The Curtain is Set to Rise on Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land
The Performing Art Center’s Distinctive Features Will Be An Integral Part Of Each Performance
By Mara Soloway
Just as artists can practice for years to perfect their performance, the partners involved in bringing Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land to life – the City of Sugar Land and ACE SL, LLC (ACE) – had been working for several years before signing an agreement in 2013 to give Sugar Land a world-class performing arts center. The glass-clad, semicircular exterior of the impressive building has been visible to passing motorists for some time; now the 90-foot pylon sign is in place and the 2.88-acre public plaza is taking shape with trees and a fountain area. Inside, seats are nearly all in place, the multiple layers of the stage have been built up, and the rigging hangs ready to raise and lower scenery of Broadway and other performances.
The venue is essentially ready for its momentous grand opening weekend of Jan. 14-15, 2017 with performances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld (expected to be sold out) on Saturday and musician Don Henley on Sunday. On Dec. 18, the venue held a “soft opening,” a family holiday event featuring Cirque Musica with the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra. A wide array of internationally known acts such as Dirty Dancing, Reba McIntire, Sting and the Lumineers are lined up to play at the $84 million entertainment venue located at the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 59 and University Boulevard.
Since ground was broken in December 2014 with Linbeck Group as general contractor for the facility designed by Martinez + Johnson Architecture, construction has essentially been on schedule.
The process the City of Sugar Land used to create Smart Financial Centre started with a 2007 citizen-led task force that recommended a number of cultural and entertainment venues that members wanted to see, including Constellation Field and a performing arts center. Voters approved the use of special funding tools for these venues in a 2008 election. The city spent several years doing due diligence, including a market analysis and feasibility study showing a strong demand to support the Smart Financial Centre.
“It will be a financially feasible and commercially sustainable venue unlike any other in the Houston region,” said Allen Bogard, city manager. “It will promote capital investment, create new jobs, enhance educational opportunities, increase tourism and create unique destination activities that attract local and regional visitors. Estimates show that the venue will provide an annual benefit to the community of more than $26 million over 30 years and will attract more than 260,000 paid attendees annually.”
He added, “I’m most proud of the fact that we’re able to meet the cultural, entertainment and economic needs of our community without using property taxes.”
ACE made a $10 million equity contribution and will make rent payments to lease and operate the venue. Its president, Gary Becker, is excited to see the project coming to fruition. “This project is a culmination of Houston being home to our family entertainment companies for over 50 years. The City of Sugar Land has really stepped up and made this project a true partnership. The artists announced to date, and the many more in our future, will prove to be a new and exciting way to enjoy events that the Houston area has never experienced,” he said.
Flexibility and Venue Size
Smart Financial Centre’s 6,400 seats make it a middle capacity venue. The 200,000–square-foot building is like no other anywhere, according to Randy Bloom, Smart Financial Centre’s general manager and ACE vice president since November 2015. His perspective comes from a career of both producing theatrical shows and managing venues. He worked in the Houston area in the mid-1990s for Ringling Bros. Circus and Walt Disney World on Ice at The Summit, now Lakewood Church. He has also produced touring theatrical and family shows, including Cirque du Soleil, in approximately 30 countries around the world.
“Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land sets the highest standard for performing arts venues,” Bloom said. “The only facility in Texas that comes close to having its flexible construction is Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie. It was built on a similar model and had the same the general contractor. But since it opened in 2002, technologies have been updated. Smart Financial Centre is really state-of-the-art.”
When Bloom uses the word flexible, he means that literally. The venue has innovative moveable walls on a rail system on both sides of the theater that can be brought in about 30 feet, along with a moveable curtain that can be shifted to block off the balcony and loge levels.
“This provides a more intimate and more flexible setting for shows that are in most cases too large for the smaller theaters but really don’t belong getting lost in an impersonal arena or in some cases outdoors,” Bloom said. The venue could potentially host an event in the lobby and one on stage at the same time.
