City entertainment facilities gain new identity in wake of LJVM sale

by Jeff Sykes



after shedding the expense of managing an outdated municipal coliseum, Winston- Salem is rebranding its remaining entertainment facilities at the former LJVM Complex.

The four venues at the 70-acre complex have been renamed the Winston- Salem Fairgrounds. Events are scheduled, people are attending and more bookings are in the works, according to Robert Mulhearn, facilities and venue manager.

A home and garden show, a gun show, a professional hockey match and a performance by a popular electronic music artist are just some of the events upcoming on the entertainment calendar at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.

The Winston-Salem City Council decided last year after a lengthy debate to sell the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University for $8 million, which represented the amount of money the city owed on the building. That deal closed on August 1, 2013. City Manager Lee Garrity said the action reduced that department’s budget by 70 percent and saw personnel cut from 28 people down to seven.

Most of the displaced employees found spots in other city departments, while a few accepted a severance package.

Since the coliseum sale and budget cuts were anticipated, city budget planners forecast the smaller departmental budget even though the sale crossed over into a new fiscal year, which began July 1.

The sale was driven by the city’s unwillingness to spend the money needed to upgrade the facility, which first opened in 1989, and by Wake Forest’s desire to have an improved venue for their popular Demon Deacon basketball teams.

The move left Winston-Salem in an uncertain position, as a mixture of venues located adjacent to what used to be the city’s flagship entertainment facility seemed destined for obscurity. But Mulhearn and the staff remaining after the sale of the LJVM came up with a plan.

The obvious first idea was to brand the facilities under the Dixie Classic Fair. Mulhearn’s team researched similar facilities, such as the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, the Minnesota State Fair and a county fair in New York. After consideration, the team decided to brand the facilities Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.

“What we found was that the fair is part of what we do, but it’s not the entire brand,” Mulhearn said. “We want to be more than the fair. We wanted the community to know we have other events all year round.”

Branding the remaining facilities as Winston-Salem Fairgrounds was a viable synthesis of the main annual attraction and the community service role necessary given the public ownership of the venues.

“The thought is over time that when you say Winston-Salem Fairgrounds people will know where it is and that there are events going on all year long,” Mulhearn said.

Most of the attention since the sale of the LJVM has focused on Wake Forest’s plans for the 25-year old coliseum. The university publicized some of their initial modifications via photos posted on the WFU Sports Facebook page. In preparation for the current basketball season, some concession areas were remodeled and new loudspeakers installed.

But the biggest news came in the fall when Wake Forest announced it had inked a five-year deal with the staff of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex to market university facilities for nonathletic events. The deal, outlined in an 11-page contract, brings in base revenue of $115,000 in management fees for the GCC, itself a nine-venue complex owned by the City of Greensboro.

Both Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman and Matt Brown, managing director of the GCC, heralded the deal as a catalyst that would bring more entertainment choices to Winston- Salem residents.

“This agreement will ensure that the Piedmont Triad region will be given every opportunity to host as many live events as possible,” Brown said in a statement at the time the contract was announced. “It ensures the citizens of Winston-Salem will continue to be able to enjoy the traditional events at Lawrence Joel Coliseum that they have attended in the past, while also allowing our booking department to have additional venue options to offer promoters for upcoming events. This increased flexibility will hopefully result in more live entertainment events in the Triad, creating a win-win situation for residents of our region.”

Fairgrounds: Creating a new identity from tradition

There were no non-athletic events the agreement gives GCC staff rights to book non-athletic events at other Wake Forest facilities such as BB&T Field, Wake Forest Baseball Park and the Wake Forest Tennis Complex. In addition to the base management fee, the contract allows for GCC to receive 50 percent of net revenues from any profitable events. The contract does not apply to the Frank Spencer Classic, North Carolina high school championships or University student concerts.

When asked this week to comment on progress in booking events at LJVM, GCC staff declined to be interviewed. GCC Communications Director Andrew Brown said via email that GCC staff felt it was too early in the agreement to assess the relationship.

“The process of recruiting, booking and contracting of major events can take months, and in some cases many months,” Andrew Brown wrote. “We are still in the relatively early stages of cultivating new (and existing) relationships to bring more events to Winston.

At the press conference we held to announce this partnership all parties repeatedly spoke of this as a ‘long-term’ relationship that will take some time to fully develop. Things are going well and our booking team continues to work on bringing events to (Winston-Salem) on a daily basis. We hope to have some additional event announcements for LJVM in the near future.”

There were no non-athletic events scheduled in February. The first nonuniversity event is a free three-day event by evangelist Joyce Meyer in mid- March. The Harlem Globetrotters are scheduled for March 21. There are no other calendar events until the Forsyth Tech Commencement on May 8. The next listed event is a Jehovah’s Witness District meeting in early June, followed by local high school graduations. The only events listed through August are three additional Jehovah’s Witness District meetings.

While Wake Forest and GCC seek momentum in booking larger entertainment events – Wake’s football stadium BB&T Field is repeatedly cited as a potential draw for national music acts – Mulhearn and his crew at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds believe their flexibility with scalable venues will help them book a steady stream of small to medium sized events for area residents. LJVM holds about 14,000 people, while the Annex can offer a minimum of 1500 seats for viable events. The concert configuration for the Annex is 4500.

Mulhearn said staff is excited about the future, not just booking trade shows, but increasing the entertainment provided to city residents. “We probably have more stuff on sale now than we did this time last year at the coliseum,” he said. Staff is working with Winston-Salem based Social Moxy to develop a marketing plan. The company has already helped create a new logo and website for Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.

City Manager Garrity said that the Public Assemblies and Facilities Commission is considering an outside consultant to advise the city on a long-term plan for the venues and to identify capital needs. The goal of the city council is that the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds become self-sufficient, Garrity said. !