Finding a niche in Burnsville

Brian Luther says he knows how to draw the crowds.

He built a career as the behind-the-scenes guy who books acts that fill arena and theater seats, and he promises to do just that as the new executive director of the Burnsville Performing Arts Center — even in the face of fierce competition from casino stages, college theaters and city arenas.

Luther said he’s already on the phone with agents and promoters, tapping his 14 years of industry connections to bring more concerts and shows.

“It’s a beautiful, viable facility,” Luther said. “There is a tremendous amount of competition. There’s no shortage of venues. We have to find our niche. We have to be aggressive in the industry to get our bookings.”

Luther started Oct. 6. He’s the venue’s third manager since Burnsville officials cut the ribbon on the city-built arts center three years ago. The center features a 1,000-seat main stage, a 150-seat black box theater, an art gallery and convention space.

Luther said he knows what it’s like to operate in the shadow of a big metropolis. He managed a municipal arena and theater in Rockford, Ill., 80 miles from Chicago.

“We did compete with the Chicago market. We had to be very strategic,” Luther said.

The Eagan resident also has firsthand knowledge of the Twin Cities entertainment scene, having worked as an events manager at Minnesota Sports Entertainment, which operates the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

It’s not all about headliners. Luther said he also wants to raise the center’s profile among businesses, community groups and brides-to-be.

“We want to be the first place businesses consider in this area to host their functions,” Luther said.

Luther’s former boss in Illinois said Luther knows how to navigate in a competitive market such as the Twin Cities.

“People weren’t dying to play the [Rockford] market. We had to go way outside the box,” said Corey Pearson, now the executive director of Toyota Center in Kennewick, Wash. “He can go out and find the promoters and find the acts as well as work with the staff to get some homegrown stuff as well.”

Luther left Rockford in 2010 when the city restructured and hired an outside company to run daily operations.

He works for VenuWorks, an Iowa-based management company that Burnsville hired to manage the center, but city officials say they approve of the hire. VenuWorks declined to release Luther’s salary, but Burnsville Deputy City Manager Tom Hansen said it’s between $80,000 and $90,000.

“He’s a very good fit,” Hansen said. “We need a business person who can maintain the good business practices and solid financial practices. Brian is that guy.”

Since opening its doors, the center has operated at a deficit, fueling some criticism. The city, which built the center to spur economic development in its Heart of the City, has subsidized the center with nearly $1 million over three years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Hansen said subsidizing the center has always been the expectation, just as other cities choose to support ice rinks, golf courses and parks.

“The performing arts center is performing slightly better than those forecasts,” Hansen said.

Hansen said he’s pleased with the current direction, which calls for booking a mix of entertainment events as well as private events. The center hosts the Chameleon Theatre, Dakota Valley Symphony and Twin Cities Ballet.

“Right now the business plan is very good. It’s nothing splashy. It doesn’t say we are going to bring the Rolling Stones to Burnsville,” Hansen said. “I know we’ve held our own with this facility.”

Annual attendance grew from 59,500 in 2009 to 95,700 in 2010. This year’s attendance now stands at 63,300, and the final months of the year are typically the highest attended.

Luther, 37, was born and raised in California’s Central Valley.

The thrill of live performance — maybe it was seeing Johnny Cash perform live as a small boy, watching his grandfather tap along on his knee — drew him into the entertainment industry.

“I always had a passion for theaters, venues, ballparks,” Luther said.

Shannon Prather is a Roseville freelance writer.

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