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Bayfront Park upgrades summer lineup in downtown Miami

Rock, pop and hip-hop fans who have become reluctantly accustomed to the scarcity of live-music venues in South Florida have a hot new glimmer of hope – or at least a familiar glowing coal whose flame is beginning to rekindle.

Bayfront Park, the open-air amphitheater in downtown Miami that has long been a tease for concertgoers hungry for a fresh place to catch their favorite acts, is enjoying a resurrection of sorts, with a busy summer lineup planned and definite designs on becoming a major player in the live-music scene for years to come.

“It’s a very unique facility,” said Neil Jacobsen, who as president of Live Nation Florida for the past eight years is leading the charge to boost Bayfront Park’s image. “It’s very intimate, and you’ve got great sightlines, good sound, and we said, ‘This is kind of cool.’ This is something that we need to exploit and re-brand, with all different kinds of music so that all different kinds of demographics can come in here and experience this.”

After years of envisioning the amphitheater as a viable destination for a diverse range of popular acts, Jacobsen says the effort is finally beginning to pay off. There are nine shows confirmed so far, kicking off on May 16 with goHARD, a stellar electronic music festival featuring Dillon Francis, Destructo and Bro Safari. Other highlights of the summer docket include superstar female rapper Nicki Minaj, the hard-rock twin bill of Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, alt-pop band Counting Crows, and British ‘80s new wave band Culture Club, featuring original front man Boy George.

So far, so good. But early on, the team is content with taking baby steps.

“We’re gonna be cautious and not try to book 30 shows,” Jacobsen said. “I think 10 to 12 shows for the first year is a great way to get our feet wet again and gauge the response. But I think as time goes on, we could expand, and I think in a perfect world, we’d like to be a two-show-per-month venue, which could mean 20 or 24 shows a year. That’s what I’d like to see.”

The reason for the initial caution is that it’s been a long, frustrating road for Bayfront Park, crippled by the recession in 2008 and subsequent housing and construction freeze.

“When we first got involved with Bayfront Park many years ago, we looked at the situation and there were about 60 cranes up in the air, all building skyscrapers,” recalled Jacobsen. “The economy was good, everything was great, and we had a vision that it was gonna be a hot, happening area. Unfortunately, as you know, the economy tanked, and the housing market completely collapsed in South Florida, and it made for some tough going.”

The next few years were times of struggle for Bayfront Park, which essentially turned into a rental facility, doing maybe two shows per year, including the Ultra Music Festival and the occasional event from other independent promoters. But then the economy began to bounce back, and along with it, the housing industry in downtown Miami.

“The foreign investors came in and bought up a lot of the condo units, and as people started moving in, the area became a little more gentrified,” said Jacobsen. “And we thought, now’s the time to try and reestablish Bayfront Park as a venue – because it’s such a pretty location, with Biscayne Bay right behind you, and all the skyscrapers. To me, it just seemed to make sense.”

The park has needed very little cosmetic upgrading.

“It’s in pretty good shape,” said Jacobsen. “When we first took over the venue, we put several million dollars into it, with the seats and the stage house, and the base has held up well. So we didn’t have to do a whole lot except clean. Ultra was there just a few weeks ago, and they used it for one of their stages, and everything was great.”

With its busy summer schedule, Bayfront Park joins the nearby AmericanAirlines Arena, the Fillmore Miami Beach, Coral Sky Amphitheatre, the BB&T Center, Hard Rock Live, Revolution Live and the Mizner Park Amphitheatre as attractive concert venues with varying capacities in South Florida.

“We’ve got 2,600 reserved seats and then the lawn,” said Jacobsen. “So we’re trying to position it as a 5,000-capacity boutique amphitheater, which is kind of the sweet spot between the large amphitheaters like [the 6,500-seat] Coral Sky and the small theaters. But the great thing is, is that if we get into a situation where the act sells more tickets, we certainly can expand the lawn, because the lawn fans out rather than going back. So that’s a very unique perspective for us.”

The diversity of the lineup is a crucial element of Live Nation’s vision for Bayfront Park going forward.

“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t pigeonhole the venue as any one specific genre,” said Jacobsen. “We’re risking on a few shows – we’re gonna take a leap of faith – but what we want to do is hopefully draw all different demographics down there.”

As any concert promoter in South Florida can tell you, however, consistently attracting acts down south is a constant battle because of simple geography: As beautiful as the area may be, it’s a real trek to the bottom of the Sunshine State.

“The challenge is routing,” Jacobsen said. “Often we hear, ‘We’re not coming to Florida.’ [The line] is from Atlanta across to New Orleans, and we can’t get play in South Florida. I would say in an average year that happens 10 or 12 times, so it’s an ongoing challenge for us. But I think that this lineup is a great start.”