Up to 55 students head to Mayo Civic Center each weekday, looking for help with distance learning.
Following temperature checks in the skyway over Civic Center Drive, they head to the facility's Riverview Rooms, where Boys and Girls Club of Rochester and other agencies have joined forces to help families address specific needs through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It almost looks like a school down there, the way it is set up,” Boys and Girls Club CEO Chad Campbell said of the rooms that share a single hallway.
He said the space is perfect for the needs of the shared programs, but it wasn’t on his radar until local business owner Andy Chafoulias suggested reaching out to Joe Ward, president of Experience Rochester.
Ward said providing the space was an easy decision.
Rent for the facility, as well as meal expenses and other facility services, is being paid through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds provided to the city. It’s expected to contribute nearly $160,000 through the end of the year.
Ward said the community service — from opening doors to people facing homelessness earlier this year to the current distance-learning effort — has been rewarding in the first year Civic Center operations were turned over to a private entity.
“Of this whole pandemic, those are the most fulfilling things to be able to do,” he said.
While conventions, conferences and concerts have been called off this month, Ward said the work inside the facility continues.
The new operators were just starting to gear up for community events to introduce themselves when the pandemic hit. They quickly switched gears to prepare for the worst, renegotiating contracts while also revamping the website and making other behind-the-scenes changes related to the transition from city control.
It’s all been done with reduced staff, since key components of the center’s revenue evaporated.
“We have a slim team at the moment, but it’s like anyone else who has had to make cuts and rethink things,” he said, noting staff expenses were cut in half.
With approximately 10 full-time positions remaining, he said everyone has taken pay cuts or furloughs.
Yet, work must continue.
“It’s not a building you can lock up and walk away from,” he said, pointing to maintenance and other needs.
The Rochester City Council approved using up to $327,500 in CARES funds to help the city-owned Civic Center reposition amid COVID concerns, and Ward said he’s worked to ensure the funds address specific community benefits.
“The City Council was good enough to trust us with those resources, so we are really trying to hone in on elements that are really going to affect the safety and health of our community as a whole,” he said.
That means purchasing protective gear, installing temperature kiosks to check all guests, adding food-safety equipment, and finding ways to ensure guests and staff can maintain safe distances.
“These things add up, and they are things we need to keep people safe going forward,” he said.
One big change is the installation of needlepoint bipolar ionization units, which will purify air passing through the heating and cooling system. Ward said the equipment kills thousands of viruses, including COVID-19, so it will be a benefit for years to come.
Experience Rochester is also working to obtain Global Biorisk Advisory Council certification for the facility, which is the top certification for an entertainment venue, Ward said.
As the potential to attract new events and conventions returns, the new equipment and certification will help bring new business, which will help spur local economic growth, he added.
“We need to bring new business to the area to help those local businesses that have been affected,” he said.
For now, opportunities are rare, since most planners are still trying to determine what life will look like after the pandemic.
However, uses continue.
Eagle Brook Church returned to holding weekly services in Presentation Hall, and other spaces, abiding by the 250-person limit set by the state and maintaining a variety of precautions.
“All is going well,” said Mark Beernink, one of the local Eagle Brook pastors. “We’re kind of merging our protocols with Civic Center protocols.”
That means masks, temperature checks, cleaning between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services, as well as not using the same seats for the two services, since cleaning leaves them damp.
Additionally, they have overflow space with monitors, in case the 250-person limit is reached, which hasn’t happened.
“If we would start to see any increase, we are actually starting to put a strategy into place where we would potentially add another service, because we just don’t want to turn people away,” Beernink said.
Ward said he’s impressed with the church’s efforts to stay safe.
“They are truly very organized and a very conscientious group,” he said, adding that making sure every precaution is taken will be a key to success for the Civic Center when other events return.
Last month, the 2020 Minnesota Public Transit Conference was held at the center, and Ward said it demonstrated how future events may be held, with a mix of in-person and remote attendees.
“It was awesome to have people in the building again to serve,” he said, pointing out the numbers ranged from 50 to 80.
He said the Civic Center remodel contributed to the ability to have a mix of in-person and remote activity for the conference and Experience Rochester plan upgrades that will allow more online activity throughout the building.
“If it lands just a few meetings, it will completely pay for itself,” he said, estimating the expense at $40,000 to $50,000.
The Civic Center is also relying on technology to test the waters in virtual events, scheduling “A (Virtual) Christmas Vacation with the Griswolds,” featuring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, stars of the “Vacation” movies. The Nov. 28 event allows online audiences to share live moments with the stars.
A virtual Christmas concert featuring Tonic Sol-fa is also planned for Dec. 18.
Between the events, Ward said Lori Line is slated for an in-person concert on Dec. 1, with a 250-person limit in Presentation Hall, which typically seats 1,080.
He said seating and related safety details continue to be discussed, based on current state guidelines and requirements.
Meanwhile, Ward also said Experience Rochester is seeing some inquiries from event planners.
“We have had a couple bid requests come through,” he said, adding that uncertainty makes organizers cautious when it comes to commitments, but most large events plan years ahead of the event.
“We are still at that phase where there is just not consumer confidence to travel or to really plan long term and commit to these conferences and things,” he added.
As a result, he said it’s likely the first growth in activity could be local, from social events to weddings. As a result, maintaining the health of the building is crucial.
“We all want to come out of here feeling well and being able to be aggressive on that other end,” he said.