COVID-19 drives another year of declining ticket revenue at Dubuque Five Flags Center

Still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dubuque’s Five Flags Center saw another year of declining ticket revenue and event attendance.

Center staff delivered the facility’s annual financial report for fiscal year 2021, which began on July 1, 2020, showing the center had only generated $512,109 in ticket sales, more than $700,000 lower than the previous fiscal year.

The sharp decline in sales and event attendance was largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the center to remain closed throughout a large portion of the year. The facility only held a smattering of small events in the winter months and didn’t fully reopen until March 2021.

“We finished the year really well financially considering we were closed six months out of the year,” said HR Cook, general manager of the Five Flags Center. “We knew we had to do some events in order to drive some business downtown again.”

Cook remarked that the center performed financially better than it had in the previous year, which was also impacted by the pandemic.

Overall, the center was able to generate about $365,000 in income for fiscal year 2021, slightly above fiscal year 2020’s $310,000 in income. Additionally, overall expenses were brought down to $1.17 million for fiscal year 2021, compared to the $1.48 million in expenses in fiscal year 2020.

With the reduced expenses, the Five Flags Center was able to come under the projected city subsidy it was anticipated to need for the fiscal year. City officials had previously set a benchmark of funding about $955,000 in expenses for the center. With the reduced expenses and increased income, the Five Flags Center was able to reduce that subsidy by about $150,000. About $58,000 of that additional revenue came from a state grant from the Iowa Arts and Culture Emergency Relief Fund.

On the other hand, the center’s overall economic impact did decline, with overall attendance at the facility dropping by about 35,000 people, compared to fiscal year 2020, and the total number of event days decreasing by 131.

Cook said the Five Flags Center did generally perform better than many events centers in the surrounding region, putting on significantly more shows than facilities in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Madison.

“I was pretty impressed with those numbers,” he said. “I don’t know why those facilities didn’t put on more shows, but we did.”

Despite the continued financial woes, Dubuque City Council members largely commended the performance of the Five Flags Center throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can really see the work ethic that goes on at Five Flags,” Resnick said, later adding. “It shows that you are thinking about our city.”

The report is the final snapshot of the center’s financial performance that City Council members will see before discussing in January whether to proceed with asking residents to approve funding a $74 million project to construct a new Five Flags Center facility through a referendum vote.

Throughout the financial report presentation, Cook added that the smaller size of the facility, including cramped bathrooms that create long lines during events, has impacted overall facility revenues.

“You can’t sell a beer to a guy who is waiting in line to go to the bathroom,” Cook said.

City Council Member Brad Cavanagh said he believes the most recent report should bring to light the many issues at the Five Flags Center.

“My hope is we can have a full discussion on this not just as a council but as a community,” Cavanagh said. “I think this is great information for all of us to consider.”

While Cook said he is hopeful for next fiscal year’s financial performance, he added that several industry-wide trends could continue to impact performance, including more show cancellations caused by the surge in cases of the COVID-19 delta variant.

“People don’t want to go to a show because they don’t want to take something home to their children,” Cook said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in our industry.”