In the latest edition of MaineBiz, my friend Dylan Martin has a profile of Lauren Wayne, general manager of The State Theatre, as part of the publication’s “Women to Watch” series.
The whole story is worth reading, as is anything Dylan writes, but one sentence fragment stood out to me. In a paragraph about how Wayne’s operation has been doing well enough in recent years to add the 529-seat Port City Music Hall to its network of venues, among other things, he mentions “the development of an outdoor venue in the Portland area that has yet to be announced.”
Portland area concert goers have gotten hints of the promise of outdoor shows over the years, but no place has become established as a go-to spot along the lines of Bangor’s Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, which can hold 16,000-plus fans — and as a result, is the only place in Maine that regularly attracts music acts who can draw crowds of that size.
Think Sting, Toby Keith, Ke$ha, Reba McEntire, Godsmack, Dave Matthews Band, Phish and Shinedown, all of whom are current or one-time stadium-sellout type acts within their genres and all of whom have played the Bangor waterfront at least once in the last few years.
Portland’s last hurrah
Portland is twice the size of Bangor, but has hosted only one comparable concert in memory: August 2012’s show on the Eastern Prom featuring chart-topping, Grammy-winning folk-rock band Mumford & Sons, cult favorite Celtic punk band The Dropkick Murphys and up-and-comers St. Vincent and Dawes, among others.
Wayne knows all about that festival, because she and The State Theatre were behind it.
That show reportedly drew 15,000 people to the city-owned park and the city made $54,000 off the event — and that’s on top of direct reimbursements for things like extra police coverage and doesn’t speak to the overall economic impact of concert-goers eating at local restaurants, staying in local hotels or buying merchandise in the area.
Yet for all its successes, the big concert was plagued by complaints that there wasn’t enough concessions or restroom capacity for a turnout of that size, and people griped about waiting in long lines for a bit to eat or to see a man about a horse.
I talked to longtime Portland Phoenix music columnist Sam Pfeifle about the prospect of Portland taking a bigger step in the outdoor concert market, and he noted that if the city were to hold such shows regularly, they’d need a location built for them. The Eastern Prom, which was serviceably converted into a concert venue for a day, doesn’t have the infrastructure to hold up to the demands of a steady show schedule.
While the Mumford & Sons show generated a lot of buzz around the idea of holding events like that more regularly on the Eastern Prom, that buzz ultimately faded and now, here we are, two years later with nothing since and nothing looming (I checked with City Hall this week, and the folks up there confirmed there are no plans in the works to stage another big concert on the Eastern Prom).
“You need a permanent facility, because you’d need permanent bathrooms — or something close to permanent bathrooms — and you’d need real deal concessions,” Pfeifle told me.
Things like sound systems, staging, lights and other equipment are also necessary.
“If you have to rent that equipment every time you’re going to put on a show, you’re going to start losing money in a hurry,” he said.
So is the plan to implant the Eastern Prom with permanent concert infrastructure? While I wasn’t able to get hold of Lauren Wayne to ask directly, it’s doubtful, considering the public backlash the city faced when it tried to cede control of another city-owned open space — Congress Square — to private interests last year.
Other outdoor spaces
Within city lines, the most active spot for outdoor concerts is the Maine State Pier, which can support about 3,000 fans. Bangor’s Waterfront Concerts, the promoter which books the aforementioned Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, has planted its flag on the pier with a slate of moderately big-name shows there this summer, including country star Dierks Bentley, rock band 3 Doors Down and multi-time Grammy winner Alanis Morissette.
It’s one of the few concert spots of note in Portland that the influential and tireless Wayne doesn’t either control entirely or have the relative freedom to book, but her other main spots — The State itself and recently acquired Port City Music Hall — have roofs.
Elsewhere in Portland, an outdoor amphitheater has remained a consistent part of evolving $100-million-plus plans to redevelop Thompson’s Point, along with an indoor sports arena, office buildings and a circus college, among other things.
Outside city limits there have been other recent attempts at establishing a steady outdoor concert venue, but none have come to fruition — at least not yet.
The aforementioned Waterfront Concerts tried out Scarborough Downs as an outdoor concert venue in 2012, signing on for a short run of shows that included one headlined by rappers Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, but hasn’t since pushed to maintain a regular presence there.
Talks between developer John Cacoulidis and the city of South Portland for a 10,000-person outdoor concert site near the iconic Bug Light have reportedly fizzled out.
Westbrook officials have said a big promoter wants to convert that city’s Riverbank Park into a seasonal venue as well, and the Portland Press Herald has gotten national concert giant Live Nation to admit it’s looming over the horizon with plans to establish a go-to spot in Maine somewhere.
The Ballpark at Old Orchard Beach, which attracted superstars like Paul Simon in its heyday a few decades ago, is back in the business again to a limited degree. It will host a blues festival there next month, but it’s mostly used as, well, a ballpark for the town’s baseball team.
Lauren Wayne can use Port City Music Hall and The State Theatre for music acts who can comfortably draw 500 or 1,500 fans, respectively, and could likely utilize the 6,800-seat Cumberland County Civic Center if she needed a spot for a bigger attraction.
“It’s got to be another spot that doesn’t compete with something she’s already got going,” Pfeifle said. “Most people will tell you there’s plenty of concert inventory in Portland — everybody’s fighting for every fan.”
So is this “outdoor venue in the Portland area that has yet to be announced” built to carve out territory in the 3,000-3,500-capacity market, where the Maine State Pier and Riverbank Park — currently the territory of Waterfront Concerts and, depending on who you believe, the heavyweight Live Nation, respectively — loom as potential direct competition?
Or will Lauren go bigger, seeking to establish southern Maine’s first outdoor concert venue that can compete with Bangor for acts in the 15,000-turnout category?
“I think you could have the Bangor facility in Portland and it would do relatively well,” Pfeifle said. “There’s just more competition for your entertainment dollar in Portland.”
… or does it?
But while promoters in Bangor may be stinging a little bit from public complaints about concert noise, and Portland offers a much bigger immediate population to draw from — as well as more hotel capacity and everything else — Maine’s largest city may still not be as viable a big concert spot as the Queen City.
Country group Lady Antebellum, for instance, could probably get a good percentage of its southern Maine fans to come see it in the Boston area or even over at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook.
Bangor offers a potential pipeline to the southeastern Canada crowd, something Portland doesn’t, and could likely attract the Portland fans who don’t make the drive to Meadowbrook.
So if you’re Lady Antebellum, you’re already playing shows in eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and you want to add a tour stop in Maine, you might pick Bangor, knowing that you’ll probably get the Portland market anyway, and could add some spillover from Canada.
That said, people like Lauren Wayne, Alex Gray from Waterfront Concerts and the folks at Live Nation all know a whole lot more about this industry than I do, and they all seem to have varying degrees of interest in developing the Greater Portland market.
I’ll be interested in seeing what this new “outdoor venue in the Portland area” is once it’s publicly announced.