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Why mess with Covelli success?

Published: Sun, June 5, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)

LeBron James may be the focal point of the NBA finals for Northeast Ohio sports fans, but there’s another person capturing sports fans’ imaginations.

Three wins away from an NBA title is Erik Spoelstra — video-highlight-guy turned head-coach. He’s from as unlikely a coaching lineage as one could be. Wisdom and tradition would say he should not be coaching this team.

There’s one difference: The right people above him recognized the right things he was doing, and kept giving him more. He earned it; he didn’t blow it.

That reward system works in many places in America.

It creates companies; it changes populations; it moves the needle.

Some people struggle with that, including here in the Valley. Perhaps it’s our sticky trail of indicted leaders; perhaps it’s the chip on our shoulders; perhaps it’s simply in the water.

Here, we long for people with courage, leadership and accomplishment to make and to create so that we all elevate. Then, when those people do, we work quickly to keep them in check, question their intentions and undermine their feats.

The operations within the city of Youngstown have few bright spots as they slug through some of the most economically depressed conditions an American city can muster.

One is the economic turnaround at the Covelli Centre.

Sure, there is $11 million in undeniable debt to fix, and many choose to bang on that endlessly.

But you would think that the flawed way we longed for big steel’s return would have taught us one thing: Holding on too long to the past is rarely healthy.

As true as the Covelli debt is, so too is that the Covelli direction now is much more successful than it was three years ago. Profitable even — if you consider just the operations and discount that debt incurred by another leadership philosophy.

It took a bold decision by Mayor Jay Williams to recognize that the management marriage he inherited was not working and needed a divorce. A bolder move followed by putting the center in the hands of a kid who owned a Struthers bar and booked a few concerts — Eric Ryan.

Given his trial chance, like Spoelstra, he didn’t screw it up. When a longer-term deal was crafted with the national group SMG, Ryan’s JAC Management Co. was secured as a local partner to SMG. The pairing has given the city numbers it could not imagine.

In 2006, the old marriage had a $541,298 operations shortfall. In 2009 with the new marriage, it had a $153,950 operations surplus. The 2010 surplus was $110,434. The first quarter for 2011 has earned a $89,529 operating surplus.

New JAC/SMG work flows have made this happen.

Faced with past failure and present desperation, the city would be wise to accept any new direction or innovation this pair suggests until it proves unworthy — the Spoelstra model, if you will. Hell, their turnaround is of such significance, give them the city’s two big toothaches of the moment — city parks and city planning — if they seek them.

So in the last month, the pair devised a way to further squeeze more city revenues from the place — end a deal with the third-party food-and-beverage contractor and run the service themselves.

They even got the company, Centerplate, to agree to leave so long as we paid them what we owed them.

The answer from the city would seem swift and obvious, and it was.


Well not completely no. But the meeting between JAC, city staff and city council was an embarrassment. Imagine: In comes the city’s biggest success in the last three years, and the meeting turns into a donnybrook. All share blame in the spectacle.

One city councilman said they were advised the meeting was to be informational/exploratory on the deal. But the information they got was that the deal was essentially done, which sullied them and set off fireworks.

From that scuffle rose two points from council and the public that to me, were outrageous: 1) Should not the food go out to bid to another third party, and 2) Is JAC qualified to run food and beverage?

That a third-party currently runs food is due to the clouded mindset at the start of the center. Essentially every policy those originators started with has been undone — bookings, parking, staffing, etc — and new dollars have benefited the city.

Given that, why would you even consider keeping any policy from then? Every energy should be spent legally proving that food does not need to be third-party and can be forced upon the existing JAC/SMG management team.

As to JAC’s ability to operate food ... really? Asking this ignores the available food expertise of SMG and building sponsor Covelli Enterprises. More humiliating and ignorant — it also ignores simple understanding of JAC’s facility operations and the skill it needs to manage bookings, ice, heating and air, structure, staging, parking lots, etc.

The current team, in the last 18 months, lands Elton John, Tim McGraw, a middleweight title bout and Barry Manilow ... and people wonder about their ability to push chicken fingers, nachos and beer?

Though projected as dead after that start, alas, logic has engulfed the process, and we seem headed toward the original goal.

Centerplate gets the $450,000ish owed to them (not a gift or golden parachute, but what it’s owed).

The city further secures every chance at income it can from the facility.

And it’s all placed in the hands of the team that turned the place into what it was originally intended to be.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.

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