Questions over a policy regarding use of the Hugh Morton Amphitheater at Greenfield Lake have arisen over the last few months, and the city of Wilmington could be looking into revising its user policy.
At the heart of the issue is a long-standing agreement between the city and Cape Fear Shakespeare, a non-profit organization that runs the free Shakespeare on the Green festival each year. The group currently holds exclusive rights to the use of the facility from the fourth Wednesday in May to the end of June.
At a city council meeting last month, Beau Gunn, a managing partner of Huka Entertainment, which holds several concerts at the 1200-seat amphitheater each year, asked the city to consider opening up some of those dates to concert promoters. Gunn is also General Manager for Local Voice Wilmington, the parent company of Port City Daily.
“I am not here to request that they no longer have the opportunity to host these community arts events at Greenfield Lake,” Gunn said before the mayor and council, noting the contribution the Shakespeare group made to the revitalization of the amphitheater. “My proposal would be to look at shortening the blackout window or to allow three to four floating dates within the current window where other community members could have the opportunity to rent the facility.”
Gunn cited the potential revenue the concerts could bring in for the city, saying Wilmington lost out on getting James Taylor and Tedeschi Trucks Band, among others, last year because they could not rent out the amphitheater in “prime concert season.”
“Given the history of sellouts by these artists, I can accurately project that this cost the city and fundraising groups [who run the concessions] roughly $20,000 in revenue,” Gunn said.
Shakespeare on the Green is allowed certain exemptions under the current policy. They are not charged a rental fee like other organizations, and attendees are allowed to bring in their own food and non-alcoholic beverages, which is not allowed for other events. Licenses for concessions, which are operated by the city, are not sold for Shakespeare shows, meaning the city loses out on that revenue as well as ticket surcharges.
At a press conference Tuesday, Cape Fear Shakespeare said they were “blind-sided” by the complaints about the policy, noting they have been putting on shows at Greenfield Lake when there was nothing there.
“We wanted to provide free Shakespeare to the public, and to do so we needed a space that was free or relatively cheap,” said Aimee Schooley, a Cape Fear Shakespeare executive board member who has been with the organization since its inception in 1993. “The city had such a space at Greenfield Lake.”
Schooley said performers used to change in makeshift dressing rooms with spiders and snakes and no electricity or hot water.
While it was difficult, “It was perfect for us, and we did it,” Schooley said. “It was utterly magical.”
Schooley said that Cape Fear Shakespeare was involved in the renovations made to the amphitheater nearly a decade ago, and they were the first to walk across the stage at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
“That moment brought me to tears,” Schooley said. “It was a lot of blood and sweat and tears and hard work.”
Schooley said major changes to their agreement, over which she said Cape Fear Shakespeare had no say in writing, could be problematic for the group.
“It could drastically affect our ability to bring free Shakespeare to eastern North Carolina,” Schooley said, noting that some people come from around the country just to see them perform and even plan their vacations around the festival.
According to Schooley, representatives from Cape Fear Shakespeare and Huka Entertainment have met to try and work out the miscommunication that occurred between the two organizations somewhere along the way.
“We came away from that meeting with renewed collaboration and what could possibly be a win-win situation for everyone,” Schooley said. “This can be such a rich collaboration for us.”
The group plans to address city council during the public comment portion of their March 1 meeting, much like Gunn did at the Jan. 19 meeting. Both Schooley and Gunn said they hope to be involved in any discussions the city has while revising the policy, which will eventually have to come before the city council for approval.