With summer on the horizon, the Port City’s leading outdoor venues prepare for another season of events underneath the coastal sun. Locals and tourists alike are familiar with the scene – fireworks at nightfall, stadiums full of cheers, music by the water and cold beers aplenty.
Outdoor venues provide spaces to let the good times roll, but is the money rolling in too?
Despite last year’s Hurricane Florence, ticket sales for some major venues in Wilmington rose in 2018. For example, concert venue Greenfield Lake Amphitheater and Sharks baseball games (operating out of Buck Hardee Field at Legion Stadium) saw ticket revenue increases of 28% and 30%, respectively.
Representatives from these facilities and others – with varied purposes, from concerts to festivals to sporting events – say that their organizations’ outdoor spots offer an environment distinguishable in beauty and attendance from indoor venues.
General manager of the Sharks baseball team since 2014, Carson Bowen, promotes much more than the sport.
“We’re not just playing 26 games of baseball,” Bowen said. “We want families to come back and have a good time … We work hard to create an atmosphere to keep people on their toes and make good memories.”
The league is set up in a way that allows for affordable ticket prices. At Buck Hardee Field, the best seat in the house costs $11. Costs are kept low because the players are not paid. Instead, consisting of college athletes, the summer league provides a platform for those players to be seen by Major League scouts.
The average attendance per game last year was 1,230 fans, including a number of sold-out dates.
“The sell-out number for us is about 1,500 or 1,600 fans,” Bowen said. “Sure, we could probably make space for more, but we’d rather create a much more valuable experience for those 1,200 or so folks instead of adding another 500 people.”
Without increasing admission fees, the Sharks business model calls for creative programming. Bowen said that the team pushes services such as corporate outings, birthday parties and catered parties.
This year, the cost-per-game to lease the field rose to around $625. Though that translates to only about 60 tickets per event, the team will soon confront concerns about renovations such as lowering dugouts closer to the field and replacing the natural grass with artificial turf. Sharks officials are in conversations with the city of Wilmington’s Parks & Recreation Department to discuss options, costs and funding, according to Bowen.
Risks and Rewards
Major budget line items such as artificial turf, of course, are unique concerns for outdoor areas such as Buck Hardee Field—and that’s only for the lawn of an average 3-acre baseball field. Airlie Gardens, however, must maintain more than 2,900 acres.
At Airlie Gardens, 2018 membership numbers increased by 19 percent, although general attendance dropped by 16 percent because of Hurricane Florence.
“The risk is always the weather— that’s the biggest ‘X’ factor,” explained Janine Powell, director of donor relations. “Some years we get lucky; some years we don’t.”
Last year, Airlie Gardens had to cancel two concerts featuring two of its most popular bands, one because of rain and the other because of Hurricane Florence.
“But that’s why we have major sponsors who help us underwrite the concert series,” Powell said.
The summer concert series brings in about 30,000 attendees from May to September, though it’s not the biggest driver of revenue—an estimated $40,000 in 2018 compared to Airlie Gardens’ winter event, Enchanted Airlie, which made about $220,000.
The concert series is, however, one of the main membership drivers. The summer concerts take place on the Oak Lawn, featuring the 500-yearold Airlie oak.
“A lot of families who invest in Airlie are family members who we find attending the concerts,” Powell said. “It’s an opportunity to showcase our beautiful historic public garden … The other benefit is getting people and families out in nature, getting them to experience nature together, which we know has so many benefits on its own.”
Beau Gunn, general manager of Hometown Media Wilmington and an independent concert promoter/ producer, echoes similar sentiments about Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
“There’s a special level of intimacy just because of the size and setup,” he said. “I prefer Greenfield as an outdoor venue over any indoor venue any night as a concert setting . . . It even feels a little indoor because the trees are all wrapped around you.”
With regard to weather, the amphitheater has been quite lucky. Gunn estimated that, with the exception of Hurricane Florence, in 11 seasons of about 300 shows, only four concerts had to be canceled.
The concerts and events held at outdoor venues are obvious attractions for summertime tourists. Because many venues often bring in vendors, food trucks and local beer and wine, the benefit for the Wilmington economy reaches even further.
For example, there’s a food truck at every concert at Greenfield Lake, although the city of Wilmington takes a percentage of their independent sales, explained Gunn.
Vendors at Airlie Gardens concerts include Front Street Brewery, Noni Bacca Winery and Planet Smoothie.
And, of course, each venue requires event-only staff, from ticket takers to cleanup crew, in addition to full-time team members.
Specifically, the Sharks offers opportunities each summer break for UNCW students who have an interest in working in sports to experience the industry firsthand, without moving to a larger city. And, the Sharks has grown from one full-time staffer in 2014 to four.
Officials with the baseball team, and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater and Airlie Gardens, expect growth in 2019, hoping for an approximate 25 percent increase in revenue.