Summerfest to build new amphitheater sponsored by American Family

Bill Glauber
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The Big Gig is getting a new 23,000-seat amphitheater and its first-ever presenting sponsor.

But for longtime fans of Summerfest, the bigger question might be: What's in it for them?

It turns out plenty, as Milwaukee World Festival Inc. announced Thursday that it will build a new main stage at Henry Maier Festival Park to replace the Marcus Amphitheater.

The fine details of the new building are still to be fleshed out, but the intent is to bring the venue — built in the 1980s — up to 21st-century standards.

The new facility will be known as the American Family Insurance Amphitheater. The Madison-based firm signed a 10-year agreement to become the first presenting sponsor in Summerfest history. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Construction of the new amphitheater is tentatively scheduled to begin after the 2019 festival with the facility ready to open in 2020.

"You want to create a venue that's current, that's modern," said Ted Kellner, chairman of Milwaukee World Festival.

The new amphitheater will be on the same footprint of the current site, have the same capacity — 18,000 seats and 5,000 places on the grass — and perhaps even use the same roof.

"The world has substantially changed since that building was built," Summerfest president and chief executive Don Smiley said. "Technology changes day by day."

Summerfest organizers said there will be improvements for fans and bands, both in the front of the house and backstage. Final renderings have not been completed. The tentative cost: From $30 million to $35 million.

"We're going to have to do a lot of homework and tap into the architect's resources of what's out there in newly constructed amphitheaters when it comes to restaurants and hospitality areas," Smiley said.

The entire facility will be updated, from the restrooms to the seats to the technology, including sound, lights and video projection, he said.

And, of course, there will be upgrades in food and beverage concessions, including beer.

"We'll have to talk with MillerCoors," Smiley said. "What's the newest, greatest way to vend beer? Is it tap beer and if so, how do you run those lines? Is it packaged beer and if so how do you keep it cold?"

The festival also announced construction of a new north gate and community plaza, linking the festival park to downtown Milwaukee. Construction for that project is scheduled for begin later this year.

Officials said they will create new music education activities to provide access and outreach to Milwaukee students.

Organizers previously announced a complete rebuild of the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage in time for the 2018 festival and a renovation of the Miller Lite Oasis stage area for this year.

Summerfest officials saluted the Marcus family, which provided critical funding to build the Marcus Amphitheater in the 1980s.

"It's bittersweet that we're moving on," said Greg Marcus, president and chief executive officer of Marcus Corp. Marcus added that he understood the need to let American Family Insurance take on the sponsorship. Back in the 1980s, Marcus' father, Stephen, stepped forward to provide critical funding to build the amphitheater and lift the status of the festival.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett praised the new deal.

"The one constant of cities is they're always changing and we're experiencing positive change," Barrett said.

The deal between Summerfest and American Family Insurance was first broached around nine months ago by Kellner, who is a member of the American Family board.

"It started with a conversation about branding," Kellner said.

Jack Salzwedel, chairman and chief executive of American Family, said discussions revolved around helping to fund the north gate.

"As we started to talk about the gate, we started to talk about the community component and we started talking about the amphitheater and then the plaza," he said. "We decided if we were going to do something, we weren't going to do just a gate."

The Marcus Amphitheater at Summerfest will be rebuilt and renamed the American Family Amphitheater.

In recent years, more than $65 million in capital expenditures have been made at the 75-acre Maier Festival Park. Improvements included rebuilding stages and the entrance at the South Gate and building the BMO Harris Pavilion.

In 2016, organizers said Summerfest drew 804,116 spectators, a 4.1% increase from the previous year.

The 50th Summerfest will be held June 28 to July 2 and July 4 to July 9.

Already announced headliners include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Zac Brown Band, P!nk and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Milwaukee World Festival Inc. announced Thursday that it will build a new main stage at Henry Maier Festival Park that will be known as the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.
Concertgoers line up outside of the Summerfest grounds for the Rolling Stones concert in 2015 at the Marcus Amphitheater.
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