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Q&A: Peoria Civic Center GM Edgar feels a strong winter, spring will lead to even better things

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

Peoria Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar says things continue to trend upward for the city-owned entertainment venue.

Thanks to a $20 million investment approved by the city council, the Civic Center is starting to tackle a long list of much-needed improvements. And Edgar says impressive seasons by Carver Arena's two primary sports tenants combined with strong concert sales for a run of successful months.

In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Edgar talks about what business has been like through the winter and spring at the Peoria Civic Center.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Since we last spoke in November, how has attendance been at the Peoria Civic Center through the winter and spring seasons?

Rik Edgar: It's been outstanding. We are exceeding expectations across the board. We thought we were going to have a good spring, and instead we've had a great-to- phenomenal spring.

In what regard? What's doing well?

Edgar: Everything. That's the really cool thing, and I’ll give you an example: We had one week in the theater, when we diversified our product and gave different opportunities to different audiences. So just hear me through this: On Monday night, we have ZZ Top, that's an older demographic, black T-shirt crowd. Then we have two nights of “Anastasia,” that's Broadway. Then we have Chelsea Handler, who is a lean to the left comedian. By the way, Chelsea sells out, Anastasia is doing phenomenal business.

We didn't stop there. Then we throw Walker Hayes into the arena, we have two Rivermen games, and then we also had a world ballet come in and do a performance of “Cinderella.” Eight shows in seven days, all successful and two of them completely sold out. This is the kind of activity – and if you look at those shows I just told you about, all of those audiences were different. So it's just not one thing that's working; everything seems to be working.

Are the comedy shows still exceeding expectations more than anything else?

Edgar: Yeah. We are the hometown of Richard Pryor; we wear it as a badge of honor, as we should, and comedy has been probably the biggest growth market since coming out of the (pandemic) shutdown. So for example, just in the last 12 months, Gabriel Iglesias set the all-time (comedy attendance) record in March of 2022. Bill Burr breaks his record, and then a few weeks ago Bert Kreischer broke that record. So we just keep seeing it getting bigger and bigger. Then in the theater, we have the likes of the Jo Koys, the Taylor Tomlinsons, Chelsea Handlers – and I mean, the list just goes on. We just announced a second Nate Bargatze show because the first one that's in the fall is already clean. So it's really fun to book these shows and to see the market really respond.

We all know that the City Council came up with $20 million to assist the Civic Center in paying for needed infrastructure upgrades. What projects are first on the list?

Edgar: This summer, we're getting a new scoreboard, new ribbon boards, new sound (system). We're repairing a long needed roof, HVAC, boilers, and we're also getting new lower bowl seating in the arena. Those are the ones that we have scheduled and ready to go. We're also putting in some star dressing rooms in the arena. This is something that has really been needed because that is the only place that the talent sees - the back of the house. We want to give them a living room-type of experience when they come to Peoria. It gives us that little edge when they're booking us versus other markets. It's very exciting, but that's about half of the projects that we will do over the next 24 to 30 months.

It seems like a lot going on all at once.

Edgar: Much needed, and I appreciate the council, (State Rep.) Jehan Gordon-Booth and the folks at the state for getting this money, because it's going to be really awesome to have days where we don't have rain coming through our roof.

We all know now that the Rivermen will remain at Carver Arena for at least one more season, and the sides are working toward a longer-term agreement. Not getting into the details of the lease negotiations or why they dragged on, but how much (did) uncertainty surrounding the hockey team make it difficult to schedule things out through the next year?

Edgar: I think the primary thing was everyone knowing what exactly is going to happen. We did lose a couple of opportunities because we were either holding dates or couldn't do things, but for the most part it's not any different than the normal course of business. So we're happy to have them (the Rivermen) back and we are working to have a really great year coming up.

We've heard that a new ice plant for Carver Arena won't be ready in time for next hockey season. What's the plan for how to maintain the ice with the current ice plant through the next season?

Edgar: Well, we did it pretty well this year. We're going to keep doing what we've been doing. The one thing about putting a new ice plant in is it's going to close the arena for, best estimate, 100-120 days. So we also have to plan for that in our budget, knowing that we're taking the arena offline. Right now, that looks like next summer. Those studies are going on right now so we can figure out how we're going to do that.

That was going to be my next question: What is the timeline for actually purchasing an ice plant and getting it installed?

Edgar: Well, I mean, the big thing is demolition; there's a lot of moving parts to it. So there is a study ongoing now, but we also have to order the equipment and make it happen well in advance. So we need to make those decisions here soon, and then also we've got to block out the calendar. I mean, we look at this summer and this is where we talk about opportunities. We have five arena concerts, which we're really proud of because typically we don't do that much in the summer. But because of the market’s resurgence, those are five shows we've got this summer that next year we won't be able to do.

How much of a boost was it to get a strong home season from the Bradley men's basketball team, particularly that final game with a sellout?

