RiverEdge Park looks to up the entertainment ante
By Stephanie Lulay firstname.lastname@example.org October 6, 2013 3:52PM
Dr. John brings his mojo to the stage Friday to open both Blues on the Fox and the John C. Dunham Pavilion at RiverEdge Park . | Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 7, 2013 1:28PM
AURORA — Tim Rater feared checking his voicemail all summer.
After an 8,000-attendee event at Aurora’s new RiverEdge Park, Rater, executive director of the Aurora Civic Center Authority, would be a little nervous that complaints were coming.
“I didn’t get that. I didn’t get a barrage of people upset because of parking, or someone stood in front of them at the concert or beer lines were too long,” he said.
But after a first summer season that drew 100,000 to the park, Rater’s looking back on lessons learned, while trying to plan the “best second season” in 2014 along the Fox River.
“I think we had a good first year and I think everybody believes that we can grow from here,” he said. “But is there room for improvement? Absolutely.”
While some bumps were to be expected, Mayor Tom Weisner said he believed ACCA’s management of the concert venue’s first season “worked out very well.”
“I felt particularly good about the number of people that were there from out of town and, at the same time, from Aurora,” Weisner said. “People are showing up in greater and greater numbers.”
Iconic rock band Aerosmith and country wonders Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum and Hank Williams Jr. were among the many big-hit acts Rater courted, but did not land, in the park’s first season.
At a Finance meeting in August 2012, Rater said his lineup theme was “shock and awe.”
Did he live up to that goal?
“I think we can do better,” Rater said. “But I think we had a lot of great acts at the park in the first season.”
There are plenty he’s proud of, he said — Buddy Guy, Peter Frampton, B.B. King, Idina Menzel and Randy Travis.
With one summer under the park’s belt, Rater said he believes ACCA will be much more successful booking big acts next year.
ACCA exceeded the city’s baseline expectation for events — to book at least nine events in 2013 — by booking 20 events.
Weisner said ACCA did very well booking acts for the park’s first season, especially in light of the lack of lead time. ACCA signed an agreement to manage the park in September 2012.
“(Rater) did not have optimal conditions,” Weisner said. “But (the park hosted) a nice variety of high-level talent and my guess is we’ll do just as well or better in coming years with a bit more time.”
The park faced a major letdown in August when Latin legend Joan Sebastian and Norteno star Ramon Ayala unexpectedly canceled their show at RiverEdge due to “unforeseen circumstances.” The pair was billed as one of the biggest concert of the season.
Officials scrambled to book a replacement to kickoff Aurora’s Fiestas Patrias weekend, but Rater said the cancellation was a “major disappointment.” About 1,000 attended that concert, as opposed to the 3,000 to 5,000 attendees officials expected.
While booking nationally-recognized entertainers is important, Weisner said the city’s goal is for local organizations to have access to park and for the park to host free and inexpensive events, too.
That’s why the city chose ACCA to manage the park instead of a “promoter that (would) only be concerned with big money deals on their end,” Weisner said.
“We don’t expect (RiverEdge Park) to be turning a profit in the first two or three years at all, but the hope is that it will become profitable sooner rather than later,” he said.
For Two Brothers, the park’s main food vendor and Roundhouse owners, business was “gangbusters.” Two Brother Roundhouse, across the street from the park, didn’t add staff, but employees were working an additional 25-30 percent more hours this summer.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” said Gabe Nanni, general manager at Two Brothers Roundhouse. One of the restaurant and bar’s busiest weekends came from tween acts, Disney star Bridgit Mendler and R5.
The brewery and restaurant served tons of “banders” — Nanni’s slang for those wearing wristbands from the park — who wanted to get out of the sun or catch a beer while waiting for a Metra train.
“I’m not going to lie, sharing a parking lot with the train station was advantageous. We had a fantastic flow through of people during and after shows.”
But businesses south of the park in the core of downtown didn’t see the same flow of foot traffic from RiverEdge concerts.
Jesus Sanchez, co-owner of La Quinta de Los Reyes on Broadway, said that RiverEdge Park’s first concert season didn’t help his business.
In fact, on two or three weekends this summer, parking issues “really hurt his business,” he said.
He took the issue up with the city and signs in the parking lot behind the restaurant helped, but he’s not sure how next year will go.
“If parking is going to be like it was this year the whole summer, I’m not going to open my doors,” he said of next season. “I won’t be able to sustain (my employees). I’ve got way too many bills to pay.”
Amaury Rosado, owner of Chef Amaury’s Epicurean Affair in Restaurant Row, also didn’t see any added business from the park this year.
He said that booking shows that bring in a younger demographic and booking less cover bands would bring more people downtown. Peter Frampton might peak his interest at 51, he said, but that’s not bringing his kids to the park.
In the long run, and once a planned pedestrian bridge is built, Rosado said that the park is going to be a positive addition that all of downtown will benefit from.
“But that’s not translating into seating at the restaurant yet,” he said.
Dan Hites, a downtown developer and Aurora Downtown board member, helped organized the Roots Aurora at the park, and surveyed downtown business owners ahead of the festival. He said for many business owners, the increased traffic downtown did not translate to more business.
Hites said the group will work with ACCA officials to get more concert-goers to visit restaurants and bars in the downtown business district ahead of the park’s June 2014 opening.
“We would like to see a trolley bus loading and unloading over by the park, making drops after and during events,” he said. “Things like that will hopefully bring people in.”
Weisner said he thinks downtown businesses definitely benefited from the park’s opening, adding that some charged for parking in their lots. Downtown entrepreneurs will continue to find new ways to make money from park patrons next season, he said, and the park has already done a lot to boost the city’s image by attracting out-of-town folks to the downtown.
The city is now planning to build a pedestrian bridge that will connect the east and west banks of the Fox River in downtown, which will bring patrons closer to Restaurant Row and provide for potential development on the west bank of the river.
From Day One, there were challenges operating the park.
Rater said during the park’s Blues on the Fox opening , the point-of-sale system failed, resulting patrons waiting in a few extra minutes.
The park’s online ticketing system briefly went down later in the season. Concession lines were sometimes long and the city fielded complaints about parking “here and there,” Weisner said.
Now that ACCA officials know what people want at the park, beverage options will be streamlined next year in an effort to move lines, Rater said.
Weisner said park patrons were not “familiar with the (parking) system or what’s available,” and the city will add signage next year in an effort to fix the issue. He also wants to see projector screens added so patrons on the grassy hill have a clearer view of the show.
“They can certainly hear the music, but this will enhance their experience,” Weisner said.
Through a new business model in 2014, ACCA officials will aim to offer “an extreme value for artists that you could never get at a particular price point,” Rater said.
ACCA will announce the new deal in March 2014. Rater said he’s not ready to announce details of his strategy for next year, but it will entail a country package, classic rock “similar shows at a tremendous value.”
All things considered, Hites said that he has “immense respect” for ACCA’s management of the park. A learning curve is to be expected, he said.
“Like any other organization, you’re going to have first-year problems,” Hites said. “In the longterm, (I hope) it’s a major jewel and asset to the downtown.”
Weisner said he hopes that next year the park spurs more activity on the Fox River. Eventually, he’d like to see boat rentals available during shows.
“My dream is to get a pontoon boat out there, put my grill on it with a cooler of Two Brothers beer and enjoy a show,” he said.
Will the park be part of Weisner’s legacy?
“If I’m remembered for anything I hope (the park) is one of those things,” he said.