This resource library was developed by the Billings Chamber of Commerce to provide accurate and important information so residents may arrive at a position on professional venue management of MetraPark based on fact. It includes the Billings Chamber’s official position along with professional analyses and public feedback indicating deep rooted long standing operational issues which can be resolved by hiring a professional venue management company. We have included the last seven years of MetraPark finances indicating massive taxpayer subsidies that have been steadily increasing. Additionally, a case study of a venue similar to MetraPark is featured to communicate what is possible. It is intended to be updated with additional information when available.

Below you will find:

  • Our Statement
  • Professional analyses by Venue Solutions Group, identifying numerous organizational issues.
  • Public feedback indicates operational challenges, lack of customer service, and culture of ‘No.’
  • Massive taxpayer subsides that continually increase to cover operating losses.
  • Ford Idaho Center Complex – an example facility successfully utilizing a professional management structure.
  • FAQs

Our Statement

The Billings Chamber of Commerce believes that MetraPark is an important public asset for Billings and Yellowstone County.  MetraPark is a catalyst for visitation to our community and generates a significant amount of non-resident dollars to regional businesses. The Chamber supports efficient and effective operations of MetraPark as well as improvements to its facilities to help maximize its full potential. 

The findings of a recent operations audit on MetraPark highlight several areas of concern; including, a lack of industry standard practices, absence of performance reviews, and no documented processes for performing work orders and preventive maintenance. These hinder the ability for MetraPark to meet the rising needs of events in our community and grow our visitor economy. We believe MetraPark will be managed most effectively by a professional venue management company, with arms-length oversight by the County Commissioners, and ownership remaining with the public. This is a proven national model for success that will ensure the facility provides an exceptional quality of place, increases non-resident spending and uses taxpayer dollars wisely. 

We believe this is a necessary first step before County Commissioners consider asking voters to support a multi-million-dollar capital investment with the Vision 2025 Plan. The Billings Chamber of Commerce supports County Commissioners taking the steps necessary to contract with a professional venue management company for MetraPark management.


MetraPark Operations Audit Report

The report was completed in 2022 and authored by Venue Solutions Group, experts in, “venue services, including operations, engineering, security, guest services, sustainability, and administration.” Their portfolio of work includes facilities like the brand new SoFi Stadium, the Chase Center, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and the Town of Cary, NC, to name a few.

KEY INSIGHTS

“Throughout the interview process, a recurring theme was there are few, if any written policies and procedures, including checklists, for MetraPark operations. It was described to us during the interviews that information was ‘between the ears.’” (p. 6)

“Currently there is no documented process for performing work orders and preventive maintenance at MetraPark.” (p. 8)

“Several individuals lamented that they did not receive event information in a timely manner or were directed to check the MetraPark website for upcoming events. That is not a reasonable course of action…” (p. 10)

“We recognize the relationship between MetraPark staff, and the Commissioners could be improved, and absent the implementation of private management, we recommend leadership and conflict resolution training to improve the rapport.” (p. 10)

“Annual performance reviews have not been performed for full-time MetraPark employees which is not consistent with industry ‘best practices.’ Throughout our interviews, a recurring theme was a lack of overall organizational goal setting and setting of employee expectations.” (p. 20) 

“Whether ownership is public or private, privately managed assembly facilities tend to be organized along the lines of dynamic entrepreneurial operations and are less subject to traditionally restrictive government guidelines. Regardless of ownership, privately managed public assembly facilities tend to encounter less resistance to the implementation of competitive business concepts than their publicly managed counterparts. Private management companies tend to be more bottom-line focused, which is often why they are engaged by the facility’s ownership or governing body. Private management companies are merely an agent of the owner; however, they may be better equipped to balance the community’s needs with improved bottom-line financial results. Finally, private management brings with it a body of intellectual property and combined industry resources that can provide advantages over individually operated facilities.” (p. 26, quoted from book, Public Assembly Venue Management

Vision 2025 Public Outreach and Engagement Findings

As part of the MetraPark Vision 2025 Master Plan, the public was asked to offer feedback on MetraPark’s strengths, potential for improvement, and new ideas about the future of MetraPark. The report is largely focused on the physical components of MetraPark, but also notes the public’s concern about management.

METRAPARK STAFF AND MANAGEMENT

“We received repeated feedback from stakeholders related to perceptions of operational challenges at MetraPark. Participants in the process have raised concerns about insufficient staffing (both in overall numbers and specific skill sets) to fully support facilities in place now; a perception that MetraPark staff doesn’t have a customer service and/or problem-solving culture; and noted challenges in collaborating and communicating with staff for a successful event.