Edgar: That final game was a lot of fun, wasn't it? You know, to see it really completely sold out, that hasn't happened in a while – it's first time since I've been here, five years, to see that with a sporting tenant. We and Bradley are in lockstep, and we love working with them. As the new (transfer) portal comes into play, we felt a real responsibility to step up our game, not just in the day-to-day but how the venue looks. So a lot of these projects that we're working on were specifically to aid their recruiting to get the best athletes, because if you look at their roster, it's almost a complete flip. But we're hearing the roster is even stronger this year, so we're really excited to see where that goes.

If I'm not mistaken, I think they only lost once at home all year and it was only by a point or two.

Edgar: Yeah, they actually had, at that time, the second or third longest (home) winning streak in the entire country, and we were very bummed that that (loss) happened. But man, what a great way to end the season with that victory over Drake.

Are you continuing to struggle with event staffing and concessions or in other areas, and what can be done to have enough workers?

Edgar: I think we do our best to adapt. We love our staff, and I've told this story before: When we had the shutdown, we identified 17 key individuals that we felt we needed to be successful coming out with their knowledge base, and they've all stayed with us. Part of that is we have people who really care, who work really hard, and who love what we do. We're now infusing that energy to the remainder of the staff. April and November, in particular, were incredibly busy months; we were really stressed to get through those. But we made it through and we've got a better team for it.

Have you continued to hear complaints about wait times at concession stands at all?

Edgar: Well, I think everybody understands there's a little bit, but I will tell you: We just had Thomas Rhett, and we’ve implemented some new strategies for the bigger shows because we're always trying to be better – that's one thing, we always strive to be better. The coolest thing about that (Rhett) show was it was sold out, massive crowd, and the wait times were minimal. So we're working on that; we also have a DoorDash system that we're implementing to try to order from your seats and be able to go pick up. We want to be better, and part of that is trying new things and we'll keep working at it. But let's be honest, the hospitality industry in the entire country is short-handed. But we make the best (of it) – we’re small but mighty. Let's leave it at that.

So being short-handed – and again as you said, the hospitality industry everywhere is (struggling) – what can be done to try and attract more people to these jobs?

Edgar: I think that kind of gets into the minutiae of what our HR coordinator does. But we have...it's a fun place to work. You have to be passionate, and it's long hours. So you try to make it look like it's a really cool job. But we also let them know what they're in for. We don't want to sell it as, “you're going to hang out with rock stars.” That just doesn't happen. But we have had really good success with keeping staff, and we're always trying to grow. I mean the truth is, like everyone else, we always need more people.

The lineup for the 2023-2024 Broadway in Peoria series has been announced. What are some of the highlights of this schedule?

Edgar: We wanted to listen to our audience, and in this current season that we're finishing up with “Dear Evan Hansen” in June, “Legally Blonde” jumped off the page as our most successful show. So you look at that and go, “well, what's similar?” And that led us to “Mean Girls.” We're excited about that. I'm a big Tina Fey fan; I'm actually going to go see her in June, as a personal note.

Having that show as one of our anchors, and I think “Jesus Christ Superstar,” going back to one of the classics. We're rebuilding the Broadway series and we're taking steps in the right direction, slowly bringing it back because before we can get back to the week-long runs we need to establish. So we're looking at ’24 and ’25 for some of the heavy hitters. I'm really excited about this season; it's a very manageable season and one that I think folks will enjoy.

What other major concerts are coming up and what's your expectations for how you'll draw?

Edgar: We've never had more than one show in a summer; we've got five. So I've got The Avett Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, Falling In Reverse, Mudvayne and Monica. So we have R&B, we have the metal rock, we also have kind of the classic (rock) and we even have Americana, so what a cool mix of shows. Those are all looking great. I mean, Falling In Reverse has been off the charts, better than we expected so we know that that market works for us.

We went up with Hardy, a country show, in December and it's sold out on the on-sale (first day). So we're not seeing a real slowdown in ticket buying, and what we have recognized generally is we're the “new vacation.” A lot of folks are staying home, and when they come to our shows, they want to pay for that upgrade for VIP. They want a great experience, and we're seeing people come out; they're having a good time and they're kind of realizing that Mai Tai that used to be at the pool bar on vacation has become our frozen daiquiris or stuff at our show. So we are bullish on the market and we're really excited for what we got coming this fall.

Are concerts as a whole, the concert industry, are they rebuilding? I know for a while there was a time when concerts weren't doing well at all. Is the market rebuilding?

Edgar: It's exploding, and just for the reasons why I said. It's become the new vacation, and the data supports it. Live Nation just put out their earnings report and were like 35% over their aggressive expectations. So folks are wanting to be in a communal atmosphere; they want to see their friends, they want to hear live music, they want to come out, and we're grateful that we're in a position to facilitate that.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.