Fargo Public Schools partners with concert promoter Jade Presents to create revenue stream
MOORHEAD—The Trollwood Performing Arts School's annual mainstage musical may be the heart of Bluestem Center for the Arts, but a relatively new partner has the organization singing a new tune.
Concerts are helping the Moorhead venue ease the financial burden on the Fargo Public School District, which operates the facility.
The organization has found what may seem like an unlikely partner in Fargo-based promoter Jade Presents, known for booking a mix of rock, country and rap concerts.
Trollwood's most recent financial report shows that rentals made up more than half of the operational income at the space and concerts accounted for more than half of the facility's rental income. Other rental revenues include weddings and corporate or private events.
In the most recent fiscal year, from July 2016 through June 2017, concerts have brought in $112,700, or 56 percent of the rental revenue of $201,795. That number is up from 2015 when live music brought in $64,942 of the $132,535 rental revenue.
In 2013 — the first year under the Fargo Public Schools — shows brought in $29,367 of the $86,373 from rented events.
"I feel like it's very successful," says Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Schatz of Bluestem's current financial situation. "The number of events (Kathy Anderson, Trollwood's executive director) has going on out there (and) the number of things for community members to attend in a really nice venue has really been pretty substantial."
In fact, that $201,795 from venue rentals was only $3,205 off the budgeted goal of $205,000, an amount that would have been met with just one more facility rental.
Bluestem Center for the Arts is run by Trollwood Performing Arts School, a program of Fargo Public Schools, which leases the facility from the City of Moorhead.
Over the last five years, Anderson and her staff have looked to ramp up rentals of the facility to offset operational expenses.
One of the main partners has been Jade Nielsen, owner of Jade Presents.
Other concert organizers will host one-off shows—the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra hosts Symphony Rocks which drew 2,338 this past summer—but Schatz credits Nielsen with "bringing in dollars to offset those operational costs."
From May through October of 2017, Nielsen hosted 14 shows—including Tony Bennett, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Raitt, Jason Isbell, Kenny Rogers, The Pixies, Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang, events that drew 24,172 attendees to the Bluestem Amphitheater.
For perspective, Trollwood's 13 performances of the musical "Beauty and the Beast" drew 28,608.
In 2016, Jade Presents' 16 shows drew 28,631 and in 2015, 10 events pulled in 21,859 music fans.
"We've found our groove over the last couple of years," says company owner, Jade Nielsen.
"We've been steadily growing," Anderson says. "Each year it gets stronger and stronger and stronger."
The more money brought in via rentals means the school district has less to cover to match operational expenses, like heating, lighting and maintaining the facility, which includes the 2,500-seat amphitheatre and the Marcil Commons, named after the Marcil family which owns Forum Communications.
"The overall operational costs to the Fargo Schools continues to go down and that's what our goal has always been — how to get that as low as possible knowing that it's never going to be a for-profit proposition," Schatz says. "Prior to us taking it over, that wasn't happening."
The Fargo School District started Trollwood Performing Arts School in 1978 in north Fargo's Trollwood Park, but 20 years later a new home was needed. A fundraising arm of Trollwood, FutureBuilders in Support of Trollwood Performing Arts School, was created to help relocate the program.
Moorhead successfully lured the program across the river and construction started in 2007. The Fargo School Board approved a loan for the project and later co-signed on $3.5 million in bonding.
The facility, now named Bluestem Center for the Arts, opened in 2009 but just two years later Futurebuilders, which had also adopted the Bluestem name, failed to make a $286,000 bond payment, prompting the district to pick up the cost and take over day-to-day operations. The following year the Fargo School District took over the facility and about $5 million in debt.
The Fargo School District paid off the debt and now owns the permanent buildings and other structures, and it has a long-term lease on the land from Moorhead.
Nielsen has booked shows out there since 2010, but took more interest when Fargo Public Schools took over the space.
In 2014, he signed a three-year contract with the school system to rent Bluestem for $7,500 per event. That price decreased to $5,500 after the fourth event. Nielsen signed a new contract in 2016, and this year he'll pay $8,350 per event, with that rate dropping to $6,350 after the fourth show.
If a concert is canceled before the date, like last year's Flo Rida show, the school system doesn't collect rent.
Jade Presents pays for staffing for their events. Ushers and parking lot attendants are volunteers brought in by the promoter.
"It's refreshing to know we have a true partner in planning and assisting in the execution of events," Nielsen says of the current administration.
He says he'll announce the bulk of the 2018 concerts in February with more to be added as the dates become finalized. In all, he hopes to produce about 15 shows.
With the Trollwood musical occupying the main stage from mid-June through July, dates are at a premium.
Nielsen is exploring a more festival-like, general admission set-up to be held in Bluestem Meadow on non-show nights to still utilize the facility. If that happens, Jade Presents would foot the bill for a temporary stage, sound and lights. The proposal is something Schatz would be willing to listen to.
"Finding ways to work around some of those issues has been a success. The collaborative nature has been good," Schatz says. "For right now, I just feel it's been very successful out there. That amenity that is out there, through the hard work of a lot of people before us, has really created a nice venue for our community, for a lot of different things."