The City Council’s decision to delay voting on the management of the Saenger Theater for a second time seems to be based on concerns some have over the past performance of one of the proposed company’s management at another city-owned site.
SMG, which manages the Mobile Civic Center, is receiving criticism from civic leaders about its booking of the center, but the company says it only manages the building and doesn’t bring in the performers.
The proposed agreement between SMG and the city would have the global company taking care of the managerial concerns of the building while Huka Entertainment, the company behind the Hangout Festival, will do the booking. Sam Voisin, SMG Regional General Manager, said it is a perfect partnership among the three groups. However, some downtown stakeholders are skeptical of the contract and others question why the city doesn’t continue to manage and simply enter into an agreement with a concert production company.
In an email forwarded to Lagniappe, Centre for the Living Arts Board Chairman Mike Rogers, who spoke on behalf of himself and not the CLA, cited SMG’s management of the Mobile Civic Center as reason for the city to be cautious entering in a new agreement with the company.
The CLA managed the Saenger until March when it turned the theater back over to the city. The CLA was criticized by many downtown business owners for having too few performances or performances that didn’t do as well as others in recent years.
Carol Hunter, Downtown Mobile Alliance Director of Communications, said she was at first hestitant to support SMG managing the theater, but after speaking with representatives from the company and Huka, is feeling somewhat better about it.
“For now, my concerns have been addressed,” she said. “I have the assurance of SMG that the Saenger will not be managed like the civic center. I say my concerns are addressed for now because talk is cheap. However, the SMG representatives assured me they understand the importance of the Saenger to the community and we are not ones to sit by and let the theater be in the dark.”
The proposed agreement would allow for something that hasn’t happened for the city in quite some time — the contract would performance-based and no money would come from the city.
If approved by the City Council, the agreement would begin on Oct. 1 and go through Sept. 30, 2016. The city could also extend the terms for up to three additional one-year periods.
SMG would be paid by receiving 50 percent of the first $200,000 of the net operating profit and then 25 percent of the net operating profit above $200,000. Huka’s contract, which is would be with SMG and not the city, would give them a percentage of the profit for each show they produce.
The city would still be responsible for capital equipment and improvements to the theatre. However, SMG is responsible for routine maintenance. Voisin said it’s a good deal for the city.
“In essence, the city won’t have to pay SMG anything if we don’t improve the bottom line,” he said. “It’s an incentive for SMG and Huka to do better and it’s a benefit for the city.”
The bottom line is something Hunter said needed to be carefully looked at. She said even simple things like checking the theater’s power usage could save money. Since the city took over the Saenger from the CLA, current manager Greg Cyprian said he had Alabama Power pull data about the theater and see how and where savings on utilities could be made. Since then, Cyprian said there has been a reduction in utility cost, but couldn’t say how much.
Hunter said this is significant because the $200,000 benchmark is based on the average amount of money the city gave the CLA during its tenure.
“It might not be easy, but a more maybe accurate benchmark could be found by going back and looking at operating expenses for the past few years,” she said. “The average operating expense might be better.”
Hunter spoke with several people with interests in downtown and she said time and again those people would ask if the city wouldn’t be better managing the theater and then entering into a booking contract with Huka Entertainment.
“There are a lot of stakeholders that are not comfortable working with SMG as they would be working with the city,” she said. “People have asked if the city could manage the Saenger. If the city had partnered with some business like Huka, then it could work with the city managing.”
The man in charge of managing the Saenger now — Cyprian — explained exactly what his role is at the theater.
“The manager does a lot of things. He’s responsible for booking the facility, charting the direction of the facility, determining how to use man power, negotiating contracts with renters and also speaking to potential renters to make sure the event fits the theater,” he said.
Cyprian explained a knowledgeable local manager can offer advice on booking that might otherwise lead to a failure.
“For instance, we just had someone wanting to rent the facility on the Monday before Mardi Gras,” he said. “We explained that the Monday before Mardi Gras is not a good time because of the draw to another event and the few patrons of the event would not be able to get to the theater.”
The manager of the Saenger can’t be just about making a profit, Cyprian said. A manager should concentrate on the community and getting recurring acts based on working on what’s best for the city and performers.
When asked if he felt the city could manage the Saenger, Cyprian said he couldn’t directly comment on the matter. He did say there was more than one thing to look at when deciding about the Saenger’s management.
“I would not disagree with that theory (of the city managing the Saenger),” he said. “There is more than one way to book a building. All you really need is the experience to do so. It could be with SMG, who is worldwide and does that in a number of places, or it could be the city who has been doing that already and knows the community.”
The council cultural committee will meet Sept. 8 at 11 a.m. on the ninth floor of Government Plaza to talk about the Saenger’s management future. The issue is expected to be voted on the following day during the council meeting. The vote has already been held over two weeks.
The delay on approving a management company for the Saenger could have been avoided, Hunter said, if the city would have clued in people in downtown when the bid process was going on.
“I believe this got messy because the stakeholders were not involved in the decision making process at all,” she said. “I think if they would have been brought in, then a lot of this wouldn’t have happened because they would have been informed from the beginning.”
Even though there has been a delay, A.J. Niland, with Huka Entertainment, said in hopes of the council’s support, Huka already has several artists they are trying to book in the Saenger.
“I can’t make any announcements now,” he said. “Everything has to be approved first.”