Drake Concert Christens the Renovated Tacoma Dome

Tacoma Dome
City of Tacoma/Tacoma Dome

The renovated Tacoma Dome, which is as much a fixture of the city’s skyline as Mount Rainier (background).

Drive into Tacoma, Wash., on Interstate 5, and Mount Rainier rises up majestically to the southwest, while just beside the highway, the storied wooden roof of the Tacoma Dome commands the city’s skyline.

Since opening in 1983, with a performance by David Bowie during his Serious Moonlight Tour, the venue has loomed as large in the hearts of the region’s residents as the Cascade Range. And through decades of hosting Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Eagles, Prince, Elton John, Lady Gaga and, just in 2018, Maroon 5, Shania Twain, Miranda Lambert and Katy Perry, the building has put this city 30 miles south of Seattle on the touring industry map.

“It has been such an incredibly iconic building,” says Kim Bedier, director of Tacoma venues and events, who oversees the Dome. “It really personifies the town.”

Yet the Tacoma Dome as built did not have “a lot of bells and whistles,” adds Bedier. Given the advances in facility design, venues of lesser vintage have been torn down and replaced.

The Dome demolished? Not a chance. “There would be a huge outcry in the community,” says Bedier.

Aside from all of those memorable concerts, the 23,000-capacity venue also hosts close to 30 graduations per year from surrounding high schools as well as the University of Washington, Tacoma and the University of Puget Sound. So nearly every teenager in the greater Seattle area has walked across the Tacoma Dome’s stage over the past 35 years, with their friends and family in attendance.

So instead of demolition and construction, city officials in 2016 approved a renovation plan for the building that has cost $32 million. The work was done in a compressed time period. It began after the final graduation this past June and concluded in October.

The Tacoma Dome marked its rebirth as a concert venue on Nov. 1 with a show by Drake and Migos. Already booked for November are Twenty One Pilots, Fleetwood Mac, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Joe Walsh’s VetsAid featuring Don Henley, James Taylor, Chris Stapleton, Ringo Starr and HAIM.

The venue now has significantly more restrooms, upgrades to the lighting and sound systems, and its first standard loading docks. New artist quarters feature a bevy of amenities, and performers can exit their quarters and walk directly onto the stage -- no tunnels to travel through.

Aramark has taken over concessions, with serving locations designed with locally sourced reclaimed wood (reflecting Washington State’s love of timber) and new, creative menu options. They include Taco-Ma’s (street tacos), Tacoma Dough (pizza), Smoke (barbecue), Dock Street (fish and chips), Nourish (healthy made-to-order bowls and salads), Fire (grilled favorites), Crave (desserts and ice cream) and Sip and Craft (local craft beers, local distillery cocktails and souvenir soda cups).

Bedier believes that the most significant renovation for fans are the new seats. The Tacoma Dome has replaced all of its multicolored seating, which included benches in the upper areas.

“We were literally selling $200 concert tickets for people to sit on the benches. I couldn’t sleep at night,” says Bedier, half-joking. “We replaced all the seats top to bottom with individual, state-of-the-art seats.”

Prior to the renovation, changing the seating configurations for different types of events meant that any unneeded seats would have to be forklifted out of the facility and stored in the parking lot, which took up much-needed space for eventgoers’ vehicles. The new seating retracts with ease, drastically cutting down the time it takes to reconfigure the arena between events.

“The day that I set foot in Tacoma, that was my goal -- to get those [old] seats replaced,” says Bedier, who started at the venue in 2012. “Now they’re all going to be one color, which is a kind of Tacoma blue. It looks spectacular.”

The renovations, adds Bedier, focused on comfort, convenience and efficiency. Before the project began, the venue did a study among local residents, asking what they would like to see from a renovation of the Tacoma Dome. The city resoundingly rejected turning the venue into a professional sports-ready facility with suites or permanent VIP spaces.

“We really took that to heart and focused on great customer service and driving tickets and funding to do the renovations,” says Bedier. “That’s what makes us good partners in the market with KeyArena [in Seattle],” which is undergoing a $700 million renovation with the goal of luring a National Hockey League team.

KeyArena “can host the professional teams, and we’ve got room to host everything else. We consider music and events our anchor tenants,” says Bedier, who recently spoke with Billboard about the Tacoma Dome’s renowned roof, its competition with Seattle and the advantages of booking monster truck shows and heavy metal concerts back to back.

What can you tell readers about the Tacoma Dome that they probably don’t know?

It is one of the largest wood-dome structures around, certainly in North America. An interesting fact: A lot of it is the wood that fell in the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens volcano exploding [in 1980]. They are sheets of timber laminated together, which makes it super strong. At that time, it was real cutting-edge technology. I was just talking to one of the architects, and he said in the event of an earthquake, go and stand in the middle of the Dome, because it is the safest place in town.

What is the Dome’s economic impact on Tacoma?

We have statistics that say, on some of our event nights, 97 percent of the hotel rooms in the area are full. We have a light rail that runs to downtown from the Tacoma Dome, and on a show night, it is just like being on a subway in rush hour in New York. It is packed with people coming to restaurants. For sure, the dome has had financial impact, and not just to the city but to the surrounding regions. A great number of people travel more than 50 miles to come to our shows. If a tour is not leaving America, the Canadians will come down from Vancouver.

How has the venue managed to lure such huge names for over 30 years?

For sure, the capacity. We can sell a lot of tickets, and we do sell a lot of tickets. We’ve always tried to go out of our way to make sure that everyone’s needs are met -- whether it is a promoter, an artist or a fan, we want them to have the best time possible. Sometimes that was really challenging, because we were working with old equipment in an antiquated building. We’re excited to be able to take that to a higher level now.

Has Tacoma’s proximity to Seattle venues caused competition for events?

We certainly do complement each other, and we consider ourselves friendly competitors. There is such a thriving music scene here that there is room for everybody. We’ve always considered ourselves part of the Seattle metro market. It is just over 3 million people. We have never considered ourselves a Tacoma-centric building. We see ourselves very much as a regional building. That has been part of the secret to everybody’s success.

Do the renovations help you compete?

Absolutely. Just being the biggest isn’t always good enough. We want people to leave every show having had the greatest, most comfortable time. The whole idea was to ensure that the Dome remained viable and competitive going forward. It is really part of the psyche of the community.

Can it be difficult finding artists big enough to play such a large building?

In 2008, they installed this incredible rigging grid and curtaining system in the Dome. We can effectively make the house a number of different sizes. We have this amazing 3,500- to 5,000-seat theater configuration. It was a thoughtful innovation that they put in at that time. It makes it super flexible, so we have done some smaller shows quite successfully.

What genre of music performs the best in the Tacoma market?

Everything seems to do really well. Drake sold out. What seems to do the best is certainly country music. We knock that out of the park. We did more than 100,000 people over the five Garth Brooks shows [in November 2017], which was kind of a crowning glory for a lot of us. Metal and hard rock play super well here. There is a great music-oriented population in this whole metro market.

What other kinds of special events has the Dome hosted?

The arena floor becomes so large because it is so convertible [with the removal of seats]. We play football in there. We lay down the football field, and we do annual high school football championships. Monster trucks love us because they have lots of running room. We really like having metal shows after monster trucks to shake the dirt out of the ceiling.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of Billboard.


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