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Big Top, Big Score

Feld Entertainment's expansion promises to be a game changer for Manatee County.

February 1, 2013

By Ilene Denton

Photography by Steven Katzman

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Manatee County caught the brass ring when it lured Vienna, Va.-based Feld Entertainment to move its global production headquarters to a mammoth, vacant manufacturing plant on the Manatee River in Ellenton.

How big and brassy? The local economic impact is estimated at $2 billion over the next 20 years, says Sharon Hillstrom of the Manatee County Economic Development Corporation. “To take a vacant facility and to turn it into a world-class facility with a world headquarters is pretty incredible,” she says.

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A gutted Pullman car, ready to be renovated at Feld's in-house shop.

 

Feld—with its Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney On Ice, Disney Live, and Monster Jam, Nuclear Cowboyz and other Feld Motor Sports productions—is the largest producer of live family entertainment in the world. Some 30 million people in 70 countries across the globe attend its shows every year.

The company paid $8.35 million to purchase the 590,000-square-foot complex set on 47  acres off U.S. 301, which was built in the early 1980s as a turbine manufacturing plant for Siemens AG and until March 2011 was occupied by General Electric. It’s in the process of investing $15 million in renovations and upgrades, according to Florida operations VP Scott Dickerson. One hundred to 150 construction crewmen were on-site on any given day last summer working on what Dickerson calls a “rocket schedule.” The total transformation will take three or four years to complete, but some Feld employees move in this month.

Eventually the complex—located along the essential CSX railroad tracks—will house Feld’s costume, scenic design, and sound and lighting shops; its transportation department, including circus railcar maintenance (a paint booth is being constructed to accommodate one 95-foot railcar at a time); and ice production and monster truck fabrication facilities—because, after all, when you bang up 40 monster trucks in every show, you’ve got a lot of reconstruction to do. Circus animals will be moved to their own on-site “village,” and within the next couple of years there will be enough space and technical capability in the cavernous, 75-foot-high space to mount two full-size circus dress rehearsals simultaneously. (Feld’s elephant conservation center will remain on a 200-acre plot of land off I-4 in Polk County. Payne says, with 44 elephants, it’s the largest herd of Asian elephants outside of range countries.)

The bulk of Feld’s corporate offices will relocate to Ellenton, too: marketing, sales, payroll, safety and compliance, and finance and accounting. The legal and government relations departments will remain in Feld’s current world headquarters in Vienna, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., and regional offices will be scattered elsewhere across the country.

Company CEO Kenneth Feld, whose late father, Irvin, purchased the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1967 (they bought the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice show in 1980 and obtained the licensing rights to turn it into Disney On Ice a year later), will work out of the new complex, as will his three grown daughters, Juliette, Nicole and Alana, all executive vice presidents. (They’ll also maintain offices in New York and Chicago.) Kenneth Feld already owns a home in Tampa, where the Ringling Brothers Circus premieres its new shows every January at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and last year, he joined the board of directors of the Ringling Museum of Art.

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Feld's climate-controlled facility will house costumes for all the shows.

The scope of the project echoes the Ringling Brothers Circus tagline, The Greatest Show on Earth. Dickerson says that, in full operational mode, there will be 200 semi-trucks on-site at any one time.

Of course, when you say, “Welcome to Manatee County,” Feld spokesman Stephen Payne is quick to reply, “We’re not back; we never left.” That’s because the company has been operating a low-profile production shop about a mile away in Palmetto for several years. Some 148 people work there in the music, lighting, scenic design and costume shops, and in the railcar construction department. “Most people have no idea we’re there,” says Dickerson. It’s bursting at the seams, he says; the costume shop alone will triple in size in the new complex.

Besides those 148 employees, Feld is committed to creating an additional 235 new high-skill, high-wage jobs at or above 200 percent of Manatee County’s 2009 average annual wage of $33,448. That’s in return for the $3 million-plus in grants and tax incentives given by the state of Florida and Manatee County (see sidebar, page 42).

And when all the actors, artists, athletes, musicians and animal trainers come to town to rehearse the various shows, Dickerson says it won’t be uncommon for a thousand employees to be working on-campus. To accommodate them, a cafeteria, nursery and gym are being created within the complex.

Where will all those people stay when they’re in town? “For the circus it’s easy, everyone lives on the train,” says Payne. “Otherwise, there’s a fair amount of hotel space in the proximity.” Dickerson adds that they’ve been approached about building a hotel right on the property, but no decisions have been made to do so. “When we mount an ice show,” he says, for example, “we book 40 rooms for six weeks.”

Manatee County is crowing about the coup. Officials started conversations with Feld about buying the complex in mid-2010, says Hillstrom, calling it “a collaborative endeavor; a lot of people were involved at the county and state level. It was a labor of love for a long time. It’s a corporate headquarters, No. 1; and No. 2 it’s bringing high-skill, high-wage jobs to this region. That will help us recruit more corporate headquarters here.”

Hillstrom says the intangible benefits also are tremendous. “They’re revitalizing a building that was vacant; think of what that will do to that area for local businesses—restaurants, stores, houses,” she says. “It’s significant.”

It’s an emotional triumph, too, because Sarasota was for decades the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. “The Ringling Brothers Circus started here,” says Hillstrom. “It’s coming full circle.”

Feld also considered North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C.—all locations where it currently has operations—for its global production headquarters, says Hillstrom, but ultimately chose Manatee County for “its business-friendly climate and forward strategic thinking, its proximity to talented office and trade workforces, and the overall cost of living and quality of life.”

“Kenneth Feld has noticed that facility for some time,” says Payne. “Its proximity to our current operations in Palmetto is excellent, and the roots of Feld Entertainment particularly [were convincing]. It’s a great environment, the cost of living is wonderful, and you can’t beat the weather. The challenges to being headquartered here are the same challenges we’d be faced with regardless:  A large portion of our business is logistics. Moving 300 circus performers on a mile-long train is a challenge, but one that we have the greatest expertise in accomplishing.”

“This is a landmark time in our company,” Dickerson says, “like when Irvin Feld bought the Ringling Brothers Circus and Disney On Ice.”

 

Price of Admission

The state of Florida and Manatee County gave Feld Entertainment these incentives:

$1,175,000

Qualified targeted industry tax refund from the state

20 percent

Local match of $235,000 from Manatee County

$650,000

Quick action closing fund grant from the state

$1,265,334

Customized economic development incentive grant from the county

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