Lakeland’s RP Funding Center has a new director. City Manager Shawn Sherrouse announced at Monday’s City Commission meeting that he has hired Cindy Collins, effective immediately.
Collins, 64, was most recently general manager of the Mountain Health Arena in Huntington, W. Va. Before that, she was general manager of the East Kentucky Expo Center and served for about 15 years as the director of the Paramount Arts Center in Kentucky.
“Cindy is an individual who has, in this industry, advanced from the very beginning to where she is now, having served initially as someone who worked in a box office and then professionally advanced throughout her 25-year career to general manager,” Sherrouse said.
The RP Funding Center is a multi-purpose entertainment complex featuring the 8,000-seat Jenkins Arena, 2,200-seat Youkey Theatre and 100,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space. According to city officials, the facility is home to more than 400 annual events, ranging from nationally renowned artists, family shows, athletic events, trade shows, conventions, weddings and ride-and-drive showcases, all of which bring more than 500,000 visitors each year.
Built in the early 1970s, it used to draw top-name performers, everyone from Elvis Presley to U2.
Like the RP Funding Center, Collins described the Mountain Health Arena in Huntington as a tertiary venue, one that can’t draw huge entertainers like surrounding larger cities and arenas, but one that can provide quality entertainment at a reasonable price.
“We had to find our niche and I think that’s what you’re talking about doing,” Collins told the City Commission during her first hour on the job. “I’m learning Lakeland and I don’t want to go in and make any changes without talking to the staff, seeing where we are, talking to you as the stakeholders and finding out what your vision is. And I think once I have a little bit of time to do that, I’ll be able to come to you with some really great ideas.”
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.
Collins said Lakeland’s 8,000-seat arena is actually a better venue to see performers because audience members aren’t as far away from the stage as they are in giant venues like the Amalie Arena in Tampa or the Amway Center in Orlando.
“I went to see Elton John a few months ago and it was like seeing him on a television screen,” she said. “You’re way far back in a 50,000-seat arena, you’re watching it on a monitor or the sound is not good. You have a unique position that you’re in, where you have a nice size. You can go there and they’re not going to feel like you’re watching whoever you’re watching from a baseball field. So, there’s something to be said about a venue the size that you have.”
The RP Funding Center has been struggling financially in recent years, mainly due to COVID-19 and the mayor and city commissioners’ push to trim the center’s operational costs. In 2020, the RP Funding Center’s subsidy from the city was $4.4 million to operate the center.
Former center Director Tony Camarillo said last year he was working to get the city’s subsidy under $3 million by, among other things, increasing event rates by 5%, leaving vacant positions unfilled, and staff restructuring. He said the latter was saving the city $650,000. Those measures dramatically increased the subsidy.
But at a retreat in March 2022, Mutz assigned Camarillo the task of cutting another $800,000 from the $1.8 million subsidy the RP Funding Center projected it would request from the city the following year.
The center lost $2 million in revenue when it had to be shut down for COVID-19, due to event cancellations or postponed events. In addition, there has been a decline in the center’s yearly snowbird visitors, who used to attend shows in large numbers. Camarillo said the Broadway series of shows had 1,000 subscribers before COVID. But that number was cut in half in 2022 and the series was subsequently canceled entirely.
In April, the Lakeland Magic announced it was not renewing its contract and was leaving town at the end of June after a substantial rate hike was proposed. The Orlando Magic, the owner of the G League franchise, moved the team to Kissimmee where it was rebranded the Osceola Magic.
Ten days later, the indoor soccer team the Florida Tropics also announced the team’s departure, also citing an ‘exorbitant’ rent hike.
“I can’t speak for other renters, but last year our rent was approximately doubled from the 2021-22 season, which was tough to swallow. In recent conversations, they are proposing to approximately double that again for next year, which is completely unrealistic,” team CEO Dr. Panos Iakovidis said in a news release.
Collins believes she might have been able to cushion some of the financial stress. She told LkldNow that in Huntington, she applied for a “shuttered venue operators’ grant” from the U.S. Small Business Administration and garnered her center more than $6 million. She didn’t have to lay off anyone. The SBA website said that grant is no longer available.
Officials confirmed that Lakeland did not apply for that particular grant.
Camarillo left in May after eight years to become general manager of the Orange County Convention Center. The center’s fiscal and operation manager Steven Collazo served as interim director until Collins was hired.
Collins, who is staying at an Airbnb in the Lake Morton Historic District, said she has been getting to know her new city by walking around town. She is near the Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland Public Library and Black & Brew. And she has already discovered The Patio, Harry’s Bar & Grill and Nineteen61.
“It’s amazing — there’s just something for everyone,” Collins said. “The historical district steeped in history and just the architecture. It’s gorgeous … I’m very impressed. I love the fact that the city is clean and everywhere I go, all the technology is updated.”
The city advertised the position from May 15 to June 15 and received 83 applications, according to Sherrouse. The Human Resources Department whittled the field to 24 qualified applicants, from which Sherrouse and his top deputies selected five finalists. One accepted another position, but the city interviewed the other four in July.
Sherrouse said one was an internal candidate; the others were from outside the city.
Collins has an annual base salary of $141,037.
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