Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Salem Leaps into the Amphitheater Competition

"This is a stylized, idealized rendering of Roanoke's proposed amphitheater^

Once again, it appears, Salem is on the verge of handing Roanoke its head in the area of capital improvements—whether or not the improvement is necessary. The Roanoke Times tells us that Salem plans to announce it will build a community amphitheater in the coming months without having held so much as one community meeting.

Roanoke has been embroiled in its debate for some time now and in the course of a single month recently reversed a 4-2 vote (Councilman David Trinkle absent) against the structure to a 4-3 vote in favor of funding morre than $1 million for initial plans for it.

Roanoke’s building would be an expensive professional structure, costing about $13 million and opening in 2013 or so, and Salem’s would not be especially expensive or delayed—or at least so goes the guesswork prior to the news conference today.

Salem PR man Mike Stevens insists the Salem building would not compete with Roanoke’s amphitheater. I’m not sure where that reasoning comes from, since two of just about anything commercial by definition is a competition.

Salem’s history of trumping Roanoke entertainment venues is impressive, beginning with its construction of its own civic center when Roanoke failed to agree on a joint structure (which, of course, would have been built in Salem). Then, more than 10 years ago, as Salem faced the loss of its professional baseball franchise and Roanoke talked about building a baseball park, Salem threw up a $15 million structure before its residents could “TAX.” Roanoke had been the home of minor league baseball years before (remember the Roanoke Red Sox?).

The Salem ballpark is, of course, a jewel in the minor league system and the Salem Civic Center, which is not a jewel in the civic center system, has always outperformed Roanoke’s larger and much more expensive building. Those facilities with tennis courts and softball fields—and a high school football stadium that small colleges envy—are included in the James Taliferro sports complex that surrounds the civic center and has had a history of pulling thousands of visitors to Salem each year.

The Salem amphitheater would be physically separated by about a mile from the Taliaferro complex, but its location in Longwood Park would put it in downtown Salem. Roanoke plans its amphitheater downtown, as well, if it is ever built.

The fact is that when Salem city council wants something, it has had a history of ordering it done. In Roanoke, there are so many ddiverse populations pulling for and against any proposal that city government is almost—by necessity—frozen into place. Shifting moods bring shifting loyalties and changed votes. Think "Victory Stadium," which has become a byword for ineffectual, nervous government.

My hope—and nobody asked—is that Roanoke sees the writing on the stadium wall here and steps back to see how Salem’s building does. It won't take long; Salem works quickly because of that lack of "interference" from residents. One near historic certainty: Salem's theater will almost certainly set a high standard for performance and it will give Roanokers a chance to see if these things really do bring in money (which I strongly doubt). Now that would be Roanoke’s smartest move.

(David Perry of Roanoke comments via Facebook: "A small amphitheater with appropriately-scaled acts can make money. But Jimmy Buffett is not coming to Salem, or Roanoke, for that matter. It's way, way ... way past time for regional government around here. Four separate governments in this little valley? Talk about duplication ... In the meantime, there are no sidewalks on most of Brambleton Ave. and much of Franklin Rd. What's more 'Clean and Green' than walking?")

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