February 20, 2012

Attracting shows to Cumberland County Civic Center a challenge

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Will a shiny new lobby and bigger loading docks bring the likes of Lady Gaga or Madonna to the Cumberland County Civic Center?

Probably not.

Planned renovations to the 35-year-old arena -- including improvements to concessions, dressing rooms, loading docks, and possibly more seats -- will definitely help make the place more attractive to concert acts and their managers, local music promoters say.

But they probably won't help lure the sort of top-tier acts that play big-city venues such as TD Garden in Boston, or even newer mid-sized arenas such as the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H.

"I think capacity is the most important thing," said Mike Flanagin, head of New England Country Music Productions, who books country concerts all over the region. "The civic center in Portland should be at least as big as Manchester, but it's not."

The civic center has a maximum concert capacity of about 8,000, depending on seating configurations, compared to about 11,700 for Manchester. Most big-city arenas like TD Garden have 20,000 concert seats or more.

"Unless the civic center doubles or triples its capacity, which is out of the question due to space restraints, we're not going to get the Van Halens and The Rolling Stones and the Bruce Springsteens," said Lauren Wayne, general manager of Portland's State Theatre, who has promoted shows at other venues as well. "I mean, we aren't Boston or Philly, and we don't have the population to support the number and scale of shows the major cities get on a routine basis anyway."

Steve Crane, general manager of the civic center, says that the idea of adding seats to the building during upcoming renovations is being considered, but the number would likely be in the hundreds, not thousands. Crane agrees that capacity is important, but also agrees with Wayne that even if the civic center had 10,000 seats or more, the market still might not be considered large enough to attract really major acts.

The civic center has not added one seat in 35 years, Crane said, but in 1977 the concert touring business was very different.

Now many big acts tour mostly in the summer, playing the large outdoor venues that didn't exist in great numbers in the 1970s, such as the Comcast Center in Mansfield, Mass.; Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford, N.H.; and the Bangor Waterfront Pavilion. And other New England cities such as Manchester and Lowell, Mass., didn't have civic center-type venues in 1977, but now they do.

Those changes and other shifts in the way the concert business runs have meant a steady decline in concerts for the civic center. In its first one-year period, in 1977 to 1978, the venue presented 30 concerts, including shows by ZZ Top, Orleans, Boston, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

So far this year, the civic center has three concerts on its upcoming schedule - country star Eric Church, rockers The Black Keys and Taylor. A report from Pollstar magazine shows that the civic center had 20 concerts in 2005, but by 2009, that number had dropped to 11.

Another factor that limits the scope of acts that will play here is the city's location. Basically, if a tour manager is routing a tour and looks at a map, Portland is not on the way to anywhere.

"Portland is the end of the line. It's not like cities in the middle of the country that can be added to a tour because they're on the way to somewhere else," said Flanagin, who has put on shows at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Money concerns

So if the civic center can't double its size or move to a larger population base, what are the most crucial improvements that can be made to attract major concert acts?

(Continued on page 2)

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