By Joe Southern
There are very few places in the world where people are as excited about the venue as they are the performance inside.
The Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land is potentially one of those venues.
“In the music industry, everyone’s talking about the building,” said ACE SL President Gary Becker. “Nationally we’re getting a lot of good vibe from the agents and the artists and the managers about this new building … and it’s going to be really something special for them to play.”
ACE SL oversees development and operation of the center in a public-private partnership with the City of Sugar Land. Becker has been working on the project for seven years and is eager to talk about the $85 million, 6,400-seat theater that is scheduled to open in mid-January with performances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld and former Eagles frontman Don Henley. He said there are about a half-dozen major events being scheduled for the first two months the Smart Financial Centre is open.
Becker recently gave the Fort Bend Star a tour of the 200,000-square-foot facility that is currently under construction.
“Inside you will see a 6,400-seat, proscenium theater that is capable through moving walls and curtains to become a 3,000-seat theater, a 4,300-seat theater, a 4,600-seat theater and then full house will be 6,400 seats,” he said.
Becker said the ability to adjust the seating capacity helps maintain the intimacy of the environment.
“When you’re sitting in that environment, you won’t even know there’s other seats. It’ll be totally blocked off. So if you’re watching a show and there’s 3,000 people in there, it’s going to feel like a full house,” he said. “By moving the walls or raising the curtains, that’s how we add people.
“You feel like you’re in this intimate environment watching a show and it makes the experience for the fans so much better and the experience for the artist so much better. Our goal is whether you’re an artist, whether you’re a crewmember or a fan, your experience inside this building is going to be great,” he said.
Becker said one of the key attractions to the theater are the mid-level suites.
“We have 14, 20-person suites – prime location, best seats in the house,” he said.
“The magic is when you go in you don’t feel like you’re in a cut-down version of the Toyota Center. You’re not sitting under a tent at Cynthia Woods,” he said.
Becker is quick to rattle off statistics and information about the building.
“It’s got a production capability of hanging 210,000 pounds over the stage. It can hang 80,000 pounds in front of the proscenium,” he said.
The 80-foot by 50-foot stage is fronted by a hydraulic orchestra pit that reaches four levels from underground storage to the performance level, floor level and a 14-inch recess below floor level to accommodate crowds standing in front of the permanent seats.
“We’ve got six spotlights. We’ve got two in-house LED screens, stage left and right. We’ve got four camera positions; two permanent in the house and two portable in the barricade. We’ve got a delay house sound system and a L-Acoustic II sound system,” Becker said.
Walking through the facility, Becker skirted around hundreds of workers laboring to have the facility ready to occupy in less than four months. The task seems daunting, but Becker is confident they will be ready on time.
“We have nine dressing rooms – all ADA-equipped – all of them have restrooms and all of them are ADA equipped, we have several production offices, we have a wardrobe room with washers and dryers, we’ve got plenty of spaces to store cases, a big crew room area to feed everybody,” he said.
There is even when Becker calls a “diva room” which is almost like a hotel suite for superstar performers.
“We can park 14 vehicles, whether it’s trucks or buses, so we have a four-truck dock and we have parking at the artists’ entrance,” Becker said. “We have a artists entrance where we can park three buses, limousines and sedans there and they’ll go in their own private entrance. We have 2,500 parking spaces for the audience.”
In addition to the parking, Sugar Land is building a plaza to compliment the center.
“The City of Sugar Land has built a 2½ to three-acre park outside the front door, so there will be water features, there will be park-like atmosphere, lots of trees, lots of lights, very inviting, very nice,” Becker said. “It will be open 24-7-365, so it’ll actually be a City of Sugar Land park. It’s going to make a beautiful entrance to the venue. It will have an area of about 10,000 square feet so that if we want to do a pre-show concert or pre-show event of any sort we can do that right there next to the building.”
Located off of U.S. Highway 59 and University Boulevard, Smart Financial Centre is situated on a portion of 38.5 acres of city property. Its location is central to its potential success, according to Becker. He said surveys show that people from the southwest side of the Houston metro area are not traveling in significant numbers to see shows in The Woodlands or downtown Houston.
“The Smart Financial Centre is a game changer for our community,” said Keri Schmidt, president and CEO of the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. “This state-of-the-art facility is going to allow our region to enjoy first class entertainment in our back yard.”
According to Jennifer A. May, executive director of Business and Governmental Affairs for the City of Sugar Land, the facility will provide significant economic impact locally.
“Regarding the economic impact, estimates show the venue will provide an annual benefit to the community of more than $26 million over 30 years and attract more than 260,000 paid attendees annually,” she said.
In a joint statement with Mayor Joe Zimmerman, May touted the process and funding mechanisms that made the center a reality.
“The Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land is an exciting new venue, not only for the city, but for the entire region,” they said. “It is an important part of the city’s decade-long strategy that involved extensive citizen input to provide unique regional destinations for residents and visitors, alike. The benefits of this project are significant from growing and expanding our sales tax and economic base, to promoting capital investment, creating new jobs, enhancing educational and cultural arts opportunities, increasing tourism and attracting local and regional visitors.
“It is important to note that, no general fund tax dollars are being used to pay for this project. Instead, it is being funded by using a unique package of special funding sources including a $10 million equity contribution and substantial rent payments from our venue partner ACE, as well as revenue sources restricted for economic development and tourism purposes only. The bottom line is that our taxpayers will receive the benefit of this destination venue while the city maintains one of the lowest tax rates in the state of Texas,” the said.
Becker estimates there will be 105 performances a year at the center.
“We’re going to do church services. We’re going to do commencements; so Fort Bend ISD is used to going to the Toyota Center and now they’re going to come here,” he said.
There are other uses for the building as well.
“People can rent out for corporate meetings, they can rent the lobby space for a seated dinner space for between 350 and 400 people,” Becker said. “The versatility of the building not only for the performance side, but from a corporate side is there.”
Ground was broken on the facility in December 2014. A year later they celebrated the steel topping off party. Becker hopes to be able to hold an open house for the community this fall and have a soft-opening event like a school concert or something to help them get the facility ready for opening night in January.
“It’s first class in everything they do from the building to the plaza out front to the marquee,” he said.
SMART FINANCIAL CENTRE BY THE NUMBERS
- 85 million: Cost to build the facility
- 210,000: Pounds that can hang above the stage
- 200,000: Square feet in the building
- 6,400: Total number of seats
- 3,000: Smallest seating configuration
- 2,500: Parking spaces
- 105: Estimated performances annually
- 14: Luxury suites
- 9: dressing rooms