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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2010

A star is born: Huntington Center has solid first year

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Talk about your bad omens ...

One week before '70s Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd were to be Huntington Center's first rock concert last year, the event was canceled. The band cited "scheduling conflicts," but only about 1,600 tickets were sold to the Oct. 15 show, even after a two-for-the-cost-of-one price drop.

And just like that the $98.1 million arena was 0-1 on its promise of bringing headline entertainment back to downtown.

"It was frustrating," said Steve Miller, general manager of SMG, which manages the Huntington Center and the SeaGate Convention Centre. "[But] we also knew that the Lynyrd Skynyrd show wasn't selling well anywhere. We knew it wasn't a function of fans not wanting to see them in Toledo; unfortunately, they didn't want to see them in other markets either."

Undeterred by the setback, Miller remained optimistic that northwest Ohio residents could — would — support the new venue. He was proven right, as today marks a successful year of operation for the arena.

The turnaround started less than a week after the Lynyrd Skynyrd cancellation, when comedian-ventriloquist Jeff Dunham packed the Huntington Center with its first non-sports event. It was a sold-out show.

The arena's music debut would come on Halloween, when rock-pop outfit Daughtry drew more than 4,600 to the venue. Less than two weeks later Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus rolled into town for the first time in eight years and drew nearly 31,000 people for eight shows, followed by back-to-back sold-out concerts by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Denise Bajas of Toledo cheers with the crowd gathered inside the Huntington Center in May for a viewing party for 'American Idol' contestant Crystal Bowersox. Denise Bajas of Toledo cheers with the crowd gathered inside the Huntington Center in May for a viewing party for 'American Idol' contestant Crystal Bowersox.
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It was all a sign of things to come, with big-event concerts like Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Elton John drawing thousands to the arena for sold-out performances.

In fact, the first six months of Huntington Center was good enough to place it in the top 10 of trade publication Venues Today's list of top-grossing venues, 10,000 seats or less, ar the mid-way point of the concert year, October through May.

With a gross of $5,081,918 — good enough for No. 7 — the Huntington Center was in very good company. It ranked below New York's Radio City Music Hall at No.1 with a total gross of more than $81 million, and the theater at Madison Square Garden at No. 2 with more than $26 million, and above the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia at No. 8 with a gross of $4.9 million, and the Newcastle Entertainment Centre in Australia at No. 10 with a gross of $2.9 million.

Rob Ocampo, director of Venues Today, said the accomplishment was no small feat for a mid-size market such as Toledo.

"To be up against some of these big-name venues, I would find it pretty impressive indeed," he said. "It really depends on how strong they market [the arena]. It looks like they did a really good job."

Despite the arena's success, concert promoter John Nittolo wasn't expecting the same kind of support for his Feb. 28 triple bill of REO Speedwagon, Styx, and .38 Special.

"It wasn't selling out anywhere else," he said. "I didn't think we'd sell that many tickets. I thought we'd sell 4,700 tickets."

The show sold nearly 6,900, a sell-out.

"What can I say, Toledo likes that type of rock group," he said.

Still, even Nittolo was surprised by the success of the Eagles.

The veteran band virtually sold out its Oct. 20 show at the Huntington Center in only a day — though a handful of single tickets remain and more are expected to made available day of the show based on the stage configuration — with a ticket price range of $50 to $173.

"I never thought the Eagles would sell a $173 ticket in Toledo," he said. "It just goes to show the power of the megaband in a smaller arena. This was a treat."

In a year of some heavy-hitters, the Eagles represents the biggest concert coup yet for the Huntington Center.

But there's more on the way, Miller promises.

"Some of the acts we're working to secure are Kid Rock, Lady Antebellum, and Michael Buble," he said.

From the cancellation of Lynyrd Skynyrd to hosting the Eagles, the Huntington Center has come a long way in its first year.

Even Miller acknowledges being surprised by how quickly the venue has made a name for itself among promoters and artists.

"I think it has exceeded our expectations for the quality and the type of acts we've been able to get," he said. "It feeds upon itself. We work very hard with my corporate office, SMG. They're really working hard to build these relationships just like I am."

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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