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Q&A: Edgar discusses strong fall attendance at Peoria Civic Center heading into the holiday season

Peoria Civic Center General Manager Rik Edgar
Joe Deacon
Peoria Civic Center General Manager Rik Edgar

The Peoria Civic Center is finishing off one of the strongest months in the venue's 40-year history, and the best since COVID-19 shuttered the complex for more than a year.

The downtown entertainment hub opened November with a record-setting weekend headlined by country star Keith Urban and comedian Bill Burr that attracted more than 22,000 guests.

Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar says they're starting to see attendance numbers return to where they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporter Joe Deacon talks with Edgar about what lies ahead for the Civic Center and how business has been this fall.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How has business been at the Civic Center for the past six months or so? I believe you’ve set some attendance records, correct?

Rik Edgar: Well, actually it has been fantastic. It's not so much the last six months, but once we've hit the fall. In the month of November, we welcomed over 65,000 guests. So that's the most people we've had in our venue since February of 2020, which was pre-pandemic.

When I say some of these records, I know you set, was it a comedy record I think it was?

Edgar: Yeah, our Bill Burr (show). We had just set the all-time arena comedy record in gross sales with Gabe Iglesias in the spring, and so Bill Burr came in in November and actually broke that record. And coming up this weekend, Harry Connick Jr. is going to be the highest grossing concert we've ever had in the theater. So folks are coming out and supporting the shows and it's always cool when you can set a new bar.

It seems like it's been a very busy stretch for the Civic Center, with numerous events packed into some short windows. How much of a challenge does that present for operations and the staff?

Edgar: We kind of joked that no one can make eye contact with our operations team first two weeks in November, because we literally had 40,000 people in 12 days - and within that, you're also changing over the arena. So we had (Bradley University) basketball, we had a heavy metal package with Trinity of Terror, we had Koe Wetzel, we had WWE wrestling, Bill Burr, Keith Urban. Then over in the theater, we had a week-long run of “Come From Away,” “Who's Live Anyway?,” Cocomelon. I mean, you could see the vast amount of events – and then in the convention center, we were also busy there.

So we can't work in a vacuum; we have to look at the big picture, and that's when you gear the staff up and go “it's going to be two really difficult weeks.” But I'm very happy to say they pulled through like troopers and we had a fantastic time.

How is the current staffing level? Are you having enough to get all these events covered?

Edgar: We're probably around two-thirds of where we really want to be, so that's provided some challenges. We can't quite do – we're now having to pick and choose certain things. So like, we are unable to do like doubleheaders on a Saturday that we have done in the past, because we just don't have the bodies to be able to turn the arena over in two hours. But for the most part, we've done a few things to let our staff know that they matter to us.

One thing that I think that we are most proud of – that goes from the Civic Center board, myself and my company – is, the industry has a lot of turnover, and our core staff has stayed in place since coming back from COVID. So we don't have people looking for other jobs because they love their job and they feel appreciated, and we can't do it without them. So there's always positions that you want more support on, but generally we're in decent shape and we're much better shape than our peers.

When you say doubleheader, do you mean like, say a basketball and hockey game on the same day?

Edgar: Correct.

Because I know basketball had two games in one day a couple weeks ago?

Edgar: Well, the two – it was still in the same court. Right? So that's easy. What we would do is, a lot of times we could do a doubleheader, which would mean a team would play in the afternoon, you change the entire arena over and then do something at night. We just don't have the ability to do that based on staffing levels. So with that, and having a Division I basketball team that has a TV contract, we work on their schedule first and then we fill in around them.

We've talked before about the Civic Center receiving $25 million in state funding for renovations and improvements. Can you give us an update on how that money is being used, what's been done so far and what work is still coming?

Edgar: Yeah, it's actually in a public forum to look online. It's a detailed project; it's three years in the making. We just signed the grant agreement in the last 10 days, so now we're in the process of being able to get reimbursed for those dollars.

