What to do about Baltimore’s outdated Royal Farms Arena ― which opened in 1962 as the Baltimore Civic Center, with a built-in stage at one end ― had been discussed for decades, with numerous ideas plans and almost false starts along the way.
But then (finally) came the Oak View Group. The Los Angeles-based entertainment company saw the potential of the market and invested $200 million in a re-imagination of what is now CFG Bank Arena that longtime arena general manager Frank Remesch thought he might never see.
For all of its cosmetic improvements, key to this story are infrastructure improvements that equate to faster load-ins/outs for the tours, leading to a vast improvement to the bottom lines of the arena, as well as the city.
How? The upgrades mean that the 14,000-seat-arena “will go from 105 events pre-COVID-19 with 20 concerts and other events, most of which didn’t make as much money,” said Remesch, “to 130 events, of which 60 will be concerts, including 40 A-list shows.”
To understand why the venue’s upgrades extend way beyond what’s seen on the surface, understand that the concert industry is, at its core, about “speed, speed, speed,” said Remesch.
“The load-in used to be though the proscenium (permanent) stage with a garage behind it, via two loading docks with an 18-foot ‘elephant door.’ That allowed one truck approaching Hopkins Plaza to load the goods with a forklift at stage level. We can still do that,” he said.
That worked in the ‘60s, but as the concert industry mushroomed with improved sound and, later, video, a movable stage was added in front of the permanent stage to improve sight lines.
Today, the removal of the built-in stage has not only improved the view from the edges of the seating bowl, it’s also facilitated the addition of another roll-up door that opens under the garage on the venue’s south side, greatly accelerating the load-in/out. That’s a big deal.
“The faster you can move in, the less money it costs the tours for labor,” said Remesch. “It means we can do back-to-back shows and also expedites tours moving along to the next city.”
Who’s the boss?
Another key improvement concerned the rigging. “The old building included an outdated theater rig setup that was 66 feet up and was behind (acoustical ceiling decorations),” Remesch said. “Now, riggers can hang lights, sound equipment, cabling, etc., from an endless number of points to coordinate with the appropriate spot on the floor.”
That also means CFG can take all comers. “There is no show that we can’t handle,” he said. “Before, our heaviest show was by (rapper) Travis Scott at 176,000 pounds, when we could handle 200,000; today, we can handle 600,000 pounds.”
But that’s not all. CFG’s state-of-the-art Musco lighting “is more versatile and efficient, includes spotlights in the ceiling and can change color,” said Remesch, adding that the arena’s well-known sound issues have been resolved with the addition of sound baffling to the tin ceiling.
Then comes power capacity, which has been boosted from 2,800 amps (with a generator) to 4,000.
The benefits of the new infrastructure were apparent at CFG’s first two events, which were full-capacity shows on April 7 and 8 featuring Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and the Eagles, respectively. “Bruce’s tour loaded out Friday night at 11 p.m. and the Eagles moved in around 4 a.m.,” he said. “Before, we needed a couple of days for the transition.”
Brian Snell, crew chief/shop steward for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 19, has worked at the venue for decades. He said the re-imagination means that Baltimore’s days as the stepchild in the industry to Washington, Philadelphia and Hershey are over.
“But know that Frank changed his building around way before the renovation,” said Snell. “We were already bringing in good shows, making money and always among the top venues for our size in the country.
“The fans call Bruce Springsteen ‘The Boss,’ but we call Frank the boss,” he said. “He’s been that important to our growth.”
The changes made at CFG are reminiscent of the $55 million reconstruction at Columbia’s 19,000-capacity Merriweather Post Pavilion. The key change there for the various tours was the height of the roof, which went from 29 feet to 70 feet. That means that the venue can also “now accommodate any show,” said Merriweather Vice President Brad Canfield.
The roof also supports a traditional theater grid, which came complete with a sub-roof that includes its own grid. As is the case at CFG Bank Arena, Merriweather’s audio and the lighting rigging points “can go exactly where they need to be” for the artists’ set design, Canfield said.
“We can now set up those functions twice as fast, with half the personnel,” he said, noting that Merriweather employs the same IATSE Local 19 riggers as CFG. “We only need eight technicians for those functions, where it used to take 16.”
With the Eagles concert in Baltimore requiring 15 trucks, Canfield noted that Merriweather has also expanded its load-in/out operations. The Pavilion can accommodate up to 16 18-wheelers for a show, with six at the stage-level dock at once.
Another integral facet of Merriweather’s redesign was refining the pavilion’s acoustics. It included in-house sound “for everything but the pavilion itself,” said Canfield, via a line array system (although some bands set up their own) with a sophisticated computer that responds to algorithms.
Also noting an approximately five-foot high tunnel under the seating bowl where the bands run cabling, he noted that the video is now set up to one network, “so producers can relay content from the Chrysalis (which sits outside the pavilion’s fence) to the pavilion’s seven video screens.
Zach Fritz, chief operating officer at Sage Policy Group, in Baltimore, said such renovations should equate to big payoffs for the involved parties, as they’re already driving “more visitor spending to Baltimore City’s economy through increased attendance at the venue.”
As Oak View Group officials are already seeing at CFG, the overhaul at Merriweather has been paying dividends.
“We should have about 40 shows this year, whereas, with the old Pavilion, we would have had about 25,” said Canfield, also noting that the average time for load-in/out has dropped to about two hours per show. “When an artists’ crew get ready to leave, about one in three say they set a tour record for fastest load out. Sometimes, it’s as little as 90 minutes.”
Remesch said the new capabilities mean many more events at CFG, and not just concerts. “We’ll also have sporting events, wrestling, the circus,” etc., he said.
“Before, we really had to do whatever we could to get events here, even by offering Jimmy’s Crab Cakes,” he said. “There is inherent distrust in this industry due to all of the money that’s on the line. But here, I think that’s gone now.”