HAZLETON, Pennsylvania (CelebrityAccess MediaWire) — According to the ‘Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal’ Mayor Lou Barletta sees a $45-million, 20,000-seat amphitheater surrounded by shops and restaurants as much for economic development for Hazleton as for entertainment.
His plans came a step closer to reality in October, when the Department of Environmental Protection authorized the use river dredge to fill abandoned strip mines on which to build the complex. Yet it is still a long way until the first concert.
Will the market bear another music venue, when concert attendance is down nationwide and promoters are lowering their ticket prices? And at what cost to the environment is the amphitheater complex, asks Hazleton Democratic State Rep. Todd Eachus?
The area is already crowded with choices for concertgoers in Northeastern Pennsylvania. They can catch a show at Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza, Ford Amphitheater at Montage Mountain, the FM Kirby Center, Penn's Peak near Palmerton and Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts at Bushkill.
While The Ford Pavilion saw attendance up 38 percent over last year, other venues across the country report that most concerts didn't sell out. According to trade magazines, concert ticket sales totaled $2.5 billion last year in the US, but the number of tickets sold in 2004 fell by 2.8 percent over 2003. The average cost of a ticket for the top 100 shows is now over $50, with prime seats selling for much more. Clear Channel Entertainment, the world's largest producer of live shows, has dramatically cut prices for both tickets and parking to lure concertgoers amid sluggish sales.
Mayor Barletta disagrees with anyone who believes an amphitheater in Hazleton is one too may venues in the area. "I don't think that at all," he declares. "I think they complement each other." He sees these venues working together to bring a variety of shows for all ages. Others in the Hazleton area agree.
"There can never be too many," says Can Do, Inc. president W. Kevin O'Donnell, as long as the different venues coordinate their activities. "The people I've talked to are mostly in favor of it," he says of the amphitheater project. The community is aware of the condition the land is in now, he adds, and doing something with it is better than doing nothing.
"I think it's a great opportunity," remarks Hazleton Area Chamber president Donna Palermo. There is a lot of positive response to the proposed amphitheater, she adds, but residents have an issue with the way it's being constructed. "The hot topic here is the use of dredge to fill in the holes," she notes. "The word itself kind of scares people."
The river dredge will be scraped from the bottom of the Delaware River and baked to remove any toxins. It will then be transported to the site near the former city landfill on the southwestern end of Hazleton.
State Rep. Todd Eachus contends the dredge will be a health risk to the Hazleton area. "That is just not worth whatever amount of money the mayor may think the city government might reap from a dredge deal," he said. "Accepting the dredge material would be a gamble with people's health. This is a highly experimental process and we shouldn't be the guinea pigs."
Eachus contends the risks outweigh the benefits while Mayor Barletta declares, "I live here. My family lives here. I believe in science and facts that prove it's safe."
He's asked that every load of material be tested three times before it comes to Hazleton, an unprecedented request, Barletta's been told.
The city will receive $20 million for accepting the material and the mayor says Hazleton could never complete this project without the river dredge. Some day he sees municipalities having to pay for this material.
Because the proposed site is public property, 100 acres had to stay green space. "I didn't want to build something that would cost the city money," he says (like a park requiring maintenance).
His biggest focus has been filling the mine hole and now that he will start looking at development, the mayor says. He'll leave it up to private investors, including local developer Bill Rinaldi of Mark Development, who is already in place has a record of lining up national companies. "My goal was to provide opportunity," he remarks.