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City wants top arts center talent

(March 21, 2014) Although completion of the city’s performing arts facility at the convention center is still roughly nine months out, city officials and event promoters are already grappling with getting the optimum lineup for the new amenity – and already feeling the need for another expansion.

“The clients who are with us now get first shot,” said Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino. “Show promoters get second shot, and then the town gets a handful of shows that we’re doing ourselves. That’s how it’s being prioritized.”

The theater and performance space – dubbed the Performing Arts Center – is scheduled for completion in late November or December of this year, Noccolino said. The center plans to open with a city-sponsored event featuring the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 17, 2015.

“There’s nothing really concrete yet,” Noccolino said. “I’m not going to issue contracts until we get the floor work done.”

The PAC is a two-story, 1,200-seat auditorium with a stage wide and tall enough to host any number of high-end productions.

To build it, the city and state first conducted a “phase 1” renovation that enclosed the rear deck of the convention center into a bayfront ballroom space. Once finished, a wall was built to divide the western portion of the ballroom, which will stay intact, from the interior portion.

There, in what is being called “phase 2,”the floor is currently being removed to connect with the downstairs hall “C” and create a two-story open space. Once this structural work is done, the build-out of the stage and seating will be much easier and the city will have a better idea of a timeline.

“Once the floor comes out, it’s really much smoother sailing,” Noccolino said.

However, dates are already on hold for a number of promoters – local, regional, and national, including the producers for the Kennedy Center’s Christmas programs. Noccolino is already looking at a December 2015 run of “The Nutcracker.”

The list also includes Bob Rothermel and Jack Hennen, the Ocean City-based promoters who have backed many of Delmarva’s biggest concerts.

“We’re looking at a number of different options for the venue,” Rothermel said. “We have some dates on hold, but we’re going to have to see a good indicator of when it’s actually going to be open before we commit.”

A few big names have been thrown out there – Tony Bennett, Amy Grant, and Johnny Mathis are just a few. But the big question with booking such acts is how they will work in the relatively small size of the venue, which stands to be the PAC’s biggest strength and biggest weakness.

“There are plenty of 1,200-seat venues that are successful, it’s just a matter of finding the right mix of programming,” Rothermel said.

On one hand, a smaller venue means a better concert for everyone. But it also means ticket prices will be much higher since the cost of the performance is shared by less people.

“The price points may be a little high, so we’ll have to be careful about that,” Noccolino said at last week’s Tourism Commission meeting. “But even the cheap seats are still going to be good seats because you’re just not that far away.”

For an act like Tony Bennett, the cheap seats would run around $100, and the good ones $150. With such a high price, and a small base of residents to afford it, the city is banking on the PAC being a destination venue.

“We have to be thinking about those non-resident property owners who would come down here from Baltimore or the D.C. area,” said Council Secretary and Tourism Commission Chair Mary Knight. “I wouldn’t worry about the price just yet.”

In reality, the PAC will have relatively few dates needing to be filled, since most of the convention center’s existing clients will be able to use the space for their programs. Even without the PAC, Noccolino is booked solid from July 1 to Dec. 20 this year.

However, the economic impetus for the PAC project – $3.2 to $3.9 million per year in economic impact, according to a study done by Crossroads Consulting Services – is based on an estimate of between 61 and 73 new performances annually, with cumulative attendance between 45,700 and 55,050.

This means the convention center as a whole will likely have to be packed tight with performances, a tall order if the city wishes to attract big-name performers – who have their own tight schedules – while still giving priority to longstanding events.

But this stands to be aided by the addition of another 30,000 square feet of exhibit space; a potential “phase 3” that is only in its preliminary stages.

“’Phase 3’ would add an additional 30,000 to the north end of the building, off of hall ‘A’ and hall ‘B,’” Noccolino said. “It’s been discussed, but it’s very preliminary. Obviously, we would have to get it through the state.”

The city, via the Maryland Stadium Authority, shares a 50-50 partnership with the state in the convention center’s operations. The MSA also pays for some of the capital work, shouldering $5.7 million of the $14.2 million PAC cost and overseeing the construction itself.

No price has been attached to ‘phase 3,’ which Noccolino said would likely not begin until 2017 if it happens at all. But the potential benefit of allowing bigger conventions after the PAC has, hopefully, developed its own clientele is large.

“You can’t drive by the place between September and December and not see the parking lot full,” Noccolino said. “What’s to say if we didn’t get another 30,000 square feet, we wouldn’t have that much more?”

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