RP Funding Center Faces Budget Challenges as New Season Opens

The RP Funding Center opens its 2022-23 entertainment season this month as Lakeland city commissioners decide on an annual budget that would lower operational costs and prompt programming changes that are hoped to attract new audiences. 

Now approaching its 50-year mark, the city’s entertainment complex (originally the Lakeland Civic Center, later the Lakeland Center) prepares to kick off a full season of Broadway musicals, Classic Albums Live performances, comedy shows and large competitive events. 

The shows and concerts, already accounted for in the city’s 2022-23 budget, are expected to face a leaner lineup in coming years as the mayor and city commissioners push to trim the center’s operational costs for the multi-use center with its 2,200-seat Youkey Theater, the 8,000-plus-seat Jenkins Arena and exhibit rooms.

RP Funding Center Director Tony Camarillo said he has concern for his employees and their jobs as commissioners prepare to vote on a budget for the center that anticipates changes are coming to the way shows are produced. The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the city’s 2022-23 budget during a public hearing Thursday night at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Camarillo updates commissioners on RP Funding events at a recent City Commission meeting.

For many years the center’s entertainment season was based, in part, on the RP Funding Center staff producing and promoting shows such as the Broadway series.

“From now on we need to focus on events that make money,” Camarillo said. “We can’t afford to produce our own shows anymore.”

The focus will be on renting out the facilities and allowing performers and production companies to shoulder the risk.

“Turning the center into primarily a rental operation is a goal to help meet a reduced budget,” Camarillo said. “The success rests on performers who would rent the facility, then stage and produce [their shows] rather than the center contracting [production] labor.”

Changes in funding will affect people on the 45-member staff whose jobs are mostly associated with promoted events, he said.

Two upcoming comedy shows represent the type of events the center is capable of handling, Camarillo said. 

Jo Koy (Nov. 3) is a rental,” he said. “We paid and are promoting Tom Segura (Nov. 23), which is currently sold out.” Both comedians are scheduled for appearances in the Youkey Theater.

A few months ago, the city considered hiring an independent contractor to manage day-to-day operations at the center complex. After putting out a request for a proposal, Mutz said, there were no takers. 

Although the City Manager’s Office projected the city’s subsidy to operate the center for 2022 to be about $3 million, Camarillo said it will total under $3 million with his cost cutting-measures. To reach his projected budget and realize savings, he said he is able to do a number of things, including not hiring for vacant and unfilled positions as well as staff restructuring. 

“Staff restructuring savings was $650,000,” he said. “I increased event rates by 5 percent.”

A key component in future event planning, Camarillo said, is utilization of space.

 “If it’s being utilized and people are here, then we can still get to the number,”  he said. Other ideas could be more stringent, he said, “… and might involve more strategic change, more conventions and sports teams use.” 

Tne RP Funding Center

With continued expense cuts, Camarillo said he could bring figures below a subsidy of  $2 million by 2027. 

Mayor Bill Mutz, however, said he favors a financial plan to get to a lower subsidy sooner, down to $1.5 or $1 million.

“It’s a tough challenge but I can do it,” Camarillo said, “But not until after March when the season already planned has ended.”

Mutz said he would work with Camarillo. “A 6-month time limit is absolutely allowable,” Mutz said. “It will take that long to get out of what’s [already] scheduled. We just want to see a trend line.”

Camarillo said COVID-19 had an effect on the center’s revenue. “The center had a loss of revenue of $2 million during the shutdown, mainly due to event cancellations or postponed events,” he said.

Another factor affecting ticket sales at the center, he said, has been a decline in its yearly snowbird visitors who used to attend shows in large numbers.

“Broadway was 1,000 subscribers; now it’s less than 500,” Camarillo said. “Up to now the center has had to bring Broadway here and what we make satisfies the payment,” he said.

Mutz said he doesn’t quite see the Broadway series as break-even events.  “But attracting different audiences is a positive goal,” he said. “We’ll have to have a different wrinkle and a different way of attracting different people,” he said. “How do we start to pull in and pick up different groups of people into the center … to attract more often?” he said. “Getting millennials is more difficult.”

