Big changes are coming to the Racine Civic Centre this summer. The city is investing almost $300,000 in Festival Hall, Memorial Hall and Festival Park to improve the facility and make it more attractive to event planners.
Some of the changes will barely be noticed by guests:
-- $75,000 spent to tuck-point Memorial Hall;
-- $65,000 to replace one of two rooftop air conditioning units on Festival Hall (the other one will be replaced next year);
--$17,500 for ice makers, freezers and walk-in coolers for both Festival Hall and Memorial Hall;
--$15,000 for a new lighting control board to replace one that was "just short of duct tape;"
--$3,000 for two portable bars
Civic Centre executive director Jim Walczak expects to raise the new structure in June -- and it will stay up until Party on the Pavement in October. "It could stay up all year if heated," Walczak says, "but that's not going to happen with current heating costs." In past years the city spent $60,000-$75,000 replacing portions of the old tent, damaged by windstorms. The new structure, which cost $86,000, is guaranteed to withstand up to 80 mph winds. The frame and fabric each have 7-year guarantees, and "we'll gain another eight years on the fabric by taking it down each winter."
Most important to Walczak, "it will go up earlier in the spring and expand our offerings." Not to mention providing more room along the colonnade.
Another noticeable change to the grounds of Festival Park will happen shortly. Walczak plans to remove the shrubs along both sides of the park -- between the big lawn and the north side of Festival Hall itself for starters -- and have the area seeded and turned into grass. It will prevent the annual damage to flowers and shrubs -- which cost about $7,000 a year to replace -- and give patrons a place to sit and watch the shows. The trees and lights will stay.
And, by the time Festival Hall hosts its first big event of the season -- Kiwanis Pancake Day and the Artists Fair on May 3 -- Walczak hopes to have much of the interior of Festival Hall repainted.
But wait, there's more! Also in the planning stage are new seats for Memorial Hall. Walczak has assembled seven candidates in a storage room for the mayor and city officials to review. So far, nothing's been decided, although he'd like to replace the hall's 1,200 folding chairs -- 25 years old, with chipped and scuffed paint and needing constant repair -- with more comfortable stacking chairs, at a cost of $36,000 - $48,000.
Walczak became executive director of the Civic Centre three years ago, when VenuWorks (then called Compass Facility Management) was hired to run Festival and Memorial Halls. On his first visit to Racine, he said "I looked out over the harbor and said this must be Lake Michigan's best kept secret. " His mission, then and now, has been to reduce the operating deficit by attracting more events. (The annual deficit of about $300,000 is about half what it was in 2002.) Many of this year's capital improvements are aimed at event promoters: ice makers, coolers and lighting control panels, for example, are things they often had to rent elsewhere, and worry about. Now they are part of the service. Without them, "it cost $10,000 to $15,000 more to produce some shows here," Walczak said, "and was more labor intensive."
Still, he is realistic about the difficulty of attracting, say, major musical performers, here. "We're in Chiwaukee," he says, and there are bigger halls in both communities -- more seats being more profitable for the performers. Even Waukegan, just 30 miles away, has a 4,800-seat hall, more than double the Civic Centre's capacity. And although he concedes the facilities here are "underused," part of the difficulty -- besides the current economy, which was blamed for the sudden cancellation in mid-February of this year's HarborFest -- is the lack of certain facilities, like dressing rooms and showers. (When the ECW was here recently, arrangements were made for the wrestlers to use the showers at the YMCA. Golden Gloves boxers just went home sweaty.)
So Walczak is beating the bushes for smaller events -- he'd love a comedy series, for example, or dinner theatre, and business events like the city's 50th anniversary party for its 20-year employees' club last week. "It's all about finding the right partner," he says.
BACKSTORY: Walczak has a long history in the business, having managed arenas -- like the Kellogg Arena and Convention Center in Battle Creek, MI, and the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton -- since graduating from UW-LaCrosse with a degree in Parks and Recreation Management. His office wall is crammed with pictures of him with performers like Bob Hope, Victor Borge, George Carlin, Jeff Foxworthy, the Cable Guy, Wilie Nelson. Frank Sinatra once "gve me an Italian slap on the face," he recalls.
He loves "the magic behind the scenes," he says, and "nurturing new producers through their first shows, teaching them the passion I have for this business."
But Walczak's most interesting story occurred before he began his present career... starting in high school, , where he as an all-county track star at Menomonee Falls North High School. At Mankato State he was recruited as a football team walk-on -- 4.6 in the 40 and a deadly placekicker -- by Coach John Coatta, former head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers.
He was a dedicated kicker. He'd go out and kick 75, 100, 125 kicks per session... alone except for his Golden Retriever, Brandy, who fetched his footballs. "He'd bite on the end of them, like a cigar."
After graduation he was invited to the Cleveland Browns' free agent camp under Coach Sam Rutigliano. Don't get Walczak talking about the experience unless you have an afternoon. He was one of 539 players invited to camp, including 70 kickers. "I had a great day. No matter what I did that day -- place kicking, field goal, everything -- I didn't miss a single kick."
It almost paid off. The Browns signed him to three one-year contracts ($24,000 the first year) and he was on the bench, suited up for the Browns' first two exhibition games of the season. "I didn't make a single kick; never made it onto the field." The Browns' already legendary kicker, Don Cockroft told him, "Kid, you're good enough to kick in the NFL." But Cockroft, who was renegotiating his contract at the time did come to terms (and went on to a career 1,080 points with the Browns, second only to Lou Groza's 1,349) and Walczak was cut before the season. Goodbye contracts. All he got out of it was $225 a week "and I never ate better in my life."
He went back to LaCrosse, did some coaching, worked at Sears and soon moved onto own career path running the arena rather than starring on the turf.