Wed, April 23, 2014

Sloss Gets Back On Track

A new financial contract and planned visitor center are being forged at Sloss Furnaces.

December 24, 2009

For 15 years, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a unique site owned by the City of Birmingham and visited by thousands every year, has been locked in a contract that gave Sloss management little say in what special events—like concerts and festivals—were held there and when. The city, according to Sloss officials, also frequently failed to collect fees that it was owed from the promoters of those events. Now, however, a contract signed just before former mayor Larry Langford was convicted of fraud, along with a new visitor center, may change that situation for Sloss for the better.

The contract between Sloss Furnaces Foundation (charged with raising funds for the site) and Venue Management, Inc. (VMI), the company that for 15 years ran most of the events at the site, was recently renegotiated. VMI owner Robbie Yarbrough has yet to sign. (Yarbrough did not respond to requests for comment.) But should it go into effect on January 1, the date the contract is scheduled to commence, it will finally give some control of events at the site—and the revenue generated by them—to Sloss employees and board members.

An architectural rendering of Sloss Furnaces' planned visitor center. (Courtesy of HKW Associates.) (click for larger version)

There is only one festival-type event held at the site annually from which Sloss retains the revenue: the Stokin' the Fire barbecue festival, managed by Sloss employees. But Sloss board members and staff are celebrating another development that could change that: the design and planned construction of a new visitor center for the museum. Currently, Sloss hosts visits by schoolchildren and offers visitor tours, but has no indoor classrooms or exhibition spaces. This center will provide a venue for weddings, corporate meetings, and classes. Sloss management hopes to have the center built as early as 2011.

Time for a Change
The old contract between the city-owned Sloss Furnaces and VMI lasted 15 years (initially 5 years, then renewed for a decade), seemingly without anyone at the city noticing that VMI was controlling events at the site and reaping the financial rewards. VMI had the exclusive right to book and manage concerts, festivals, and almost all other special events at Sloss. In addition to this, VMI, or a Yarbrough-related company, handled all food and alcohol sales, which are often the most profitable part of an event.

Although the percentage of income to the site from shows Yarbrough hosts at Sloss won't change significantly in the new contract (in the old contract, the city received 5 percent of the gross), what will change, according to foundation board member Charles Debardeleben, is the fact that now the money might actually be collected.

"The concern before wasn't that the percentage we collected wasn't enough; it was that it wasn't being collected, no one was following through. The main thing was just enforcing the terms of the contract, which will happen now," he says. (Last year when asked about the city's enforcement in collecting that 5 percent fee, Debardeleben said, "Show me where the city is collecting that from VMI. We don't think they are. We can't find it anywhere on the city's books—and we've asked.")

Sloss Foundation board members say they had few complaints about how Yarbrough managed events at the site; rather, they weren't pleased with the lack of control they had over which events happened, and when. "We don't have a problem with the events VMI has had or the people running them, it's just that there's been absolutely no benefit to the site whatsoever," Rathburn said last November. "With events like Sloss Fright Furnace, we don't control what goes on here, and there is no income accrued to the site."

The details of how Sloss Fright Furnace (the longest-running and largest revenue–generating event held there) is managed in the future will be part of a separate agreement with Yarbrough, Rathburn says. "We're hoping to partner with him on that because it ties up the site for almost three months. It takes a full month just to set up. We'll be able now to come in from the beginning and plan, and be able to schedule around it."

The new contract initially runs for three years, with the possibility for renewal after that. Rathburn says VMI will continue to promote concerts at the site, but that the Sloss staff will now handle corporate parties, which they say will increase in frequency once the new center is built. Sloss Furnaces' annual budget from the city for the 2009-2010 fiscal year is $806,000, a reduction of $73,000 from the year before, which resulted in a reduction of staff by two employees.

A New Face
The design for the new visitor center will be complete by the end of the month, Rathburn claims, and the construction contract will be awarded by March. Rathburn says city engineers chose architectural firm HKW & Associates to design the building. The city and the Sloss Furnaces Foundation board of directors will each contribute $5 million to the project. In February, the city voted to release $600,000 in bond money set aside for the project, but voted to hold on to an additional $375,000 that had been set aside for Sloss in the city's current budget, due to concerns about the weak economy and the collection of business and property taxes. Rathburn says despite this, he feels confident the project can be completed on schedule.

Plans for the center include a multipurpose/classroom space that can hold 1,500 people in theater-style seating, permanent and special exhibit galleries, and a gift shop. It will open onto a courtyard that will include outdoor seating and water features. A second story will house offices for the staff.

"We've seen the city finally take charge on this," Rathburn says. "All the various mayors we've had recently have been in favor of this project, which we started seven or eight years ago. It will expand our ability to do classes and to work with the public."

The neighborhood immediately surrounding Sloss might also receive an aesthetic boost. At a December Sloss Foundation board meeting, Michael Calvert, president of Operation New Birmingham, presented a plan to improve the appearance of the Sloss entrance, including a pedestrian entrance and walkway to accommodate what he says is a growing number of employees at businesses in the immediate area. "The idea is to connect Sloss with Pepper Place and the Railroad Park, which will eventually extend all the way to Sloss," Calvert said. The plan envisioned a Sloss Business Park, uniting businesses in the immediate area such as Integrated Medical Systems, Supreme Beverage, Turner Parts, and U.S. Park, with tree-lined, well-lit streets and signage. Calvert told the board they would be seeking funding for the project, estimated at $250,000, in this year's city budget, saying he has spoken with interim Mayor Roderick Royal and several city councilors about it. "We'll be asking the city to pay for most of this. We want to give the area its own identity." &

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