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Promoters say Roanoke is smart not to bank on the park as a commercial venture.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Elmwood Park reopens Saturday after a $7 million renovation with concerts and festivities. The 5,000-seat amphitheater can be adjusted to cozily host more intimate events.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
What you’re going to see Saturday at the locally flavored opening ceremony for the overhauled Elmwood Park is pretty close to what you’re going to get going forward.
Think Festival in the Park, Local Colors, the Henry Street Festival, the Strawberry Festival, Blue Ridge Blues and BBQ, Roanoke Wing Fest. Saturday ’s bill features the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, Southwest Virginia Ballet, and other local artists.
The 5,000-seat amphitheater that’s the centerpiece of the $7 million park renovation has the dimension and horsepower to rival Charlottesville’s Ntelos Wireless Pavilion, but city officials elected not to hire a management company to book a series of concerts, instead allowing the city’s parks and recreation department to manage it.
It’s part of a conscious and deliberate decision to put the community’s use of the park for familiar festivals to benefit local nonprofits ahead of the venue’s commercial potential.
Music promoters familiar with Roanoke say that while the venue could be a draw for promoters and fans, the city is smart not to bank on it as a commercial venture.
“There’s a long history of cities investing in venues and concert series … and looking back and saying, ‘Was that a good investment?’ ” said Bruce Houghton, president of New Hampshire-based Skyline Music and a Roanoke resident.
At the same time, the amphitheater is done right and Roanoke is located perfectly to draw periodic outdoor shows, Houghton and others say.
But it has to prove itself first.
The amphitheater represents a scaling back from plans floated for the same site four years ago, said Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill. The old idea was a larger venue with 3,000 covered seats that would have swallowed most of the only green space in downtown Roanoke.
“It would have taken up a huge amount of space and would have gotten very little use,” Steven Buschor, the city’s director of parks and recreation, said.
As the recession hit, city leaders began to re-think that idea, Morrill said, with a mind for making the most of the whole park. “We can have a great performance venue,” Morrill said they reasoned, “but let’s have a great park that has a great performance venue in it.”
The result is re-vamped park with an art walk, an area especially designed to accommodate festival vendors, including utility hookups for them, and the amphitheater.
The stage and seating area are built to be scalable : There’s a built-in, flip-a-switch-and-go sound system for simple events that just require a microphone or two, but it’s also wired to handle the major amplification for a 5,000-ticket concert. Chairs can be set up right in front of the stage to bring the crowd in closer for smaller, more intimate performances.
So why not make a point of putting all that power and capacity to use?
Morrill said a management company would lock up dates for its commercial purposes first, and that would leave local groups to work around them for their own events. That’s not the way the city sees its priorities for the park, he said.
The park wasn’t built with a “return on investment business purpose,” Assistant City Manager Brian Townsend said.
At the same time, Buschor added, “the pieces are there” to host big concerts.
How or if that will happen will depend largely on outside groups taking an interest. Promoters say that’s certainly possible.
“The Elmwood Park venue is a great size for a huge list of talent to play and fill seats,” said Gary Jackson, a national promoter living in Roanoke, who currently does the booking for the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount. Artists that command guarantees of $100,000 or more could be successful there, he said, such as the Steve Miller Band, Doobie Brothers, Wilco, Bonnie Raitt, and Widespread Panic to name a few.
Houghton notes that Roanoke has struggled with midsize shows, those in the 5,000 ticket range. Plus there’s plenty of competition for booking.
“The tricky thing in this market is Salem, and the fact that there’s this secondary, cheaper and aggressively run civic center that’s so close to Roanoke,” he said.
The amphitheater also will have to compete with a growing number of outdoor festivals like Floydfest and Lockn’ in Nelson County.
At the same time, because of its location between larger cities and adjacent to an interstate, Roanoke has a history of being able to land big acts for midweek shows as fill-in dates for artists between big weekend bookings.
Jackson said long-term success will depend on financial success for promoters, and that will depend on pricing for leasing the venue and details like who gets how much profit from merchandise sales.
“If promoters come in and can’t meet the financial risk they take on, they will find somewhere else to present concerts where they stand a better chance to see a profit,” he said.
Cyrus Pace, executive director of the Jefferson Center, which hosts its own concert series, thinks the amphitheater’s design and built-ins will reduce a promoter’s costs. He estimates costs for rigging of lights and sound would be half what they would be in some other venues.
He’s intrigued by the notion of Jefferson Center using the stage for a small summertime concert series, maybe three shows.
“We don’t do a lot in the summer right now,” he said. “What would it look like to do an Americana series?” he wondered aloud.
At some point, Pace and others said, someone has to test drive the venue to show off what it will do.
Morrill said there’s an event planned for this spring that will do just that.
That will showcase the venue’s power and flexibility. Figuring out what will actually sell tickets will take more time.
“Someone needs to just try it,” Pace said. “Let’s figure out what the community wants to see.”
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