Different configurations of wall and curtain placement work for different styles of programming. The full 6,400 seats would be used for certain musical acts and Broadway shows. Moving the walls in results in a seating area of 4,500. Bringing the curtain down from the balcony and loge levels gives more intimate settings of 3,000 and 1,900 seats.
Moving the walls and curtains in different ways also changes the shape of the theater seating. Bringing the curtains down without bringing in the walls results in a wider configuration with the seats closer to the stage.
Also adding to the venue’s flexibility are 80 line sets – the rigging system that holds a theatrical company’s scenery and lighting – that gives the building full theatrical capability to host Broadway-style shows. (Lights and other items used for a concert would generally be hung from a rigging truss above the line sets.) “Smart Financial Centre has 210,000 pounds of capacity above the stage and 80,000 pounds of capacity in the front of house, which is more than many arenas. It’s pretty phenomenal,” Bloom said. “Really just about any size theatrical production and concert we want to host is designed into the facility.”
The Venue as Part of the Show
Bloom wants patrons to be as delighted with the venue itself as they are with the performance they’re attending.
“For this venue the focus is on entertainment, the guest experience and knowing that really the venue is as much a part of the show as what is on stage,” he said.
The Centre’s most prominent architectural element is the bowl, which extends from inside the 20,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed lobby to be visible outside. It can be theatrically lit from inside and by lighting instruments on the roof.
Patrons will enter the lobby through any of five entrances; the box office is in the center. Ushers will show them to their seats via stairs or elevators on both sides. Patrons can access several concessions, including bar areas underneath the seating sections on both sides.
One concession vendor will be Rockin’ and Roasting, the coffee provider started by Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer and his business partners. Bloom said that when Kramer visited the venue, “he was blown away by the facility, and he’s seen a lot of them.” He also added that most of the services, such as parking and concessions will be offered by third-party providers who are known entities at Houston-area performing arts venues.
Some of the features Bloom appreciates in the front of house – the area accessible to guests – are the orchestra pit lift that can be configured at different heights; energy efficient direct cooling with air conditioning vents on the floor; the sound mixer positioned in the theater’s center for incredible audio; and two LED screens on each side of stage. The stage floor has been installed with layers on top of the concrete of different kinds of wood, a sublayer for cushion, a moisture barrier, insulation for sound, plus plywood and another layer on top of that.
The 14 luxury suites have a great view of the stage. The bar area sponsored by Mercedez Benz of Sugar Land give the suites a more private and upscale setting. Suite holders also have a designated elevator and valet parking services.
The performing arts center will have approximately 20 full-time staff; the number of part-time event staff will vary depending on the size of the event. Many Broadway productions bring their own musicians and technical staff while some will bring key players. Smart Financial Centre will hire local talent when needed. “For each show, there will be a marriage between building staff, local stage hands and musicians, and touring crews,” Bloom said.
Back of House
The sizeable backstage area has been designed with respect for the performers and their needs. Before they even enter the building, their limousine or tour bus can pull up to a covered entrance. Semi trucks full of equipment can be unloaded at four docks. Dressing and wardrobe rooms come in different sizes; a larger dressing room with showers can be used for a Broadway production such as the Dirty Dancing performances Jan. 20-22. The star lounge has a door that leads out to stage. Artists can entertain in the green room and meet-and-greet audience members without going into the front of house.
The Vision and the Future
Bloom has seen Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land develop from a steel frame to a world-class entertainment center substantially ready for its grand opening weekend. “It’s exciting. The venue really is visionary – it is a well-designed building that will attract audiences,” he said. “We even have a city park right outside our door.”
Bogard gives credit to the partnership the City of Sugar Land has forged with ACE, the leadership of elected officials and the vision of residents. “We’ve put in the work, created an iconic venue, and the best is yet to come. I’m confident of that.”
* * *
Visit smartfinancialcentre.com and its social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more information.
General Manager Randy Bloom.