Better sound, cleaner seats, more bathrooms. MetraPark’s Rimrock Auto Arena is spiffied up and nearly ready for its grand opening June 19, one year after a Father’s Day tornado ripped the roof off.
But first, the arena hosts one of the biggest acts in its 30-plus-year history — Elton John in a sold-out show April 10. The concert rivals Cher, Garth Brooks and the Eagles for the biggest name to grace the Metra stage.
Concert-goers aren’t the only folks excited to see the renovated arena. Promoters from across the country have been talking about MetraPark since the facility made national headlines with the 2010 tornado. MetraPark’s marketing director, Sandra Hawke, and general manager Bill Dutcher say the arena and the renovation are hot topics at the conferences they have attended in the past few months.
“It’s fun to be back in action,” Dutcher said. “The interest is high, and that bodes well for us.”
National promoter AEG Live is presenting the Elton John concert and Townsquare Media, which owns several Billings radio stations, is bringing two country acts to MetraPark, Sugarland on June 6 and Ronnie Dunn on July 23.
Two Billings promoters, Tim Goodridge of Magic City Blues and Sean Lynch of 1111 Presents, say MetraPark is in a good position to see a strong concert season. Making the arena attractive by offering good deals to promoters is the best way to lure shows, they say.
“If they want to get better talent and blow it out right now, they give outside promoters like us a deal,” Lynch said. “This is what they are already doing.”
It also helps that the Elton John concert sold out in just two hours, so promoters are starting to view Billings as a viable market for big acts. Tickets remain at the Bismarck Civic Center’s Elton John concert, even though they went on sale in February. In 2007, Billings lost out on an Elton John concert. Dutcher said that after discussing dates and prices with the promoter, the 2007 Elton John shows were set for Bozeman and Missoula because they are college towns.
MetraPark promotes talent for MontanaFair, and, with approval from the Yellowstone County commissioners, co-presents other shows with promoters. The last time, MetraPark partnered with a promoter was on the 2010 Walking With Dinosaurs tour.
Some other public venues, including the Gillette, Wyo., CAM-plex, co-promote or promote concerts more frequently.
“If we want a big act, we have to take a risk and hire the act directly to bring them to town,” said Dan Barks, general manager at the Cam-Plex in Gillette.
Lynch said keeping ticket prices at $50 or less is also a consideration.
“Fifty dollars is a high ticket. It has to be a special show for people to want to pay that,” Lynch said.
Lynch often co-promotes bigger shows with Jade Presents of Fargo, N.D., including The Blizzard Music Tour featuring Nelly and 3 OH! 3. Lynch said he put that show in Helena at the Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds because he wasn’t able to secure a Billings venue that would hold more than 3,500 people.
Lynch doesn’t directly solicit bands but waits for them to approach him through the hundreds of e-mails he gets from artists and their management looking to fill dates between other shows.
“You pay 10 times more for them if you make the initial contact,” Lynch said.
Goodridge said he would look at Rimrock Auto Arena if the right show comes along. He said live shows featuring the Kings of Leon, Keith Urban, Lady Gaga, Green Day, Pearl Jam or Tom Petty would do well at the arena. Hot new acts like Mumford and Sons or indie acts like Modest Mouse, which is performing in Missoula on May 27, probably wouldn’t sell enough tickets for a show at Rimrock Auto Arena.
When he presented the winter blues festival, Frostbite, several years ago, Goodridge looked at smaller buildings at the MetraPark complex but ended up using the Holiday Inn because it was cheaper.
“That’s just the way it is at Metra. They have fixed costs,” Goodridge said. “It’s not as cheap because they have a high operating cost. If they drop their rates down, they’d go in the hole to present events. It has to be at a certain scale to do something there. Once you pass that scale, it’s a great venue because it’s got a professional staff and it’s a good facility.”
The reason concerts were more plentiful at MetraPark in the 1980s was that there were more regional concert promoters, many of whom have been swallowed up by larger national promoters, Goodridge said. The tornado made some promoters unfamiliar with Billings realize that there is a 10,000-seat arena here, he added. That fact, paired with the decline in CD sales forcing more touring, means promoters are more interested in finding strong secondary markets for shows.
“Metra needs to be a place where promoters can make money,” Goodridge said. “If promoters can make money, they’ll keep coming back. Metra understands that. All they can do is get out there and promote their building, and they do.”
Billings competes with Missoula for national touring acts, such as the Foo Fighters show with Motorhead coming to Missoula May 26. Routing is a challenge.
“Missoula routes better than Billings,” Goodridge said. “A lot of these shows route through Canada. Plus, Missoula is a college town and college towns historically are consumers of live music.”
Officials at the Casper Events Center, which hosted Elton John on his 2009 sweep through this region, are happy that MetraPark is back online.
“It does make it more attractive to make routing for an artist,” said Casper marketing director Tiffine Canepa.