We’re not sure where the blame ultimately lies, but it seems safe to say that the $59 million convocation center at California University of Pennsylvania has not delivered on its promise over its 16 months in operation, at least when it comes to its use as a concert venue.
When the center opened to much hoopla in April 2012, it was touted as the largest indoor venue between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W.Va., seating 6,000 for concerts. But the university sounded a sour note from the get-go with its choice of a musical act to open the venue: former country music and crossover superstar Kenny Rogers. Put the emphasis on the word “former.” The last time Rogers was musically relevant, beyond a niche audience, Bruce Springsteen was releasing his “Born in the U.S.A.” album. Bruce, of course, is still a megastar. Rogers, not so much.
As such, attendance at that first convocation center show was predictable. On the day of the show, a Cal U. official said about 2,000 tickets had been sold in advance, but that the university was expecting the crowd to grow thanks to walk-up sales. Didn’t happen. The final attendance was about 2,000.
But the Rogers show, despite its relative failure, seemed to provide a template for future offerings. The other “big” events at the venue in the ensuing year and four months have included performances by Bob Dylan, the Newsboys and the Original Harlem Globetrotters. Dylan, while a living legend, doesn’t resonate with a lot of young people who, seeing as how Cal U. is a college, would seem to be the center’s target audience. The half-empty arena that greeted Dylan shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Globetrotters, who no doubt still put on an entertaining show, were at their peak of popularity when Jim McKay was hosting ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” The most common response to the announcement that the Newsboys were coming to Cal was most likely, “Who?!?”
Basically, the folks bringing entertainment to the center seemed to be living in a time warp. That trend will continue in early November with a show by John Fogerty, best known as the frontman for Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Perhaps these were the best acts that could be obtained for a venue with the size and location and financial resources of the convocation center, and if that’s the case, the future doesn’t look bright. It became even murkier Tuesday with Cal U.’s announcement that it was cutting ties with the company it hired to manage the center, Iowa-based VenuWorks, which it has been paying more than $10,000 a month. Getting out of the deal will cost Cal about $75,000, including the monthly payments through November. The university, which like many others in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is facing difficult fiscal times, said it simply could no longer afford the contract. The school won’t say how much it’s lost on events at the center, large and small, but the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported a figure of $400,000.
Going forward, it seems to us that Cal U. should recalibrate its thinking about use of the convocation center as a concert hall. Musical acts that can fill a 6,000-seat venue typically can sell thousands more tickets. They end up at places such as Consol Energy Center and First Niagara Pavilion. And Cal should not have been surprised at its inability to fill the center. The university, which built the venue under the leadership of since-ousted President Angelo Armenti Jr., was told by a consultant that its vision might be too large for its market, and that a facility with a seating capacity of 3,500 likely would be a better fit, according to a document obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through a Right-to-Know Law filing.
Cal should be focusing on acts that appeal to its “captive audience,” teens and people in their early 20s. There’s nothing wrong with partioning off the convocation center to create a smaller, more intimate setting and tapping acts that could, on a consistent basis, sell a couple thousand tickets. There are no doubt promoters in this region who can help Cal in this regard, at a lesser cost.