Rocky Gap music series canceled

Financial issues blamed by promoter

April event at amphitheater drew 100

May 14, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The mountains of Western Maryland were to come alive every Saturday night through September with the sounds of rhythm and blues, Merle Haggard and even American Idol reject William Hung, but a promoter has canceled the music series in Rocky Gap State Park, blaming financial issues.

The very first season for a state-financed, $1.5 million amphitheater at the park was written off after the first show, on April 24, produced a disappointing turnout.

The amphitheater, about a quarter-mile from the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, was part of former state Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr.'s vision of attracting people to the lodge and nearby areas in Western Maryland.

But efforts to use the park to help promote tourism have not been successful, even with the nearby resort's golf course that was designed by Jack Nicklaus. The 220-room hotel has consistently struggled financially.

"We're disappointed," said Mark D. Maas, acting manager of Rocky Gap State Park. "It had the potential to have a great economic benefit. We had people interested in booking camp sites and pavilions and, of course, there's the lodge nearby. Everybody who comes to an event like that eats, needs to buy gas, maybe stops at the store. It's just disappointing and kind of sad that it wasn't able to be successful, at least on the first go-round."

The company Celestial Management Inc. had an agreement with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which controls the land, to stage the concerts.

"We were dedicated to community reinvestment and helping children's charities with every show, but promised corporate sponsorship did not come through, and we did not get the support we needed in other ways," said Ella Leasure, president of Celestial Management.

She said refunds are being processed but noted that the company had sold only several hundred tickets to the 23 concerts scheduled for this season.

The amphitheater was completed in fall 2002, but had not been used until the April 24 show, The Billy Price Band, which attracted about 100 paying guests to a venue that can seat about 3,000, officials said.

After the disappointing turnout, the promoters told Maas that they were trying to reformat the Lakeside Event Series, and they canceled events scheduled for the first three Saturdays in May. The next event was to have been Hung's performance May 22, Maas said.

"We all had such high hopes here," he said. "Everyone was excited that the site was actually going to get some use."

Cumberland Mayor Lee Fiedler said he was always concerned about the number of events that the promoters had taken on and predicts that the next attempt will be scaled back.

"Realistically, I think it's probably the way it should have been attacked in the first place," he said. "I think it would have been better if they had started slower."

Rocky Gap Lodge had built packages around the concerts and booked some of the performers in rooms, but had not built anticipated attendance into its annual projections, according to David D. Sanderson, director of sales and marketing. The lodge submitted its budget while plans for the concert series were still in the planning stage.

"We didn't count it as a factor at all," he said. "I wasn't comfortable projecting any significant increase."

Although the resort has struggled financially in recent years, he said, the booking pace this year is 28 percent ahead of last year. Summer bookings also are encouraging, Sanderson noted. They are up at least 10 percent, he said.

Several improvements at the resort will come on line soon. The expanded pool opens this month, the spa is to open next month and the expanded meeting space by midsummer, Sanderson said.

The resort has booked an additional $55,000 in business for September alone because of the additional 6,000 square feet of meeting space, he said.

It's difficult to project what impact the loss of the concerts will have on the resort, Sanderson said.

"We're still projecting to be ahead, so I can't say it's going to have any great impact," he said. "Most [business] was drive-in."

He said the amphitheater site is remarkable, with grassy, tiered seating and a backdrop of the nearby mountain and lake.

"We're disappointed that the amphitheater didn't work this summer," he said. "I still think it could."

Between 1989 and 1996, another area of the park drew 10,000 to a three-day country music event, the Rocky Gap Music Festival, held during the height of the summer season. Those festivals attracted such top acts as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.

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