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A new venue. A new start

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A new venue. A new start edge photo by Mike Fern
Bangor's Waterfront Concert Series begins its fourth season

BANGOR It's a gray Thursday night as people fill into the new home of Bangor's Waterfront Concert Series. Nestled into a tighter spot aside the hill along Main Street a mere hundred yards from its former spot where it stood for three years, the new Darling's Waterfront Pavilion looms large over rows of well-organized chairs that are more reminiscent of the interior of the Collins Center for the Arts than an outdoor amphitheater. Soon, rock bands Hinder and Motely Crue will be treating fans to their first sounds of heavy guitar and teeth-chattering bass in a venue that took both collaboration and patience to achieve, and for many will be home to many more concerts in the years to come.

For Old Town-based Waterfront Concerts, LLC, the company that brings such acts to Bangor, the redevelopment along Bangor's Waterfront represents a new chapter in the series now entering its fourth year. And with a significant investment made both by Waterfront Concerts and the City of Bangor in the redevelopment of the site, it's one that establishes a certain permanency to a concept that began with a few thousand concertgoers at Celtic Women in July of 2010 and has now seen over 200,000 people walk through its gates.

'It's been a lot of work,' said Alex Gray, who heads Waterfront Concerts. 'We've spent the whole winter working on this.'

By that he means the culmination of three years of efforts with city officials that included renegotiating several one-year contracts until a five-year deal was finally struck with the City in July of last year. It was then when Bangor city councilors agreed to relocate the waterfront stage amid noise concerns and eventually create a permanent venue that would house not only Waterfront Concerts but also the American Folk Festival and KahBang Arts and Music Festival.

With a construction bid of $648,015, Gardner Construction Enterprises was chosen for the project last September and construction began soon thereafter. But after a wet start in the fall that saw weeks of rain, the construction schedule tightened even further when spring weather didn't make ground preparation any easier as an April 1 deadline came and went. By the time Waterfront Concerts received the site from the city, the multi-million dollar Darling's Waterfront Pavilion had to be built in short order for last Thursday's inaugural performance.

Beginning the same way it ended

Last year's shows certainly saw a mix of talent that included country's Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Jason Aldean, metal bands Shinedown and Godsmack, and the uber poppy Big Time Rush. But perhaps the notable flavor last year was the '80s classic rock that permeated the schedule throughout, with Loverboy, Journey, Pat Benatar, Poison, Styx, REO Speedwagon and Def Leppard taking the stage. What ended the season with last September's Journey concert began this season the same way.

'Motley Crue is in that same genre,' Gray said of the season's opener and his efforts to bring a variety of music talent to Bangor. 'It's doing what brings people to town. It's what fills hotel rooms and fills restaurants.'

Having that kind of impact on the community is important to Gray and with the help of University of Maine economics professor Todd Gabe, who last year fielded a study measuring the economic impact the Waterfront Concert Series has had, the effect has been quite impressive.

'I have a graduate student that started this past fall and we discussed several topics for his thesis that included cultural goods,' Gabe said. 'We set up a meeting with Alex and he was very gracious in making the study possible.'

According to Gabe, the study measured both the amount that concertgoers spent, as well as the value of the concert series to the local population. What was not included was the majority of what the ticket price represents.

'We removed from the analysis the amounts they paid to the artists,' Gabe said. 'It's important because the amount they pay the acts don't really benefit the area.'

The study, which was released in January, shows the series has had a $30.4 million impact to the local economy across its 41 shows over three years. Of that, $18.72 million was spent directly by concertgoers at local restaurants and hotels and motels in the region, and another $11.8 million was spent indirectly. In all, both direct and indirect spending supported over 250 jobs last year alone.

Distance means nothing 

The series has been increasing steadily since its first season, where only seven shows took the stage in 2010. Since then, both 2011 and 2012 saw 17 shows each and although this year is stacking up similarly in total, it's the quality of the shows and the attendance to them that continues to increase.

'When you have more shows, you're going to have a larger impact, 'Gabe said. 'But when you have better shows the percentage of concertgoers traveling a longer distance increases as well.'

There's perhaps no better example of that than Phish. Long known for their mega festivals, the popular jam band saw more than 60,000 concertgoers from across the country bring northern Maine to a vehicular standstill during Phish's last festival in the state, the 'It' festival held at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in 2003. It proves people will travel at great expense to see the band of their dreams.

In fact, Gabe said 17.2 percent of concertgoers in 2012 drove four hours or more, up from just 2.5 percent the first year. And with more popular acts taking the stage, he only sees that increasing.

