Matt Brown will turn 63 in May, but doesn’t look it. He’s still trim and slightly frenetic, with the nervous energy of a teenager. He walks fast. He talks fast. His full head of hair is still slicked back, Pat Riley-style, though now with tinges of gray.
At $263,000 a year, he is the highest-paid city employee, by more than an NBA 3-pointer.
Some people don’t like that.
But most agree that Brown is good, very good, at what he does — so good that he not only runs the coliseum complex, including the city’s aquatics center, an amphitheater, an exhibition hall, an ACC Hall of Champions and a Special Events Center, he’ll be in charge of the city’s new downtown performing arts center as well.
He and his staff also now manage Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, among other venues, in Winston-Salem.
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City Councilman Tony Wilkins, who once served on the War Memorial Commission, which oversees the coliseum, considers Brown the gold standard of his profession.
“My description of Matt Brown is as the Michael Jordan of his industry,” Wilkins said recently.
As for whether Brown is worth all that money, Wilkins added, “I didn’t say that .”
Even for an interview, Brown has a flair for staging.
The Greensboro Coliseum’s managing director had a table and chairs arranged at the edge of the upper-arena floor.
Providing a bustling backdrop below were the North Carolina State High School Wrestling Championships. Pairs of high school boys grappled on a floor covered with 13 mats to a chorus of cheers from a mostly filled lower arena. The scattered tweets of referees’ whistles echoed in the big room like bird song.
Meanwhile, Brown still prefers only one gear: overdrive, even into his 60s.
“I never worry about my age,” he said. “I don’t think of it that way. It’s more important how you feel.”
Right now he feels challenged. One of the coliseum marquee attractions, the ACC men’s basketball tournament, tips off this week, but its future in Greensboro is uncertain.
It returns to the city next year, but what happens after that is unclear.
And with the ACC expanding, there’s talk of New York entering the competition for the event. So, Brown feels an added urgency this year for the coliseum to put its best foot forward, as Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame play in their first ACC tournament, and Louisville arrives next season.
Among the major improvements greeting the event this year will be a wider concourse in the upper arena, more concession space, upgraded restrooms and giant TV screens to keep fans informed of the action on the floor. Metal safety rails that Brown said looked too much like what you’d see in a prison cell block are gone, replaced by shiny, see-through glass railings.
Workers also were adding decorative, larger-than-life photo posters of major performers and events that have played the arena. The posters are spun from fabric recycled from plastic bottles. The first one, of pop songstress Taylor Swift, already loomed, with dozens more to follow.
Brown then repeated his opinion that he has the best basketball arena in the known universe, in the best community for the ACC tournament.
What else Brown had to say in a recent, hourlong interview with Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson:
What worries him most concerning other competitors for the ACC tournament:
Clearly, just having the addition of a new alternative site like New York, where they feel the pressure to go because of the attention that they feel they’d get in New York — what it does in terms of their stature and how they’re viewed in terms of placement of teams. Now, did New York just replace Florida as an alternative? Or did it replace Atlanta as an alternative? Is it presumed that Greensboro will continue to get its share of tournaments? We’ll certainly do everything in our to power to continue to support them in making that decision. That’s why the timeliness of these improvements is so crucial. We could not afford to have given the ACC an excuse to say, “When you fix up your place we’ll come back to see ya.”
On his salary and raise, on which he had previously refused to comment:
I hadn’t received a raise for either five or eight years, something like that. No one knew that. I’ve had remarkable years. And in 2006, nobody knows that I voluntarily relinquished an annual bonus that I was eligible for, which was $25,000 a year. So, over those years I would have been eligible to make $225,000 (a year) — I think that number’s right. The city used to take so frustratingly long (to pay the bonuses). It would be 18 months; it would be 24 months. I was already behind. And then people would write these things. So I decided, you know what? It’s not worth it to me. Have a nice day. You guys keep the money.
On whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth:
I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that they’re not getting the full value of my contributions. People can relate the issue to private-industry standards. I took a $50,000 cut in pay to come to Greensboro . So I was already behind, but I took that willingly because of the quality of life that I thought I was providing for my children. ... This is the most I’ve ever talked about this.
The parallels he sees between Greensboro and Green Bay:
“For years, the Packer ownership, management and supporters thought they had to have two or three games in Milwaukee because, oh, they had restaurants, they had hotels and it was in a bigger city. What they found out was that you can’t — and I’m looking for the right word — you can’t transfer the aura of Lambeau Field and put it on the road, and in a stadium in another city — that they’d lost the essence of their roots. Tobacco Road would be the comparison here, and the roots of the ACC.”
The planned High Point Road/Lee Street improvements:
Beginning after this year’s tournament, they’re going to start working on the streetscape plan. We’re gonna live through two years of construction. It’s not gonna be fun, but the plan is to stop during next year’s ACC tournament, so that it’s not affecting that tournament. But it’s going to be a temporary inconvenience for a long-term future enhancement. You’re gonna have a tree-lined, landscaped promenade; you’re gonna have new, modern lights; you’re gonna get rid of all the wires; you’re gonna have a far better vista — a far better front-door between the Koury Center, I-40/85 and the coliseum. It will do nothing but enhance our neighborhood.
