Can Beacon shine spotlight on city?
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Sep 11, 2013, 12:30
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Appomattox Regional Library Director Scott Firestine talks about the Beacon renovation during a brief tour last week.
It is a Saturday night and all the yard work, grocery shopping and laundry is done; now it is time to go out and paint the town. You want to get dressed up and make a night of it.
The Beacon Theatre in Hopewell is open and there is a musical act set to perform that piques your interest. You head down Route 10, across the two rivers to Hopewell.
Before the show, you grab a dinner at a restaurant downtown. While at the show, you sip on a glass of wine and get swept away by the music. After the show has ended, a few of your friends suggest to go grab some dessert to wrap up what was a enjoyable night in Hopewell.
This is the future that many in Hopewell are looking toward as time begins to wind down on the renovations being done at the Beacon. Those involved in the project are looking to the future and are getting ready to roll out the red carpet, so to speak, for the visitors coming to the city.
“I really am excited about the opportunity to have the community come together in this space and that’s why it’s critical that we have it executed well, we put on a good show, we get our house ready and make sure it’s good to go,” said Scott Firestine, who is regional director of the Appomattox Regional Library and is also spearheading the effort to revitalize the Beacon.
Before the doors open to the Beacon, shows must be set and events planned to fill the calendar. Work began on that end almost simultaneously with the paint, hammers and nails being taken to the theater walls. Firestine said the Beacon LLC, the group that runs the Beacon, set out to develop a strategy to hire a contractor to come in and run the theater.
In July, a request for proposals was sent out, seeking someone with a knowledge base of the industry to bid and provide the Beacon with the operations to run an effective theatre. The bidding process was closed in the middle of August and one company, the Wells Group, with Brad Wells being the principal in the group, provided a sufficient presentation. Firestine was confident in his abilities and wanted to go forward with bringing him on the project.
Despite lingering concerns from a few council members, council voted 4-3 to allow the Beacon LLC to draw up contracts to hire Wells as the promoter for the Beacon.
Wells brings with him 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry, as he has worked to book shows for The National in Richmond, Innsbrook After Hours and Pocahontas Live.
“I know one of the buzzwords is that we have to restore this back to it’s original purpose, which is to put live performances on that stage,” Wells said.
The time is now, as indicated by Wells and Firestine, to begin lining up acts for the next year, as this is the time performers are looking to fill their calendars for 2014. Wells indicated to council that he travels to all corners of the country to bring performers to local stages and he indicated he is ready to do that with the Beacon.
“You guys have a gem,” Wells said. “This would be remarkable in New York City. I need to be out there now to be programming January, February, March and I’ve already had agents talk to me.”
Wells said he is also in the process of studying the demographics in the area. He said this helps determine what concerts will work in the area and what will not, as well as what risks to take and what acts will sell tickets.
“It is very competitive out there,” Wells said of the entertainment industry. “I have no doubt about being able to get the artists in here but I need to get out there and be able to say with certainty that I have the ability to put them in this space.”
Councilor Wayne Walton, though admitting that he did not support the $4.1 million renovations to the Beacon, can recognize that is time to get the ball rolling to start booking shows so residents, as well as visitors, can begin to enjoy the theater in Hopewell again.
“We are way behind in my opinion,” Walton said. “We’re up against some timelines to start marketing it and start coming up with security, lighting, parking, food, whatever it takes to be a success. ... We got a long way to go to bring the downtown up to snuff and make sure that the Beacon is a success. ... Shame on us if we don’t do everything we can.”
Creating the experience
Firestine said once the Beacon opens, it is going to have to compete with a very popular venue, a person’s living room. In this society, many communities have become secluded in terms of entertainment venues, Firestine said. People would rather stay home, with their temperature-controlled rooms, stock of food in the kitchen, and a nonexistent line at the bathroom.
“It’s all about the experience, so that’s what needs to be delivered, an experience where it is fun to come out and be surrounded by my neighbors in a really nice venue listening to quality music,” Firestine said.
In this digital era, Firestine said music has been consumed differently. Instead of walking to the record store, it has become typical for someone to sit behind a computer screen and download an entire album, or even just a song, and never get to experience the sound of live music.
“You’re missing the experience and so I think our communities have become very cocooned,” Firestine said.