“We also heard that there seems to be a culture of ‘No’ at MetraPark and that the staff doesn’t often seem willing to try and fix issues for people renting the spaces. There is also a pervasive perception that there is not enough professionalism and little responsiveness to the needs of event sponsors. There is frustration that MetraPark is overly risk-averse. People are disappointed when they hear about some of the events that Metra passes on.” (pg. 7)

Finances

Contrary to recent headlines, MetraPark does not operate at a profit. The facility’s operational deficit requires a hefty multi-million-dollar subsidy of taxpayer dollars.

Ford Idaho Center Complex

(professional venue management example)

The Ford Idaho Center Complex is located in Nampa, ID, a city of approximately 100,000. The complex consists of an Arena, a Horse Park, and an Amphitheater as the primary venues. In 2015, after a decade of over $1 million operating losses, the City of Nampa contracted with Spectra, now Oak View Group, to manage the facility. In the following years, the professional venue management company reversed the trend of significant public subsidies, while continuing to host legacy events.

2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 Statements

LEGACY EVENTS CONTINUED AFTER NEW PROFESSIONAL MANAGEMENT CONTRACT

One of the objections voiced about professional management is the concern about discontinuing legacy events. Contrary to that concern, the Ford Idaho Center’s Horse Park continues to host almost every event/organization it hosted in 2015, along with adding new events. In addition the Horse Park hosts three different riding groups on a weekly basis, has funding to build new stall barns, and has almost doubled the number of confirmed event days since 2015.

Looking at the events calendars from 2015 and 2022, you can see the vast majority of events continued after a new contract with professional management in 2015, and they added many new events.

Sioux Falls Events Center Complex

Over the last seven years of operations at the Sioux Falls Events Center Complex, professional management has provided an operating profit every year except for 2020 due to Covid impacts. Fortunately, the years of surplus allowed management to cover the loss with a cash balance that was built up.

These figures show the summarized operating position for facilities in Sioux Falls under the same private management contract and include the events center, arena, convention center, ballpark (added to management in 2018), and Orpheum Theater (transferred to a local non-profit in 2019). The city has not needed to subsidize operations of the Events Complex and they’ve been profitable across the various managed buildings, self-funding all operations.  The only year they took a global loss was 2020, which they could absorb with $5M in cash balance built up over the first five years of operations. No tax dollars support operations while their capital expenditures/improvements and major maintenance is funded by sales tax proceeds. 

FAQs

What are the advantages of a professional management company?

  • Increased industry connections provide access to more events
  • Adding events increases revenue and keeps fees low
  • Companies have access to more resources and support for employees
  • Management, marketing, and operations are more entrepreneurial
  • The possibility of companies bringing capital investment to the table

Who would own MetraPark if a professional management company is hired?

To be clear, the public will continue to own MetraPark with oversight from elected officials.

Who else uses professional management for public facilities?

Professional venue management has a track record of success around the country and with bordering states. Our neighbors in the West, IdahoWyoming, and South Dakota, have public facilities managed by professional management companies. Professional management companies like the two that submitted RFQIs to the county (ASM Global and OVG360), boast significant portfolios of work with stadiums, arenas, convention centers, amphitheaters, equestrian centers, and more. 

Will a private corporation take all the profits while taxpayers remain on the hook?

The incentive pay (“profit”) to a professional venue management company will depend on whether or not they meet the key performance indicators and goals identified in a contract agreed upon between the company and the county. If the company cannot meet their contractual goals/KPIs, they don’t make their profit—in some situations they have to pay the facility owner. When private management exceeds their goals, earning their profit, reducing taxpayer subsidies, growing revenues, adding events, and providing exceptional customer service, it’s a win-win for everyone.

Didn’t the media say MetraPark is already profiting?

Unfortunately, those claims overlook the millions of taxpayer subsidy dollars needed to make that math work. As you can see from the history of MetraPark operations (see the spreadsheet and graph above), the facility continually operates at a loss, made whole by millions in taxpayer subsidies.

Will a professional management company replace all our local workers?

No. Professional management companies strive to keep 100% of local employees because they have valuable institutional knowledge. New hires would require significant training/orientation and with businesses facing workforce shortages and hiring challenges around the country, it’s implausible that a professional management company will replace all our local workers.

For one professional management company, the retention rate of existing employees is over 85%. In the case of the Idaho Ford Center in Nampa, ID, they retained 18 of 20 full time employees and all their part time employees.

Will community groups continue to have access to MetraPark?

County Commissioners maintain responsibility for approving booking and scheduling policies, rental rates/fees, and approving budgets. Given their continued oversight of facility policies, County Commissioners are ultimately responsible for ensuring community groups like 4-H continue to enjoy access and utilization of MetraPark.

Will Ag events be minimized?

