree.

"It brings new people downtown," said Julie Atkinson, who owns the Ocala Wine Experience. "What we have found after the show, because they are downtown, they take the time to walk around and come in and have a bite to eat. I think it's great. I love it. I think it's definitely needed."

"It's a big deal," added George Carrasco, who owns O'Malley's Alley and sits on the Downtown Business Alliance Board. "We were busy and we saw a lot of new faces."

Carrasco said he noticed on concert days he had customers from Crystal River, Leesburg and Gainesville.

Keith Terrelonge, owner of Ocala's Chocolate & Confections, said his business increases on concert days.

"It really helped. It gives exposure," Terrelonge said. "I think that they draw the outsiders."

He gives credit to the city's efforts.

"I am seeing more and more new faces, and I think it's because of what they are doing," Terrelonge said. "They are trying and it's working. At least I can see a difference."

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Contact Susan Latham Carr at 867-4156 or susan.carr@starbanner.com.

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(c)2014 Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.)

Visit the Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.) at www.ocala.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Ocala Star-Banner (FL)


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