UNCG’s use of the coliseum as its home basketball arena and the struggle to build attendance:
We had a transition period. We had the issue with the change in the coach. We lived through those periods of time. And we had a little bump with (Coach Wes Miller). He had a down year last year, a so-so year this year. Next year is going to be critical to his success because nobody wants to be associated with a losing organization or team.
On prospects for the contract renewing, since next year is the last in the agreement with UNCG:
They’re not looking to go back. (UNCG) Chancellor Linda Brady is not someone to go back to Fleming (Gym, the smaller, on-campus home court). She’ll look to make improvements to correct things before she’ll ever raise the white flag. I don’t see them accepting that.
The absence of any N.C. A&T home games in recent years at the coliseum:
Coaches are very difficult in the terms of their edge — they don’t want to give up an edge. Cy (Alexander, A&T’s head coach), when he comes here, still thinks it’s UNCG’s home court. We’ll put stickers on the floor ... all the logos, all the graphics, are Aggie stuff. But in his mind, he’s playing on UNCG’s court.
The future of the N.C. A&T-UNCG basketball series at the coliseum:
That series probably isn’t going to continue because Cy wants UNCG to come over and play the return game over at Corbett (the A&T campus arena). ... Next year would be our last under the current agreement.
The chances of the UNC-Chapel Hill basketball team temporarily playing home games in Greensboro if the Dean E. Smith Center is upgraded or rebuilt:
We tease them all the time. We certainly make them well aware that we are ready, willing and able and available to do any portion of their schedule if there is a problem with the construction schedule. By the way, we’re offering the same to Duke. Duke’s going to be doing something with Cameron. ... Even if it’s one game we’d do it. If it’s two to six games, we’d do it.
The new arrangement with Winston-Salem:
I’m the guy who’d like to book something the next day, right? I’m driving my staff nuts: “What have we got? What are we working on?’ But this is like sowing a field. We’re throwing out a bunch of seeds and hoping they take hold. We’ve got a couple of things in the fall that we hope will come to fruition. For instance, we’ve developed a relationship with Winston-Salem State on their homecoming, trying to get them back into the Joel Coliseum and utilize that facility, and to be comfortable working with us, knowing we’ve done this before with A&T.
... And we’re prospecting with all of our contacts. ... But it’s a five-year agreement. We’re not going to immediately walk in there with a major artist.
The White Oak Amphitheater’s bookings:
You know me. I’d like it to be more. So we’ve worked out a partnership with two of the national concert-promoting firms. We’ve put them together, and then we partner with them, so we can get more shows. We’re very frustrated — we have a chip on our shoulder — because we want to be treated equally with Raleigh and Charlotte. And it’s very frustrating to see Charlotte and Raleigh continually draw the volume of shows they get. Our market, being the whole Triad, justifiably should get an increase in those.
Whether Superjam, the popular annual concert that requires a ramped-up police presence and has resulted in some related arrests off the coliseum grounds (200 in 2012) will continue:
Absolutely. It’s a critical part of our programming. It’s a critical part of our community, and I think we go to great lengths to manage that event. And we have a great partnership with 102 JAMZ (the local radio co-sponsor). There are people in this country who would die to have this event. ... And, knock on wood, we’ve never had an incident.
How he can manage the performing arts center and the Winston-Salem coliseum with so many venues already on his plate:
We’ve got a phenomenally great staff, a pretty dedicated staff. ... Why do we walk around the halls and we’re all excited because we booked another act? We just booked Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson and we’re all pumped up. That means we’re working on a Saturday night in May. Now, who’s gonna be excited about working a Saturday night in May? We are. We’re, like, thrilled to death. And, guess what? We’re gonna have an event the next Saturday. And the next Saturday. Four in a row. And we’re asking, ‘How come you skipped a week?’ It’s infectious. You either love this business or you don’t.
Yes, but what about the logistics of all this?
It makes sense for the city to reduce the potential downside overhead expenses of the building by having an existing, experienced staff in place. We’ve got those contacts. We have a relationship with the people who are going to do (touring Broadway shows). We have a relationship with a multitude of promoters who’ll have an interest in bringing events. We know the economics of the game. We know how to map out the deals. We know the price points. We know how to be successful. And when you have one success, it automatically leads to another booking. It’s a great example of economies of scale.
The disappointing attendance for the ACC Hall of Champions:
What I haven’t done, contrary to my original plan, is proactively spend money marketing and promoting the facility. We’ve had to spend that money this year on expansions or improvements. But what we haven’t done is have to lay anyone off, because we don’t have any paid employees. We have a 100 percent volunteer staff. ... So it doesn’t cost anybody a dollar for us to operate it. ... And if it was open just for the tournaments, it would be an accent for the coliseum. Where it has become highly successful is being a host of receptions for various events. ... The original premise and expectations certainly have not been met, but I have not utilized any of the original plan to spend money on marketing and promotions. We may never do that now. It may be best to let it operate as it is.
Thoughts of leaving or retiring:
I don’t have an end date. Every day I get excited. I’m always looking for new ideas, new ways of doing things. It’s part of my makeup and, to me, it’s the way we all should be doing things. How do we do it better? How can we make an improvement? ... If I get bored, then I don’t think that’s a recipe for me staying. Right now, I’m not bored.