News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 16, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Local summer music series idea remains a good one

TERRE HAUTE — One-of-a-kind ideas happen rarely.

As the biblical adage goes, there is nothing new under the sun. We humans succeed occasionally, inventing electricity, automobiles, telephones and the Internet. Invariably, though, someone else insists, “Hey, my grandpa thought of that years before Edison.”

Most often, we walk in Cosmo Kramer’s shoes. In a classic “Seinfeld” episode, Kramer unsuccessfully pitches his idea for “The Beach,” a beach-scented cologne, to Calvin Klein only to later get a whiff of a Klein-brand perfume Jerry’s girlfriend is wearing called “The Ocean.” “He laughs at me, then he steals my idea,” Kramer shrieks. “I could have been a millionaire. I could have been a fragrance millionaire, Jerry.”

Yes, ideas get around, and the best get borrowed.

As the 2013 Year of the River celebration approaches high gear this summer and attention focuses on the Wabash, a perfect opportunity arises to gather ideas to maximize the assets the community already possesses along the famed waterway.

Those assets include Fairbanks Park’s well-equipped, scenically positioned amphitheater.

With the river as its backdrop, the amphitheater proves itself as a great venue each time an event unfolds there. This year, it’s worthwhile to ponder the possibilities of the amphitheater getting even busier and to see what happens in other communities.

Like Kokomo.

Two Fridays ago, that fellow Indiana town kicked off its fourth-annual Kokomo Performing Arts Pavilion Summer Concert Series. Free concerts, as in no admission charge. Featuring many memory-jogging acts — John Ford Coley (“Nights Are Forever Without You”), the Georgia Satellites (“Keep Your Hands to Yourself”), 1964 (a top-tier Beatles tribute band), Blue Oyster Cult (“Don’t Fear the Reaper”), Night Ranger (“Sister Christian”), Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits (“There’s a Kind of Hush”), the Kentucky Headhunters (“Dumas Walker”), the Original Wailers (Bob Marley’s band), and several others.

Most of the shows, which run through late August, happen in the Performing Arts Pavilion, a modest band shell in Kokomo’s Foster Park. The city built the structure in 2009 on a former softball diamond, using $150,000 of leftover funds in an Urban Enterprise Zone account. A year later, the free summer concert series began, on a comparatively smaller scale.

That year, 2009, holds significance. The recession hit a peak then, hammering Kokomo’s auto-related industries. Unemployment topped 20 percent.

“The town was in pretty bad morale,” recalled Brett Daniels, lifelong resident who helps organize the series as a volunteer.

Yet, the idea went forward. Two businesses kicked in money for naming rights on the pavilion. Two popular, existing festivals moved to the pavilion. Arts grants were sought. A community-wide process began. Companies buy sponsorships. Charities and nonprofit groups take turns running the concession stand, receiving 100 percent of the sales proceeds for their organization. A playground adjacent to the stage allows parents to watch the shows, with the kids still in view. Along with a trio of 40-seat bleachers, fans relax on their own lawn chairs and blankets. Donor companies pay $5,000 each to set up viewing shelters. Hotels and restaurants help out, too, with the performers’ lodging and food. Amusement ride fares, booth rentals, arts grants and a cut of the bands’ merchandise sales help cover expenses.

Success didn’t come instantly. After all, this is Kokomo, a city that — like Terre Haute — has some Rust Belt image issues.

“There was almost a skepticism from people — ‘That can’t be Starship coming to Kokomo,’” Mayor Greg Goodnight recalled, referencing the 1980s band known for hits such as “We Built This City.” “That took a while to overcome.”

But, as with its economy, Kokomo overcame doubts about its concert series. Instead, it grew. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate dropped, the downtown perked up, and the local economy improved, leading up to Chrysler’s announcement in February that it would invest $374 million in its Kokomo plants. Long before the Chrysler announcement, the concert series drew big-name retro artists such as Loverboy, Boyz II Men, Foghat, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Wang Chung, Mitch Ryder, Rare Earth, Firefall and Little River Band. Last summer, former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung drew 8,500 fans.

Best of all, again, admission is free. A family of four can spend as little as $10, with a few concession snacks. “So I’m pretty proud of that,” Daniels said.

The Ball State grad works at an appliance retailer by day. His volunteer role includes booking the musicians. “My jog is to get them the cheapest way you can get them,” Daniels said. The key is finding acts already headed to the region, offering them an extra gig on an otherwise empty spot on their schedule, and rolling out the community’s red carpet for them. “We treat these acts really well,” Daniels said.

Kokomo’s formula works well, and other small cities, including Rushville, have succeeded similarly, boosting tourism in the process. “It’s not rocket science,” said Andy Wilson, vice president of Bohlsen Group, an Indianapolis firm promoting the Kokomo concert series this year. “But if the product is well done, and the facility is nice, you don’t have to be a large city to pull it off.”

Rochester, a city of 70,000 along the Zumbro River in Minnesota, began its free Down By the Riverside summer concert series 22 years ago. Its headliners this summer are Greg Kihn (“The Breakup Song”), Atlanta Rhythm Section and Three Dog Night under the Mayo Center’s canopy.

In the mid-2000s, Terre Haute took a step toward such an offering, bringing notable acts like Peter Noone, America, Davy Jones and Gary Puckett to the Fairbanks Park amphitheater for the Banks of the Wabash Festival. In a 2006 interview, former city parks head Greg Ruark envisioned adding permanent seats there. Administrations and staffs changed, the recession hit, and those marquee concerts faded out.

The concept of a local summer music series remains valid. The quality of the amphitheater, even as-is, exceeds others elsewhere. This community knows how to assemble a private-public-volunteer network, which such a series would require. (See the Blues at the Crossroads Festival.) It happens in other towns. It could happen here. A good idea doesn’t have to be original to benefit Terre Haute.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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