City, management take Ames Center loss in stride

Entertainment venues, including Burnsville's Ames Center, have suffered losses during the pandemic.

Return to 250 capacity brings optimism 

A return to red ink isn’t considered a disappointment for Burnsville’s Ames Center, the city-owned performing arts venue that ran operating losses for most of its 11 years before turning profitable in 2017.

After a record profit of $105,953 in 2019, COVID-19 dealt the venue a pair of closures and capacity restrictions that cut deeply into its 2020 event schedule.

But last year’s $227,949 operating loss is less than predicted, and a Feb. 13 state order raising crowd limits at entertainment venues from 150 to 250 has management and city officials feeling optimistic.

The goal is “not just surviving, it’s thriving, and we’re poised for that,” said Ames Center Executive Director Brian Luther of VenuWorks, the firm contracted to run the center.

He reported last year’s results and this year’s plans to the City Council on Tuesday.

The center was closed by executive order from March 13 to July 1, when it reopened under state guidelines allowing 25% capacity crowds of no more than 250 in its 1,014-seat main theater.

In mid-November the center was hit with a new state closure as COVID-19 cases spiked. Venues were allowed to reopen Jan. 12 with crowds capped at 150.

The 2020 loss was less than the $243,000 Luther projected in late October, before the November closure. June projections ranged from $244,000 to $362,000, depending on the length of the original closure.

Revenue totaled $895,714, compared with $2.5 million forecast in the 2020 budget. Expenses also plummeted, from a budgeted $2.45 million to $1.12 million. Five of eight staff members were furloughed.

Luther said he’s still predicting a 2021 operating loss of $147,000, but the return to a 250 capacity is “great news” that will boost the center’s ability to draw ticketed events.

“That really helps us out,” Luther said, adding that he hopes future orders from Gov. Tim Walz allow even bigger crowds.

“We know we can operate safely,” he said.

As of Feb. 15, 13 events have been held or booked in the first quarter of 2021. Five are dance competitions.

“We are in full swing with dance competitions,” Luther said.

His first-quarter forecast projects revenue of $334,097 and an operating profit of $100,408. That outsized number is skewed by the first-quarter arrival of sponsorship fees. The center’s biggest sponsors are Ames Construction and Masquerade Dance, which hold naming rights.

Luther hopes to land a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The program is funded through the federal Save Our Stages Act, which was part of the December round of COVID-19 relief funding.

Luther said it’s still unknown how much the center will be eligible to receive. It has received a $5,000 Small Business Relief Grant from Dakota County.

Council Member Dan Kealey, the council’s liaison to the Ames Center, praised Luther’s management before and during the pandemic.

Losses the size of last year’s and larger used to be routine, Kealey said.

“You’ve already done a fantastic job of maximizing that revenue and bringing an operational profit to an entity that wasn’t expected to have one at all, really,” he said. “In the initial model, it was probably not even fathomed that we would ever even make money.”

Luther thanked Mayor Elizabeth Kautz and council members for pressing state officials to raise capacity limits at venues.

“We’ll get back to those days,” Kealey said, “when we can have a packed house with some great concerts and many other types of plays and performances.”

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