'My wife and I talked to a couple from Southern Maine last year who had a bucket list of shows they wanted to see and Journey was one of them,' he said of the long-distance attraction. 'The acts this year seem to be better known, so I'm curious to see what happens.'

With people traveling such distances, that means a boon to area restaurants and hotels. One such hotel is the Ramada Inn, located on Odlin Road just off I-95, which just last week saw a rare May night during the Motley Crue concert.

'On that particular night in May we'd run 50 percent occupancy, but with the Motley Crue concert we were sold out,' said Free Martin, general manager for the 120-room hotel. 

Martin agrees that the concert series has had an impact on his and many other businesses in the Bangor region. And for the area's hotels, he sees such events bringing a greater demand for rooms that might otherwise be unsold.

'It's had nothing but a positive impact. And over the years it's just grown with a lot more momentum,' he said. 'We've seen strong signs of occupancy and higher average daily rates when the concerts are in town.'

Getting bigger from here

According to Martin, his staffing increases 20 percent during concert nights and he sees the new year-round arena that will be available beginning September only adding more perhaps permanently.

'With the Bangor arena, that might mean increasing my staff 15 to 20 percent for the entire year,' he said. 'These are real jobs with real benefits.'

Based upon the increasing popularity of the artists coming to town, Martin sees demand for rooms earlier and earlier. For the anticipated biggest shows of the year likely Phish, Daughtry, and Kenney Chesney he expects people to book their rooms for the late summer and fall shows now where in years past they tended to book rather close to the performance.

'Some of the smaller shows you do see it closer to the show, but for the ones in September, people are booking those now,' he said of the earlier bookings. 'The demand you don't have to work for is a great demand I owe Alex Gray a big thank you.'

Along with the success of the Waterfront Concerts Series, he's betting the professional management of the new arena by Global Spectrum will bring similar business. So much so that the Ramada has embarked on a new renovation to help capitalize on the increased demand.

'We feel so sure that the Waterfront Concert series and the Bangor arena will drive room nights to all hotels in this area that we just underwent a seven-figure renovation using local contractors,' he said. 'I see a professional company that has been hired to manage the new arena that has networks in the all the right areas. That is going to generate demand for local hotels all year round.'

Such growing demand and the infrastructure to meet it is what UMaine's Gabe sees as one of Bangor's best attributes.

'The good thing about these events is they're held in venues where the population can support the shows,' he said. 'Because we're a service center, Bangor has the amenities that are not found in cities our size.'

A site' foreseen

The concert series has drawn its share of complaints from residents of nearby neighborhoods due to the noise levels that arise from such events. If you've attended any of the concerts, it's not hard to hear why. Building a venue to not only address those complaints but also meet the increasing demand has been the primary focus of not only Waterfront Concerts, but also city officials who have been working to improve a waterfront that for years has been redeveloped in piecemeal fashion. 

'It was a tremendous cooperative effort between many city departments, Gardner Construction and Waterfront concerts,' said Tracy Willette, director of Bangor's Parks and Recreation Department, said of the 16,000-seat venue. 'We're going in the right direction it's a great example of what can be accomplished.'

The relocation of the stage was part of the project, but the addition of a 10-foot wide paved and illuminated waterfront pathway along the riverfront was another part of the project approved by Bangor city councilors last year. The quarter-mile pathway, which extends from Hollywood Casino to the intersection of Railroad and Front Streets, cost $390,307 and was completed by Hampden-based Maine Earth.

And while the power, grading and overall site construction is done for the concert venue, Willette said there are some things that still need to be completed for long-term use for the pavilion, including the construction of permanent piping for water current water usage is being done through a hydrant. Still, the new location of the stage offers so much more than its previous spot. He also said the City is still debating whether permanent restrooms will be built or perhaps an overhang over the seating area.

'We wanted to create more of a venue type character with the site,' Willette said. 'One of the bigger improvements we made was the backstage compound it gets all those structures in a less visible place.'

Waterfront Concerts has moved into other venues throughout Maine the past couple of years. In addition to their past bookings at Scarborough Downs, they've been working with Asylum in Portland and continue to hold shows at Lewiston's Colise, a venue where Gray first began bringing acts to Maine.

Yet Gray feels the investment already made by the city is well beyond the actual dollars spent on the venue it's also the willingness of city officials to undertake projects through a larger vision of what's to come. While many municipalities have tried to court him over the years since his inaugural season, Gray sees the benefit of staying put in the Queen City and appreciates the commitment it's already made.

'Bangor gets it while most cities are cutting back, they're building a $65 million arena,' he said. 'The city has put money into this, but they will get it back.'

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