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Monday, 04 July 2016 14:39

In doubling concert capacity, Fifth Third Ballpark plans to seek out A-list acts

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Executives at the West Michigan Whitecaps are exploring their options to nearly double the capacity for concerts at Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park. Currently, the facility can hold about 8,500 for a music show, but the company aims to reconfigure the setup to allow space for 16,000 concertgoers. At that level of capacity, the ballpark could become attractive to A-list musical acts, according to CFO Denny Baxter. Executives at the West Michigan Whitecaps are exploring their options to nearly double the capacity for concerts at Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park. Currently, the facility can hold about 8,500 for a music show, but the company aims to reconfigure the setup to allow space for 16,000 concertgoers. At that level of capacity, the ballpark could become attractive to A-list musical acts, according to CFO Denny Baxter. Courtesy Photo

COMSTOCK PARK — The owners of the West Michigan Whitecaps want to market Fifth Third Ballpark as a venue for big-name acts like Eminem or Bruce Springsteen, perhaps for shows as soon as this fall. 

Executives are “in the throes” of determining what the ballpark’s capacity would be if it were to use the entire field for a concert, not just the infield as it has for past shows. Doing so would move the capacity from about 8,500 people to “somewhere north of 16,000,” said CFO Denny Baxter. 

That would position Fifth Third Ballpark as the largest venue in the region and open up a host of new opportunities for the company to pursue, he said. By comparison, Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids can seat “12,000 plus” for concerts, according to its website.

“It’s not lost on us that we would be the largest open-air venue on the west side of the state and what that would present to us in terms of promoters if we can handle 15,000 to 16,000 people,” Baxter said. 

Baxter also runs Blue Cap Entertainment LLC, a promotion company for concerts and events. He was previously involved in the former Rock The Rapids series of concerts. 

Executives from the Whitecaps organization reached out to Plainfield Charter Township officials to advise them on the plans to hold a “mega show” with an “A-list” musical act who could attract crowds nearly double what the venue has held in the past. 

“We’ve done concerts, we’ve done some multi-day events, but we’ve never gone out to get the A-list major star,” Baxter told MiBiz

Even in its previous infield concert setup, Fifth Third Ballpark far eclipsed the capacity of the nearby Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which can hold about 1,900 people in its amphitheater and lawn seating area. 

Baxter and company want to set the capacity, work on the logistics of holding an event of that size, and start reaching out to management companies about booking the ballpark for concerts. That process should be completed within the next two weeks, he said. 

The team has to take into consideration the needs for emergency medical professionals, security, parking, traffic control and a host of other issues, including facility planning, Baxter said. One possible solution to allow for ingress and egress would be to remove a portion of the ballpark’s fence and use ramps to get people to field level. 

Moving into larger outdoor concerts would be “another progression” for the ballpark and give the company options to “maximize the use of the facility” more days out of the season, he added, noting the venue hosts a range of sporting events and concerts already. 

The Whitecaps executives presented letters of support for their plans from the Kent County Sheriff Department and the Plainfield Fire Department when they met with the Plainfield Township Planning Commission on June 28.

Bill Fischer, the township’s community development director, said the presentation required no action from the commission, which opened the door for the venue to hold concerts a few years ago. The commission set parameters governing issues like curfews and loudness, he said. 

“As long as it’s within those parameters, they can have concerts,” Fischer said, noting the presentation served to inform the commission members that a bigger event could be on the horizon. “It was more of a heads up that this could be a bigger one.” 

In a letter submitted to the Planning Commission, Baxter made mention of a “possible large scale concert” on Sept. 24 with Detroit-based rapper Eminem, but told MiBiz the mention of the artist was meant to serve as “an example of someone we’d take a look at.” The organization has not yet reached out to Eminem’s management about the potential for having the 15-time Grammy Award winner play Fifth Third Ballpark, he said. 

“The Planning Commission wanted us to give an example,” Baxter said. “We thought he was a good one as an artist who has not played West Michigan, but who has sold out Comerica (Park in Detroit) to large crowds. We want to demonstrate to them that this is what we’re shooting for.”

That said, once the team sets a reasonable concert capacity for the ballpark, it will look to fill the calendar with a concert on Sept. 24, “an open, available date for us,” according to Baxter. 

“It’s pretty darn close, so it would have to happen soon, just so we’d have time to get the show marketed,” Baxter said. “We need to do that over the next couple of weeks if we want to take advantage of a September date, but the planning we’re doing now works for September of this year or July of 2017. We’ll have a folder or template for when we want to do something.

“We want to get one done, get the bugs out of it and be on the radar for these artists.”

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Joe Boomgaard

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