Jon Block • At the Wheel of the Epicenter

An In-depth Interview with the New General Manager of Saginaw’s Dow Event Center & Huntington Event Park

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, News, Local,   From Issue 863   By: Robert E Martin

14th June, 2018     0

Originally built back in 1972, The Dow Event Center is undeniably a pivotal anchor in the evolving landscape of downtown Saginaw development and a magnet for driving commerce. Last year the Center staged 198 events and drew 198,449 patrons to those events and currently operates with a staff of 13 full-time employees and 150 part-time employees.

What makes the Dow unique is its ability to accommodate a broad array of regional community and national events, as it consists of several unique parts: Wendler Arena has a capacity of 7,600 people for concerts and is also home to The Saginaw Spirit hockey team, which can accommodate 5,500 people with the ice for hockey games; the Theatre can handle 2,276 people; while the Atrium and The Garden Room are designed for accommodating weddings and smaller gatherings, and the latest addition - The Red Room – is perfect for smaller concerts targeting between 500 and 1000 people. Meanwhile, the new Huntington Event Park that opened in 2013 is a top-notch outdoor venue capable of accommodating 5500 bodies.

For a time in the 1990s, the facility nearly faced foreclosure and bankruptcy due to lack of funds provided by the city.  County ownership took place after the original owner, Saginaw City Hall, no longer could afford to pay an operating subsidy that had reached nearly $800,000 per year. But a successful millage campaign enabled voters to transfer ownership from the City of Saginaw to Saginaw County on May 8, 2001 and it underwent a series of renovations in the early 2000s that were tagged at $14 million and completed in 2003.

In 2010 voters approved another 0.225 mill 10-year operating renewal at half the original 0.45 mill used for the renovation in 2000 to save the former Saginaw Civic Center. Proponents of the original tax also felt the Civic Center’s budget would be streamlined by professionals from Philadelphia-based SMG Management. Today, the operations gap tax subsidy is approximately $865,000 under SMG, even with Dow Chemical Co. sponsorship of $250,000 for renaming of The Dow Event Center and efficiencies implemented by SMG.  This is not unique insofar as civic centers in numerous communities across the nation also require tax support, especially with utility costs alone averaging around $400,000 per year.

After former General Manger Matt Blasy accepted a promotion with SMG earlier this year, Jon Block was appointed as the new G.M at The Dow and assumed the reins a few months ago.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Block for an in-depth interview to garner his own perspective and vision about the opportunities and challenges that await as this world-class facility is poised to embark upon the new renaissance that the Downtown Business district is cultivating.

Review: Congratulations on your new role as Director at the Dow Event Center, Jon.  I know you’re not a stranger to Saginaw and are familiar with its possibilities, but why don’t we start with your own background and how you became involved with concert promotion and venue management.

Jon Block: I grew up on a farm in Frankenmuth, graduated from Frankenmuth High School and moved to Columbus, Ohio for two years, doing community service with the Americorp program. Upon returning home I went to school at Delta College and Northwood and got my marketing management degree, with an eye towards becoming part of an Advertising Agency. After doing that for six months I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me because my expectations differed from the reality, but I did have the good fortune to work in a marketing capacity at the Birch Run Expo Center.

This introduced me to promoters from Flint and different areas and around that time the Shaheen family was renovating the Temple Theatre. I reached out to Pete Shaheen, who got me on-board; and from there got my feet wet booking shows along with Dietrich Bronner and Stasi Schaeffer. From there I got into operations, box office, and management of the overall facility and did that from 2004 to 2011. 

By 2011, I was looking for something new to refresh myself, so left the Temple and partnered up with a promoter on the west side of the state. We booked the Bob & Tom Comedy Tour from California to South Carolina, along with Paula Poundstone, 1964 The Beatles Tribute and some other attractions throughout the Midwest.  

After doing that for a stretch, I was looking for stability because concert promotion is a lot like legalized gambling – you can mitigate the risk, but it’s still a risk. I had known Matt Blasy and he pulled me on board here at The Dow as event manager about two years ago, which is how I got here.  It’s been a long and winding road, but the opportunity arose and here I am.

Review: What do you feel is the biggest challenge involved with the Dow from an operational standpoint?

