Q&A: Peoria Civic Center GM Edgar touts strong start to 2022
If the last two months are any indication, the Peoria Civic Center is destined for a strong year.
Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar says after the venue stayed dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic, recent concert crowds have exceeded expectations.
Reporter Joe Deacon talks with Edgar about how the Civic Center has fared through the first few months of 2022. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Joe Deacon: When we last spoke in November, you were looking forward to several big events in a strong winter season. How would you assess the Civic Center's performance over the past five months or so?
Rik Edgar: Beyond outstanding. Fantastic. Everything we had hoped for, and more. It was a lot of hope that we were going to do well. We could not have imagined the success we've had since mid-February through middle of April. We don't want to leave anybody out, but every one of our shows over-performed.
Gabriel Iglesias set the house record for comedy. Reba McEntire set the house record for country. I mean, these are records that were over 40 years (old). Some of our favorites, Judas Priest had a great show, Slipknot had a great show, and most recently Shinedown, we had more people in our venue for Shinedown and The Pretty Reckless than we've had since the pandemic. So we're tired; we’ve worked really hard. But we're very proud of our accomplishments.
Coming out of the pandemic could you have expected to have done as well as you have?
Edgar: Absolutely not, not even close. I refer to myself as a “pessimistic optimist,” and the pessimistic side was: Coming out of COVID, people aren't ready. Initially it was slow, then we started noticing people were coming out for comedy shows: we had two Bert Kreischer shows that sold out; Jo Koy had doubled his numbers from the previous time in. But then when you get Gabe Iglesias in an arena – and it's packed, for a comedian? Wow. That was not expected, and it was fantastic and it was great, and it builds your confidence.
We're seeing what we were hoping for come true: We knew things would get better in ’22. The first six months we had reopened starting in July, we had some wins but it was kind of tepid wins. We had a couple of big ones, but for the overall part we knew that it was not quite what we had hoped for. But we had no idea how great March was going to be. Whiskey Myers sells out the theater, and that one's important because country fans have been a little more hesitant. Then all of a sudden was like, we're here on a Tuesday night and it was like any Saturday night show we've ever had. So people are spending money and having a good time.
A story someone told me at Shinedown was: not only was the band awesome to work with and all that, but we saw more people hugging their friends next to them because it was like this, “Man, we've needed this rock concert.” It was actually emotional for us; like, we were sitting as a staff going like, “Man, these people are not (just) having a good time, they're having a moment.” That's what we try to create.
You mentioned Reba before, and she's always done well, obviously, at the Civic Center, with a road named for her there. But she even outperformed anything she's ever done before.
Edgar: Yeah, well, this was her ninth time at our building, but more than 20 years between performances; so, in the 1980s, she played the venue almost every year. We're starting to see people being nicer. So, we met Reba and (that) exceeded all of our expectations. She was very gracious, and she broke the house (record) — she didn't break it, she shattered it by more than six figures over the closest one, and yeah, it was great. Again, we had no way of thinking that (would happen). We gave back over a half million dollars in tickets when her show postponed (in 2020); we sold all those plus. So, I use the phrases like “rock on,” but that was as close to a grand slam win as you can get.
So do you think it's just a matter of now coming out of the pandemic, people have been so pent up that they really wanted to seize these opportunities?
Edgar: Yeah, a little bit. But I think it's not just that; we're bringing in really cool stuff. The joke is, when we first opened back up that you and I could go on the stage with a pair of spoons and draw 1,000 people.
I'm not sure a lot of people would want to see that.
Edgar: Well, you haven't seen me be “Spoonman.” But really, I think the best thing that we saw is when we put the right shows for the right market at the right time. So we paid attention, and you learn from a couple shows not quite doing what you want, or you're trying to figure it out. But what was really cool is — I'm a rock fan; I don't make any bones about it, I love a good hard rock show (and) that's my bread and butter — and we started putting those shows up, and they started doing record numbers.
So not only are we doing good numbers for our building, we're at the top of the tour. So when you're seeing a band play 30 markets and Peoria is in that top quadrant, that really helps us get the next show. People who make these decisions in L.A. and Nashville and Chicago and New York, they're looking at spreadsheets and charts, and what you want to do is you want to get into that top 40, top 30 markets.
The best compliment I've received in the last few months, or one of the best, was: “Wow, Peoria out punches its weight in rock,” and it's like, “Great. Bring us another.” Right after Shinedown, I had three different promoters call me, saw the numbers and go, “Hey, we've got an idea for the next show.” So I booked two arena shows on my drive home that we'll be announcing here in the next few weeks. So yeah, success breeds success.
I know you said rock is doing well, and I know a lot of people were looking forward to Greta Van Fleet (March 26 show postponed). It's not uncommon for acts to have to cancel performances, but this was kind of on a short notice because of an illness. What does the staff have to do to accommodate or adjust when a cancellation like that happens?
Edgar: Well, let me tell you the disappointing thing. It wasn't losing a Saturday night; it even wasn't losing the show, because I’ve got to tell you, the staff was so exhausted — if they were to tell you the truth, they were kind of OK getting that night off, but they wanted the show. The thing that was disappointing is, we were ready. After months of being understaffed and trying to figure it out, we were so ready for that show and a few days before the show— it was an unfortunate illness; no hard feelings or anything from us, but at first we thought it was we were disappointed that the show was moving, and then we had a moment of honesty and were like, “Man, we were so ready.” We would have crushed that show. We'll do it. It'll be in July, and it'll be fun.
I was going to say, the good news is it's still coming. Can you tell us a little bit more about when they’ll be here?
