Like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes of urban decay & mismanagement that led to the $500,000 tear-down project of the former Florentine Inn and Saginaw Center, the new First Merit Event Park is now standing like a shining beacon of potential, with its expansive stage poised to accept patrons with open-arms as it ushers in a whole new level of opportunity for Downtown Saginaw.
The new outdoor event venue in the 300 block of Downtown Saginaw, located where the Saginaw Center once stood, will include a Pavilion, a main stage and a grassy area, as well as 225 parking spaces on the 400 block, with the facility designed to attract a wide range of events and draw fresh faces to the downtown business district.
Indeed, the Grand Opening inaugural event at the First Merit Event Park is poised to blast off the weekend of August 16-18th with the 1st Annual Michigan Rock 'n Rib Festival, kicking off with a ribbon cutting ceremony at 11 AM with the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce. The festival will feature three nights of top-level Michigan bands and BBQ with 13 celebrity judges voting for Best Michigan Ribs and a People's Choice Award voted on by patrons throughout the weekend
According to Matt Blasy, General Manager of The Dow Event Center, the new First Merit Event Park will have the capacity to accommodate 5500 patrons and is expected to cost up to $1.275 million. It has received commitments of $700,000 of additional funding towards the $1.275 million that it is seeking. “The additional funding is not needed for essential aspects of the event park,” explains Blasy, “but will mean a better overall venue, with irrigation systems and an extra 84-foot structure on the premises for storage and dressing rooms.
“We obtained First Merit Bank as the naming rights partner, received $500,000 in grant dollars from foundations obtained by Saginaw Future, so we've broken that $1.2 million into a couple phases - the core stuff and the additional stuff. The few hundred thousand we still need to raise will eventually go to put storage rooms into the facility, with the ability to convert them to dressing rooms for bigger shows,” continues Blasy.
The genesis for this project began a couple years ago when the Saginaw Chamber of Commerce opted to take revenues derived in part from the hotel tax and tear down the old Florentine Inn, with the intention of improving the parking ramp. As the Chamber involved themselves with the funding to get the hotel demolished, last summer and rather late in the game relative to the whole construction, the old Downtown Saginaw Center came into the picture, with the Saginaw Landbank and the Chamber pledging funding to demolish that entity as well.
“Originally the plan was to tear down the Hotel and do parking for 500 vehicles,” explains Blasy. “But we also had a bond from the Event Center millage, so everything was set in place and the idea surfaced to shift some dollars from the Hotel demolition and add demolition of the Saginaw Center into the mix as well for the first week of December.”
“But once we knew both structures were coming down, which I was excited about - one thing I was not all that excited about was the space issue, because the last thing that a downtown area should have is excessive parking. The additional parking from the hotel would be more convenient, especially with any events going on at the Theatre that would offer more flexibility with customer service; but to put even more parking where the Saginaw Center once stood would mean we would probably reach capacity with both lots maybe 5 times a year. And that concerned me.”
“So we started brainstorming ideas and the pavilion idea was thrown around awhile back, although originally we were going to locate it in the parking lot area,” continues Matt. “But as we moved forward with the idea for a pavilion, we felt that in order to insure its success we needed a 'Wow' factor behind it, as opposed to a simple pavilion located in a parking lot.”
“We felt it would be wiser to transform the pavilion into an actual venue; and I had seen a couple outdoor venues that mirrored our goals. Originally we were going to keep the area flat and increase capacity, but what it came down to is what I feel is our core business, which we've proven with the event center. If it's a standing event we can handle 5500 at the Park, but if it's a demographic that requires lawnchairs, seating would come down to 3500 to 4000, which is the perfect size for our market.”
As an extension of the Dow Events Center, the new First Merit Event Park will be managed by SMG with dollars generated from the venture going into the overall operating budget.
When looking at different types of pavilions across the nation, what does Matt feel distinguishes this one? “From a structural standpoint I think we've done an outstanding job of building a pavilion that the community can benefit from. The flexibility of the venue allows everything from small concerts to family reunions , political campaigns, and non-profit fundraising.”
“Plus with our experience and knowledge of what major concerts require, we have all the necessary requirements and have focused on minimizing operating expense for promoters, which is what its all about. If we can make things significantly cheaper for a promoter - that is definitely one of our goals.”
Additionally, the current arena and theatre at the Dow Event Center will not compete with the First Merit Event Park, but increase its efficiency. “Not many events come through the summer season into the Dow Event Center or the Theatre, “ explains Matt. “Our indoor event season is basically mid-September through Mid-May; and while we do get banquets and weddings in the summer months, we do not get a lot of concerts. But with the event park, that will change. Concerts will come to the Event Park and there we have the ability to sell 5500 tickets to a concert. But if a heavy storm is projected the night of the show, we can move it indoors to the theatre or arena. From a promoter's standpoint that's a huge plus-factor - not having to worry about cancellations or rescheduling. I believe that's the biggest factor that sets us apart from other outdoor venues.”
