Economic Development

Amphitheater Developing Into a ‘Boutique Music Center’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The new entertainment venue now taking shape near downtown Youngstown is a far cry from what Eric Ryan says he had envisioned when the idea of developing a community amphitheater was conceived seven years ago.

That early vision — which included putting up a stage and throwing up some orange fencing to create a venue where people would maybe be charged “a little bit of money to get in” — has given way to what Ryan, president of JAC Management Group, described as “a boutique music center” at the 32-acre site.

With the new Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre’s first scheduled event a little over a month away, Ryan led city officials, representatives of contributors to the project and local news media on a preview tour of the new entertainment venue and riverfront park Monday afternoon.

“Our vision wasn’t this. This is absolutely amazing,” said Ryan, whose company is contracted to operate the amphitheater and the adjacent Covelli Centre on behalf of the city.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate the culmination of the Youngstown Foundation’s 100-year celebration than being here to see this project completed,” said Jan Strasfeld, the foundation’s executive director. The foundation donated $3 million for the project and received naming rights for the venue.

Though unable to enter certain areas because the park remains an active work site, Ryan ushered the group around the property to highlight key structures and features on the site, including the box office building, VIP lawn, Community Alley and the great lawn before ending at the centerpiece of the site, the stage area.

Eric Ryan guides officials and the media on a tour of the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre construction site.

The stage and wings are 83 feet wide, 54 feet deep and 46 feet high, he said. The building features a dressing room, green room, tour office and other offices, he said. It will be sufficient for 95% of the shows that are booked there, with extra dressing rooms and other spaces needed to be brought in for the remainder of the shows. It will have a capacity of 5,000 patrons.

“With help from our friends at Live Nation, we’ve booked shows that are probably much bigger than we should have,” he said.

JAC has managed the Covelli Centre for 10 years. When the notion of developing a companion amphitheater was broached seven years ago, the concept “was not well received at first,” Ryan recalled.

“It’s come a long way obviously through the years,” he said. He praised the mayor and city council for giving JAC the tools to do its job “and hopefully do it at a high enough level that everybody is happy in the community.”

What is being accomplished at the amphitheater and park couldn’t be done without partnerships, he added. In addition to the $3 million provided by the Youngstown Foundation, Home Savings Bank is providing $500,000 to underwrite the community event series over the next 10 years. Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, which sponsors the Covelli Centre parking lot, also will be sponsoring the VIP area at the amphitheater, he announced.

Other partnerships will be announced in the coming weeks, he continued.

“The only way we’re going to get better is private and public partnerships,” Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said. The site, which has transformed just within the past two weeks, provides Youngstown officials “the opportunity to showcase some of the positive things that are happening in the city,” he said.

Derrick McDowell, recently named the community engagement and inclusion coordinator for the amphitheater and riverfront park, called on those attending to recognize that it was a “beautiful day,” not just because of the warm, sunny weather but because the city “is celebrating a moment when we are all coming together” and moving toward a common goal of engaging the community.

As the sod placed for the great lawn was being watered, he also admonished people not to be envious of what others have. “Let us cultivate our own grass and deny everyone that will tell us there’s nothing here, there’s nothing that’s good that can come from the city,” he said.

Except for the difference in size, the amphitheater has everything to offer acts that similar facilities across the country do, Ryan said.

Two major elements needed to be part of the amphitheater, said Kate Spires, an architect with MS Consultants, Youngstown. MS partnered with MKSK Architects, Columbus, on the project.

One was that it needed to be integrated into the city, Spires said. Where “most amphitheaters are on the outskirts,” this one is easily visible from West Federal Street with a sightline down Phelps Street,” she said.

“You could have sited this thing in a way that it got tucked into the park. This is much more urban,” she said. Also, the amphitheater, which she calls “Covelli’s cooler little sister,” needed to be linked by a similar material palette.

A promenade running through Community Alley, underneath the Market Street bridge, will connect the amphitheater and the Covelli Centre. The alley also has electrical connections and will feature lighting and a temporary stage area for community events.

“The other thing we had to work hard at was getting the size right,” John Petrushka, MKSK senior associate. “You don’t want to get something so big that you have to draw people from a multistate area to be able to fill it. At the same time, you don’t want it too small that live acts won’t even consider coming.”

Boutique venues like the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre are key to certain artists who can’t fill an 18,000-plus venue like Blossom Music Center or KeyBank Amphitheater but can do shows of up to 5,000, said Barry Gabel, senior vice president of marketing, sponsorship and sales for Live Nation. He is encouraged by the conversations he has had with agents representing artists who are interested in playing here.

“The right kinds of acts will want to play this place and you can see it from the list of shows we have,” a list that includes three inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said. “You’ll find a lot of different acts not just in what they call the ‘oldies lane’, but there will be some really interesting contemporary artists that will want to play here.”

JAC has a few more shows to announce “and we’ll be in pretty good shape this year,” Ryan said. The success of those shows will determine how well bookings go for next year. “You’ve got to be able to go out and tell people what you’re doing,” he said.

Provisions already have been made for future improvements, including a play area with splash pad, once funds can be raised, perhaps in a year or so, Ryan said.

Pictured above: Work on the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre continues with the first show a little more than a month away.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.