WILMINGTON — Wilmington City Council spoke with Live Nation’s local general manager Tuesday morning about Live Oak Bank Pavilion’s challenges and successes in 2021. It was also an opportunity for the officials to address concerns before the city signs off on more shows ahead of the second concert season.
Per its contract, Live Nation can only book 20 shows each year at the venue without written permission from the city manager for more. The management company is requesting up to 30 shows in 2022, not including civic events, such as festivals and fundraisers.
“We have more artists and bands that want to come to Wilmington than available slots, than available dates,” said Ryan Belcher, the general manager who oversees Greenfield Lake Amphitheater and Live Oak Bank Pavilion.
City manager Tony Caudle, who authorizes the extra dates, said the request is under consideration. The only concern came from council member Neil Anderson, who said the city needs to ensure show dates are spaced out.
“People that live there don’t want to have to endure, you know, three, four shows in a row,” Anderson said.
Some headliners scheduled back-to-back concerts in 2021. Widespread Panic performed a three-night residency the venue’s opening weekend, followed shortly thereafter by GRiZ, who was slated to perform twice. Belcher noted this past concert season was a compressed schedule since the park did not open until mid-July. Concerts this year will start in April.
Riverfront Park attracted more than 126,350 people across 26 events last year, including 19 Live Nation concerts. (The 20th concert, by Lake Street Dive, was canceled.) Around 60% of tickets were purchased from outside of Wilmington, meaning concertgoers traveled in from out of town. (Twenty-six tickets were bought in Alaska.) Belcher said he envisions that trend continuing into the future.
“People are coming from all over. Hundreds of different markets, zip codes came to see shows here, which tells us a couple things,” Belcher said. “One, obviously the power of music and headliners’ ability to get people here, and then Wilmington spoke for itself. People loved coming here. The venue was received great from artists, from crew, from guests. I mean, you name it.”
The money spent by tourists boosted the local economy, and the city raked in more than $314,000 in direct revenue, a collection of $200,000 in fixed rent, rental fees and $2 from each ticket sold. Around 385 people were employed by Live Nation this past season, and the concessionaire created another 235 jobs.
“I hope everyone here noticed on show nights the number of people that came in town, the inability to get a table at some restaurants. Hotels were booked,” Belcher said. “It was great.”
Belcher prefaced his update to council by saying he mainly wanted to focus on the wins, but he acknowledged there were challenges. On top of the Covid-19 pandemic, Live Nation was balancing the uncertainty that comes with an inaugural concert season.
The Wilmington venues faced supply chain and staffing issues like other locations nationwide, but the strains were not as deep as those that larger markets in North Carolina endured, Belcher said. At times, staff from Wilmington were bused to Raleigh and Charlotte to help operate shows there.
One of the greatest challenges in the first season was sorting out the logistics of getting guests into the park.
“We didn’t know how people were going to gravitate once they got into the venue,” Belcher said. “We really didn’t know which way they were going to come down to the venue.”
Live Nation found 60% of concertgoers walk toward the venue from downtown, where they had eaten dinner or sipped on cocktails ahead of the shows. Another 40% come from Harnett Street.
There will continue to be two entrances to the venue, with the Riverwalk being the less-crowded route.
The city received complaints often about rideshare drivers not adhering to the drop-off zone and stopping near Flats on Front Apartments and Sawmill Point Apartments, which surround Live Oak Bank Pavilion. Riders are supposed to be dropped off further down the street, at the lot across from PPD Headquarters, Belcher explained.
“The problem is the Uber drivers and Lyft drivers just know this area, so they know they can drop off people quickly,” Belcher said.
Council member Anderson suggested improved signage and a second drop-off location.
Fewer police officers?
In the next concert season, Wilmington Police Department is looking to cut back on the number of officers deployed to events. Belcher said Live Nation purposely went heavy on the officer-to-fan ratio in its first year, and it has private security for busier concerts or when certain demographics are expected.
