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Convention centers, arenas hope for government help as they wait to reopen

With concerts and meetings postponed, big event venues are relying on reserve funds to stay afloat. But those funds won't last forever.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Operators of publicly funded or supported convention centers and arenas are facing a financial crisis that could have consequences for the communities they serve.

"We're all suffering," said Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, operator of the Hot Springs Convention Center and Bank OZK Arena. "Our employees are suffering and hopefully we'll get through this soon, because it's pretty dire right now."

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"I think this year we'll probably lose around a million dollars," said Michael Marion, general manager for Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.

Both operators describe huge budget holes for their big event spaces. The Hot Springs facility is getting ready for four recently approved high school graduations and a knife and gun show in the next few weeks.

Simmons Bank Arena has nearly everything postponed until next year.

Both are relying on reserve funds that won't last forever.

"We've had a reserve for twenty years of a million dollars for a rainy day," Marion said. "Right now, it seems like it's a monsoon as opposed to just a rainy day."

Both operators say reserve funds have not been enough to avoid furloughs and layoffs. Hot Springs and similar centers in Fort Smith and Pine Bluff can at least count on local taxes providing a revenue stream, but that status became a double-edged sword.

"Unfortunately, none of our facilities qualified for any of the COVID money that the federal government gave to the state," Arrison said.

The North Little Rock venue is in worse shape because it doesn't have any dedicated tax revenue stream.

"Because we don't get money from any other source, we just wish we could be treated like a small business," Marion said, who added that Simmons Bank has offered a line of credit after signing a naming-rights deal for the 20-year-old arena.

That may happen as a blue ribbon state committee and federal officials dole out more cash. Both operators point out that survival is about more filling their big empty spaces. It will be about getting our lives back.

"The hospitality industry has been the hardest hit, the hotels, the local restaurants," Arrison said. "Tourism is the second biggest industry in Arkansas and we were the first to close and we'll probably be the last to reopen."

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"I'd just like to go see a show," Marion said while lamenting he hasn't been able to stage one since February. "Just get out and do something and go be with a group of people and sing 'Rocket Man' with Elton John."