New Amphitheater Opens at Riverside park

by Mike Murphy, originally printed in Jefferson City BUZ, Volume 3, Issue 4
Photos by Nick Tremmel, VenuWorks

The newly renovated amphitheater at the city’s Ellis-Porter Riverside Park will open with a twang next month. Touring country music artists Clay Walker and Tracy Lawrence performed at the inaugural event on May 22, 2021.

The new venue is part of $2.8 million in improvements at the park that include a new modern stage, restrooms, about 500 fixed seats, and lawn seating for an additional 2,500.

The city is investing $7.5 million in its parks, the result of an initiative that began in 2016 with development of a master plan. The 242-page document inventoried and analyzed each of the city’s 18 parks and set forth a development plan for the next 10-20 years. 

“We talked to a lot of people, and what kept coming up over and over again, was people wanted an outdoor venue like this,” said city parks Director, Todd Spaulding. “So, it went to the top of the list.”

Municipal bonds were sold to finance the improvements and are scheduled to be paid off over the next 20 years. Debt service for the new bonds will be about $500,000 annually. In 2020, the parks operated on about $5.6 in annual revenue. About half comes from a 0.5% allotment of the city’s 2.0% sales tax. The other half comes from user and service fees it obtains from the ice arena, golf courses, pools, rentals and recreational programs.

Spaulding said the city plans to break even financially on the new amphitheater. It has hired VenuWorks of Ames, IA, to manage the venue for $60,000 annually and five percent of the revenues.

VenuWorks named Lynn Cannon the Executive Director of the Riverside Park Amphitheater and she recently relocated to Jefferson City from the Chicago area. Her mission is to bring great events to the communities we serve so everyone can benefit and enjoy them,” she recently told a group of chamber of commerce members.

 Cannon, who has made a career in the venue management business, told the group that her focus is “getting this thing off the ground.” She shared that they are working on naming rights, food truck sponsors, beverage sponsors, beer sponsors, caterers, signage, and event sponsors.

The amphitheater will bring new seasonal jobs to the community as well. Positions include the event services, which are ushers, ticket-takers, security and parking help; stagehands and riggers; bartenders and beer servers; and personnel for setup, teardown and housekeeping. The event season is April through early November. There are hopes for six major events this year, with 12-15 per year, in future years. Other community events will be welcome. Already, Kids Fest is scheduled for June and Battle of the Brews in July. The amphitheater will host Stars Under the Stars movie nights.

“We would book every single day if we can,” Cannon said. As of early April, more than 2,000 tickets had been sold for the opening night, ranging from $42-$59. Cannon said about 75% of the sales are from the Jefferson City and Columbia areas. Sales have also been strong from elsewhere in Missouri, notably from Springfield and Hannibal. There have been tickets purchased from residents of New York and Los Angeles.

“Our goal is to get people through the gates in an even flow. We’ll open the gates 90 minutes before the opening act, at 6 p.m. A majority of the seats are grass so most will come early to get their blanket down and stake out their seats. For the most part that’s our schedule,” she said.

For security, she said the industry standard is one security officer for every 250 people. “We’ll have 10-12 security officers roaming,” she said.

Noise complaints from the surrounding neighborhood are also a possibility. “The amphitheater faces the river, not the neighborhood, and also sits in a valley. Hopefully, the sound is contained within the hills,” she said.

Riverside Park was acquired by the city in 1949 and renamed in 1961 in memory of Arthur W. Ellis, a former mayor, and Ben C. Porter, a former Director of Parks and Recreation. The 60-acre park holds a swimming pool, playground, basketball court and four triple-walled handball/racquetball courts. Also found there is the Optimist Sports Complex, where youth baseball and softball games are held, as well as youth flag football games.

The outdoor pavilion at Ellis-Porter Riverside Park adjacent to the Missouri River Overlook has a capacity of 280 people, with two large barbecue grills, restrooms and a serving kitchen. There are 13 covered picnic units placed throughout the park for family or small group gatherings.

The amphitheater is sure to bring our community together for decades to come. This Jefferson City gathering place is ideal for both local talent and world class musicians and artists. What better year than 2021 to deliver the outdoor venue to the community when we are so ready to get out and enjoy good music and great fun with friends and family. What a breath of fresh air!