VenuWorks staff feeling the effects of tough times at Stephens Auditorium

Stephens Auditorium seats sit empty with no large scale events being held due to COVID-19.

In 2015, VenuWorks, a private venue management service, signed a five-year agreement with Iowa State University to take over management of Stephens Auditorium. But as the expiration of the five-year deal got closer, ownership and operational oversight switched hands once again.

In came Iowa State Athletics to help.

Iowa State University faced budget shortages and needed to transfer oversight of the Iowa State Center into new hands. The Iowa State Athletics Department has had control over the Iowa State Center’s management since August 2019.

Iowa State President Wintersteen explained back in 2019 that the athletic department would soon transform the Iowa State Center and grow the space into a community hub of entertainment and business. Iowa State Center encompasses Stephens Auditorium, Fisher Theatre and the Scheman Building.

Renovations originally included a multi-purpose district that would hold at least one hotel, a convention center, a paved parking lot for 3,600 cars and a bridge that would connect the parking lot to Jack Trice Stadium. The renovations would allow for business conferences to take place in Ames once again and for large revenue streams to be put back into the Iowa State Center.

“The Iowa State Center is an incredible asset, and it is time to reimagine the future of this complex in a way that continues to serve the university and greater Ames community,” Wintersteen said when the deal became final back in 2019.

After Iowa State Athletics had taken control of the Iowa State Center for a little over a year, VenuWorks signed a new five-year contract with Iowa State Athletics that started July 1 to handle the day-to-day operations of Stephens Auditorium. VenuWorks oversees budget management and operating duties for Stephens, reporting monthly financials to the athletic department.

The contract runs through June 30, 2025.

Tammy Koolbeck, executive director of the Iowa State Center, said the athletics department would continue to assume financial responsibility for all three of the buildings at the Iowa State Center, but VenuWorks would take over budget management and operating duties and report to athletics each month.

But now, just over a year removed from the transfer of ownership of the Iowa State Center to the athletic department, the Iowa State Center is facing growing uncertainty. VenuWorks employees have had to take pay cuts and furloughs since the contract first took effect in July.

“We have been having Stephens staff take pay cuts, rolling furloughs between events,” Koolbeck said.

Furloughs started with the new contract with Iowa State Athletics on July 1 in large part due to the absence of large events thanks to COVID-19 restrictions. VenuWorks staff will have to bear the pay reductions for longer than expected.

Koolbeck said the rolling furloughs and pay cuts were supposed to end Oct. 31, but due to added budget shortages and more lost events, staff will have to continue with the cuts through at least Dec. 31.

“I give credit to my staff that they were right there with me and accepted the decision,” Koolbeck said.

The initial announcement from Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard to potentially close Stephens Auditorium came as a surprise to Koolbeck, who said she thought Stephens staff and VenuWorks were doing the best they could, given the circumstances. Up to that letter from Pollard, she had received no indication that Stephens Auditorium could be in jeopardy if financial issues continued with Iowa State football’s loss of ticket revenue.

“We did not know this was going to be a recommendation prior to it being online,” Koolbeck said.

Obviously, the loss of ticket revenue for Iowa State football and the lack of events this year at Stephens Auditorium play a factor in the recommendation, but Koolbeck said the news is not something anyone involved at VenuWorks wanted to hear.

In a statement made by Athletics Director Jamie Pollard, it was announced that due to the prolonged lack of revenue, the athletics department is in favor of the indefinite closure of Stephens Auditorium, including the cancellation of future shows.

“The revenues generated from community members attending performing arts at CY Stephens’ are simply not enough to cover the costs of facility operations,” Pollard said in his announcement letter. “The facility has significantly deferred maintenance issues, which would require another $25M to $50M to bring the building up to today’s standards. As a result of the significant financial challenges facing the university and the athletics department, we are recommending that CY Stephens’ Auditorium will be closed indefinitely and future shows cancelled.”

Koolbeck, in conjunction with VenuWorks President Steve Peters, made the decision to introduce staff pay cuts and furloughs, a decision Koolbeck said had full support of her fellow full-time staff members. All eight full-time staff members took pay cuts, including Koolbeck and Director of Events Craig Spillman.

Spillman said he took a 15 percent pay cut and that most other staff members took close to a 10 percent cut. He didn’t mince words when asked about how this year has been for him and his future at VenuWorks.

“I’m honestly just thankful to still have a job at this point,” Spillman said.

The arts and entertainment sector of Iowa and the U.S. has been hit hard during the pandemic. With the lack of large-scale events being held and the significant loss of revenue as a result, Spillman said VenuWorks’ staff working for Stephens Auditorium have come closer during the trying times.

“It brought us here closer together, but it’s obviously still a stressful time,” Spillman said.

Both Koolbeck and Spillman are optimistic for the future but said COVID-19 has no timeline, and the end has been hard to predict. 

The plan, according to Koolbeck, is to go into January 2021 and assume that regular events with larger crowds will be able to take place, bringing some sort of revenue and normalcy back into Stephens Auditorium.

“I think the problem is no one knows when the end is going to be there,” Spillman said.