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Battle for the soul of Metra: 'You hire the right people and then stay the hell out of the way'

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The frustration is palpable. 

Tim Goodridge looks at the financial numbers and sees MetraPark performing better now than it has in 40 years. Goodridge is Metra's interim general manager and has worked for the last three years to update and improve management and operations at the venue.

Don Jones, one of Yellowstone County's three commissioners, is frustrated too. For five years he's pushed for changes to MetraPark that would modernize operations and get it to run more efficiently. He says it's one of the most exasperating tasks he's tried to tackle.

Jones' colleague, Commissioner John Ostlund can't believe this is where the debate has ended up. Ostlund has been the voice of the county's agricultural community, which is deeply invested in future access and use of MetraPark. Ostlund believes Jones' efforts to make changes at Metra have happened at the expense of listening to the concerns of the ag community.

Outside groups have entered the fray, super-charging the debate and bringing a level of attention to Metra performance that's new for everyone involved. 

All of it in an effort to answer the question: should county leaders bring in a private company to take over management at MetraPark or not? 

The first real effort to answer the question will happen next month. Commissioners have issued a request for proposals from companies interested in the job, and once those proposals are returned commissioners will have something tangible they can debate.

Todd Hunt, senior vice president at Venue Coalition, a live entertainment consulting company representing 100 or so arenas and theaters around the country, wonders if commissioners are asking the wrong question. 

For Hunt, who's run publicly-owned arenas for more than 25 years, the question is about the leadership team, not whether management at the facility is private or public. 

"It's about your staff and having the support structure around them to allow them to be successful," he said.

He talked about the public arena he managed in Tupelo, Mississippi, which pulled in big acts regularly and was financially successful. That success, he said, had more to do with the quality of the staff running the facility than it did with who signed the paychecks. 

"There is a way to do this and be successful," he said.

He pointed to venues in Boise, Idaho; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Bozeman as good, regional examples of successfully run publicly owned and operated facilities. 

The right people

Hire the right people and give them the autonomy to do their jobs. In his experience with public arenas, micromanagement from elected leaders has been the complicating factor. 

Bill Ogg has seen it firsthand. 

He managed Montana Expo Park in Great Falls when it was run by Cascade County, and then was hired later to run it when management was handed off to SMG, a private company looking to get into the county fair business. 

He's currently executive director of the Nebraska State Fair. 

Having worked in both public and private management, Ogg believes he's got a pretty good perspective. Privatization of public facilities isn't new and it's worked well for many communities, including Cascade County, he said. 

One of the biggest advantages with private management is that "it allows the local government officials to stay at arms' length," he said. "County government can be cumbersome."

The trade off, he said, is that private companies are there to make a profit. SMG was aggressive in increasing its bottom line and raised prices on a number of services and goods. 

"Your constituents are going to notice that," Ogg said. 

For decades, Montana Expo Park had good years and bad. By the late 1990s Cascade County leaders were ready to let someone else take control and so entered into an interlocal agreement with the City of Great Falls to run the facilities. At the time, Great Falls was in a better financial position than the county. 

Ogg ran the arena during that time and it was a remarkably successful operation. When the interlocal agreement with the city expired, county leaders chose not to renew, Ogg said.

For the next four years, the county struggled to operate the arena, erasing many of the gains the city had made, he said. That's when SMG stepped in. The county moved to privatized management and SMG hired Ogg to come back and manage the operation.

"We made it work," he said. "The community was pretty well served."

By 2008, the county had seen that the facilities could be successful and so chose to take over operations again, electing not to renew its contract with SMG, Ogg said. The county again struggled to run the Expo Park and Ogg took another job. 

Like Hunt, Ogg has seen the benefits of both public and private management of event facilities. In each case success has depended on the quality of the staff and elected leaders allowing that staff to do its job. 

"Hire the right people, set a reasonable budget, demand accountability and regular reporting but stay the hell out of the way of entrepreneurial management," Ogg said. 

Micromanagement?

The issue of micromanagement has been raised in the past at MetraPark. The facilities are county-owned and for years were overseen by a board to which Metra management reported.

Commissioners in the early 2000s decided they wanted more of say in Metra operations and so changed the Metra Board to the Metra Advisory Board, and Metra management began reporting directly to the commissioners. 

Each of the three current commissioners are deeply invested in the performance of MetraPark. Commissioner Denis Pitman, for example, has said he often takes walks around the facility to inspect the grounds and bring issues to the attention of staff.

Tennessee-based Venue Solutions Group specializes in studying and evaluating the operations and procedures of event space; the group performed a study of Metra earlier this year.

Among other things, the report dinged commissioners for stepping in to take over tasks at MetraPark. 

"The county commission has an obligation to strive to ensure the success of MetraPark and at times has taken it upon themselves to perform tasks at the venue to correct issues and/or personally direct employees to perform work," the report stated. "While well-intentioned, this can put employees in a difficult position of prioritizing assigned work versus the immediate needs of a commissioner."

