As Van Andel Arena celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend, managers are well aware they must stare down plenty of competition in years ahead.
But do they also have to worry about a 15,000-seat outdoor amphitheater right in the arena's backyard? After years of kicking around the idea, the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention Arena Authority is on the verge of a campaign to build West Michigan's largest outdoor concert venue, probably in Millennium Park.
You have to admit, it would be sweet to sit under the stars on a warm summer night, listening to James Taylor, Kenny Chesney or some up-and-coming act that has been touring the "sheds," as such amphitheaters are called. Big outdoor venues usually sell general admission tickets cheaper than assigned seats at arenas. Cheaper always is popular in thrifty West Michigan.Meijer Gardens has a successful outdoor concert season already, but it's a small venue, with about 1,800 seats. It shouldn't be hard to get popular acts here. Billboard, the entertainment-industry publication, said "sheds" are part of an emerging, two-pronged tour strategy: Play to a larger crowd at amphitheaters to create buzz and get better known before booking the local arena later.
The manager of one touring group, Coldplay, told Billboard in a September article his group took that approach. "This strategy worked as most of the shed dates sold out quickly, and the reviews were glowing," manager Dave Holmes said. "Fans who missed the amphitheater dates made sure to catch the arena show, and we gained a lot of new fans."
In fact, an amphitheater would be a complement, not competition for the arena, said Steve Heacock, chairman of the convention arena authority. Before the end of the year, the CAA expects to receive a study from Progressive AE on whether it should pursue the project. The CAA is talking about the eastern end of Millennium Park, largely undeveloped land, including sand and gravel mines, far from residential neighborhoods but close to downtown.
"It wouldn't drain business from the arena," Heacock said. "We've struggled with summer shows because people want to be outside in the summer." An amphitheater would help this area attract shows that might otherwise bypass the arena. "Many shows are designed for outside, so we end up with a pretty quiet house in the summer," he said. It also could add to this area's growing reputation as a profitable stop for hot shows. "The promoter gets to see us," Heacock said.
Outdoor shows, with their cheaper tickets, do not generate as much money as an arena, grossing about $200,000 less per show on average in North America this summer. But building and operating an outdoor site are less expensive than an arena simply because much of the space is Mother Nature's.
This outdoor venue is expected to be "relatively inexpensive," about $20 million, Heacock said. That compares with $75 million for the arena a decade ago. Revenues from outdoor shows could be pooled with arena earnings. "We can make money and channel it back to sustain the arena and convention center," he said.
Talk got more serious when Heacock and others heard developers were separately considering outdoor venues -- one near Wayland and one near Sand Lake. Neither materialized, but it got the CAA motivated. "If cherry-picking is done and certain concerts are done outdoors (at other venues), we aren't capturing the revenue," Heacock said when the study was announced.
So the answer is "No" -- a Grand Rapids amphitheater should not be a threat to The Van. In fact, it could fend off encroaching rivals and help secure this city as a great place for a concert, winter or summer.