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Sunday, 02 August 2015 22:00

Wings Event Center hopes big names will entertain a stop in Kalamazoo

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Kalamazoo-based Wings Event Center has played host to musical acts such as the Avett Brothers. The Southwest Michigan venue hopes to secure more national touring bands in the coming years as part of a $2.8 million renovation project. Kalamazoo-based Wings Event Center has played host to musical acts such as the Avett Brothers. The Southwest Michigan venue hopes to secure more national touring bands in the coming years as part of a $2.8 million renovation project. COURTESY PHOTO

Over the last few years, Kalamazoo has been able to lure some big-city entertainment to its small-town environment.

From Bob Dylan and Elton John to Willie Nelson and World Wrestling Entertainment, the big names haven’t necessarily always bypassed Southwest Michigan on their way to stops in larger markets like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Chicago.

For Rob Underwood, entertainment director at Wings Event Center, that small-town feel is not always a disadvantage — it can be a selling point.

“We do have an amazing venue with a lot of great history,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of the bells and whistles like many of the new arenas, but we always preach that you’ll have a great time in Kalamazoo. We’re a hospitality company that does events. That’s kind of been our tag line. There are a lot of event companies that don’t hit the hospitality component like we do.”

Among a handful of other venues, Wings Event Center, which is owned by Kalamazoo-based Greenleaf Hospitality Group Inc., has been one of the primary grounds for a variety of entertainment.

The venue, which is home to the Kalamazoo Wings of the East Coast Hockey League, upped the ante this year with $2.8 million in renovations and a new focus to bring in all types of events instead of just focusing solely on hockey.

“As far as (entertainment) genres, we’re pretty much open to everything,” Underwood said. “We tend to be a family-focused place, but we’re pretty open to genres as far as concerts go. For us, we’re trying to add the expos and conferences — events that are non-traditional to hockey or music. That’s where we have an opportunity to fill out.”

In regards to music, the cities of Kalamazoo and Battle Creek each have high-capacity venues like Wings Event Center, Arcadia Festival Place and Kellogg Arena, but there are a bevy of clubs and bars that fill in with touring middle-market bands.

Such venues include Bell’s Brewery’s Eccentric Cafe, Kalamazoo State Theatre and The Music Factory. District Square in Kalamazoo, through a partnership with Lansing-based concert promoter Fusion Shows, unveiled its most high-profile summer of shows to date, including acts like Coheed and Cambria, American Authors, Motion City Soundtrack, The Mowgli’s and the Audiotree Music Festival.

It’s also no coincidence that much of the music selection has a particular appeal to some of the 24,000 students that attend Western Michigan University.

“There are a lot of places (that offer music) downtown — a lot of that music is very much college-driven,” said Underwood, whose facility hosted the Avett Brothers in April and received a strong turnout from college students. “That’s a component for sure. The shows we have that are not necessarily student-related tend to be classic rock or country shows. There is still great turnout for those.”

While not all “college towns” treat the label as a badge of honor, it is one that Kalamazoo seems to accept.

“We don’t try to break (that stigma) — we try to embrace all of that,” said Greg Ayers, president and CEO of Discover Kalamazoo, the county’s convention and visitors bureau. “Everyone’s definition of a college town is different. WMU is one of our largest employers in the area and the number-one reason people come to our community. When you consider everything at Miller Auditorium, the Fetzer Center, the dozens of concerts and events that take place, they’re certainly a major part of it.”

WMU’s presence in Kalamazoo offers something that even the larger city of Grand Rapids lacks: Division 1 collegiate athletics. The WMU Broncos, who compete in the Mid-American Conference, operate the largest stadium in the region. Waldo Stadium seats over 30,000 and will likely sell out this year as WMU hosts Michigan State University on Sept. 4.

The Broncos highlight a selection of sports entertainment options for the area, which also features the Kalamazoo Wings and two semi-professional baseball teams, the Kalamazoo Growlers and the Battle Creek Bombers.

Add in the abundance of microbreweries and beer-related events, and the vast array of entertainment options is a feather in the area’s cap, according to Ayers.

“For a community of our size, it’s really something that makes Kalamazoo very unique,” he said. “I think people have a great recognition that this is a place of creative minds and an educated community always looking what we can do next.” 

Read 8727 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 August 2015 09:38
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

jbussa@mibiz.com

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