One idea Firestine had was a package deal for theater-goers. For example, he said for $5,000 a person would get a ticket to every show, premium seating at shows and possible discounts on drinks for the show.
Firestine also wants to incorporate the other area of the Beacon as well, which includes the three-floor building.
He said the ballrooms can be set up with tables before and during intermission for visitors to sit and enjoy some food and drinks and possibly a musical act, then walk down the hall and over to the theater.
The experience is not just limited to the 650-seat theatre, the experience encompasses before, during and after the show. Andy Hagy, the city’s economic development director, stressed that the planning needs to be executed as if a mini festival is coming to fill the streets of the city.
“These businesses, if you get enough car traffic and foot traffic, that’s what these businesses look for,” Hagy said. “And if we can create that and we can prove that and show that to them then they’re going to start looking for space downtown to bring their business.”
Bringing more people, more money
As soon as a visitor comes into Hopewell, crossing the bridge from Route 10, and coming further into the city, there sits the Beacon. Firestine said as soon as it is open and the lights are flashing, there will be a draw, and that interest will spread into downtown Hopewell.
Firestine said about 18,000 cars a day travel down Route 10 through the city. He said it is imperative that they stop and start spending money in downtown.
A movie screen is lowered down across the stage as work continues.
“That’s the catalyst,” Firestine said. “If we had strong restaurants and bars and places for people to go in advance of that, that’s going to draw people to Hopewell.”
There will also be an economic impact once the Beacon opens its door in the coming months. In March of this year, CultureWorks, a nonprofit organization that provides service and leadership for arts and culture in Richmond, came to the city to review the Beacon project. The group provided the Beacon LLC with some economic numbers to consider once the Beacon is open.
The group reported that the average per person audience expenditures is $24.60, which is additional money apart from the sale of the tickets. Most of that cost reflects meals, snacks and refreshments totaling $13.14.
To put those numbers in terms of seats that fill the Beacon, Firestine gave the projected figure of 80 to 100 shows a year, in a theater that holds 650 people. He even broke that number in half, and still projected an impact of an additional 35,000 people coming into Hopewell per year.
“Let’s say we have 100 shows,” Firestine said. “Let’s say we sell 350 tickets, there’s 35,000 people who are coming to town that aren’t coming now and that’s half the capacity of the theatre.”
Though still optimistic about the economic impact of the Beacon will have on the city, Hagy remained hesitant to put a firm figure on the project. He said there are many factors that will determine the economic success of the Beacon, including the availability of businesses within the vicinity.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg thing. ... In addition to the show, we want to be able to provide whatever necessary, especially any food and beverage, any kind of activities that’s going to make them have a really great time and go back and spread the word,” Hagy said.
Firestine said one the keys of the Beacon’s success will be to have the current downtown business, such as Lisa’s Cafe and Harvest, “put their best foot forward,” and partner with the Beacon to help shepherd this project during it’s infancy.
“It’s an opportunity to put their best foot forward and prove they’re a place to go to get something good to eat before the show,” Firestine said. “We’re going to have to have support and involvement from the local businesses that are downtown to help us get this off the ground.”
An anchor for downtown?
“This is a downtown event, not just a Beacon event,” Hagy said. “We got to get ready for company. We’ve got company coming and we’ve got to get the place ready. And that includes nice signage, parking, safety, lighting, just the whole package.”
Evan Kaufman, director of the Hopewell Downtown Partnership, has the same train of thought as Hagy and Firestine and is working towards the opening of the Beacon and also keeping an open mind about exactly the impact the opening will have on downtown Hopewell.
“Is it going to be two shows a week and on certain nights we’ll have 600 people down in this area, and if that’s the case then I think that we’ll have to strategize some plans to make sure that things like dinner or other entertainment or other amenities that show-goers might be looking for, so that the money stays in Hopewell for that whole experience.”
As previously mentioned, Firestine, like Hagy, believes this project will have a ripple effect on downtown Hopewell and spoke with hope that some of the vacant storefronts on Broadway will begin to fill with restaurants and other businesses that visitors can enjoy before or after the show.
Kaufman noted that having the curtain come up on the Beacon will provide a recruitment tool to get other businesses to want to come and settle in downtown Hopewell.
