When ZZ Top plays the Bozeman field house on March 26, the Rimrock Auto Arena will be empty.
It’s disappointing for Billings folks to see big acts often go elsewhere in the region without stopping in Billings. Yellowstone County commissioners surely feel this pressure from frustrated fans. They recently created a new option for working with concert promoters. The county-owned arena now will be able to co-promote shows in cases when MetraPark’s professional management and marketing staff recommends it — and the County Commission approves the deal.
The commission’s usual policy is that it rents facilities to promoters who assume all financial risk: all the show’s profit or loss.
But in recent years, promoters nationwide have insisted on sharing risk when they deal with big arenas. To get in the game, MetraPark needs to team up with promoters. The county is taking a cautious, show-by-show approach. It’s a good step, but it might not be the only step needed.
MetraPark has missed out on shows by having a policy against all co-promotion.
As previously reported in The Gazette, MetraPark is in a much stronger financial position now than when Bill Dutcher took over as general manager eight years ago. Its reserves have doubled to $1.2 million. County Finance Director Scott Turner recommends the park have at least $1 million in reserves.
The 10,000-seat arena also got a face lift and new, expanded guest amenities in the reconstruction that followed the 2010 tornado damage. The rebuilt facility is better than before the storm.
Booking major touring acts isn’t as simple as it might seem to those of us hoping to buy tickets. Tim Goodridge, who has successfully created and promoted Magic City Blues festivals, says entertainers often travel Northwest and Canadian routes that leave Billings out. Missoula is better located for some concert routes. Missoula and Bozeman have the attraction of being college towns that some promoters favor.
Avoiding co-promotion has been a problem for MetraPark, Goodridge said, noting that the county is making a good change.
“They’re actually trying to come up with the right formula,” Goodridge said.
Representatives of the Billings Tourism Improvement District recently met with MetraPark management and offered financial help to bring in concerts.
John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, says big concerts are vital, especially in this slow time of the year. Brewer says big shows draw people to Billings to spend money at local businesses and also enhance quality of life for Billings residents who attend.
MetraPark has not achieved its full potential. Successful, publicly owned arenas in this region tend to have good management that has authority to make good deals and day-to-day business decisions while being accountable to local government for meeting annual budget goals. The more the Yellowstone County Commission allows the MetraPark professionals to make marketing and entertainment decisions, the better concert business will be.
Now that the county has gotten the funding formula right, there’s one more important change that MetraPark officials have to acknowledge: The shows that have been lackluster. For too long, it seems like the county and Metra have worked hard to convince us the line-up was good enough.
But not by a long shot.
There has to be a culture change, too. Billings by its size has the right to demand top-name talent, not has-been stars. We hope Metra tries for better instead of settling for whatever.
If MetraPark moves in that direction, maybe next year Zac Brown or Macklemore will choose to perform there.