Matt also feels this will increase the variety, numbers, and scope of shows available to people in the region during the summer months. “Lots of acts aren't a good fit for indoor venues, but outdoor shows present a whole different type of animal,” reflects Blasy. “Many shows are of such a nature that adding an outdoor element to it is a natural ticket booster, which is another benefit for acts that are more price sensitive.”
What about concerns with sound and noise ordinances? Does Matt view this as a potential problem with the outdoor venue? “Not really,” he notes. “When we placed the pavilion one consideration was to utilize the existing footings from the old building to save dollars; but also because it goes out to and faces a non-residential area. The only businesses there are banks and the state building, which is closed at night anyway; and we've been working with the city on several things, including closing down Franklin Street and potentially Johnson street, but also on extending the sound curfew out from 10 PM to 11 PM during the summer months. The city has been awesome to work with and we pretty much want to be wrapping things up by 10:30 PM anyway on outdoor shows for the most part.”
“Knock on wood, we've had a couple bumps in the road here and there,” concludes Matt, “but considering that this concept first surfaced around December 1st and now here we are in August with the project near completion, I find it absolutely amazing that over the course of 9 months we were able to bring this project to fruition. With many projects it takes a year simply to finalize the architectural plans; but a lot of this is also due to the amazing job that Spence Brothers have been doing with construction on the pavilion. They've been awesome and great to work with.”
Pricing tiers for the Event Park reflect the intention to keep this venue as much about larger concerts as it is to opening itself to local community organizations attempting to raise funding. Consequently, Saginaw-based non-profit organizations can rent the Event Park for free for now; and any non-Saginaw based non-profits can rent the facility at 50% off, coupled with the costs associated with operating it.
“Many of the costs that go with it we made part of the existing set-up,” explains Blasy, “so promoters do not need to worry about fencing or power rental; and about the only additional costs involved are porta johns and any associated staging set-up. But whether you're a major promoter or a non-profit organization, a good chunk of the costs associated with outdoor events are already tied-into the facility.”
“Considering that from inception to opening its been nine months, it's also worth noting that for this year what we are trying to do is give everybody a taste of what we're capable of doing here,” concludes Blasy.
“Anything that we are able to offer here this summer is good, because it exceeds our expectations. But next summer is when things will be fully cooked and served.”
Poised for Opening Night *
The 1st Annual Michigan Rock 'n Rib Festival
The kick-off event for the First Merit Event Park is the 1st Annual Michigan Rock 'n Rib Festival on August 16-18th, which came together after Blasy had a conversation with Bill Wall, Jr. at Bone Daddy's. Wall has extensive experience coordinating these types of events and his insights have helped secure some of the best BBQ vendors from around the state, including Big Moe's (Kalamazoo), Beefcake's BBQ (Saginaw), Bluewater BBQ (Hope) and Pig's Eating Wings (Charlevoix). General admission is only $5.00 and includes parking in any of the Dow Event Center SMG managed facilities.
“Since I've been here for five years, I've always tried to come up with things that we can do here at the Dow Event Center to drive business in the summer months,” explains Matt. “When I was at the Compuware Arena in the early 2000's they had a flat parking lot that was converted to three drive-in movie screens; and eventually we did the same thing at the Pontiac Silverdome down in Detroit. So we're always trying to brainstorm ideas on how to maximize our existing staff with minimal revenues and keep things going in the summer. We reached out to Bill Wall Jr. and met with him and are excited that he's going to take things to a whole new level for this year one event,” enthuses Blasy.
Entertainment will start at 4:00 PM on Friday, August. 16th, highlighted by Saginaw's own Larry McCray, who will headline the opening inaugural night. McCray has not performed in Saginaw in three years and he will be releasing his new CD of original material. Headlining Saturday, August 17th will be Brian VanderArk of the Verve Pipe hitting the stage at 9 PM; and rounding out the festivities on Sunday starting at 11 AM will be the Robert Lee Revue and headliners the Howling Diablos fro Detroit at 2 PM.
A complete schedule is noted below:
Friday * August 16th
5:00 PM * Stone Clover
7:00 PM * Jill Jack
9:00 PM * Larry McCray
Saturday * August 17th
12:00 PM * Bryan Michael Fischer Band
1:00 PM * Matt Besey
3:00 PM * The Josh Ramses Band
5:00 PM * Big ray & the Motor City Kings
7:00 PM * the Infatuations
9:00 PM * Brian VanderArk
Sunday * August 18th
11:00 AM * Robert Lee Revue
12:00 PM * Nashon Holloway & the Soul Messengers
1:00 PM * Brett Mitchell
2:00 PM * The Howling Diablos