After searching far and wide, the city has identified four potential candidates to be the new director of the RP Funding Center.
The role was vacated in May by former Executive Director Tony Camarillo, who stepped away after eight years to become general manager of the Orange County Convention Center. In the interim, Steven Collazo, the fiscal and operations manager, is holding down the fort.
The city advertised the position from May 15 to June 15 and received 83 applications, according to City Manager Shawn Sherrouse. The Human Resources Department whittled the field to 24 qualified applicants, from which Sherrouse and his top deputies selected five finalists. One has since accepted another position, but the city will be interviewing the other four this week.
Sherrouse said one is an internal candidate; the others are from outside the city. But if the hiring committee doesn’t feel any are the right person, they will advertise again. Sherrouse said there is “no specific timeline” to fill the position.
It took eight months to find Camarillo in 2015 and six months to find his predecessor, Mike LaPan, in 2005.
A tough role to fill
Hiring in general has been a challenge for the city. It recently engaged a consultant to do a wage and benefits study to determine, among other things, if higher pay might reverse a recent trend in which 15% of applicants for city jobs have declined written job offers.
But this particular role may be even more challenging to fill than most. The RP Funding Center is unusual in that it has three venues under one roof — an arena, a performing arts center and a convention center — all operating under the same budget. People who have experience with one might not understand the nuances of the others.
“You won’t find too many venues like ours around the country,” Camarillo said before leaving. “We’re very unique in that.”
In addition, the mission of the RP Funding Center has shifted in recent years, with the city no longer willing to assume the risk of booking and promoting events itself. It is also unwilling to subsidize the use of its arena, theater and convention space by charging less than full market rates.
Voters often say they want the government to “run like a business,” and that’s how Mayor Bill Mutz and the rest of the city commissioners have begun approaching the RP Funding Center.
For the past several years, the mayor and commission have directed Sherrouse, who oversees business operations, to cut costs and reduce the RP Funding Center’s operating subsidy.
The subsidy has gone from about $4.1 million in 2020 to an estimated $1.7 million this year, according to Assistant Finance Director Deidra Joseph. Getting there required abandoning some popular-but-unprofitable events like the Broadway series and laying off 15 employees, which hurt morale among the staff.
At a commission meeting in September, Mutz acknowledged the hardship and praised Camarillo.
“I want to compliment you on a good response to the hard request to try and reduce the subsidy,” the mayor said. “Those dollars are dollars that we can then use for the taxpayers for other things.”
Sherrouse said although the departure of the Orlando Magic’s G League basketball team in April was disappointing for some city residents, attendance at games was low and the relationship meant the Jenkins Arena was not available for higher-paying events during the 24 days per year that the team played there.
Similarly, many Lakelanders enjoyed being able to see the Florida Tropics Soccer Club play locally. The Tropics had an active youth program with a soccer academy and summer camp. However, the Major Arena Soccer League team balked when the city proposed doubling its rent for the second year in a row.
The Tropics announced in April that after playing there for seven years, “exorbitant” rent hikes made staying at the RP Funding Center “financially unfeasible.” The franchise was not sure it would be able to find an alternative venue in Florida. The Tropics’ website has been down since June.
What’s popular vs. what’s profitable
Public reaction after the departures of the Magic and the Tropics was swift and harsh. Many social media users accused the city of “running off everything good” and turning the center into an “albatross” or a “white elephant.” More than 1,700 people signed a petition on change.org urging the city to help the Florida Tropics stay at the RP Funding Center.
However, city leaders have been resolute that the center should focus on renting the space to organizations and groups that can pay market rates.
Sherrouse said that in fiscal 2022, the 15-game Tropics season resulted in a net loss of $1,349 per game. After the first rent increase, the 2023 season saw a small profit of $2,535 per game over nine games. But on those weekends when the dasher boards and artificial turf were set up for soccer, there was an “opportunity cost” of other events like cheerleading and dance competitions that could have brought in up to $18,750 per day.
Stephanie Madden said when she first joined the City Commission and saw the budget with almost $5 million for the RP Funding Center, “I couldn’t believe it. I was incredulous. And I thought, does everybody do that? Is that just how it is? So I started to ask what else we subsidize.”
She said there is merit in subsidizing things the community really wants. For instance, the city spends about $1 million to support its two public swimming pools.
“I know people like Broadway series,” she said. “But if we can’t sell enough tickets to pay market rate, then we have to say our community does not like it enough to support this building going forward.”
Madden said one of the commission’s hardest tasks is deciding who should get what. “It becomes a listening tour,” she said. And lately, the thing people are asking for most is pickleball courts.
“How can I in good conscience say, well, we’ll just pour $5 million down the drain a year over here, when they don’t want to go to the Magic game and they don’t want to go to the Tropics game and they don’t care about the Broadway series,” Madden said.
It is also possible for organizations other than the city to help pay for cultural events. Sherrouse said entertainment can be underwritten by sponsorships.
“The upcoming Classic Albums Live series is an example of a sponsored event,” he said. “Our goal is to maximize revenue opportunities at the RP Funding Center, while continuing to provide the Lakeland community with cultural and entertainment options that are not subsidized by our taxpayers.”
‘Bread and butter’ and the path forward
Although there was prestige in having an NBA-affiliated team and Broadway shows in Lakeland, the profit margins were slim in more ways than one.
Mark Zimmerman, senior economic development manager at Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing, said when events are geared toward local residents, spending is typically limited to the ticket, parking, and perhaps concessions.
With events like dance competitions or trade conventions, out-of-town visitors book hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and patronize local businesses.
Zimmerman said a study by Downs & St. Germain Research, conducted in 2019 before the pandemic, found that the economic impact of the RP Funding Center was $88.6 million based on 323,000 visitors, of whom 43% (139,000) were from outside of the county.
By comparison, the Detroit Tigers spring training relationship had an impact of about $55 million in the same time frame.
“Every weekend in January through June we’re having some kind of competition that’s putting heads in beds. But the public doesn’t necessarily understand that piece,” Camarillo said.
In October 2022, the “Paw Patrol Live!” production paid $30,000 to book the Youkey Theater for 18 days of rehearsal. Then it performed a packed show, bringing in another $24,283 in net revenue before embarking on its national tour.
In March, the two-day East Coast Cheer competition yielded net revenue of $35,361 ($17,681 per day).
Camarillo said up to 65% of the center’s events are repeat business like the annual Sewing and Quilt Expo, which draws thousands of visitors to the RP Funding Center. “That’s our bread and butter.”
He said his advice to his successor would be, “Stay the course. It’s a good plan. We have good people selling. We have enough business.”
But it might not be that simple. The city invited several professional venue management companies to visit the RP Funding Center last year. At least two — the Oak View Group and the Anschutz Entertainment Group — toured the facility and met with the staff, but decided not to submit proposals.
Camarillo said it was because they didn’t think they could do a better job of cutting costs than the employees who were already in place.
“The team at the RP Funding Center, they’re the best. They’ve been through the most hardship, I think, of any department in the city. We were the only department that had to have furloughs coming out of the pandemic,” he said.
“And then there was this opportunity for a private management company to come in, which was very unfair to everybody … We didn’t know what our futures would hold,” he said. “But we stepped up. We showed these private companies our wonderful building that we’re very proud of. We did the walkthroughs with them. Very professional. And you know what, I could have told you it wasn’t going to work. But we did what we had to do.”
“My team conducted themselves like real professionals,” Camarillo said. “It’s a great team, so I know they’ll be fine because they’re really good at what they do.”
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