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Wednesday, March 21,2012

Will a music venue follow a casino?

To compete for acts with other cities, promoters say, concerts should be part of proposed Kewadin Lansing

by Andy Balaskovitz

The Black Crowes. Gin Blossoms. Weird Al Yankovic. Kathy Griffin. Jay Leno. Grand Funk Railroad. KISS.

What do these musicians and comedians all have in common? They’ve either performed recently — or will perform soon — at a tribally owned casino in Michigan.

With the prospect of such a casino in Lansing working its way through the legislative process, could it also set the stage for a mid-size entertainment venue downtown? For those steadfastly opposed to gambling on its face, could the possibility of a several-thousand-person venue downtown make Kewadin Lansing casino more palatable? Could it take Kewadin Lansing to the next level and make Lansing’s entertainment scene that much more competitive? Could it at least make Lansing relevant on the touring spectrum, as it currently is not?

Absolutely, say local music promoters, who point to such a venue as a major piece of the puzzle missing from Lansing, especially when you consider concert destinations like Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Detroit.

City officials and casino developers say it’s too early to tell, but they’re not discounting the possibility.

“There’s been very subtle discussions there, nothing concrete,” said Scott Keith, president and CEO of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, which manages the Lansing Center.

One option for such a venue is within the Lansing Center, which already has roughly 120,000 square feet of usable space and a total footprint closer to 300,000 square feet. While the Lansing Center is mostly used as a convention facility, it hosts an occasional, small concert. But it’s not suited to be a music venue, and converting it to meet those requirements could be costly.

Another option is using the temporary, 15,000 square-foot casino as a venue after the larger, permanent casino is built.

“We have these giant exhibit halls, we can do that, convert it to concert-like facilities. There has been very quiet discussion about once the showcase casino is open and operating that the boutique casino may be a great option to put in a 500-person theater,” Keith said.

The problem, though, with using the Lansing Center as a music venue is the flat seating, Keith said. Some changes would need to be made on that front and with the acoustics to accommodate a major show. “The exhibit hall typically is just a giant box. The sound reverberates in there a lot more.”

In the past, the Lansing Center has put concrete on the floor and angled speakers to “soften the sound,” but “it’s a little more costly,” Keith added, to install proper acoustic controls.

An entertainment venue would have to fit in with space dedicated to convention business in the Lansing Center and the 3,000 slot machines and 48 table games in the showcase casino to be managed and owned by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Bill Cross, a partner with Lansing Future LLC, the casino developer, said dealing with the entertainment at the casino will fall squarely on the city and LEPFA, while the tribe will solely manage the gaming end of things. While he listed off square footage within the Lansing Center that will likely be used for small-scale eateries and bars; entertainment; and convention activity, Keith of LEPFA said: “I have not seen or heard anything like that. We’ve talked about using some underutilized space by the casino but we haven’t talked about specific details.”

But the prospect of bringing nationally touring acts to a dedicated music venue downtown has local concert promoters excited. Of four interviewed for this story, all glowed about the need for Lansing to compete with not just the Wharton Center and the Breslin Center in East Lansing, but also venues in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Detroit.

“They need to formalize it as a venue or put it on the map as a venue,” said Chuck Mannino, owner of Mac’s Bar and who also books shows under Science Booking. “There’s definitely room for that mid-size market for bands. … We’re missing out on tons and tons of business. It might behoove us to convince the mayor this would bring a lot of dough.”

If anyone has gotten close to bringing a major show to the Lansing Center, it’s Cale Sauter, who books shows through Bermuda Mohawk Productions. He got past the initial discussion phase with the Lansing Center on bringing in Snoop Dogg almost two years ago.

“It would have required a lot of security, a lot of sound requirements — it would have been a pretty big event,” he said.

Sauter said plans got to “the second stage” of planning out logistics and the “Lansing Center people were great about it,” but Snoop Dogg rescheduled his tour before it happened.

“It was definitely an interesting proposition for us, a slightly bigger event than we’d been involved with,” Sauter said.

“We don’t have a Deltaplex like Grand Rapids or anything as big as St. Andrews (Hall) or the State Theater” in Detroit. “It would make us a lot more competitive. We’re already competing with those cities on a lot of levels and we have a lot of motivated people here. … A lot of times if (a show) comes it goes straight to MSU, and the city of Lansing misses out.”

Rich Whitman, who does booking for the Great Lakes Collective, said: “We’ve always been a bit surprised that the Lansing Center isn’t used more often for shows, concerts and different entertainment-type things. 

“If a big band is coming through” Michigan, he said, “this is a great in-between stop between Grand Rapids and Detroit. Lansing could actually become more of a hot spot for bands.” 

That’s not to discount venues like The Loft and Mac’s Bar, promoters said, but those places can’t realistically bring in several thousand people. But venues regularly name-dropped outside of Lansing — the Intersection in Grand Rapids, Royal Oak Music Theater, the State Theater in Kalamazoo or Cobo Hall in Detroit — vary in size yet still bring in big-name acts.

“We need to compete with Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids,” said Mannino, of Mac’s Bar, on trying to get bands and their managers to consider Lansing. “Now we’re not even on the multiple-choice question.”

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