We have a massive facility, so we had to look at the overall venue, not just one item, and that's how we chose our projects. A lot of the projects are, “you have to have;” there is no, “we like this better than that.” So for example, our roof is original in a lot of parts of the building, and we have leaks. You can't do events if you have your roof leaking. That project alone is $9 million, so you can see that's a pretty big chunk. The HVAC system (is) original, had to be replaced. The boilers had to be replaced. So there was a lot of “have to’s,” not “wants;” they were all needs.

And we still have a massive amount of needs that we're not covering, and one that kind of comes to mind that I think your listeners can appreciate is carpet. You know, I have two kids and two dogs; I've lived in my house for four years (and) I need new carpet. Compare that to a venue that draws 500,000 to 700,000 people a year. It has been on our wish list for 15 years; we've literally had millions of people across that carpet and haven't been able to replace it. That's the kind of needs that we need to address, and we still have a shortfall in addressing those needs.

At a recent City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago, they had a discussion regarding the Civic Center requesting a bridge loan in relation to this state funding. Would you explain why such a loan would be needed?

Edgar: The grant is a reimbursement grant. So you have to pay for the items and then submit for reimbursement, which normally takes from what I understand anywhere from 90 to 150 days. So the roof – we do not have $9 million in our bank account. Ultimately, the city is responsible for the upkeep of the building, the way that's done. So what it is, is if we commit to the project, we have to pay the contractors, then get reimbursed. All that loan does is give us the money to pay the contractors; the moment the money comes from the grant, we immediately return it back to the city. So it's a way for us to acquire those $25 million, otherwise, we couldn't get the reimbursements and we would have to pass on the grant.

So as you mentioned, we're into the sports seasons now at Carver Arena with Bradley basketball and Rivermen hockey. How much of a boost do you get from those games, and what kind of challenges do you face working those schedules into the other events at the facility?

Edgar: Well, we got a lot of stuff going on, right? Tenant sports are great; we love working with the teams and you know what they bring to us. It's just one piece of the pie, so it's not so much that it's a challenge. It's just part of the overall picture.

We've also discussed before about how the Rivermen's lease is expiring at the end of this season, and part of that problem stems from the condition of the ice plant. Can you give us an update on that situation?

Edgar: We have a contract (with the Rivermen) through the end of this year that we're honoring.

About the ice plant, though, can you go into what the challenges are with that?

Edgar: Yeah, we – the board and everyone – looked at all of our projects as a whole; again, we really are very careful to not focus in a vacuum. I've got a Broadway presenter who would like for us to spend all the money on Broadway (shows); we have a basketball team that has their needs. We have to look at the whole and what's the better good for the community in where those dollars should be spent. We didn't have enough money to fund everything, so that (ice plant) is one of the items that fell below the cut line.

What are the problems with the ice plant? Why is it hard to maintain at this point?

Edgar: It's a 40-year old ice plant. It has leaks, and the Freon that goes into it is – and I'm going to give you my level, because I'm not an engineer – is R22. Three years ago, R22 was $14 a pound. We need a minimum of 4,500-5,000 pounds just to be operational, and it's in the system 24/7 – with leaks we have to replenish during the year. That has gone from $14 a pound to $60 a pound, and it is no longer being produced. So that cost just keeps going up and up and up, (and) the ice plant as we have it now will not function on anything else. So it would take a complete rebuild of busting up the arena floor and redoing the entire ice plant.

And that's cost prohibitive, I would assume?

Edgar: Three years ago, $2.5 million was the number we were getting, and that number has gone up since.

Regarding the ice also, the arena will be holding the national Synchronized Skating Championships in March. How will the ability to maintain the appropriate ice conditions impact that event?

Edgar: Part of the deal we had with them (U.S. Figure Skating) is they had to pay a premium to get us some R22 to facilitate their event. Their ice actually gets built on top of what we use. It was an event that the Convention and Visitor's Bureau (Discover Peoria) and Chamber (Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce) really wanted to bring to the community, so we were able to make a deal with that group to make it happen.

A couple of months ago, Illinois State University announced it had sold naming rights for what is now CEFCU Arena in Normal. Is a naming rights deal something that the Civic Center would ever explore to boost revenue?

Edgar: Absolutely.

How would that work? What could be done?