“We’re fortunate that the shows we’re doing here, especially this past season and this one coming up, were fairly laid back,” Belcher said. “We had no issues at Harry Connick Jr, Trevor Noah or really any of the shows. We did this whole season without incident, which is our goal every year.”
The city manager said at times too many police were on scene with too little to do. It’s also difficult to find law enforcement willing to work the overtime hours while staffing is slim and officers are regularly taking on extra shifts.
“It’s almost too much overtime,” Caudle said.
Council member Luke Waddell questioned the move to reduce WPD’s presence.
“After one year, I would like to see some more information from the police department on why we will be pulling officers out of there, especially if we’re going to be increasing concerts,” Waddell said. “Seems a little bit premature in my opinion.”
Council member Kevin Spears said some residents noticed a lack of police on the streets during concerts, which is outside Live Nation’s obligations. According to a report from the city’s community services director, nuisance behavior — such as drug use and public urination — was common along Front Street, near Flats on Front Apartments. Wilmington Downtown Incorporated has assigned its ambassadors the area to address cleanliness and safety.
Council member Clifford Barnett asked how Live Nation intends to prevent a situation similar to AstroWorld, a Live Nation musical festival in Houston where a crowd surge killed 10 people in November. More than 300 attendees were injured and 25 were hospitalized. Live Nation is facing a slew of lawsuits and is under investigation by the FBI for its role in the mass casualty incident.
Belcher said he couldn’t speak to the under-investigation event but said staff is trained “extensively.”
Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams is expected to review crime statistics in an upcoming meeting and is being asked to address Live Oak Bank Pavillion’s impact. Belcher said he will compile data on other venues’ use of police to compare.
Without any designated handicap parking, concertgoers arriving in wheelchairs or with canes to events found it more difficult to get to and from shows this past year than able-bodied attendees. People with disabilities were expected to get a ride to a drop-off area and wait in chairs until their driver parked and returned to the venue.
Council member Charlie Rivenbark said his son was one of the people who had to wait in the ADA area while Rivenbark went to park his car and made the 10-plus minute walk to the venue. He said his son was fine, but the handicap accessibility needs more attention.
He indicated shortcomings fall on both the city and Live Nation to improve.
The report to council members referred to the passenger drop-off system as “very good.” However, a city attorney is negotiating with nearby developments for closer ADA parking.
Considering its proximity to the water, there have been heightened concerns about litter at Live Oak Bank Pavilion and the potential for trash to drift into the Cape Fear River. Following Widespread Panic, balloons were found scattered near the entrance, likely used by concertgoers to inhale nitrous oxide.
Cape Fear River Watch scheduled a clean-up event to help with the litter, and upon criticism from people wondering why a nonprofit was aiding a major for-profit company, it posted on Facebook that Live Nation’s sustainability director assured it the company was committed to preventing large-scale littering in the future.
According to Live Nation, the Wilmington venues performed more sustainably compared to its other locations. In a sustainability ranking, Greenfield Lake Amphitheater finished third, and Live Oak Bank Pavilion came in fifth, Belcher reported.
Close to 80% of waste at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater was diverted from the landfill. Live Oak Bank Pavilion finished the season at 68%, according to Belcher.
At Live Oak Bank Pavilion, almost 25 tons were recycled, and 4,165 cigarette butts were collected throughout the season, even though it is a no-smoking venue. More than 500 pounds of unclaimed lost-and-found items were donated.
A small team, mostly made up of UNCW students, oversees the sustainability efforts.
“They’re super passionate about this,” Belcher said.
At Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, Live Nation reclaimed 1,350 cigarette butts, recycled almost 9,000 pounds and kept its landfill contribution under 3,000 pounds.
Outside the venue, the city is anticipating to tack on some expenses to ensure areas are kept clean, including extra cleaning of public restrooms, more emptying of street trash cans and litter patrol.
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