(The report also dinged Metra for lack of preventive maintenance and having no clearly defined and written policies and procedures. Metra has since created a policies and procedures manual.)

In fact, it was one of Pitman's visits to the Metra that inadvertently set off the entire privatization debate. Last summer, he was on the grounds and told at least two workers that if staff didn't shape up then the county was going to privatize.

Pitman doesn't deny the incident happened, but he's said it's been characterized wrong. His comment was never directed as a threat or meant to intimidate, he said. Rather, Pitman said he was making the point that if the current system at Metra wasn't working then the county would look at other options, like privatization.

Ostlund responds

Word of the incident got to Ostlund, so he invited Metra management and staff members to be at the next commissioners discussion meeting where he brought up Pitman's comments.

During the meeting, Ostlund expressed his frustration that Metra staff was being browbeaten with threats of harassment and he asked Pitman if he was exploring privatization. Pitman told Ostlund he wasn't.

Jones has said it was at that point he decided to investigate the option of privatizing. He took two trips at the end of the summer to Casper, Wyoming, and to Nampa, Idaho, to see their facilities, both of which are publicly owned but privately managed.

Ostlund has long argued that Jones and Pitman have always had their minds made up and were set on privatization from the beginning. He has pushed for a third-party study that would weigh the pros and cons of private and public management at Metra but has gotten no traction from the other two commissioners.

The privatization debate around Metra centers on two ideas. First, a large, national private outfit that specializes in venue management is going to have the resources and expertise to run a place like Metra better than the county with local staff. 

Second, privatization of management will put the financial burden of running an events venue on a private company and remove it from taxpayers. 

Earlier this month, the Billings Chamber of Commerce brought to town leaders from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Nampa, Idaho, to speak about their experiences with privatization. 

Sioux Falls and Nampa both have publicly owned event facilities that are managed by a private, third-party management company, and both have found lasting success using that model. 

"It's almost the only format we know," Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, said in an interview last week.

In his view, a municipality is responsible for a handful of services in which it has expertise, like public safety, water and sewer treatment and infrastructure maintenance. Running an entertainment venue is outside that expertise, he said. 

"That's not our core competency," he said. 

L.A.-based ASM Global is the company contracted by the city to run its events venue and they're able to draw from a deep well of resources and industry contacts. 

"They see opportunities that we may not see," said Sioux Falls' finance director, Shawn Pritchett.

Tax dollars

Metra's potential to perform better under private management is an outgrowth of the idea that it shouldn't have to rely on tax dollars. MetraPark is funded in part through property tax and in the past fiscal year, it's improved its bottom line by $1 million, the most it's ever improved in a single year.

But the facility draws on $2.5 million it collects through property taxes to operate in the black. Jones and Pitman would like Metra's revenue to cover all the county's expenses so that no tax dollars are spent on the facility. They believe privatized management is the best way to make that happen.

It's an admirable goal and if that's what commissioners want Metra management to do, they should give management the chance to do it, said Tim Goodridge, Metra's interim general manager.

Before joining Metra, Goodridge ran the annual downtown Magic City Blues festival.

Ogg, the previous manager in Great Falls, pointed out that the funding created by tax dollars has to come from somewhere. To reduce the tax burden private groups often raise the prices for goods and services when they take over. 

In the end, he said, the county or city that owns the facilities will still expend funds on facility maintenance and equipment replacement and all the other costs associated with owning a venue.

"Don't do this thinking you're going to save money because you will not," he said.

As county leaders have discussed courting private management, they've talked about possibly creating a bonus structure that would reward the company should it perform better financially than what the county would stipulate in its contract. 

Goodridge has wondered what current staff could do performance-wise if commissioners were to offer the same bonus deal to Metra workers that it's preparing to offer the private management groups.

Venue staffing has been another flash point in the debate. Nampa's facility and the arena in Casper are both managed by OVG and both worked to transition the staff employed by their respective municipalities to employment with OVG. 

Brad Murphy, who manages the Fort Wyoming Casper Center, was there when it transitioned from being publicly run to privately managed and said the four full-time employees there at the time were retained by Spectra, the company that took over.

Spectra, which was later bought out by OVG, kept the four employees and then added staff, he said. Murphy still manages the Casper Center and is an employee of OVG. 

The transition will be more complicated at Metra. Workers there are unionized, part of Teamsters Local 190.

The company that ends up negotiating with Yellowstone County to take over management, should commissioners chose to go forward when the proposals are returned in September, will be required to state its intentions regarding the unionized Metra staff.

If reducing or eliminating union labor is part of the applicants' plans, that would likely have a chilling effect on the negotiating process with county leaders, who have stated their desire to protect Metra employees. To adjust, reduce or eliminate union labor involves a complex legal process.

In the end, there's no quick easy answer, according to Ogg and Todd Hunt, the senior executive from Venue Coalition. Privately or publicly managed facilities need strong public input, and the discussions around making the transition need to be transparent and done in public, they said. 

"It depends on each situation and what's the right fit," Hunt said. 

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