Economic Development

Diverse Crowd Gets ‘First Look’ at Amphitheater

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Renee Vivacqua, a resident of Boardman, walked from her job at Youngstown State University to the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, made a new friend along the way – a 70-year-old woman – then made another friend, a man about her age who sat next to her as they waited for the first band to perform.

“We love it! It’s bringing really good energy to the community,” Vivacqua exclaimed. “I’m so excited. It’s amazing.”

Joseph Napier Sr., a resident of Youngstown and deacon of the Elizabeth Missionary Baptist Church on the East Side, stood behind the video cameras as they recorded the ribbon-cutting.

Napier voiced affirmations as Eric Ryan, the driving force behind the $8 million project, credited Home Savings Bank for donating $500,000 to support community events including the free “First Look” Friday night.

“Yes sir. That’s my bank,” Napier said.

“This amphitheater represents a co-joining, not only of businesses and private entities coming together, but the potential where the community can become ever more close as a community,” he elaborated after the ribbon had been cut, the opening remarks delivered.

“We have a common place now.”

Napier and Vivacqua personified, at least to this reporter, the racial diversity and shared enthusiasm reflective of the first-night audience. Young, old, black and white: They came with their fold-up chairs, or sat on the grass and on the stone barrier that separates the stage from what will be the paid seats. By the time the first band, The Props, took the stage and played the first song (”Me & Bobby McGee”), the crowd appeared to number about 750.

“Seven-fifty to 1,000. Not bad for this early,” quantified Ryan. “And it’s early. They’re still coming in.”

The diversity of the crowd was apparent, and encouraging, said Mayor Jamael Tito Brown.

By 9 p.m., the crowd was estimated at 3,000, and all the parking lots were full.

Ryan, the president of JAC Management Group, which manages the adjacent Covelli Centre and now the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, presided over the ceremonial opening. He credited Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, cited every member of City Council by name as well as other city officials, the architects – MKSM of Columbus and MS Consultants of Youngstown, the general contractor – Brock & Associates Buildings Inc. of North Lima – and the many subcontractors.

“Notice a theme here? A lot of local companies,” he said.

In addition to Home Savings, Ryan credited Huntington Bank for donating $500,000 to underwrite construction of the Community Alley, which will open in August as part of the riverfront park under construction adjacent to the amphitheater, and promised an announcement soon of a third sponsor, for whom the park will be named.

First and foremost, Ryan said, credit must go to the Youngstown Foundation, established in 1918 by five industrialists, and the $3 million gift the foundation made to the project in commemoration of its centennial.

“The founders really wanted to ensure the quality of life for future generations and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Executive Director Jan Strasfeld said in an interview before the ribbon was cut.

“The renderings [of the project] didn’t do it justice now that we’re seeing the final product. It’s fabulous and I’m so excited for the community,” she said.

City Council members watched as the Youngstown Foundation’s Jan Strasfeld and Mayor Jamael Tito Brown cut the ribbon.

“Private investors and public money coming together, now we’re all invested,” said Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, “and this is an opportunity to say, ‘Let’s move forward; let’s not look back.’ “

Public funding of the $8 million project includes a $4 million federal loan from a share of the city’s annual Community Development Block Grant disbursements.

“Over a 20-year period, we’ll pay the loan back,” Brown said. “I think you’ll see this will be a revenue catalyst and an economic boost, not just for the city, but for the business owners downtown and the broader area as well.”

Thanks to the private-sector contributions, there is no debt service on the amphitheater and riverfront project, Ryan said, “and we can make money operationally. The first year might be more difficult because we had a lot of purchases. But down the road this can be a moneymaker for the city and continue to pay the debt off for the Covelli Centre.”

That debt is about $7 million, according to Ryan, and has been chipped away at since the municipal arena opened in 2005, encumbered with $12 million in debt. The city subsequently imposed a 5.55% admissions tax on every ticket sold for arena events – and the tax will also be paid by those attending amphitheater concerts.

“The work we did at the Covelli Centre defied the odds over the years — and that’s not because of me or JAC. That’s the community supporting it,” Ryan said.

Big-name bands and community events are scheduled through the summer. They include Chicago June 28, Earth Wind and Fire July 5, Brett Eldredge Aug. 2, and Steely Dan Aug. 27.

Among the community events are the Youngstown Wine and Jazz Festival July 13, Drive in Movie Night July 19 and The Music of Queen with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra Aug. 10.

“The entertainment industry is on notice that Youngstown is ready and raring to go,” Ryan said.

“This is going to be the new front door of Youngstown. It’s transformational and really epic.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.