Commission discusses departments, Freedom Hall's future at budget talk

Tony Casey • May 27, 2014 at 1:10 PM

The City Commission expressed frustration about the way Freedom Hall is being subsidized by the city as an event venue, but not producing door-busting shows.

“Maybe we’re looking at the wrong list,” Commissioner Jeff Banyas said toward the end of a more than five-hour budget meeting held at city hall Thursday afternoon and into the evening.

He was voicing concern after hearing from Freedom Hall’s box office manager Bobby Shirley about all the national headlining bands that are performing in the region, but haven’t made arrangements or been asked to perform at Freedom Hall. Her list included Garth Brooks, Scotty McCreary, REO Speedwagon and more.

City Manager Pete Peterson, who along with Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, the commissioners and assistant city manager Charlie Stahl, were discussing possible causes and fixes to Freedom Hall’s various issues. Peterson said that maybe this part of East Tennessee isn’t diverse enough in the types of acts it likes to bring in.

“Could our challenge be that our community is lacking diversity to bring in some of today’s most popular acts?” Peterson said. “When’s the last time you had a hip-hop act that wanted to come here?”

Shirley also said that a local promoter who’s strived to bring in Broadway shows over the years has noticed that they haven’t gone over well with ticket buyers. Stahl presented to the group numbers that showed what’s changed since the venue opened in 1974, and aside from the early popularity of Freedom Hall as a venue for top shows and events, not much else has changed, including the amount of money brought in by the venue.

The building stays open for bookings with the help of Johnson City, which hasn’t changed its policies on how Freedom Hall takes in and puts money back in the city’s coffers since 1974.

“It’s easier to tolerate the subsidy if the building was busier,” Peterson said.

Banyas seconded that and noted with commissioner Jenny Brock that big discussions and decisions were on the horizon for how the city would continue to utilize the venue.

Commissioner Clayton Stout said he wondered if the building’s location on Science Hill High School’s grounds was causing problems with potential events, but Peterson said the only way they’d be handcuffed would be their inability to serve alcohol.

The group is getting restless over a proposed idea to allow East Tennessee State University to use the venue for men’s and possibly women’s basketball games in the upcoming year. ETSU, Peterson said, has done a better job in bargaining for what they would like with the facility, including using it for not only games, but for practices as well. That didn’t sit well with those in attendance, because it would cut down on the available nights that it could be used for other shows and events, too.

“I’d just say not to practice,” Peterson said. “There are many college and pro teams that don’t practice where they play. It’s a non-issue.”

Two games ETSU’s men’s team played at Freedom Hall last year landed about 2,500 and 3,000 in attendance, scoring Johnson City around $5,000 between game rentals, parking and concessions. The main issue with ETSU using the facilities and the future of Freedom Hall in general is the renovations and upgrades that would be required of the city, including smaller projects like painting all the way up to big projects like an upgrade of the HVAC system that has been used since the venue opened 40 years ago.

Now the city has to decide if they want to go into the promotion business to get those big shows and how to fix and develop use of the venue.

Reports from the city’s heads of water and sewer, transportation and information technologies showed the departments to be in generally sound positions as long as they stay frugal.

City transit director Eldonna Janutolo said her department needs to look at its use of school buses as they go by the seven-year mark, which has been traditionally seen as the optimal time for trade-in value. Since there’s a push to avoid buying more buses right now, not buying more buses would push the old ones into their eighth year and beyond under budget restraints to save money.

Brock asked if Janutolo was saving money by not buying new ones or she was just pushing a problem down the road to make it more expensive in the long run.

“You’re pushing it down the road,” she replied.

Janutolo said her drivers were using the buses they had to get into every nook and cranny of the city, which prompted the mayor to compliment her department as providing a great service to Johnson City.

Information technologies head Lisa Sagona was also given approval by the commissioners on her upgrades of technology with a tight budget, which, she said, was no difficulty for her because she’s a taxpayer as well as the director of the department. Sagona talked about savings she’d made by making deals with Verizon in providing cell phones and mobile devices to all necessary Johnson City employees as well as providing IT support to 856 people with a staff of just eight full-time employees, including herself.

Water and Sewer Department director Tom Witherspoon presented all of the happenings in his office, showing how the city has been able to use reinvestment funds and showing significant benefits in the way of certain overflow numbers, cuts in chemical and electricity costs, water usage in the city and coordination with the public works department in lining up pipe cleanings and fixes during paving.

Since the deparment produces somewhere in the realm of over 27 million gallons per day of water while only using around 16 million, commissioner David Tomita asked if there would be any way to send the valuable commodity over to other cities in bulk sales to generate revenue for the city. Peterson said they might be regulated in terms of the ratio the city is able to produce and have on hand.

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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