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A CHANGE OF VENUE // from a Dome to a Palace

Watching the near-sold-out crowd of more than 15,000 fans partying along with heavy metal heroes Kiss, ThunderDome marketing manager Bill Boggs should have felt like celebrating. But the look on his face seemed more appropriate for a wake than one of the city's most successful rock shows.

By all rights, it should have been a triumphant time. Besides hosting the blockbuster Kiss concert Sept. 20, the venue was also featuring a sold-out show by modern rock queen Alanis Morissette the very next night _ arguably their most successful rock concert of the year, attracting more than 20,000 people.

But Boggs' enthusiasm was dampened by a simple truth; this was the Dome's going-away party.

After those shows, the venue would hold no more rock concerts for at least 15 months, hibernating for a $60-million face lift that would transform it into the Tropicana Field _ the new home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team.

Boggs, along with 15 other Dome employees, would lose their jobs in the changeover _ laid off as the city transferred management of the facility to the Devil Rays.

"It's bittersweet, that's for sure," said Boggs then, sitting on a table at the Dome's crowded administrative offices, watching the crowds file by for the second-to-last time. "It's definitely the end of an era."

For officials at the new Ice Palace hockey arena, the Dome's closing couldn't have come at a better time _ allowing their 19,500-seat, $160-million venue to pick up all the concert business left hanging by the Dome's hiatus.

"That's definitely helpful," says Ice Palace general manager Bob Rice of the Dome's 15-month closing. "We have a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility . . . that's designed for music, instead of it being an afterthought. When people see what we can offer, it will definitely spur some interest."

Though fans may not notice much difference _ besides driving to Tampa for shows that might have previously been held here in St. Petersburg _ this musical chairs game among arena-size venues will likely shift the balance of power in an area already known for a glut of quality performance venues.

Already, the Ice Palace has announced plans to host shows by Melissa Etheridge (Nov. 2), The Smashing Pumpkins (Nov. 15) and Gloria Estefan (Jan. 26). In all, the venue hopes to include 20 to 25 concerts among the 100 non-hockey events brought to the facility.

"Are there 25 bands out there that can draw 20,000 people?" muses Bob Leighton, St. Petersburg's director of downtown facilities and the guy responsible for overseeing the city's contract with the Tropicana Field. "That's an aggressive number, definitely."

Certainly, that seemed like an ambitious number when the ThunderDome opened in March 1990. Then called the Florida Suncoast Dome, it jumped into the concert industry with a bang, featuring a grand opening weekend of shows by Kenny Rogers and Billy Joel.

Before then, shows that fell in between the University of South Florida's 11,500-seat Sun Dome and the giant-sized Tampa Stadium _ arena acts ranging from Bon Jovi to Prince _ regularly passed over the Tampa Bay area, making it tough to gauge how much business a venue that could host gigs for 15,000 to 30,000 fans would do.

The first few concerts, including 1990 stops by Joel (who drew 38,000), Janet Jackson, Eric Clapton and David Bowie, all notched capacity crowds. When the New Kids on the Block stopped by, they drew a jaw-dropping crowd of 45,000 people, Boggs says.

But recent concert statistics haven't been so rosy. In the past year, few shows have topped attendance figures of 20,000 fans _ including Morissette and a spring appearance by Christian music artist Carman, who doesn't charge admission.

Even a reunited, re-makeupped Kiss, who had sold out venues in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York within minutes, had to scale back their seating configuration in St. Petersburg to avoid performing to an embarrassing number of empty spots.

"The days of the 20,000-seat arena show are over around here," Boggs pronounces. "The whole market has changed (since 1990); The Storm wasn't around and baby boomers didn't have families. Now you've got hockey, football and baseball taking money out of the marketplace."

John Stoll of Fantasma Productions, the West Palm Beach-based promoter bringing Etheridge to the Ice Palace in November, agreed. "The people who were going to concerts years ago, they've now grown up," he adds. "They play with their kids, go shopping, work longer . . . going to a concert is way down on the list."

Price, it seems, is also a factor, with $25 Morissette tickets outselling those for Kiss' show, priced at a high of $45.

For venues built to house specific sports _ the Ice Palace and hockey, the Tropicana Field and baseball, the USF Sun Dome and basketball _ concerts can be an important source of off-season revenue.

How important? Mike LaPan, president of Sun Dome, Inc., estimates that 40 percent of the venue's business comes from concerts _ which this year included everybody from Dwight Yoakam to the Dave Matthews Band.

Some industry experts predict the Ice Palace will cut into that number, taking shows (like the Dave Matthews Band appearance) that come close to selling out the Sun Dome.

LaPan sees things a little differently. "All in all, what's happening now will help the market," he says. "Tampa has always needed a larger facility, because the ThunderDome is really just a stadium. The Lakeland Civic Center and the Sun Dome were built undersized from what they should be, so it (the Ice Palace) fits a niche."

As if there weren't enough players in the game, officials at Legends Field _ the open-air Tampa stadium that serves as the spring training home for the New York Yankees _ say that next year they will offer a summer concert series similar to the slate of four shows they booked in 1996, which included classic rockers Rod Stewart and Sting.

With a sell-out capacity of about 15,000, Legends Field could wind up competing for the same shows as the Sun Dome and Ice Palace _ good news for managers of midlevel arena acts hoping to squeeze maximum dollars from a Tampa Bay area stop.

Amazingly, not one of the shows Legends Field offered this past summer was affected by bad weather _ one concern of industry experts, who remain skeptical the venue will schedule future concerts _ though the list of baby boomer-friendly artists (including the Moody Blues and Crosby, Stills and Nash) did tend to pull from the same pool of possible fans.

"(Because of the weather), trying to do shows in the summer is definitely a gamble," acknowledges Norman Stallings, concert coordinator for Legends Field. "But we're convinced we can book shows that are going to be enjoyed by the public and will make money."

Boggs predicts the whole confusion over performance venues will settle into a hierarchy outlined by capacity _ with the Sun Dome taking shows for crowds from 4,000 to 10,000 people, the Ice Palace handling crowds of 12,000 to 16,000 people and the Tropicana Field handling everything from 18,000 to 50,000.

The biggest irony for Boggs _ hired in 1989 as city officials were deep into building a home for baseball in St. Petersburg _ is that he'll have to move out as the Devil Rays move in, watching the venue's sports and concert scene evolve from the outside looking in.

"On one hand, I'm sad, but I'm also proud of what (we) accomplished," he adds. "We showed there was a viable sports/entertainment market here . . . doing every kind of event in the world (at the ThunderDome) except the one it was built for. At first, there was a lot of speculation and cynicism about what we'd accomplish, but I think we proved it was all worth it."

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