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Amphitheater sits and waits 

click to enlarge 15coveramphitheater_image1.jpg

The annual burning question from Little Rock area outdoor music fans has become: Outside of Riverfest, will there be any shows on the river?

The Riverfest Amphitheatre, while not completely dark the past three years, has been awfully quiet compared with its heyday in the 1990s. Since 2003, when city officials decided to no longer have an exclusive booking arrangement and open it up to all comers, few if any rock shows showed much interest in coming.

The size of the amphitheater compared with bigger outdoor venues in other markets, constant construction in the neighborhood (the Arkansas Game and Fish’s nature center currently) and not actively seeking shows beyond advertising in trade journals limited the offerings the past three years, observers say.

But Butch Stone, who began bringing shows to the facility on a regular basis starting in 1993 and had a long-term agreement with the city to exclusively book the venue, expects 2007 to be an eventful year at the amphitheater. Stone says a Disney Radio show that’s booked for May 12, featuring B5 and the Jonas Brothers, is “the first of four or five shows we’re doing this season.”

Stone also says, “We’re going to have more shows down there. I made a commitment and my partners have made a commitment. We’re going to be back there doing things this summer big time.”

Stone says he and the city both agreed that the exclusivity of their deal had run its course in 2003. His son, Dennis, has run Stone Concerts, which provided security and personnel for music shows and other events, including the Movies in the Park spring and summer movie series the past two years. But outside of Poison and Cinderella and a few other shows, big rock shows have been scarce.

“What happened was, for one, I needed a break,” Stone said, “It had nothing to do with the city folks at all. I just had to get away from it. Now, after about a two-year chance to kick back and regroup, we’re ready to get back in it.”

The city was considering turning amphitheater management, now under the Parks and Recreation Department, over to the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau until recent questions about billing and funding practices at the bureau and the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

“We weren’t looking at them to exclusively manage it, but bringing events to town is what they do,” Little Rock Assistant City Manager Bryan Day said. “They could help promote plays and music, as well as conventions that might use the amphitheater, speeches, puppet shows, all that. They would be better suited than [the Parks Department] is ... we can never lose sight though that it is foremost a park.”

Day, who previously ran the parks department and keeps his eye on the amphitheater, says physically improving the venue is paramount to drawing bigger and better shows.

“We’re still moving forward with the improvements we’ve needed,” he said. “We’ve hired a firm to do some preliminary work and develop estimates for how much the improvements will cost. We’re looking at a new roof and roof structure, which will be higher off the stage and allow additional capacity for hanging stage lighting and speakers. And more importantly it will be a solid roof, not only covering the acts but covering the peripheral areas for loading and unloading. We’re looking at back-of-the-house improvements such as a catering facility, offices and production space and other needs we’ve determined through discussions with Alltel Arena and Robinson Center people and their staffs. The third thing we’re looking at is other venue improvement, electrical improvement, fencing, access, other pieces that complete the picture. We don’t have the revenue stream identified, however.”

A public-private partnership for funding would be welcomed by the city, he said.

“It’s an icon for the community and we’ve got to get it used more frequently,” Day said. “We do a lot more smaller things there, 50 times a year, and we need to continue to do a better job of making it more available to all groups to be used 365 days a year. We have to make some improvements to make that happen. It’s cold standing on that stage in January and it’s hot in August. The drummer in a band on stage gets wet in the rain. We’re going to get these improvements done and people are going to be enjoying it all the time.

“There are all kinds of great venues around now. There will always be a need for the 8,000- to 10,000-seat outdoor venue.”

Stone expects another show with Radio Disney people to be scheduled, and several shows with name acts geared to the adults. Willie Nelson is always a favored performer when Stone is planning a schedule. Two Texas promoters, Stardate Concerts’ Randy Shelton and independent promoter Renard Johnson, are working with Stone, he said.

Also, Stone said his son’s Stone Concerts is partnering with Erin Hurley of Juanita’s and Greengrass Entertainment to bring in some shows to the venue. “He wants to step up to it and we’re going to help him in doing it,” Stone said. Stone has also created the first MaumelleFest on April 21 at Lake Willastein that will feature Jimmy Jameson, former Survivor front man, as the headliner for a full day of music and family-style festival events.

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