Every year, Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre requires fewer taxpayer dollars to put on concerts and events, and this past year was no different.
For the first time, the venue’s offerings paid for themselves with about a $55,000 surplus, according to figures released by the town Oct. 27.
But overall, the amphitheater remains subsidized by the town because of public works costs, capital equipment purchases and special projects needed to maintain it.
More than 200,000 people visited Koka Booth Amphitheatre between November 2015 and October 2016, which broke venue records for overall attendance. The amphitheater set other records, including the most sold-out shows, the fastest sell-out show and the highest concert attendance.
This year’s success was largely attributed to the first Chinese Lantern Festival and five sold-out shows, said Lyman Collins, the town’s cultural arts division manager. Grammy Award-winning country singer Chris Stapleton’s show sold out in a record 20 minutes.
The amphitheater, which opened in 2001 off U.S. 1 on Regency Parkway in southern Cary, is the town’s main outdoor performing arts facility. It is run by management company SMG. A new amphitheater general manager, Liz McDonald, joined the team this year.
Collins added that the venue continues to offer a variety of national shows as well as locally organized community events.
“It’s just such an incredible array of programs that I think almost anyone will find something they enjoy,” he said.
The 2016 season kicked off when the amphitheater hosted its first Chinese Lantern Festival from Nov. 28 to Jan. 17. The festival drew 52,000 people and generated $675,000 in revenue from ticket sales. It will return Nov. 25 with new displays.
SMG budgeted for the first Chinese Lantern Festival to break even, but it generated a $160,000 surplus. The five sold-out shows also generated more than $100,000 over what was planned.
House Bill 2 impact
This year’s gains also occurred despite a couple changes to the lineup of national acts.
Country music legend Merle Haggard died April 6 and was scheduled to play at Booth Amphitheatre May 22 alongside Willie Nelson. The show continued as planned with Kris Kristofferson and The Stranglers, featuring Haggard’s sons, Ben and Noel, in their father’s place.
Shortly after, Ringo Starr canceled his June 18 show in protest of House Bill 2. He joined other national acts in protesting the law, including Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, who canceled their shows at other North Carolina venues.
Despite the uncertainty other venues faced as more cancellations were announced, town leaders said they believed the 2016 season would still show growth.
While no other artists canceled their shows in response to HB2, The Lumineers put out a statement objecting to the law and donated all of their profits from their Sept. 15 show in Cary to Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign. They also live streamed the event – another first for the amphitheater.
On Oct. 27, the Cary Town Council approved a budget of $765,074 for next season. This includes about $370,000 in cash left over from the 2016 season and an additional $395,000 from the town.
For the 2016 season, the venue’s budget was for $610,000 but it only used $240,000 for public works support and projects, as well as capital equipment purchases. The venue’s budget year runs from November to October to coincide more closely with the performance season.
While the facility operated at a $55,000 surplus this year, town staff are budgeting for a $161,000 deficit next year. Per budget trends, it is likely that the final deficit will come in significantly lower.
“We don’t want to ride on our coattails and say we are going to have another tremendous surplus,” Collins said. “Because there’s so many factors in outdoor venues, so many factors in the concert industry that we really cannot make those projections with complete confidence.”
Other events and festivals, including the Dragon Boat Festival and N.C. Symphony’s Summerfest, continued to draw more attendees this past season. The Diwali Festival was one of the most attended days of the year, and the Triangle Oktoberfest more than doubled attendance from last year, according to the town.
Attendance dropped for Movies by Moonlight, but the outdoor film series still covered its costs. SMG recommends continuing the series and working on additional sponsorships to generate more revenue, according to a staff report.
The use of social media also has been a large part of the venue’s growth, Collins said. More than 78,000 subscribers get a weekly email from the facility, and more than 24,000 people follow the venue on Facebook.
“It helps drive the traffic to the amphitheater, drives people talking about it and drives people buying tickets,” he said. “It drives people coming and enjoying the wonderful things that we have.”
Some Town Council members also gave suggestions on ways to continue to improve the venue, including video screens and improved sound. Collins said town staff are evaluating sound and lighting systems, which likely will need to be replaced in the next few years.
“We want to continue to look at how to make that stage competitive and attractive and still strikes that balance,” councilman Jack Smith said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon
Here are attendance figures for the national touring acts this season. The Ringo Starr concert was canceled, and the Alabama and Charlie Daniels Band show was rescheduled because of Hurricane Matthew.
Chris Stapleton: 6,688 (Sold out)
The Lumineers: 6,609 (Sold out)
Alabama and Charlie Daniels Band: 6,600 (Sold out)
Brand New and Modest Mouse: 6,308 (Sold out)
Flight of the Conchords: 6,137 (Sold out)
Tedeschi Trucks Band, Los Lobos and North Mississippi Allstars: 3,988
Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson: 3,112
ZZ Top & Gov’t Mule: 3,005
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: 2,793
Styx, Kansas and Don Felder: 2,724
Impractical Jokers (comedians): 2,019
Russell Peters (comedian): 1,805
Source: Town of Cary
Chinese Lantern Festival
Tickets are on sale for the second Chinese Lantern Festival, which will include more than 20 new displays, each comprised of thousands of LED lights. It will be Tuesdays through Sundays from Nov. 25 to Jan. 15 at 6-10 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults ages 18 and older; $10 for children ages 3-17; and free for children 2 and under. They can be bought at boothamphitheatre.com.