“I saw older men who were sitting in their seats and crying,” recalls arena general manager Bob Belber of the July 5, 2014, show. “They were just so amazed that they were able to see Paul McCartney live.”
All the more astounding for fans was the fact that McCartney played his only Northeast show of 2014 in Albany, 150 miles upriver from Manhattan, with a market area of 1.3 million — a city that is the capital of New York State but which sometimes suffers a “Smallbany” inferiority complex. The decision was less surprising to those who had been paying attention to the growth of the Times Union Center, an arena operated by international facilities management company SMG that is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
The TU Center, as it’s known locally, has emerged as an arena that attracts powerhouse shows and draws ticket buyers from the big metro areas of New York, Boston and Montreal, each within a three-hour drive. Consider that 2014 performers also included Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Kanye West. Kenny Chesney and Ed Sheeran played the venue in April and May, respectively.
So when Marshall Arts and AEG Live, co-promoters of McCartney’s Out There Tour, found a date at the TU Center that fit their tour routing, they knew the advantages of playing the building.
“The top performers can come to Albany and get the net revenue they need to make it work,” says Belber, who has managed the arena since 1994 and also is director of live entertainment for the Northeast for SMG. “They can pull out the same or better net profits as they can in a bigger market where labor costs are often higher.”
With a capacity of 17,500, the TU Center is large for its market, a fact that was widely mocked when the publicly owned arena was first -proposed in the late ’80s. Critics predicted it would be a taxpayer albatross. But 25 years after Frank Sinatra took the stage on Jan. 30, 1990, its opening night, the venue is considered a successful civic institution and a vital piece of the region’s economic infrastructure.
SMG says nearly 18 million people have attended events at the building (originally called the Knickerbocker Arena before corporate naming rights were purchased by Pepsi and, since 2006, the local daily newspaper). The venue’s annual economic impact has been estimated at $100 million.
But the arena had begun to feel dated, prompting Albany County to spend $15.7 million on a renovation that will remake its facade and enclose its outdoor atrium — no small thing in upstate New York — to create an indoor garden and 2,800 square feet of additional meeting space. What’s more, the arena will be attached to Albany’s Capital Center, a $66.5 million, 84,000-square-foot convention complex that is under construction after years of planning. Completion of both projects is expected by 2016.
The arena and convention center, which SMG also will operate, will be linked by an aboveground walkway to an existing convention center as well as the concert hall known as “The Egg” at the state-run Empire State Plaza. Belber says SMG will join the county and state to jointly market the complex and its combined 300,000 square feet of space.
County officials hope that the construction will lure NCAA tournaments back to Albany, which last hosted the men’s basketball regional championship games in 2003. They also expect the facilities will attract conventions that are now bypassing the city for nearby Saratoga Springs. Convention attendees, meanwhile, will add to the audience available for TU Center events. Belber envisions the additional convention center space being used by musical acts for VIP parties and other fan-centric events.
Belber — noting that his bucket list for bookings includes Jimmy Buffett, Taylor Swift and Madonna, and other acts that so far have skipped his building — is hoping that all the construction will result in more moments like the one from early 2014. He remembers that McCartney was performing at the Grammy Awards on Jan. 26 of that year when his cellphone buzzed with a text message informing him that McCartney would likely open the next U.S. leg of his tour in Albany. More than five months later, the show ultimately grossed $2.1 million — a record for the TU Center.
“I was sitting with my 13-year-old daughter,” says Belber of when he got word of the expected booking. “I pointed to the TV and said, ‘See that artist? There’s a good chance he might come to Daddy’s work.’”
His daughter responded with characteristic teenage skepticism.
“She just said, ‘There’s no way.’”
This article first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.