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December 23. 2012 7:09PM

Owner hopes added seats will attract bigger stars


Construction is under way for the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion's $3 million expansion. (COURTESY)
GILFORD - R.J. Harding is thinking bigger these days.

As in a bigger Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion for the coming concert season, bigger parking lots for bigger audiences, and bigger-name acts for multiple-night events that should follow.

Having recently received final town approval, the pavilion's current $3 million expansion - which will bring the venue's seating capacity from 6,400 to 8,300 - the Meadowbrook president and his staff are looking at higher-tier stars.

Meadowbrook has its share of big-name acts, "usually a handful each year," Harding said. A regular stop for many top country stars like Reba McIntyre, the venue has also featured performers like Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. Last summer's shows included rock legends Carlos Santana and Stone Temple Pilots and more recent hitmakers like Train and tween-friendly Fresh Beat Band.

But with substantially more seats, Meadowbrook can sell more tickets, and thus afford to bring a few higher-tier stars, perhaps some that might normally play the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, which holds about 12,000.

The math is simple, he said. To pay the high performing prices of the hottest stars, a small venue needs to sell seats for higher prices. Meadowbrook, which is known for under-$100 ticket prices, can use the additional seating to keep its prices steady while reaching a little higher.

"We have established a niche as a destination venue for people, and we will keep it that way," Harding said.

The extra seating and added revenues may prompt top-selling acts from last summer like Sugarland and Keith Urban to add a second or third show over multiple nights.

"That's what you see at some of the larger arenas, but you have to be able to support more than one night," he said.

Harding said the expansion is possible because for 17 years the venue has been focused on "creating a better concert experience," especially due to Meadowbrook's success over the past five seasons.

"We've done very well despite the bad economy," he said. "We think it's because people liked the idea of a local show."

The pavilion, known as Meadowbrook Farm before it opened as a music and performance venue in 1996, had 6,487 seats last season - 3,097 reserved seats under its pavilion roof, 540 upper reserved lawn seats and 2,850 general admission lawn seats.

The new pavilion will extend one section and add about 2,300 new covered seats, building into a part of the lawn seating area. That will decrease the lawn seats by about 800, he said.

Also being added is a new 500-space parking lot, a new food and beverage facility, and a second access road. The new road should cut concertgoers' departure delays from traffic, which sometimes can last for 90 minutes or more, in half, he said. A new audio system is being added, as well as a new curtain system.

Harding said he and his staff have seven concerts booked for next season thus far. He wouldn't say who has been booked, or whom he may seek out given the additional seating.

"We will still serve our niche, but we now can start looking at a higher echelon of bands, too," he said.

Town Administrator Scott Dunn said the town has considered the likelihood of increased traffic from the addition to Meadowbrook.

"There will be more traffic, but not to the point where it's going to cause much problem for the town," he said.?In general, the town has been pleased with its relationship with Harding and Meadowbrook, Dunn said.?"They bring more people and business to the town," he said.

dseufert@newstote.com

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