Frankly, one could argue the status quo at MetraPark, which has led to the demolition of stall barns and the grandstands, is minimizing Ag events. In contrast, a facility in Nampa, ID that contracted with Spectra in 2015 increased their ag events, added infrastructure for the ag community, and hosts local ag groups throughout the week. Have a look for yourself. Here are their booking calendars for their Horse Park in 2015 and in 2022. Not only have they almost doubled the number of different events and organizations booking the facility, groups that utilized the venue previously are booking longer events: 9 days instead of 7 for the Low Roller Reining Classic, for example.

Lastly, PBR and Snake River Stampede, two Ag organizations that operate their events at professionally managed facilities submitted glowing recommendations for their professional management companies.

PBR: “We believe so strongly in the opportunities arising under ASM Global’s management that we would forego our annual analysis and commit to hosting a Premier Level Event at MetraPark in each year of ASM Global’s involvement.”

Snake River Stampede Rodeo: “The Snake River Stampede Rodeo remains a proud partner with the Ford Idaho Center and Spectra…We are proud of the resilience, flexibility, and professionalism of the FIC employees who provided amazing customer service during the 2021 rodeo and the weeks leading up to our event.”

Why were MetraPark grandstands and Ag stall barns torn down?

The former MetraPark Marketing Director commented on the GRANDSTANDS in 2020, “The building is not safe for mass public use.”

February 25, 2020: “Commissioner Ostlund made a MOTION to pursue the demo of the grandstands and allow for asbestos abatement and engage CTA to do an RFP for the demo project, Commissioner Jones seconded…Passed Unanimous.”

The STALL BARNS were also in a state of unsafe disrepair, and after testing found asbestos and lead based paints, the decision was made by commissioners to have the barns removed. Votes to abate asbestos and remove 10 of the barns are below. On both occasions Commissioner Ostlund made the initial MOTION.

December 29, 2020: Commissioner Ostlund made a MOTION to approve the Consent Agenda, which included item 2.A.: “MetraPark Contract with Safetech, Inc. for Barn #9 & Barn #11 Abatement Services.” Commissioner Jones seconded and the vote was unanimous.

March 16, 2021: Commissioner Ostlund made a MOTION to approve the Consent Agenda, which included item 4.E.: “MetraPark Contract with Safetech, Inc. for Abatement of 8 Barns.” Commissioner Pitman seconded and the vote was unanimous.

Is privatization “irreversible”?

No. A quick study of Montana event venues offers the example of Great Falls’ ExpoPark which rejected a contract renewal with professional management in 2009 because county commissioners believed they had learned enough from the company to assume management of ExpoPark.

Additionally, the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Sioux Falls, SD was managed by ASM Global until 2019 when management was turned over to a local non-profit that manages another downtown venue.

Hasn’t the public already spoken on MetraPark because of the recent county commissioner election?

We’ve heard people make that claim, but there’s no evidence to support it. Similarly, one could claim that the country already spoke in favor of ending fossil fuels because of President Biden’s election… Pretty silly, right?

What HAS the public said about MetraPark?

In reality, the public has spoken. As part of the MetraPark Vision 2025 Master Plan, the public was asked to offer feedback on MetraPark’s strengths, potential for improvement, and new ideas about the future of MetraPark. From the MetraPark: Vision 2025 — 50 More Years Public Outreach and Engagement Findings report:

“We received repeated feedback from stakeholders related to perceptions of operational challenges at MetraPark. Participants in the process have raised concerns about insufficient staffing (both in overall numbers and specific skill sets) to fully support facilities in place now; a perception that MetraPark staff doesn’t have a customer service and/or problem-solving culture; and noted challenges in collaborating and communicating with staff for a successful event.

“We also heard that there seems to be a culture of ‘No’ at MetraPark and that the staff doesn’t often seem willing to try and fix issues for people renting the spaces. There is also a pervasive perception that there is not enough professionalism and little responsiveness to the needs of event sponsors. There is frustration that MetraPark is overly risk-averse. People are disappointed when they hear about some of the events that Metra passes on.”

Shouldn’t our unified Republican County Commission be in favor of government efficiency and the most prudent use of tax dollars?

One would think… It’s even in the MT GOP Platform to: “privatize public services when possible.”

Isn’t the $2 million dollar subsidy worth the $150 million in economic impact?

That’s asking the wrong question. In an effort to make MetraPark the best venue it can be, we ask, “Why aren’t we trying to make a $500,000 tax subsidy provide $200+ million in economic impact?”

Better yet, why not improve operations at MetraPark to eliminate the taxpayer subsidy while still providing hundreds of millions in economic impact?

Why is the Chamber concerned about the management of MetraPark?

Through our Aspirational City Visits, leading delegations of Billings leaders to other communities around the country, we’ve become familiar with facilities operated by professional management and their win-win operations for their citizens and governments.

Representing the business community, we believe that the private sector is more efficient, entrepreneurial, and competitive than government. If we want MetraPark to go from good to great, let’s get government out of the way.