Gazette opinion: The least appreciated facility in Montana

2014-03-27T00:00:00Z 2014-05-13T12:02:06Z Gazette opinion: The least appreciated facility in Montana The Billings Gazette
March 27, 2014 12:00 am

What do Sisseton, S.D., Gering, Neb., Shipshewana, Ind., and Oelwein, Iowa have in common with Billings?

They are all tour stops for Leroy Van Dyke, who, according to the Billboard Country charts, hasn't cracked the Top 40 since February 1968.

With all due respect to Van Dyke, a Grand Ole Opry member, this isn't exactly what the community was looking for as the Metra and Yellowstone County announced it would be willing to share in some of the risks to bring better acts to Billings. After all, most of the big names in entertainment see the Metra and, to quote Van Dyke's most famous song, "Walk on By."

The problem isn't just that the facility continues to attract groups way past their prime. While other communities promote, cajole and bend over backward to attract acts, we continue to make it difficult for acts to come to Billings.

Van Dyke's fairly limited appeal has us wondering: Is the kind of entertainment Billings wants? Is this the only entertainment it can get?

Probably not. Just last weekend, the Magic City Blues Festival brought much better entertainment as it announced a line-up that included Jonny Lang, Huey Lewis and Ben Harper.

Here's another one for you: Legendary country group The Charlie Daniels band announced two Montana stops for July — Livingston and Forsyth. Yep, that's right Forsyth can get The Charlie Daniels Band, but not Billings.

We've asked the question so many times: How do Missoula or Bozeman — or just about any other community — get better acts, while Billings, a hub and destination for any other event or activity, gets performers you thought were dead?

The answer may not be such a mystery.

First, one of the big challenges of the Metra is its multi-purpose nature. The Metra isn't just a venue for entertainment acts. It's a fairgrounds. It's a place for livestock expositions. With multiple purposes, we have to wonder: Whose job is it to bring in top-shelf talent?

The first thing that needs to be done is let the Metra manage the Metra. This shouldn't be the bailiwick of the County Commission. We need a general management that can make decisions and be responsible to the commission, but shouldn't need a blessing at every turn.

Another obstacle for acts coming to the Metra is a capital improvement fee levied on each ticket. While tourism groups have urged county leaders to look at other ways to fund capital improvements, the county's inflexible approach means that some just aren't willing to pass along the extra cost, making the Metra a no-go.

Many promoters running shows also want to have a percentage of the concessions. The county has also been rigid on this point. And while we can sympathize with commissioners and officials who might feel that giving a percentage of concessions is not appropriate, that is a reality in the concert and entertainment business. It's what the market demands for good shows.

The county also seems reluctant to consider passing along any of these fees in the form of concessions price increases. In other words, a small "popcorn tax" as it has been called, to fund some of the improvements or keep a healthy bottom line, is off the table. And while we admire the county for trying to keep costs down, we believe that many in the community and those who might come from out of town for entertainment may not notice an extra 25 or 50 cents for popcorn.

We're also concerned that Metra and the county has spent too little time promoting what is very likely the finest facility in the state. Instead, it seems like county officials want sporting events and other shows to come to them. Yet if Billings and Yellowstone County want big shows and better entertainment, we're going to have to ask for it. When we do ask for it, let's also be ready to find ways to work deals for getting better entertainment in Billings.

Finally, we think the county's decision to assume some additional risk in the form of revenue sharing with promoters was indeed a good step. That is, most promoters want the venue — in this case, the Metra — to assume some liability for the show. Again, that may seem a bit unfair, but that is indeed what is required if we want better entertainment.

We have to wonder about the announcement of Van Dyke — the first act to sign on after the county changed its policy of risk sharing. With entertainment that weak, we have to wonder if the show was chosen because it had such little appeal? Was it set up to fail to try to prove the point that risk sharing doesn't work? Or, was it done to try to emphasize big-name entertainers don't play Billings?

It would be easy to put the blame on those working at the Metra. But that might not be fair. Instead, it's the county's micromanaging of the facility and complete inflexibility that have kept the facility dark. If citizens want better shows, don't call the Metra, call the County Commission. Until there are some real policy changes, get ready for more reruns from 40 years ago.

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