Driving The Amphitheater

July 28, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Convention and Arena Authority Chairman Steven Heacock told board members last week that the effort to determine whether land in Millennium Park would be a suitable site for an amphitheater would be completed by the end of the year. KentCounty has indicated it is willing to lease 40 acres of parkland, situated in the northwest corner of the county, to the CAA for the venue.

Heacock also said access to the proposed outdoor theater was the “real issue,” as he doesn’t want amphitheater traffic creating snarls in neighborhoods along the route. And it will fall to Chris Fahlman, general manager of the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Fla., to see that travel flows relatively smoothly.

Fahlman has extensive experience in the live entertainment field, having worked both under the lights and under the stars, and is assisting Progressive AE with the site study.

“I’ve just begun to look critically at that, and I would say that is always important every place you go. Nothing determines the long-term success (better) than getting people out there, now more than ever. Back in the 1970s, if people missed work the next day; they said, ‘Oh well, it’s summertime.’ Nowadays, nobody is wired that way,” said Fahlman.

The amount of traffic, of course, will depend on the theater’s capacity and the type of performance that is being held. Fahlman said enough data exists to link the two variables to traffic flow and parking. For instance, a Broadway-type show normally means there will be an average of three people in each vehicle, compared to two people per car for a rock concert.

But the amphitheater’s location will affect traffic flow as much as anything else. With MillenniumPark not conveniently situated near an expressway exit, it will take an effort to determine, and direct, how concert-goers will arrive and leave.

“Here it’s omni-directional and not just one-way. So if you can have different routes to go to the same place, then it’s dispersed and no one route particularly works. It’s one of the things that we have to look and see what is possible,” said Fahlman.

SMG, the firm that manages Van Andel Arena and

DeVos Place
, as well as the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, is paying for the study at a cost that is not to exceed $50,000. SMG is also in the process of determining whether an outdoor performance venue could be financially successful.

“There already has been a little bit of work done on budgets and performance. We look to revise that with our in-house expertise — to expand upon that and get it current. But that has already been initiated,” said SMG General Manager Rich MacKeigan.

“But the biggest part of the puzzle right now is looking at site selection,” he added.

In addition to finding the right location, another hurdle that may have to be cleared is the concert industry itself. Outdoor tours have declined over the past few years, just like those that play indoors, and that likely means an amphitheater will have fewer seats and a smaller lawn capacity than initially planned.

Instead of hosting an audience of 20,000, with permanent seating for half that number, Fahlman said the venue would likely have a maximum capacity of 15,000 with about a third of those in reserved seats. But as MacKeigan pointed out, capacity isn’t the only factor that will have an impact on the theater’s financial performance.

“It’s much more an experiential environment that is required rather than what is just touring out there. Because what’s touring out there has either declined or is getting repetitive, and it is more the added value that you have to provide in terms of the environment — the fun elements that you build around the concert experience,” he said.

“If it’s a half-day or day-long event where they can go and enjoy themselves, then we’ve got something that we can build on. I think that has to go into the concept of programming the facility itself.”

Fahlman said the amphitheaters that are doing strong business also have a popular food environment and present shows that feature a certain type of music or regional artists. He said having solid promotional ties with area radio stations and local performing arts groups would also be important to the venue’s financial success.

Fahlman said the days of building a cookie-cutter outdoor venue disappeared when the regional concert promoters were bought out by large national booking agencies, resulting in fewer promoters managing more artists. Fiscal longevity today requires a long-term outlook that finds a niche, one that is nearly exclusive for a venue, rather than cycling the same tours through each look-alike theater.

“This is probably the first amphitheater where we have really tried to figure out what the next five, 10, 15 and 20 years in the amphitheater business will be like, as opposed to what the last 20 years have been like,” he said.

“It’s a bit of a watershed, and I think that’s interesting.”    

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