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Management staff looks to find new uses for NIU Convocation Center

DeKALB – The 10,000-seat Northern Illinois University Convocation Center has new management staff, and their first order of business is to find new community-oriented uses for not only the arena, but also the stadium and other campus spaces.

In January, the university hired John Cheney as senior associate athletic director for facilities and event operations. In early March, John Faso was hired as convocation center director.

“We want to produce what the community and students want to see here,” Faso said. “Concerts are great, but I don’t see Taylor Swifts rolling through here.”

Being new not only to the staff, but also the area, the duo reviewed the 201 events held there last calendar year. The events included single- and multiple-day events such as high school and college commencements, concerts, dances, job and internship fairs, the Kishwaukee Family YMCA’s Halloween party, STEMfest, a conference of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Northern Illinois Farm Show and numerous athletic events.

They want to attract more events that draw people from throughout the region, which in turn will help hotels and local restaurants. They also want to be able to compete with Chicago and Rockford area venues.

“We would like to steal from those venues,” Faso said. “No event is off the table – trade shows, corporate events, speakers series – A to Z.”

Faso said Thursday’s Billy Currington concert was the first event that offered beer and wine at the concession stands.

“It’s possible the lack of alcohol has been a negative for some performers,” Faso said. “This just points to the fact that we want to be competitive and provide amenities.”

Faso said the first thing they plan to change is to become more aggressive with customer service.

“We feel we can distinguish ourselves in that way,” Cheney said. “We want our guests to have an exceptional experience here – no matter what the event is.”

Several people studying in the Holmes Student Center on Sunday said they’ve attended few – or no – events at the center.

“I had a 10-ticket basketball pass last year,” said DeKalb resident Malcom Swanson. “I don’t attend much there. I do go to football games, though.”

Student Shaheer Sidd from Pakistan said he’s never been to the center, although he would attend anything related to “Star Wars.”

Law student Rachel Peter of Algonquin said she has tickets to see Gabriel Inglesias on April 10 at the Convocation Center.

“I like comedy shows, maybe some more music from different genres,” Peter said. “I did my undergrad studies at Champaign, and they have an auditorium where they had operas, ballets, classical concerts, things like that.”

Not all events have been well-received. Carden Entertainment’s Circus Spectacular show had been booked at the Convocation Center this month, but later canceled, citing travel issues. Some students and faculty had protested having the event come to campus, citing concerns about animal cruelty.

To learn more about what kind of events the public would like to see, Cheney and Faso plan to conduct a community survey, as suggested by Sean Frazier, NIU’s associate vice president and director of athletics. But before that happens, they plan to host a summit to seek input from community agencies like the DeKalb Police Department, Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Chamber of Commerce, among others.

“After the summit, we’ll develop the survey,” Cheney said. “We have to determine who we want to reach and how to go about it.”

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