Considering the city’s priorities for the arts, Mutz said the commission wants the budget to include more emphasis on the Mayor’s Council of the Arts, more art presence and art-centric work downtown, more statues and more affordable housing.

Meanwhile the curtain must go up for the center’s shows and events. The Broadway series is still in the budget, at least until March 2023, with four musical theater shows in the Youkey Theater: “My Fair Lady,” Dec. 16; “Legally Blonde,” Jan. 8; “Fiddler on the Roof,” Feb. 13; and “On Your Feet!” March 16.

Classic Albums Live bands also return to the Youkey Theater, starting with U2’s “The Joshua Tree” Sept. 22 and then Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” on Oct. 23. Other tribute shows include A Tribute to the Bee Gees, Jan. 6, 2023; The Fab Four – The Ultimate Beatles, Jan. 24, 2023. A Motown with a Twist concert is scheduled March 7, 2023.

Events in the Jenkins Arena open with Challenge Bull Riding, Sept 23-24. Another competitive event, Vanguard Fitness Competition, is set for Oct 28-30. The center is producing two show times of a rescheduled event, “Paw Patrol – The Great Pirate Adventure” on Oct. 19. The Florida Elite Cheer Competition is a return event on Oct. 22 this year that will be held in the Jenkins Arena.

To kick off the Christmas season, the Cirque Dreams Holidaze performs November 19.  Another holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, is set for November 27, followed by Ballet Magnificat December 6. 

In addition to stage shows, the center staff will be busy setting up a variety of fall conventions and expo exhibits, including It’s a Deaf Thing Deaf Expo Oct. 1, and the Let’s Celebrate Expo wedding-themed event. The Solemn Church Assembly has space booked Sept. 27-29.

The funding center employees also prepare convention or exhibit hall space for different groups depending on the size. The Buckler Arts & Crafts Fair Sept. 24. and the Keepsakes Scrapbook Convention Nov. 11-12 will rent space in Sikes Hall. A local organization, The Polk Education Foundation, will utilize exhibit space for its Stepping Out for Education competition fundraiser.

Due to the high foot traffic in the large ticket areas and exhibit rooms, Camarillo said the buildings will require upkeep for ”roof replacement, HVAC system and other ongoing maintenance that costs approximately $400,000.”

Camarillo said he’s encouraged that Mark Jackson, director of Central Florida’s Tourism and Sports Marketing, will help pay half of the renovation cost and “work with us to promote events.”

For now, Camarillo said he and his staff will continue to bring events to the community. He and his employees have a plan to follow for eliminating promoted events after March 2023. He said he sees a way to keep his talent on the payroll or hopefully under contract.

“Once March comes, if a promoter wants to bring us an event like Seinfeld we’ll do that,” he said.

“Seinfeld is one example of an act that rented the venue for the show, taking the monetary risks and rewards,” he said. “Jay Leno, we had to pay for him.” Comedian Jerry Seinfeld performed at the center in 2018. 

Camarillo said his 20-plus years of convention work in Chicago prepared him for the rigors of running operations for the center’s complex programs that go beyond stage events.

 “If it’s [space] being utilized and people are here then we can still get to the number,”  he said. Other ideas could be more stringent, he said “and might involve more strategic change, more conventions and sports teams use.” 

The center’s two sports teams, the Lakeland Magic and the Florida Tropics, have been in the process of negotiating new deals. The Magic has signed a one-year contract.  

“The Tropics bring in a larger audience per game,” he said. “We’ll continue to utilize the 8,500-seat arena. They see this as an effective venue.”

The Tropics also get the benefit of using inside signage rights with a commitment of 12 games per year. As of this date Camarillo said the city expects the Tropics to sign their contract and confirm dates very soon.  Discussions for naming rights are still ongoing, he said.

Mutz said the city’s requirements aren’t disruptive to things the teams want to do. “Our goal is to get plans in place for the next six months and see momentum,” he said.

Camarillo said he views the center’s shows and events as an important part of benefitting the Lakeland community.

“More conventions and sports team use also benefits restaurants” he said. “We create around $35 to $60 million worth of business.”

Camarillo said he sees keeping top entertainment at the center as more than revenue. “We could lose the color and touch of the arts,” he said.