After more than 33 years with the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Executive Vice President and General Manager Randy Brown is retiring this fall.
But truth be told, he didn’t really want the job in the first place.
In the summer of 1988, Randy Brown was busy living life and taking care of his newborn daughter while working in South Bend at the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s University managing theatrical facilities. He also had work at the legendary Athletics & Convocation Center.
Meanwhile, the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum was in transition. The coliseum’s board of trustees were dreaming up a new facility. They had revenue from recently passed food and beverage tax and were eager to make a splash.
The county-owned facility needed an identity and significant changes — and a leader to make it happen. They thought of Brown for the job, but he wasn’t interested in making that transition.
“The timing wasn’t right,” Brown recalled. “After turning them down, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. After two or three more calls, I agreed to visit.”
Brown reluctantly visited the facillity, per the request of the Coliseum General Manager Phil Olofson, though Brown’s feelings didn’t easily budge.
“I walked in and I immediately was ready to turn around and go back. This was not what I was looking for,” Brown remembered. “Phil gave me the grand tour and took me to the west side of the building. He opened a door on the walkway. It was the expo center under construction, and he made an offer.”
He offered Brown the opportunity to lead the arena after coming on board as an assistant for two years. That was the ticket Brown needed.
Jumping in with Both Feet
The coliseum’s tranformation commenced immediately after Brown started. Construction of the Expo Center was fresh; the floor was still dirt. Within the first few weeks, he was managing the construction project and creating budgets and lease documents.
This was the first significant renovation of the 35-year-old facility.
“To say we hit the ground running was the understatement of the hour,” Brown said.
The staff were largely reinventing the arena, in some ways, without a blueprint.
“To say Phil and I had an absolute vision for what it could be — that wasn’t quite the case,” Brown laughed. “It was going to open in May 1990. We held on for the ride. Neither one of us had operated a major exhibit space before.”
A year later, the Expo Center opened up 108,000 square feet of adaptive meeting space for private meetings, receptions, and trade shows. The project made the coliseum two venues in one, including 8,000 telescoping seats for concerts. It also meant transitioning its concessions into a catering company.
Another perfect storm was a massive $35 million overhaul of Memorial Coliseum in 2002. The tired facility was in need of work. The success of the Fort Wayne Komets pushed attendance consistently up, hovering near full capacity.
“We had three options,” Brown said. “Do nothing, renovate, or build a new arena. Raising the roof was going to cost about half of a new facility.”
At the speed of three inches per hour, the 44,000-square-foot roof was raised in an historic 41-foot climb that made way for the 35 million renovations, including 2,500 new seats and luxury boxes.
The facility received another shot in the arm when lawmakers approved a TIFF district. That reinvests recycling tax monies raised on property back into its upkeep. That kitty can be as much as $4 million per year.
The main goal of Brown and his team is to consistently improve the experience for people who enter the facility.
“It’s what you don’t see.” Brown said, as the mantra for him and his staff. “It’s about keeping the facility state of the art. That’s something we work hard to do.”
Brown said his work with the International Association of Venue Managers has opened up a world of ideas.
“I’ve seen virtually every venue and stadium in the U.S.A.,” he said. “You see what the latest innovations in arenas and stadiums are. We’ve been pretty successful in bringing them back to the coliseum and implementing them.”
That includes services, amenities, equipment, and even facility management software.
The spirit of Memorial Coliseum, according to Brown, is to be memorable.
“We go beyond what’s expected,” he said.
When Paul McCartney performed in 2019, Brown believes his staff did just that. They worked to get Allen County Commissioners to proclaim “Sir Paul McCartney Day” and baked a special gluten-free cake.
“He left with the proclamation in hand and the cake was cut,” Brown said. “We have every indication that he ate it.”
He mentioned the importance of coliseum guests feeling that way, too.
“We were a concessions company,” Brown said. “Now we are a full-service catering company. We have the first tasting kitchen in a five-state area. Based on setups in Houston and Phoenix, guests have a chance to preview their menu and customize with the coliseum chef. It gives a unique dining experience for small family receptions or huge corporate dinners.
“These are one-on-one sit downs where the chef is cooking as the testing transpires. The client is sampling how they want it cooked.”
Time to Hold the Line
For now, there are no new plans for expansion. Brown is thinking practically.
“We are focused on recovering from the pandemic,” he said. “We are not back yet and probably won’t be for the next year to two years to get it back to where it was in 2019.”
Brown and his staff are treating 2021 like rehabilitation after an injury. This includes the monumental task of rescheduling events and bringing employees back. They are still aiming for high-level events, such as the NCAA Division III men’s basketball championship.
“We’ve got a very good relationship with the NCAA,” Brown said. “They were very pleased with how we treated them, so we are going to continue to bid for men’s and women’s basketball and other events. Everything is on the table.”
That’s true for other shows and concerts as well.
Focus on Experience
Since 1988, Brown and the Allen County War Memorial Colisuem have come a long way. Now, with his last day being Oct. 1, he credits the forethought of the board of trustees.
“They were really ahead of their time in terms of their insight,” Brown said. “They gave me their encouragement. I knew if I could impress them, we could do it. Very early I learned that you have to have a good plan, defend the plan, and sell the plan. We have to get people in to see it, see the technology.”
He leaves with a reminder for current staffers:
“People don’t come in to see an empty venue,” he said. “We have to share a vision and what you can do with it. We are experiences.”