A more or less accurate conversation between Mason Adams, city hall and politics reporter, and Dwayne Yancey, senior editor (and Botetourt County resident):
Dwayne: Hey, Mason, what’s the status of the amphitheater the city was talking about building?
Mason: Dwayne, that’s part of the council’s plan to rework Elmwood Park. If you remember the council had initially considered a $14 million “commercial” amphitheater, but when the recession hit it scaled back those plans considerably. Now they’re looking at a stripped down version, as well as additional changes to the park – taking out the lily-pad ponds, reworking the wooded area along Elm Ave. into a series of “outdoor rooms,” that sort of thing. The price tag for the whole shebang is $4.7 million.
In April, Hill Studio presented some designs for the amphitheater, which will be pushed back to the corner of Williamson Road and where Bullitt Avenue would intersect if you extended it out. My understanding is that Hill Studio is reworking those designs quite a bit and probably will present the new version to the council next month. They’re taking bids now for the first phase of the park renovation – basically Bullitt Avenue north to Franklin Road – and the second phase, which includes the amphitheater, will be put out to bid this fall.
Any reason for the interest?
Dwayne: Well, I see where the Kirk Avenue Music Hall is bringing the band Trampled to Turtles to town. But here’s the thing – they’re not playing on Kirk. They’re playing out at the Daleville Town Center – you know, that development on U.S. 220 where Layman Brothers Orchard used to be. There’s a pretty nice bandstand that’s been built there — The Botetourt Wine Trail has had some concerts there, but this is the first time some outside promoter has brought something in.
So here’s the thing: Does Roanoke still need to build an amphitheater if promoters are bringing shows to the Daleville Town Center? Why do the taxpayers of Roanoke need to foot the bill for amphitheater when it looks like private enterprise has just filled the market need on its own?
Mason: At one point there was talk of a 7,000-seat amphitheater to be built in Bedford County near Smith Mountain Lake. That was at the same time the city was still considering the larger version of the amphitheater. I think the recession ground those plans to a halt, though.
It would seem that if there’s a privately run amphitheater within striking range that concert promoters might just go there instead of Roanoke. But the city’s still got a lock on many of the region’s major festivals: Local Colors, Festival in the Park probably foremost among them. I guess we could see those festivals eventually migrate out to Daleville. But I can’t imagine that Roanoke would let them go without a fight to keep them downtown. Can you imagine the egg on Mayor David Bowers’ face if Roanoke loses Festival in the Park on his watch? There’s not just the loss of prestige, but the loss of all the dollars spent by festival attendees in the park and at nearby restaurants and motels. Keeping those dollars downtown would alone be enough of a justification for many of these city officials and council members to invest capital funds.
Dwayne: Well, I hadn’t really thought in terms of festivals. But you don’t need an amphitheater for those, do you? You need an amphitheater for concerts. And Trampled by Turtles seems to me the kind of up-and-coming national act that would wind up playing at an amphitheater – and right now, they’re going to be rocking out in Daleville. It’s not exactly the Nissan Pavilion out there – basically a grassy field, with a nice bandstand and a great view of the mountains. Since it’s a field, I don’t know what the formal seating capacity is. Still . . . I don’t mean to go all Tea Party here, but, gosh, why should the city pay millions for a fancy amphitheater when it looks like we already have a privately-built venue that’s serving that need? Or is the city going to be so insistent on having its own facility that we’ll wind up with two of them, just like we have two different civic centers?
Mason: This year’s Festival in the Park was headlined by the Gin Blossoms, which were kind of the Trampled by Turtles of 1996 or so. Other festivals have included concerts as well.
But I get your greater point. And since I moved back to Roanoke in 2003, my wish list for the region has been topped by a year-round concert venue which could draw small national or large regional acts – something like the Orange Peel in Asheville. That makes more sense for the private sector than for the public sector. We’ve even had versions of that ideal throughout my tenure here, from Factory 324, which hosted punk and metal acts before it closed, to the Jefferson Center and the aforementioned Kirk Avenue Music Hall. Heck, there’s even a new venue just down the road in the auto district on Rorer Ave. called the Coffin House, which just pulled in Dying Fetus. Sure, Dying Fetus is probably not on most people’s radar – but in the world of death metal they’re an internationally known act that’s now in the midst of a pretty big tour across the U.S. and Europe.
But back to the amphitheater in Elmwood Park: The city considers that to be Roanoke’s backyard. And I expect that local promoters and city officials would each make the case that business generated by people coming downtown for concerts and festivals would help make the investment worth it. Certainly everyone doesn’t necessarily agree with that – but it’s telling this project has moved forward a lot more quietly than previous proposals such as an amphitheater down by the river, the original, bigger version proposed for Elmwood or even renovations to Victory Stadium.
Dwayne: So what you’re saying is . . . the city doesn’t care whether private enterprise has already created such a venue out in Botetourt, the taxpayers of the city are going to have to pay for a fancier facility in downtown in the name of economic development? All I know is as a resident of Botetourt, I haven’t paid a dime and suddenly there’s a bandstand with an actual big-name band playing there! How great is that? More seriously, does the presence of this venue change any of the economic calculations behind the city’s project?
Mason: Well, I’m not speaking on the city’s behalf or arguing for the Elmwood Park project so much as I’m trying to explain what I see as its viewpoint. But yes, I’d say that city officials don’t care whether there’s a new venue in Daleville that’s attracting prominent bands: With bids already out on phase I, I’d say the Elmwood Park renovation train has left the station … unless that is the city council sees something it doesn’t like during the next briefing (I think in early July) and halts everything. Otherwise they’re moving forward.
It might, however, change the calculus when it comes to marketing and booking. Don’t forget that in addition to the private venue in Daleville there’s also the public music venue to consider in Rocky Mount. That’s competition to both the north and the south. How that all factors into marketing and booking is a question beyond my pay grade, but maybe something worth exploring as this process moves forward.