Long: Events can improve fortunes at Erie Street MarketWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
The city’s new event consultant believes she can staunch the flow of taxpayer dollars into Downtown’s Erie Street Market.
Kris Berger Long, who has worked in event planning for more than 20 years, follows a string of city-hired consultants and private sector managers who have leased the Downtown space from the city.
“There’s never been a focus on the events side and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Long said.
Although increasing events revenue will not solve the city’s financial issues with the facility, Long is confident she can help reduce losses by concentrating on booking profitable events in spaces that would otherwise sit empty.
The University of Toledo alum, who owns a marketing and event planning company, spends between 20 and 25 hours per week booking events and promoting the Erie Street Market for the city.
Long said Mayor Mike Bell — concerned the Downtown facility was “just existing, not flourishing” — approached her in the fall.
“They wanted me to come in and give them my opinion of what could be done with this space,” said Long, who was paid a consulting services fee for September through December totaling $9,375, according to city pay records. “I said it’s a phenomenal space — it just needs a new identity and a new brand.”
Bell reviewed Long’s recommendations and asked her to implement them in the first quarter of 2011.
Long started by renaming the two event spaces: What was known as the Civic Center Promenade is now called The Fountain Room and the Civic Center Auditorium is now the Toledo Concert Hall.
She then developed a website, printed brochures and started carrying a city cell phone to field booking inquiries to increase accessibility to the venue.
“I don’t have a lot of information [about the past] other than if someone wanted to book an event here it was very hard to track down someone to place the booking,” Long said.
The changes seem to be working, Long said. Since Thanksgiving, she has secured 69 events for 2011 and six for 2012.
“I can’t imagine that we would ever lose money on an event because we’ve got our expenses paid before the doors open and then with each event we know there’s additional potential, whether it be the bar or other services we provide,” Long said. “My monthly fee is paid for well in excess just with bookings.”
The new arrangement, which has paid Long $2,500 per month since January, was brought before City Council at its April 26 meeting and approved by a 10-2 vote at its May 3 meeting. Long also gets 10 percent of revenue from the bookings, not to exceed $35,000 per year. Council approved the arrangement for a one-year term along with a one-year extension, meaning Long will hold the position through 2012.
The competitive bid process was waived and an emergency declared during the May 3 meeting. Long said the emergency status was pursued because members of Council had publicly stated the building was going to be mothballed, which prompted concerned phone calls from clients.
Building the venue value of the Erie Street Market is important if the city hopes to find a buyer in the future, Long said.
“If someone were to come in and purchase it, at least in January they weren’t purchasing anything of extended value,” Long said. “Now we can show any potential purchaser, any potential leaseholder that we have a plan … Should someone look to purchase and maintain the leases of Libbey and the antiques and the events side, that’s a much better product that would be out in the marketplace than what was six, eight months ago.”
Councilmen D. Michael Collins and Tom Waniewski cast the dissenting votes, though both said they have no issue with Long personally or the quality of her work.
Collins said Bell should have notified City Council sooner of the business relationship and terms and conditions of the contract.
“My concern is that the city has engaged her as a consultant for Erie Street Market since January 2011 and they now come forward in May asking us to bless a business relationship that’s been ongoing for four months with no knowledge of Council and that has expended more than $10,000 dollars, which is outside the scope and ability of the administration to do,” Collins said. “This is just a continuing saga of trying to hide reality and transparency as it relates to the Erie Street Market. This is a continuum of what Carty Finkbeiner did with the Erie Street Market. It’s the same pattern and I find it patently offensive.”
Toledo’s city charter allows a mayor to make contract decisions up to $10,000 per purchase or contract before notifying City Council — an amount Long said had not been reached before bringing the matter before Council.
Waiting also allowed time to prove the arrangement worked, Long said.
“I don’t know why we would go to Council and say we’re going to do this, but we have nothing to prove,” Long said. “If I would have gone to the mayor and said, ‘Look, the phones aren’t ringing, we’ve got no interest,’ then he would have said ‘I don’t think we’re going to go to Council, we have no reason, I don’t think we’re going to do this.’ But the proof is really there. People are very excited.”
Collins said the Erie Street Market has been a burden on taxpayers for years, with recent administrations trying unsuccessfully to make it sustainable.
“Thus far, all attempts have met with failure and it is my position that the City of Toledo has no business engaging in the hospitality industry,” Collins said. “We’ve proven our incompetence time and time again.”
Long, however, said the job was not done efficiently or to its full potential in the past.
“My question to Mr. Collins would be, ‘What events were the focus in the past? Was this really only just a place for city meetings, departmental meetings, not-for-profit events?’” Long said. “I know from phone calls I’m getting people were allowed to have their events here at no charge. There were not a lot of cost checks and balances.”
Waniewski also objects to the city being in the hall rental business.
“There are plenty of businesses who rent halls for parties and weddings,” Waniewski wrote in an email. “I am philosophically opposed to the city subsidizing, with taxpayer money, a business that competes with the private sector.”
Long countered that the venue expands job opportunities for local businesses, since all event needs are contracted out, including catering, bartenders and security.
“From the position of being in business and competing with businesses, I respectfully disagree only to the point that we are providing income for a number of people … so we’ve actually increased I think support to the community in a great way,” said Long, who also noted she has no qualms referring clients to another local business if their date is full or she knows another location would be more suitable to their needs.
Waniewski also said money spent on the upkeep for Erie Street Market, including utility bills, could be better spent on basic services for all residents, not just those who frequent the market.
Libbey Glass: $116,000 per year
According to numbers provided by the mayor’s office on May 12, the city’s 2010 operational expenses for the Market were $359,778, with $256,695 going to utilities. Libbey Glass paid $116,523 in rent in 2010.
The city must honor a lease obligation with Libbey Glass that lasts through 2012.
“The building is designed so you can’t just turn off the lights and heat in three-quarters of the building and still maintain services for Libbey,” Long said. “So if the building has an obligation to stay open, why wouldn’t we maximize all potential revenue we can?”
Long said interest she’s witnessed in the Erie Street Market has demonstrated there is a demand and need the venue can fill.
“We need a Downtown facility that is run right, provides great service, great hospitality and can make money,” Long said “That’s why The Blarney Bullpen was created, that’s why the Huntington Center was built, that’s why Fifth Third Field was built, that’s why Admiral’s Grille was opened at the former Navy Bistro. People need to have places to have events or we wouldn’t have 69 events booked.”
For more information, visit www.esmtoledo.org.