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Convention/Arena Authority considers expanding role with two more venues

BY Sunday, April 10, 2022 06:42pm

GRAND RAPIDS — The public authority that administers three major downtown Grand Rapids venues could expand its portfolio in the coming years with a new riverfront amphitheater and a popular downtown music venue.

Local officials say the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority (CAA) has the capacity to oversee the two additional venues, though questions remain about whether it makes financial sense and whether a publicly operated facility would compete with privately owned venues.

from the left: Rick Winn, Scott Hammontree

“In my opinion, yes, the CAA could scale up,” said Kent County Administrator Al Vanderberg, who helped oversee the CAA’s creation more than 20 years ago as the county’s deputy administrator. “The CAA partners with (entertainment management firm) ASM Global, and has done that since the CAA was created, and works with Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the world. They’re known around the country as being an excellently run operation.”

In addition to acquiring riverfront property for a planned 12,000-capacity amphitheater, the CAA also is considering an operational role in GLC Live at 20 Monroe, which an Indiana private equity firm recently purchased for $16.5 million.

Like the amphitheater project, though, several moving pieces need to be settled before the CAA finalizes its role. Discussions are ongoing with the new GLC Live owner — South Bend-based Great Lakes Capital, doing business as GLC GR Live LLC — as well as Live Nation, which books and promotes shows at the downtown venue.

“We’re putting together a task force that’s going to do some due diligence on past performances, bookings and future bookings and work out a final scenario that makes sense with the owners to come up with a win-win deal,” CAA Board Chairperson Rick Winn told MiBiz

Great Lakes Capital is a real estate development and private equity firm that focuses on investing in multifamily, industrial, mixed-use, office, medical and hotel properties. The firm has been involved with several projects in West Michigan over the years, including constructing speculative industrial space in Walker and at Fort Custer Industrial Park in Battle Creek. 

Winn has said that Great Lakes Capital approached the CAA about leasing and operating GLC Live, which opened in 2017 as 20 Monroe Live and was formerly owned by Gilmore Collection. The Grand Rapids City Commission, Kent County Board of Commissioners and CAA Board of Directors each passed resolutions to allow the CAA to begin negotiations on the deal.

Great Lakes Capital declined to comment for this story.

The CAA’s task force likely will include members of the CAA board, including city and county officials, as well as ASM Global Regional Manager Rich MacKeigan, Winn said. 

The CAA still has to determine whether the deal makes financial sense, MacKeigan said during a March 30 CAA board meeting. 

“This only makes sense to the CAA’s satisfaction if Live Nation’s involvement is continued,” MacKeigan said. “We would not be replacing them — if anything, we are acting on behalf of the ownership group that replaced Gilmore Group.”

The city and county created the CAA in 2000 under the state Convention Facility Authority Act of 1999. Since its creation, the CAA has administered Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place Convention Center and DeVos Performance Hall. Vanderberg said the CAA’s role could be expanded if an opportunity arose.

“I don’t think anybody could quite peer into the future and see what that could be,” Vanderberg said of the CAA’s formation. “I don’t think they had a vision that would have limited it from something like this. The mechanism was built into the operating agreement.”

GLC Live at 20 Monroe opened in 2017 as part of an expansion of The B.O.B., which also is under a pending sale. The venue has a 2,580-capacity and is managed by Live Nation through its House of Blues Entertainment Division. 

“The 20 Monroe venue has been a very successful operation since it opened, and we’re excited to see how we could keep that going,” Winn said. 

Public competition?

Under the CAA’s proposal, GLC Live’s operations could move from an entirely private model to a quasi-public operated venue.

Scott Hammontree, general manager and talent buyer at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, said this raises questions about whether a publicly operated venue would compete — or potentially open partnerships — with private venues.

“I’m interested to see how it would work, and if we would have access to the venue if we want to put a show there if it’s (operated) by a public entity,” Hammontree said. The Intersection, with a 1,500-person capacity, also includes multiple venues with smaller capacities in the same facility. 

“We compete a little bit with the current operators of (GLC Live at 20 Monroe), but it’s about a dozen shows a year. Generally speaking, shows that play there play there, and shows that play The Intersection, play The Intersection.”

As state and federal relief funding for music venues stalled earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, operators worried about a nationwide wave of venue sales to private equity buyers. Specifically, venue owners raised concerns about whether the shift would eliminate independent and locally owned and operated venues.

Hammontree, who also serves as president of the Michigan Independent Venue and Promoter Association, said federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grants and other programs helped keep independently owned venues afloat after widespread shutdowns and artist cancellations.

Still, venue operators continue to struggle returning to “normal” revenue levels, Hammontree said.

“We’re still slower than we normally are,” Hammontree said. “(Business) is still slowly coming back for a venue of our size and smaller.” 

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