Jon Block:  The facilities are great here and they offer a lot of flexibility that few venues feature, which I feel is our biggest draw. The Midland Center for the Arts has a theatre or a Banquet area, but here we have a lot of different possibilities with four main spaces.  To my mind the biggest challenge is still with the redevelopment happening downtown and convincing people that Downtown is a great place to be. With The Dow, The Temple, and now The Bancroft & Bourbon & Co., Jazz Clubs and the new Farmers Marketplace opening, Downtown is a great place for entertainment because the variety of venues offers a broad mix that is drawing people back downtown from all over the region and beyond.

Review: Back in the 1970s through the 2000s, the Dow featured many sold-out concerts ranging from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder; and in 2011 I believe Katy Perry became the fastest sell-out artist ever featured.  Because the engagement of SMG affords more bargaining power with promoters and nationally touring artists, theoretically it’s supposed to open more doors for securing bigger shows.  But this year the Huntington Event Park schedule is mostly focused on local and regional events like the Saginaw Eddy Band, with a conspicuous absence of major national touring acts.  Why is that?

Jon Block: Because we are taxpayer funded and don’t assume risk to put on shows, we have to work with promoters to get this done. The Huntington Event Park has enjoyed similar attendance to what we’ve had in the past when we’ve featured national touring shows through here, largely because of local events that engage the community like the Rock the Block Rib Fest and Cinco De Mayo, which drew 3,200 people to the Park.

Through SMG we have relationships with numerous promoters and agencies that sell the touring shows and I’m interested in building on those relationships and not assuming risk on those shows. Because the cost of artists is going up, the big shows we’ve featured in the past like Chicago and The Beach Boys have been attended; but need to be attended by more people. We’ve got to engage our community more.

As I say, shows such as Godsmack drew 3900 people and Rob Zombie close to 3000; but many of the big touring shows don’t see those numbers and the reality is we have many community events that draw better attendance. Promoters aren’t in business to lose money or simply break even, so many of these big box artists need more incentive to come in and perform.

I have a plan in place that will reintroduce concerts at Huntington Event Park later this year or next year and am always looking at new ideas; but we do have a plan in place that will kick in next year for certain to reintroduce touring concerts into the Park, even though this isn’t what our mission statement is targeted towards.  The Event Park is based upon being a community facility to accommodate and service local and regional groups and events. The national touring shows are a bonus. But overall our goal is to serve as a place for the community to stage events and festivals and bring people downtown, which is what we’ve been doing.  The touring concerts are frosting on the cake. People should not get the impression that things are not working, because they are working great according to all our projections – we just need to do a better job of engaging the community.

The park is now in its sixth year of existence and growing a little every year. The national touring shows get the big headlines; but are not the bread-and-butter of the Park.

Review: How has the budget changed at the Dow?  Does it still cost around $700,000 per year to maintain it and are utility costs still eating up a lion’s share of the budget?

Jon Block: Actually, we just did a full LED energy efficient lighting replacement in the arena which have held our utility costs steady, even with utility rates increasing.  It’s remained pretty balanced from my knowledge of this and the balance sheet remains similar to previous years.

The Broadway Series still draws people from well beyond the Great Lakes Bay Region and the Monster Trucks event blew up this year, drawing people from the Thumb and Northern Michigan. Given declines in county population, drawing people from outside the region is important and we need to create a synergy to keep people down here for entertainment and dining purposes.

I’m optimistic about the resurgence in Downtown Saginaw. I lived downtown since 2006 in the old Aubrey Cleaners building until last year and from a resident’s point-of-view, it’s like night and day between what downtown was like ten years ago and what it’s like now.

Review:  So, what are your immediate goals as the new Director at the Dow?

Jon Block: Well, Matt Blasy left in January and in February and March I was interim GM and those were the busiest months of the year to date. April and May were also busy months and my goal is to continue to serve the people who lease this building and put on events. I want to really maximize what we have.  Matt did a great job adding amenities to the facility and transitioning things, so my goal is to optimize what we can offer here. We’ve becoming more open to potential call-ins and catering for business meetings, celebrations, and wedding events. We’ve also just secured a new Catering Manager that has been doing an excellent job.

My job is to mitigate risk and manage the facility properly and bring in as many engaging events as possible. We’re working at generating more business in all of our areas of operation.

Coming from a small farm in Frankenmuth, Michigan as a kid to attend ice shows and all sorts of events, I feel that now I’ve really come full circle. I enjoy seeing people from the outskirts of the region coming into downtown Saginaw and enjoying themselves. I’m pleased to be here and excited about what SMG and the County can do with these facilities over the next couple of years.

For a complete listing of events happening at the Dow Event Center & Huntington Event Park please go to doweventcetner.com and check out the Review Online at www.review-mag.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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