Hall, Yes

April 2, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — If the contents of a document that reveal a $1.6 billion construction project for downtown are fairly accurate and current, then the city stands a decent chance to get another concert hall.

According to the ESNA RiverGrand Development Project financing package, this one would be an indoor and outdoor venue that would seat 2,500.

A new hall of that size shouldn’t suck much business from Van Andel Arena, although it could possibly siphon away some of the smaller concerts that are occasionally held there.

The story could be different for DeVos Performance Hall, though, which seats 2,400 in its recently refurbished surroundings. A new venue could cut into event revenue at the hall, and it could also lure a tenant or two away from it, depending on how it is built. But those who are responsible for the hall’s operation think otherwise.

The Convention and Arena Authority, which operates the hall and the arena, counts on performances at both to help meet the operating deficits that DeVos Place has run up while the new convention center establishes its reputation as a place for associations to meet.

And DeVos Performance Hall is expected to provide 16 percent of the building’s total event income, which is generated by the four arts tenants and from bookings made by SMG, the firm that manages the arena and the performance hall located in DeVos Place.

Through February, income from the hall and event days at the hall exceeded the forecast. Revenue was at $432,391 from 97 events at the eight-month mark, instead of the budgeted amount of $409,490 from 90 shows. In addition to more events, revenue is up because of the premium-seat policy the CAA initiated for the hall. As of February, 230 of the 400 seats that were up for rent had been leased. Those seat holders get the first shots at buying tickets to events that are booked there by SMG.

So is there a lot for the performance hall and the convention center to lose if downtown gets a new concert venue? SMG General Manager Rich MacKeigan didn’t think so. In fact, he felt just the opposite would happen if such a hall was built downtown.

“Similar to the Meijer Gardens project, I would view another small concert venue in the market as a positive thing. It gets more people out for live entertainment,” he said.

CAA Chairman Steven Heacock echoed that sentiment by saying he didn’t view a new venue as a financial threat to the hall.

“We’ve become a large enough city and venue that we can probably sustain both, and getting people out for live entertainment is generally a good thing for all. The exception, of course, is I wouldn’t want anyone to build a 10,000- to 15,000-seat outdoor amphitheater because of its effect on the arena as a concert venue,” he said.

The CAA is interested in building a $17 million to $20 million amphitheater northwest of the city, if it can get an acceptable property agreement near Millennium Park.

“But the 2,500-seat kind of thing, I really don’t have a negative response to that at all,” Heacock said.

Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park, though, only offers a handful of open-air concerts during the summer, which has traditionally been a slow time for the hall. A new full-time concert venue could host more shows than Meijer Garden and during key months. Even so, it would still be welcomed by the CAA.

“During the busy season at DeVos Hall, it’s pretty busy with our arts tenants and juggling time. The Broadway Theatre Guild already would like different times and we just don’t have it to give it to them. And there are other events that could go there that end up passing up our city because of the inaccessibility,” said Heacock.

The Broadway Theatre Guild is one of the hall’s four arts tenants. The GR Symphony, Opera GR and the GR Ballet Company are the other three. Broadway Theatre Guild has been a tenant for 18 seasons and is renting the hall 42 times this season. In October, the organization went to the CAA and told the board that it needed longer blocks of time to draw the newest shows here.

Marketing Director Nancy Brian said if the BTG had multiple-week engagements, instead of the one-week bookings it is limited to, it could compete better with the Wharton Center in East Lansing and Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo for the latest productions.

“We lose opportunities and money,” said Brian of not being able to schedule shows that require a longer run.

BTG Vice President of Sales and Production Jack Lane said his organization would look at a new venue if it could handle the needs a Broadway traveling show requires.

“If it’s got enough space for us to load the show in — that would definitely open some new doors for us, sure. But this is all so speculative right now. Depending on what size facility they’re talking about, that could be a real good possibility,” said Lane.

“DeVos is about 2,400, so that should work great,” added Lane of the 2,500 seats in the “mystery” venue.

The GR Symphony is playing 51 dates in the hall this season. As the biggest user of the hall, the orchestra is expected to account for about 20 percent of its total event income this fiscal year. Symphony Music Director David Lockington told an Economic Club luncheon audience a few years ago that the city needed another hall to handle the growing number of performances vying for dates at DeVos and to clear the scheduling logjam that its tenants go through each season.

Also, Executive Director John Peter Jeffries told the CAA last May that Opera GR would look for a permanent home once the organization retires its debt and builds its cash reserve.

Heacock said he valued having all four tenants in the hall. But if one or two left for a new downtown venue, he felt the CAA could handle the financial loss.

“I wouldn’t want that, as they’re all good partners of ours,” said Heacock of a potential departure. “But from a CAA financial liability perspective, it wouldn’t be a terrible concern.”

MacKeigan said all the tenants consider the hall their home, and that it is difficult for his staff to schedule outside events there because they have a tough time finding enough dates for the four arts groups.

“So not knowing anything about this other facility, I don’t know if it could be used by them,” said MacKeigan. “What I know is that these tenants have a commitment to downtown and a commitment to DeVos right now.”   

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