Edgar: July 25, and a few people gave back their tickets, but not many. So if you're a Greta Van Fleet fan, I highly encourage you to go grab your tickets while they're available because there's not much.
How about the sports seasons with Bradley basketball and Rivermen hockey? How were the crowds for the games?
Edgar: Opening the seasons, both were softer than we had hoped. But we were in the middle of a mask mandate, and people were still a little cautious. But then once we turned the calendar year, Bradley basketball started being Bradley basketball. We saw the fans coming back and there was some excitement around the team, so I think we've set the table for the upcoming season. Sports were a little harder because you're standing and yelling and high-fiving your friends, and the entire Bradley season was with the mask mandate. It's kind of hard to yell and slap hands with your friends when you have a face covering.
The Civic Center is getting $25 million from the state of Illinois Capitol bill for renovations and improvements. What are some of the top priorities and projects intended for that money?
Edgar: I like to tell people it's all the unsexy things: roof, HVAC, boilers, tuckpointing the building, parking lots. The reason why those things are important — there's been some discussion about, “how do you pick your projects?” We didn't pick the projects, the projects picked us. If you come to our events, one of the embarrassing things is that when it rains heavy, we've got 15-20 buckets out catching water. It has to be repaired.
So with the cost of goods going up, we had originally identified $47 million in projects that were kind of “need” projects, not “wants.” That number went up, so we had a top 10 project list that’s already been shaved down to six. We're working through some ideas on the roofing that might help us maybe add something back in. But I always tell people that we all want a pool in our backyard, or most of us do. But you can't have a pool in the backyard if your roof leaks.
We talked before, again coming out of the pandemic that there were also challenges about hiring enough staff to work events. Are you still seeing that at all?
Edgar: Sure, I think everyone is. In fact, we put up a sign at this last show and it says, "The entire country is short-staffed in hospitality." We're no different. We're trying really hard. We're spending more time away from our families; we're working overtime, not getting the normal amount of sleep. Understand our situation: We're here to give you a good time. Be nice, rock on, have a good show, and please be understanding.
We did that because we all forget that other people are going through stuff. And I couldn't be more proud of my staff because we're a little short-handed, but we literally just had the busiest month we've ever had. Ever, period. No qualifications. March, we did 30 night event days on a short staff. Again, we're tired. But we just had a meeting where we were all like, “can you believe what we accomplished? Wait till next year.” That's fun.
Have patrons been pretty understanding with the situation then?
Edgar: Yeah, I mean, you know, you get — I always refer: 85% of the people are awesome, 10% of the people question it, and 5% there's nothing (that’s) going to satisfy. We have seen really great support from the community, not only our partners that benefit financially, but just (people) having stuff to do. So, like everybody else, we get a little upset. We have some folks that don't like some of the rules, but for the most part it's been great. We bring people together, I mean, that's — at the end of the day, no one walks through my door who doesn't make a choice: They choose to come here. So I always say, “Look, these guys are here to have a good time. All we can do is mess it up.” So, yeah, it's been fun to see faces again.
What's on the horizon for the next several months at the Civic Center? What other big shows or events are on the upcoming schedule?
Edgar: Well, ones that we've announced, if you're a country fan, we've got Keith Urban (Nov. 4), we've got Luke Bryan (Oct. 15) in the fall in the arena. We've got a really eclectic group of things coming. We had to add a second John Mulaney show (Aug. 17); we went on sale last week, and it did so great that they want to do a second show. That's crazy. On a Wednesday night, we're so strong that we need two shows to fill the need.
I can tell you that the rock market is going to continue to be very strong here. We booked a couple shows that haven't been released yet, both arena shows. So we're seeing the content; our biggest challenge right now is dates, we're literally running into issues. By the way we didn't we talk about: we brought a demolition derby to town where everyone that wasn't from here competed, did very well their first year.
So the public sees those events. The economic impact is really our job here. Our job is to create activity for the downtown so the restaurants and the hotels make money, and then they feed the tax base, which then circulates back to us so it's a “win-win.” Just between the Slipknot and the Shinedown shows, I talked to my friend over at the hotel, Thomas Hopson (general manager) at the Pere Marquette, and he goes, “We were up 25% sold out from what we do.” That's direct impact. No argument.
The Broadway Lounge has been a good friend and they've told us, “When you're doing a show, we're packed. We have to turn people away.” Chris Setti (CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council), one of the leaders here in the community, texted me on Saturday “What's going on?” and I'm like, “We’ve got Shinedown, man.” He goes, “What else?” I go, “We’ve got Shinedown.” He goes, “Every restaurant in town has an hour and a half wait.” Those folks, 60% of our tickets – about 55 to 60 – aren't from Peoria. So they're coming from other zip codes, coming into town, spending their money. That's awesome. So that's true economic impact, not recycling dollars.
It's one of those where, we know that the calendar is going to be chock full and now we're at a position where we're having to pick and choose. But there's not going to be a lack of things to do: comedy, rock … We just did an ABBA tribute group’s coming through. It's going to be a heck of a great year. Oh, and Broadway, oh my gosh.
We just announced our (2022-23) Broadway series, and shame on me for not bringing it up earlier. We've got two of the hottest titles in Broadway: We’ve got “Come From Away,” (Nov. 2-6) which has been a huge, massive hit on Broadway, and “Dear Evan Hanson,” (May 30-June 4, 2023) which was so big they made it into a movie anchoring our season, with “9 to 5” (March 14-15, 2023) and “Anastasia” (Feb. 7-8, 2023). So when you say what's coming forward? A lot.