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Success often in the eye of the beholder

Civic center ‘successful meeting needs of the community’

SOUTHAVEN — Reports that people haven’t been flocking to the DeSoto Civic Center have been circulating widely, causing many people to wonder if there’s trouble in the offing.

Recently, a highly touted concert featuring Isaac Hayes and the Rev. Al Green drew less than 3,000 people. Even fewer paid to watch Muhammad Ali’s daughter box. The hockey and Arena Football teams, which call the civic center home, are on the bargaining table. And the Memphis RiverKings general manager recently resigned.

But Southaven leaders say the perceived troubles are unfounded.

“We’re pleased with our progress,” said Stuart Taylor, civic center general manager. “Are we satisfied? No. Some newspapers have taken a negative spin, reporting that we’re not doing as well as expected, but that’s in the eye of the beholder. First of all, we landed the events. That’s pretty darn good. Did they sell as much as we wanted? No, that’s where we’re not pleased. But we were pleased to get events of that caliber here. Al Green and Isaac Hayes, both Emmy-winners, first time on stage together? That was history. No one else has been able to do that.”

Chuck Roberts, president of Chuck Roberts Commercial Real Estate in Southaven and board member of the DeSoto County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he’s not sure what the expectations were.

“When everyone talks about attendance being what everyone expected, I’m not real sure who ‘everyone’ is,” he said. “Obviously, as a board member of the CVB that controls the building, we would love to see a sellout for every event. Unfortunately, most of that is out of our control anyway. We are the landlord, not the promoter of events. It is solely up to the promoter to advertise their event to sell tickets.

“I won’t say we’ve done everything we can because you can always do more. We want to continue to build the image of the facility and people’s awareness of its close proximity to the surrounding areas, including Memphis, eastern Arkansas and all of North Mississippi. But the brunt of selling tickets, as it does in any entertainment venue, falls squarely on the shoulders of the promoter.”

Across the entire region, events as a whole are down. The Wonders exhibit in Memphis hasn’t fared as well as predicted. Last September, attendance for the Midsouth Fair was down significantly.

“Since Sept. 11, everyone’s noticed a significant drop in attendance,” said Taylor. “It’s hitting everyone across the country. Some people are still skeptical about traveling. The economy had a slump and that hurts.”

Last month, Shelby Farms announced that its planned summer concert series, Festival in the Grove, had been cancelled because of poor ticket sales. The series included Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, the Temptations and Michael McDonald.

“We did our best job,” said promoter Eli Ball. “We scheduled it at a great venue. The timing just isn’t right, apparently.”

When compared to the overall picture, the DeSoto Civic Center, which opened Sept. 16, 2000, with a preseason hockey game, is faring well.

“The hockey team attendance has increased steadily and the arena football attendance is up substantially,” said Rex Haynes, president of Brown & Haynes Insurance Inc. in Southaven. “So there is reason for optimism. It is just great to have a facility in the local area for so many different events. We didn’t have a facility before for even a dance recital or community theater.”

Even though attendance was not disclosed, Taylor said more events have been booked this year.

“Tickets went on sale a few weeks ago for the Aug. 7 show, Down From the Mountain Tour, featuring the traveling group of Grammy-winning stars from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and we’ve already sold more than half the arena,” said Roberts. “We expect to see every seat filled on Sept. 11 when Lee Greenwood comes to town for the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedies.”

In addition to headline entertainment, the civic center is drawing regional family events, such as boat and car shows, and will soon hold its second flea market. The first one, held this spring, drew a record crowd.

“Our convention space is utilized every week by groups as small as six to 10 people to groups as large as 2,000 people,” said Roberts. “The civic center is providing a venue for things that would have never before come to DeSoto County. Because the 400-seat theater was built, we now have an organization called the DeSoto Youth Theatre. Its sole purpose is to create new thespians. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the community to get their children involved locally instead of going to Memphis.”

News of the hockey and af2 teams being sold is not a bad sign, said Taylor.

“Local owners are trying to buy it,” he said. “That’s a positive note.”

The Maddox Foundation, a philanthropic trust that was set up for the late Dan and Margaret Maddox, recently signed a letter of intent to buy the RiverKings and the Mid-South Xplorers football team for an undisclosed sum. According to published reports, the foundation has until July 31 to decide whether to purchase one or both teams from Horn Chen, the current owner of the two minor league sports franchises. Both teams would continue to be housed at the civic center.

Soon after the RiverKings won the Central Hockey League’s President’s Cup in April, the team’s first league championship, Jim Riggs, the only general manager in the team’s 10-year existence, resigned to take the commissioner’s job of the American Hockey League.

“Jim Riggs came from being a commissioner of a league, so I can only speculate that’s where his heart is,” said Roberts. “I think he enjoyed building the RiverKings, but certainly the last 10 years for him have probably been the hardest he’s worked in his life, trying to bring hockey to a football and basketball town. He certainly was a valuable asset for the RiverKings and will be difficult to replace.”

The civic center was built for two purposes: a place for graduations and proms and for community activities, said Diane Hill, executive director of the Southaven Chamber of Commerce.

“To that purpose, it’s been hugely successful,” she said. “We have a lot more going on than we ever dreamed. It’s booked every weekend. When we have Little League openers, it’s packed. We have had sellouts. On Easter Sunday, a local church brought in Randy Travis and there wasn’t a seat in the house. Maybe it’s not successful bringing in Snoop Doggy Dogg, but it’s been successful meeting the needs of the community.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

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