Competition pulling acts away from Everett arena

Competition pulling acts away from Everett arena
EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - Blues legend B.B. King is set to take to the stage tonight in Snohomish County bringing his trademark guitar Lucille.

But if you want to see the "King of the Blues" up close, don't bother going to the newly renamed Comcast Arena at Everett Events Center. That's because the 82-year-old musician is playing with Etta James nine miles away at the Tulalip Amphitheatre.

Comcast Arena will sit empty.

And the competition doesn't stop at Tulalip.

Tacoma Dome, KeyArena, The Paramount and The Moore theaters in Seattle, even the Gorge Amphitheatre east of Ellensburg, are vying with Comcast Arena for concert acts traveling to the area - and the thousands of concertgoers who flock to these shows.

And the competition is getting stiffer.

WaMu Theater, a 3,300- to 7,000-set venue, located at Qwest Field in Seattle, opened last year. With concert promoter, AEG Live, the venue has serious leverage in the industry and little trouble booking a strong event calendar. Kent, meanwhile, is planning for its own 6,000-seat events center.

All this spells potential trouble for Comcast Arena.

While overall attendance is better than initially expected, concert ticket sales at Comcast Arena dropped from 83,320 in 2005 to 45,071 in 2006.

This year looks even worse. Only 27,690 people have gone to concerts at the arena so far in 2007 with just one more concert scheduled on the calendar and less than four months left to go.

That doesn't mean Comcast Arena is struggling - far from it.

The $71.5 million venue, which can hold 10,000 people for concerts and 8,500 for hockey games, has exceeded early projections on attendance in large part because of family events such as the circus and "Disney on Ice."

Droves of fans are turning out to see the Everett Silvertips, the hugely popular Western League Hockey team.

The 688,534 people who walked through the doors last year is a higher number than the 609,000 projected before the center was built.

Nearly four years after it opened, city and business leaders say the endeavor has been a great success. They need only to point to downtown restaurants and bars often overflowing with crowds on any Silvertips game night.

"It has to be embraced by the community to be successful," said Tom Gaffney, treasurer of the five-member board that oversees the center. "And it has been."

When Cher performed at the arena in January 2005, it was the biggest concert in the city's history. Black Eyed Peas, Santana, Bette Midler and dozens of other shows have wedged the Everett events center on the concert map between more established venues in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Since it opened Sept. 27, 2003, the events center has developed a good reputation in the concert business, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of concert of Pollstar, a trade publication and Web site.

But sitting in one of the farthest corners of the country hurts it, Bongiovanni said.

"The Northwest doesn't see the same volume of shows because its difficult to route tours up there, and it's kind of the end of the line except for Vancouver or going across Canada," he said.

The arena did not make Pollstar's Top 100 Arenas Chart for 2006 or its mid-year 2007 chart, while KeyArena in Seattle and Tacoma Dome both ranked in the 70s.

Tammi Bryant-Olson, the arena's marketing director, says Pollstar is using faulty numbers and the arena should actually also rank in the 70s.

Even so, the drop in attendance has brought a drop in concert revenue. In 2005, concerts generated $3.68 million. Last year, that fell to $1.9 million.

Earl Dutton, president of the facilities district, said it's a tough market for booking concerts.

"People think we can just go out and bring in any show we want," said Dutton, who pays more than $35,000 a year for a luxury suite at the center. "If we could just go out and buy a show for a reasonable price, we'd have a show in there every day."

But concerts are just one source of income for the center, which is overseen by a public facilities district that was created by the city of Everett. The district contracts with Comcast-owned, Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum to manage the center.

Ticket sales for family shows such as "Disney on Ice," "Sesame Street Live" and the circus gross millions of dollars and draw families with moms and dads walking hand in hand with their children down Hewitt Avenue and Broadway.

In the spring, high schools from all over the county hold commencements in the building, filling the streets with a sea of caps and gowns.

And hockey draws crowds all through the winter.

The building is designed to be flexible with its two ice arenas, which can be converted into 57,000 square feet of floor space for trade shows and special events, such as the annual Home & Garden Show or the Boat Show.

The adjoining city-owned Edward D. Hansen Conference Center, with three executive meeting rooms and a 12,000-square-foot ballroom, also helps with the bottom line, and last year brought in more than $500,000 in rent.

"It really behooves us to diversify," said Kim Bedier, general manager of the events center. "We joke about being all things to all people."

Planners knew all along that the arena wouldn't work without a minor league hockey team, or some other anchor tenant to attract consistent audiences to fill the stands, bring businesses to concessionaires and provide eyes for advertisers.

Zoran Rajcic, business director for the Everett Silvertips, said attendance for games is usually at 80 percent capacity and still rising.

The average paid attendance for Silvertips games last season was about 6,700 people, up from about 6,100 the first season, he said.

The Silvertips' current contract with the facility ends in 2013 and includes an option to renew for another 10 years.

"It's been phenomenal," Rajcic said of Silvertips attendance. "The partnership is working."

Price and convenience are big factors that help bring people back again and again, he said. With tickets selling as cheaply as $9, a family of four can get into a game for less than $40. And unlike venues in Seattle, they don't have to pay for parking.

It's not just residents from Snohomish County who cheer on the Tips. The team has season ticket-holders in Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Anacortes.

While the Silvertips have seen unprecedented success, other minor league teams haven't been so fortunate. The Everett Explosion basketball team and the Everett Hawks arena football team both pulled up stakes last month.

Fortunately for the center, cable giant Comcast bought naming rights to the venue for $7.4 million in cash and advertising over 10 years.

Bedier, the general manager of the events center, said the complex is helping to make Everett a destination rather than just a place people drive through.

Along with the Tulalip Tribes' Seattle Premium Outlets and Boeing's Future of Flight Aviation Center at Paine Field, Snohomish County offers more for residents and their visitors, she said.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson took office two months after the events center opened and said it has helped fill vacant storefronts, and is sparking interest in a number of downtown condo developments in the planning stages.

He remembers when people made the "Hewitt run" downtown on their 21st birthdays, having a drink at each of the dozen or so bars that lined the street from Broadway to Bond Street. (Stephanson was overseas serving in the Army on his 21st birthday.)

Today, Hewitt Avenue still has bars lining the street, but Comcast Arena has also helped attract a wider range of eateries, including the Majestic, Prohibition Grille, Zippys Java Lounge, Schiavo's Bakery, Gordito's, Brooklyn Bros. and Papi's pizzerias, and Il Bistro Vino.

"It's really been the beginning of the transformation of Everett in so many ways," Stephanson said.

"People really feel different about Everett and there's a new sense that this is a community on the move."