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Little Rock amphitheater plans still on hold.

AFTER YEARS SPENT DISCUSsing the future of the Riverfest Amphitheatre at Riverfront Park, Little Rock city government still has no concrete plans for improvements the facility needs if it's to become a competitive outdoor music venue.

The process inched forward earlier this year when the city entered into a contract with Wittenberg Delony & Davidson, a Little Rock architecture firm, to draw up preliminary concept designs that include a permanent ticket booth and a roof that doesn't leak.

WD&D architects now say they are in a holding pattern, awaiting further instructions from the city after conducting their initial investigations of the site.

Truman Tolefree, director of Little Rock's Parks & Recreation Department, which maintains and controls the use of the amphitheater, expects detailed plans to be brought forth in six to eight weeks.

But before that happens, the city still has one central question to answer: What kind of venue is the amphitheater supposed to be?

"The trick to this is how do we find a balance between being able to accommodate major acts and being able to accommodate smaller community events," Tolefree said.

When the amphitheater was built about 20 years ago, it was designed as a venue for jazz shows and small rock concerts like the annual Riverfest headline acts. In addition, the amphitheater plays host to a wide variety of other events like Easter sunrise service, Movies in the Park and private weddings and birthday parties.

But over the years the amphitheater has also drawn bigger, popular acts like Ringo Start, the rock band Poison and Lyle Lovett, all of whom came by way of concert promoter Butch Stone.

Stone had a 10-year exclusive arrangement with the city in which he would line up the acts and provide staffing services such as ticket takers, backstage security guards and production crew workers. Stone said he paid a $50,000 advance rental fee each year regardless of how many shows he arranged for that year. The city also got a percentage of concession sales and a dollar for each ticket sold.

Stone said he couldn't recall how much money he made through the deal, but that it was a profitable venture overall.

In 2003, though, the arrangement was ended by mutual agreement.

Assistant City Manager Bryan Day, who was director of the parks department from 1998 to 2005, said the city hoped that by opening the venue to any and all artists and concert producers, it would land shows the amphitheater might not have otherwise attracted.

"The belief was, and still is, that by not having exclusive rights for anything, we would be like Alltel [Arena] or Barton Coliseum or Robinson, like all other music venues in central Arkansas in that they are open to anybody and everybody," Day said. "When the exclusive promoter was in place, we felt, I felt, the city felt that it restricted opportunities."

Revenue Dwindles

New acts, however, have not come running. The number of concerts outside of annual events like Riverfest, Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth has dwindled in the past few years, as has the city's revenue from the amphitheater.

Since ending its exclusive arrangement with Stone, the city has seen the revenue stream for the amphitheater shrink to less than $25,000, a quarter of what it was when Stone was still the events' exclusive promoter.

Revenue for the amphitheater now comes exclusively through rental fees. Concerts fetch as much $5,000, but the department charges lower rates --as little as $300 to $500--for smaller events with a determinable "return to the community," according to Tolefree.

Tolefree said the parks department has four or five regular promoters with which it works, one of those being Stone, who lined up the Radio Disney Family Fest for May 12. He said he has other acts, including Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd, in the works for later this summer.

Day said the word about the amphitheater is still getting out through advertisements in trade publications, but the improvements are a must if the venue hopes to draw big outdoor shows.

The proposed improvements include a wider, taller roof that would fully cover the stage and allow room to hang more sound and light equipment. Also envisioned are a permanent ticket booth, additional restrooms and backstage facilities like a production office and dressing rooms.

"We need to have all of those amenities in place if we are going to be in the business of promoting a music venue," Day said.

Because even the preliminary plans haven't been released, no cost estimates for the improvements were available.

For guidance on the improvements, the parks department has tapped managers of central Arkansas' other performing arts venues, including Robinson Center Music Hall and Alltel Arena of North Little Rock.

Jim Rice, chief operating officer of the Little Convention & Visitors Bureau, which manages Robinson, said that while changing the roof is the first priority, the stage itself needs improved access and a higher weight capacity to accommodate today's heavier, more complex shows.

Michael Marion, general manager of Alltel Arena, was also asked his opinion. Alltel Arena assisted with staffing the A1 Green show in October 2006, which was booked by the LRCVB as a part of the River Market District's 10th anniversary celebration. Alltel Arena will also provide staffing for Widespread Panic when the band plays the amphitheater on July 10.

Marion said that Alltel Arena might be interested in helping book events for the amphitheater once the improvements are complete. He said summer is usually slower for Alltel and that it could help out with shows better suited for the outdoors.

"Until the improvements are made, it's limited in what it can do. We're not actively trying to pursue any kind of arrangement with the city until we see what kind of improvements can be made," Marion said.

Tolefree said that if the city moves forward with the improvements, it's possible the parks department would look to entities like Alltel Arena or the LRCVB for ongoing partnerships to promote the venue, in addition to booking and staffing shows. But that decision, he said, is somewhere "down the road."

"Right now, I think we can only take one step at a time. We know the first thing that we have got to do is to make sure it's the right kind of venue before anybody is going to be attracted to it," Tolefree said. "The only thing that is on the table, I think, is looking at the actual improvements that need to be made."

James Gordon

jgordon@abpg.com
Riverfest Amphitheatre

Year Annual Revenue Concerts/Music Events *

2002 $100,178 9
2003 $99,560 12
2004 $56,475 8
2005 $26,211 4
2006 $24,350 8

* Includes annual events such as Riverfest, Pops on the River,
Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth

Sources: Little Parks & Recreation Department, Little Rock Finance
Department
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Author:Gordon, James
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 7, 2007
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