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News:
Freedom Hill Hoping To Make Comeback This Summer
 

By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Sterling Heights will be noisy again this summer — at least if the owners of Freedom Hill Amphitheatre have their way.

After being hampered last year by a bitter and still ongoing legal battle with Macomb County, the 7,000-capacity facility plans to not only return to active form but also enjoy “our best season since we started doing this in 2001,” according Kevin Cassidy, director of marketing and programming for Hillside Productions, which operates the venue.

He says he hopes to announce the venue’s 2007 schedule this week.

A successful season at Freedom Hill is relative in the Detroit market, of course. In 2004, its best summer, the theater hosted 45 shows, on par with a similar-sized competitor such as the Meadow Brook Music Festival in Rochester Hills, which had 43 events last summer, but a far cry from Independence Township’s 15,000-capacity DTE Energy Music Theatre, with 77 concerts in 2006.

But with already confirmed shows by Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, the Goo Goo Dolls, 3 Days Grace, the Beach Boys, Travis Tritt, O.A.R. and a “hair band” package that includes Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil and Quiet Riot, Cassidy and company are certainly expecting to do better than last year’s last-minute slate of 13 shows.

The dip was caused by a disagreement between Hillside and Macomb County officials over parking revenues. The county felt that it was entitled to a higher percentage of the parking money because Freedom Hill, which currently receives 75 percent of those fees, resides inside a county park. The impasse, which is currently in federal court, caused Palace Sports & Entertainment, which was going to manage, operate and market Freedom Hill in 2006, to bow out and take many of the planned shows back to DTE and Meadow Brook.

In March 2004, Hillside reached a $31 million settlement with the city of Sterling Heights, who it had accused of illegally interfering with its business operations. The money allowed the company to erect a roof above the amphitheater’s 4,000 reserved seats.

But the legal machinations, which also have included resident complaints about noise emanating from the theater, have hampered Hillside’s ability to develop Freedom Hill, Cassidy says.

“There’s a constant perception in people’s minds — ‘Is Freedom Hill open or closed this year or what?’ ” he explains. “They wonder if we’re going to have shows, if we’re going to have a liquor license. ... Those are the types of things that this venue has been fighting since we opened. You can blame it on a lot of things, but we’re constantly dealing with getting over those hurdles.”

Hillside does have a valuable ally in helping to re-establish Freedom Hill’s viability this year. LiveNation, the area’s dominant concert promotion firm, has committed to book some shows there, as well as at DTE, Meadow Brook and other area facilities. LiveNation’s shows are likely to be major names, while Hillside itself will bring in adult-contemporary and country concerts.

“It’s another option,” says LiveNation’s Rick Franks, “one of five amphitheaters in town,” including Pontiac’s Phoenix Plaza Amphitheatre and Detroit’s Chene Park.

“(Freedom Hill) is trying to get back on the touring map,” Franks notes, “and it fills a bit of a niche being on the far East Side. It’s a way to bring artists back, sometimes, to different parts of the city.”

It also may bring in shows that might not otherwise play the metro area. Steely Dan, for example, was not initially planning to perform in these parts after playing at DTE last fall. But a June 4 show was slotted in after its booking agent was convinced that Freedom Hill would allow the group to play to a different crowd.

Cassidy says Freedom Hill’s strategy this year is “quality over quantity,” and he expects to have about 25 shows on the schedule by the time it’s finished. He also anticipates the theater will draw more than 100,000 patrons this year.

Freedom Hill also will show off a few physical improvements this year, and Eventful Services, a subsidiary of Big Boy, has signed on as the venue’s concessionaire.

“We’ve dealt with a lot,” Cassidy notes, “but how we deal with that is to come out with a strong schedule. I think this year’s schedule is going to be as strong as it ever has been. That’s a fabulous thing for the metro Detroit area, and specifically for Macomb County.”

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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