Cedar Rapids Kernels back in business

Tom Gentner scans fans’ tickets before the Midwest League baseball game between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Peoria Chiefs at Veterans Memorial Stadium in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 4 (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

By Casey Drottar
Medill Reports

For a little more than 1,700 fans in attendance, the Cedar Rapids Kernels season opener represented the much-needed return of minor league baseball and a sense of normalcy.

For members of the team’s front office, it was a culmination of one of the most stressful months of their lives.

“Over the last 30 days, the front office staff has put in at least 12-hour days, at least six days a week,” said Kernels general manager Scott Wilson. “You’re putting up signs, cleaning, running a pressure washer for eight hours a day to try and get the things done.

“It’s not things that all of us were used to, because there were normally employees here that were doing that for us.”

Such is life for the Cedar Rapids front office. The full-time staff is half of what it used to be, pared down to just seven members after last June’s pandemic-driven layoffs. Those who remain are spending the 2021 season managing their responsibilities and those of the employees no longer on hand.

“We’re just piecing it together right now,” said Andrea Brommelkamp, the Kernels’ senior director of tickets and group sales. “We’re missing a lot of salespeople. We also are missing a graphics person. We’re missing a concessions hiring manager. We’re all working super hard just to make sure that fans don’t see any of those gaps.”

The Kernels’ staff effectively accomplished that mission on opening night. Ticket takers gleefully welcomed fans back to Veterans Memorial Stadium for the first time since 2019. The Hot Corner Grill served long lines all night long. The smiles of attendees were hard to miss, even when hidden under masks and face coverings.

It was an impressive feat considering how few full-time workers were on hand to pull it off.

Unfortunately, their nights of wearing many hats won’t be going anywhere any time soon. While the $1.4 million loan the city helped the team secure in October can keep things afloat, COVID-19 capacity restrictions hinder any chances of rehiring former staff.

The Kernels also have struggled to find enough food and concessions workers, battling a combination of noncompetitive wages and still-remaining COVID-19 concerns. There’s hope, however, that this won’t be an issue for the entire season.

“I really am optimistic about it,” Brommelkamp said of boosting the team’s concessions staff. “I think that we have a very legitimate and safe plan in place to keep not only our fans safe, but also our employees.”

It’s another hurdle for the Kernels’ halved front office to handle. But after the month they’ve endured to get to this point, they’re fully prepared to face just about any adversity thrown their way.

“Everyone has just picked up the ball, working that much harder just to make it through,” said team CEO Doug Nelson. “Every day is a new challenge. It’s a very dynamic situation, and we have learned how to change up and move on a dime.”

As for staffing the concession stands?

“If you’re looking for a position, we’d happily take your application,” he said.

Casey Drottar is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @CDrottar19.