Edgar: We need somebody that has a lot of passion for what we do, who wants to have their (name) be the moniker of our building. So it is on the list of things that we've looked at, but it's not as easy as it has been for some others. It's something we'd love to have, because any way that we can help defer the expenses on taxpayers is something we're interested in.

So would it be, I don't know, say, “Whatever Sponsor Civic Center,” or would it be possible to rename the arena at all? How would all that work?

Edgar: Actually, it's interesting you say that. Carver Arena is in perpetuity per a passage that happened at City Council 40 years ago, so that's off the table. But we could potentially do the entire complex or do something with the theater.

We've had a long list of things to do and we've accomplished a lot. We've already started implementing some of those projects; we just finished resurfacing and adding new parking controls in our building, which has been a godsend. It's been fantastic. So yeah, if anybody out there is listening and would love to have their name on the building, please send us a note. We'd love to talk to you.

As you mentioned, you're coming off a big November and now heading into the holiday season – always a busy period for the Civic Center. What are some of the notable upcoming events that you've got on the schedule?

Edgar: Thanks for bringing that up. So on Dec. 3, Saturday, we have Harry Connick Jr. in the theater, and we have Pentatonix in the arena. It's one of those things (where) you get a pleasant surprise: the biggest complaint we've had is everybody wants to go to both shows. But when Harry Connick Jr. only has one date on his calendar to fill, and you've already booked Pentatonix, you take the date.

Both shows have sold out; we literally have singles and random tickets, and we're doing this (interview) a few days before the show. I mean, who would have (thought) that we would sell out the theater and arena in December in Peoria with these great headline acts? What an awesome weekend that's going to be.

With that we still have our annual Nutcracker event (Dec. 10-11) and we also have a Cirque holiday show (Dec. 15) coming up in the theater, which is doing well, and Disney Princesses (Friday), which we have one of the best dates on the tour. Again, we do a variety of things, looking for different folks to come to our building and enjoy it because we can't keep doing the same thing over and over, because then you see the the folks that go to that type of event won't come back multiple times. But as long as you can keep them spread out, we've had really good success. So it's been a lot of fun.

When you talk about Harry Connick Jr. and Pentatonix both being in at the same time, how often do you do that where you have two events going on simultaneously – and sometimes it can be very differing crowds too, can’t they?

Edgar: I think that's something that I've been kind of focused on saying we can't just do one thing. I envy some of my competition that only have an arena and only do one thing tonight. For example, Taylor Tomlinson, the comedian, had sold out our theater; that should have been the biggest thing we're focused on. We also had a Bradley basketball game, and we had Jurassic Quest in the convention center, which by the way, drew over 8,000 people in three days. Again, (it’s a) glorious problem to have, to have all that activity. So that is something that's very unique and challenging about the building, but it's a challenge we love.

Didn't you have, the night of that heavy metal concert, you also had something in the theater that was completely different?

Edgar: Yeah, Trinity of Terror was loud, and we had “Who's Live anyway?,” the TV program on the road, and it happens a lot. So again, we have so many good tenants (and) we have so many cool things. It's really, to have all of these options in a secondary market like Peoria, that doesn't happen in very many communities and it's something that we're really proud of being able to bring all kinds of cool stuff to folks.

We talked about what's coming up through the holidays. What about early in 2023, what are we looking at?

Edgar: Well, we're bringing our friend Bert Kreischer back in the arena (March 25). It was really exciting to get Katt Williams (April 22). Comedy has been fantastic out of COVID, and I think it always helps us to say we're Richard Pryor's hometown and it’s something that’s a badge of honor for us. We also have Thomas Rhett in May (May 5). We have the (Harlem) Globetrotters in early January (Jan. 8), and we've got a couple of shows that we're going to be announcing here soon. Things are looking very promising. And it's just – “Dear Evan Hansen,” by the way, I don't want to forget, we’ve got the huge Broadway show coming up in June (May 30-June 4).

We have so much that when you ask me those questions, I'll leave the room today and go, “I can't believe I didn't say this,” or “I forgot about that.” Awesome problems to have. We have many choices, positive things happening in the venue. We're starting to see numbers back to pre-COVID level and that has a little bounce in everybody’s step.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.