With a little over three months to go until the renovations on the Beacon are completed, Kaufman, though realistic, remains optimistic that Hopewell will show off its best assets, even through the best might be yet to come.
“We should really use this opportunity to show off Hopewell even though we might be in a place we don’t want to be yet. We can still show off kind of our best assets and be able to let people know there’s other things coming,” Kaufman said. “That we’re in this revitalization stage and be able to let them think that this could be a really cool place and they want to come back.”
To create that draw to get show-goers to return to not only the Beacon, but Hopewell, is creating a safe and enjoyable atmosphere in downtown. Kaufman is currently working with leaders in the city, such as the police chief, John Keohane, to strategize and put more safety measures in downtown.
“It looks like we’ll be implementing a couple of different strategies from adding some security cameras to better lighting and signage and a heavier police presence on both bike and foot,” Kaufman said.
Another possibility for downtown would be to add a neighborhood watch walking tour. Kaufman said residents will be walking in and around the downtown, like an officer, to “take back the downtown.”
With a projected 35,000 people coming to Hopewell on an annual basis, they all need somewhere to park their cars while they are enjoying a show at the Beacon. Kaufman is already working on taking inventory of the parking that will be available to visitors when they come to downtown.
He said there is quite a bit of parking on both sides of Route 10, parking that is available after 6 p.m. Recently, City Council voted to demolish the former library building and pave the parking lot, which will add to the current inventory. While there is parking, Kaufman said the idea is not only to have places to park, but to enjoy the walk from the car to the front doors of the Beacon.
“I think the goal should be to add some features that will make people feel comfortable walking from the other side of Route 10 over at the courthouse over to the Beacon,” Kaufman said. “That can include more trees and lighting, possibly slowing down the traffic on Route 10 and having better crosswalks so you have a nice walk wherever your park. It will be enjoyable. You’ll have nice landscaping, and you will have a good impression on the people of Hopewell and especially downtown.”
on the future
Now that council had voted to approve the Beacon LLC to draft a contract with a promoter, work and planning can begin on filling the stage at the Beacon. At the council meeting on Tuesday evening, Wells painted a small picture of his vision for the Beacon.
The first year, Wells was conservative with his projected numbers on the amount of shows that will be at the Beacon, with that number sitting at 50 to 60 shows the first year.
“And that’s kind of a hunch and I base that on what we do annually in Richmond and looking at the numbers around here, of course Colonial Heights, Petersburg, Chester and the ticket buying habits that I’ve tracked annually.”
In an outline given to council, Wells outlined his recommendations for the theatre. He said the Beacon is “conducive for a variety of programming.” Some examples given of acts that will do well on the stage would be Leon Russell, the Temptations, Kansas, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sara Evans and Little River Band to name a few.
The Beacon Theatre in Hopewell was built in 1828.
Apart from musical acts, Wells has projected that comedians will do well at the Beacon, including those such as Lewis Black, Gilbert Godfried, and Paula Poundstone.
Wells also envisions musicals to be on stage, including local and touring musicals, such as ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and ‘Les Miserables.’
One point that was brought up among the council was the balance between for-profit performances and non-profit performances. Before the meeting Firestine encouraged local artists taking the stage, noting it will be a draw to the theatre.
“We definitely want local folks to be performing in the space,” Firestine said. “They bring in a built in audience.”
In his outline, Wells also noted that graduations, church gatherings, and corporate outings also make sense for the Beacon. Wells also expressed a need to make sure sponsorship and fundraising efforts were put in place to also get a revenue stream flowing.
As with any theatre, food and drinks are an imperative part of the experience. Wells states in the outline that concessions are “critical to the bottom line of successful venue in the present industry.”
Now the work begins to start creating the future for the Beacon, with the construction phase coming to a close. Currently seats are being installed in the theatre, seats that will soon be filled with members of the Hopewell community and beyond. The time has come to lift up the curtain and show what the Beacon has in store for the Tri-Cities as well as the entire region.
“We need to prove to them it was worth their stop in Hopewell,” Firestine said. “You’re coming down the hill, you’re confronted with the stacks from the plants, you’re driving down Route 10 and you see the Beacon sign, ‘Wow that’s a cool sign,’ you pull off to a good parking place, have a decent beer, see a good show, go home and say, ‘That was worth the trip.’”