Two firms make the case that they would best manage Ford Park

Tom McDonnell with Spectra and Doug Thornton of SMG

“We’ve got to be more aggressive… to bring events in, and looking at new ways of generating that business,” SMG executive vice president Doug Thornton told Jefferson County Commissioners this week, explaining what the SMG management team would do differently if given yet another five years to oversee events at the publicly subsidized Ford Park Entertainment Complex, where it has been in charge for nearly 15 years operating at a roughly $2 million-a-year deficit.

Thornton explained that if given another opportunity, the firm would do better at booking shows and utilizing its connections to reduce that deficit, but with a competitor looking to step in and take over, the current firm’s promises may be too little, too late.

“Bottom line,” County Commissioner Everette “Bo” Alfred” said from the dais, “you’ve had 15 years.”

Over the last 15 years, Ford Park has come under public scrutiny for its dependence on tax dollars to subsidize operations while the management firm collects corporate fees, and benefits from concession and ticketing contracts. Upward of $2 million in county dollars each year facilitate the entertainment venue’s operation run under SMG. 

Competitor Spectra entertainment management firm executives, however, tell county officials they can do a better job.

After presentations by both national entertainment management firms, the Jefferson County Commissioners Court will select one to run the Ford Park Entertainment Complex no later than Oct. 1, according to purchasing director Deborah Clark. But also, according to her, county officials will not be making their ultimate decision based solely on what the public has been privy to thus far, as both management firms have been asked to submit their “Best and Final Offer” to the county no later than Friday, Sept. 16.

“They can up their game – or they can decrease their game,” Clark said, “However they want to do it.”

The game up to this point has been written proposals followed by oral presentations to the county’s elected commissioners and County Judge Jeff Branick. The written proposals have been handed off to a committee assembled by the county officials to score both companies based on factors including their experience in the region, their prior performance in the field, and the cost to the county for service. Clark said the scores will not be available for public scrutiny until after a contract is awarded. Those serving on the committee included county auditor Patrick Swain, tax assessor/collector Allison Getz, county human resources director Cary Erickson, officer Karl Holmes, and probation supervisor Dianna Columbus.

Over the course of the last week, each company presented their plans in front of the county commissioners. According to Clark, the elected officials requested the presentation.

“Sometimes it’s just better to do business face-to-face,” she said.

Spectra

The first firm to present its ideas for moving Ford Park forward was the Spectra group, led by Tom McDonnell.

“We hope you see what we see,” McDonnell told the court of commissioners. “It’s time for a new beginning.”

According to McDonnell, Jefferson County could expect to see an “immediate impact” of the new management oversight team.

“What we see right now is there really is a lack of sponsored revenue (and) this is a major under-performing venue for this size of a market,” the Spectra exec said. McDonnell said that Ford Park needs better marketing, better booking practices, better collaboration with the community …

“We’ll have a team come in and implement best practices,” he said, but added the company would keep any current employees who wanted to stay. “We start when we start, though – right away. We have a plan to put in place as soon as we can start.”

The plan McDonnell outlined included updated food service through Spectra; SMG currently uses one of its subsidiaries to offer food service. The management company will also get its revenue based on a model that encourages reducing the deficit currently in effect under SMG’s operation of the county’s entertainment venue; SMG currently enjoys management fees that are condition-free.

“We work hard, and we work smart,” McDonnell said, underscoring assertions that his team feels it would be an easy task to save Jefferson County tax dollars at Ford Park. He said there needs to be “a major overhaul” at the facility to include event promotions, website use, social media presence, catering and technology, and public relations.

“They also need some grassroots work,” McDonnell said. “That’s not happening now.”

SMG

Although performance may not be up to what McDonnell said the par should be, SMG executive Thornton said the company’s commitment is to do better, should they remain the county’s entertainment complex management firm.

“We have to be more aggressive as a promoter ourselves – which we plan to do,” Thornton said. According to him, the team just confirmed a visit from “The Price is Right” for 2017, and the day after their presentation, Ford Park announced a Toby Mac concert. While there was no mention of the fate of the Mac concert should SMG not have its contract renewed, Thornton did say they would not use their resources to facilitate “The Price is Right” commitment should their time as Ford Park overseers be coming to an end, as the current contract expires in March 2017. He also dangled out hopes of attracting “Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson and John Legend,” but again reminded county officials that they would not seek out those events should commissioners choose to take their business elsewhere.

“We’re here to serve you now,” Thornton said. “If we’re not here, we’re not going to put our dollars to work for a competitor.”

Alfred reminded SMG that is has run Ford Park since its opening, and if the contract ends now, it will be leaving a used and abused building that has attracted few big-name acts in its past and seen lackluster tickets sales for most of its concerts. That’s not to mention a public now disenchanted with the venue.

Thornton retorted by explaining that the deficit spending of SMG at Ford Park has been reduced over the years, and the plan presented by the management firm will provide up to $400,000 up-front capital to address some of the building maintenance problems.

“We’re going to put our money where our mouth is,” Thornton said.

Deliberation

“Talk is cheap,” Commissioner Alfred said. According to him, performance evaluations would be more of a future indicator of success than rhetoric. 

Thornton asked the county officials to ponder “not just one year or two years, but the body of work as a whole” of the SMG team at Ford Park, before judging the group as to what its past performance has been. According to the team, the close proximity to other major outlets in Houston and Lake Charles makes it hard to book big-name acts, as does the county’s position to not underwrite (or financially back) event promotions. How the city of Beaumont can book those same acts, they alluded, was city support.

Beaumont Councilman Mike Getz took exception to the notion that there was anything being done at the city to book events that couldn’t be done on the county level.

“One of the excuses offered by SMG for their inability to get more artists (even though) the city of Beaumont is bringing all these people in,” is that the city is subsidizing its entertainment lineup, Getz said at a Tuesday City Council meeting. That could not be further from the truth, he said.

“There is nothing in our budget that would allow us to pay for or underwrite any of the performers that come in here,” he said. “The reason why we’re getting performances coming in here is because of the hard work being done by our city officials, by Lenny Caballero and his staff, his relationship with promoters. That’s why we get the type of quality performances we get and we enjoy.”

Alfred said he hopes to see hard work at Ford Park to secure talent and revenue regardless of which management team is selected to oversee the entertainment complex in the future.

“I’m listening to see what is the best,” he said. “Our constituents want the court to make a good decision … and make sure people bring to the table what they’re saying they’re going to bring to the table. I hope my fellow commissioners are listening to their constituents, too.”

Alfred said that the decision of oversight at Ford Park is a difficult one, but, “I’m ready to make the tough decision.”

According to information from county auditor Patrick Swain’s office, the Ford Park naming rights contract is also set to expire in March 2017, and has yet to be renewed.

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